New Collections: Roberta Allen Papers

By Jacob Proctor
January 19, 2024
Detail of grayscale image of a woman wearing a textured, crew-neck sweater against a white background. Her hair is up in a bun, and her left hand is held up alongside her head with fingers outstretched. There are black X marks over the face of the woman who stares at the camera.

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new collections. 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 Fall 2023 issue (vol. 62, no. 2) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at

Grayscale image of a woman wearing a textured, crew-neck sweater against a white background. Her hair is up in a bun, and her left hand is held up alongside her head with fingers outstretched. There are black X marks over the face of the woman who stares at the camera.
Roberta Allen, preparatory work for the series Pointless Acts, 1976. Gelatin silver print. Roberta Allen Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Roberta Allen (b. 1945) developed an artistic practice that fused the perceptual concerns of minimalism and postminimalism with the philosophical and linguistic emphases of conceptual art. For much of the 1970s, she was represented by New York’s influential John Weber Gallery, where she exhibited alongside such contemporaries as Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, Sol Lewitt, Robert Mangold, Dorothea Rockburne, and Robert Ryman. In the early 1980s, Allen turned her attention to creative writing and—although she has exhibited occasionally over the years—effectively left the art world. Her papers, donated by the artist in 2022, include notes and writings, personal diaries, correspondence, sketchbooks and other preparatory materials, scrapbooks, printed ephemera, and photographic materials related to her artistic career.

In an undated (ca. 1977) statement included in the papers, Allen writes, “I use paradox to explore experience as a process of shifting relations. I present subjective views defined as sets of facts.” Around the same time, she made a number of works that combined photography, drawing, and text to, as she put it in a statement that accompanied her 1977 exhibition at Galerie Maier-Hahn in Düsseldorf, “question conventional notions of surface/space by creating an interplay between two and three dimensions.” In the series Pointless Acts (1976) and Negation (1976), for example, Allen presented photographs of herself interacting with hand-drawn lines, accompanied by textual descriptions. Through the copious preparatory materials preserved in her papers, we can reconstruct the precise process by which these works were created. Allen made photographs of herself in an automated photobooth, performing poses she had sketched and storyboarded in advance, to the rhythm of the booth’s camera. She then drew directly on the photographs, mounted them on paper, added handwritten captions, and rephotographed them. Allen exhibited the resulting images both as grids of enlarged gelatin silver prints and as unique or limited-edition artist books; the collection includes examples of both formats, as well as handmade mock-ups of the latter.

LEFT: Small grayscale image of a woman with dark hair wearing a crew-neck sweater looking upwards as she draws a line through an X with her right hand. It is printed on a piece of paper with text that reads, “Drawing A Line Between 2 Negating Lines.” RIGHT: Grayscale image of an empty swimming pool surrounded  by a fence and shrubbery. There are painted arrows pointing in different directions and text that reads “6 ascending arrows descend / 4 descending arrows ascend.”
LEFT: Roberta Allen, preparatory work for the series Negation, 1976. Gelatin silver print and ink on paper. RIGHT: Roberta Allen, photographic documentation of Real Ascending and Descending Arrows II, 1978. Gelatin silver print. Both Roberta Allen Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Allen subsequently extended her explorations of paradox into the field of sculpture, creating installations in which arrows and other markings applied directly to the floor and walls were accompanied by texts defining them as ascending or descending from various positions. Allen often employed the perspectival shifts offered by sloped floors and tilted planes to further complicate what she described in a contemporaneous statement included in the papers as the “interplay between physical and conceptual information.” In June 1978, for example, she created Real Ascending and Descending Arrows II, an installation using the sloped bottom of an empty swimming pool adjacent to the art center at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University (now known as LIU Post). Allen’s papers include extensive notes, preparatory drawings, and installation photography of this and other such installations at galleries and institutions in Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Milan, Munich, New York, and elsewhere.

In addition to a wealth of material documenting exhibitions and publications, the collection also includes sixteen personal diaries, dating from June 1970 to December 1982. These volumes record, in often intimate detail, Allen’s experiences as a woman, as an artist, and as a woman artist making her way in a male-dominated world. Taken together, the collection’s combination of the personal and the professional, the public and the private, offers researchers crucial insight into Allen’s life and work, while expanding our understanding of postminimalism and conceptual art in the 1970s.


Jacob Proctor is the Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector at the Archives of American Art.

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