Joyce Tsai

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Photograph of Joyce Tsai by Mei-Ling Shaw
Associate Professor of Practice/Art History/Studio Art
163 OMA

Headshot photo credit: Mei-Ling Shaw

Joyce Tsai is Chief Curator at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art and Associate Professor of Practice at the School of Art and Art History. Her research has been supported with fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Dedalus Foundation, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and the Phillips Collection, among others. Trained as an intellectual historian and art historian -- Princeton, AB (History, cum laude); Johns Hopkins University, MA (German), PhD (Art History and Humanities) -- Tsai approaches her curatorial, pedagogical, and scholarly work holistically.  

Her first book, László Moholy-Nagy: Painting after Photography (UC Press, 2018) garnered critical acclaim for its integrated approach to avant-garde art, practice, and theory and is winner of the Phillips Collection Book Prize. It examines one of the most foundational questions artists posed in the twentieth century: Why paint in a photographic age? Why work by hand when technology holds so much promise? The stakes of painting (or not) were tied to much larger considerations of art, politics, and technology that the avant-garde grappled with between the wars. The book explores how painting became the contingent space in which the trace of human touch might survive the catastrophes of modernity for László Moholy-Nagy in his years of exile.  

Tsai’s current research grows out from her stewardship of the UI Stanley Museum of Art as Chief Curator and draws upon her extensive experience publishing in the field of technical art history with conservators and conservation scientists at the National Gallery of Art, Harvard Art Museums, Guggenheim, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. Tentatively titled "Forging Truth: Modern Art and the Values of Art Conservation," this single object monograph focuses on recent discoveries made in the treatment of Max Beckmann's Karneval (1943) to anchor an intellectual history of art conservation. Organized around key episodes of this painting’s making, acquisition, and treatment, Tsai examines how modern conservation practices, values, and philosophy respond dynamically to the shifts in contemporary art practice, the art market, and scholarship. She interprets archival materials, treatment reports, and scientific studies with art historical, philosophical, and literary texts including Johann Wilhelm von Goethe's Faust and William Gaddis' mid-century novel, The Recognitions. An outline of this project was first presented at the Active Matters Symposium, part of the Mellon-funded Cultures of Conservation initiative and further developed at lectures delivered at the Rijksmuseum and the University of Florida. Aspects of this project have also been presented with Rita Berg, paintings conservator at Midwest Art Conservation Center at the American Institute of Conservation annual meeting. 

As a professor, Tsai has sought to create opportunities for students to contribute directly to major research initiatives that empower them to see their work as part of a longer history of institutional innovation. With support from the Mellon-funded Digital Bridges Initiative, she developed a recurring digital humanities course that invited students to conduct research on a newly conserved cache of artwork and archival materials related to the history of the Intermedia MFA program at the University of Iowa. Students in Museum without Walls have contributed research and writing that feed into the long-term development of a research portal for the study of avant-garde art. Their work forms the basis of a future exhibition on the role of the public research university in postwar art, which examines the diverse, intergenerational networks and new media practices that its infrastructure enabled. She is currently teaching Art, Artist, Institution, which introduces students to the contemporary art ecosystem by leading them through texts, websites, and spaces produced by and for artists, art historians, philosophers, commercial galleries and fairs, nonprofit cultural institutions, and grant makers. For her advocacy of students, she was named Distinguished Mentor by the ICRU at the University of Iowa in 2018.  

Tsai has curated several major exhibitions including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art exhibition "Shape of Things to Come: The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy" (2015) and edited its eponymous catalog published by Yale University Press. At the University of Iowa, she co-curated Dada Futures (2018) with Tim Shipe, Jen Buckley and Stephen Voyce, which has led to a special issue of Dada/Surrealism in 2020. Most recently, she co-curated The Disasters of War (2019) with Luis Martín-Estudillo and Anna Barker. She is currently leading curatorial planning for the inaugural exhibition of the new University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, opening in its new building in Fall 2022.  

For an overview of Tsai's scholarship, please visit 


Selected Works

Dada Futures Dada Surrealism 23 2020
In Focus Leonardo 2017.50 issue
Painting after Photography UC Press 2018
Shape of Things to Come Yal UP 2015