Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Notorious R.B.G.

When I was a little boy of about 6 or 7 I loved the cowboy programs on the radio and on television, Roy Rogers, The Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger.  I would stand twirling my toy guns over my bed, so I would not drop them on the floor, never being able to do it like the “real” cowboys. Then in 5th or 6th grade my French teacher who was returning to France left me his entire Perry Mason series. Being a cowboy was not going to happen for this city kid and I decided I was going to give up the guns and be a lawyer instead.  Luckily, I realized early on that I did not have the mind nor memory that a good lawyer needs so I went into the family art dealership.  My fascination with the law, however, never diminished, and in recent decades I have a new hero, RBG.

RBG at work

For those unfamiliar with the initials R.B.G they stand for Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1933-) a most distinguished Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court RBG  who was appointed to the highest court in the land by William Jefferson Clinton in 1993 and where she has served  for a quarter century.  She says that when she joined the court she was the fourth most liberal judge on that illustrious bench but, as the court and politics change, she now considers herself the second most liberal.  You can imagine, therefore, that she has become quite the hero to Democrats and liberals of all ages.

RBG wearing one of her many Court Collars

The film that just came out called “RBG” is one of the best and most interesting in the genre of documentaries. It starts out with RBG quoting 19th-century feminist and abolitionist Sarah Grimké.  "I ask no favor for my sex, all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”   RBG is also known as “The Notorious RBG”, a sobriquet that was derived from the rapper known as “The Notorious B.I.G.”  Unfortunately, the rapper,  ranked by Billboard as among the ten greatest rappers of all time, died at age 24 but The Notorious RBG is 85 and still going strong.  She is fond of pointing out that she and B.I.G. both hail from Brooklyn, New York.

The directors of the film, Julie Cohen and Betsy West were very patient for it took two  years for  RBG to agree to interviews and the film.  Meanwhile, the directors were in touch with her family, friends and colleagues.  Her son and daughter and her granddaughter, the latter two both becoming lawyers and receiving their degrees from Harvard Law are part of the tableau painted iby the film, as well as President Clinton and one of the early pioneers of the women’s movement Gloria Steinem, who declares RBG a “Superhero”.

RBG was married soon after she graduated from high school to the love of her life Martin Ginsberg, a noted tax lawyer, who contrary to his colleagues found no problem with women in the law.  He was always her advocate and they remained happily married until his death in 2010.

At Harvard Law School she was one of 9 women in a class of 500.  The Dean invited her and the other in-coming female students for a tea where he asked them how they justified taking the places of 9 men.  She showed him by making The Harvard Law Review that year.  At the time no large law firm would hire a Jewish woman so she taught law instead.  She joined the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in their fight for equal rights for women.  She argued several landmark cases before the Supreme Court and proving her belief in  equal rights for all in “Frontiero vs. Richardson”.
This landmark case was about a female officer in the military who wanted to get benefits for her husband but found that under military statutes that men in the military could get living benefits for their wives, but not vice versa.  Her oral argument, delivered without notes, was greatly admired and helped to bring her to national attention as a champion of the women’s movement.

In the film we see any number of well-known people, conservatives as well as liberals who admire RBG.  As I have mentioned in a past blog, probably her best friend, after her husband, was the most conservative Associate Justice on the Court, Antonin Scalia with whom she shared a passion for opera.  She shows her self awareness and sense of humor in that she confesses to enjoying Kate McKinnon’s humorous take offs on her in the long-lived comedy program “Saturday Night Live”.

RBG and her comedic imitator, Kate McKinnon

Thanks to RBG things have changed since her early days but she continues to make a difference writing incisive dissenting opinions to today’s conservative majority decisions so frequently that she has become known as  “The Great Dissenter”.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Canova’s George Washington

Many may be acquainted with Jean-Antoine Houdon’s (1741-!828) life size monument of George Washington (1732-1799) in the Rotunda of the Virginia State Capital.  But who knew about a full length sculpture of Washington by Antonio Canova.  (1757-1822)?  The subject of the exhibiton at the Frick Collection in New York. The original plaster of 1818 has been lent by the Glypsotheca E Museo Antonio Canova in Possagano, Italy.

In 1785 Houdon came to the United States to execute the commission for the Virginia Assembly and Washington sat for him.  During that period Houdon made a bust that remained at Mount Vernon and was displayed in his study.  It is one of the most important portraits of Washington created from life.  The Morgan Library & Museum lent their life mask of Washington to the exhibition.

In 1816 the North Carolina legislature decided that they wanted an artist equally renowned as Houdon to create a full-length sculpture of the First President. It was decided that it had to be done by the hand of a European as they also believed the best marble could be found in Europe.  After much discussion and advice Canova was chosen.  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) himself not only suggested the sculptor but also recommended a depiction in classical Roman garb as the right symbolism for such a leader.  Though Canova noted how busy he was, he wrote that, because of his admiration for the leader he called “the immortal Washington”, he would agree to the commission for delivery in three years.

Washington was likened to an ancient republican hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who won a war against a Roman dictator and then stepped down and returned to his farm.  Canova decided, therefore, that he would portray Washington seated and drafting his farewell address to the nation.  Here is his initial concept for the piece done in terracotta in 1817.  It was lent by the Museo di Roma.

The marble was successfully delivered in 1821 for the Rotunda in the Raleigh, North Carolina State House but in 1831 it was destroyed by fire.  The life size model made in plaster from 1818 is as close as we can come to knowing what the final marble looked like.  The Frick has fittingly put it in their rotunda referencing the original installation in Raleigh.   A small modello done in plaster from later that year is much closer to the final work  and was lalso lent  by  the  Glypsotheca. In Possagano.   Small pencil sketches from the Museo Civico, Basano del Grappa in Bassano associated with the composition are also included.

Other likenesses of our First President are exhibited such as the Frick owns a Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington which is naturally in the show.

The exhibition was organized by Xavier F. Salomon, the Frick’s Peter Sharp Chief Curator.  Salomon together with Italian colleagues Guido Beltramini and Mario Guderzo  reconstructed every aspect of the commission, all but the original marble. The profusely illustrated book that accompanies the exhibition is like a doctoral thesis piecing together the entire background of the work,  even including correspondence with Jefferson.  One of the fascinating tidbits they found is that Canova had the story of Washington’s life read aloud to him while he was working.

The show opens May 23 and closes on September 23.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Gen Next: Future So Bright

“Gen Next: Future So Bright”, what a great title for a show.  It kind of says it all but like all simple statements there is so much back-story.  The show is at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe. The museum is under the umbrella of the Spanish Colonial Art Society (SCAS),  which was founded in 1925 with the very limited purpose of collecting the then neglected traditional arts of the region and encouraging their revival through an annual fair called Spanish Market. I learned in Art 1 that Spanish Colonial Art came from all the parts of the New World conquered by Spain way back when!  Here it became very limited to just northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.  In 2002 a museum was opened to show the collection and present the tradition to locals and tourists alike.

In some ways directors of SCAS and curators of the museum seemed to take their guidance from the artists rather than the other way around. Since no one likes change Spanish Colonial Art was not only limited to a small area in the United States but to religious retablos (paintings) and bultos (carved wood figures) in the  regional style that emerged in the late 18th century.  When artists, as artists will, wanted to branch out and bring the art up to date considering current issues, the traditionalists did not allow their work in Spanish Market. Artists organized a separate Contemporary Spanish Market. Traditional and Contemporary Markets now take place at the same time every July around the Santa Fe Plaza.

The administration of the Society changed this year.  The new Acting Director, Joseph Diaz, gave the green light to  his young curator, Jana Gottshalk, to expand the definition of traditional Spanish Colonial Art  in a wonderful exhibition with the title above. Introducing  a section called, “Those Who Lit the Way”, i.e. the forerunners of the young artists in the surrounding galleries, curator Jana Gottshalk writes, “The Artists of GenNext have truly found their individual voices, but the idea of pushing the boundaries of traditional art is not new.” 

The first thing you see on entering the main gallery is a work by Brandon Maldanado. It is a cross, something central to the Spanish Colonial  heritage, but this one is made out of large empty water  bottles and is called “Border Memorial”.  Like all art, however, you need to look at it for a while and with a 3-dimensional subject from all angles before the significance starts to dawn. While from one angle it recalls Charles Schultz’s Snoopy, overall it is a stinging indictment.  It relates to the tradition of descansos, decorated  roadside crosses that mark where someone has died. The knapsack slung over this cross refers to the immigrants crossing  the border with only what they can carry on their backs. As you have probably read immigrants trying to cross the Mexican border and arrive in the United States have to pass through desert where some die of thirst.  There are a few humanitarian groups, however, that leave out water bottles  so they can survive their ordeal.  These bottles often include encouraging messages.  Those who leave the bottles risk arrest. Two of Maldonado’s paintings hanging near the water bottle cross deal with the issue of the border in a bitterly satirical vein.

Vicente Telles tells a much simpler story in La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) lent by John Donnelly.  He asks the question are not the Holy Family and our saints the original super heroes who perform miraculous and superhuman acts?

Here is a typical subject for Spanish Colonial art by Thomas Vigil on loan from the Evoke Contemporary,  “The Immaculate Heart of Mary” but the technique is highly unusual and very contemporary. Vigil has used spray paint on license plates giving in my opinion an extra, shall we say, moving power!

About one of my favorite artists curator Jana Gottshalk writes, “Using traditional European painting styles, combined with themes and formats of retablos, Patrick McGrath Muñiz constructs contemporary thought-provoking statements on the current state of our country and the world”.   It is obvious that he has studied the Old Masters closely.  This painting also  lent by Evoke Contemporary, is called, “Revelation”. As with all the images in my Missives you can click on it to see it enlarged. With this painting you will be richly rewarded with the discoveries you can make for yourselves.

A carved and painted group by Arthur Lopez from 2004 called, “It Is As It Was”, partial gift of Diane and Sandy Besser, speaks volumes about the imperfection of the Catholic Church. Above the throngs stands the Pope in white with his back turned on his people or is it the Jewish plight during WWII?  One man standing in front of a tombstone that has a six corner star on top and says, “Holocaust 11,000,000 Dead” and a nun is holding a sign saying, “I can’t become a Priest so I will hold out for Sainthood.  Look at the three images below and you will find much more.

The show will be up until the fall but get there don’t wait.  It is bound to be a must see  stop this summer.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Black Place

Even though Santa Fe, New Mexico is in “Indian Country” with eight pueblos practically in the neighborhood, it has, in recent years, also called “O’Keeffe Country”.  Of course, this refers to the American Artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) whose eponymous museum is also one of most popular tourist attractions in town.

A museum devoted to one artist, no matter how talented, has challenges.  The O’Keeffe has to find exhibitions that are not just of its namesake’s work.  So from time to time they include other artists, including contemporary ones.

The exhibition “The Black Place “represents an ideal blend, bringing together  Michael Namingha , a Native American artist, with O’Keeffe in their depictions of the same dramatic location  in a remote  corner of northwestern New Mexico. Georgia kept coming back to the subject in sketches and paintings with her first being in 1936 and her last in 1949.  Here are two of her Black Place paintings in the exhibition. Images of 2 O’Keeffe paintings.

Michael Namingha is a multimedia artist who is probably best known for his photography. His father, Dan Namingha, is a renowned painter  and his brother Arlo is primarily a sculptor. Nonetheless all the Naminghas work in more than one media. They have a family-run gallery, Niman Fine Art, in downtown Santa Fe.  Niman is a Hopi word meaning home or returning home, chosen by the family because they regard the Hopi reservation as their home base.  Dan was born and raised on First Mesa at Hopi but his wife is from Ohkay Owingeh. Michael was born at his mother’s pueblo but the family moved to Santa Fe, just 30 miles away, when he was in 3rd grade.

At the Santa Fe Art Institute Michael  took master classes from a number of well known artists including Judy Pfaff and Fritz Scholder.  He went on to a four-year program in Design Management at Parsons School of Design in New York City.  Michael still goes back to New York regularly to get what he terms his “art fix” and attend performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

A couple of years ago Michael took part in a panel at the O’Keeffe Museum about Modernism and Post-Modernism where he represented the latter. Around that time he was asked to participate in an exhibition at the museum where he would select a landscape subject that O’Keeffe had painted and create his own interpretation. 

He decided on a Black Place.  The best explanation I have found for this area is one in the local newspaper, The New Mexican. Michael had first encountered one of O’Keeffe’s paintings of The Black Place in a course at Parsons and never forgot it.

There was one big difference between the Black Place Georgia discovered in 1935 and the one Michael found almost 70 years later.  It has become the site of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) by gas and oil companies.  Preservationists, and O’Keeffe fans in particular, have raised objections to the despoliation of the area. Recently NASA satellites discovered the largest methane gas cloud in North America covering the location. Michael used these satellite images as part of his analysis of the area.  His blacked out areas represent parts of the landscape that may not be the same for future generations.

In the exhibition Michael has a video and four photographs shown together with three O’Keeffe oils.  The photos are all Digital C-prints face mounted on Plexiglas and they often have a three-dimensional feel to them.  In their own interpretations both O’Keeffe and Namingha have abstracted a landscape that is clearly like no other.

The show closes on October 28.