Janet Burnett Grossman, former curator at the Getty Museum, and one of Evelyn B. Harrison’s students at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, published her first Agora “Blue Book” in December 2013: Funerary Sculpture. Grossman sat down with Andrew Reinhard, Director of Publications, at the recent AIA/APA annual meeting in Chicago to talk about her book, the writing process, and how an art historical approach benefits the understanding of archaeology.
Reinhard: What were your feelings when your advance copy of the book arrived the day after Christmas?
Grossman: My husband brought in the Fed Ex package. He said, “I think this is it.” I let it sit on the table for a while just to absorb it. When we’re writing, we see things in various stages, but then it becomes an object. There is a tremendous sense of relief when the reality of it sets in. It’s a finished project.
Reinhard: Have you gotten all the way through the finished book yet? What have you noticed?
Grossman: The photos. The black-and-white photos were much better than the proofs I saw. Angelique Sideris [photographer at the Agora] has a feeling for marble. Not everyone can photograph sculpture, capturing the afterlife following their points of manufacture. You want to experience the three-dimensionality of the carving. She was able to capture that. That delighted me.
Reinhard: Why did you decide to take an art historical approach to the funerary sculpture of the Agora?
Grossman: I was at the Institute of Fine Arts when the faculty included Harrison, James McCredie, Burt Smith, and Dietrich von Bothmer. McCredie was on the archaeology side, but Smith and Harrison took a dual art history/archaeology approach, encouraging the development of a strong aesthetic sense. I always had this two-pronged approach, and my years of being a curator at the Getty helped this project. I was able to consult colleagues at the Louvre, the British Museum, and elsewhere who were able to give me access to many other collections. In my 17 years at the Getty, I had the benefit of its tremendous library. I would also travel to Athens, adding one or two weeks to a courier trip, for example, so that I could examine stones in the Agora. The Blegen Library was of great help. It was easy to get any book I needed.
Reinhard: Why did you decide to study the Agora’s funerary sculpture? How was this material assigned?
Grossman: Eve Harrison assigned the material to me. I don’t why she chose me. Eve told me that she never intended to do grave monuments, and had been thinking of me as a student who would. I recently came upon a letter from Homer Thomson to Eve from December of 1990, and in it they talked about her assigning that material to me. Homer asked her if I could take on the Roman funerary sculpture as well.
When I started at the IFA, I wanted to do vases, but in my first semester I took Eve’s Archaic Sculpture class, and that was it for me. I responded to the sculpture. When it came time to decide on a dissertation topic, Eve asked, “what would you think about doing funerary monuments?” I’m fascinated by them and their social significance. Death is the biggest thing in life.
Reinhard: Were there any lessons learned during the writing of this book that you would pass along to others?
Grossman: Don’t take on too many things, and don’t be afraid to say “no” to something if it has no primary relationship to your big project. You need to be able to finish.
Funerary Monuments (Agora XXXV)
by Janet Burnett Grossman
280 pp., 22 b/w figs., 2 plans, 12 tables, 128 pls