An Update

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Among other things, my new job at Aperture Foundation involves overseeing what is published on In that capacity I have had the chance in recent months to interview artists, curators, and photojournalists and to commission essays and reviews of books and exhibitions. You can see all of it by pointing your browser to Here is a round-up of some of those pieces.

In March, I commissioned my friend Rob Giampietro to discuss the legacy of ECM Records, a jazz label based in Munich whose aesthetic rigors he appreciates in this fine essay.

In April, I interviewed Greg Allen about his curatorial effort “Exhibition Space,” which was on view this spring at apexart in New York. We discussed the role of photography in the Cold War space race, and in particular NASA’s Project Echo.

In May, I spoke with artist Sara VanDerBeek about her new exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York. I’ve followed Sara’s work since the beginning of her career, and wrote about her for Aperture in 2011. I also commissioned photographer Barney Kulok, who recently published a book on Louis I. Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park, to review a new book about Le Corbusier’s relationship with photography. He turned in a much broader, more ambitious essay on the relationship between buildings and pictures that I was proud to publish. I also talked to photojournalist Michael Kamber, who was the New York Times’s principle photographer in Baghdad from 2003 to 2012. He had just published a new anthology of interviews with combat photojournalists called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. I also chatted with photographer Anne Hardy about her exhibition at Maureen Paley in London, where she exhibited, for the first time, standalone sculptures not used in the creation of her photographs. Lastly, in the just-published Summer 2013 issue of Aperture (#211), I introduced a portfolio of photographs by Lisa Oppenheim, whose work I’ve long admired.

This month, I spoke with an old friend, artist Tony Feher, about the newest iteration of his twenty-five-year survey exhibition, and about the process of looking back on more than two decades of artmaking and life. An edited version of our conversation was published on

Interview at Design Observer

The writer Mark Lamster interviewed me about “The Permanent Way” for Design Observer. We discuss revisionist histories of Gilded Age America, the difficulty of choosing photographs for an exhibition, and the “visual rhetoric” of westward expansion, among other topics. Click here to read the transcript of our discussion. The exhibition remains on view at apexart in New York until July 28.

Interview: Carol Bove

Published as the cover story in Art in America, May 2012. For more information on Bove, contact Maccarone.

Detail of W.A., 2010, shells, steel, concrete, and bronze

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and 1970s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films, and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions—of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises—both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take, and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ‘60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) ad rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to September 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced.

* * *

[Two excerpts from the middle of the interview]

SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things … and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now—I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the works’ intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

* * *

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks—my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs—shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you send them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up unbecoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

Untitled, 2009, peacock feathers on linen

Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

Interview: Liz Deschenes

Published in Art in America, March 2012. For more information about Liz Deschenes, visit her page on the Miguel Abreu Gallery website.

Liz Deschenes, Tilt / Swing, #3B, 2009.

From early experiments with green-screen backdrops to recent, camera-less images made by exposing light-sensitive paper directly to the night sky, Liz Deschenes has persistently explored the photographic image-making process. She isolates the component parts of mechanical seeing and underscores the materiality of the screens that display images. But the loveliness of her artworks belies the astringency this description suggestions.

Deschenes (b. 1966 in Boston, Mass.) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1988 and has worked in New York since the early 1990s, exhibiting regularly from the end of that decade onward. She outlined the contours of her practice with “Photography About Photography” (2000), an exhibition she curated for Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York that drew together artists (Vera Lutter, Adam Fuss, Thomas Ruff, Uta Barth) who likewise explore the medium’s mechanics. I first encountered her work in a 2003 exhibition, also at Andrew Kreps, where a selection of her monochromatic photographs illustrated a range of printing and display techniques. These works, in varying shades of gray, were bereft of information when seen from a distance, but upon closer inspection revealed details that hinted at how they were made. One was an image of a plasma television screen (turned off), other photographs made with the light from an enlarger. These works, though conceptually related to their predecessors, seemed far more sober than Deschenes’s earlier, brightly colored images.

As the decade progressed, her work shed external references. Yet from limited means Deschenes creates a visual plenitude. For her 2007 solo exhibition at New York’s Miguel Abreu Gallery, she photographed perforated paper held against a window, then superimposed two copies of each negative in an enlarger to create moiré patterns that were somehow both understated and optically vibrant. Two years later, “Tilt/Swing (360 degree field of vision, version one),” her show of six graphite-colored photographs installed on that gallery’s floor, walls, and ceiling, revealed no image. Yet the installation captured the reflections of viewers who stood among the works, as if the prints were being continually remade in the image of their beholder. That their untreated surfaces are meant to oxidize, to change over time in response to the atmosphere, adds a sense of romance to the blankness.

As the unconventional presentation of “Tilt/Swing” suggests, Deschenes has added to her explorations of the medium an interest in display strategies. Now she thinks of her work almost exclusively in terms of the other artworks with which it will be shown, and the conditional nature of that approach extends to her studio itself: she doesn’t have a room to which she retreats daily. She divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she teaches at Bennington College, researching and experimenting constantly but making her art on an as-needed basis. At present it’s needed at the Whitney Museum, where she’ll participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she will exhibit in a two-person show with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl [April 21-September 3]. We spoke in January at the CUNY Graduate Center.

* * *

[Excerpt from the middle of the interview]

DESCHENES Of course, there’s a deep research component to the work, some of which takes place in terms of teaching, at Bennington or elsewhere. I build scale models for all of the exhibitions in which I participate. The Usdan Gallery at Bennington is actually based on the third floor of the Whitney building, so instead of using a foam-core model I used a model that was built in the early ‘70s …

SHOLIS … that you can walk into!

DESCHENES … that I can walk into and actually feel the proportions of the work. The initial proportions I came up with for the four-panel piece [to be installed in the Whitney Biennial] were too wide for the space, so I narrowed them down. And returning to my interest in pedagogy, I think the Art Institute exhibition points to those concerns. Using the Breuer—er, using the Bayer—I can’t believe I just confused them! They weren’t close friends. Using the Bayer drawing to guide people through space in a new way touches on this. And of course what gets installed on those walls will be equally crucial to understanding the exhibition, and I like that a lot of those decisions haven’t yet been made. The walls are being built right now, but I won’t know until I actually go to Chicago what work gets installed, so there is an aspect of spontaneity that frees me from a daily studio practice. I’m more interested in responding to the conditions of exhibitions. As they change, I can change along with them.

SHOLIS Your “decisive moment” happens during the installation process?

DESCHENES No, it keeps on happening. I constantly have to respond to the changing conditions of the work, which is part of the reason why I’m trying to make work that also changes during the exhibition—and beyond. Because there is no decisive moment.

SHOLIS You also mentioned pedagogy. For a long time you were learning new things about photographic technology, but now it’s also as if you’re trying to give yourself a kind of autodidact’s M.Arch. degree. Reading new kinds of drawings—plans, axonometric views, and so on—almost entails a new way of seeing and thinking. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve been up to in recent years? And, if so, does that impact the ways that you think about the field of photographic image-making you know so well?

DESCHENES That’s an interesting question. Earlier I described the Whitney photographs as being stand-ins for the building. The building will obviously continue to exist, but as a newer or different institution. So to actually put scaled photographs representing the façade in the interior of the museum is a way off repositioning what you would generally find outside them museum. I don’t necessarily need to understand the things that Breuer had to understand in order to build that building. It’s more about trying to understand photography through architecture.

Luc Sante, Folk Photography

Butte, Montana, July 1916
Butte, Montana, July 1916

My interview with Luc Sante, about his new book Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), has just been published on Click through not only to read his ruminations on this early-twentieth-century phenomenon, but also to see a slide show of additional images from the book. In the course of our discussion, Sante reiterated his point (from the book’s introduction) that he sees the real-photo postcard as a link between late-nineteenth-century American photography (of the Civil War, of the American West) and the “documentary” style of 1930s-era photographers associated with the Farm Security Administration. One aspect of our conversation that did not make it to the final edit of the text, however, concerned the links (if any) between the real-photo postcard craze and art being made between, say, 1905 and 1915. Sante suggested that the pictures are in almost every way contrary to what the Pictorialists, grouped around Alfried Stieglitz, were doing at that time, and cited how startling it was when Paul Strand’s photographs published in the final issue of Camera Work depicted commercial signage. At another moment in our discussion, Sante pointed to enterprising late-nineteenth-century photographers as one possible precedent for the real-photo postcard, citing Solomon Butcher, a postcard photographer whose work from earlier decades included a spectacular series depicting pioneer families on the Kansas-Nebraska prairies. The images in Sante’s book, which are culled from his own collection of the postcards, are pretty remarkable, and his essay is as thoughtful and well-written as you would expect. Click here to read the interview and learn more.

(NB: From the book’s extended caption to the image above: “The 62-foot-tall, 44-foot-long elk was constructed by a stage designer named Edmund Carns to welcome a convention of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, one of the country’s largest fraternal organizations. The plaster that coated the statue included $1200 worth of high-grade copper ore mined nearby; its eyes were made of 10-inch, 75-watt nitrogen lightbulbs. Before the month ended the elk had been taken down and its copper recovered.”)

Interview: Michael Sorkin

A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)
A car-free Times Square, New York. (Photo by Flickr user The B-Roll)

Michael Sorkin is a New York–based architect, urban planner, educator, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Variations on a Theme Park (1991), Exquisite Corpse (1994), and After the World Trade Center (2002). His latest book, which examines the history and changing face of New York through the lens of his morning commute, is Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on June 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

The idea for the book came about fifteen years ago. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I’d begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn’t fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.

In bringing together these various discourses, I hope in some small way to counteract architecture’s continuing obsession with narrow formal issues. The social side of architecture has been disastrously slighted for many years. Things are now beginning to change for the better, as social issues slip into architecture under the cover of environmentalism. If the moniker we use to recuperate ideas of equity and fairness is “environmental justice,” so be it. The risk is that many urban problems are more deep-seated and widespread than a narrowly constructed environmental idea, in which things are broken down into categories and considered solved. Aspiring to LEED certification is not enough. Architects—as well as critics and educators who contribute to our profession’s current myopia—need to see not simply constituent parts but how those parts interact as part of a larger and far more complex system. The book is predicated on the understanding that nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously, that the city is a web of fascinating contingencies.

Here in New York, we’re beginning to see glimmers of more enlightened thinking. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, though vague, points in the right direction; Janette Sadik-Khan, our transportation commissioner, is bringing to the streets the first fruits of her fascination with Copenhagen, the poster-town for pedestrian planning. (That our plutocrat mayor believes deeply in the leadership of private initiative doesn’t help; public amenities shouldn’t have to sneak in a profit-making arrangement for private partners.) These positive developments have a lot to counteract: for over a century, cities have tried to redesign themselves in order to accommodate first trains and then cars, two modes of transportation that can be lethal for urbanity. We now need to start with the image of a desirable city and then imagine the transportation technologies that might produce it. Only neighborhoods and communities structured to eliminate the need to move long distances at high speeds will wean us from our automobile addiction. My book, like Jane Jacobs’s great The Death and Life of Great American Cities, imagines a city based on bodies and basic principles of affinity.

Jacobs was a tireless activist, and small-scale initiatives and community solidarity are both important. Neighborhoods and localities must be empowered; we need to leverage cooperation in tractable and inventive ways. This is something I try to do with Terreform, my nonprofit organization—to raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream. As I say in the book, the future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences.

As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Damon Rich

In late 2008, Damon Rich, an artist, designer, and founder of the nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), presented an exhibition at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the possible relationships between finance and buildings. That exhibition will be reprised as Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center at the Queens Museum of Art in New York from May 31 to September 27. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on May 29, 2009. To see the interview in context, click here.

Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center began as a broad proposal for the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT about risk, and in particular about the rise of risk management as a form of planning. In the past fifteen to twenty years, it seems like planning focused on concrete visions or goals has given way to planning that catalogues the risks to which one is vulnerable—with the goal of preserving and expanding the status quo. This is a bit abstract; for me, focusing on finance and architecture brought the proposal back to earth. How does the notion of financial risk affect the built environment?

Though I trained as an architect, I’m drawn to things that touch architecture but are not buildings. My two previous exhibition projects produced by CUP at the Storefront for Art and Architecture were about building codes (how political demands rendered in laws are expressed in the built environment) and about urban renewal (how ideology is revealed in the distorted use of past policies to justify present actions).

I want to take apart the notion of technical expertise in a democratic context. My exhibitions function as a kind of case study or experiment; each begins with a group of investigators who know little about the subject at hand, acting as stand-ins for the general public. MIT has the number-one-rated urban planning program in the country; it also has a fairly new Center for Real Estate; and, of course, it has the management school, engineers, and theoretical mathematicians. I spoke with many of these experts, attended meetings, visited archives—and from these materials put together an exhibition. While exhibitions are just about the least cost-effective way to organize people politically, for me they contain a set of potentials that the initiatives of a mission-driven nonprofit organization like CUP—mainly school programs and community workshops—often do not. A nonprofit has to be disciplined by measurable outcomes, but an exhibition is a chance to stage a more open-ended encounter in three dimensions, to use abstraction to recontextualize imminent realities.

Another privilege of exhibiting in a gallery or museum is the luxury to say that in examining so complex a topic—which engages real estate brokers, architects, federal regulators, economists, and, of course, the public—you don’t have to subordinate everything to clarity and immediate action. You can dwell on the innumerable internal fissures and contradictions that bear on political contests. Often when I tell people I’m doing a project about foreclosures, financial justice, and housing, they say, “That’s really great!” But I don’t think people should assume an exhibition about foreclosures is inherently good; I hope to encourage engagement and skepticism through the practice of representation.

Every single piece in the show tries to use a specific visual strategy to stage a relationship with the audience. For example, one of the most basic and central ideas to finance is the interest rate. The relationship an interest rate instantiates between a borrower and a lender is an abstract thing, and it’s discussed in a naturalized manner—the interest rate goes up, the interest rate goes down, like the temperature. Yet national mortgage interest rates are nothing but an index of a social relationship between borrowers and lenders. So I built a forty-foot-long plywood barrier that’s cut in the shape of the prime rate; one can see, at about 1980, when the interest rate shoots up, because the barrier itself shoots up to about thirteen feet in height. The mute graph you see on the nightly news hopefully becomes visible and legible in a new way, as containing stories of political and social relationships. Another piece is a series of sixty-six photographs of houses in the Detroit metropolitan area, arranged on metal stands in their actual geographic relationships: One can walk among them and understand housing outcomes: dilapidated neighborhoods on the east side of Detroit; big, brand-new houses in outlying Lyon Township in the western suburbs. I hope it causes people to question what produced this differentiated set of buildings.

The series of public programs is an important part of the show and will feature people who know far more about redlining than I do, even after all the research. Redlining is a visual fiction, a metaphor cleverly crafted to mobilize people into political action. In fact, it is so effective that people today use it in all kinds of ways to stand for the inequities of capitalism—in financing, city services, insurance, even Internet service. But it’s also a slippery concept, as is another that is often used today, “disinvestment.” Both have great explanatory power, but you can’t ever really point to them in action. It’s important to understand these concepts and how they have functioned historically in order to better grapple with the messy process of making change.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: James Calvin Davis

James Calvin Davis is associate professor of religion at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT. He is the author of The Moral Theology of Roger Williams: Christian Conviction and Public Ethics (Westminster John Knox, 2004) and editor of On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Harvard, 2008). After spending much of my autumn researching Roger Williams, and having benefitted both from Davis’s one-volume selection of Williams’s writing and his own interpretation of the Puritan dissident’s life and work, I contacted Davis to request an interview. This conversation was conducted by e-mail during January 2009; the links you’ll find in the questions and answers were inserted by me and are not to be seen as endorsements by Davis. More on Williams can be found in this December 29, 2008, TSWTT post. –BJS

* * *

In the last fifty years, historians and theologians have done much to situate Roger Williams in his seventeenth-century context and to tease out the details of his religious thinking. Recently, scholars have made great efforts to incorporate his concept of freedom of conscience into histories of the first amendment. Yet you look at Williams through the lens of morality. Can you speak about how this aspect of Williams’s thought (and life, if applicable) first appealed to you?

I first became interested in Roger Williams as a graduate student in ethics. While doing graduate studies, I developed an interest in Puritanism, and the ways in which Puritan figures and the Puritan culture helped shaped the moral and political culture of the United States, beyond the stereotypes of Puritan prudishness and theocratic control. My studies led me to Williams, and the more I read of Williams, the more I was convinced of his relevance to contemporary ethics, especially (at first) a prominent question in contemporary religious ethics, the relationship between religion and morality. Do we need religion in order to maintain a public morality? Can Christians in particular make a contribution to a vision for public morality without either appearing to endorse theocracy or appealing to a universalistic basis for morality? These kinds of questions brought me back again and again to Williams, and the more I read of him, the more fascinating a figure I was convinced he was, and the more relevant I was convinced his worldview was to our “modern” questions of public ethics. Eventually I decided to write my dissertation on him.

It has been twenty years since the last significant publication of Roger Williams’s writing, Glenn W. LaFantasie’s edition of his letters. Aside from the long time since that publication and the scant number of copies of earlier editions of his writing, what prompted you to prepare a one-volume, modernized edition of Williams’s texts?

I was motivated to prepare the collection during my graduate studies. The more I read of Williams, the more I thought others ought to as well. His continuing relevance to questions of public morality, church and state, and civility in politics seemed obvious to me, but few scholars as late as the 1990s were appealing directly to Williams because his writings were so inaccessible. Another result of this inaccessibility was that people were misunderstanding Williams, specifically missing the central importance of religion to his liberal worldview. (Incidentally, this misinterpretation still occurs; Martha Nussbaum’s work laudably resurrects Williams for a wide audience, but she insists on minimizing the impact of his Puritan religion on his views, interpreting him instead as a pre-Jefferson Jeffersonian.) I became convinced that returning Williams to a prominent place in our intellectual heritage, and getting students and scholars to read his works, required a readable edition. I hope this collection does just that.

Near the end of your introduction to On Religious Liberty, you describe Williams’s experience as a kind of “moral anthropology” that allowed him to devise an “internal argument” for the cause of religious liberty. Will you elaborate on the idea of his “moral anthropology” a little bit?

What I mean by that is that Williams offers a theological understanding of human morality, including claims about the universality of conscience and the reliability of natural moral capabilities, that allows him to argue that public morality doesn’t require government defense of religion. This is an approach that’s likely to be much more persuasive to traditional Christians (and perhaps other religious persons) than appeals to Enlightenment assumptions about the alleged private nature of religion and the preference of reason over religion. So in that way his approach allows him to make an “internal argument” to his co-religionists (then and perhaps today) for why they should support religious liberty and find alliance with secular devotees of the “separation of church and state.”

You mention in an answer above the popular (and recurrent) misinterpretation of Williams as a kind of Jeffersonian founding father born a century early. While some have suggested that, through Locke, those who conceived our country’s first amendment may have been influenced by Williams, that is not the same thing as saying they embodied his intellectual spirit—which turned precisely on the centrality of theology to his thought. Who, since Williams’s own day, embodies for you the intertwined concern for religious principles and liberal political values? I suspect you may say eighteenth-century Baptists, given the mention of them in conjunction with your discussion of Locke in the introduction to the new volume, but please feel free to pick a few figures from disparate eras.

Well, you’re right that I think the main lineage of Williams’s perspective on religious liberty is religious, and most obviously represented by the Baptists. Although the Southern Baptist Convention sometimes seems to forget the preference for “separation of church and state” advocated by their intellectual heir, historically Baptists in America have been instrumental in arguing for religious freedom, encouraging popular support for religious freedom, and demonstrating that the institutional separation of church and state can be very, very good for religious communities as well as the larger society (their prominence on the American religious scene is the best evidence). But it’s not just the Baptists who represent this theological legacy. Williams was a Puritan Calvinist, and the Calvinist tradition in the United States (e.g., Presbyterians and Congregationalists) continue his commitment to religious liberty. Furthermore, one can make the argument that Williams’s commitment to religious liberty has transformed Roman Catholicism’s perspective on the issue. Once quite hostile to the idea of true religious liberty, the Catholic Church did an about-face on the subject in the 1960s during Vatican II. The principal influence on the Church regarding this issue was an American Jesuit named John Courtney Murray, whose theological arguments show the clear influence of, among other thinkers, Roger Williams. These days even political philosophers are rediscovering Williams, most notably Martha Nussbaum, whose recent book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality puts Williams front and center in this American tradition (though, as I said in an earlier answer, I don’t think she gets his theological indebtedness quite right). So although his influence is indirect, Williams’s effect on religious and philosophical commitments to religious liberty—in the US and more globally—is undeniable.

Which other books or essays on Williams have you found particularly helpful, either as a good introduction for readers new to him or as particularly revelatory even for those who may be familiar recent scholarly work?

Anything Edwin S. Gaustad has written on Williams is a must-read. Specifically, I’d recommend his most recent book published by Oxford in 2005, entitled (imaginatively enough) Roger Williams. He has such a readable style; that small book makes a great introduction to Williams and his importance. In addition, I warmly recommend Timothy Hall’s book Separating Church and State, in which he introduces the reader to Williams’s thought and its importance to the legal tradition of religious liberty. Hall’s book influenced me greatly.

Lastly, would you care to describe in any detail the book on “religion and the debate over moral values” that you are working on?

The book is called Good Faith Reasons: Religion and America’s Perennial Battle over Moral Values. This book, written for a general audience, is a call for clarity in the seemingly endless debates over moral values and the role of religion in those public debates. Looking at the history of religious involvement in public moral debates in this country, I argue that there is nothing wrong and a lot right with religious people wanting to contribute to American moral culture from a religious point of view. At the same time, a healthy debate over moral values has to acknowledge explicitly that there are a lot of different ways to prioritize which moral values are most important, and which values issues are most important. So in the end, the book is a call to secular liberals to be more open to religious contributions to public moral debate, and a call to religious conservatives to be open to the probability that they’re not the only ones in those debates with some kind of commitment to moral values.