Been there, seen it (or so I thought)

This gallery contains 16 photos.

I write this post with full awareness of my snobbery and privilege, though I know that doesn’t necessarily make it okay. Nonetheless, I can only write from my own point of view. There is much excitement over the Portland Museum … Continue reading

A Repentant Return

Just over two months since my last post – completely shameful. It’s been a combination of not setting aside time and not having much to write about.

On Saturday I went gallery/museum hopping in Portland. Some highlights:

1) A lovely conversation with Andy, the owner of Aucocisco Galleries, which represents many of the more interesting Maine-based artists I’ve come across thus far, including some friends of mine, and including Katherine Bradford, whose work the Bowdoin College Museum of Art will show this summer. He is in the midst of a suite of shows called DOUBLE DOZEN, a series of twelve, one-week long, two-person shows; in this iteration, Josefina Auslender and Tanya Fletcher. It’s an innovative (and I imagine stressful to organize and hang!) format.

2) Two shows at Space Gallery:

2a) Sophia Narrett: I Was Dreaming ThisThis 2014 MFA Candidate from RISD makes enticing works out of embroidery thread – some of it woven together to create well-modeled forms and figures, some of it just tangled and hanging loose from the bottom, top, or sides of the picture plane (though these pictures are not rectangular, nor of course are they flat). My companion, painter and printmaker Mary Hart, noted that this was an interesting feminine/ist contrast to the very masculine paintings of Danish artist Per Kirkeby, currently on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The point is well made: large versus small, aggressive versus delicate, fine art versus craft, abstract and anti-narrative versus vaguely fantastical. Narrett creates pastoral scenes with a variety of figures, some male, some female, some nude and some clothed, sometimes engaged in some cooperative endeavor, though it may not be clear what that i—a woman’s response to Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. But while the feminine/ist connotations were important to my understanding and interest, I worry about over-stressing them, because the work has a power apart from that – an aesthetic power (they’re beautifully and skillfully made) and a psychological one that I believe anyone can relate to.

2b) Surface Tension, a group show curated by the Bowdoin Museum’s former Mellon Curatorial Fellow, Diana Tuite (and a title I was hoping to use for my upcoming surrealist photography show! hrrrrumph). Most intriguing were the photographs of an artist who had figured out how to stop a printer from drying ink; he would hang portraits after he printed them and let them drip – a fascinating and mesmerizing process that could also be viewed in a nearby video.

surface tension

3) MFA and BFA graduates in the galleries at MECA (Maine College of Art). Apparently something art students there don’t necessarily learn is careful editing. Much of the work was just an accumulation of junk – which is already such a much used aesthetic that there needs to be a good reason for it, and here I couldn’t see much of one. Interestingly, the BFAs (in June Fitzpatrick’s adjacent gallery) were better at focusing their collections of stuff on a particular topic, theme, or medium, making their work seem much more sophisticated than their supposedly more experienced counterparts. In one gallery of MFAs the work was so close together it was hard to tell where one person’s junk ended and another’s began. My favorite was an artist who use words in her works in punny ways: for example, a clock with M’s at the cardinal points, with a second hand with an O on the end of it, constantly respelling MOM. But she, too could have used better editing – the works would have been more affective/effective if there’d been fewer of them, and they hadn’t been interspersed with other things (what’s this large abstract photo doing in the middle of these?); as installed, it was a bit of a confused jumble.

4) At Rose Contemporary, a show of faculty from Southern Maine Community College, including two friends – Mary Hart, mentioned above, and Cassie Jones. This was the first time I’d seen Mary’s paintings in person: tiny, detailed paintings of objects, framed together in evocative pairings: a wedding band and a rubber band; two views of a chestnut, one male, one female. I recently paid Cassie a studio visit, an experience as joyful as her works are – brightly colored drawings and paintings of abstract patterns, on pleasingly tactile materials such as a vellum-like paper, and stuffed felt. She has a trampoline in her studio! This explains so much.

5) A Taste for Modernism: The William S. Paley Collection (from MoMA) at the Portland Museum of Art… in my next post (hopefully in the next few days).

Some Artsy Explorations

I have previously lamented how intractably difficult it is to feel that I am keeping up with contemporary art, particularly without the means to travel to such international art events as the Venice Biennale. I’ve never even been to the Armory Show, despite it being in my hometown; I just haven’t been there at the right time. A colleague suggested signing up for and reading all the e-flux announcements, but the flood is just impossible to keep up with. And anyway, it’s a big commitment of time to read all those emails, on the off-chance that I might discover some new artist whose work I connect with.

All this considered, I was glad to see that Artsy, the new website billed to be like Pandora for art, was offering a full preview (ending soon, so act fast!) of the works at the Armory Show, which was this past weekend. I’d been meaning to but hadn’t yet explored Artsy in great depth, and this was a great opportunity. The nicest thing about it was how quickly I could peruse for new artists I liked–and I didn’t have to jot names down, just hit the favorite button and have that work saved for me for later, should I choose to go back and explore these artists and others like them in more depth.

Some of the new favorites I found, among many others: Kata Legrady, who evocatively combines everyday girlish and childish objects with weaponry; Jacob Hashimoto and Rashaad Newsome, who create three-dimensional wall works referencing Japanese and European/African-American material cultures, respectively; and Anoka Faruqee, whose optical paintings, much like the three-dimensional works, one can’t help but feel don’t fully translate into digital images. I was pleased to find so much new work I liked, when generally I’m not very attracted to the most contemporary art.

As I was discussing with a colleague the other day, Artsy is a fascinating hybrid. Like sites such as Artnet, it does provide a link to galleries, highlighting in particular art that is on sale. Nonetheless, this commercial function does not interfere with its more exploratory function. Given that the commercial art world is such an huge part of the art world as a whole, it is nice to see that barrier somewhat broken down; just because galleries are for-profit enterprises does not mean they can’t also cooperate in a somewhat educational venture.

A Long Overdue Repatriation Special

Many great museum collections–the British Museum, the Louvre–were essentially founded on empire-building, war, and looting. The countries these objects came from–Greece, Italy, Egypt, and most recently Nigeria and Turkey, among many others–constantly demand these things back, and the more valuable and famous the object, the more vocally they do so. Particularly well known cases include the Rosetta Stone, the head of Nefertiti, and especially the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.

A not-so-recent (I originally planned to post this in November) article in the Art Newspaper highlighted a collection of objects from the Benin Empire in what is now Nigeria, which are now being transferred to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the private collection of Robert Lehman. The objects were looted from the palace in Benin City in 1897, when the Brits launched a “punitive expedition” in response to the killing of a few British ambassadors, thereby dismantling the Benin Empire, and its rich artistic tradition.

British troops with their booty following the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897

British troops with their booty following the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897


The Nigerian government is demanding these objects be returned. Should they? There is no easy answer to that question, and it is extremely difficult to divorce one’s answer to this question from one’s self-interest; anyone with curiosity about these historically valuable objects will want them in whichever location they are more likely to visit.

First-world countries like Britain and the U.S. will claim firstly that the objects will be better cared for in their hands (museum standards and budgets for conservation and security presumably less in other parts of the world). They will also say that, as shared cultural heritage, it is important that the greatest number of people have access to them, and that will be more true in London or New York than Nigeria.

The object’s home countries will argue that the objects will be better contextualized close to their place of origin; even if the Elgin marbles cannot go back onto the Parthenon, they can be near the Parthenon (in a museum Greece already built, in bold anticipation of the return that may never take place). They will also argue that it is important for national identity and pride (not to mention tourism revenue).

It’s easy to see how intractable the problem is. Both sides have their points, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which side I fall on. I will leave you with a comparison to a similar issue.

In the case of objects looted by Nazis during World War II, there is a clear moral imperative to return works that were stolen from their owners, or left behind when they were forcibly moved, et cetera. Museums have put in an enormous effort to uncover those histories, including using a public online database, and if it discovers that a work in their collection was obtained in such a way, it unquestionably returns the work to the owner or his/her heirs (there was a case in the paper the other day). It becomes a bit more vague if the previous owner actually sold the work legitimately, even if they would not have sold it if not for the circumstances–requiring the money to get away, for example. Heirs may still demand the work, but the museum might not surrender it so easily.

Something similar occurs with repatriation issues. The argument has been made that, even if the circumstances were exploitative, the Elgin Marbles were, however shadily, bought. Such an argument cannot be made about the Benin bronzes. They were looted, in an aggressive “punitive expedition” that, in vengeance for the death of a few British citizens, destroyed an entire empire, dismantled a magnificent palace, and distributed the booty among the looters and their allies in the Western world.

The argument is also made that the statute of limitations has passed on such “historic” actions. No matter the shady dealings of the past, it seems intuitive that the British Museum is the de facto owner of the Elgin Marbles now, since the museum has been their steward for 200 years. Certainly the Benin bronzes fall into this category as well?

Well, the punitive exhibition that destroyed Benin took place in 1897, less than 40 years before the rise of the Nazi party and the beginning of the erosion of the rights of German Jews. Not so historically distant when put in those terms.

So, what are the differences between the two cases? The property of an individual versus the property of a country? Well, technically the palace riches of Benin were the property of the oba (king), so also belonged to an individual. By now you probably know what I’m getting at: the Benin riches were stolen from Africa, from people with black skin, from the “third world,” even though Benin was a highly sophisticated society.

The ’80s at last

Long ago, I announced my desire to see This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, an exhibition that began at the MCA Chicago and was coming to the ICA Boston, put together by a curator whose work I greatly admire, Helen Molesworth. I mentioned it in the context of my interest in a Canadian trio known as General Idea, whose Robert Indiana-inspried AIDS wallpaper was included in the show, as well as in a theoretical exhibition I’d designed in graduate school. As I explained, the banner image used in exhibition publicity was not dissimilar from my own installation.


Installation by General Idea in "This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s" at the MCA Chicago

Installation by General Idea in “This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s” at the MCA Chicago


My theoretical exhibition, as designed in Google SketchUp, , which you can view in more detail and navigate in 3D here

My theoretical exhibition, as designed in Google SketchUp, , which you can view in more detail and navigate in 3D here

I believe the publicity image above must have been of the exhibition in its Chicago iteration; in Boston, where I finally saw the show on its last day, General Idea was given less prominence. One side of a freestanding wall had the wallpaper on it, but it was covered with works by other artists, not by General Idea.

Despite this slight misleading, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, as art of the 1980s has been one of my primary interests. The exhibition was a great combination of very famous and expected artists and artworks, and since forgotten (at least by most) names, treating similar themes.

One work that made both literal and figurative great impact in person as opposed to in an anthology of ’80s art was David Hammons’ How Ya Like Me Now?, a wall-sized, whitened and blondified portrait of Jesse Jackson with those words graffitied across his shoulder. Something I hadn’t known about the work was that when it was first exhibited outdoors, black teenagers attacked it with sledgehammers, reading it as racist, rather than as opposed to racism–a telling dynamic in and of itself. Brilliant artist that he is, Hammons has highlighted this ever since, exhibiting the piece surrounded by a fence-like arrangement of sledgehammers, the evidence of their damage on the piece still visible.

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988

Beyond that particular highlight, I’m not sure I have much else to say about the show, as it was enjoyable but not surprising to someone well-versed in the era. Walking through it was like going down a checklist–“there’s one of those, there’s one of those…” It was well-organized by theme, well-selected, and I’m glad I saw it. One of the interesting issues about such art is how didactic and contextual it is. Without foreknowledge of the work, reading the label is usually necessary–the texts were at times overly long, and occasionally the interpretations a bit overblown.

Such is the legacy of the art of that era, at the height of postmodern theory. It’s extremely fascinating to me, but I often have trouble explaining why that is to even those within my field, much less those without.

CAA Interlude 3: Morgan Surrealism

I may have alluded to, and I will now specifically say, that I am working on a show of surrealist photography for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, likely to take place next spring. This will be the first exhibition in a museum that I’ll have been the lead curator on. Neither photography nor surrealism are topics I am already expert in, and so I have been reading up in my spare time (which hasn’t been much). It is timely, then, that an exhibition on surrealist drawing that originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art came to New York, to the Morgan Library and Museum, a fact I discovered when I was given the catalogue for Christmas.

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia's Olga, 1930

Drawing Surrealism catalogue cover, with Francis Picabia’s Olga, 1930

I must say that drawing is the medium that least interests me, at least since college when I studied studio art. After having to redo the same drawing exercises in multiple classes, I was desperate to graduate to painting; I so much prefer color to line, and the potential effects of a few easy brushstrokes to the conscientiousness that must be put into pencil and charcoal. My recent work at Bowdoin has increased my exposure and therefore interest in both prints and photographs, but drawing still eludes me somewhat.

And so at first my reaction walking into the exhibition was somewhat detached, but the more I saw the more invested and fascinated I became. The exhibition takes a broad view of drawing, and surrealists of course transcended traditional boundaries between media. Included are photographs, photograms and photocollage, all of which will be important aspects of my show.

Despite the fact that aesthetics was not a primary concern of the surrealists–they were more interested, at times, in provoking the perverse attraction that accompanies disgust, rather than using the seductive power of beauty, though the female nude was a constant subject–many pieces were visually arresting. Some artists used rubbing as an automatic process that thereby gave reign to the unconscious; one of the most stunning was a blue painted rubbing of wood grain by, I believe, Max Ernst (it’s not illustrated in the catalogue or online, and I didn’t jot it down, so I can’t be sure).

The great dada and surrealist master Man Ray–known for his photographs though he considered himself more of a painter, at least initially–is represented not only with an aerograph (a painting made by airgun) and rayographs (also known as photograms, these cameraless photographs are made by laying objects on photographic paper and exposing it), but with actual drawings, a medium I do not associate with him. They are precisely and skillfully drawn (more so than his paintings) and have an at first straightforward appearance that seduces the viewer into the image’s strangeness, achieved using just juxtaposition: a giant safety pin hanging in air above a quaint countryside. These drawings inspired the surrealist writer Paul Eluard’s text, Les Mains Libres [The Free Hands].

This is to point out what were to me the two most memorable works out of a show rich with intriguing and unfamiliar works.

A note on revisionism: in this show, in the Abstraction show at MoMA, and the Gutai show at the Guggenheim, there is clearly an effort to familiarize viewers with an international roster of artists who in the past have been overlooked by a Eurocentric, even just France-centric, view of modernism. I wrote about how the MoMA show was organized geographically but emphasized an international network of artists, writers, composers and dancers; and that unlike many I had already learned a good deal about Gutai, a major modern movement that took place in Japan. Likewise, the Morgan show intersperses among the major Western European and American players, Eastern European, Japanese, South American and Mexican surrealists. Given the still-relevant critiques of the Western-centric bias of art history, it is heartening to see that such commentary is actively being taken to heart–canons are being revised, in the best possible way (at least in these cases).

A note on the didactics: the wall texts highlighted notable artists, vocabulary words and concepts by bumping up their size and setting them in a variety of modern and playful fonts. I thought this was a great way to make the texts accessible to those not versed in the material, and who may want to skim but still learn and enjoy, rather than take a reading test.

A note about the building: this was the first time I had been to the Morgan since it was renovated. I know this renovation was critiqued for remaking the Morgan in the guise of any other museum: you now enter through a modernist atrium, rather than stepping into what was a turn-of-the-century mansion designed by Charles McKim, who also designed the Bowdoin Art Museum. The Isabella Stuart Gardner recently underwent a similar transformation, though I haven’t visited it since then. I certainly bemoan the loss of enchantment, the sense of stepping immediately into a different time. It’s hard, however, not to feel comfortably at ease in the spacious, skylit entryway–we’re so used to such anesthetized spaces (though the Morgan atrium is not without character).

Coming up: what I’ve been reading, some fantasy exhibitions, and a long overdue post about repatriation issues…

CAA Interlude 2: Guggenheim Gutai

I’d say even among art people I know more than most (who aren’t Asian art specialists) about the postwar Japanese movement Gutai. A college art history professor included it as part of the narrative of “modernism and the neo-avant-gardes,” as the class was called; and last year I attended a symposium at Harvard that served as a workshop for the exhibition now on view at the Guggenheim, Gutai: Splendid Playground.

The opening reception of CAA was held at the Guggenheim and offered a preview of the show, but I opted out of this in favor of dinner with my family. I wasn’t sure I’d get another chance while I was there, and thought I would have to make a special trip back to the city before it closed, but I ended up with a friend in town on Saturday afternoon and enough time for us to go on an art adventure.

To quote the Guggenheim’s description, the members of the Gutai movement

explored new art forms combining performance, painting, and interactive environments, and realized an “international common ground” of experimental art through the worldwide reach of their exhibition and publication activities.

The typical narrative has them inspired by the example of Jackson Pollock’s action painting, and while this may be true to a degree, scholars no longer want to give all the credit to western influence, citing the movement as growing out of/reacting against previous Japanese art and the postwar political climate. Nonetheless, a certain creative misreading of Pollock can be useful to explain their modus operandi, just as it can be used to explain Helen Frankenthaler’s stain technique or Allan Kaprow’s happenings.

Often more interested in chance processes and performative actions than final products, Gutai artists made paintings with their feet, remote-controlled cars, vibrators, glass bottles of paint thrown and smashed on the canvas. They made works of art by wrestling with mud and smashing through paper screens. Several of their key exhibitions took place outdoors or in other found spaces, where atmospheric and ephemeral artworks required the viewers’ participation to be activated.

Gutai 2nd Outdoor Exhibition, Ashiya Park (1956)

Gutai 2nd Outdoor Exhibition, Ashiya Park (1956)

Many of their artistic activities were somewhat violent in nature–several labels in the Guggenheim mention cuts, bruises and concussions sustained by the artists–thereby signaling a break with the past, one that so recently included two atomic bombs. But the movement maintained an overall playful tone, one that the Guggenheim generally conveys well, and not just with the exhibition title.

You enter the rotunda to a recreation of Motonaga Sadamasa’s Work (Water), 1956.* Made of polyethylene tubes filled with colored water, the original work was hung from trees in one of the first Gutai exhibitions, which took place outside. Though this same work hung in the rotunda does set the right tone for the show, I found myself wishing it was as enchanting as it must have been outside, with the sunlight gleaming through. Similarly with Yamazaki Tsuruko’s Work (Red Cube), 1956: stepping inside this red canvas cube with the sunlight lighting up the space and the top open to the sky must have been quite an experience; to do so in the gallery was a big shrug.

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water), 1956, recreated for the Guggenheim

Motonaga Sadamasa, Work (Water), 1956, recreated for the Guggenheim

This ended up being a common theme, in which the museum-ification of the work got in the way of its original, participatory and playful intent. Tanaka Atsuko’s Work (Bell), 1955, is a network of bells installed throughout the gallery, designed to go off when the museum visitor chooses to press the button; but the museum had guards standing over the button, only allowing it to be pushed once every 40 minutes, so as not to irritate visitors. Gutai Card Box, “an interactive vending machine that dispenses original artworks in the form of hand-painted cards,” was originally created in 1962 and is reactivated here with artworks made by the surviving Gutai artists, and when those run out, by other contemporary artists. Unfortunately, it’s only in operation during specific hours on Mondays and Fridays. Yoshida Minoru’s Bisexual Flower, 1969, is I believe contained within a giant white inflatable environment; I can only guess, because visitors weren’t being let in to see it. (The review in the New York Times, by the way, mentions all these works without their museum-imposed interruptions. Clearly reviewers get the preferential experience.)

Of course it is challenging to represent in a museum context ephemeral works and performances that took place many years ago, and the museum does so to varying degrees of success. A long composite image of Murakami Saburo smashing through paper screens perfectly captures the movement and brings the action back to life, whereas Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud, 1955, represented in some smaller photos and one large one tucked away in an ill-traversed corner, remained static–a historical fragment rather than a present artwork.

I remember Caroline Jones, an art history professor at MIT, lamenting at the symposium that the exhibition couldn’t give her Tanaka Atsuko in her electric dress; true, but to see it in person even on a mannequin, in color and periodically lit up rather than in a black and white photo, was well worth it.

Tanaka Atsuko wearing Electric Dress (1956) at 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition

Tanaka Atsuko wearing Electric Dress (1956) at 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition

Tanaka Atsuko, Electric Dress, 1956 (refabricated 1986)

Tanaka Atsuko, Electric Dress, 1956 (refabricated 1986)









So too were the paintings, which were quite stunning to behold. Though at times the product mattered little in comparison to the process, at others the artists were extremely interested in materiality, “the scream of matter itself” (the word Gutai means “concreteness”). The unusual production methods and materials show in the works’ presentation–juxtaposed areas of gloss and matte, fragments of glass, torn supports–enlivening the medium in ways that contemporary painters should take note of. The processes too were, when possible, represented with videos, on small monitors on the floor that pleasantly did not distract from the paintings themselves, for once more mesmerizing than the moving image.

Shiraga Kazuo, Wild Boar Hunting II, 1963. Oil, boar hide, and spent bullets on wood panel,

Shiraga Kazuo, Wild Boar Hunting II, 1963. Oil, boar hide, and spent bullets on wood panel.

A note on the wall texts: there’s always a struggle in museums, particularly when showing work that requires a lot of background in order for someone not versed in modern and contemporary art to understand, between making texts overly didactic or patronizing, or obscure and art historical/jargon-y. The Guggenheim did an excellent job explaining the concepts in a straightforward, understandable manner–accessible but not dumbed down.

Another note: that the website for this exhibition is very poorly designed and difficult to navigate; this compared especially to MoMA’s exhibition websites (like that for Inventing Abstraction), which are always stellar (despite how confusing their homepage is). Ann Temkin, a curator at MoMA, was speaking on a panel at CAA about curatorial work and how it’s changed. She mentioned the interesting fact that MoMA gets 3 million visitors at the museum each year, and 21 million on their website. As such, she said the website can’t just be the “5%” of the workload that gets done after the exhibition and catalogue are taken care of. Unfortunately, that is the way my museum has been operating. Though we are lucky to be at college with an IT department that can do web development for us, they’re swamped and so are we, and “after the fact” is usually the way exhibition websites get treated, if at all. We certainly can’t continue on like that, and we’re trying to work on it, among a million other things.

*I have done names as the Guggenheim did them: in the Japanese style, with the family name first.

Next up (hopefully by late Saturday or Sunday), Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library…

CAA Interlude 1: MoMA Abstraction

There are SO MANY amazing shows in New York right now; it was stressful trying to fit in the conference, my family and friends, and just the tip of the iceberg of the amazing art on view, but I managed to squeeze in my top priorities. Since it was a block from the conference hotel, I started at MoMA, with the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.

Going into a much-discussed, much-reviewed show, one generally has an impression going in, a consensus that has been established: the one I’d heard about this show was quite simply that there are many beautiful things to see. That was true, but of course there was more to it than that.

It began with a giant chart, a reworking of the famous flow chart made by the first MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the cover of a book on Cubism and Abstract Art, diagramming the relationships and influences between various avant-grade movements. The revised chart did away with the ossification of clearly defined movements, focusing instead on the myriad connections woven throughout an international network of artists, as well as writers and composers.


Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 1.18.03 PM

The exhibition then uses these regionalisms as an organizing principle (though the transnational dialogue is never lost), divvying the artwork into niches by country, showing the distinctive styles in each and demonstrating that abstraction emerged simultaneously in multiple locations, like synchronous scientific discoveries. This international approach gives weight to players who have been previously marginalized by the canon, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Britain.

In addition to these intellectual revelations were a great many visual ones. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was when I glanced behind me, only to see in the next gallery a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International (complete with moving parts!), heretofore only known to me (and most others) through historic photographs.

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 1.24.01 PMScreen shot 2013-02-18 at 1.28.51 PM

I’m a huge fan of the work of Piet Mondrian; the series of works used to represent his progression into abstraction and his mature style were not so inspiring, but a model of a stage set that he created for a friend’s never-produced play actually got my heart racing.

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One of the most visually stunning paintings was by Giacometti, known mostly for his sculpture. It was made up of clusters of thick flowery globs of paint and gold, the colors of a spring dress.


There were a great many other visual surprises I noted, but I won’t go on listing them here. Included were other arts similarly engaged in an increasing interest in “abstraction,” whatever that meant for their discipline: dance, music (though I wish this had been more audible), film.

The only thing that confused me was where/when the exhibition ended, and why. When is abstraction “done” being “invented”? This show may only be about abstraction’s advent, but the story goes on, through Jackson Pollock’s drips right up to minimalism’s cubes and beyond into conceptualism. Of course the show most focus in, but at a certain point the visitor is just deposited out of the exhibition, without a sense of a conclusion. What’s special about the year 1925? We don’t find out.

Next up, the post-war Japanese movement Gutai, at the Guggenheim…


This past week I attended my first College Art Association (CAA) conference, the largest professional gathering of artists and art historians IN THE WORLD ::echo::

Friends and coworkers told me how great it was–how engaging the panels are, how great a chance it is to reunite with everyone you know. So, of course, I found it disappointing.

Firstly, it is so huge, (and this particular hotel, the Hilton on 53rd St. and 6th Ave. in NYC, is set up in such a way) that you are not guaranteed to run into everyone you know. There are people I know were there who I would not have seen if we had not set up a specific meeting, especially if we were unlikely to be interested in the same panels. I can only guess that people I hoped to see but didn’t may very well have been there, and that next time I will have to reach out to them in advance. (Nonetheless, I did have some great grad school reunions, and connected with fellow undergrad alums in the field who I hadn’t known before.)

Nor did I find it as intellectually-stimulating as I had hoped, particularly as I have been craving the kind of mental challenge I experienced in grad school. The panels I ended up attending fell generally into two camps:

1) the practical/museological, focused on either academic art museums or curatorial careers

2) the art historical/scholarly – and for these I mostly went to panels about photography, as I am organizing a show on surrealist photography but have little background in it

Panels in the first category were generally productive, even if a lot of the ideas were ones I was already familiar with. One panel provided excellent examples and ideas for ways to promote cross-discipline cooperation with the college museum, whereas another stuck to a broader discussion of the academic art museum, in which the conclusions seemed quite self-evident–a proverbial preaching to the choir.

Panels in the latter category, however, could be a bit of a drag. As I told one (rather rude) woman at a bar who asked why I would study boring (!!!) art and art history: “art and art history are interesting; art historians are boring.” To be more accruate, I should have said that they can be boring, but that would not have been as snappy a response.

One panel on photography jammed six–six!!!–presenters into one hour-and-a-half session, demonstrating how art historians have no conception of reality when it comes to human attention span. Initially I found these talks interesting, but by the last presenter I was ready to bolt, which then tainted my reception, and ruined my retention, of even the earlier presentations.

Some speakers take their full twenty minutes to explain a point that could be summed up and easily understood in one sentence. Others take meandering strolls through many theoretical frameworks and disparate examples (from daguerrotypes to Blade Runner–in one talk), leaving the listener perhaps intrigued, potentially confused, and likely ignorant of what the point was in the first place.

There were of course exceptions. I believe the single best talk I went to was by Caitlin Condell, curatorial assistant at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. It was focused but intriguing, exactly as a good presentation should be. Zeroing in on Man Ray’s Compass, an object consisting of a gun hanging from a magnet, and its presentation in three photographs over the course of a few years, Condell explored the tension between the object and the photograph of the object as artwork, the lost history of this particular artifact, and a reconsideration of Man Ray’s relationship to photography.

Generally though, I did not find the intellectual stimulation I was craving–at the panels anyway. I have been finding it in the books I’ve been reading and the exhibitions I attended while there (MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction, Guggenheim’s Splendid Playground  on the Japanese post-war movement Gutai, and Drawing Surrealism at the Morgan Library). Stay tuned this week for reviews on all of the above!

What I Saw at Portland First Friday, February Edition

1) Dorothy Schwartz at the Maine Jewish Museum, which I mentioned in my last post. A printmaker who studied under Leonard Baskin at Smith College (my alma mater), Deedee, as she’s known to most, uses a variety of printmaking techniques but is known best for her woodcuts. Though mostly work made since 2000, the show included a print and its woodblock from her college days, distinctly displaying the influence of her mentor. The most prominent series reused the same set of 4 smaller and 3 larger woodblocks, recombined in different iterations. The artist told us these were blown up details from a Baskin print (his last woodcut, I believe), and that she produced them for a memorial show just after his death. This is not to say this is exclusively what her work is. She uses a variety of other, sometimes experimental/multimedia/collage techniques. Another series I liked were prints that paid homage to self-portraits by historic women artists.

Deedee Schwartz










2) At the Rose Contemporary, “This Flat Earth,” a series of drawings and prints by both Maine and Madrid artists – the exhibition showed there before it showed here. Some pieces were charming, clever, and well made. Others looked a little dinky – especially as they weren’t framed.

3) At the Maine College of Art (MECA), several student installations. Of note was a little group show called The Other Side of Shade, “an interpretation and reflection of the issues of race, oppression, and power in America.” The work in this show had some interest, but it seemed like it could have been conceptually stronger. There has been much art and art theory made on this topic in the last 30 years; it’s as if the artists hadn’t really studied that history, as if they were the first to treat the topic. For example, one installation using painted Mammy figurines recalled Fred Wilson, but was not as conceptually rigorous. Had they looked to their precedents, the work could have been better developed and more thought-provoking.

4) At June Fiztpatrick, some MECA staff art – nice, but not much of note. My favorite was an artist who incorporated nails and ball bearings into small panels using layers of encaustic as an ethereal binder.

5) At Space Gallery, two things:

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A) Mike Kolster: itiswhatitis. Mike is a photo professor at Bowdoin and a close colleague; he’s been kind enough to host me for two studio visits, including one demonstrating his process. He uses a 19th-century wet-plate process called ambrotype, which produces a glass plate negative that, when put against a black background, reveals the positive image. In summers he turns his camera to landscape, but his winter work is more conceptual. This show consisted of two series interspersed with each other: one, images of plastic ribbon superimposed on each other; the other, colloquial sayings whose words have been broken up to make them appear abstract at first:
The phrases themselves are more sophisticated equivalents of er’s, um’s, and like’s–space fillers that don’t really mean anything at all. With the ribbons- the yellow things that come wrapped around boxes of paper – both seem to be examples of everyday detritus, the leftovers that sprinkle, and ultimately make up, our entire lives.

B) The best idea for an art fundraiser I’ve ever seen, and one I’d ultimately like to reuse if I had the chance:


Watching the artists at work, and comparing it to what they’d already produced, was great fun. I was of course also excited about the prospect of taking home an original piece of art for such a price; but money is a funny thing. Even though it was so cheap and there were things I liked, I couldn’t bring myself to part with the dough (I’m not that flush, you see) for anything I wasn’t completely in love with. Oh well.

6) At the Meg Perry Center for Peace and Justice, “Sensory Circus,” focusing on art that you could touch, hear, smell and taste, in addition to see. Cool idea; the works themselves were a bit sloppily executed. The small room was packed, which made maneuvering and experiencing the art difficult. In addition, it wasn’t really my scene. To be blunt about it, the place was full of hippies.