History of Art and Architecture

Michelle McCoy

Assistant Professor

Area of Specialization

China and Inner Asia


I am a historian of Chinese and Inner Asian art focusing on transcultural exchange and art’s relationship to religion and science. My current research is rooted in the era leading up to the 13th-century Mongol conquest of Eurasia, a period when China was ruled by culturally diverse competing states that was pivotal in the formation of art historical categories often taken for granted today. I am committed to the critical issue of art history as a global discipline, and my background in studio practice, modern and contemporary art, and transcultural feminism informs ongoing investments in artistic process, public exhibitions, and perspectives that have been historically marginalized.

My recent courses in the department include an introduction to the material culture of the “Silk Road” through seminal objects of cultural exchange (e.g., the book, the Buddhist icon, and indeed silk), and graduate seminars on art history and eco-critique and theories and methods in the discipline. Undergraduate seminars have addressed Chinese art in the University Art Gallery collection, which resulted in a 2019 pop-up exhibition, and histories of the Frick Fine Arts Building, our department’s physical home, that center on Indigenous and other communities displaced or marginalized by settler institutions such as Pitt.

I am presently developing two major research projects. The first, “A Sky with No Frontiers: Art, Religion, and Astrology along the Eastern Silk Road,” is a book about the role of the stars and planets in art across the Khitan, Song, Tangut, and Jurchen states (ca. 10th to 13th centuries CE). It examines how seemingly arcane and culturally discrete forms of astrology and astronomy transformed Buddhist, Daoist, and mortuary art. The second project is an exhibition on depictions of the cosmos and the afterlife at the medieval Buddhist grotto site of Dunhuang, a key point of transcultural convergence and repository of artwork produced continuously for roughly a millennium.  

I am an ongoing contributor to two international research groups that promote in-depth scholarly dialogue across fields, disciplines, and institutions: Visualization and Material Culture of the Heavens in Eurasia and North Africa (4000 BCE–1700 CE) at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and Global Horizons in Premodern Art, funded by the European Research Council and based at the University of Bern. I regularly collaborate with the Dunhuang Foundation, and, at Pitt, am affiliated with Asian Studies, Cultural Studies, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

Note to prospective graduate students: I welcome queries from students interested in researching any period and medium in the art history of China and Inner Asia, with or without a prior MA degree. You may learn more about the conceptual framework of the graduate program by consulting the department’s Constellations page.

Education Details

PhD University of California, Berkeley

MA University of California, Davis

BFA Pratt Institute

Selected Publications

Book Length

In progress: “A Sky with No Frontiers: Astrology and Religion in the Art of the Eastern Silk Road.”

Co-editor with Ellen Huang, Nancy Lin, and Michelle Wang. Water Moon Reflections: Essays in Honor of Patricia Berger. Berkeley: Institute for East Asian Studies Publications, UC Berkeley. Forthcoming October 2021.

Complete catalogue entries. Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Art and Culture on China’s Silk Road. Exhibition Catalogue. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2016. 26–7, 187–271.

Winner of the 2017 Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) Award for Art Exhibitions, Association of American Publishers

Articles and Book Chapters

“Cave and Camera: Shades of Loss in Dunhuang’s ‘Hidden Library Cave.’” In Destroyed—Disappeared—Lost—Never Were. Eds. Beate Fricke and Aden Kumler. International Center for Medieval Art/Viewpoints. The Pennsylvania State University Press. Forthcoming Spring 2022.

“Filial Piety in The Dharma Realm.” Orientations. May 2016: 73–81.

Selected Awards

Research Fellow, Global Horizons in Premodern Art, University of Bern

Postdoctoral Fellowship, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Ittleson Fellowship, Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, Washington, DC

International Dissertation Research Fellowship, Social Science Research Council

Fulbright–IIE Fellowship, Lanzhou University, Gansu, China

Sophia Sheng–Dunhuang Foundation Visiting Research Associate, Dunhuang Academy (Mogao Grottoes), Gansu, China