Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Paris: Life & Luxury" Redux

We flew to Houston, Texas to see the exhibition, "Paris: Life & Luxury" in it's second venue.  As you know from a previous Missive,  Stiebel, Ltd. is a lender to the show.

Many of you have seen an exhibition in more than one venue and realize that they are really never the same show.  I learned this some 25 years ago when we saw an exhibition on the art of the Second Empire in France.  Since in those days many still looked down their noses at "old art" created after 1800, it was thought to all be reproductions of the golden age of France in the 18th century.  The exhibition in the Philadelphia Art Museum was a real eye-opener which completely changed my way of thinking and I started to really enjoy the art of that period.  Later in the year we were in Paris and were delighted to learn that the same exhibition was on in the Grand Palais.  It should have looked sensational there, was I disappointed!  Thank goodness we saw the Philadelphia version first; If we had seen "The Second Empire" show in Paris first we would never have gone to the second venue.  It is too long ago for me to remember the differences in detail, but I know that in Philadelphia many of the objects were in their own vitrines or juxtaposed to appropriate objects and all was beautifully lit.  In Paris the objects were just lined up in dim light.

Move ahead thirty years and we saw the "Paris: Life & Luxury" show installed differently with some of the objects switched out because some lenders would only agree to a single venue or the Houston curator in charge of the show, Helga Aurisch, had different view of the same material.  The concept of the exhibition is based on four small paintings by Nicholas Lancret representing the four times of day and was certainly open to interpretation. 

The co-author of the exhibition at the Getty, Charissa Bremer-David, came to Houston for the opening.  She said that the show was like a deck of cards that could be shuffled  and dealt in many different ways.  This is, of course, true of any exhibition.

One of the big differences in the Houston show was dictated by the size of the galleries. The Getty version seemed more intense and intimate.  It seemed to give more of the atmosphere of the period.  On the other hand, the Houston exhibition was a more traditional museum presentation with the focus on the individual objects.

One of the physical changes in the objects was a bed in the first gallery.  The Getty showed an extremely rare Louis XIV bed with a period embroidered cover, hangings and canopy, that was too delicate to travel to a second venue.  It was replaced in Houston with a Louis XV Lit a la Turque (a three sided bed, 8 feet across) that is richly carved and gilded.  This made for a less esoteric and more opulent opening to the exhibition. 

There seemed to be relatively more light in the Houston version.  Then, ironically, during the opening half the light tracks went out and we could see the show more the way it would have been seen by candlelight in the eighteenth century.  When they came back up again we could see the objects far clearer in their museum setting.

When the lights went off we were standing next to 4 paintings in dark wooden frames.  The pictures went dead. We happened to glance behind us and saw a painting in a gilded frame still glowing.  It reminded us why there was so much gilding in French 18th century interiors: it reflected the candle light giving off more illumination. And the richer you were the more you had gilded.

If you see a movie more than once you may get more out of it, but that is only because you missed something the first time.  In the second venue of an exhibition you will have a whole new experience.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

St. Louis

On the road again, we went to St. Louis to see an ailing aunt and my cousins but when you are in the art world there are museums and collectors in most places.

Our first art stop was the St. Louis Art Museum where even though the museum was officially closed on Mondays, the curator of European art before 1800, Judy Mann, gave us a tour.  It was particularly interesting because a new wing for modern art is being built which means other departments gain more space and all the curators must rethink their collections.  We actually saw the re-installation in process and could learn what was going to be done with these collections.  Installation and the juxtaposition of works of art offer a new interpretation of a collection. 

What was also of interest was that the original building was built for the 1904 World's Fair, and how the architect for the new wing, David Chipperfield, was going to integrate the buildings.  It seems that he started by asking the curators which of the current galleries worked well for them and what they would like to see the new galleries to look like.  He is said to build from the inside out.  Obviously there have been many changes in the old building, designed by Cass Gilbert, during the past 100 years and Chipperfield recommended bringing the original building back to its original formation.  All these things are an unusual approach for today's museum architects and they are music to a curator's ears.  It remains to be seen if he can deliver all that he promises.

Our next stop was the Missouri History Museum where I was most intrigued by the  story of native son Charles Lindbergh.  In May of 1927 he made his solo flight to Paris in 33 1/2 hours.  His plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, was a mono plane, custom built and had no windscreen (it had a periscope instead), no radio, and no brakes.  In the center hall is a replica of the plane created for the 1953 movie, The Spirit of St. Louis, with Jimmy Stewart playing the role of Lindbergh who taught Stewart how to fly the plane. 

That evening we were invited by two excellent and eclectic collectors.  The other guests were a curator, a museum director and an art insider.  Now, this was an exciting evening with all parties interested about the others' insight into their art world.  We probably learned more about St. Louis art politics in a few hours than we could have in months of experience there.

The next morning, though the museum is closed both Mondays and Tuesdays, friends gave us an introduction so that we could get a tour by the Curator, Francesca Herndon-Consagra, at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.  It is in a building commissioned by Emily Rauh Pulitzer and designed by Tadao Ando.  It is a minimalist cement building but very effective with a  shallow pool running along the building for relief.What I found unusual was that there has been a tradition of designing exhibitions with the building in mind.  Therefore, the curators have always had, though not out of necessity, about 25 works of art in each show.  This is the opposite of the approach at the Art Museum where the architect wishes to accommodate the art.  The Pulitzer is open to the general public but they do not have an education staff but rather two Social Workers and cater particularly to the homeless, disadvantaged and former convicts.

Later we also visited the Museum of Western Expansion based on the exploits of Lewis and Clark which we found under the famous St. Louis Arch, designed by Eero Saarinen, on the Mississippi River.

Then we were surprised to find  the Basilica Cathedral with it's hundreds of Mosaics done by Italian immigrant laborers between 1912 and 1988.

We ended our brief and very full trip visiting a collector to see his print and sculpture collection.  He gave us a fabulous tour explaining the provenance and scholarship issues of the pieces.   All followed by a dinner under the full moon and stars.

Off to Houston.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Painting & Photography/ Photography & Painting

When this Missive arrives in your mailbox the exhibition “Shared Intelligence: American Painting and the Photograph” will have closed at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, but what a wonderful concept it is to mull.   While I had issues with the exhibition, such as installation and choices of some of the works, the concept was excellent.  How did and do painters use photography in their work. 

Even though I knew that some painters, such as Degas took up the camera shortly after the invention of photography, I was not really aware what an integral part of their work it became so early on.   It is, of course, perfectly logical.  Artists used to carry around a sketchpad so with this latest advance in technology they started taking their camera, though originally it must have been a bit cumbersome! 

Already in the 1880’s Thomas Eakins was taking photographs for his paintings.  The exhibitions showed some precise copies of his photos, though always with some interpretation involved in the addition or deletion of details.  Half a century later, Norman Rockwell, in his painting “Soda Jerk” from the Columbus Art Museum in Ohio, took it to the extreme by actually staging photographs, using lighting and crew to get the precise photos that he was looking for, which he then copied into his painting.  Ben Shahn, however, used a photo taken in Natchez, Tennessee and one from Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania in 1935 as the basis for his painting entitled “Among the Church Goers” done in 1939.

When I was in college I was given a photo assignment to create an abstract photo.  My first reaction was, ‘Nonsense, Impossible, the camera takes exactly what it sees.’  So I started walking around Manhattan and ended up in the area known as Chelsea. There I came across this old truck and looked at it from the front and saw its rusted grill (they look different today) and there was my abstract image. The exhibition showed that Georgia O’Keeffe beat me to the observation by many decades. She saw the photographer Paul Strand as an abstract artist because he would sometimes pick details of scenes and still lives and focused on those.  She did the same in her detail of an artichoke or a blue flower, some see these images as erotic today.

Paul Strand "Bowls" (1916) / Georgia O'Keeffe "Blue Flower" (1918)
Photorealism starts with an actual photo, but the photorealist uses the camera and then creates paintings that are super real and go beyond the photo.  An excellent example in the exhibition was Robert Bechtle’s family. 

Chuck Close takes the process one step further in his original photo portraits of the 70’s and 80’s but he keeps pushing the bounderies.  Still, starting with the photo and a grid he will use a finger paint technique at times to create his over life size images.  Accentuating all details of the skin and its blemishes to the point where the portrait has come full circle and is almost abstract.  Our eye learns to scan quickly and not focus on the details, a reason that people can be most unreliable eye witnesses.

One of the most mind-bending paintings in the exhibit at the O’Keefe was by Audrey Flack called “World War II (Vanitas)”, from 1976-77.  Her garishly painted luxuries of life are not contrasted with the Old Master’s traditional device of a skull, but rather with a with a depiction of a photograph taken by Margaret Bourke White of prisoners at the Buchwald Concentration Camp in 1945. 

Audrey Flack "WWII" Ventas (1976-77)
The photograph has come a long way, no longer merely being used as a recording device but being used as an important element in creating the finished painting.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Wheelwright Expansion

A short while ago we were invited to an early Sunday brunch in a tent in front of The Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe.  The Wheelwright is a private institution that was founded in 1937 by Mary Cabot Wheelwright, who came from a wealthy Boston family, together with Hastiin Klah, a Navajo Medicine Man and artist who she had been introduced to on the Navajo Reservation.  Both were interested in the preservation of the Navajo culture and religion and they became fast friends.

In 1990 the museum was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As you might expect, the museum was originally devoted to the art of the Navajo and the building that was constructed was in the form of a traditional Navajo home, a round building known as a Hogan.  The original exhibition space was 1,500 square feet which today has a few additional spaces.  In the Hogan a myriad of different kinds of exhibitions have been done including Pueblo Indian Embroidery, the Native American Curio Trade, and Thunderbird Jewelry from the Santa Domingo Pueblo.   For us the shows there are among the best anywhere because they are totally focused on a limited theme and masterfully installed in a way that the material is clear and easy to understand.

The brunch was a follow-up to a similar event five years ago where it was announced that a couple from North Carolina, after having researched museums across the county, had decided to donate their historic Navajo Jewelry Collection to the Wheelwright.  Many are happy to donate collections to museums but, in this case, as importantly, they would contribute enough money to kick off a campaign to build an extension to house the museum’s jewelry collection.  This fed perfectly into a concept that the director, Jonathan Batkin, who came to the museum in 1990 and his curator, Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle who arrived in 1998 had since the beginning of the millennium, to create an additional space in which to exhibit jewelry and study its derivation and history.

The   $3,000,000 fund raising campaign, which was begun five years ago has been 75% realized. The proposed 7,000 square foot extension will have a 2,000 square foot gallery with a space for a semi-permanent exhibition of the history of Southwestern jewelry as well as a space for a regularly changing exhibition.  It will be known as the Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry and named after Martha Hopkins Struever, a dealer in Santa Fe who is an expert on the Southwest and its Indian art.  By the way, she has some of the best jewelry around.  She hustled to help make this project a worthwhile realization.   Her greatest contribution was to bring in the donations of several additional collections.  Together with what the museum already has, the Center will have nearly 5,000 pieces.  Most intelligently, they have not only collected jewelry, but also the papers of scholars of Southwest jewelry including Washington Matthews (1843-1905) who wrote one of the earliest books on the subject published by the Smithsonian in 1883, and John Adair the leading 20th century scholar of Navajo jewelry.   All will be part of the center. 

Hopi Tufa-cast silver bracelet with serpent design 
in turquoise, jet, coral, and white shell by 
Preston Monongye, circa 1975.  Photo by Addison Doty

Until now the concentration has been on the Navajo, but this is where the collections that Martie Struever has brought in have played a major role.  She has obtained a major collection of Zuni material and other tribes, but, alas, the overlay silver that the neighboring Hopi created after World War II is still lacking. 

A former president of the Board pointed to a wonderful overlay silver bola that Penelope was wearing by a recently deceased Hopi silversmith and said, “That is the kind of object we have not yet been able to find…”  One always hopes that what one collects is museum-worthy but the pieces give us such pleasure we cannot bring ourselves to part with them, yet.

Navajo Silver necklace by Ambrose Roanhorse,
probably 1950s. Photo by
Addison Doty.

To learn more about Jonathan Batkin’s concept for the Study Center watch the director speak about a few of the pieces in the collection and their historical documentation.