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…

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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!

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:

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!

“Hello, Nature!” and Hello, Maine!

Most likely if you know the work of William Wegman of the Weimaraners, you might see him as what I call a “calendar artist,” like Anne Geddes or Kim Anderson (though less saccharine): cute, clever photographs that you might enjoy seeing on a calendar, but likely don’t picture encountering in a fine art context. Perhaps like me, as a child you cracked up over his canine twist on fairy tale picture books, like Cinderella, or his video segments for Sesame Street and Nickelodeon.

However, throughout his career the fine art world as well as the entertainment world have taken notice, and he has exhibited at and been collected by major art institutions around the world. This summer, “William Wegman: Hello Nature!” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art focuses particularly on the work he’s done in/on Maine, where he has spent summers for three decades.

The expected Weimaraners are indeed on display here, in photographs that are even more witty and whimsical than you remember. A particular highlight was a film in which Wegman’s dogs act out a Hardy Boys-like mystery in Vacationland (he calls them the Hardly Boys). Unlike most films you encounter in a museum, or even in a movie theater, it was uproariously funny; you could hear the audience laughter throughout the museum several times during the half-hour long screening.

Even more unexpected though, are his paintings, drawings and collages. Of particular note are his paintings that use postcards, real and imagined, as jumping off points for expanded landscapes that interconnect in ways that are both probable and improbable, but always compositionally harmonious.

William Wegman, “Mainer,” 2006

Similarly witty are his extrapolations from old vacation brochures, turning the kitschy into the cleverly absurd.

Art in the galleries was not (explicitly) ordered by theme or chronology, nor was there much text. This made a refreshing change: you didn’t have to think too hard about what they were trying to tell you, just enjoy, which matched the light-hearted tone of the art itself. Small, playful drawings and collages have a significant presence, works that you might normally think of as ephemera or supplemental. Some walls were accented with distinctly hand-painted drawings; even the title was hand-painted, and not so slickly that you wouldn’t know it was. These paintings didn’t need a reason or explanation, they were just there to add another level of enjoyment of the artist’s whimsical (and literal) touch.

All these things made it, in the best sense of the word, a summer show, and this was reflected in its popularity. Especially surprising given that it was a lovely summer Friday afternoon, the museum was just about as busy as I’ve ever seen a college museum when there wasn’t a special event. This demonstrated what a professor of mine told me when he gave a lecture there: the whole town seemed to show up for the reception, and they weren’t there to see him. The town seems to really take note of, support, be interested in, and attend what is going on there.

This contrasts with my previous experience at galleries at Tufts and MIT, where it seemed that the exhibitions were always critically acclaimed, but seemed badly attended, particularly by their immediate college and local communities. The context is of course completely different–they have to contend with the major Boston cultural attractions.

I’m particularly excited by the community investment in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, because it is the site of my not-too-distant future employment! I was up there scouting out apartments; I start as curatorial assistant in mid-August.

I’m just back from Maine, and have a week in New York. Here’s my New York to-do list: Kehinde Wiley at the Jewish Museum, Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Lincoln Center, Boetti at MoMA, Yayoi Kusama at the Whitney. I will also have one afternoon to devote to art in San Francisco on Friday: please let me know if you have particular recommendations! Expect reports on all these things, and many more!