Sunday, May 26, 2013


Last week I covered “Cover Story”, so to speak, which is the hub of The Denver Art Museum’s museum wide exhibition “Spun”.  There are, in addition, 11 smaller satellite exhibitions as well.  In some cases the works are not presented together but items in the departments’ galleries are marked by a blue tag that says SPUN next to them.  One such is in the Old Master Paintings galleries where one of the pictures is by the Master of the Blue Jeans.  The picture, “Woman Begging with two Children” is lent by Galerie Canesso.  To explain, in 2010 Gallerie Canesso in Paris did an exhibition of the paintings now attributed to The Master of the Blue Jeans.  Gerlinde Gruber, curator at the Kunsthistorisches Mueum in Vienna has reattributed these paintings, which all show garments of blue denim cloth, to this newly discovered 17th century Genoese artist.  Previously they had been given to other masters of the period. The conclusion being that the original blue jeans were made from cloth made in Genoa.

Another show with a few objects interspersed in the American paintings galleries is called “Western Duds”.  We see a painting by E. William Gollings (1878-1932) of a rider in blue jeans next to a vintage pair of Levi Strauss & Co. (1905-1922) Jeans.  Here I have a quibble.  I would have preferred to see the Levi Strauss jeans with the painting by the Master of the Blue Jeans in order to see how close the colors really were.  But this would have crossed interdepartmental lines… a no no!

The most dramatic installation is “Red White and Bold”, an exhibition of Navajo textiles.   In this case, I must mention the designer, Tom Fricker of Fricker Studio.  I did not recognize the name but when you go to his website you can see that his style very much fits with this installation.

When the curator, Nancy Blomberg, explained to us that the installation was a collaborative effort this also made perfect sense.  Fricker is somewhat frenetic in his style and uses very dramatic lighting, while the curator seems totally controlled, knowing precisely where she wished to go with her exhibition, and that is why it all worked so brilliantly.

In galleries in the new angular Daniel Libeskind building that have high ceilings and few vertical walls they suspended Navjo blankets one above the other in all their glory of color and design.  By using a few mannequins, they show how the designs work when they are worn.  These long flat two-dimensional textiles are worn in a certain manner and the weaver is fully aware of which motifs or symbols will appear where.  Their dimensionality is revealed on the turning mannequin showing a Chief’s Shoulder Blanket dating around 1870 from Denver’s collection.

The didactic panel for the show suggests imagining what it must have felt like to wear one of these luxury blankets when you sat on your horse.  My first reaction was, heavy!  But then I started thinking of words like regal and proud which I guess is an image that comes directly out of the myth of the west.

On the other side of the gallery we found a display of Navajo ponchos.  These, like the ponchos we see today, have a large central slit through which the wearer can stick his head.  Their purpose may have been more for warmth in winter than to keep the rain off of which there is precious little in Navajo Country.  Ponchos were already popular in Mexico influencing the Navajo to make them as well.  The Navajo weavings, however, were woven so that the orientation allowed the elaborate bands to accentuate the wearer’s shoulders.  One of the ponchos in the show represents an early Navajo pictorial weaving which was lent by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. While as a rule 19th century Navajo textiles have only geometric designs, this weaving has figures including an hourglass shaped figure, which has been identified as a “whirlwind figure” from a Navajo religious ceremony.  Since a representation of a religious entity is expressly forbidden by the Navajo this is exceptional indeed and, the earliest one known dating between 1860 and 1865.

It is not that surprising that the Navajo were influenced by their neighbors in Mexico but what is more astounding is that when the British discovered how to make chemical dyes and started to export bolts of red and blue cloth in 1856 within a decade the Navajo were buying it from the traders. They took the cloth apart strand by strand for their ornamental weavings.   Heretofore they had used plant and animal dyes to color the wool they spun.  Since the process took lots of water and again that was not available in abundance they were delighted with access to the British fabric.

I have touched on a show, which has far more riches to see, so I can only encourage you to visit the Denver Art Museum and see it’s many treasures.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Spun: Adventures in Textiles

I received an invitation for the media preview of “Spun: Adventures in Textiles”, the new multi-exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (affectionately known as DAM).  It sounded promising. The Museum’s extensive textile collection has inspired a dozen small exhibitions under the one title heading. The most intriguing titles were “Cover Story”, “Western Duds” about the importance of textiles in the history of the American West.  “Red, White and Bold: Masterworks of Navajo Design, 1840-1870” and Fashion Fusion: Native Textiles in Spanish Colonial Art”.

Having travelled to Denver let me tell you the exhibition is much more than promising, it is fantastic.  Many “encyclopedic” museums have tried to do exhibitions that encompass all the departments but very few succeed.  This one certainly does.  Some years ago DAM did an exhibition called “Mud” using clay as the basis.  But we can go through a day or two without the aid of clay if we don’t insist on coffee mugs but you can’t get away without putting on a shirt and pants or dress in the morning!

Our main motivation for coming up to Denver for this exhibition was our good friend Alice Zrebiec, the Avenir Textile Curator for DAM.  She helped to facilitate the donation of 3 million dollars from the Avenir Foundation which not only allowed the museum to fund the textile curatorial position but also allowed them to retrieve 7,500 square feet of storage area and turn it into exhibition space for their 5,000 piece textile collection.   There are also separate collections of textiles in the contemporary and the Native American Collections.

One large donation often encourages others to give and in this case several individuals added to the textile department’s riches.  A matching grant from the Mellon Foundation allowed the museum to fund a full time textile conservator, an intern and a textile lab which has windows so visitors can peer in to see what is going on and once a week even go inside to ask the conservator and assistants questions.

The Museum’s Director, Christophe Heinrich, who came up with the idea for the show kicked off the media event by introducing each of the 14 curators of the 12 exhibitions.  He mentioned that the Metropolitan Museum will soon do a huge exhibition on the textile trade but that Denver has done it first.

The shows are not all large and one even has only two works of art.  Our friend Alice, however, has a major exhibition in the new textile galleries to walk the media through.  She started out with a mind-changing point.  She said that we take textiles for granted these days.  We don’t think where our every day apparel comes from but years ago, particularly in the U.S., one had to wait for the ship to come in and then get down to the docks and pay dearly for that apparel or material to make it.  Aside from the time involved the cost of a making the material and then shipping it with crews of many men would add greatly to the expense.

Alice’s show is called “Cover Story” and has over 50 textiles from 20 countries around the world.  The show is organized by function and going through it we learn to think about all the ways that we use textiles in our every day lives. The title is cute but also important. 

Textiles are used to cover up our bodies and protect them in one way or another.  They are also used as decoration as in table covers and wall covering. They serve as covers to keep us warm, covers in which to wrap and carry things, covers for ceremonial uses and covers to decorate our walls.

The piece that intrigued me the most was a Japanese Fireman’s jacket from around 1900.  Most of us think of a fireman’s jacket simply as a protective covering for someone who has a very dangerous job to do.  When we see them marching in a parade they are in their firefighting garb.  Not in Japan, for special occasions such as a parade or visiting the families of those who died in a blaze they have more decorative gear so this coat is reversible!  Today, the Japanese firemen have much better protective coats than the cotton one shown here which had to be soaked in water before going into the fire.  They are made of the latest protective material and they are not reversible but they still have separate coats for special occasions.

Alice’s grandparents were from Poland and her tribute to her heritage was the inclusion of a 20th century tapestry called “Spring”.   It was designed by Stefan Galkowski (1912-1984) and woven by the Wanda Cooperative in Krakow circa 1961.  If you look carefully you can see that everyone is coupling including the fish, a true sign of the arrival of Spring.

There is so much more to see in this exhibition and the other 11.  There is no way to cover “Spun” in one Missive so I am going to allow myself another for next week concentrating on the Navajo weavings.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Is there a more evocative word in the English Language?   Not if you are trying to express the American sense of myth and adventure.  I remember my childhood dream of becoming a cowboy.  Also, when our son was given a real lasso by a rodeo rider we met in the southwest, it came with a few lessons  and when we returned to New York he practiced on fire hydrants!

“Cowboys: Real  & Imagined“ the current exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum juxtaposes the cowboy in reality and how he has been romanticized.  Growing up with the fantasy of being a cowboy the latter interested me more but the presentation of real cowboy life was educational.  I like to learn and be entertained at the same time!

The show was curated by Byron Price Director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma.  Before that he was director at The National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming among others.  He was also editor of Charles M. Russell catalogue raisonnĂ© in 2007.

Who better qualified to do a cowboy exhibition?  We heard him lecture at the History Museum at the time of the opening.  Before he spoke we learned from the museum director, Fran Levine, that they had originally given Mr. Price 3 years to do the show and then cut one year off.  Remember at school when you thought you had the semester to finish a project and then found out you only had half the semester?  I need say no more.

Mr. Price focused his talk on the five most influential people in promoting the cowboy myth: President Theodore Roosevelt, William Cody aka Buffalo Bill whose Wild West Show lasted until 1913, the sculptor Frederick Remington, the painter Charles Russell and the writer Owen Wister.  While the names of the first four were familiar Wister was not, and he was extremely important to the myth of the west.   He was a classmate of Teddy Roosevelt at Harvard with whom he became friendly.  Spending summers out west where he met Frederick Remington, he became captivated by the lore of the region and started writing Western novels.  In 1902 he published “The Virginian” which sold millions of copies.  It inspired a stage show, 5 films and the 1960’s television series.

The exhibition commences with the reality of the cowboy.  Not a comfortable life.  By the time you were 30 you were considered old to be riding herd.  We are shown the authentic gear and equipment of the cowboy drawn from the museum’s collection and some loans.  Cattle ranching came into its heyday in the middle of the 19th century.  Near the end of the 19th cattle herds of hundreds of thousand of head are not unheard of.  But by the beginning of the 20th century with the industrial age and the use of barbed wire to contain the cows the cowboy had less to do and his role began to wane but the myth continued.

To put you in the mood when you walk into the show you hear a continuous soft background noise of cows and horses.   It is not intrusive but disorients you enough to take you back to yesteryear.

The show is an amalgam of objects giving the spirit of the west as we think of it through all the films we have seen with the accent on the real thing.   The chuck wagon where the food was prepared for the cowboys on the range is a centerpiece. A huge washtub also sits in the middle of the gallery along with many different types of barbed wire and one of the  view cameras that actually recorded the Old West and are there as well.

Along the perimeter of the show there are more hats, saddles, boots and lariats of different types than you can possibly imagine and they all have different uses.  I was particularly interested in the Lariat or Lasso.  I learned that various materials were used.  Both the Indians and cowboys used horsehair or horse hide and even bison hide.  Those made with horsehair were rather thin and they were used as lead ropes to lead the animals.  The heavier ones made of hide and later hemp were for actually catching animals.  Weight and length of the rope depended on how much the cowboy could handle.  Every cowboy had a rope on his saddle for roping cows, used for the business of herding.  Obviously, most of what we see today in rodeo are activities originally used on the range.

One of the areas set off from the main presentation is dedicated to entertainment with a barroom, playing cards, books and the sounds of the songs of Stephen Foster. In the final section I found a number of videos of famous cowboy films.  There was even a Belgian poster for “Lonely are the Brave” 1962 with Kirk Douglas.  A large poster of the 1950’s Marlboro Man surrounded by other advertising materials illustrated the power of the cowboy image in marketing.

At the exit were a few pictures of famous people who dressed in Western gear: Ronald Reagan, Bill Richardson, the previous governor of New Mexico, and, I do not know for what occasion, but there was Barack Obama in a cowboy hat!

The exhibition closes March 16, 2014, after which parts of it will travel to the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. I certainly hope the catalog which at this moment is under consideration actually comes to fruition.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Glimpse of California Conceptual Art

Every once in a while I like to challenge myself by stepping out of my comfort zone.  I recently did this by visiting Site Santa Fe, the contemporary kunsthalle in town.

At the moment they have 3 exhibitions which explore conceptual art from the 1960’s  and1970’s in California, but some of it goes on to the present.

When you come into the museum you hear these strange high pitched noises which sounded a bit like my son when he started playing the violin as a little boy.  Turns out that it was a work of art by Mungo Thomson (1969-).  It is called, “Crickets” and consists of an HD-video and audio installation.  The artist is interested in background sounds and believes crickets to be a ubiquitous aural backdrop.  He collaborated with the West Coast composer Michael Webster to transcribe a compilation of field crickets chirping from different parts of the world for violin, clarinet, flute and percussion.  This becomes more interesting when you learn that for the Whitney Museum in New York at the 2008 Biennial he substituted the coat check hangars with ones based on orchestral triangles, then, at least, you begin to understand where he is coming from. Now there is a concept for you!

The main exhibition is called  “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970”.  There are 150 works by some 60 different artists represented in this exhibition.  These artists  were more daring than artists in the rest of the country at the time and are more into experimentation.  They were even more interested in exploring techniques than subject matter.

The best known artist in the show is Bruce Nauman (1941-).  His piece is from the Guggenheim Museum and is called “Yellow Room (Triangular)” 1973.  It is just that,  three walls painted a bright yellow intensified by long fluorescent bulbs mounted at the top of each one.  I was encouraged to step inside and when I did I became totally disoriented.  If you have vertigo this is definitely one to skip, it is, however, very effective but to what end I am not sure.

A work that I found easier to understand and I really liked was a photographic piece by Robert Kinmont  (1937-) called “8 Natural Handstands”.  I am obviously not alone because one of the 8 images in this piece is used on all the promotional material for the show.  In each frame you see a man standing on his hands in various outdoor settings such as a forest, a stream, and a precipice.  The latter is, of course, the most arresting and interestingly enough this is the first one in the series.  The concept here seems simple; on our hands we will see the world differently!

There was lots of video and I must admit I did not get much of it or rather why what was done was done.  There was one, however, that I could relate to even if it was a rather frustrating one.  It is called “Roping Boar’s Tusk”, 1971 and was created by Paul Kos (1942-).  It shows this young cowboy with glasses, presumably sunglasses, twirling his lasso and throwing it toward the rock formation, which is Boar’s Tusk.  The thing is that Boar’s Tusk is way in the distance.  It is a comment on frustration or futility and I don’t know which.  Paul Kos is a native of Utah where the video was shot and I could speculate that it represents his frustration at no longer living there.  The film was done with a Super 8 camera showing all its graininess when it is blown up to its current proportions.  In an unintentional way it manages to convey not just the location but when it was created as well.

The third exhibition is the work of Linda Mary Montano (1942-), a performance artist. It included work from the late 1960’s to the present.  What grabbed me was pseudo interactive piece and was made just for this exhibition.  It developed from what the artist does as performance art.  In this case one walks into a room and sits at a desk before a video of a woman, quite unattractively filmed, who is trying to welcome you.  She tells you she went to the dentist to have her teeth whitened and put on fresh makeup to greet you.  She compliments you on your shirt and the way you have dressed and then asks if there is anything you wish to speak with her about.   One is encouraged to write a comment on the chalkboard, which takes up the other 3 walls of the room and is already covered with the comments of others; an eraser and chalk are supplied.  Then our artist/counselor says goodbye at least 20 times!

As is usually the case at Site Santa Fe there are young guards-cum-docents throughout the exhibition.  Most of them are artists and writers themselves and they are there to explain and help the visitor understand the exhibits.  For this show that is most welcome.  If you are interested you will have to hurry because the shows closes May 19.

As I am lamenting the lack of photos for this Missive I realize that maybe for a conceptual piece it is appropriate to let the images be in everyone’s imagination rather than impose what the artist was thinking!