That painting

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Here follows a discussion of the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket” (2016), shown above,  which is currently part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City.

DISCLOSURE: I have yet to see Schutz’s painting in person, so my comments on its surface are naturally limited and open to question.

The painting shows the disfigured corpse of Emmet Till, a 14-year old boy who was brutally murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, in 1955. Bryant’s wife lied  about an interaction with Till, (and did not recant the story until decades later), which led to the murder. At his mother’s request, Till’s casket was left open, to show the severity of his injuries. Today, when violence against black men is at the forefront of discussions on human rights and race relations, painting the scene was bound to attract attention.

The controversy is well summed up in the first sentence of an essay by  Josephine Livingstone AND Lovia Gyarkye in The New Republic: “Is Dana Schutz allowed to paint Emmett Till in his coffin?”

To which I reply, “Who grants permission in this case? Who, outside of the artist, is allowed that sort of power?”

DISCLOSURE: In general, I dislike Schutz’s work. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Samuel Johnson, “”Your painting is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” Her work to me is more style than substance, and ill-suited to such a topic. Schutz’s debt to Picasso is clear: look at the flattened triangles of Till’s shirtfront in the painting, how it oddly adds an element of Cubism to an otherwise heavily worked surface. Another debt is to Francis Bacon: the distortion of Till’s face reminded me immediately of Bacon’s portraits, such as this triptych below:

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Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963,
Museum of Modern Art, New York
The William S. Paley Collection
Copyright © 2017 Estate of Francis Bacon / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Image from Wikipedia

The strongest voice against Open Casket comes from artist and writer Hannah Black, who wrote an open letter to the Whitney – you can read it as part of this Artnews article. She starts by asking the Whitney “…to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.”

Naturally, I would never endorse the destruction of art.

She continues, “In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.”

The overall sentiment I will leave for others to debate. “Profit and fun” is an odd pairing; Schutz has already announced that Open Casket will not be for sale, but fun? Even fans of her painting must find it hard to label such a work “fun.”

Whitney Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks issued a statement about the controversy. They wrote, “For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance.”

Well, yes, which is why they had to write this statement in the first place – or was that not the emotional resonance they meant?

“By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”

All well and good, but as defense of curatorial decision-making this is a trite, boilerplate effort.

The thought that an artist should be barred from addressing certain subjects because of the color of her skin is a troubling one. No one, in my estimation, is qualified to do such a thing. This allows the artist to make whatever choices she wishes, even bad ones.

Having said this, if I were a curator, I would not have selected Open Casket for the show, not only from my opinion on Shutz’s work in general, but on its own mediocre merits.

POSTSCRIPT: How did I miss the chance to call this “When the Schutz hits the fan?”

 

Two Books

I promised to review the last two books of John Berger‘s work issued before his death, and here you are about to read those reviews. I’ll deal with them chronologically:

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Landscapes is the second of a two-volume collection spanning almost all of Berger’s work, compiled and edited by Tom Overton, who catalogued Berger’s papers for the British Library, where they now reside. Somewhat broader in scope than its much larger companion, Portraits (reviewed here) Landscapes deals with more than just art, including literature and politics. It is significantly shorter than Portraits, and offers plenty of rich material, but I would like to have seen a few additions, specifically:

Twelve Theses On The Economy Of The Dead (1994), an essay well described by its title, and rather indescribable otherwise. Berger included it in two books, the poetry collection Pages Of The Wound (1994), and the prose collection Hold Everything Dear (2007); I’ll leave it to you to decide which form it is. Fortunately, you can hear Berger read it here.

Will It Be A Likeness? (1997), an essay/radio play included in his book, The Shape Of A Pocket (2001), and available to listen to here. As with some of his best work, Berger moves from art to personal anecdote to political commentary with ease and deeply observant thought. I will treasure it, if for nothing else, for giving me the phrase “a kind of Switzerland of perception.”

This sort of best-of collection is designed to show the author in the best light, while at the same time aspiring to some sort of comprehensive survey. So kudos to Overton for not shirking when Berger missteps – a rarity, to be sure, but he did blunder now and then. His 1958 essay, “The Biennale” (pp. 155-58), manages to show Berger almost completely wrong in his criticism, yet he does so with firm convictions, and you cannot in the end blame him. Berger’s tastes in art leaned toward the representational, and the emergence of someone like Jasper Johns, whose groundbreaking Flag paintings made their Venice debut that year, leave Berger at a loss. The artists he championed have not fared so well, whereas Johns is an iconic figure in 20th Century art. Well, not even Berger could be right all the time.

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Confabulations was published just before Berger’s death in November 2016, and represents his last collection of all-new material. Inexplicably, some four months after his passing, this book has not been issued in the United States. I had to order the British edition, published by Penguin. I’m quite glad I did. Get with it, US publishers!

Confabulations shows no signs of senescence, nothing to mark this as a final book. Berger’s insight are as sharp as ever. (I find myself inevitably referring to Berger in the present tense; his writing seems to encourage this.) The highlight of the book is the long essay, Some Notes About Song (for Yasmine Hamdan), which begins as a freewheeling letter and proceeds from there along a path that is circuitous without meandering, touching on art, music, dance, language (spoken and gestural), and more. Its sprawling purview reminds me of what I see in Berger at his best: he does not isolate art, but always sees it in a myriad of contexts; he sees art as part of life, rather than an academic specialty to be examined in isolation. In this Some Notes About Song reminds me of his other long essays, particularly one of my favorites, A Story For Aesop (1986),  from his 1991 book, Keeping A Rendezvous – also absent from Landscapes, which is making me doubt Tom Overton’s skill as an editor.

The final essay, How To Resist A State of Forgetfulness, is particularly appropriate to these days, when the Trump administration is working hard to pervert the definitions of normal and true. Berger, though he lived for decades in France, was a keen observer of US politics. As with art, as with everything, he knew that looking closely was the way to understanding. Alternative facts do not stand up to scrutiny, and resistance needs precision of language to bring out the deep and deeper truths. The art world will miss John Berger a great deal; the entire world should miss his careful eye.

 

 

Krazy for you

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George Herriman, self-portrait, 1922

Rather than review Michael Tisserand’s book, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life In Black And White, I thought I’d share a few notes I jotted down while reading it. The book is very good: comprehensive, entertaining, and it captures well George Herriman’s distinctive genius. Don’t just take my word for it: go read it yourself. As a longtime fan of early comic strips, and a devout Krazy Kat aficionado, I went into the book with my editorial pencil sharpened to a fine point; however, my criticisms never rise above the level of nitpicking, while my praise is abundant.

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Krazy Kat fans come from all over: writers such as P.G. Wodehouse and e.e. cummings, artists such as Stan Lee and Dr. Seuss,

Being a cartoonist wasn’t so bad: Cartoonists made an estimated $15,000 (or more) in 1918 – that’s $250,000 in today’s money! Herriman wasn’t the highest-paid in his field, but he was above average.

Tisserand describes a cartoon from 1909, including ‘…a caricature of actor Robert Z. Leonard that is captioned “Bob Leonard doing his Coconino Goose Strut.”‘ This is Herriman’s first mention of Coconino County, Arizona; Herriman’s love of the desert Southwest is well documented throughout the book. What Tisserand doesn’t mention (a trivium, I admit) is that Robert Z. “Pops” Leonard would move from acting to directing a few years later, and direct films until 1957.

An interesting sidelight on language: Herriman often used creative spelling, mashing up Spanish, French, and phonetic spellings from New Orleans (his hometown) and New York. A parenthesis from page 187: “The writer P.G. Wodehouse has been credited with first publishing the modern spelling of ‘rannygazoo,’ meaning a scam, in 1924; Herriman beat him by fourteen years.”

Comic artists were not the subculture they later became (and are now working their way out of): The International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, now remembered as The Armory Show, a landmark show of artists that presented Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and other movements to American art lovers in 1913, would never have happened were it not for cartoonists. Artist and cartoonist Walt Kuhn thought up the show, and was himself represented in it, along with several other cartoonists (not Herriman, though). Picasso, who was included in the show, was a fan of American comics, though Tisserand doesn’t mention any preference for Krazy Kat. High and low culture are distinctions made by critics; artists make up their own minds.

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If there is one omission that stands out for me, it is that the book doesn’t include any of the unfinished Krazy Kat strips that were on Herriman’s drawing board when he died in 1944. All of these incomplete strips were published in McSweeney’s issue 13 (2004), which is entirely devoted to comics; sadly, that issue is getting hard to find (Kudos to the Westerly Public Library, Westerly RI, which has it). Above you can see two of the unfinished strips. Being able to see an artist’s work in progress is always a treat, and these show Herriman’s simple line work, made simpler by Herriman’s arthritis, in its final stage.

For thirty years Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, Offisa Pupp, and the other residents of Coconino County paraded across the comics page. Herriman let the Southwest into his art, incorporating Native American designs which gave the strip a unique style. The strip’s inversion of the classic cat-dog-mouse trio (cat loves mouse, dog loves cat; Ignatz Mouse is in the standard mouse role) and Herriman’s refusal to assign Krazy a fixed gender intrigues fans to this day. Long after his death, Herriman’s secret came out: he was mixed-race. Tisserand carefully explains Herriman’s family tree, and the incidents in Herriman’s comics dealing with race or perhaps alluding to his ancestry, without beating the reader over the head with it. Is a black cat dying his fur blonde a reference to “passing,” or just a gag? How about both? Some of Herriman’s colleagues suspected there might be something hidden in his ancestry, but no one on Earth appears to have ever disliked George Herriman or wished him ill. It never became an issue for him. He was, and remains, one of the greatest cartoonists, a brilliant verbal and visual stylist. I for one miss the days (long before my birth) when comic strips were a prominent part of newspapers, heralded and celebrated. As Krazy might have said, “Them’s was the daze.”

Change is in the air

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Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008-2017

The resignation of Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, raises the usual questions whenever a major museum goes through this transition. Campbell, who will leave his position in June, has overseen a period of great, perhaps excessive, expansion in the museum’s behind-the-scenes activities. The increase in social media staff and creation of a digital department is often cited as factors that has led to increased deficits (an estimated $40 million in 2016) and the layoff of 34 staff members. However, the digital department was filled from the existing staff, so its contribution to the deficits is limited.

Attendance has risen, and the opening of the Met Breuer (the former site of the Whitney Museum, now on long-term lease as the Met’s venue for contemporary art) has been a great success, albeit a very expensive one. Still, the bottom line has been red for too long.

It has been suggested that Campbell was asked to resign. This is quite possible, though it’s unlikely we will ever hear about it. As I have probably written elsewhere, museum directors are almost never fired; a situation has to be truly toxic for it to come to that. The Met needs to re-assess its structure and finances, and a new Director can come in without the baggage of his/her predecessor.

This transition raises some questions, some common to all transitions, some specific. Here are a few of them:

A Director is not a dictator. Decisions are made with the consultation of committees composed os Trustees and staff. Campbell’s struggling directorship was not his fault alone. Will the Board of Trustees take the time (aside from searching for the next Director) to assess their involvement and responsibility? This process can be done internally, though it’s best of some show of culpability is displayed; there are even firms that will come in and work with corporate Boards to help them in this analysis.

Campbell was promoted from within, and had never served as a museum Director before. So far, potential candidates are purely speculative at best, but all are Directors at other institutions. Will the Met look within again, or is it a case of “once bitten, twice shy?” I’m sure there are Met staffers who aspire to the big chair, and might even apply.

It’s not enough to change the guard; the conditions that caused the problem need to be changed. Take a minute to read this interview with former Met curator George Goldner, given before Campbell’s announcement, about the museum’s challenges. The re-assessment he calls for is certain to happen now.

Transitions are often when plans are put on hold, yet the museum must continue to move forward. The exhibition schedule must be maintained – fortunately, shows must be scheduled well in advance, but that means the incoming Director will inherit whatever has been scheduled before he/she arrives. Will the museum take care to see that everything is prepared for a smooth transition?

It is likely that the changes Campbell made in his last year to address the deficits will have to be continued or added to. Staff morale must be addressed and mended before a new Director arrives. Will the museum work to be in the best possible situation in regards to the staff, to heal the work environment for the good of the staff and the next Director?

And that’s just the start. Director searches, especially for a museum of this size and scope, can take a year or more.

 

 

Gates of memory

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The Gates, mixed media including altered photograph by Wolfgang Volz, fabric sample, etc. (c) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

It was 12 years ago today (Feb. 22, 2005) that I went to New York City to see The Gates, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation in Central Park. There had been snow the day before, but the weather moderated, and the snow was grainy and melting.

Digression – how many notable snows do you remember? I find a few stick in mind, but many of them are memorable not for themselves, but for their presence in memorable situations. Of course there are the snows of childhood, which (in those pre-climate change days) built up into banks as high as my head. There is the snow I’m writing about today, which was no impediment to enjoying The Gates. There was the snow around the sequoias in the Sierra Nevada. In 2012 I remember getting out of the car and patting a snowbank in southern California, simply because I hadn’t seen snow in a long time. Context is everything. End digression.

I didn’t go alone. Much to my surprise, my parents expressed interest in seeing it. Their attitude toward contemporary art was usually one of polite bafflement, but they had spent the first years of their marriage in New York City, and felt a lasting connection to it. (Greenwich Village in the early 1950s! Imagine!) We walked through the park, and went to the Met afterward, where I bought a book on The Gates. I wrote the date on the title page.

The Gates is not Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s best work. The supports looked clunky and uninteresting; the fabric curtains had the feel of a shower curtain. But when the breeze caught the curtains one after another it was like a line of dancers moving through their steps. My eye was drawn down the line, catching the undulating paths and changing the way I saw the park. People from many different countries and all walks of life shared the space, sharing physical space and the altered space of the artist’s vision. People reached up to touch the curtains or let their hands brush the supports. Everyone seemed to be smiling. It was a good day all around. I am not inclined to nostalgia myself, with a very few exceptions, and those often as inexplicable as my memorable snows. In this case, I savor a little taste of the past, and thought I’d share it with you.

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Alan Aldridge, 1943-2017

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Appropriate imagery for an obituary: Alan Aldridge’s inside spread to Cream’s album, Goodbye, from 1969

When thinking of the 1960s, a lot of classic imagery would seem to have grown from two artists: Peter Max and Alan Aldridge. Although this is a vast oversimplification, Max and Aldridge gave shape to 60s psychedelia. It would be easy to assume either man had a hand in the film Yellow Submarine, though neither did. Aldridge was present in many ways: book covers, posters, body paint, album covers, etc. reaching far beyond the 60s. His cover for Elton John’s album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) is a classic, typically filled with imagery done in hard outlines and soft airbrushing, which typifies Aldridge’s work.

Many people know Aldridge through his work on The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (1969):

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A few of Aldridge’s designs through the years:

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above: Aldridge’s cover for “Tiger! Tiger!” by Alfred Bester, 1967

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above: Illustration from “The butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, 1973. This book was later adapted into a short film; you can read about the film’s soundtrack here.

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above: Aldridge and Harry Willock, illustration for The Lion’s Cavalcade, 1980.

Alan Aldridge was 73 years old when he died. I expect some coffee-table book, perhaps with a touring exhibit of his work, will be assembled in the next few years. Certainly he deserves one.