William S. Dietrich II Professor
Area of Specialization
Past PhD(s): Isaac King, Annika Johnson, Travis Nygard, Paul Scolari, Anne Knutson, Ivy Schroeder Cooper, co-supervised: Lihui Dong, Rachel Miller, Donald Simpson, Maria D'Annibale, Carolyn Butler-Palmer; See a listing of Past PhDs for details
Constellation(s): Agency, Identity, Visual Knowledge
Kirk started writing about public monuments as a freelancer, and got into art history to feed his habit. Monuments combined many of his passions: sculpture, architecture, landscape, urban development, and politics. He decided to do his dissertation on Civil War monuments because they were almost everywhere but no one seemed to pay any attention to them, certainly not art historians. Not long into the project one of his advisors mentioned that he would need to deal with slavery and race. And so began a long learning curve that is still bending in front of him, hopefully toward justice.
In the years since, he has taught and written about public monuments and public art as they intersect with issues of loss, trauma, deindustrialization, militarism, and racial justice. As a scholar and teacher, he takes seriously the responsibility to reckon honestly with the past, bearing in mind Ta-Nehisi Coates’ admonition, “You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity.” Because monuments are a microcosm of the world their makers hope to enforce or to invent, every research project necessarily has social, political, and ethical dimensions.
With much of the world now finally turning its attention to the legacies of white supremacy built into the memorial landscape, Kirk has been working more intensively with artists, planners, preservationists, and activists in the public sphere who are looking for new ways forward. He is proud to be serving on the advisory board of the innovative organization Monument Lab, and to consult with other organizations that are reexamining their intersection with – or their stewardship of – the memorial landscape.
Concurrently, he has developed a strong interest in indigenous studies through the work of some extraordinary graduate students at Pitt, and through a collaboration with his wife Elizabeth Thomas on a new book project. His Father’s Son: Yonaguska, Will Thomas, and the Forgotten History of Cherokee Resistance on the Appalachian Frontier tells the story of the extraordinary Cherokee chief Yonaguska (1760-1838) and his agent and adopted son William Holland Thomas (1805-1893), and how one family descendant has come to terms with the repression and manipulation of this history.
Another ongoing project taps his lifelong interest in cemeteries. “The Art of the Name” uses the example of an early federal soldier lot created in a Pittsburgh cemetery to examine the complex and contradictory movement of bodies, names, and memorials after the Civil War.
Some of His Education
PhD, University of California, Berkeley
Some of His Publications
Editor, The Civil War in Art and Memory, in the series Studies in the History of Art (Washington DC: National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 2016).
• Winner of the 2017 Henry-Russell Hitchcock Award, Victorian Society in America.
Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
• Winner of the 2012 J.B. Jackson Prize, Foundation for Landscape Studies and the 2010 Charles C. Eldredge Prize, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997; 2nd edition 2018).
• Winner of the 1998 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, American Studies Association, for best book published in American Studies.
“The Black Man at Lincoln’s Feet: Archer Alexander and the Problem of Emancipation,” Ideas Blog, Princeton University Press, 2020.
“The Question of Monuments,” Lapham’s Quarterly, Roundtable Blog, 2020.
“Against Heroism,” More Art in the Public Eye, ed. Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, and Emma Drew (Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2020), 88-92.
“No Time, No Place: The Existential Crisis of the Public Monument,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism, 15:2 (Winter 2018): 147-154 [released June 2020].
“A Personal Act of Reparation,” Lapham’s Quarterly, Roundtable Blog, 2019.
Elizabeth Thomas and Kirk Savage, “William Holland Thomas and the Myth of the White Chief,” Journal of Cherokee Studies, 34 (Summer 2019): 36-47.
“Leere Gräber. Bürgerkrieg und nationale Gedenkpraktiken” [“Empty Graves: The Origins of Civil War Commemoration”], Mittleweg 36 (Zeitschrift des Hamburger Instituts fur Sozialforschung), 23:2 (April/May 2014): 54-61.
Guest Editor, Memorials – War and Peace, Special Issue of Public Art Dialogue, 2 (September 2012).
“Afterword: War/Memory/History: Toward a Remixed Understanding,” in Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial, ed. Thomas Brown (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 180-88.
“The Obsolescence of Sculpture,” American Art 24 (Spring 2010): 9-14.
“Between Diaspora and Empire: The Shevchenko Monument in Washington, D.C.,” in Transnational American Memories, ed. Udo J. Hebel (Berlin/New York: Walther de Gruyter, 2009), 333-350.
“The Impossible Monument: A Response to Wodiczko’s ‘Memorial for September 11,’” in Krzysztof Wodiczko, City of Refuge: a 9-11 Memorial, ed. Mark Jarzombek and Mechtild Widrich (London: Black Dog, 2009), 56-60.
“Trauma, Healing, and the Therapeutic Monument,” in Terror, Culture, Politics: Rethinking 9/11, ed. Daniel Sherman and Terry Nardin (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 103-120. [Reprinted in part in Public Art Review, Issue 35 (Fall/Winter 2006): 41-45.]
“The Past in the Present: The Life of Memorials,” Harvard Design Magazine (Fall 1999): 14-19.
MoreArt, Aug. 5, 2020: “Monuments, Militarism, and Social Justice.”
On the Media, NPR, July 24, 2020: “If You Build It…”
Monument Lab, Sept. 26, 2018: “Civil War Memory and Monuments to White Supremacy.”
Wyeth Lecture in American Art, National Gallery of Art, Oct. 21, 2015: “The Art of the Name: Soldiers, Graves, and Monuments in the Aftermath of the Civil War.”
Public Art Dialogue Award for Achievement in Public Art, 2016.