Amateurs at work

I’ve been trying to write this all day, but I’m feeling somewhat logy and the ideas just weren’t coming. Before I start – how great a word is “logy”? Four letters to sum up a mental and emotional malaise. In English, at least, many of the biggest concepts come in small words: life, death, God, love. Logy isn’t in their league, but it is a fine word, and too rarely used.

I confess, I am something of a dilettante, passing myself off as a critic – not a scholar, that would be presumptuous – when I really a guy who’s crazy about art and squeezes as much as possible into the time not taken up by my day job. Movies, music, painting, they are what make living worthwhile.

You don’t have to be an expert to succeed, though it sometimes helps. Look at art museums: they stumble along, often unsure of how to do things, or sure in ways that are very wrong, sometimes disastrously so. There is no school for museum Trustees (is there?). They frequently misunderstand what being in trust means, or the charitable status (beyond the financial definition) of their institutions. Yet Trustees are where the buck stops, however much they might try to pass it to someone else. This week sees two developments in museum management that can be laid, at least in part, to putting amateurs in the top seats.

LA MOCA

The announcement that Klaus Biesenbach, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, is leaving to take a job at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie came as a surprise to many, including some of LA MOCA’s own Trustees, yet it should not be a surprise. Biesenbach is leaving a museum known more for its recent dysfunction than its art. In only 3 years on the job he has lost several important staff members, and was essentially demoted to Artistic Director in an unusual restructuring of museum management. Think what you will of his management or his work at LA MOCA in particular, it’s no surprise that he was open to other offers. Only the speed at which the news broke took people by surprise. He will stay in LA until January, but he’s a lame duck at this point. Exhibitions are sure to have been scheduled through the next year; he might be able to make a few more acquisitions.

Yep, this place again

Closer to my new home in Massachusetts, the news that Jeff Rodgers has left the Directorship of the Berkshire Museum came out after he left, which is never a good sign. Rodgers stayed even less time than Biesenbach – 2 1/2 years only. He informed the Board of his departure which, according to an interview with Board President Ethan Klepetar, “was his decision,” on September 2, yet no public announcement was made until Sept. 13, four days after his last day on the job. Rodgers gave no indication what his future plans were. His sudden departure and lack of timely announcement from the museum looks suspicious. Let me reiterate some points I have made before:

Museum Directors are rarely publicly fired. A story is agreed upon, whether it be retirement or “moving on to explore new opportunities” or the like. For a Director to be publicly fired, something major must be wrong. The decision is always framed as the Director’s choice, as evident dysfunction could harm the search for a successor. The public are kept in the dark as much as possible; prospective candidates are also given limited knowledge of what they could be getting into. Is it any wonder things go wrong?

Museum Trustees may love art, or see a museum as a way to practice public philanthropy without too much effort. Their role is primarily financial, yet they are the ones who choose the professional staff, all of whom – let’s be kind and say “most of whom” – are better trained in choosing art and mounting exhibitions. In a functional museum, they leave the staffing to the Director, but the Director is chosen by the Board. Amateurs at the top can hamper the work of the professionals lower down – a trickle-down theory that sadly has not been disproved.

In the case of the Berkshire Museum, Rodgers’s predecessor, Van Shields, upset the museum world by selling off some of the museum’s best art to fund renovations (I blogged about this years ago), and then retired after the sales went ahead. Rodgers is leaving shortly after the reopening of the second floor after the renovations were completed; the first floor is not yet done. A sudden exit, with the job unfinished, no advance notice…all these sound ominous. Rodgers inherited a messy situation, and left before it was done. The Board, who must bear the responsibility, is still there.

I have not seen the renovated Berkshire Museum, but I intend to tour it and give you my opinions here.

A MidSummer Night’s Dream in Pittsfield

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

It’s been a few years since I last saw live Shakespeare, and the dearth has been keenly felt, but my girlfriend and I managed to catch the penultimate performance of A MidSummer Night’s Dream on Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Common, brought to us by Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park. This is their seventh show since the group was founded, and the second production of MidSummer, the first being their debut show back in 2014.

The playbill for the show is viewable here. A selection of photos from the show, taken by the director, Enrico Spada, can be seen here. They are far preferable to the awkward attempts I made to photograph it during the performance. Mr. Spada’s photos are uncaptioned, but use your imagination and you can make some fair guesses – others might baffle you. I’m including some images of artworks inspired by the play for your entertainment; the play we saw looked nothing like these scenes.

Lysander and Puck by John Gilbert, 1865

To start with, I had a very good time. The clowning brought plentiful laughter, Glenn Barrett, who played both Snug the Joiner and Egius, Hermia’s father, got some of the best gags in his ‘rude mechanical’ role. This Snug is simple to the point of having to be reminded of his own name – twice. The dramatic elements were well served also, with Emma Foley (Hermia) and Joslyn Eaddy Melendez (Helena) delivering their lines with an ease that made their characters readily sympathetic. The show’s partially gender-blind casting (Demetrius, Lysander, Oberon, and Puck were all played by women) was never obtrusive or off-putting. Unusual is the whimsical manner in which Oberon (Olivia Sblendorio) was played; usually a stern or forbidding King, Oberon is here played as a flitting, ebullient character, more in line with Puck (Kyra Fitzgerald) or Titania’s fairy retinue. I’m not enamored of this approach, but it was a welcome novelty. If you’ve ever wanted to see Oberon and Puck turn cartwheels onstage, this was the production to see. Kyra Fitzgerald’s Puck is everything you could want, and her enjoyment of her own mischief was a pleasure to see. Demetrius (Julie Castagna) and Lysander (Zoe Wohlfeld) held echoes of ‘trouser roles‘ in opera, neither hiding nor emphasizing actresses playing male roles.

Marc Chagall, MidSummer Night’s Dream, 1939, Private Collection

The costumes, by Peggy Walsh, might best be described as eclectic, calling to mind no single era or locality. Theseus (Brandon Lee) wears what appears to be a Japanese yukata along with his crown, but it works well enough. The music, by Jacob Kerzner, adequately supports the story without being especially memorable. This production was presented in the round, with the most minimal set and only such props as were necessary.

At the end of the workmen’s comedic version of Pyramus and Thisbe, toward the very end of the play, Bottom offers a choice:

“No assure you; the wall is down that
parted their fathers. Will it please you to see the
epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two
of our company?”

The company wisely eschew the epilogue, but this production reaches back to true-life Shakespearean history, as the whole company of tradesmen join in the dance. This is how it was in the Bard’s time: theater-goers might see a couple of plays, but the performance ended with ‘the jig,’ in which all the players came out to dance merrily, stopping occasionally to ad-lib jokes, most often bad and quite dirty. This way, no matter how grim the play the audience had just seen, everyone went away happy, energized by the joyous dancing and wincing at the jokes. The play, coming swiftly to its end, did not present a wholly authentic period jig (which, being unscripted, do not survive to our time – besides, it would have dragged out the end of the show terribly) but it gave us a taste. We walked home through the cool night air with a slightly lighter step, having one foot still in that mythical Athens of Shakespeare’s imagination.

Excursions

Some time back I dreamt of curating a show of sculpture entitled “Raised Structures Ahead”, which someday might come about. Since that dream I have come across sculpture by accident, always with some other intent in mind, and so I will share them with you.

I went to the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but I didn’t take any photos of his art, or of his studio, which is on the grounds close by the museum. Both are very enjoyable; Rockwell’s art is iconic, for its visual storytelling and, when he could get free of the Saturday Evening Post’s conservative editorial policies, full of a love of all humanity.

I also didn’t take any photos in a special exhibition, Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration, though there were many fine works, including some by my favorite pulp-era artists: Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, and J. Allen St. John. The show itself was rather erratically curated, arranged thematically, but more suggesting a random assortment rather than a careful planned lineup. A larger show might have made for a more comprehensive survey, but the Rockwell is not large, and there was plenty to look at and enjoy.

Out on the grounds, under a heavy sky as tropical storm Henri drew near, was a semi-related, juried show, Land of Enchantment: a Fantastical Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition. The lowering sky added an extra frisson of the otherworldly to this collection and gave interest to the summer greens of the lawn. I did snap a few shots of some of them:

“Phoenix” by Robin Tost, undated
“Galaxy Cat” by Erik Johnsen, n. d.
A side view, with my brother scrutinizing it. Even in the muted light this piece shone.
“Effervescent” by Harold Grinspoon, who spent much of his life as a businessman and philanthropist, only turning to art in his later years. He’s 92 now, and still at it.
Not a part of the Rockwell show, Grinspoon also created this sculpture, situated in downtown Lee, Mass., which I saw a few months earlier. Several more family members lurk behind it.

The show was enjoyable, and it was good to see less figurative art so near to Rockwell’s realism. The museum as a whole is very well run, and, while it is small, is worth a long look.

Now, the unexpected. While walking downtown to run some errands, I came across Kellogg Park, a tiny little square of land at the corner of Lincoln and Wellington streets in Pittsfield, MA. The name honors Veronica and Kenneth Kellogg, who lived on the site for 40 years. In its gravel surface are sculpted letters of the alphabet, designed by second-grade students from a local school in collaboration with The Mastheads, a public arts and humanities project.

Now, I am wary of involving schoolchildren in public art projects. In my museum days I remember much grumbling about the price tag associated with redesigning a museum’s logo; the professional level of pay conflicted with the Trustee’s innate stinginess. A suggestion “can’t we have kids design it?” was met with silent scorn. Not only was this not a children’s museum, but the idea conflicted with the idea of a museum as a home for art.

As you can see, the park does not really fit the neighborhood, which is both good and bad.

I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve seen far larger, yet lesser quality, works from professionals, and I suspect The Mastheads had curatorial input where the kids enthusiasm ran out of hand. The gravel is a bit inhospitable, but I suppose a grassy lawn would make the sculpted letters look too much like gravestones. This is only bad if you dislike cemeteries – I happen to love them.

Explanatory text is cut into the wooden fencing, where it is darn hard to photograph, and only slightly easier to read. There isn’t much else that can be done with such a minuscule urban lot, so I applaud the powers that be for making the attempt. The park is very new – as I was photographing it, a car slowed down and someone asked me what it was. I wasn’t much help. Who can explain art in a few sentences, especially art one has never seen before?

A great big *

SFMoMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA] has responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways, none of which are likely to please its supporters. Furloughs announced in August of 2020 were understandable; the museum, like all arts institutions, had to close as Covid-related lockdowns spread. This followed the laying off of 131 on-call employees a few months earlier. Now that the end of the pandemic is possible, and the museum re-opened, you would expect them to gear up to rebuild and renew audience engagement – preparing to make a big splash, as it were.

However, as this report from the SF Chronicle shows, SFMOMA marches backward instead of ahead. The museum’s “Raw Material” podcast is to be re-imagined, transformed into an online and in-gallery program about current exhibitions. That in itself is lamentable, but not too bad. The museum’s “Open Space” online publication, which concentrates on interdisciplinary works by artists, is shutting down completely in the Fall.

Less understandable is the ending of the Modern Art Council, a volunteer group concerned with fundraising and social events, particularly the Contemporary Vision Awards dinner. I admit I know little about this group but, in the straitened economic climate of the pandemic, is ending a fundraising group a good idea? I thought money was the root of the museum’s problems. If the Council needs new blood, or changes to its operations, fine, but closing it completely reduces opportunities for museum supporters to get involved.

Worst of all are the long-running programs that are ending solely for economic reasons. The Artist’s Gallery at Fort Mason Center has been around since 1946, and has connected businesses, individuals, and Northern California artists through sales, rentals, and loans, the kind of synergy the corporate world would fetishize decades later. The Gallery will close at the end of the year, probably to catch potential Christmas shoppers before they pull the plug. How exactly does this closure benefit the museum, which exists to serve its audience?

SFMOMA’s film program began in 1937, only two years after MoMA in New York City began its ground-breaking program. It is scheduled to close at the end of Fall 2021. Inexplicable. That’s all I can say.

SFMoMA sent a statement to the Chronicle which included this sentence: “In order for SFMOMA to sustain a healthy institution for our community, we must shift our approach to make these goals more actionable and successful in today’s dramatically changed environment.” I have a few questions. Does this mean that new forms of these programs might arise, more actionable (?) forms, a la the “Raw Materials” podcast? If so, why shut down the old ones with no successor ready for public scrutiny?

Let me reassert a truth about museums that museums often hide: attendance does not drive income. Donors contribute the most, and, as news reports have shown, many wealthy people and corporations actually got richer during the pandemic. I went to SFMOMA’s website to look up their financial reports, although 2020s figures might not be available yet, but all I found was the Annual Report for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years. It’s been a while since I worked at a museum, but back in my day museums were required to make their reports publicly available. Because of the unique conditions of the pandemic, every datum should be marked with a great big *, and not be considered as a foretaste of the future.

Museums are charitable, educational institutions, and transparency is crucial. These cutbacks will result in seven jobs lost – minor in the museum’s big picture – but the loss to its supporters is far greater. A museum’s core duty is to the community; it is not a profit-making enterprise. SFMOMA ought, but isn’t likely, to show what efforts it made to boost contributions from its donors and what efforts were made to save these programs.

UPDATE: A petition has been started on change.org asking SFMOMA to reconsider. You can sign it here.

Rising Appalachia: The Lost Mystique of being in the Know

Something in me has been drawn to musical improvisation recently. Perhaps it’s the pandemic, the vicarious thrill of hearing people in close proximity sharing their thoughts and skills. Perhaps it’s fatigue from too many programmed, pre-determined pop songs. Just cut loose already!

A few months ago I listened through the entire discography of King Crimson, the important yet under appreciated progressive rock group. They frequently built up songs from improvisations, aided and abetted by their prodigious technical skills. Having run through their works (favorite albums: their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King [1969], of course; Red, [1974], and Beat [1982]) I began to search around for something with its roots in improvisation, yet not just more prog.

Then I saw the announcement of a new album by Rising Appalachia, the hard-to-describe group consisting of sisters Chloe Smith and Leah Song, with several other musicians in support. Just as King Crimson is always Robert Fripp, the sisters are Rising Appalachia, regardless of whoever else plays with them. (And yes, until recently I had never considered these two groups analogous, though both like to draw from a variety of musical styles to create their distinctive sounds. Should I call Rising Appalachia “progressive folk”?)

Their album, entitled The Lost Mystique of being in the Know, is an outburst of energy prompted by the hoped-for dwindling of the pandemic. Reunited after a long stretch of enforced separation – here, in their words: ‘We went into the studio during covid after not seeing one another for 10 months and just “pressed record”.’ It’s a peaceful, loving reunion, joyful in the thrill of collaboration. No one hogs the spotlight; no one seems left out. I always believe that the best records are those you can listen to again and again, concentrating on a different band member each time, and not get bored. A lot of pop music, pretty as it is, does not reward close listening. Rising Appalachia does.

Chloe and Leah are in good form vocally, especially Leah, whose voice in recent years has sometimes shown a little roughness, the toll of touring. The fiddle work, from fiddler/bassist Duncan Wickel (and perhaps the sisters also) brought the comparisons to King Crimson into my head: the fiddle work on Tempest and Clay sounds unworldly, and the fiddle hovering in the background at the start of Lost Girl reminded me of the mellotron so often used by King Crimson. The Appalachian folk influence, combined with bits of jazz and hip-hop, are always as part of their musical melange, but here they seem to reach beyond those, comfortably and effectively. The Celtic melody of Catalyst, the African influence of newest band member Arouna Diarra on Ngoni (which is not just the song title, but the name of the instrument Diarra plays), the mixture of soul and jazz on Top Shelf – whose idea was it to play the fiddle through a Leslie speaker (or an effects box to mimic a Leslie)? – all combine to make an album that is not a reflection of our lockdown past or present, but more an introduction to the good days to come. I should also mention multi-instrumentalist David Brown and percussionist Biko Casini, whose contributions support and enliven the mix.

To continue the prog comparisons for a moment, we come to the final song, Depth, which runs over 9 minutes without seeming overlong, their epic for the album and contains another signature Rising Appalachia element, a rap by Leah Song. As the last notes pass, we are left savoring the sounds of some other place, a world outside our temporary confinement, a place that sounds like home – the home few of us have, but many wish for, where music is not boxed into categories, but all mingle and play together. Most of us imagine this place to be imaginary, but the evidence is plain: Rising Appalachia have been there.

Eternity is littleness piled high

The title of this post is a quote from John Updike, but it seems particularly relevant when reading the works of Robert Walser (1878-1956), for Walser’s writing is intimately concerned with little moments, often trivial and seemingly banal. I almost wrote inconsequential, but Walser takes these little observations and incidents and ruminates on them as few other writers have. I have written about Walser before here.

Which brings me to A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser (New Directions books), a book inspired by a series of Welser-inspired exhibitions at Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, in 2011-12. Produced at the very end of Young’s life, the book serves as a tribute to him as well. In the book, artists are paired with newly translated pieces, or excerpts of same, by Walser. As you can imagine, such a book deals with minute observations, facets of that great pile of littleness. Exhibition catalogs are so often fixated on documentation and pedagogy that it is often to the smaller shows, the ones without parochial intent, that gems appear. Walser, as the unwitting primary contributor, sets the tone and provides the best work. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is an imperfect aphorism, and A Little Ramble shows how each has its place in the sun.

Fortunately, some contributors are switch-hitters, such as Moyra Davey‘s photographs from her Subway Riders series accompanied by her essay RW JG, which links Walser and Jean Genet , or Tacita Dean‘s essay Sluggardizing, paired with art Dean found at a flea market.

A Little Ramble is a continuation of the exhibitions, a coda which endures long after the shows, and indeed the gallery itself, have ceased to exist. It is a reminder that details have meaning – any still life artist could tell you that, and the best show you without telling – and every moment is precious.

You can read what others think on Goodreads here.

Just for my teeth

I’ve been working a lot, and using that as an excuse to avoid blogging. There is little good news – I did get my first vaccine shot recently, with the second scheduled for late April, so yay for that – and I don’t want to dive yet again into the museum world’s poisonous dalliance with monetization. To summarize: deaccessioning is when works are sold out of a museum collection and the revenue used to buy more art, an established practice; monetization is when works are sold and the money used for non art-related purposes, a harmful practice. This is why the most important monetary gift you can give is an unrestricted one. If they need money to keep the lights on and pay the staff, your dollars will be put to good use. Don’t force (though too often it is not force, but poor management that leads down this path) the museum to sell art to keep the lights on!

But enough of that. Today I’m going to tell you a brief story. I keep thinking of it over these pandemic months, as it takes place amid crowds and the world that used to be. First, a drawing to set the scene, the New York City subway.

Reading on the Subway, 1926 – John French Sloan

I was on the subway, bound for Penn Station after a day browsing in museums, a good day years ago. The train was not crowded, but reasonably full. Near me was a heavyset man in dirty blue jeans and a plaid shirt, his posture slightly sagging, his face tired; a working man heading home after a full day. There was a kid in his late teens or early twenties, in a black leather jacket, slim and tattooed. I was blandly dressed in khakis and some sort of shirt; my fashion sense was minimal in those days.

Nearby stood a black woman and her daughter, the latter being about five or six years old, at a guess. The little girl was talking to anyone who would listen. She wanted everyone to see how clean her teeth were, as they had been professionally cleaned for the very first time. She explained that she had a doctor just for her teeth, and his name was Doctor Dentist.

The surrounding cast of tired, otherwise occupied New Yorkers were beaming at her, because she was so adorable -and her teeth were brilliantly white and clean. Her mother kept a hand on her shoulder, trying not to laugh. It was a fleeting, trivial moment, but when I think of New York I remember her smile and her pride at her newly cleaned teeth. I wonder who Doctor Dentist really was, and still hold out hope that that was his real name. My mother knew a clergyman whose last name was Priest; stranger things have happened. Nothing important or momentous happened on that subway ride, but now that crowds are dangerous and I have not been in NYC in ages, it keeps coming back to me.

A little Easter morning blessing to that little girl, who might be a teenager by now – I forget how many years it has been – and hope she continues to make strangers smile.

Since this is an art blog, a little more subway art for you:

Keith Haring, untitled drawing in subway, 1984, chalk on paper, photo by Ivan Dalla Rana. Copyright by the Keith Haring Foundation.

A Nontest

In a loose-minded, silly mood tonight, having just coined one or two words (later I will look them up and see if either of them is real) and eager to share them with you. Therefore, I announce, a nontest.

And what is that?

Simply, a nontest is a contest without a winner. I don’t mean a tie; I mean a contest which is never concluded, judged, rated, or in any way changed past the initial question. Whether answers come in or not is irrelevant. No expiration date exists. It is a perpetual motion machine that produces nothing.

If it produces nothing, why do it?

Although it produces nothing, by participating in the nontest you might produce something yourself. A train of thought may emerge, decisions made. These will have no effect on the nontest, but you have been warned to expect nothing.

So – to the nontest itself:

Along with nontest, which now has a definition, I coined a word with no definition: snither. This nontest seeks to find a definition for snither, be it noun, verb, or what-have-you. Are you snithering now, and if so, is that good or bad? Are you snithered? I someone/thing snithering you? Have you misplaced your snither, and is that it beneath the credenza?

I intend to edit any comments with extreme prejudice: tell me how you would define snither, but don’t tell me which other definitions you like best. This is a nontest, not a beauty pageant.

Book review: Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas by Lary Bloom

     Prophets often lead lopsided lives. Their pronouncements, whether predictive or admonitory, are pored over endlessly, but the person behind the words is often in shadow or reduced to a caricature over time. What did Isaiah have for breakfast, and who (if any) did he sleep with? And what does it mean when that prophet turns out to be an ordinary person?

     Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) was the foremost prophet of conceptual art (he preferred the small “c”), which provided an intellectual, often cooly detached riposte to Abstract Expressionism’s grandly emotional gestures. LeWitt transformed the idea of the mural with his multitudinous wall drawings, his best-known and most multitudinous works. “I think the cavemen came first, (p. xiv)” was his response when he was given too much credit for drawing on a wall instead of paper or canvas. That diffidence, and wry accuracy, was typical of him. His “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) and “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969) are holy writ to many artists. He stands as one of the artist-prophets of the second half of the twentieth century, a designation that rightly would have made him uncomfortable. To his mind, if I may paraphrase Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Sol’s just this guy, you know?” 

     (Full disclosure: I was part of the crew who executed Wall Drawing #1131: Whirls & Twirls at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford CT during the Summer of 2004. I met Sol on less than a handful of occasions, and always too briefly. My account of executing the wall drawing can be found in Art in America magazine or October 2005.)

     Since his death, questions of legacy arise. Instead taking the vanity route and endowing a LeWitt museum (I’m looking at you, Clyfford Still) he chose to house a huge selection of wall drawings at Mass MoCA, giving that youthful institution a boost in attendance and a signature installation that will last, at least, until 2033. His career is dotted with other such generous instances. His rivalries and jealousies he kept to himself.

       Lary Bloom (yes, Lary with one R), author, playwright, and longtime newspaper columnist/editor for The Hartford Courant, not to mention a friend of Sol LeWitt and his second wife, Carol, undertook to raise the curtain on LeWitt’s life in toto, a counterbalance to the many college theses and art books on LeWitt’s professional life. Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas is the result, and one I have returned to several times in my (admittedly biased) artistic studies. In my journal I wrote that LeWitt was “…as his reputation describes, soft-spoken, self-effacing, unassuming – what in less famous people is called shy.” That, now that I have read Bloom’s book, was not quite accurate. LeWitt did not seek or have any interest in the machinations of fame, or the hoops that must be jumped through to reach them. His closest analogue might be former New Yorker editor William Shawn, whose reticence and broad influence are similar. (Not everyone can be Anna Wintour or Jeff Koons – or wants to be.) Like Shawn, LeWitt was generous but firm in his convictions, and both men found the glare of publicity to be distasteful. Shawn’s private life was commemorated by New Yorker stalwart (and Shawn’s longtime lover) Lillian Ross in Here But Not Here (1998); Bloom’s approach is as repertorial as Ross’s, but covers more territory, and from a less intimate viewpoint.

      Like a teenager flipping through a novel to see if there are any sex scenes, readers might want to seek out the seamy underbelly associated with the bohemian lifestyle. Everyone has a dark side, but LeWitt’s was as thin as an ink wash, and will disappoint the prurient sensation-seeker. Bloom makes a conscientious effort to avoid hagiography, but it’s an uphill struggle; fortunately, his personal relationship with the artist keeps idolatry at bay. LeWitt was no saint, but he was far saintlier than any of his contemporaries, lacking any addictions, bigotries, or dark events in his life. Perhaps he was a little too serious (“Sol doesn’t do fun,” Carol said. (p.xii)) but he never strayed into pedantry or art-babble, and his vices were minimal almost to the point of being uninteresting. If he had one flaw, it was his tendency to date women in their 20s after he had left his 20s behind; age difference was a recurring bugbear in his love life. I have not counted, but the low-key, visually un-spectacular LeWitt seems to have been quite the ladies man, which comes as the biggest surprise of the book. None of the women he dated left with hard feelings; the closest was a comment from a woman named Karen Gunderson, whom LeWitt left for someone else: “How could you be critical? It was the ‘70s, after all.” (p.190)

     LeWitt the writer is almost as admired as LeWitt the artist, and quotes are scattered throughout the book. I have long savored one of LeWitt’s comments in response to accusations that he had stolen his best ideas from European artists: “Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all. (p. 280)” Bloom wisely avoids the internecine questions around Conceptualism – is it an outgrowth of Minimalism, a companion movement, or its own thing? – which can be better debated by theorists and critics.

     LeWitt’s relationship with artist Eva Hesse, immortalized by the letter he wrote her in 1965 and the many reprinting and readings of it, was more complex than some of his amours. Her reputation as an artist has risen slowly but steadily since she died of cancer in 1970 at age 34. Her relationship to him was much in the mentor-student mold, almost a father figure; his feelings for her ran deeper, though the difference in their ages worked against him yet again. His letter, urging to her “…just DO” has been enshrined among the best motivational letters of its era. You can find readings of it online (such as Benedict Cumberbatch reading it here), plus essays and even hear it set to music. Bloom made the admirable decision to include the entirety of LeWitt’s famous letter, not just the first, eminently quotable, half. 

    The scene moves from growing up in Connecticut (including an adolescent bit of proto-punk poetry damning his hometown of New Britain) to New York City, to Italy, and back to Connecticut. Weep for the accounts of living in New York in those days ($45 a month for his apartment in Hester Street in1961, equivalent to $387 today). Bloom’s newspaper experience allows him to move briskly through elements that must be noted but bear little to no impact on the story, such as LeWitt’s very brief first marriage. He does not delve deeply into the art historical/philosophical roots of Conceptualism, as that has been covered in depth many other places by more knowledgeable hands. Carl Andre’s reference to LeWitt as “our Spinoza” captures LeWitt’s philosophical impact, though LeWitt, unlike Spinoza, was spared the censure of his peers. Andre’s own scandal – he was accused and acquitted of murdering his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, a case that still divides the art world – is dealt with efficiently, without judgement or dilation. Bloom keeps his focus on LeWitt, bringing the book in at a readable 303 pages, plus notes and bibliography.

     Conceptual art was born out of wedlock, a free child of the 1960s, parented by various artists across Europe and the United States. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art (Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum magazine)” neatly sums up some conceptual practices, and LeWitt’s specifically. 

     One episode did leave me wanting more. In 1970, LeWitt was assembling a show and catalogue at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, a show that carried special poignancy, as he was working on it when Eva Hesse died. His instructions to curator Enno Develing “I know a lot of people dislike my work and they should have some say in the catalogue. If there are any other unfavorable reviews you know about and want to use it’s okay with me.” (p. 156). Without having seen the book, I cannot say whether or to what extent Develing obliged LeWitt; Bloom does not inform us. Who includes negative opinions in an exhibition catalog? Certainly Mass MoCA, in their companion book to the LeWitt retrospective. Sol LeWitt: 100 Views (2009), did not, despite including notes, tributes, and anecdotes from a wide variety of artists, curators, and critics. 

     The book’s chief frustration is visual rather than verbal. The necessary and obligatory center section of illustrations show mature works, but none of the rarities and juvenilia that might have expanded on the text. You can buy any number of books that cover his works: his structures (he preferred that term over “sculptures”) and his wall drawings, from the black-and-white ones that began and ended his career, to the explosively bold color of his mature years. (Here I question myself: the wall drawings seemed to burst forth in full ripeness, with none of the tentative qualities many other artists have when exploring a new idea. The early wall drawings are understated, but not immature.) Bloom refers many times to small works made as gifts, sketches made off-the-cuff and the like, but we do not get to see them. LeWitt’s art holds such joy and engages the mind so completely that I crave more, especially the rarities, but I understand the need for concision.

    LeWitt’s ideas have a life of their own, and continue to be passed on to successive generations.  Should you wish to learn about the man, this is the book to start with, and will likely stand as definitive for some time. Bloom has found a near-perfect subject: nothing to repel, no feet of clay to ruin the admirer’s notions, and access to friends and family sufficient to be comprehensive. While the prose does not enthrall, as Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” (2003) or delve as deep into artistic philosophy as Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees” (1982), Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas stands on its own as a worthy biography and a worthwhile read. 

Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas (2019) by Lary Bloom, is published by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT

You can read bout it on Goodreads here.

One straw too many

The Indianapolis Museum of Art

The departure of Charles Venable, formerly Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, was an unexpected surprise, and a welcome one. I had been planning a post on how Venable’s mismanagement of the museum merited his dismissal, but he himself resigned (willingly or not we will likely never know), intending to add to my “Stupid Museum Tricks” posts, when word came down. Even more surprisingly, the Board of Trustees and Governors of Newfields issued a public apology (below), a truly rare occurrence:

The final straw, ironically, came about because Venable was about to be moved into a new position, and included, well, read for yourself… this is from the job listing for Director:

This is a blunder right from the start. Racism in museums, whether in staffing, programming, all across the board, is one of the primary challenges to the field. This listing, though seeking to broaden the museum’s audience, also makes it clear that the “traditional, core, white art audience” is its own thing, separate from the community as a whole. It’s a poor choice of language, and one that the executive search firm working with Newfields, m/Oppenheim, ought to have flagged immediately; the posting was revised, but too late. It was one straw too many, and the arts community rose in outrage.

Keep in mind that many of the other straws were just as bad, and Venable himself is only part of the problem. Staff turnover under Venable’s leadership has been extensive and damaging to the museum’s reputation, with former Associate Curator of American Art Kelli Morgan writing to Venable about the “toxic” work environment, and citing a “racist rant” from a member of the Board. Venable became Director in 2012, and his tenure has not been viewed positively in the museum world. Eliminating free admission in 2015 led to charges that portions of the community were being overlooked in favor of the wealthy. In 2017 the institution as a whole was renamed Newfields, as the museum also includes gardens, a park, and two historic houses, but this was seen as diminishing the museums central role. With some educationally light programming, and little to no emphasis on the museum’s holdings, Newfields seemed headed in the wrong direction. Venable is, I hope, not a token sacrifice: the Board has promised improvements, and they should be held to that. Since a new Director was already in the museum’s future, the time is now, doubly so since the reopening of the country following the pandemic will add extra importance to how museum’s re-engage the public.

It is time for a more open and transparent attitude at Newfields: sometimes the openness is physical (Venable had the gardens enclosed), economic (work to re-establish free admission; it is a long-standing myth that admissions bring a significant portion of a museum’s revenue), and internal (transparency in salary, anti-racism training, and programming that keeps the museum’s collection front-and-center). It’s a troubled institution, but there is great potential as well. I hope some talented executive gets the job, and gets the healing and repair started promptly.

ADDENDUM: This essay on Artnet, written by former Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson, spells out many of the problems at that troubled institution.