Prints. PrintsPrintsPrintsPrintsPrints.

Bruce Brown, independent curator and former director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), recently noted (in a panel about printmaking, in conjunction with a show he did about Maine printmakers) that the Maine art world this season has been all about prints. My season has been no exception.

Two shows at my own museum, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, have been about prints. The first, Fantastic Stories: The Supernatural in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Prints, focuses on the presence of ghosts and supernatural beings in gorgeous, hyper-colored, intricately-patterned Japanese woodblock prints. (On view til March 3rd)

The second, which I worked on more extensively, is a memorial exhibition to David Becker, a ’70 Bowdoin alum, print collector/curator/scholar, and extremely generous donor to the museum. Between his gifts and the bequest of his estate (he died in 2010), the Bowdoin Art Museum received 1500 artworks from him, mainly prints. And among the prints are absolute masterpieces: from fine, early impressions by Dürer, Rembrandt, Parmigianino, and Piranesi, to contemporary prints by Jim Dine, Elizabeth Murray, and Kiki Smith, and everything in between. To capture just the tip of the iceberg of these diverse riches in an exhibition of about 80 prints, it was decided (before I arrived) that the show would be organized by letters of the alphabet, each representing a theme, and was titled Printmaking ABC: In Memoriam David P. Becker. As the name suggests, the themes would introduce some of the techniques of printmaking (L for Lithography, W for Woodcut), but also take on thematic subject matters that were well-represented in Becker’s collection, because they were dear to his heart (A for Alphabet – he loved writing manuals and typography, another layer to the appropriateness of the show’s organization; P for Political Activism, T for Trees).

As part of the three-person curatorial team at BCMA, I was extensively involved in deciding what the themes would be and which prints would be in the show (though those two processes were reversed), and then writing texts for certain groupings. Through this, I now know the difference between various printmaking processes – knowledge I did not previously possess.

Hung in clusters by theme, on rich saffron-colored walls, the show looks great. We’ve only received positive feedback thus far, including in a guestbook that has been very actively used, inviting those who knew Becker to reflect on his legacy. There will also be an event on January 31st and February 1st, a two-day symposium of major print scholars and friends of Becker, that will do just that.

The biggest drawback to the show is that there’s just too much there: the prints are rich, small, intimate, detailed, and there are so many of them. Becker was all about close-looking and this show rewards that, but one can only do so much of it. Focusing on the whole of the show, I feel even I haven’t done the kind of intimate looking these prints deserve; when I do, I still find things I’m surprised by. I live with it everyday, and I don’t think I’ll be able to really absorb it all by the time it closes, on March 24th.

I mentioned a print show curated by Bruce Brown: I am referring to Prints: Breaking Boundaries, at the Portland Public Library, sponsored by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The explores the ways contemporary Maine printmakers are moving beyond traditional printmaking techniques, incorporating collage, assemblage, installation, three-dimensional surfaces and other supports, and digital printing.

The panel discussion, also mentioned above, that accompanied the show included three artists from the exhibition: Adrienne Herman (a Smithie, like me!), Karen Adrienne (confusing, isn’t it?), and Damir Porobic. The most interesting point that came up in their discussion was that with the increasing hybridization between the various visual arts, the constantly emerging new combinations of media, printmaking is escaping its perhaps once inferior position among them.

Prints3

Prints4

Another Bruce Brown print show up in Maine now is Dorothy Schwartz: Evolution of a Printmaker, at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. She is also a Smithie, and the wife of a former music professor at Bowdoin. I plan to check out the show this Friday during the Portland art walk. I’ll let you know what else is of note!

Email or Username. Password.

You know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted when I see this screen:

Screen shot 2013-01-26 at 9.48.24 AM

Oh dear.

My personal life has kicked up a tick and so I’ve been busy. But I also have this weird block.

When you work full-time in a museum, of course it limits the amount of time you can spend going to other museums, galleries, exhibitions, lectures, et cetera. But still, I have been doing all those things. I’d say I’ve been pretty active in that regard, as much as is possible. But I never think to write about these things, the way I do when I’m in New York. What’s different? No, it’s not that when I’m in New York I’m on vacation, and have more free time (though maybe it’s those things a little bit).

I’m in Maine. And the Maine art scene, though active, is quite regionally focused. Maine artists are Maine artists. The nationally-recognized artists we love and love to show (from Wyeth, Homer, Hopper and Wegman, to Katherine Bradford and Lois Dodd) all come to Maine.

This presents a challenge to me, as I want this blog to address both a general audience, and a more mainstream contemporary (read: New York-based) art world. I fear being seen as provincial, though I’m guessing it’s more my own prejudices (read: snobbery) holding me back, than the ones I perceive in my audience.

There is also a more justified fear: the Maine art world is SMALL. There is the very real possibility that, in being as honestly critical as I would like to be, I could offend someone I run into at every event, and could need to work with. I know that if I was really involved in the New York art scene, that would still be the case. I just imagine New York artsters (yeah, I just made that up – deal with it) to have thicker skins; perhaps because I imagine them criticizing each other, publicly and privately, all the time. Maine art criticism tends to be pretty “Ra! Ra!” It also seems to be judged on a different standard than the mainstream art world; it’s just generally a more conservative market (in terms of media, content, etc.).

I suppose this rant is my way of alerting you, my readers, and myself, to the fact that I will attempt to write more about what I’m seeing and doing here. Time and energy for writing is still a factor; but another block is that my posts have tended towards the fully formed exhibition review. I need to kick myself into a more casual, brief, observational/informative style.

I also hesitate to write about what’s going on at my own museum, for fear that it would seem promotional or that I might reveal something I’m not supposed to. But, it is also high time I start to share some of my own curatorial work, now that I’m actually getting to do some! More on that later

A Chelsea Misadventure

Just after Christmas, wary of the frankly insane tourist crowds at the New York museums, I went with a few friends, including an artist who is generally knowledgable about these things, to Chelsea… where nearly every gallery was closed: some were between shows, others may have been closed for the holidays, and it could be that some were still recovering from Sandy.

We only went in one gallery – Cheim & Reid, for a show of the Israeli-born, Copenhagen-based painter Tal R. I’d heard his name but not seen his work before. He has a colorful, intentionally-naive style that at first seemed a little out-of-date – as in early twentieth century – but that grew on me. I thought it worked better in his more geometric works than the figurative ones, but those grew on me too. His paintings rewarded prolonged looking, as their compositions are more complex than they first appear.

Tal R, THE SHLOMO, 2011

Tal R, THE SHLOMO, 2011

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After our lack of art-viewing, we went to a cafe for a protracted conversation about art theory.

I have one more New York art experience from my vacation to relay – a visit to the Museum of Arts and Design in Columbus Circle… coming soon.

“Have you ever seen a bad Picasso?”

…I pondered out loud to my mother, in Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim.

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (Femme couchée lisant), 1960

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading (Femme couchée lisant), 1960

Well, have you? Yes, there may be ones you don’t personally care for, and perhaps some that are not as GREAT as others, but have you ever seen one that was truly BAD? I’ve seen many bad Matisses, bad Pollocks, but bad Picassos? I don’t think so.

To be fair, I said this towards the top of the ramp as we worked our way down, thus going backwards through the exhibition chronologically and so starting with his late work, when his experienced hand, no matter how lazy it got (works were mostly completed in one day, though I’m not necessarily claiming that as a barometer of laziness), could do no wrong. Every stroke was a masterpiece, not one element of a picture out of place. My mother quoted a label from the Museum of Bad Art that jokingly cites a mediocre painter’s “triumph of self-confidence.” Each late Picasso is such a triumph, except in his case it’s justifiable, rather than deluded.

And, to slightly amend my earlier bold assertion, as we progressed (regressed?) to earlier work, one could definitely see the more uncertain efforts of the younger Picasso – more trial and error, compositions with barely or badly masked earlier outlines.

Pablo Picasso, The Charnel House (Le charnier), Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1944–45

Pablo Picasso, The Charnel House (Le charnier), Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1944–45

This was the rare show in which my primary mental activity was contemplating the compositional merits and demerits (though not much of the latter) of each work, rather than the concepts underlying each work or the exhibition as a whole. I’m not sure that the curators really demonstrated their argument–“Claiming that color weakens, Pablo Picasso purged it from his work in order to highlight the formal structure and autonomy of form inherent in his art” (if so, why did he also do so many works with so much color?)–but who really cares? It’s a bunch of Picassos at the Guggenheim – is anyone going to deny the broad appeal of such a show (as evidenced by the surging crowds, bolstered by the holidays and bad weather)?

And so, with an exhibition premise that didn’t mean much except as an excuse to show a bunch of Picassos, we were free to just look at the art, except when we were distracted by the odd gamut of frames–from Spanish colonial to Dutch baroque to American folk to modernist blond wood–nearly all of which distracted and detracted from the work in some way.

It was fun to debate Picasso’s intentions, particularly in regard to those old marks that he made little effort to hide: did he not care? did he not consider the work finished? did he think these palimpsests added something to the composition? There was another perhaps unintended but now unavoidable compositional element on canvases that may have once been white and are now yellow, adding color where he may have wanted none (though many works did incorporate color highlights), and making white brushstrokes stand out where they were meant to blend in.

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

It’s always worthwhile to go see some Picassos you haven’t seen before. But maybe wait til after New Year’s, when the tourists retreat. Coming soon, a Chelsea misadventure

Regarding “Regarding Warhol”

If you follow my blog closely, you’ll probably notice that my most active posting periods are when I’m home in New York, mostly holidays and summers. As such, you may have been expecting a break in my radio silence, and here it finally is.

I went to the Met on my first full day home (Sunday). There is much to see there (what else is new), and I may go back, but there were two shows in particular I wanted to catch before they closed: Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (this had taken on new importance for me as I am beginning research on surrealist photography for a possible exhibition), and Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years. I’m not sure I have much to say about the former – I will think on it and post separately about it if I do – but I have much to say about the latter.

I will start by disclosing that my expectations of the Warhol show were measured by negative responses I’d heard. Some thought it was completely expected, with no surprises, which I can easily understand. The show is about Warhol’s influence on the art that has come since. This is by no means an under-discussed topic–it is, in fact, rather obvious, which makes it all the stranger that there hadn’t yet been an exhibition about it.

The other criticism I heard, second or third hand, was that there wasn’t enough Warhol in it; since I thought there was plenty Warhol alongside his descendents, this sounds like a complaint from someone who perhaps doesn’t realize that the show is not meant to be primarily about Warhol.

In fact, the show may have been used as an excuse to show some Warhol pieces, even if their specific influence was not demonstrated. One example was a room with his helium-filled silver mylar clouds, which visitors could tap and push around. It’s hard at any age not to be enchanted by such an interactive experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But there was no other corresponding interactive installation from a later artist that might have demonstrated that Warhol was an early executor of a now frequent art practice (though not interactive, in its intimate enjoyment and focus upward it reminded me of the rainbow room in the Dale Chihuly exhibition at the MFA Boston in Summer 2011). The only causal link between this room and other work in the show was its neon cow wallpaper, which corresponded with an installation of Takashi Murakami happy-face daisies.

Warhol's silver clouds and cow wallpaper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Warhol’s silver clouds and cow wallpaper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Daly Chihuly at the MFA, Boston, Summer 2011

Daly Chihuly at the MFA, Boston, Summer 2011

Takashi Murakami in "Regarding Warhol" at the Met

Takashi Murakami in “Regarding Warhol” at the Met

But I digress. I would say my main critique of the show was that it did not cohere into more than the sum of its parts. Despite the themes it attempted to organize itself by, there was not a shape or a story or a rhythm to it. You started, went along through looking at what was on display, until there was no more work to see and it ended (as always, but more jarringly because it’s just too perfect, with a gift shop). There was no particular logic to the progression or the endpoint.

My mother’s complaint was that, compared to Warhol, the artists that came after were completely uninteresting. At first I disagreed (we generally have differing opinions on the art that has come since). And yet, when I said I enjoyed seeing what was in the show, and was asked what that included, the only works I could remember were Warhol’s; they did seem to make a more lasting impression, which may indeed speak to their higher quality and impact, thereby reinforcing his importance–as this show is meant to demonstrate.

For example, at first I tended to gloss over the expected colorized portraits of celebrities – Mao Zedong, Jacqueline Kennedy – their over-reproduction on tote bags, etc., making me presume that they had nothing new to show. But on closer inspection, they are more painterly than I expected; this is not the Factory Warhol, but one whose child-like play with color and brushstroke over silkscreen display artistry that counteract his consciously constructed, and often too accepted, claim that he was a machine.

Andy Warhol, Nan Kemper, 1973, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Andy Warhol, Nan Kemper, 1973, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Another just stellar, and unexpected, portrait was one of Jean-Michel Basquiat. This was exhibited as part of the theme, “Queer Studies, Shifting Identities,” which I thought was an important inclusion (and a seeming continuation of Warhol’s prominence in Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture), given that “Warhol’s importance as an artist who broke new ground in representing issues of sexuality and gender in the post-war period” has often been overlooked.

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas

Seeing the Brillo Boxes made me realize that I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen them in person before. They’re far more ragged, aged, and imperfect than reproductions would have you expect (my mother the conservator points out that that’s true of all art, Old Master paintings included). They oddly had 4 in a straight row, all from one collection, some more yellowed than others, and then one more from a private collection, set off at an angle, and contained in plexi as its owners must’ve stipulated – why include this odd-one-out?

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Andy Warhol_Brillo Soap Pads Box

After stressing that this was a show about Warhol’s influences on others, I of course have thus far only talked about Warhol works–again, they were the most memorable. Most numerous in representation after AW was, unsurprisingly, Jeff Koons, with major works from each of his most famous series. This brings up an important issue that this show did not attempt to tackle, difficult though it may be: whether artists like Warhol or Koons who exploit popular imagery and the mechanisms of the marketplace are complicit in the commercialism which they may, or may not, be critiquing. Is there a difference between the two, both of whom eventually mass-produced their own works seemingly only for the sake of profit? Since Warhol did this first, is his a more important conceptual gesture, whereas Koons is just a sell-out? Is Murakami, with his for-profit corporate arm and his Louis Vuitton bags conversely less culpable, because his commercialism is so out in the open it must be tongue-in-cheek? Perhaps this is such a rabbit-hole question it deserves its very own show – or multi-volume book.

In the museum’s description of the section of the exhibition that might have treated this issue, curators white-wash it with the rather separate issues of collaboration and spectacle:

“No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle”—the final section of the exhibition—examines Warhol’s interest in artistic partnership through filmmaking, magazine publishing, music, and design. Also foregrounded is his fascination with creating environments that envelop the viewer entirely. Warhol’s frequent use of decorative motifs, such as flowers, are part of this practice, and are contrasted with similar work by artists such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.

For a show on a topic so long overdue for its own exhibition, Regarding Warhol was a missed opportunity, an accumulation of things rather than what should have been an articulated and possibly quite provocative argument.

I hopefully shall be writing soon on Picasso: Black and White at the Guggenheim (or as it was recently and amusingly autocorrected, the googly mogul).

McQueen’s Screens

A Hyperallergic review of Steve McQueen’s show at the Art Institute of Chicago, including an interesting meditation on the use and installation of video art in museums:

At the Art Institute of Chicago’s Steve McQueen exhibition, I saw something unusual: museum-goers spending time — minutes of it! — watching moving images. In an otherwise bustling museum, the visitors in these rooms were silent and enthralled.

McQueen and the Art Institute collaborated to make the exhibition an experience, not just a series of screens…

Visiting the McQueen exhibition cemented a conviction that has been growing in me: if you are not going to properly install film and video, it’s better to do without it…

Were McQueen’s works installed on 17” Radioshack monitors with headphones dangling next to them, I doubt any visitor would watch them for more than a few seconds, let alone try to unravel their ambiguities.

Give us some credit: Americans are sophisticated in nothing if not the moving image.

What I Actually Saw in New York, part 2; plus bonus quickie reviews

My only other art encounter this week, after this one, was a trip to MoMA with a friend, though we didn’t actually see much. I spent more time in the gift shop, looking at books and at cleverly-designed but completely unnecessary kitchen utensils. We did hang out in Martha Rosler’s garage sale for awhile, perusing used clothes and tchotchkes. The artist was there, sorting items in a partitioned-off “back room,” occasionally coming out to give a price or talk to the MoMA assistants, making sardonic comments (“Are you the artist? “Unfortunately.”) My friend picked up a book designed as a gag-gift for single ladies in the ’70s (“Love is finding a man who doesn’t live with his mother”), and was also eyeing a set of someone’s psychiatry notebooks, already filled in with notes (is that ethical?). Our picture was taken and I’ll keep my eye out for it on the flickr.

In addition to that and our gift shop adventures, we went through a show of avant-garde photography from the collection. Then we were pretty much pooped and went for coffee. I had a bit more time that afternoon and considered going the Met, but I just couldn’t bring myself. I have guilt about not going out to see art as much as possible when I’m in New York, but sometimes I’m just art-ed out. Also, most of the shows I want to see will still be up when I’m home in December (though the holiday crowds may make me regret not taking advantage sooner): in addition to some of the ones listed here, the Picasso Black & White show was highly recommended to me, as were some shows at PS1.

I find in addition to a break from looking at art, I am enjoying a break from looking at screens, and am trying to read as much as possible. I’ve just finished Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan, which was much better than her last novel, Commencement, even though that one was about my alma mater; The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (on audio), which was about as different from Harry Potter as you can get, though it did still grip me; and Food Rules by Michael Pollan, in a new edition illustrated by Maira Kalman who I absolutely adore. I am currently reading Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, which I find compelling, though I’m annoyed that it took literally 100 pages to deliver twins: it was a dramatic birth, but the author kept inserting tangents just to keep his captive audience waiting and on edge–kind of manipulative. In my more academic moments, I’m also reading The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, by a former professor of mine, Kevin Quashie.

I saw Lincoln, which I highly recommend (great acting, and anyone who’s anyone is in it), and which may inspire me to pick up Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book that it is partially based on; the movie made me realize how fascinating that history is–even the non-cinematized version–and how much of it I don’t know, despite my having some great American history teachers. I’m coming to realize I enjoy non-fiction more than I used to or more than I assumed I did, and so perhaps I should read more of it.

And I saw the play Dead Accounts, starring Norbert Leo Butz and Katie Holmes, a sort-of dark comedy. Butz, a Broadway star, was fantastic as always. Holmes’ acting was stilted: I don’t think she’s great to begin with, and she’s clearly not used to making stage-acting seem natural. The play itself had its moments and its… not moments. It had some great comedic dialogue, but the overall message was heavy-handed and black-and-white and simply untrue, juxtaposing Manhattan’s singular obsession with money with all that is good and pure in Cincinnati, Ohio–’cause nothing bad has ever happened there.

Feel free to leave me your book, or art, or movie, or anything recommendations in the comments section! In the words of Eddie Izzard, “I am not a priest, you may talk to me.”

What I Actually Saw in New York, part 1

As I had planned, I did see the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective at Acquavella Gallery. The thing about Thiebaud’s painting is that a few select pieces are just mind-blowing, and a lot of the other works are just ok. A few years ago I interned at the Toledo Museum of Art, right after they had acquired a Thiebaud painting; it was positively stunning. Taking a close look at the silverware reveals tiny strokes of unexpected colors–greens and reds and yellows and blues.

Wayne Thiebaud, Roast Beef Dinner (Trucker’s Supper), 1963, Collection of the Toledo Museum of Art

That painting was enough to make me fall in love with the artist, but few of the works in this show were as rewarding to me. Perhaps the closest was a pastel that depicted pastels–it was highlighted in John Yau’s review for Hyperallergic.

There were four galleries, divided by theme; two of his famous still lives of food, one of landscapes, one of portraits. There is a reason he’s known for his still lives; they’re better than the other categories. His cityscapes usually involve some unexpected skewed perspective: a street that tilts too far, intersecting buildings at strange angles. They’re a bit too obvious, and their garish sunset colors are distracting. Far better then was a charcoal drawing of the same subject–it made the surreal perspective more subtle, the black and white contrast making for a much more appealing composition.

Big Condominium, 2008, oil on canvas

There was a similar issue with the portraits: they were far too intentionally odd, with still poses, neon highlights, unnatural arrangements of cosmetics. Again, the best of these was a more subtle and therefore successful kind of surreal, juxtaposing the true-to-life with the not: titled The Speaker, it featured a a scholarly gentleman at a podium all caught up in his notes, surrounded by an otherwise nearly abstract geometric setting.

Girl with Ice Cream Cone, 1963, oil on canvas

The still lives are generally more successful, but as I said few of them excited me the way the Toledo painting does. I’m a big fan of whimsy: one that really fit this bill was an image of a square box of french fries on a white ground–it resembled a sled on a snowy field. Another love of mine is thick, tactile paint strokes. I was just getting to one of the thickest when the guards kicked us out, and I didn’t get to stare at it as long as I would have liked.

Boston Cremes, 1962, oil on canvas


I tried to go to the Calder bronze show, but even though they claimed to be open til 5:30, the gallery seemed to be closed. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, after all. Probably going to MoMA tomorrow! Reports to come.

What I Might See in New York, part 3: Gangnam Style

A quick list of what else I might see in New York, following up on this post and this post:

1) Calder Bronzes at L&M Arts

2) Richard Artschwager at the Whitney

3) the Warhol influences show and the photo manipulation before photoshop show at the Metropolitan

And, some dance-worthy art news. The entire art world is going Gangnam Style, in support of Ai Wei Wei and a Gangnam parody video that he made and that was banned in China.

The photos are pretty priceless–from Anish Kapoor to the staff of MoMA:

What I Might See in New York, part 2

Something else I want to see: a retrospective of Wayne Thiebaud‘s work at Acquavella Galleries. 1) who can resist his color, his brushwork, his compositions as sweet at the confections he depicts? 2) It’s a clear example of a relatively recent phenomenon–galleries doing exhibitions like a museum: spanning the artist’s entire career and not just recent work for sale; curated by a major scholar; consisting of loans from major collections all over the country.

Wayne Thiebaud, “Yo Yos,” 1963, oil on canvas

And, just pointed out to me (thank you FW) is this review in Hyperallergic by John Yau. The article probes the ways Thiebaud hasn’t always been taken seriously by the art establishment, and lays out some excellent reasons why he should be. If it wasn’t already, this exhibition has moved to the top of my to-do list.