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April 01, 2010

There's an Art to It

Jeff by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

Recently, we’ve had a surprising number of inquiries about how to reference artwork in APA Style. The APA Publication Manual (6th ed.) has a section on audiovisual media (7.07, pp. 209–210), but it focuses mostly on audio, video, and TV. There are no guidelines for paintings, sculptures, or more complicated installations (e.g., a chair, a photo of a chair, and a definition of “chair”). So let’s use the Frankenreference concept to model a few ways to handle art in your reference list.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

A good reference contains enough information to lead your reader to the source you used, as concisely as possible. At a minimum, this should include the artist’s name, year(s) of fabrication, title of the work, any other necessary or relevant information (such as the medium), and the location of the work. Here’s how a reference might look for Christina’s World:

Wyeth, A. (1948). Christina’s world [Painting]. New York, NY: Museum of
Modern Art.


But suppose you are an impoverished grad student who can’t afford a plane ticket to New York to see the painting in person. Fortunately, the museum has an excellent website where you can view the painting. In that case, use the website in the location element of your reference:

Wyeth, A. (1948). Christina’s world [Painting]. Retrieved from


If a work exists in several formats, it’s helpful to provide enough information to identify which one you’re talking about. For example, the original bronze of Rodin’s The Thinker is in Paris:

Rodin, A. (1902). The thinker [Bronze and marble sculpture]. Paris,
France: Musée Rodin.


However, the artist also cast dozens of bronze and plaster copies of his model for this work, and one of them ended up here in Washington:

Rodin, A. (1902). The thinker [Bronze sculpture]. Washington,
DC: National Gallery of Art.


Salvador Dali, in the Drawing Room, With a Pancake

Sometimes authors ask where in the reference entry they should put descriptive information about the size, format, provenance, life cycle, or composition of the artwork; the time, place, sponsorship, curation, and location of a special exhibition of the artwork; and so forth. The general answer is, you don’t—in APA Style, at least. If you are discussing one or two items for which this kind of information is necessary, it could be included in a footnote to the text; for a large number of works, a separate appendix with an annotated bibliography or even a catalog raisonné might be in order.

Advanced Topics

During the 20th century, forms of art emerged that play with the very notion of “art.” For example, the work that won the 2001 Turner Prize consists of an empty room in which the lights go on and off every 5 s. However, we can still cite the artwork properly, even if there’s no there there:

Creed, M. (2000). Work 227: The lights going on and off [Installation].
New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art.


Performance Art

A genre that seems particularly rich in topics for psychological study is performance art. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to be present when Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman performed their TV Bra for Living Sculpture, and you would like to draw on this experience for your thesis. How would a reader go to the source of this reference?

Trick question! Short of a Vulcan mind meld, there’s no way to make that experience accessible to the reader. Treat it as a personal communication (in-text citation only, giving artist and date of performance). However, if you researched the performance in a more permanent medium (videotape, DVD, etc.), use the reference for that format.

Do You Really Need a Reference?

Not every reference to an artwork needs a reference list entry. A passing reference to a facial expression “reminiscent of Munch’s The Scream” can stand on its own, for example, and there are certain cultural icons that need no explanation. (One rule of thumb: If the artwork has inspired a successful ad campaign, it’s probably an icon.) Know your audience and use your best judgment.



For seventh edition guidelines, visit the seventh edition APA Style blog.

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