Sunday, May 28, 2017

“Lost in Translation”

“Lost in Translation” seems to be the title most often given to the lecture that we heard in Santa Fe a short while ago.  There is never a dearth of lectures given in Santa Fe and one of the organizations that produce quite a number of these is the School for Advanced Research (SAR), which is worth several Missives by itself.  It was established in 1907 as a center for the study of the archaeology and ethnology of the American Southwest and since then it’s scope has widened greatly. 

The other evening we went to a talk sponsored by SAR, Lera Borditsky, (1976–) was the speaker.  She was born in Belarus  and went to university in this country. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, and is known for her research in the fields of language and cognition. Her theme and her passion, as it has been for many years now, was how language shapes thought, which in her words, “Do the languages we speak shape the way we think.”

It is a subject I had not given much thought to but the more I cogitated the more fascinating it became.  I learned German in self-defense.  My parents spoke only German to each other and only English to me… so what were they saying behind my back?  That is a challenge for any kid!  My parents also spoke French, since after leaving Germany they spent 5 years in France , so I picked up more and more phrases.  Today, there are things I cannot express in English and my wife has had to learn many of the phrases as well.  Is it because the thought cannot be expressed in English, yes, unless you go into a long circumlocution.

Dr. Boroditsky has given her public lecture on this subject for seven or eight years, and though fascinated by the subject, I had not heard about her work before.  She starts out by quoting Charlemagne who said, “To have a second language is to have a second soul” and immediately points out that Shakespeare contradicted him by having Juliette say, “A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet” or we sometimes state that a rose by any other name is still a rose.

While I knew quite naturally that there were many languages, that their number hovered around 7,000 was a surprise.  Then I realized in New Mexico alone we have a host of languages since each Native tribe or pueblo have their own language slightly or greatly different from the rest.

We learned further that while we may speak of our right leg or left leg, there are aboriginal tribes in Australia that refer to their north leg or their south leg.   In tests with one tribe,  whichever way the aborigines were turned they were consistent as to North and South!  Must be wonderful not having to ask directions. One thing that Professor Borditsky did not speak of was how does body language play into a conversation.  Where would a Frenchman be without his hands?

Speaking German I know if one gives the time as “halb drei” (translated 3:30) it actually means 30 minutes before 3 or 2:30.  It took me years to learn that and I still checked myself before writing now!

To confront the issue head on Dr. Boroditsky brings up how eye-witness memory differs depending on the language one speaks.  She showed English and Spanish speakers images of events, like a person breaking a vase on purpose or by accident.  When it came to descriptions of intentional acts their memory for the details and the prime cause they were pretty much the same.  In the case of accidental events, however, the English described the person involved more accurately than the Spanish.  The question was, did that have something to do with the grammatical way they described the event: “Se ro tó el florero”, which is literally “The vase broke itself”.

I came away from the talk not convinced but feeling there are some very intriguing possibilities that could change the way we communicate depending on what our goals in a discussion are.  This became even clearer after the lecture when it was time for questions. I asked how do U.N. translators handle this difficult situation.  The reply was less than satisfying.  Dr. Boroditsky answered, “It is worse than you think, every translator is superbly trained but only to translate from one language to another so the statement is translated twice before it is translated into someone’s native language.” A statement in Greek might be translated in French by one translator then again from French to English by another.

Obviously, I have picked up on a very complicated subject and if you want to learn a lot more I refer you to Lera Boroditsky on the Web… enjoy!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Student Curators

At the Ralph T. Coe Foundation, as you may remember from previous Missives the education comes through the object not through, what some call in a disparaging tone, “book learning”. Under the guidance of our Asst. Curator Bess Murphy, the eight students in the third year of the Coe student curator program are put in direct touch with the Coe’s collection of over 2,000 objects, mainly Native American but also Oceanic, Asian, African and even a few European. They are encouraged to pick out works that intrigue them, catch their fancy for one reason or another.  The next part is not so easy.  They have to express what it is that made them choose the object,  “It’s cute” is not acceptable!

Probably most exciting for the students is interacting with professionals.  What better way to gain an education in the arts than to learn from authorities in the field and those who already have experience as curators or in a field tangential and necessary for them to do their jobs.  Our students are taken to several museums in Santa Fe where they get to visit with the curators and this year, in one institution, the director himself.  What excited some students the most was going to a conservation studio where the conservators explained the equipment used, told how the they decide what exactly needs to be done to restore a work of art and show the process itself on the pieces themselves.

Of course, there are also more arduous aspects to the course.  The students have to study the objects they have selected using the books in the Coe libraries, using the internet and asking for expert help when available.  Once in a while the student learns something the staff did not know, a thrill for all.  They will use this information when they learn what label copy is and what the overarching or didactic panel for the show needs to say.  The result is a very unusual and original exhibition.  Here curator Bess Murphy is discussing one of Dynette Chavez’s choices.

What the students don’t do is have a concept and then find objects that fit the subject. In this case the objects come first and then the exhibition title.  Not sure which I like better.  For while this latter system can be confusing but what a curator thinks as totally logical and “important” does not always seem to fit so neatly into the puzzle.

This year the students put together objects from across the globe, China, Japan, Tibet, several African countries, Canada, Greenland, Germany, many Native tribes and I am probably missing some.  Their title, therefore, was excellent, “The Mirror Effect: Reflection upon our Realities”. The students write in their brief catalog that it “is centered around a relationship between art and viewer.  When someone sees an object a connection is made to their own life.  Some connections are drawn from the object because of the story it tells, while others are inspired by the piece’s beauty or, perhaps, it may come from a person’s culture, a cherished memory, or passion…..  We all found a part of ourselves in each object, and the exhibition conveys how we connected with them.”  Any of my readers who are collectors may never have thought about their collecting in this way but I believe it is quite accurate as to how we view art that we care about.

The students installed their own show and learned what colors went together and how the objects might fit with each other. Coming personally from a European background I was particularly happy that one student curator, Shante Toledo, chose two 17th century German boxwood boxers.  They looked amazingly good to me, aside from being put on a pedestal together with a large pair of moccasins with leggings by Maggie Picket-Yellowtail chosen by Dynette Chavez and a number of smaller objects.

One of my favorite pieces in the Coe collection has always been a Navajo baby shirt circa 1920.  The green velvet fabric I am sure made the baby seem more cuddly than it would have naturally been anyhow!  The color is also a wonderful shade of green.  This was chosen by Elizabeth Lukee and was loved by all, so it was installed right at the beginning of the show where the public comes in.

This Student Curator Oscar Loya has taken the program 3 times because he enjoyed it so much. This year he picked a contemporary Chinese scroll by a professor at Beijing University.  He was originally attracted to it when he saw it lying on a shelf all rolled up on a cart and wanted to find out what it was.  Mystery has a definite role in collecting as it does in reading a book.  The question is always what’s next or what can I learn about this curious item.  Here he is showing it to Shante Toldeo.

At the opening the students are asked to introduce themselves and say something about their exhibition or the program in front of a crowd of visitors, so they end their period with the Coe Foundation with another learning experience, making a presentation.

As I was finishing writing this one of the students returned to the Coe to deliver hand addressed envelopes with invitations for her graduation and celebration party for each of us who interacted with them in the program.  More gratifying thanks one cannot receive!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mirror, Mirror: Photographs of Frida Kahlo

It’s the story told by others that makes you a legend and so it was with Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).  Some artists become legends in their own time and some become legends long afterwards but few turn themselves into legends.  The closest we come to it today is the persona that we choose to give ourselves on Face Book.  I am sure Frida would have loved this vehicle of social media where everyone could have thrilled to her adventures.

The exhibition “Mirror, Mirror: Photographs of Frida Kahlo was originated by, and most of the photographs have been collected and lent by Spencer Throckmorton, who at one time was an art dealer in Santa Fe and is now located in New York.   At present “Mirror, Mirror” is on view at the Spanish Colonial Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico and will remain there until October 29. An image of 1944 by Lola Alvarez Bravo suggests her obsession  with her own image and gives the title to the show.

You might say I have more than a passing acquaintance with the exhibition since my wife, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, is the guest curator!  I have spoken before about seeing a show in more than one venue because at each institution, in each location, the curator has put their own spin on it. 

Frida’s father was a photographer so Frida was used to posing for photographs and she soon found it was an excellent way of promoting herself.    She had a life of suffering starting with polio at the age of 6 and became disabled in a bus accident at the age of 18 which led to a life of pain and many operations, totaling 30 by the time of her death at the age of 47.  The accident squelched her hopes of medical school and when she was bedbound she discovered an outlet in painting.

Frida was no wallflower and threw herself fervently into whatever she started.  After she had painted for just a short while it is said that she stood below the scaffolding where the already famous Diego Rivera was painting a mural and insisted that he descend to critique her work.  He was not only impressed with her paintings but he was impressed with her.  He was a famed womanizer but found that it would not do just to have her, he had to marry her. They wed  in 1929 when she was 22 and he 20 years older.  Here an image of Diego examining her work as she paints a self-portrait by Bernard Silberstein in the early 1940’s.

The exhibition is divided into categories such as - Diego and Frida - Frida the Painter - Emergence of an Icon - Intimate Frida - Heroine of Pain and Casa Azul.  The latter has a section without images of Frida but rather color studies of her home where she grew up and lived until she died.  These images were taken by William Frej, a Santa Fe photographer who has turned professional.  One of my favorites here is of her worktable at the Casa Azul with the window.  I remember visiting George O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu and finding her studio the most fascinating.

I don’t know if I would call Frida a discriminating lover but for one thing she did not make much of a differentiation between men or women and here is a picture of one of her closest friends the California artist Emmy Lou Packard taken by Diego himself in 1941.

The section Heroine of Pain is set in a separate room with good reason and I had to force myself to enter a second time.  In my opinion it is more important to put a warning for parents to be aware of an image such as that by Juan Guzman shortly before Frieda died than the ones you often see posted because of a nude image!

To end where the exhibition began there is a poster size photo of Frida at the entrance with a sign suggesting that the visitor take a selfie with the legend herself.  Propped on the sign is a stuffed monkey since Frida often walked around with her live monkey on her shoulder.  Here is an image of Frida and her curator of the moment.

If you are interested in Frida Kahlo and her hometown of Mexico City there is a trip being organized from September 22-26.  It will go beyond the myth surrounding her and you will discover Frida’s world.  To get all the details please contact the tour organizer Ellen Bradbury-Ried  (  or email me ( and I can send them to you.  But hurry reservations, close at the end of the month.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Pursuit of Immortality

For a few years we did regular exhibitions at our gallery and I remember one, which was mainly recent acquisitions, no one would have come if we had called it that.  Instead we titled it “The Lion’s Share” and had excellent attendance.  I have always liked provocative titles because I believe they have a great deal to do with the gate one gets for a show.  Unfortunately, some museum professionals find them too light for the seriousness of the exhibitions that they do!

The Frick Collection has, however, come up with a great title for their next show, “The Pursuit of Immortality”.  The line after the colon explains exactly what it is about “Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals”.  The only common portrait medals today are our coins.  Many will know that our quarters have a portrait of the father of our country, George Washington, and that our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, is on our pennies but who is on our other coinage? 

In any case, these portraits are designated by subsequent generations.  Have you ever thought of having a medal made with your own image?  I did have a valid stamp printed with my wife and I  on it but that is obviously ephemeral, while portrait medals are not.

Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher have been collecting Renaissance (and later) medals for many years, and its almost 25 years since Stephen Scher’s first collaboration with the Frick.  In 1994 he curated and also lent to a large exhibition called, “The Currency of Fame, organized by the Frick and the National Gallery.  For that show he also borrowed from museums here and abroad.  Now the Schers have given 450 medals from their personal treasure trove to the Frick Collection.

In a time without radio, television, newspapers, and certainly no cable how can we know what anyone looked like.  It is said that few would have voted for Lincoln if they had seen or heard him in real life.

Antonio di Puccio Pisano, called Pisanello (ca. 1395-1455) is known as the founder of the “modern” medal and a great exponent of that medium.  Before he stuck his first medal in 1438 he was known as an important painter.  Since he even signed his medals, 
OPUS PISANI PICTORIS indicating he was a painter first, it shows already then a hierarchy in the arts.  When I was at Columbia there was a file cabinet in the hallway outside the library labeled “Minor Arts” that is what the professors at the time thought of any art that was not painting or sculpture, it hasn’t changed much.  I would claim that medals are a form of relief sculpture, which can be very exciting in its own right.

There is a medal in the exhibition by Pisanello commissioned by  Lionello d’Este (1407-1450) who was Marquis of Ferrara and Duke of Modena.  It was logical to have something pertinent on the reverse.  In this case it is two male nudes, one older than the other, both carrying  baskets overflowing with olive branches.  Aimee NG, Associate Curator at the Frick who authored the catalog and curated the show together with Stephen Sher, interprets this depiction as showing a balance of vitality and caution, symbolizing  Lionello’s successful rule.

A later medal by Wouter Muller (1604-1673) of Admiral Maarten Hapertszoon Tromp (1597-1653) and done the year of the artist’s death is hollow, made up of two shell-shaped silver casts soldered together.  This unusual form is brought out in the small concise catalog, whose square format is perfectly adapted to illustrate roundels.   Opposite the recto portrait and verso depiction of what I presume to be Tromp’s ship, is a view of the medal from the side, where Tromp’s face appears as a profile.  It shows how medals are often wonderful relief sculpture.

Lastly, a cup inset with a medal by Jan de Vos (ca.1578-1619), which is an Allegory of Vanitas,   or Mememto Mori.   It was a common theme in Renaissance art as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.  The outside of the cup shows the recto portrait of a handsome young woman but when one finished one’s wine there was the verso, a skull, staring back at you from the interior!

All photographs are compliments of the Frick and taken by Michael Bodycomb.  The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow, May 9 and runs through September 10.  About 40% of the Scher donation is being shown in the exhibition so we can look forward to further treats in the future.