Acquisitions: Eileen Cowin Papers

By the Archives
September 19, 2016
Photograph by Eileen Cowin / Cibachrome proofs, 1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the spring 2016 issue (vol. 55, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the Journal can be found at

Photograph by Eileen Cowin, Cibachrome proofs, 1990
Cibachrome proofs, 1990 / Eileen Cowin, photographer. Eileen Cowin papers, 1961-2015. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Los Angeles-based artist Eileen Cowin (b. 1947) has donated her personal and professional papers, most dating from about 1965 to 2004, to the Archives. The collection includes her negatives, work prints, videos, exhibition announcements, and reviews and documentation of her public art projects, as well as correspondence with writers Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, photographers Darryl Curran, John Divola, Carl Chiarenza, Todd and Betty Walker, Robert W. Fichter, and Robert Heinecken, and others.

There are approximately two dozen letters from Heinecken, her colleague and close friend, that reveal his thoughts about the cameraless photographs he made during the early 1970s. Some of these letters are written on the backs of exhibition announcements or discarded prints; one even appears on an air-sickness bag. Among the foremost proponents of photographic experimentation, Heinecken was then making photograms of food. Describing them to Cowin, he wrote that they were “very strange and sickening (just as I like them).” In another undated letter, he explained, “I am putting the food directly on the offset plates which is blowing the mind of the engraver/friend I work with.”

The collection also includes Cowin’s personal writings, notebooks, calendars, lectures and documentation of exhibitions and artworks, as well as rare printed material, such as a poster from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition Experiments in Art and Technology. There are preparatory materials for her collaboration with Louise Erdrich for the cover of Erdich’s novel Tales of Burning Love (1996).

Cowin is recognized as a significant figure in the development of American art photography in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Brooklyn-born artist studied with modernist photographer Aaron Siskind and received her Masters of Science degree in 1970 from the influential Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. While still in graduate school, she was expanding the traditional definitions of the photographic medium, incorporating magazine imagery and employing other unusual techniques into her work. Around this time, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Peter Bunnell, acquired two of her prints, which led to her first solo show at New York’s Witkin Gallery in 1971. In her gift to the Archives, Cowin has included a comprehensive selection of working prints that she made during and after this period.

In 1975, when Cowin joined the faculty of California State University, Fullerton, Southern California was rich territory for artists experimenting with photography. Emboldened by the 1970s feminist art movement, Cowin produced controversial color photographs that borrowed the pictorial strategies of mass media, especially the conventions of film and television. She was a pioneer in this arena, along with her East Coast counterparts, including Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons.

Cowin’s papers offer insights into her evolution as an artist, as well as the experimental and Conceptual photography scene in Southern California at a transformative time in its history.

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp was the California collector for the Archives of American Art.

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