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!