Auschwitz: One of these things is not like the other….

 

During an early October (2018) visit to Auschwitz (my fourth or fifth time; my first was in the summer of 1963) with an extraordinary group of friends under the auspices of FASPE, I was once again reminded that one picture is definitely not worth a thousand words.  A small country cottage stands across from the railroad tracks near the entrance to Auschwitz I, and in the yard is a jungle gym for the kids of the presumably Polish family who presumably live there.  I could not help but wonder whether they had any knowledge or understanding of those tracks.

How could I not be reminded of the jungle gym we have set up for our grandchildren at our Royalston (Massachusetts) farm, although we’re a tad more rural and the rail tracks in the south village aren’t as regularly active as the ones at Auschwitz once were.

But the experience took me back to the late 1970’s, when I was persuaded to organize an exhibition and compile a catalogue of art created in concentration camps– I believe the first such exhibition in the USA — from the collections of the museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Ha’Geta’ot (Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz) in Israel.  The kibbutz was founded in 1949 by the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt.  Miriam Novitch, an indefatigable member of that group, had assembled the collection from a variety of sources (survivors, their families, and probably some unsavory places as well).  I had been introduced to her by art patron and collector (primarily of contemporary British art), Melvin Merians (1929-2009), who presciently persuaded me that this material needed a more public viewing.  The exhibition was shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, of which I was then director, and subsequently at New York’s Jewish Museum, Harvard University, and several other venues.  This was almost a decade before Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film, Shoah, transformed or reanimated interest in the Holocaust.

Even then, I had an uneasy sense about using art to generate interest in the Holocaust.  I had always known that my sister, Margit, born in Berlin in 1928, had been deported — presumably to Auschwitz — and we assumed had been murdered there.

But it was only in 1983, after the publication of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld‘s monumental book, Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, 1942-1944, that my family learned the details: the precise date of her deportation from Drancy (November 6, 1942), the train number (convoy 42), and the names of the other victims on that train.

In those days, before the fashion of ubiquitous Holocaust museums, treating art as an potential entrée into a horrible subject seemed appropriate.  Indeed, the first book that presented so-called Holocaust art was I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from the Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, edited by Hana Volavkova (1904-1985).  She was the only curator of the Central Jewish Museum — the massive Prague-based Nazi project to collect all Jewish artifacts — to survive the war.  Originally published in 1959, this extraordinary book was a bestseller in its time, and remains in print today.

Surely images can give us insights.  After all, the “utilization” of images to educate while also manipulating a range of sentiments lies at the heart of much religious art.  But images can also mislead us.  Here’s my iPhone photo of the notorious sign at the entrance to Auschwitz, decorated by the first touches of fall foliage.

Now check out the elegant allée of poplar trees just a few steps away.

How could I not be reminded of Van Gogh’s painting, L’Allee des Alyscamps, Arles (1888)?

And also any number of other poplar images that were a staple of French Impressionist painting, such as Claude Monet’s 1891 Poplars on the Epte.

I also thought about the poplars at my farm, since I watch them intently all summer.  They have a special elegance about them which makes me understand why the French painters found them so alluring.  Indeed, we sit and watch the poplars to check on the wind, since their leaves are so light and delicate that they flutter in the slightest breeze.

But this has nothing to do with the Holocaust, and although I’ll surely remember Auschwitz next summer when I sit and contemplate my trees, I’m not sure I want to see them as a permanent mnemonic device to conjure up thoughts of the Holocaust.

Images can be confusing in so many ways.  In the days when I used to lecture about Holocaust art, I often began with the series of paintings by the American artist, George Bellows (1882-1925).  He had read about the Battle of Dinant, one of the earliest conflicts of World War I, when German troops invaded that Belgian town in August 1914.  In 1918 Bellows produced a series of canvases, which he called Massacre at Dinant, that includes images easily read as Holocaust images, such as The Return of the Useless depicting a railroad box car and violence.

In this series Bellows also painted The Germans Arrive, and

The Barricade.

Bellows was probably inspired by a magazine article published in February 1918 by Brand Whitlock, titled “Belgium: The Crowning Crime” or by an earlier (May 13, 1915) New York Times article.  The war was over by the time these works were shown, so they have to be viewed in the context of history painting, which is an altogether different subject.  Nevertheless, a superficial reading of the works could lead us elsewhere — for example to the idea of pre-Holocaust imagery.

Surely Bellows knew he was following in the footsteps of Francisco Goya (1746-1828), whose majestic Third of May, 1808 was painted in 1814 to commemorate Spanish resistance to the Napoleonic occupation of Spain.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) responded more rapidly to an important historical event.  Hearing about Nazi planes, in support of Franco’s forces, bombing the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, Picasso started to work on Guernica by May 1st, creating what is surely the 20th century’s most significant political painting.

Nevertheless I wonder whether there isn’t an inherent danger when we rely too heavily on “art” for our understanding of tragic events.  Sometimes we may misunderstand.  This woodcut of a watchtower from the page from the Camp Amache Christmas Calendar might be misleading if we’re told that it’s from a relocation camp.    Officially the Granada War Relocation Center, opened in 1942, Camp Granache was one of the venues for the “relocation” of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

But one tower isn’t necessarily just like another, as we can see in this drawing from Thomas Sgovio’s 1972 drawing of the harsh conditions in the Soviet Gulag.

Nor is it the same as this image by Josef Nassy (1904-1976), a Black expatriate of Jewish descent, who was one of 2,000 internees with American passports held prisoner during World War II.

Towers can be as misleading as swing sets.  Here’s a Japanese-American child’s drawing from an internment (sorry, relocation) camp, and without any context it tells us little about the circumstances of its making.

In his joyous painting, Liberation (1945), American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) used kids swinging amid destruction to celebrate the end of World War II

Still that’s not quite the same as our grandkids having a good old time at our farm.

The most serious exploration of Holocaust-related art — treating it seriously as both art and visual testimony — was probably undertaken by Glenn Sujo in a groundbreaking 2001 exhibition.  “Legacies of Silence” was shown at London’s Imperial War Museum, and in the accompanying catalogue/book, Legacies of Silence: The Visual Arts and Holocaust Memory, Sujo adds much-needed art historical context to the work done by so many serious artists who deserve to be viewed within the broad scope of twentieth century art.  Israeli scholar, Ziva Amishai-Meisels, has also written meaningfully about this field.

That’s not unimportant, since a number of these incarcerated and murdered artists had serious careers.  Among the best known was Felix Nussbaum (1904-44), who was born in Osnabrück and trained in Berlin.  His 1943 self-portrait as a painter, executed while he was in hiding in Brussels, contrasts with another one of the same year, in which he shows himself with a “Jewish passport.”

In one of his last pictures, Threesome (1944), he clearly identifies himself as a Jew.  Not long after completing this painting, Nussbaum was murdered at Auschwitz.

Nussbaum is now celebrated in the Felix Nussbaum Museum, part of Osnabrück’s Cultural History Museum, which was opened in 1998 in a building designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

My own “favorite” among these artists is Prague-born Malvina Schalkova (Schalek) (1882-1945), who managed to create over 100 drawings and watercolors depicting scenes of daily life in Teresienstadt (Terezin) showing the inmates’ gentle humanity as they cope with their tragic situation.

Trained in Munich, Schalek had a significant career as a painter in Vienna prior to her deportation to Terezin.  She was later transported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.  Her tender watercolor of the tired old lady in a Terezin barracks moves us because of its universal sense of compassion, not just because we know where it was created.

These ruminations stem from my encounter with the sense of quotidian humanity expressed by a jungle gym at the entrance to Auschwitz.  I don’t know anything about the family living in the small cottage by the railroad tracks.  I have to assume they are folks who found a reasonably-priced plot of land on which to build their house and raise their kids.  I wish them well.

I’m posting this on November 7, 2018.  That’s a sort of frightening day — arriving between an American election in which too many voters ratified a President spewing xenophobia and hate, and the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which (we need to remember) didn’t arrive until five and a half years after the Nazis seized power.

Celebrating My CellPhone

I’ve never been an avid user of audio tours, although I recognize their utility for many museum visitors. So having them available on my smartphone doesn’t do much for me. (And on the few occasions when I wanted to check out what was being said, I’ve often found the museum’s wifi signal too weak.)  But often I do like to take photos of interesting works, or close-ups (or enlargements) of something that fascinates me. On the other hand, I was impressed that the Prado doesn’t permit photographs in the galleries. That makes it possible to view revered works (e.g., Las Meninas) free of enthusiastic selfie-takers.  And for the intrepid viewer, there are ways to calculate the guard’s path, so that it’s possible to work surreptitiously while the guard is making his/her rounds (albeit not in front of Las Meninas).  More about that later on.

The smartphone is my steady friend for helping me check on visual relationships that I think might be evident — while also reminding me that my visual memory might not be all that I assumed it was.  So even while passing a Bond Street shop (Pronovias), a dress (below, left) in the window caught my eye because I thought I had recently seen it (below, right) somewhere (at the Met Cloisters segment of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination).

My phone helped me check my memory!

I’m not certain why I found myself fixated on the depiction of linen in a pair of paintings, hanging side-by-side (for easy comparison) by Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1454) (below, left) and Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1470) (below, right) in the splendid eponymous exhibition of their work currently at London’s National Gallery.

But there I was, a few days later, at the Royal Academy, trying to figure out the amazing early 16th century copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper,

which has until recently not been on view.  I was struck by the linen tablecloth and wondering how closely it might relate to the swaddling cloths on the Chirst child in the two Presentation of Christ in the Temple I had just seen.

Not as close as I imagined, but the phone photo was a great way to check it out.  And a couple of days later the swaddled Christ child image came back to me when I saw a white Meiping (plum-blossom) vase among the British Museum’s vast Chinese ceramics displays.

 

Yes, I know they have nothing to do with each other, but thanks to my phone I could check out what I thought I remembered.  This keeps happening — surely not only to me — and I relish the opportunity to check out my [perhaps failing] memory, as when I saw William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (1835-40) at the Tate Britain (below, left), and was sure that Thomas Eakins’ study (below, right), William Rush’s Model (1908) was similar (or a ripoff).  Wrong again!  Because it’s a study (one of several) of a front-facing nude, very different from the 1876-77 version in Eakins’ famous William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River.

The proximity of those visuals dancing in my head also changed the way I looked at the wonderful Roman 2nd century AD marble Venus I encountered at the British Museum a day later.  Checking out photos stored on my phone expands the experience enormously!

A Mantegna drawing, Three Studies for the Dead Christ (ca. 1455-65) (below, left) in the National Gallery show brought to mind the artist’s dramatic and (for me) memorable, highly-foreshortened The Dead Christ and Three Mourners (1470-74) (below, right) now in Milan’s Pinacoteca Brera.  I was certain the drawing was similar to the painting; but the ability to access the photo of the Milan painting while in the London gallery looking at the drawing helped me see the differences.  Exciting!

The phone camera’s zoom ability often assists in viewing things that are simply not otherwise visible.  For example, in a current British Museum exhibition, I was able to photograph close-up details that I really couldn’t see in the exhibition cases, although they were diagrammed on the accompanying labels.

Thomas Spence (1750-1814) was an English radical who defaced coins, as this one attacking Prime Minister William Pitt.  My phone helped me see it!

As it also did this 1897 anti-papist British one-penny coin.

As for my having fun tracking the guards at the Prado, I close this blog by sharing my “purloined” photos from Room 56A.  I was mesmerized by Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi triptych (1494), despite the big crowds that were focused on Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510) across the room.  Managing the crowds at the more popular painting is a serious task for the gallery guards.  Far fewer people pay attention to the Adoration, which was the painting that really captured me.  Still, I was unable to get a full sense of the finer details — the gold gifts being presented to the Christ Child, the wonderful scenes embroidered on the robes, the men on the roof.  Here’s where my camera would help — but not with guards around.  So I spent a lot of time watching the security path, figuring out when I could capture closeups (“Alright, Mr.Bosch, I’m ready for my closeup!”).

Now, thanks to a guard that maintained a predictable routine march through the gallery, I could really check on the details that help make this painting so amazing, whenever the guard wasn’t nearby.

I like to think I wasn’t bothering anyone by breaking the rules.  (That’s what they always say…..)  And I’m hoping that museum wifi systems continue to improve, so that we can expand our uses of increasingly helpful cellphones.

On Museum Interventions

The recent announcement that even the Frick will soon be playing the museum intervention game reminded me that so-called “interventions” in museum installations have been around for a long time.  I’m not sure whether he invented the concept, but Leslie Cheek, Jr. (1908-92), one of my predecessors as director of The Baltimore Museum of Art, and subsequently director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, surely ranks as one of the pioneers of the museum-as-theatre mode that underpins many of today’s interventions.  Smaller and regional museums have special challenges in attracting visitors, since they don’t benefit from the automatic tourist throngs that constitute a substantial proportion of visits to museums in large metropolitan areas.  So it’s understandable that dramatic flourishes will have a special appeal to directors and staffs of those museums which need to work harder to attract repeat visitors.  The Worcester Art Museum, of which I was also director, has an ongoing tradition of “flower arrangements inspired by works of art” every winter.  I vaguely remember that it helped swell visit counts.

Still, it’s difficult for any museum to compete with the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s recent Costume Institute blockbuster, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.  The spectacles of most recent Costume Institute shows have reached new heights in pushing the extremes of museum installation techniques; so it feels somewhat curmudgeonly to complain that the extravaganza often elbows out whatever passes for serious content in these exhibitions.  The “catalogues” are presumably replete with weighty information, but I don’t invest in those props, which are quite costly (“It’s not a coffee table book; it’s a coffee table!”), albeit splendid.

There’s evidently an ongoing competition for each year’s museum fashion divertissement to outdo its predecessor.  With the added incentive of a certain content logic, this year’s exhibition played at two venues: the main store, now called “The Met Fifth Avenue” and farther north in Fort Tryan Park, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s amazing gift to New Yorkers, now known as “The Met Cloisters.”   While in previous years I tried to focus on the fashion content, albeit distracted by the glories of the installation, this time I found myself more interested in what happens during an intervention.  The fashions were jauntily installed in the midst of presumably related collections.  Certainly the medieval and Byzantine galleries housed dramatically placed dresses, 

although I found it a bit weird to move through the Byzantine corridor and look up the skirts of the rows of sequined dresses.  (I guess this obviates the old mirror-on-the-shoe trick.)

I can’t have been the only museum person to check out the visitors, to see whether any of them were also looking at the medieval or Byzantine art — wondering what the religious or visual connections might be.  But there seemed to be little of that.  Instead of the array of confused stray visitors trying to figure out which direction to follow, in the process bypassing some  inspiring Romanesque and Gothic carvings, people were stopped short by the glitter of gaudy fashion, at best tenuously linked to the art in the Medieval Court (officially Gallery 305).  The last time one saw such rapt crowds in that space was at Christmastime, for the Met’s annual display of the gorgeous  Christmas tree decorated with 18th century Neapolitan polychrome figures.

But the Fifth Avenue museum is so capacious and diffuse, and way-finding for the uninitiated is so complicated, that there seemed to be a general consensus that the Heavenly Bodies exhibition fared much better at the Cloisters.  For one thing, there’s a more-or-less unified visual environment in the mélange of bits and pieces of mostly ecclesiastical, mostly medieval, structures serving as a background for a great collection of medieval art.  For me it’s worth a visit just to see the so-called Mérode Altarpiece, the sublimely beautiful 1427 triptych, Annunciation with Donors, ascribed to Robert Campin and his workshop.

A single elegant red velvet gown, whose designer’s name I can’t recall, was placed (not quite juxtaposed) in that room presumably to relate to the Virgin’s crimson robe; but alas, the painting far outshone the fashion.  Not that anyone seemed to be looking at the painting, although it’s high on many lists of the great works of art resident in New York.

Most of the other fashion interventions were more visually dramatic, and thus presumably more successful — from an “installation glamour” point of view.  I’m skeptical about using The Met Cloisters and fashion to promote the idea of faux piety, but there’s no denying that some  breathtaking theatrical ensembles were created.

If by “the Catholic imagination” we are meant to understand fantasy, then this section of the exhibition succeeded better than previous Costume Institute extravaganzas which depended primarily on brilliant stage designers/installation artists.

Where it worked, the architectural setting was wonderfully evocative.  But these were about formal concerns and about riffs — some pretentiously sanctimonious, others slyly blasphemous — which is what much of high fashion is about anyway.

Were we meant to see “the Catholic imagination” as humorous?  Perhaps.  Ironically the most object-based juxtaposition  — by which I mean inviting comparison of a museum object with a fashion object — concerned death, with the placement of a dressed model next to a stone tomb.

Now and again visual themes or images from”art” turned up, and although they were sometimes beautiful, they screamed superficiality.  My favorite was the fluffy-skirted dress with the embroidered unicorn on the jacket.

Since the Unicorn Tapestries (1495-1505) are among the most popular of the works on display at the Cloisters, this was fun to see (would that the dress had been more attractive).  And my sense was that it was the one room in which people were casting their eyes back and forth between the embroidered jacket and the tapestries on the wall.  Since unicorn carries layers of meaning, both religious and erotic, this maybe-a-wedding-dress did not feel out of place here.

The workmanship involved in creating a sexy Adam & Eve-ning gown was as awesome as some of the artistry involved in making the medieval art symbolically elbowed out by this fashion show.  But to me it felt like just another use of a visual theme, plucked from art, that we often see on all sorts of clothing, albeit on a much more refined level here.

Elsewhere, playing  architectural forms against straw hats turned out to be an especially engaging trick.

Yes, I realize that much of (most of?) this “fashion” isn’t necessarily meant to be worn by real people.  Maybe that’s why the Met calls that department Costume Institute?  In which case maybe theatre designs by Picasso or Schlemmer or Hockney could be shown by that museum department.  But no — that would likely be under the aegis of one of the other “departments.”

What struck me the most at both venues of this spectacular “fashion” exhibition was the problem created by placing the “clothes” in the middle of collection galleries.  The primary message in doing this is that the museum’s holdings can serve as theatrical props.  There is little evidence that visitors engaged with the museum’s own works while ogling the clothes.  (I would love to be proven wrong; perhaps the Met has done a serious study of this.)  I’m an inveterate museum eavesdropper, and my favorite collection-based comment was overheard at the Cloisters, as a lady was mistakenly reading a label for the room’s architecture, thinking it was for a dress.  “I thought Catalonia was in California,” she said.  Her friend told her she was thinking of Catalina Island.  But the not-so-far-from-Hollywood reference seemed very apt to me.

The Met’s recently-appointed director, Max Hollein, has said: “I’m not so keen on putting one contemporary piece smack in the middle of the Greek and Roman gallery and saying, ‘Well, here is a dialogue.'”  That’s reassuring, and we’ll see about that soon enough.

Meanwhile, back in intervention-land, the Frick Collection has announced that in 2019 an exhibition by celebrity British ceramic artist, Edmund de Waal, “will be displayed in the museum’s main galleries alongside works from the permanent collection.”  I am a great admirer of de Waal’s work, having first encountered it in his Signs and WondersI installationI (2009), which sits precariously around the upper edge of the rotunda in the ceramics galleries of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum — although you have to know it’s there and look up to see it.

So much about de Waal’s work focuses on subtlety and perception (not a specialty of Costume Institute shows), that his Frick intervention could be exciting.  Moreover, it sounds as if the idea of this exhibition is to create a visual collaboration between whatever de Waal creates and how he manages to install it.  His exquisite installation, White, which was installed in the Royal Academy’s Library and Print room (2015-16) was understated and controlled, accentuating much about this rarely-seen space and its contents.

So there’s every reason to be excited about a de Waal collaboration with the Frick Collection.

Meanwhile, back at The Met Cloisters, I was remembering one of my favorite to-do projects, although I’ll probably never get to it: I imagine sad monologues recited by lonely masterpieces that get passed by because, in the rush of blockbusteritis, no one manages to see them.  Like this guy, the magically-carved, linden wood, Seated Bishop, ca. 1495, by Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531).

There he was, near the entrance, ready to welcome one and all to Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.  But no one looked at the poor fellow.

Postscript:  The Met announced record numbers of visitors at the close of the exhibition.  Clearly that proves something.  And after the close.

 

Surprises in San Francisco

I thought I knew the SF museums well, but it’s fun to keep finding new ways of seeing familiar places.
SFMOMA – Oy! I forgot how much the new building mimics NYMoMA (or the last iteration, not the coming one). Long lines for both tickets and members area (I chose to show my ICOM card at the tickets line, which moved faster than the members line). Then the awkwardly placed ropes and stanchions for crowd control and entry; it’s as if they didn’t know they would have ticketed entry when they designed that area, which is awkward to access in any case.  But the real discovery(?) for me was the Magritte exhibition. He’s really boring (or at least they make him seem so), and a painter of limited abilities. The familiar stuff is fine (but a yawn in this installation, and in the hi-falutin art-speak on the wall panels). When he experiments(?), he’s just not a very good painter (which is why we haven’t seen those paintings in most previous exhibitions). As for the collections, it reminded me of the menus that say “market price” on some items. It’s filled with too much of the same “great names of modern/contemporary art” and too little else. (It’s difficult not to remember that many of these paintings would fetch more than Rembrandt, et al, at auction.) One can only hope that determined visitors (there didn’t appear to bee too many) will manage to find the “old” SFMoMA collections, hidden near the entry level, where the spectacular Haas Matisse is still spectacular, as are a lot of other wonderful works that remind you SFMoMA was once an early force in shaping American museum directions in contemporary art (e.g., Grace McCann Morley, etc. — she was also a pioneering woman museum director: 1935!!).  And it’s here that you will encounter some (if not enough) of the California artists you might have thought would make it upstairs in the new building.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum – It was never high on my list of admirable places, especially since the raison d’être was sort of like “if we are cultured and community-minded, then that’s the same as being Jewish [since we really wish we weren’t Jewish in the first place]”.  And it includes another one of Libeskind’s unusable (common euphemism for them: “challenging”) spaces.  So I was pleasantly surprised at the current exhibition “Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists” (16 of them) — a concept that would ordinarily be a complete turnoff to me.  But starting with Rube Goldberg (one of the few here actually born in California), this is an eclectic and interesting exhibition, with a range of artists and ideas that are much more engaging than the limited tastes shown at SFMoMA, and sort of unified by the concept that their “work refers to the machine either literally or metaphorically.”  It even includes an amazing huge interactive piece by Bernie Lubell, who was once (long ago) married to my wife’s cousin.

Legion of Honor – A bunch of not very interesting Julian Schnabel “paintings” interspersed with Rodin don’t make a convincing case for his current work. (Maybe he should stick with film?). And I forgot how uneven (that’s the kindest word) the European collection is, although there are some zappo paintings (just not enough of them). But there’s a wonderful small Cubist illustrated artist book exhibition downstairs. And a Pre-Raphaelite show, which I skipped, because my ICOM card was only good for general admission and I wasn’t about for fork over $28 for a special exhibition.

DeYoung – I’m not a big fan of the Herzog/deMeuron building (and in any case you only get to sort of see it all if you’re at the Academy of Science across the plaza). But I thought the range of what’s on view very impressive. The American art is really exciting (thanks to the Rockefellers, but not only to them), with whole groups of substantial first rate works (landscapes, portraits, trompe l’oeil

genre, etc.) and good wall panels to tell you something about each room (the Legion does that as well, but has less to work with). The display of “craft” artists (loathesome way of categorizing, my term, not theirs) is also great, mostly segregated from the rest of the art, but occasionally not. Why don’t we see Voulkos,

DeStaebler,

Viola Frey or a slew of these other artists at SFMoA (which has them in the collection)?  The strength and range of the Saxe gifts is super, especially since it does so much to expand our understanding of an important aspect of California art. There’s also a powerful Judy Dater exhibition,

as well as an exciting installation of their modern/contemporary collection that juxtaposes interesting works with one another.

 The deYoung shows real respect for California artists (which is more than you can say for SFMoMA). It may not be a truly encyclopedic museum, but it is energetic and exciting in its range. (Again I didn’t see the special exhibition, “Cult of the Machine”, because I wasn’t about to pay $28.)
Moral(?) of the story: You need to keep going back to familiar places because you see them differently every time you visit.

Vermeer at the National Gallery of Art in 1996: – Revisiting Visitor Abuse

In February 1996, when I was working at the Smithsonian, I wrote an essay about my experience standing in line to see the Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery.  I was never able to get anyone to publish it, and since this predated having everything on one hard drive, I lost the essay in the débris of my files.  But file archaeology recently turned up the essay, and I thought it might be fun to share it (I haven’t edited it at all), since it seems no less apropos now than when I wrote it.  Hopefully the link will open for interested readers

1996_TLF_Vermeer

Albright-Knox Art Gallery expansion plans generates discussion!

This is a letter I wrote to Mark Byrnes, who wrote an interesting article in CityLab, which criticizes the plans for the expansion of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery.  I don’t know Mr. Byrnes, but admire the range of his interests in architecture and urban design issues and the passion with which he writes about everything.  I haven’t heard back from Mr.Byrnes (don’t expect to) and as a courtesy I sent a copy to the museum’s Director, Janne Sirén.  I thought it might be interesting to post here because this is likely to be an ongoing discussion between and among preservationists and lots of others.

 

June 12, 2017

Mr. Byrnes:

I don’t entirely agree with everything you write about the AKAG plans, etc., but I really enjoyed the scope and span of your article! I’m hopeful that, as happens now and again, the discussions generated by the [perhaps premature?] release of the architectural plans, will lead to a more felicitous solution.

For some time I resented the Albright Art Gallery (as it was when I grew up nearby) for having torn down the greenhouse that once stood where the Bunshaft building now stands. Lots of happy memories of childhood visits with my mother, who taught me how to nick bits of plants which we could then root in little clay pots at home.

Then came change. While I loved the Bunshaft building when it opened with Seymour Knox’s name attached (his family had a long history of support for the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy anyway), I soon realized that its stunning beauty masked its lack of accommodating what had become one of the great collections of post-WWII American art. Those parts of the collection always looked better in the elegant galleries of the old building. I had left Buffalo in 1955, so wasn’t watching all this on a daily basis, but even works that I had loved — e.g., Gauguin’s Yellow Christ, the Delacroix, Courbet, and other seminal works — never looked good in the corridor that surrounded the elegant courtyard. One saw them en passant, as it were. Other favorites of mine — e.g., Hogarth’s The Lady’s Last Stake, Reynolds’ Cupid as a Link Boy, etc., were usually shown in the old galleries, and looked wonderful there, as did the Clyfford Still paintings. The myopia of previous administrations and boards led to misguided deaccessions, but one of my favorites (and the first work of antiquity with which I personally bonded), Artemis and the Stag, now graces the big southern courtyard of the Met, so I get to see it regularly down the street from my home. Nice for me. Not great for Buffalo kids who can no longer bicycle to gawk at a magical bronze while simultaneously leaning about both art and mythology. That’s also now a long-ago change, and even I must face that reality.

While I admire the refinement of the Bunshaft building as an objet Id’art, rethinking the museum’s gallery’s needs has been long in coming. I live in NYC much of the time, and I greatly admire the Lever Building, and am pleased that whoever now owns and/or occupies it hasn’t crapped it up; but Bunshaft designed it as an office building and presumably it is. Even the Albright’s splendid glass box auditorium (replacement for the earlier glass greenhouse) is pretty funny if you stop and consider that a Miesian glass cube needs to have cumbersome curtains to make it functional. Elegance only works when it really works. And perhaps the best Buffalo example of that is Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s still-beautiful Kleinhans Music Hall — another building that shaped me indelibly.

So I’m hoping that your article, and others, will generate the kind of debate that helps the museum’s leadership get it right. In my naive confidence, I want to believe that they will.

Cheers,
Tom (Freudenheim)

Grayson Perry at Serpentine Gallery: We Are Not Amused!

The trouble with one-liners: they usually don’t resonate past your first chuckle. So I was wondering whether the fairly significant crowd at “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever” – currently yukking it up at London’s Serpentine Gallery – was there for the fun or for the functioning air conditioning. It was, after all, a forty-year heat record day in a city where aircon isn’t standard fare.  Alas, the galleries themselves were the only cool thing about this show.

Winning the 2003 Turner Prize catapulted Grayson Perry (b. 1960) into the UK’s artistic stratosphere, overtaking his previous fame as a cross-dresser.  In 2008 Perry was ranked number 32 in The Telegraph’s list of the “100 most powerful people in British culture“.  Godknows why!  The gallery’s website claims that Perry is “one of the most astute commentators on contemporary society and culture.”  This Serpentine exhibition reveals the artist at play with what appears to be a limitless array of mediums and a limited range of ideas. On the one hand, we can admire the ambition of an artist who works (or plays) with painting, sculpture, ceramics

grayson-perry-transvestite-brides-of-christ,

(this piece not in show)

textile (tapestry)

IMG_1801

woodblock printing

IMG_1805,

and assemblage

IMG_1809.

Indeed, each artifact in this show is finished with a polish that reassures us of the artist’s painstaking efforts at proving himself a master of so many ways of making art.

On the other hand, it’s disconcerting to move through an exhibition constantly thinking of other artists – and remembering that their oeuvres are more developed and (alas) more interesting.  Even the show’s title brings up memories of Koman & Melamid’s “People’s Choice” projects of the 1990’s (democracy and elitism by statistics) https://www.diaart.org/program/exhibitions-projects/komar-melamid-the-most-wanted-paintings-web-project.  One enters the exhibition confronted by impressive colorfully-glazed ceramics, one of which has cute ‘art’ and other commercial names all over it. But the loudest names here are actually Robert Arneson https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Arneson, Rudy Autio http://www.rudyautio.com, and Viola Fry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viola_Frey, whose ideas underpin Perry’s, even when I couldn’t find their names on the sides of the largest vessel.

A few Koons-like gestures felt even more lame – ironically because they didn’t have the grandiose ambitions that inflate (pun intended!) Koons’ work and reputation.

IMG_1796

Faux African wooden sculptures, cast in bronze, reminded me of Damien Hirst’s Venice project.

IMG_1803

There was even a hint of Mary Bauermeister’s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Bauermeister stones-and-rock sculptures.

IMG_1798

I know it’s problematic to judge visitor reactions checking out their facial and body language, but my guess is that this is a project whose presumed irony and entertainment value seemed lost on most of the viewers. They appeared more grateful for the opportunity to escape London’s oppressive, if brief, heat wave.

Postscript: In the interest of full disclosure, I can report returning on a non-heat-wave-Sunday to find people queuing (Brit-style) to enter this overblown show.

 

Venice Report #1: Fools’ Gold

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” But what if I didn’t get fooled at all, even though you tried? Damn: the cliché doesn’t include that.

Those are my Damien Hirst-related thoughts after visiting “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice, the biggest hanger-on to this year’s Venice Biennale.

IMG_1355 IMG_1352 IMG_1350

IMG_1468 IMG_1470

OK, we already knew that Damien Hirst was all about money. Remember his 2007 diamond-encrusted skull, with 8601 flawless pavé-set diamonds?

Image result for damien hirst skull

Remember how relieved we were to know that all the diamonds were ethically sourced for the work? Were you tempted to buy one of the limited edition (1000) silkscreen prints with glaze and diamond dust on the skull, because you couldn’t afford the real thing?

Well, diamonds may be forever, but they just start as some crappy coal bits from the ground. Which isn’t nearly as interesting as finding a nature-encrusted long-lost sunken treasure in the sea. The brilliance of this Damien Hirst conception is somewhere in the realm of classic one- liner jokes: “why did the chicken cross the road” and its relatives, e.g., “why do firemen wear red suspenders?” and so on.  At the Dogana we even are treated to a pithy epigram, presumably from the artist’s own intellect, slightly less deep than the waters from which these treasures were “rescued”: “Somewhere between lies and truth lies the truth”

IMG_1169

Even Bruce Nauman does better than that!

Image 6-5-17 at 11.17 PM

It’s impossible not to concede that Hirst’s double-whammy exhibition (two major venues) is spectacular and brilliantly conceived. (Perhaps the guy who originally thought of asking why a chicken crossed a road was no dope, either.)  But since the joke is so lame, one is mostly overwhelmed by the spectacle and the presumed cost of arranging it all. Sort of Las Vegas, but without the fun. Hirst has made a lot of money in the inflated art market. After all, why should the dealers be the only ones to get rich? And the cost of creating his fantasy – surely many millions – has not been revealed (so far). Nor has the hefty investment of his patron, François Pinault, owner of Christie’s and a lot more, to make this greatest show on earth (well, in Venice, anyway) possible. Supposedly the works have been offered to collectors at prices start at around $500,000 apiece and rising to upward of $5 million. But they aren’t on the market yet (or maybe they are), so who knows.

The artifice could be considered “brilliant” if it weren’t such an obvious and shabby hoax. I have a long-time hoax fetish, so after an artist friend of mine told me he was confused when he first visited the show, thinking it might really be an underwater discovery, I was excited at the prospect that someone had carried it off. But alas, it’s lame. You never get sucked into the story, despite a 72-page booklet (free with entry ticket!) and

IMG_1189

the staggering amount of technology and money and thought and analysis that has gone into making it an exciting hoax. It’s not even a fun hoax. A few years ago my college classmate, Arthur’s, wife sent us all an e-mail telling us that Arthur had died, and we responded with condolences and reminiscences. So we were pretty pissed off when Arthur told us he was still around (sadly, in the meantime his wife has died). But we got the idea that we all had our collective leg pulled and that the hoax had worked.

The fantasy that Damien Hirst creates is about the discovery of a sunken ship, the Apistos, off the coast of East Africa. The owner, a freed slave, who lived between the mid-first and early second centuries C.E., had amassed one hundred fabled treasures – “commissions, copies, fakes, purchases, and plunder” – and after the vessel foundered, all of this “lay submerged in the Indian Ocean for some two thousand years before the site was discovered in 2008.” A model of the ship has been created, along with a sophisticated video assist — touch-screen and all — that helps you navigate (pun intended) the ship’s interior to see where the treasures are believed to have been before the Apistos sank.

IMG_1069

The exhibition displays the discovered objects, as well as spectacular films — the kind we see in science museums — documenting the raising of these treasures from the ocean’s floor. Watching recovery sea divers at work, and then seeing those very objects in the gallery should be thrilling. But it isn’t. How not to think about what it must have cost to create these objects, hire the ships and divers, pay for underwater film crews, put the artifacts into the ocean (or water somewhere) just for filming and then get them back up for display. It’s staggering! An amazing theatrical feat! Something on the order of Lon Chaney in “Hunchback of Notre Dame” or Arnold Schwartzenegger in “Terminator.” And while it may be extensively photoshopped, all the photo and film imagery looks really real.  (But remember, if you go to Atlantis in the Bahamas you might even find yourself in the water and have more fun.)  Then there’s the cost of the studio assistants (many!) to mold and carve and assemble all this stuff, some of which is immense, rising several stories inside (and outside) the fabulous exhibition spaces.

IMG_1184

This must have required a range of quite specialized  skills — involving more than what’s probably in the toolkits of the the many wannabe artists who are often studio assistants.  Simply supervising the entire confection has to have been incredibly labor intensive – and costly.  This could be a Harvard Business School management case study.

IMG_1051

Which is why I came away thinking mostly of deep pockets, and of all the HBS MBA’s who will be adding these things to their collections once the show is over.  And there’s a lot of stuff:  bronzes, marbles, carved precious stones, gold, and combinations of all of these.  It’s additionally reassuring to know all that glitters here really is gold.

IMG_1066 IMG_1176

That should suggest a wide price range for the various galleries who will carry on the artist’s exercise in ripping off the public by ripping off collectors. But hey, we already know that a lot of collectors want to be ripped off. Otherwise they might worry that they aren’t genuine collectors.  Anyone want an Aztec sundial with sea creatures attached?

IMG_1170

Almost better than the one in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology:

Image 6-5-17 at 10.51 PM

This is not to suggest that the exhibition(s) doesn’t have its thrilling moments. Who would have thought that an image of Jane Curtin as Connie Conehead

IMG_1179

would have made it to the bottom of the Indian Ocean two millennia ago. Cif Amotan II, the freed ex-slave who amassed this treasure before his ship sank, obviously had very eclectic tastes (and was a SNL fan to boot). Mickey Mouse and a lot of other lesser-known characters also make their appearance here, as do a few Jeff Koons-type figures,

IMG_1180

and even several Nancy Graves knock-offs (who knew that

IMG_1058

Damien Hirst ever heard of Nancy Graves?). But Nancy Graves (1939-95) lived in the olden days, and was just a regular very talented artist working in less opulent materials (see below).

th

I kept thinking of one of my favorite “expansive” art works: The Marie de Medici 24-picture cycle of paintings at the Louvre, painted for the Luxembourg Palace between 1622 and 1625 by Peter Paul Rubens and (probably) a slew of studio assistants.

th th th

Rubens must have run a pretty complex shop to handle some of these big commissions.  And he achieved some serious status: raised by Philip IV of Spain to the nobility in 1624, and knighted by Charles I of England in 1630, he even made a lot of money.  But Rubens was a obviously piker compared to Damien Hirst!

And always the former museum person, I kept thinking of all the museums that could use this sophisticated and costly technology and installation know-how to enhance the accessibility of their not-fake collections.  So many museums for which this expertise would enrich entire communities, not just the privileged art groupies (including yours truly) who trek to the Biennale biennially.

Try to imagine yourself spending a whole evening with your uncle who does nothing but tell corny jokes. You don’t want to be rude and tell him to fuck off, because he’s your uncle. You don’t want to groan and roll your eyes too much, but you can’t help it and you hope his hearing and seeing might not be too great, so he won’t notice. This expensive extravaganza is sort of like that. You get your ticket and you hope that maybe, just maybe, around the corner you’ll discover something new. But you won’t. Good god, Messrs. Hirst and Pinault, at least try to fool me once!

Chairs: Mixed Messages

The devastation from recent earthquakes (2010, 2011, 2016) which struck Christchurch (NZ) make the city look a lot like Berlin in the 1990’s: ruin, demolition, cranes, and construction sites everywhere.

IMG_6890

IMG_6848

An impressive overview of what Christchurch looked like pre-earthquake can be seen in a profusely-illustrated book by John Wilson http://www.nationwidebooks.co.nz/author/john-wilson.  The loss to architectural history is probably a major boon to the construction industry, the number of construction workers presumably matched by the number of suppliers for steel, glass, concrete, etc.  It boggles the mind!

Disasters also inevitably generate memorials, and Christchurch has managed a powerful, albeit understated, one.

IMG_6838

An array of empty chairs occupies a field across the street from the city’s 2013 celebrated so-called “Cardboard Cathedral” (officially Transitional Cathedral) by noted Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban (about which I will write separately).

IMG_6847

The work of artist Pete Majendie http://www.185chairs.co.nz/, this memorial is as simple and eloquent as any I’ve seen: 185 chairs, one for each person killed in the February 2011 quake.  All the chairs are white — kept clean by volunteers — and mostly different from one another.  Simple side chairs, comfy easy chairs, children’s high chairs — coalesce to suggest an uncanny feeling of variety that personalizes what might otherwise feel anonymous.

IMG_6840

Perhaps most heartbreaking is the infant seat in the front row.

IMG_6841

In our culture we focus so much on perpetrators and victims, on families and stakeholders, that one is struck here by the absence of the many added layers of meaning and interpretation which often accompany memorials — perhaps because the perpetrator here was Mother Nature, and one is confused about just how angry one can be with her.  But who is to plumb the depths of grief in the survivors’ feelings?

So it was somewhat startling to walk directly from this memorial to the Christchurch Art Gallery https://christchurchartgallery.org.nz/ and find yet another chair iteration — here a decorative and celebratory one.

IMG_6854

IMG_6863

IMG_6860

Hanging above the main staircase is an array of chairs and fluorescent lights that add a festive note to the museum’s modernist architecture, designed by the Buchan Group, who won a 1998 competition (limited to New Zealand architects).

  1. IMG_6888

The massive glass facade creates a welcoming vast lobby space (free admission!), and the capacious, serene galleries (filled with a range of interesting and engaging exhibitions) give no evidence of the museum’s use as the Emergency Operating Centre following the earthquakes. The building only reopened in December 2015, after repairs were made to its extensive damage.

But all of a sudden this floating array of chairs felt out of place — mocking the simple chair memorial I had just seen, a mere ten-minute walk away.  Which is, of course, a lesson in how easily we read and misread what we see.  Because we can’t help but add what we know to what we see.  Indeed, art museums play an important role in assisting our understanding of this.  I also couldn’t help but recall Don McLean’s line, “…empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs…” http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=12780 in his dirge-like Starry Starry Night, which matched my sense of the Christchurch earthquake memorial.  In this city empty chairs cascading near a museum ceiling feel somewhat less joyful than the architects/designers likely intended.  And 185 of them in a field can be splendidly eloquent.  Such are the ironies of contexts and their mixed messages.

Six of one…. Libraries vs. Museums?

I can’t think of a more inspiring NYC institution than the New York Public Library.  It’s still rich with the unnecessary spatial trappings that are often too costly to be included in today’s buildings (with the possible exception of the new Calatrava extravaganza downtown).  I like to think that the grand staircases outside and in, elaborate lobby spaces, murals, and inevitable sense of ceremony impact even those serious folks who labor daily in the glorious Rose Reading Room or in one of the less majestic study rooms.  All those amenities may not address the NYPL’s main raison d’être, but I find them a lure even though I’m not a regular researcher any more.  And a recent visit reminded me of the various anti-institutional protest movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, which ranted not only against cultural elitism and workers rights, but also about the off-putting architecture of museums, with their classical facades and elaborately-staired approaches.  That puzzled me since, growing up near what was then Buffalo’s Albright Art Gallery — with its elegant Greek revival building, designed by Edward B. Green for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (but not opened until 1905) — I always delighted in the sense of going to a special place for a special experience; not off-putting to me!  In those days one walked up lots of stairs (not quite Rocky’s climb at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but nevertheless awesome for an impressionable child); that was before Gordon Bunshaft’s now-iconic, International Style, 1962 addition made entering more practical, if also more banal.

I remember that feeling of uplift every time I wander into the NYPL, as I did to view the strange, but fascinating current exhibition, A Curious Hand: The Prints of Henri-Charles Guérard (1846-1897).  Not on my radar screen, Guérard turns out to be a masterful printmaker both for technical prowess and for the range of his visual interests.  Working to help Manet with his own prints, and producing copies of etchings by famous predecessors such as Rembrandt, Guérard’s main interest for me is the range of bizarre, occasionally kinky (not sexual!) imagery.  He plays with Japonisme influenced by Hokusai. IMG_5792

He channels Poe, who had recently been translated by Mallarmé, in one of the show’s most impressive images. IMG_5783.

He puzzles with inexplicable, but exquisitely-executed, grotesqueries: who knows what a skull has to do with origami? IMG_5785 I’m not sure you come away from the exhibition with a clear understanding of what this guy was all about, but for sheer visual and technical delight, it’s worth a visit.  And you get to experience that great building to boot!

And it’s a short walk from the NYPL to the Morgan Library and Museum.  Changing its name a few years ago — presumably because being a library wasn’t sexy enough, and the Morgan folks hadn’t heard that museums are (citing a young Renzo Piano, long before he screwed up the Morgan’s architectural ensemble) “dreary, dusty and esoteric institutions” — it’s still one of the most wonderful islands of pleasure on Manhattan Island.  It’s also where one always stretches one’s concept of visual pleasure, no more so than with the current Emily Dickinson exhibition, I’m Nobody! Who are you?  You can really get sucked into the glories of her penmanship and a few (not enough!) poems in her hand.  I was relieved to find one of my childhood favorites: IMG_5839

“I heard a Fly buzz — when I died –”  And here one also sees Dickinson less as the famous recluse of our collective mythologies and more as someone engaged with others.

A small exhibition in the Morgan’s Thaw Gallery, Delirium: The Art of the Symbolist Book is interesting for somehow drawing together a range of imaginations that connect Guérard and Dickinson with the Symbolists here, among whom are writers and artists Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Alfred Jarry, Maurice Maeterlinck, Odilon Redon, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Fantin-Latour, Henry van de Velde, and Fernand Khnopff.  I noticed a book (Les Vierges illustrated by József Rippl-Rónai) by Belgian writer, George Rodenbach (1855-98), whose compelling short Symbolist novel, Bruges-la-Morte, I discovered after it had been featured in one of the WSJ’s weekly Masterpiece features a few years ago.  It was also fun to see Paul Verlaine’s Parallelèment (1900) “considered to be the first modern artist’s book” illustrated by Pierre Bonnard, in its deluxe edition  All these years I thought my fancy little edition of the book was deluxe; I guess not.

IMG_5857

So what’s a library and what’s a museum?  Who the hell cares?