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Robert Cozzolino On Curating “Supernatural America: The Paranormal In American Art”

Thursday, January 13, 2022 | Interviews


The first major museum exhibition to explore the intimate relationship between artists and the supernatural, “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art” seeks to draw back the veil that separates the preternatural from the mundane. Collecting over 150 works dating from the 1800s to the present, the exhibit is curated by Robert Cozzolino, PHD, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art‘s Patrick and Aimee Butler and features paintings, sculpture, drawings, sketchbooks, video, and material objects drawn from the world of Spiritualism. The exhibit hopes to emphasize the personal experience of the paranormal, and largely showcases works from artists who assert direct encounters with the supernatural, UFOs, and otherworldly entities.

Rue Morgue connected with Cozzolino to discuss the origins of the project, his own connection to the supernatural, and the many ways in which America is more haunted now than it ever has been.

Agatha Wojciechowsky. American (born Germany), 1896-1986, and spirits. Untitled (detail), 1963. Watercolor on paper. 11 ¾ x 8 7/8 in. Courtesy the collection of Steven Day, New York, NY.


What got you interested in curating “Supernatural America?”

I was born on Halloween and have always been drawn to supernatural subjects across media. It is in me. I have had numerous experiences first hand with paranormal activity and events over my lifetime, so it may have been inevitable that I would look for artists who shared these interests. I did not expect to find it so throroughly entwined in American art since the 18th century. But it is.

How did you choose which pieces to include in “Supernatural America?” Did you have a list of must haves?

I had been thinking about this topic for many years prior to pitching it at Mia in 2016. I kept image files and a bibliography. The show could have been twice the size as it is, easily (and it includes about 200 objects). But there were major works that provided an anchor for the themes and grounded the tone. Specific artists who had been deeply invested in this subject matter had to be represented. With few exceptions, my hopes were fulfilled, which seems astonishing considering the period [of 2020] in which we pulled it together! We had a strong group of advisors across disciplines and backgrounds who I consulted several times along the way. They were generous in their feedback and criticism and helped make it a better project. A lot shifted into place when I decided to center artists who we knew had these experiences because of the archive, interviews, or me reaching out to them. I think about 90% of what is in the project falls into that quality.

The UFO section is based on experience – not science fiction. Artists like Gertrude Abercrombie, Betye Saar, Agnes Pelton, Tony Oursler – these are some folks I knew had to have a strong position in the exhibition. I reached out to all the living artists included and made sure they were comfortable being put in this context. Most shared their experiences with me and discussed which work would best represent them in the project. Along the way many friends and colleagues introduced me to artists or work I did not know [and] were generous with their enthusiasm and willingness to help. I remain amazed by the large number of loans granted for instance by the American Folk Art Museum in New York, but the folks there got it and understood why I was doing the show right away. They were eager to support it. Outreach to the Spiritualist community, which I did over many years, deepened the project tremendously; including spirit artists [and] mediums was crucial, and that is a part of the show that I hope people find rewarding.

Is there a particular piece of art or literature (in or out of the exhibit) that you think influenced your view of the paranormal and spiritual?

I would say that early on in my thinking about this subject it was work by the artist Ivan Albright (1897-1983). I worked on his 1997 retrospective at my first museum job, then wrote my dissertation on him at the University of Wisconsin-Madison [in] 2006. While spending hours looking at his paintings up close, I also had the chance to read his notebooks [which are] housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. I came away believing that his unusual painting technique was not about death and decay – which was the popular wisdom – but an attempt to paint matter and spirit simultaneously. He was consumed with the idea that he might make the intangible tangible through his painting method, and make the unseen life force animate the paintings. That interest came from his immersion in Spiritualism, Theosophy and other religious and philosophical ideas about the soul and spirit world.


He wrote about ghost experiences, and a family member told me that, “The paranormal was considered normal in the Albright family.” Even late in life he wrote about UFOs being connected to spiritual beings. I wondered, “How many other artists were invested in these interests?”  That started me keeping an eye out for signs of this stuff across periods and materials in American art. His 1966-1977 painting, If Life Were Life There Would Be No Death (The Vermonter) is a good place to start – it’s in the exhibition.

In your article on the exhibit you mentioned that you’d frame “the supernatural as natural and the paranormal as normal,” how do you think more people can adopt this perspective?

I think that it would have to come down to individuals and how they consider the relationship they have with mysterious experiences. Rather than see them as anomalous or something to hide or be ashamed of, it helps to know that they are actually widespread and shared experiences. Some modes of thought demonize these things that people have witnessed and which they feel are deeply meaningful – seeing spirits, UFO encounters, telepathy, visionary/prophetic dreams, out of body experiences. I think we might find that the majority of people have had some kind of paranormal or supernatural encounter, so it’s anomalous not to have these things occur. In many kinds of religious communities there is no talk about the “supernatural” because that is a natural order of how the divine or spirits operate.

Ivan Albright, American, 1897 – 1983. If Life Were Life There Would Be No Death (The Vermonter)

What do you think it is about the uncanny or unexplained that continues to capture our interest?

I think it is that basic part of our consciousness that wonders if we’re alone in the universe, what happens to us when we leave our bodies behind, and how do we account for the mysterious and unexplained things we experience. These questions and encounters are more common than we might assume. And they demand to be discussed, shared, studied. Consciousness is much more complex than we yet know. While the paranormal has often been explained away as tricks of perception or misapprehension or misinterpretations of experience, the connections between cognition and paranormal phenomena are areas of research that are rapidly growing. Researchers across disciplines, including the study of religion, are finding that the more you learn about those who have experienced the phenomena the more complex and deeper the mystery gets.

Did COVID-19 change how you had to approach curating “Supernatural America?”

I could tell you 100 ways this affected how I and my colleagues at the museum had to respond and what unprecedented challenges occurred because of the pandemic. Loan responses were delayed because our colleagues were not at their museums, no committees were meeting, and conservators were not on site. Some loans of critical works or artists were just not available because of the pandemic. Images for the book were also delayed because of protocols around photography, visiting, etc. These are just some of the basic issues. And then plenty of unforeseen things popped up. Eventually we made the wise choice to make Mia – as the organizer – last on the tour. We had been scheduled to open first in February of 2021. But by August of 2020, it was clear that would not be able to happen. Too many things were up in the air and audiences likely would not be able to come. So our heroic partners for the tour, the Toledo Museum of Art and then the Speed Art Museum, became the opening and second venues on the tour; we’re now the finale!

The five people most intensely involved in the logistics of the show – me, our fearless registrar, my department assistant, our exhibitions coordinator, and the book’s designer – live in neighborhoods that were at the epicenter of the uprising in Minneapolis in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. We, like everyone else, were working from home, and were affected by what was happening here in other ways beyond the pandemic. All of us are invested in this community and care about it and work in it in different ways. We pitched in in the aftermath [of the killing] and some of us attended events and protests while supporting our families and trying to work. Minneapolis and the Twin Cities have a strong activist community centered on racial justice, 2SLGBTQ+ rights, and have risen up and demanded justice in the past because of other instances in which Black people were killed by police. It is a diverse community that cares for one another and that culture cannot help but affect you when you move to the place. It has a deep and fraught history that you have to be aware of and acknowledge in your work.

The checklist for the exhibition had already been set by that time but the themes that I had been discussing with contemporary artists and with some collaborators around why America is haunted were all right at the center of our consciousness as the project was being brought to an end. It felt like the artists in the show from the past had already made work about the ongoing crisis of white supremacy and its violence and how it produces ghosts, unsettled spirits, that will not be still and demand justice. John Jota Leanos’s piece, Destines Manifest, included in the exhibition, also addresses this on a powerful way.

Macena Barton. American, 1901–1986. Untitled (Flying Saucers with Snakes), 1961 Oil on canvas. M. Christine Schwartz Collection. Photo: Michael Tropea, Chicago, IL. © Estate of Macena Barton.

Which piece are you most excited to exhibit?

That is very hard to say; there are so many works that I feel close to for different reasons. I do keep coming back to contemporary artist Renee Stout’s The Rootworker’s Worktable – a tour de force of imagination, experience, and her technical skill as a maker. It presents an installation of a wooden table inset with mysterious devices and blackboard with an array of glass jars along the table top. It is meant to honor healers and traditional rootworkers and seers in Afro/Latinx communities who work in the back of botanicas or other kinds of neighborhood shops. They often provide spiritual and physical care in a community and Renee’s piece is a loving and humorous homage to the practice. I am also honored to be able to include sacred artifacts from Spiritualist collections, such as the Hett Gallery at Camp Chesterfield. They loaned paintings and drawings by spirit artists who were mediums at the camp and they have not been integrated before into a history like this.

Has COVID-19 impacted how we view ghosts and the spiritual?

I think that it cannot help but have affected it. Historically, in and after times of turmoil and loss –the American Civil War, World War I and the influenza pandemic – there has been a surge of interest in Spiritualism as people want to connect with their loved ones in spirit. This is heightened when loved ones die far from us or suddenly, as in warfare. But COVID’s relationship to mourning and grieving has been complicated by the safety protocols around it; there have already been many papers by psychologists and physicians about the effect that death from COVID has had on families and mourners. I think we are a broad people of overlapping communities, feeling the need to rekindle, strengthen, or begin a spiritual practice because of the experience of the past two years.

I read that you’re a percussionist, did you consider exploring musical representations of the supernatural and spiritual in “Supernatural America?” Would you curate a music-based exhibition?

That’s a great question. I have a colleague here who is obsessed with musical instruments in his area of African art and culture; I occasionally wonder about whether there’s a drum show to be done across cultures, time, genres. But Maybe that’s for someone else. I recently wrote about how I feel Bob Thompson’s dual identity as a drummer/artist informed his way of composing paintings, which actually had a lot to do with my speculating based on being an improviser myself. Years ago, at Lily Dale Spiritualist Camp, I saw a program given by Doug Skinner on paranormal music, he has a book coming out on the topic. It was utterly delightful and we hope to have him out for programming here. I think my life as an improvising musician has affected my approach to curating, and I wonder if there are others who share that relationship.

Do you have any plans for your next exhibit? Is there a subject you’ve dreamed of curating?

Oh, I have have a lot of ideas, ranging from retrospectives of underknown artists like Gregory Gillespie (1936-2000) and large thematic shows, to many small focused exhibitions that draw attention to our permanent collection’s hidden strengths here at Mia. Often, a new idea will emerge from the previous exhibition, other times it is something I have been ruminating on for years, as in the Supernatural exhibition. I think that a large international survey of UFO/UAP imagery based on eyewitness accounts and contact narratives is in order. The phenomenon is pervasive in art and visual/material culture and it is time for a serious look at that material, which is only hinted at in the last part of the Supernatural exhibition. I also think that the topics of sacred sexuality and also of artists’ responses to death remain avoided in museums but are profoundly meaningful and fascinating. The whole range of human experience – whether earthbound or in otherworldly realms – is what art addresses in powerful ways and we should be open to the broadest range of subject matter.

“Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art” runs from February 19th, 2022 – May 15th, 2022. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art here.

Rocco T. Thompson
Rocco is a Rondo-nominated film journalist and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is an associate producer on In Search of Darkness: Part III, the latest installment in CreatorVC's popular 1980s horror documentary series.