Art and Architecture, Inside UCP

Read an Interview with Karen Levine, Executive Editor at University of Chicago Press

This month on the blog, we catch up with executive editor Karen Levine to hear about her career path, her work in acquiring art and ancient studies books for the Press, and some of her favorite women artists, writers, and historical figures.

First of all, can you tell us a little about your path in publishing and what led you to UCP?

I never wanted to do anything else. Once upon a time, one of my undergraduate advisors at Occidental College, the poet Martha Ronk, helped me line up an internship at the small LA literary publisher Sun & Moon Press (RIP). My first job out of college was as an editorial assistant in the San Francisco office of HarperCollins. While climbing the ranks there, I took a master’s in art history and engineered a pivot to art publishing, working first at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and then the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco before heading cross-country to acquire trade art books for Prestel in New York. In the most recent phases of my career, I’ve been privileged to knit together everything I’ve learned and love best about scholarly, trade, and museum publishing, first at University of California Press, then at the Getty, and finally here at Chicago.

Here at the Press, you’re working with books in art and ancient studies. What are some things in those fields that you’re currently most excited about?

It’s exciting to see scholars continuing to grapple with disciplinary critique in their own distinctive ways, surfacing compelling new questions and subjects. In art history, we are learning ever more about artists and practices that have hitherto eluded (or been suppressed by) the canon. I’m also intrigued by the new ecocritical turn in art history, which is shedding fresh light on everything from the art of early modern Europe to the American landscape. In ancient studies, it’s inspiring to see ongoing attention to understudied aspects of the ancient world, including the experiences of women and the nonelite, non-Greco-Roman cultures and texts, and global receptions of antiquity. In both fields, too, I seem to be encountering more authors interested in exploring new idioms for their writing. Some are moving away from long monographs to craft leaner, more tightly focused books; many are keen for their projects to traverse multiple disciplines; and still others are interested in bringing their ideas to a broader crossover or trade readership. 

What’s one of your favorite art exhibitions you’ve seen recently?

Only one?! I recently saw Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960–1970s. This was a generation of artists who confronted profound cultural change alongside rising authoritarianism, and I suppose the fact that I was able to cast my ballot at the early voting center inside the Hammer Museum right before walking into the galleries made me all the more appreciative of the bravery and commitment required. I don’t imagine having another chance to see so many works by Korean artists of the period until I finally get myself to Seoul. (Which will happen eventually; it’s on my postpandemic travel bucket list!) 

If you’ll permit one more, I hope folks won’t pass up an opportunity to see Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction at one of its next stops in DC, Ottawa, or New York. We are so proud to have copublished the catalog—named one of the New York Times’s best art books of 2023—with the National Gallery of Art. 

When you’re not reading piles of manuscripts, what kind of things do you enjoy reading?

To cleanse the palate, I read fiction. Over the past year, I’ve been on a bit of a kick of reading contemporary retellings of ancient myths (so sort of work-related?). My favorite thus far is Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, but for something more surprising, check out Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a version of Beowulf set in a suburban American gated community. While I’m out and about or doing chores, I tend to listen to big, meaty, trade nonfiction titles on audiobook. A couple of the ones I’ve most enjoyed recently: Every Man for Himself and God Against All by Werner Herzog and An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong, both read (beautifully) by the authors. 

While Women’s History Month has officially wrapped up, let’s keep the celebration going. Are there any women writers or artists that you’d like to call special attention to?

As the former student of the distinguished feminist art historian Whitney Chadwick, I’m always ready to talk about art and books by and about women. Chicago has a deep catalog of brilliant titles on women artists; to reel off just a handful, try Hilma af Klint: A Biography (and/or her Notes and Methods), Fray: Art and Textile Politics, or Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community. Off the Chicago list but equally important, I think, is a recent wave of new translations of ancient texts by scholars such as Emily Wilson and Stephanie McCarter. I’m also fascinated by recent attention to Enheduanna, an Ur priestess and princess of the third century BCE who is the first author—of any gender—whom we know by name. (I have Sophus Helle’s translation.) As Elizabeth Winkler put it in an article in The New Yorker: “To put her precedence in perspective, she lived fifteen hundred years before Homer, seventeen hundred years before Sappho, and two thousand years before Aristotle.” 

Are there any upcoming book projects you’re particularly excited about?

I’m lucky to have inherited a healthy pipeline from my esteemed predecessor, Susan Bielstein, and it’s been rewarding to get to know all of those authors and their projects. But since I’m usually excited about whatever I’ve been working on most recently, I thought I might mention a few of my own acquisitions, such as Stephanie O’Rourke’s Picturing Landscape in an Age of Extraction, Winnie Wong’s Many Names of Anonymity: Portraitists of the Canton Trade, Alicia Volk’s In the Shadow of Empire: Art in Occupied Japan, and Dalila Scruggs’s catalog for the much-anticipated exhibition Elizabeth Catlett: A Black Revolutionary Artist and All That It Implies. I’m pleased also to be developing a range of trade books for Chicago’s art list, including Jeremy Lybarger’s Midnight Tremor: The Life and Art of Roger Brown, Stephen Nadler’s The Delft Goldfinch, and Elizabeth Rodini’s On the Street of the Hidden Shops

In ancient studies, we’re just about to publish Guy de la Bédoyère’s vivid new book Populus: Living and Dying in Ancient Rome. And presently in production are Stanley Lombardo’s gorgeous translation of Aratus’s Phaenomena and Rune Nyord’s intellectual history Yearning for Immortality: The European Invention of the Ancient Egyptian Afterlife

There are so many others I wish I could mention, but with space at a premium and book contracts still in the works, I suppose I’d best stop here.

To learn more about the work Karen is doing, head to our website.  

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