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.