Sunday, May 15, 2022

Banned Book Clubs

I am writing this just before we are heading to Miami for the university graduation of a grandson. I have had this fantasy of Governor DeSantis greeting us at the airport and at first, I thought I would spit in his face for his autocratic rule. Then I thought that may not be the most diplomatic thing to do!

Why not thank him for his banning books in his state’s schools. Why, you might ask. Simple answer: if you have ever had or interacted with children you know that there is no better way to motivate a child to do something than telling them not to.

I am sure you have read the HEADLINES:

The New York Times:
Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal:
More Than 1,000 Books Banned from Schools Since July 2021, Study Finds

Newsweek Magazine: 
Recent Surge in Banned Books Targets Titles, With Focus on Race, Sexuality

From the Miami Herald:
Banning Books in America is a Sorry Vote for Ignorance

Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald

I could go on and on. Thank goodness it has made so many headlines. People say to me that is not as extreme as burning books. True, but all the books could not be burned: a few always survived. There are so many issues regarding autocratic censorship but at this point, the backlash has resulted in ameliorations of the problem.

Did you know there has been a Banned Books Week since 1982? In 2022 the dates of the event will be September 18-24. By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.

Banned Book Clubs are nothing new, they have just had impetus from recent actions of state governments and parents who want to decide what students and the general population should read and learn. If you think about it there are so many people who want to tell you what is good and bad for you. But I won’t go down that rabbit hole.

Bookstores have started Banned Book Clubs. You might think that banned book clubs in bookstores have commercial motives but do not believe it. If you start a book store it is not to make a fortune but because you enjoy books and think it is an important contribution to the community and society in general. King's Books in Tacoma, Washington started a Banned Book Club a decade ago that has been meeting monthly ever since. Needless to say, it has garnered a lot more interest lately.

It is not just bookstores that have Banned Book Clubs. The American Library Association keeps lists of challenged and banned books in order to inform the public about censorship efforts that affect libraries and schools. In 2021 there were 729 books on their list which a person or a group was trying to suppress and eliminate from public libraries. I am sure that list has grown since then and governments are one step away from that mostly addressing l libraries in schools.

Happily, individual libraries and librarians are at the forefront of keeping freedom to read what you wish alive and encouraging young people to learn history and societies priorities through reading. The Brooklyn Public Library is offering free digital library cards to young people ages 13 to 21 across in the U.S.

To my delight I now know that teens themselves are starting these clubs, not just to read the banned books but most importantly to discuss them. What better way to learn than by hearing what others think about what has been read? In-school clubs, however, need to be run by the students themselves without teacher involvement as teachers could be in danger of losing their jobs or worse. If you think I am exaggerating Governor Glenn Youngkin has set up a tip line for people in Virginia to report educators who are teaching critical race theory.

An encouraging example of a youngster taking things into her own hands is the story of a 14-year-old 8th grader, Joslyn Diffenbaugh. Learning about the efforts in Texas to remove some books from school libraries. She got together with her local bookstore the Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and started their Banned Book Club which now meets every other week to discuss books that have been contested.

Progress depends on young people being curious and reading opens the world to them.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Imagining Native Americans

If you are a passionate collector, you often purchase more works of art than you can fit into your home and that is what closets are for!

I was doing a little spring cleaning and came across this engraving we bought many years ago when we visited a London drawings dealer. It neither fit into his inventory nor in our collection but the image of an imaginary Indian in headdress we found amusing. The print is signed Albert Welti fec, the artist, and Hch. Wetteroth impr., the printer. Title translated from the German, “The Poor Sinners’ Entry into Heaven”. Albert Welti (1862-1912) was a painter and etcher, born in Zurich and died in Bern. Except for some studies in Munich it seems he did not travel and presumably had never seen a native American.

The print inspired me to look into the subject of Indians seen through the eyes of non-Native artists.

What is believed to be the earliest rendering of Native Americans was discovered only a decade ago in the collection of the Vatican in a fresco by the Renaissance artist, Pinturicchio (1454-1513). Between 1492 and 1494 the artist was working in the Borgia apartments. During the restoration of the fresco an indistinct detail began to emerge of two naked men with headdresses. The director of the Vatican Museum, Antonio Paolucci posited that these were Native Americans as its date coincides with Christopher Columbus’ description of the inhabitants after his first trip to America. Here is an image of the entire fresco and the detail referred to.

In 1975-76 in celebration of our bicentennial the National Gallery in Washington D.C. together with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux de France in Paris, put on a traveling exhibition called, “The European Vision of America”. In it there was a tapestry over 11 by 16 feet designed by two Flemish artists and woven in Brussels in the late 17th century. Here you see the image of the Indian Princess mentioned below who became the standard symbol of the Americas for Europeans.

The Metropolitan Museum, which came rather late to collecting Native American Art, did an exhibition in 2018-19 called, “Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America.” The Museum’s description of the show states “European artists invented a visual vocabulary to depict America, creating long-lasting stereotypes such as the ‘Indian Princess’ and the ‘noble savage”. Of the 45 works from the Met collection in the show, this one seems very appropriate for our time. It is a drawing by an Anglo- American artist, Frederick Styles Agate (1803-1844) titled “Indians Lamenting the Approach of the White Man” ca.1830.

On this point present day Native Americans can agree. Note this canvas by Cochiti artist and cartoonist, Ricardo Caté.

The self-taught American artist George Catlin ((1796-1872) took a documentary approach. He had practiced law briefly and became interested in Native America when a delegation of Plains Indians arrived in Philadelphia on their way to Washington D.C. in 1828. Two years later he decided to move out west to St. Louis to record the Native American heritage before it disappeared in the rapid advance of the Anglo-American frontier. In 1839 he took his paintings and artifacts on tour through European capitals. British engravers created hand colored lithograph of the Catlin paintings that were disseminated far and wide feeding the fascination with a culture that was strange and new to Europeans.

In 2018-2019 the St. Louis University Museum of Art did an exhibition, “Race and Representation: Euro-American Depictions of Native Americans and Their Culture.” It included “The Buffalo Hunt, Chase” and “The Buffalo Hunt Surround” from Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, engraved by the British artist John McGahey in 1844. Did Catlin foresee that Indian hunters would be replaced by Anglos firing from trains for sport and decimating the herds?

Most people, even in this country, are unaware of the rich culture of Native America. We left New York in ignorance, since the Indians represent just .2% of the population in the entire state; to live in New Mexico where they represent 10% and there are 8 pueblo tribes living within an hour and a half of our house. You do not have to leave this country to learn about another culture, and leave the fantasies behind.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Drama of Dust & Sandstorms

The other day in Santa Fe we got an Emergency Message on our phones from whomever sends out these things. It said, “High Winds and Dust Storms. No visibility. Pull over to the side of the road. Turn off your engine and turn off your headlights.” Happily, we were at home. We just closed our windows, though the temperature outside had reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and marveled at the swinging trees, hoping no branches would fall on the house. The only difference between our “high desert” dust storms and desert sandstorms is the size of the particles the wind picks up from the surface of the dry earth.

There are so many threats these days from environmental phenomena in different parts of the United States, but they are not new nor unique to this country. The first thing I thought of was “The Dust Bowl” of the 1930’s caused by high winds during an excessively dry period. The winds carried dust in the region from Texas to Nebraska asphyxiating people and livestock, and ruining crops.

The dust bowl offered a great subject for artists. I discovered on line a record of the painting “Drought” by Joseph Paul Vorst (1897-1947) sold at auction in 2014. It illustrates the devastating impact of a dust storm in Boise, Oklahoma in 1935. Vorst has been credited as the most significant Latter-day Saint painter of his time. He was born and educated in Germany and came to the States in 1930. His work has been exhibited in many major American museums including the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the White House!

The drama of dust storms has attracted artists from other countries as well. A Hungarian artist, Peter Zelei captured a dust storm in a photograph taken in 2017. Though the image may be manipulated, as its dimensions of 27.56 inches square, it must envelope the viewer in the actual experience. I might start out with this photo as the introduction to my imaginary exhibition.

A pen, wash and chalk drawing In the Metropolitan Museum by the British artist William West (1801-1861) ”A Column of Oriental Travelers Scattered by a Dust Storm” suggests his biblical scene of Israelites passing through the wilderness preceded by a pillar of clouds. Looking at details there seem to be people and a camel running from the whirlwinds termed dust devils.

Desert sandstorms provided a popular subject for Orientalist painters.
Ludwig Hans Fischer (1848-1915) was an Austrian artist who received a grant in 1875 to travel to the Middle East and Palestine where he recorded his impressions in watercolor sketches. This watercolor that was sold at auction in 2019 titled “The Khamsin” (1891), evokes the effect of that dry, hot, sandy wind of the Middle East.

Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844-1905) an Italian artist was very well connected. He knew Queen Victoria and received commissions from the British Royal family. His extensive travels included Egypt and Syria and offered the opportunity to view and paint its sandstorms like this “Camel Train in a Sandstorm.” His work can be found in the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Dahesh in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago as well as museums in Qatar and Rome.

Switching continents, Andres Vivo (1955-) is from Uruguay where he still lives and works. He studied there with several well-respected Uruguayan artists. I found no evidence of his travel and there are no deserts in Uruguay, so I assume that this scene is from his imagination. He does say, “Painting the sea and sky provides me with the perfect excuse to express myself in my love of color and bold strokes.” I found this image in the Saatchi Gallery in Los Angeles.

Returning to the U.S. there is a work I wish I could have owned, an oil on paper by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) in the Detroit Institute of Arts. It symbolizes the westward expansion when people travelled for opportunity, from the Louisiana Purchase making swathes of land available for settlement, to the gold rush. In the process buffalo herds were decimated. Bierstadt made several trips out west, his first was in 1859 with Colonel Frederick Lander along the Oregon trail to South Pass, which is today in Wyoming. He found the land so exiting and painted great panoramic works to record the newest part of our relatively new country. Although he painted two large-scale canvases of the subject, “The Last of the Buffalo” 1888, this single figure “Buffalo in a Sandstorm” is a more poignant icon.

Depictions of the dust and sandstorms are romantic representations of a world one would rather not experience first-hand.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Social Commentary by Judith F. Baca

An exhibition called “Poetic Justice” currently at the New Mexico Museum of Art and runs through June 19, presents three artists who deal with social issues in very different ways, a Native American Artist Juane Quick-To See-Smith, African American Mildred Howard and Chicana Judith F. Baca. Merry Scully, chief curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art has hung the works of each artist separately as an exhibition within an exhibition. I was so intrigued by Baca’s work that I thought would write about it this week.

Baca was born and grew up in Los Angeles to Mexican-American parents, hence she can be termed a Chicana. She trained in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the Taller Siqueiros with the students of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, the greats of Mexican mural painting.

Los Angeles like many towns and cities was founded on a river. It started out more like a creek and ebbed and flowed with the seasons but sometimes flooded so that entrances to houses were left 5 feet off the ground. Eventually, they controlled the river in the San Fernando Valley by building a cement channel with walls over 13 feet high that contained the flooding.

In 1974 the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Judith Baca about the possibility of painting a mural there depicting the history of Los Angeles. The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), founded by Baca and others, raised funds for supplies and some recompense for the artists from various government agencies as well as the private sector. It included funds from the governmental juvenile justice funding sources where some of the artists came from.

The team of 80 youths and ten artists that Baca began with in 1976 grew over the years to 400+ collaborators. The mural, extended by 350 feet a year, grew to 2,754 feet. Since 2011 the required restoration from the weather and the river has been carried out. The project, now known as the Great Wall of Los Angeles, will continue to bring the history up to the present day for a total of one mile in length. Here is a digital image of a section of the great wall that is in the exhibition. You can imagine the size from the 3-seater bench in front. This segment represents “Division of the Barrios and Chavez Ravine” symbolizing how highways and even Dodger Stadium divided families and friends.

A digital image of the 1940’s section of the wall represents the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army that fought in World War II. It is known as the most decorated regiment in U.S. military history and was composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese American soldiers. At the same time as so many Japanese were interned in California and other states as enemy aliens!

One image has personal significance to me in that I remember, as a little boy, my parents and grandmother transfixed in front of our small television screen watching the McCarthy Hearings. Here is a lithograph from the exhibition replicated in the 1950’s section of the wall called “Red Scare and McCarthyism”.

Further social commentary by Baca can be seen in a sculpture made with acrylic paint, mixed media, Urethane on Styrofoam forms (2006) titled “Primero de Mayo, ‘Big Pancho” and the other “Winged Pancho’” The sleeping figures with sombreros represent a conventional, but derogatory image of Mexicans, the kind sold at the border in the form of souvenirs like salt and pepper shakers. To counter that, Baca has applied to one of the figures images of proud workers in the international workers day parade.

An object we can all relate to is Baca’s ice cream cart, “Paletas de la Frontera” (2021) created with funds from the New Mexico Museum of Art. In my photo you see on the front a young girl enjoying her ice cream: while on the sides are images of families gathered on either side of the border fence and good Samaritans handing bags of food to young people who have climbed atop a freight train which provided dangerous transport from the south to the U.S. border.

Judith F. Baca creates social commentary that everyone can understand.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Beyond Van Gogh

“Beyond Van Gogh” is the same concept as Immersive Klimt which I wrote about a couple of months ago:

This version is touring as I hope Klimt will. Previously it could be seen for some months in Los Angeles. As we were lucky enough that it came to Albuquerque, I thought that I should have the “Experiential” experience which I gather is “de rigueur” these days. I can tell you, up front, that it is not like standing in front of the original in a museum, but after all it is not intended to be.

We had bought our timed tickets online in advance. When we arrived at the venue, an old factory building, we were instructed to use the facilities before entering, for there were no toilets inside. They put out mobile portoasans which were relatively luxurious with running water.

The women at the exhibition entry were extremely polite answering any questions and explaining that photography and video were encouraged as long a flash was not used. They also wisely explained that one should not lean against the curtains or screens for there were no walls behind them! The first scenes you see are models of small Dutch towns of the kind that van Gogh and his brother Theo came from with huge curlicue clouds suspended above.

Then there are several rows of information panels. Coming from the world of ¾ of a century ago, we are used to reading wall labels but here each written statement was a huge projection with details from van Gogh paintings. We learned, for instance, that Vincent’s brother, Theo, was a successful art dealer and businessman, and it was thanks to his support that Vincent, who had tried other work, was finally allowed to concentrate on his art, as well as other factoids and quotes.

After walking through some curtained blank spaces, you turn a corner and enter the main event. It is a huge open space filled with what, at first, looks like just large still images, until everything starts to move, or at least that is the perception. If, as a child, you enjoyed spinning around until you were dizzy, you will get extra pleasure out of a show like this. It is not so much the that the images on the walls fade in and out, stars twinkle and water undulates but that the brushstrokes dissolve on the floor in continuous moving colors. This contributes to the feeling of total immersion or, if you are susceptible, to vertigo.

There are a few benches, and some visitors sat on the floor, but most people walked around and turned around as all four sides of the space and central columns had images. One couple even decided to dance to the accompanying music.

I asked a gentleman sitting next to me on a bench if he had ever seen an original Van Gogh painting. He asked, “In a museum?” when I replied in the affirmative, he said he had. At one point in the changing projections he said, “Cool” and I suggested that he probably had not said that in front of the far smaller original, he agreed. He loved the space given within the portraits and believed that the sitters looked so real. An interesting reaction since, van Gogh was quoted as saying, “…don’t become a slave to your model…take a model and study it, for otherwise your inspiration won’t take on material form”. Clearly van Gogh had no wish to paint photographic images but rather to capture the essence of his subjects.

When I asked my benchmate for his overall impression of the experience he answered, “Ask me in a week or two”.

Sunday, April 10, 2022


Love the idea of gallery hopping virtually and that is just what I was doing when I saw an announcement from the Hotel Drouot, the Paris auction house that hosts a number of auctioneers from different companies. Following up on one of its news stories I found the announcement of a Monet/Rothko exhibition at Le Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny, the village 45 minutes from Paris, where Claude Monet made his home and garden which has become a must for all lovers of the Impressionists.

Monet/Rothko seemed like a most unusual pairing until I started looking into it it and found it so interesting to see them side by side. I am sorry that I won’t be viewing the exhibition in person which will close on July 3.

Claude Monet, Weeping Willow, 1920 -1922, d’Orsay Museum,
Paris and Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black, 1957, Tate, London

Claude Monet (1840-1926) was born in Paris and lived in France his entire life except for two years (1860-61) in the French Army posted in Algeria. Mark Rothko was born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in Latvia, which at the time was part of Russia. He came with his father to the United States at the age of 10. Rothko did travel, not only back to Latvia but to many European countries including France.

Looking into the influencers for Mark Rothko (1903-1970) I found artists from Michelangelo to Klee. It would be easier to list who did not influence him! He was strongly impacted by the paintings of Rembrandt and Fra Angelico. He preferred Monet to Cezanne and upon visiting a Turner exhibition was quoted as jokingly saying “This man Turner, he learned a lot from me”. He was clearly highly educated and interested in mythology, Christian iconography and philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1668, The Hermitage; Rothko,
No. 210 No. 211, 1960, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

From the above paragraph you won’t be surprised that, in common with Monet, Rothko was not satisfied with what art school had to offer and changed his style often. Though Rothko has always been identified as an Abstract Expressionist he would deny it later in life. Monet, toward the end of his life, became more and more of a colorist and his images became less and less representational.

The comparisons between Monet and Rothko are not new and recent scholarship has shown that late Impressionism had a great influence on the Abstract Expressionists. Rothko was fascinated with the light in the Impressionists’ work but used it in a much more forceful manner.

Claude Monet, Tributary of the Seine near Giverny, 1897,
Paris, d’Orsay Museum Paris; Mark Rothko, Untitled,
1957, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

According to the commentary on the website of Normandie tourism “While Monet seeks to convey the immediacy of a feeling, Rothko attempts a more intense approach, where contemplation expands thought. Connecting Mark Rothko and Claude Monet means inviting the public to a visual and sensory experience. Visitor’s eyes, but also their perception of space and time, are subjected to an original artistic test…. Where the fleeting impression of the moment was Monet’s obsession, Rothko diluted space in the time of observation. Vertigo or contemplation, the exhibition will let the public find another perception of abstraction and modernity.”

This may be a bit too much art speak, but it is hard to make the comparisons in other ways since much is about one’s reaction to the art and is difficult to explain. I have written about Rothko several times and for me he has a mystical quality which fits in very well with the later work of Monet. What is so wonderful about art is that you don’t have to understand what the scholars and art historians say: it’s not science and your personal reaction is just as good as the next person’s.

Monet/Rothko is a small show, as exhibitions go, with just 6 works by each artist but it is an effective way to make a single point so viewers can contemplate the thesis and come to their own conclusions.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Art, a Clandestine CIA Operation

As I mentioned last week, I am listening to a book called, “Aftermath” by Harald Jähner about Germany after World War II. When Germany was split among the Allies into 3 zones, British, American and Russian. Berlin became the demarcation zone where the Russian, East Germany and Allies, West Germany met. The country only became one again in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down.

The Day the Berlin Wall Came Down

Hitler considered himself an artist and took his inspiration from the classics. He hated anything that one could refer to as modern and called it a degenerate product of Jews and Bolsheviks and a threat to the German national identity. In 1937, the Nazis confiscated 16,000 paintings from the German museums and put 650 of them one view in his “Degenerate Art” Exhibition. What Sotheby’s and Christies would give today to have that sale!

Needless to say, there was quite a difference between democratic ideals of the West and the autocratic systems of the Russian-dominated communist states of Eastern Europe. Without the state dictating taste Germans, in the western sector, were allowed to make their own choices of what they liked and did not like. This sudden freedom of choice became a voracious appetite for the new, and abstract art became a method of denazification.

In 1946 the State Department put on an exhibition titled “Advancing American Art” composed of 117 works of art it had purchased representing modernist trends. It was to show those abroad that the U.S. had a culture worthy of attention, and to counter our image as war mongers after atomic bombs were used in Japan. The President Harry Truman’s reaction to the show, however, was no help when he famously declared, “if this is art, I’m a Hottentot”. The press, led by Hearst newspapers lambasted the show with headlines such as “Your Money Bought these Paintings”. In the end the State Department had to sell the art. The exhibition, however, had already toured in Eastern Europe and Cuba and the genie could not be put back in the bottle.

West Germany and much of Europe related to the work of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock as their work was seen as an explosion of assertive individualism in reaction to the restraints of social realism. Congress, of course, was way too conservative to be willing to support such an outlandish concept. They called the abstract artists “Heretical Daubers”, so the CIA decided that to encourage openness, they had to work in secret! Members of a group within the CIA became art dealers arranging exhibitions abroad. Sometimes they turned to the Museum of Modern Art, in order to bring exciting works by Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman to a new audience.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A,
1948, Museum of Modern Art, New York

In his book “Aftermath” Jahner uses the career of Juro Kubicek (1906-1970) to illustrate the American program of influence through art. Kubicek had avoided the stigma of “degenerate art” by supporting himself as a commercial artist during the Nazi era. He emerged after 1945 as one of Berlin’s Fantasist painters and he caught the attention of an Allied official who was the President of the University of Louisville. In 1949 he was invited to teach and study at the University. When he returned to Berlin he opened a Work and Art Studio in Amerikahaus, a U.S. funded institution where Germans and Austrians could learn more about American culture and politics. At Amerikahaus he taught not only painting but applied arts that could be incorporated into the home. He used his American connections to organize numerous exhibitions and went on to become a professor at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts.

Amerikahaus, Berlin 1946

Music, movies, literature. Any form of the arts you can think of were used to break down the ingrown narrowmindedness that had been enforced by the Nazi regime. There was an appetite for fresh ideas particularly in the younger generation who had known nothing else. The arts were to prove to be one of the most effective weapons in penetrating the Soviet Iron Curtain and ending the Cold War.