Don’t Go Away

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Blog posts might be a bit irregular for a few months, as I sort through my possessions with an eye toward moving. Stay tuned. There’ll still be content on a haphazard basis.

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Sculptures for the Blind, part 2

You can read part one here. This entry is my own response to Brian H. Morgan’s inquiry.

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Constantin Brancusi, Sculpture for the Blind, circa 1920. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Dear Mr. Morgan,

In Confessions, Book II, St. Augustine related stories of his past transgressions. One of the best known is from his adolescence. One evening, while out with friends, they decided to steal pears from a neighborhood tree, “A pear tree…laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste*,” and throw the pears to pigs. There was no purpose in this, just youthful hijinks, a demonstration of the old adage that “the Devil finds work for idle hands.” Looking back on it many years later, Augustine spoke to God of his deep regret. “Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy creation…”

The naming of things is profoundly important. No one can look upon pears hardly fit for pigs and beautiful pears God made and see the same thing. By the words we use, we alter the substance of things in our mind. We create meaning even when others might find none. This is the job of the critic, the interpreter, the propagandist. We share our word and our history through our choice of words.

You refer to your great-grandfather’s egg as sculpture, which shows you regard it as art, which is just as it should be. Yet you do not call him an artist. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, making significant a lacuna required by the brevity of a letter. Of course it is art, whatever Finck’s intent. You have named it such. But we differentiate between art and Art, which causes as many problems as it resolves.

Brancusi named his work in the way Art is named (though that is uncertain in the case of Sculpture for the Blind) and was recognized as an artist in his lifetime. Finck’s title, if there was one, is lost. “Egg” is evocative as well as descriptive. It goes beyond describing the shape (“Ovoid” would have made it seem even more abstract) to suggest generative processes, or a boiled egg waiting to be peeled and eaten for lunch. Was there some inspiration in the area in which both men lived, beyond the obvious? Or is it a matter of “great minds think alike”?

Art is everywhere – small a art, that is. It is the doodle we draw while trapped in conversation at a meeting or on the phone; it is the indistinct scribbles of a two-year old put up on the refrigerator. We decorate our world to an extent no other species does. Perhaps that is one of the prerequisites for civilization. But most of this art is bad, and most artists do not merit the capital letter. It is up to others to name something as Art, and not mere art. That is the artist’s eternal frustration.

But your question has gone beyond mere naming, asking if it is art worthy of inclusion in a museum. That is another matter. Artists create art, but they don’t always create museum-worthy art. There is plenty of bad art by great artists, some of which is in museum collections. Similarly, there are great works which are unknown because they are anomalies from the hands of otherwise obscure artists. Museums collect to define narratives they have chosen to tell, to support their communal definitions, which sometimes means buying a lesser work to fill in a gap. No Picasso in your galleries? That must be addressed. No Finck? Well…

I could make excuses. Is Finck’s egg perhaps a bit small to command space in a gallery? That assumes it was made for such a space. Did he make any attempt to share his work with the greater world, or was it a private pleasure? The best artworks come to us as personal gift, something that speaks to me, and perhaps others. Thackeray said something of the sort about Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and I have found it a universal truth. Through art, something divine (if your beliefs encompass that idea) is given human scale. Although I have never seen Finck’s egg, I imagine holding it in my hands and wondering what it would say to me.

Museums are a human creation, and heir to all the flaws of individuals and society as a whole. Whatever caused Finck to be forgotten by all but his loved ones and excluded from art history is our loss. I hope you continue to treasure his egg, and, even if no one else does, call it Art.

Sincerely,

Stephen Persing

*translation by Edward Bouverie Pusey (1909-14)

Sculptures for the Blind, part 1

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The letter that started everything.

In 1978 a letter arrived at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, addressed to their curator of 20th Century Art, Anne d’Harnoncourt (mis-spelled “d’Harnomcourt by the writer, Brian H. Morgan). The letter, shown above, is self-explanatory. Ms. d’Harnoncourt, who would become director of the museum in 1982 and continue in that capacity until her death in 2008, never answered it.

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Sculptures for the Blind, installation view / Made in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia / Photo: Carlos Avendano. Images courtesy of Lenka Clayton

Fast-forward to 2016, when artist Lenka Clayton discovered the letter in the museum’s archives, and was inspired to create a project, entitled Sculpture for the Blind after the Brancusi sculpture mentioned. She sent copies of the letter to 1,000 curators, museum directors, and others, asking them to write replies. She received 179 responses – not a great percentage, but enough to exhibit and even assemble into a book. That book, entitled Sculptures for the Blind, has now been issued by J&L Books, of Atlanta and New York City, which specializes in books by or about contemporary artists.

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A book that is intimately concerned with words and their meanings, yet has no text on the cover? I like it.

I have not yet read every letter – in fact I am not going to until I have written one of my own. There is a selection of them on Ms. Clayton’s website, and I did skim a couple of those, but I wanted to approach the topic as they did, without lots of input on it from my peers. Perhaps what I say will be redundant, or there may be things that 179 arts professionals from 12 countries have missed. My own response will make up my next post.

Sculptures for the Blind is a wonderfully conceptual project, in keeping with Sol LeWitt’s dictum, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” (from Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, 1968).  The meta quality of it – art about the meaning of art – is just right. Individual interpretations do not necessarily equal a definitive answer, so the question remains open. Are answers even what’s being sought? Art history is a discussion, always evolving, over what qualifies as art and which artists are held in esteem. Art theory is much the same, just less concerned with the historical valuing of works of art and artists.   I’m looking forward to sitting down with these ideas and expressing my opinion, perhaps even working toward a theory or two. A blog like this one is a notebook in which scribbles both trivial and profound can be shared publicly.

Ms. Clayton’s website has all the requisite links to press coverage, etc. I particularly like her appearance on PBS Digital’s The Art Assignment, a series well worth checking out.

You can continue on to part 2 here.

The Star Catcher

I thought I’d share my current favorite of Remedios Varo’s paintings. I mentioned her last week, and a while back in my posts on Surrealism.  Shown below: The Star Catcher, 1956, private collection. Copyright the estate of Remedios Varo.

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It’s a fascinating image, as formal as a Renaissance portrait, yet suffused with that dreamlike Surrealism that is particular to Mexico. The Star Catcher (who seems to have caught a moon, but we’ll skip over that) holds the tools of her trade while standing in a vaguely defined castle or palace setting. She wears something like a Spanish soldier’s helmet on her head, and has a curious set of vertical white lines around her throat, perhaps a ruff or other sort of collar. Her body is practically invisible under the voluminous dress and cloak, save for a glimpse of a severe black top through a distinctly labial opening in her cloak. Sex and surrealism, to paraphrase the old song, go together like a horse and carriage. The caged moon casts light on her outer garments, but does not illuminate within. Hints of a grid of lozenge shapes show through toward the bottom left of her dress – a pentimento, perhaps, as it doesn’t recur anywhere else. Her face is a pointed oval, almost symmetrical except for the eyes, which differ slightly. Her feet peek daintily out at the bottom.

Varo’s colors could be strong, but most are mitigated by texture, making them less assertive than, say, Salvador Dali’s colors. Here texture takes command, and color is reduced to the golden glow of moonlight on fabric. The exuberant folds in her clothing are mostly edged in light-colored fringe, making the figure seem partially dissolved into light. Perhaps she lurks in clouds, camouflaged, until the moon or a star comes near enough to snatch up in her net. Judging from her face, she takes her work very seriously. I like to think of the hint of landscape behind her, the dark shape of a tree or bush with sepia sky beyond, as akin to an old photograph, or a modern attempt like some of Sally Mann’s landscapes. Only she and her quarry are sharply delineated; the rest is fogged as in the memory of a dream.

What she does with moons and stars once they are caught is another matter, one for sleepers, perhaps. She could stand in the halls of Hogwarts, though J. K. Rowling’s stories seem more earthbound when it comes to paintings. Hogwarts art may move, but it’d otherwise look at home in more staid art circles.

I like Varo’s work in general, but the frontal composition and the echoes of older art traditions make this one particularly appealing. I hope you enjoy it too.

Rodrigo Orozco

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Rodrigo Orozco before one of his paintings. Reception photos courtesy of Expressiones.

Expressiones is a cultural center based in New London, Connecticut, devoted to bringing Latin American culture to the residents of the area. They recently held an opening reception for the Mexican painter and filmmaker Rodrigo Orozco, who is their most recent artist-in-residence. I was lucky enough to arrive early, and thereby get some uninterrupted time with Orozco. The gallery space is small, but in his two-month residency he had produced enough paintings to fill much of it.

He also worked with schoolchildren in the area, creating a project inspired by a painting by Spanish painter Remedios Varo, a long-time resident of Mexico. Varo was an important influence on him. He spoke enthusiastically of the artists and films that shaped his style and I, while understanding those influences, saw that he was not imitating, but had made his own visual vocabulary. This new series of works, entitled “Walls of Jericho” is described thusly in the accompanying press release:

In the midst of an uncertain present, by using fantasy as a fable between two different cultures, the Jericho Walls presents a game in time where vicious barriers are still present. These walls are present in daily life but are not physical. These are psychological walls built in the name of growth and progress that we impose on people regardless of where they come from or their ethnicity. Today, we’re in the middle of trying to determine the meaning of democratization and freedom. Supposed cultural barriers have been broken supposedly to produce a better quality of life, and yet we live anchored to immediacy. Now it is about money, and we judge our neighbor by his status and material possessions, at the same time pretending to be something that maybe we are not and never will become. We were sold a fake country of wonders in the name of democracy. While we consume more, we feel that we have less. In the present sample there are no red ribbons and the characters are imaginary, as is the freedom with which we survive. However, in the end the circles are broken, and the walls always fall.

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The reception in full swing.

The fantastic/surreal worlds of expatriate artists such as Varo and English artist Leonora Carrington, exist apart from reality, in a storybook world that combines pure fantasy with some elements of European and Mexican traditions. Orozco (no relation to Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco) has one foot in the fantastic world, but one in our modern one as well. Skyscrapers rise into the air, or sit on clouds above us and rise ever higher. Human figures are outsize and seem to be visitors from somewhere else, strangers in a strange land. Rocks hover, or fall, or rise – it is not clear which – in mid-air. There are sections of fine detail work that must have taken hours to do, and where the paint is looser there are hints of something underneath, colors showing through colors that speak of reflections off metal, or something breaking out from within. Buildings look worn, or perhaps they are dissolving into light.

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A painting from “Walls of Jericho.” Copyright by Rodrigo Orozco. Installation view.

Mexican art has a long and fascinating history, and an equally long history of being neglected by art history, which is largely European/American in focus. But that focus is gradually changing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will open Painted in Mexico, 1700-1790, an important show of paintings that helps lay the groundwork for a deeper understanding of Mexican art.

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A still from Rodrigo Orozco’s film, Los Homenajeadores.

A program of Orozco’s short films had been shown earlier in the week at the Hygienic Gallery, the premier art gallery in the area, which is across the street from Expressiones. I was unable to attend, but I sought out what videos and images from them I could find online. I find them quite tantalizing. He combines live action and stop-motion animation to produce dreamlike images, some of which recalled to me work by the likes of Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay, but with imagery and a handling of color that is Orozco’s own. I hope he continues to make films, perhaps with a DVD release in the future. Check out the trailer for his film Los Homenajeadores and see if you are as curious as I am. There are also behind-the-scenes videos that are worth a look.

A strong local arts scene is important in the life of a community, and New London does a good job at fostering that scene. You might recall my photo tour of New London’s murals from 2016. But any arts scene must be in context with that of the wider world. Expressiones is doing good work bringing artists like Rodrigo Orozco to New London, and I wish them, and Rodrigo, all success.

 

Always in motion

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It would be nice if I could post a photo of the Berkshire Museum in connection with positive news, but… [sigh]

“How could we continue to live if we were changeless?*”Thich Nhat Hanh

Change is scary. Change is necessary. Change is unavoidable. That’s the mantra for this week. The hard part is knowing which changes are beneficial and which are not.

The Berkshire Museum has so far cleared all hurdles toward selling the best of its art collection to help fund an ill-considered expansion program. The best-known of those works, Shuffleton’s Barber Shop by Norman Rockwell, has already been sold to the embryonic (or nascent?) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The idea that this sale will ensure the Berkshire Museum’s future would be laughable were it not so sad.

I passed by the museum over the weekend. I didn’t stop. There was no point in stopping.

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A few weeks ago I started seeing images of this shirt, designed by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry, and it stuck with me at once. You can read more about the shirt here on Murawski’s blog. One of the ongoing debates about museums is how to keep them relevant, and acknowledging the role of the museum in social debate is a big part of that. Many museums were, and continue to be, built with large donations from people and/or corporations whose ethics and business practices are worrisome, if not outright deplorable. Museums have long turned a blind eye to this – and, let’s be clear, some museums would not exist today without those donations. Should museums be more critical of their donors? Yes, and that conversation is one that should never stop.

But greater concerns arise once the museum itself is built. A donor might give money to an institution, but that should not affect how the museum’s programming is shaped. And museums should not shy away from examining contemporary social issues in their galleries and programs. Issues of the time – for example, a sociological study of peasant life in the Renaissance as depicted by painters of the period – are fine, and sadly uncommon in museums – but today’s issues must also be addressed. How people lived casts a light on how we live now. Concerns about ideology coloring exhibitions are all well and good, but this has always happened. “Don’t rock the boat” is a sociopolitical stance.

Museums have never been neutral, but they have maintained a false veneer of neutrality. It’s time to put that aside and be a part of the world. Relevance is important, and the boilerplate objection to arts funding is that art is not relevant. That’s nonsense, and shows the poor reasoning of those who make that argument. As our understanding of issues changes, so should how museums approach those issues. This is always happening, at times of a small scale, but it’s time for a more intentional approach throughout the field.

*Quote from Fragrant Palm Leaves, Journals 1962-1966, pp.86-7. Copyright 1966 by Thich Nhat Hanh. Translation copyright 1998 by Mobi Warren. Published by Parallax Press, Berkeley, California

King

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On this, the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought I would revisit my thoughts on the memorial statue erected in his honor in 2011. I wrote about the statue, created by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, for my old blog. As that blog is long gone, I’ll make a few observations here.

There were strange objections to the choice of artist and material at the time. Yes, Lei Yixin is Chinese, but shouldn’t the monument to a man who spoke so strongly on equality be without limitation? To those who argued that Dr. King looks Chinese, I can only laugh. The choice of white granite also annoyed some. I love the solidity, the permanence of stone. Its color makes no difference.

Dr. King’s stern expression continues to be timely. He argued for economic and social equality, for an end to war, with fervor and inspiration. The world has improved since his days, but only by baby steps, tottering and stumbling backward and forward with only a modicum of progress. His messages remain up-to-date. They have the permanence of granite – until we wise up and work to create a world more in keeping with his vision.

Being in my early 50s myself, I have only hazy memories of his murder. It was a surreal era to grow up in, with the litany of battles and casualties in the Vietnam War leading off the nightly newscasts. Even at that age, I knew something was wrong with war and injustice. It was nothing more than an impression, but time refreshed those feelings and added to them with each repeated prejudice and each new war. And now people are marching again, often for the same reasons as 50 years ago and more, and we can hope that great men and women will come along to make their mark, and perhaps one day be commemorated in their own statues.