Manual Skill is Secondary, but Still Incredible

Alighiero Boetti proclaimed that thought was the most important achievement of humanity. He said he “prefer[ed] thought” and that “manual skill is secondary.” For an artist who thought manual skill was secondary, he sure made, or had made, a lot of very beautiful, technically-skilled, and sensuously-textured objects, as the exhibition “Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan” at MoMA attests. If you could label Boetti, who was many things, a conceptualist, and I think you could based on the statements above, then these were the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen by a conceptual artist.

As I mentioned in my first post announcing my intention to see this show (as I have about a million times), Boetti is best known for his Mappas or Mappe – I don’t speak Italian, they’re maps, ok? Of various sizes, completely embroidered, each country represented by its flag–a concept so beautiful in its simplicity, you wonder why no one else thought of it (Boetti’s “favorite artistic strategy: to take an existing system and give it visual form, calling attention to the ways in which such systems structure the world”). What I didn’t know was that they, along with many other of Boetti’s works, were embroidered by women in Afghanistan (a few simpler works were embroidered by his wife). One anecdote was particularly interesting; the women in question weren’t familiar with the image of a map, and so decided to make the ocean pink, just because that was a thread they happened to have in abundance. Boetti loved this degree of happenstance in the making of his works.

In fact, this story was emblematic of Boetti’s approach to the divvying up of the labor of his work. One label explained that Boetti was interested in the ways a work could be “produced by different parties without collaboration or discussion–a form of authorship that is split rather than shared.” As such, Boetti often let his Afghan workers add inscriptions of their choice in Arabic, which were sometimes political/revolutionary. Leaving certain other aesthetic decisions was a way of adding an element of chance or shared authorship.

Yet no matter how conceptual this gesture, the result is still magnificent. Several maps have completely different color schemes, and the sweep of the embroidered stitches creates a different effect in each, often giving the impression of shifting tides on the ocean.

Mappa (Map), 1971–72, Embroidery on linen

Many other objects exhibited a similar sense of sensitivity to material and the creation of aesthetic pleasure, including his Arte Povera works (a movement characterized by use of industrial or everyday or discarded material). These are no Thomas Hirshhorn piles of crap; these are artfully arranged nearly minimalist objects of great beauty and balance.

Catasta (Stack), 1966–67, Eternit tubes

Other sections document Boetti’s interest in time/the calendar (“… dates have this beauty,” he said, “the more time passes, the more beautiful they become”), in using mail, envelopes and stamps as a vehicle for art, and in systems, and their arbitrariness:

Ever the contrarian wit, Boetti delighted in introducing “mistakes” or anomalies into his own patterns and systems, always acknowledging the impossibility of total organization.

Senza titolo (Untitled), 1969, Ink and stickers on paper.

Some notes on the organization of the show: aside from the introductory text panel, there were not large texts on the walls in each gallery introducing each theme. Rather, those themes were explored using quotes by Boetti on the wall, or long but small-fonted texts under individual object labels. This was fine, except it was hard to read these labels, because they were so small they could only be read by one or two people at a time, and at the frequently busy MoMA this often meant waiting to read what you wanted to read. And the search for the perfect labeling system goes on… Good thing I’m taking notes.

The Art of the Conservation of Energy (for Art)

I just finished reading (well, listening to, actually) Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, about a tribe of cliff-dwelling runners, the evolutionary biology of human bodies and running, the destruction of our bodies by Nike, and the rising popularity of ultra-marathons, 100 mile races on mountain trails at high altitudes. Of course in the latter case, the conservation of energy is essential: you can’t spend it all when you still have so many miles to go.

Now, I would like to make clear that I am about the farthest thing from an athlete–I get winded running just a few steps. I do, however, find that I need to use the art of the conservation of energy, for art. As in the case of going to MoMA for a particular exhibition, in this case “Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan,” which I’ve been saying I was gonna go to since back when I was crippled, and on a quick weekend trip home, I finally had the chance to go.

There were other attractive exhibitions, and I feel that I should be a bit of a generalist and see exhibitions outside my immediate interests. But, there’s only so much museum energy–intense looking and thinking, not to mention prolonged walking and standing–one can expend, and I wanted to keep some in reserve for walking by some public art on Park Avenue that I’d just read about in the Times, not to mention for seeing my friends later in the evening.

So, despite how much my inclination for all kinds of exhibitions is to look closely at every object, particularly at things that attract me, I had to force myself to skim. I had to skim through the exhibition on the Quay Brothers, whose dark, alternative films are not my usual fare, but whose inky drawings and prints, posters and set designs, stop-motion animations and the props, puppets and sets used to make them, were exquisite. I had to skim through Renée Green’s installation that formed a viewing station for several major art films in MoMA’s archive, many of which I would have liked to see if I had more time and didn’t need to save the energy. I only briefly visited the installation by Slavs and Tartars, whose work had been recommended to me by my former boss. At the very end of my visit I whizzed through “The Century of the Child,” not because I was overly interested in the details, but because there were some beautiful examples of Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, and modern design, not to mention a blast from my childhood, a video simulation of the original SimCity in all its pixelated glory.

Selections from “The Century of the Child”

Quay Brothers, Test for the Calligrapher

More on Boetti and the public art I saw… in the next couple of posts. Oh yes, I’m going to drag this out… the suspense must be killing you!!!

The Critic

In a recent post, I celebrated the fact that the illustrious Queen Bee art critic of the New York Times, Roberta Smith, had written a review, and generally pretty positive one, of the exhibition “William Wegman: Hello Nature” at my new home museum, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (I myself reviewed it before I officially started there). For the sake of fairness, I should also write about a not-so-positive review, by Sebastian Smee, the chief art critic of the Boston Globe.

First of all, you can’t read the whole thing online unless you register and pay a weekly fee (99 cents for the first 4 weeks, $3.99 after that). Even the Times allows you 10 free articles a month, down from 20 (though I’m lucky enough to use my parents’ subscription, and take the luxury of unlimited access to articles for granted). So, I’m sticking it to the man by posting the whole thing for my readers here.

And, of course I’m going to feel defensive about a negative review. It’s not that I don’t see Smee’s point–it’s not completely unlike my own evaulation. Except that, what I take for Wegman’s refreshing lightheartedness, “his refusal to take himself or his art too seriously,” as Roberta Smith put it, Smee takes as an overly cynical irony, a too easily cute exploitation of dogs in costumes, of Maine outdoorsiness; he calls it “pathetic.”

I do believe a critic’s job is to weigh the negatives and the positives of whatever they are viewing, and that’s what I try to do in my reviews for this blog. I also think, based on the handful of reviews I’ve read by him, that Smee perhaps tries too hard sometimes to find and emphasize the negative, which can be a way to feel smart and superior. Certainly he’s not the only critic to do this, as Mel Brooks knows:

The Amusement Park Exhibition, or, What Money Can Do

I was intrigued when I heard that some of the ancient Chinese terracotta warriors would be on view in New York, though as many people pointed out to me, there are a lot of them–China can spare a few. I was even more intrigued that what one would think of as a major art historical, anthropological and archaeological attraction was not coming to a major New York museum like the Metropolitan, or even the Museum of Natural History, but rather, the Times Square Discovery Center. The WHAT? This for-profit institution is on par with Ripley’s Believe or Not and Madame Tussaud’s, though certainly much classier. This same institution also hosted the Dead Sea Scrolls. When you think about it, only a for-profit institution would have the bread to shell out for shipping, care, and display of such things.

So I took this as an opportunity not only to see the fabled clay personages, but to expand my exhibition horizons. How would a for-profit institution, particularly one that catered mainly to tourists in the most touristy location on earth, handle design, didactics, and other things that usually aren’t even options on the shoestring budgets most museums work with?

Item number one was ticket price – you think MoMA and the Guggenheim are expensive? Think again. I was lucky to come across a Groupon that got me the $27 ticket for only $17. Tickets for each exhibition sold separately, and I doubted that saying I work in a museum would get me in gratis as it does at most non-profit institutions.

Item number two was entering the show, which involved being ushered through an unused labyrinth of elastic barriers, as with the lines at an amusement park. I gather when the place is more crowded these are actually used, and I would soon find out why. Rather than entering the exhibition, visitors gathered in a room where, when the group reached critical mass, we were shown an introductory film, not unlike a History Channel special. At the end of the film, the screen rose to reveal a dramatically-lit suit of armor through a Chinese-style circular doorway, through which we finally entered the exhibition. It really was not unlike an amusement park or certain historic attractions, where you can’t enter until you watch the video.

From there we had a bit of a crowd problem, since everyone was entering the exhibition and trying to see the same objects and read the same texts at the same time, rather than being organically spread out as per usual. I ran ahead of the crowd, and then came back for what I missed.

Despite my perhaps mocking tone thus far, the exhibition itself was very well done–really, it was a great example of what a museum could do with money. The design elements–banners, signs, texts, maps, lighting, custom stone hexagonal display cases–contributed to the theme and atmosphere without being too much or too distracting.

The didactics were just right: plenty of maps, texts and timelines, but again not too much. They were informative without being patronizing; they were clearly more skilled at both appealing to and informing a general audience than more high-minded museums, who sometimes try but don’t always know how to speak to a general audience. Perhaps another reason that all these didactic materials were included was that the for-profit institution could afford to produce them.

The content itself was great. I was a little bored at first by the progression of bronze vessels (they of course did not do the big reveal of the warriors right away), but the more I saw, the more intrigued by the artifacts I was, and the more I saw their individual beauty. Some particular highlights were: decorated bronzed structural fittings for wooden beams in the palace; an earthenware drainage pipe made up of many flared, fitted pieces; and a display showing the different shaped currencies for the different warring states, including the familiar square in a circle that is still used today because it was associated with the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty to unite China and call itself an empire.

Then, after a video interviewing the farmer who discovered the warriors and an archaeologist responsible for the excavation, you turn a corner, and there on a mounted platform, surrounded by Hollywood-like lighting, were a terracotta high-ranking officer (distinguished by the height of his headdress) and a horse. There were several more figures of various ranks to follow. All were minutely detailed, realistic, and in excellent condition. Interesting and surprising also was a life-size and life-like swan; apparently in addition to an army and a cavalry, the Qin emperor had included enough animal figures to stock a pleasure garden for his afterlife.

Following the figures from the Qin tomb was a whole set of a lot more, although smaller scale, figures (animals, humans) from tombs from the Han Dynasty, a succeeding dynasty that was influenced by this Qin custom of stocking tombs with figures for the afterlife. A few fascinating artifacts from this section as well: ancient dildos; figures representing female warriors; and a bas-relief tomb gate, with silhouetted figures doing chores in buildings in section like dollhouses.

As I indicated, all in all it was a worthwhile show, though perhaps not worth the price-tag as I’m sure you can see many similar artifacts in more traditional institutions. Nonetheless, it was an interesting lesson in what kind of quality you can wring out of a much larger budget than museums usually have to work with.


Roberta Smith wuz here

That’s right, the Great Dame of the New York Times herself ventured up to Maine to check out my new museum home. I thought her review was pretty great, and aligned nicely with some of what I said (it always feels good to have your impressions and opinions validated by professionals!). My coworkers thought she could have been more enthusiastic. Still, it’s great exposure, and the show is already doing very well. Just happy to be on the team!

Quick Follow-up

I just wanted to address a point toward the end of the article I just posted about Tatzu Nishu’s living room around the statue in Columbus Circle. One board member of an Italian-American cultural committee criticized

the Bloomberg administration’s silly revisionism when it comes to public spaces.

“The plans seem to hide the Columbus statue for no reason whatsoever,” he said.

First of all, I love that they called it “silly revisionism.” Second, I hate to use the word philistine, because it makes me sound like a snob, but to me this does seem like a failure to see the ways that art can enchant or re-enchant what was already there, as the Gates did to Central Park, and Olafur Eliasson’s waterfalls did to lower Manhattan/Brooklyn/Staten Island.

This is a bit like anger at displays of contemporary art, like Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, and now Joana Vasconcelos, at Versailles, though that frustration makes a bit more sense. As my museum colleagues who are more interested in history than art pointed out, they went to Versailles, perhaps only once in their lives, for the historical experience, only to find contemporary art in the way. To them, I counter with the fact that, unfortunately, Versailles sold most of its historic furniture. Most rooms are unfurnished, they are not like many other historic houses that are furnished and decorated so as to make it like you are stepping back in time.

I may have the opposite bias, as a contemporary art fan, but I think Versailles does an excellent job placing these large-scale contemporary works in ways that enhance both the setting and the art. I love how the baroque-ness of Murakami’s work is brought out by the baroque ceiling above it. As the first female artist to exhibit there, Vasconelos’ high-heeled shoes made of pots point to the history of the women at Versailles as well as before or since–the enforced confluence of glamor, pain, and domesticity.

Murakami at Versailles

Vasconcelos at Versailles

Confessions of a Failed Blogger

Sorry once again for the radio silence – I have been in the process of preparing to move to Maine, moving to Maine, and setting up my apartment and life in Maine, which has kept me quite busy, and may still for awhile (sooooo much Ikea furniture to build!). You can look forward, eventually (but please don’t hold your breath), to some exhibition reviews I have backlogged notes on – Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney, the Ancient Terracotta Warriors of China, may still write about the Buffalo Avant-Garde show, though that’s ancient history by now, and my book review of MetaMaus. Still have to go to Boetti at MoMA, which I will at some point (I believe I have til October, and I will be back in New York in 2 weekends). After all that, the blog might shape-shift a bit – I won’t be in New York and will have less access to that scene. Instead, I will hopefully take up more recreational museum and curatorial reading (like this), and, also hopefully, be making some art of my own! (once I set up my guest bedroom/office/studio – gotta love Maine real estate prices!)

In the meantime, you can read about this New York public art project, along the lines of the Gates and the waterfalls – spectacles that call attention to major New York landmarks and are likely to attract many local and non-local visitors. These things always seem too-showboat-y when you hear about them, but I think they often make a lovely and enchanting experience when you see them for yourself. This one actually sounds pretty charming, if you can get in. They’re trying to avoid long lines by using timed tickets–we’ll see how it goes.

See next post for further thoughts…

Return of the Blogger – Legion of Honor: Man Ray/Lee Miller

Sorry for another brief hiatus. I was in California, absorbing more nature than culture: a county fair, complete with farm animal auction ($1000 for a turkey!); a hike in the Sierra-Nevadas with spectacular views, which alas I failed to capture on camera (image search Lake Winnemucca if you’re curious); fresh delicious vegetables from my own (well, my aunt and uncle’s own) backyard.

But before retiring to the country, I took in a bit of art (I’m me, aren’t I?): the Man Ray/Lee Miller show at the Legion of Honor, which I’d read about back when it was at the Peabody Essex Museum, but didn’t end up making the trek from Boston to see. You’re likely familiar with Man Ray, but perhaps not Lee Miller. She was his girlfriend for awhile in the ’20s and ’30s and an accomplished photographer in her own right, as well as quite a beauty–she once rivaled Greta Garbo for the title of the most beautiful woman in Paris (where she, like Ray, was an American ex-pat).

The exhibition explores the ways they collaborated and inspired each other, and provided a museum-worthy reason to explore Miller’s independent work, which of course is often overlooked (though Ray’s works still outnumber Miller’s in the exhibition). The galleries are organized so as to provide a narrative: before they met; while they were together; the break-up aftermath (which inspired some of Ray’s best known works); and, eventually, their rekindled friendship. This made prefect sense and told a clear story, except that the works in the galleries themselves didn’t always match these narratives, particularly in the inital “before they met” gallery, which included portraits they took of each other, and films that Ray’s friend Jean Cocteau made with Miller as muse.

Much of the exhibition focuses on photography, and includes several “rayographs” as well as solarized photographs, an influential effect that, it turns out, Miller accidentally discovered when a rat scrambled over her foot in the dark room, causing her to switch on a light mid-development; Ray and Miller then perfected the technique together.

Solarized gelatin silver print of Lee Miller, by Man Ray, ca. 1930

While Ray’s photographs exhibit important technical developments in surrealism, I was actually more impressed by the beauty of Miller’s photographs of Paris. They are experiments in aesthetics rather than technique or concept, using unusual angles and dramatic natural lighting to turn a street scene into an abstracted composition of textures in black, white and grey. A wall label phrased these as “‘ready-made’ surreal scenes… found on the street… that would come to life through imaginative viewpoint and framing.” I thought that perfectly phrased what I was trying to articulate in my head about extraordinary photos like this one:

Lee Miller, Walkway, Paris, ca. 1929

As I mentioned above, the aftermath of their break-up greatly affected Ray and inspired some of his best known works. It is Miller’s lips that hang both erotically and ominously in his best known surreal landscape painting. It is Miller’s eye pasted on the metronome that is Object to Be Destroyed. Fascinatingly, subsequent editions were called Object of DestructionLast Object and, most suggestively, Indestructible Object; it turns out that though Ray intended to cathartically smash the object with a hammer, he could never actually bring himself to do so.

In the gallery with these works is a letter Ray wrote to Miller, after she abandoned him and moved back to New York. He practically begged her to forgive him for being a possessive and jealous jerk, but she stood strong. She apparently was quite a feminist for her time. One illuminating work in the exhibition was a photograph Miller took of a severed breast from a radical mastectomy, and sent to a fashion magazine (the photo, not the breast) as a protest of the objectification of the female body (though Miller often worked for magazines as both a model and a photographer). Miller’s tenacity was also on display in a gallery showing photographs she took as a war correspondent during World War II, including photographs of Nazis who committed suicide at the approach of the Allies.

Lee Miller and Man Ray rekindled their friendship in the U.S. in the mid to late forties, as illustrated in the exhibition by artworks Ray sent Miller, particularly during her bout of post-war depression. A very memorable image closes out the exhibition, of the artists together at an exhibition opening in 1975, smiling at each other with knowing intimacy, displaying the kind of lifelong connection inevitably forged in a passionate love affair.

Man Ray and Lee Miller in 1975

I would end there, but I have A VERY IMPORTANT ART BULLETIN. A Girl With a Pearl Earring is now in the U.S. I REPEAT, A Girl With a Pearl Earring is now in the U.S. It is currently at the De Young museum in San Francisco, and the only reason it wasn’t my number one priority is that I know it is coming to the Frick Collection in New York, and I will do anything to make sure I see it there. I suggest you find out when and where on its tour it will be closest to you (the High Museum in Atlanta is it’s other U.S. venue), and make it a point to get there. Unless you plan on visiting The Hague.