'So Easy to See': Muriel Rukeyser and Berenice Abbott’s Unfinished Collaboration

Rowena Kennedy-Epstein*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
322 Downloads (Pure)


This essay reassembles from archival materials the lost collaboration between Muriel Rukeyser and Berenice Abbott, So Easy to See, which pairs Abbott’s innovative Super-Sight photographs with Rukeyser’s poetic-theoretical discussions of ‘seeing’ in order to discuss lesbian desire, the atomic bomb, the relationship between art and science, and female genius. The work was repeatedly rejected by male editors and curators, who demeaned and undervalued the innovative nature of the project, in part because Abbott and Rukeyser dared to assert themselves as scientific experts; nevertheless, it is an intellectually rich and artistically innovative collaboration by two of the twentieth cen-tury’s most versatile artists. From the early 1940s through the 1960s, in a period in the U.S. defined by the elevation of the sciences over the arts, they shared a similar goal: to develop new methods for demonstrating the uses of and relationships between the arts and the sciences. Through their collaboration, Rukeyser and Abbott worked against accepted gendered and disciplinary boundaries, in order to show how ‘science and art meet and might meet in our time’ as sources of imaginative possibility and social progress. In doing so, they engendered questions about what kinds of collaborative and artistic practices are sanctioned, about the ontology of things and the everyday, about materialist philosophy and about the radical possibilities of interdisciplinarity. By making visible this lost collaboration, this essay participates in the recovery of an innovative and exciting modernist collaboration, and asks us to see both the lost potential of its inventiveness as well as to contextualise its disappearance. In order to see their work on ‘seeing’, we must also undertake an exploration into the cultural mechanisms that obfuscated it at mid-century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-105
Number of pages19
JournalLiterature and History
Issue number1
Early online date6 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 6 May 2019


  • Berenice Abbott
  • Cold war
  • Collaboration
  • Feminism
  • Modernism
  • Muriel Rukeyser
  • Photography
  • Poetry
  • Science
  • The avant-garde
  • Women artists


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