Sunday, May 29, 2022

Artists During Covid

We all have our stories about what we did during the pandemic when so many businesses and schools were shut down. Suddenly people were working at home with the blessing of their employers, and some kept working as usual for one reason or another.

What about artists, don’t they always work in their homes or studios. Did they change what they were doing?

What prompted this line of thought was reading a short article announcing David Hockney’s largest painting to date. A 314-foot Frieze inspired during lockdown.

He had spent the year in his house in Normandy where he recorded the changing seasons on his iPad. He printed, painted and stitched 220 images into one continuous frieze. He says he was inspired by a Chinese scroll unrolled for him at the Metropolitan Museum and the Bayeux Tapestry not far away from his home which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest in England in 1066 and made shortly thereafter. Here is an image of the frieze and Hockney in his studio with some of the individual images on the wall.

In March of 2021 the New York Times asked 75 artists in all media what the past year had been like for them, Sheila Hicks, a textile artist, replied: “I have never gotten so much work done! There are so few distractions or interruptions. Even if you choose to do nothing, you can do it with intensity.” While Anicka Yi, a conceptual artist, disputed this saying, “Maintaining my studio is a lot like making an ongoing meta work of art. There is a myth about the redistribution of time during the pandemic, that we have fewer interruptions. I’ve experienced the opposite.”

Jenny Holzer replied, “I used my electric-sign fixation in service of the vote. I practiced applied art, maybe agitprop, for the elections. Also, I indulged in ugly watercolors on formerly secret documents, that I littered with filthy words. Women should swear more.” This image from Madison, Wisconsin’s Wort News photographed by Chali Pittman of Holzer’s “Art Comes to Madison”...

Sean Scully, who has been twice mentioned as a Turner Prize nominee, said “Lately, I have fallen in love with yellow. At the moment, I seem to be using it in every painting. I’m not sure I understand why, though maybe it offers a kind of protection against the cold, or against the sorrows of Covid. One of my new paintings is called “Yellow Yellow.” Another is called “Wall Orange” and has blurs of yellow and orange seeping into each other. Yellow is complicated.” Here is his 2021 painting Wall Yellow (Myanmar).

Ending with my favorite story: In 2020 Alison Elizabeth Taylor created “Anthony Cuts Under the Williamsburg Bridge”. The artist used a blend of paints, inkjet prints and wood veneers to create the work. It received first prize in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait competition that occurs every three years. As a result, she received a $25,000 cash award and a commission to paint a portrait of a living person for the NPG’s permanent collection.

The subject of Taylor’s winning portrait is an actual barber, Anthony Payne, who set up his business under the bridge offering haircuts in exchange for contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement. In making their choice the competition jurors, who had sifted through 2,700 entries, stated they felt Taylor’s work spoke to all the themes of the past three years from the time of the pandemic when people could no longer assemble indoors to the fight against racism.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Graduation – Miami Style

We flew for the first time in many months for a long weekend with family. It was in celebration of a grandson’s graduation from the University of Miami. I don’t know how many students graduated that day, but the business school consisted of 720 students. Though they had a large indoor stadium we could not all get tickets, so we watched with my two sons on a laptop in our hotel room. This is the image our son Hunter took of the big moment of grandson, Matthew, with President of the University when the diploma was passed.

Our family clearly travels on its stomach and the graduate’s mother, my daughter Cathy, planned this weekend with plenty of great eating opportunities. When our family was together, we were at least 16 and there were friends of the graduate’s too, so our tables in restaurants were rather long.

The first dinner was at Grazianos in Coral Gables, where just walking in you were glad to be there as you were greeted by the sight and smell of amazing chunks of meat cooking on a huge open wood-burning grill. Every once in a while, a desert set on fire would pass by. There were clearly lots of celebrations going on. Another reason I am sure people come is for the incredible wine list which goes to over 20 pages. Every wall was covered with full wine bottles. Here is a tiny section.

The next night we went to a restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood where every “boite” (night spot) has a very loud band and sometimes a singer as well and lots of dancing. The open-top party busses with a bar at one end cruise the streets and the young people aboard dance and sing loudly to be heard over the music. It is definitely a young person’s scene.

The most incredible meal I have ever experienced was at the Japanese restaurant Zuma. A headline of the Miami New Times stated “Zuma Offers Bottomless Asian-Inspired Brunch All Weekend”. This experience alone is worth a trip! First you are invited to go to a bar which must be 15 feet long of hot hors d’oeuvres. Then there is another 10 feet of sushi bar.

Not only are the numerous cooks making food but there are waiters who are continuously replacing dishes for the long lines of customers. Of course, nobody can just take one small plate, so we all went back two or even three times. You think that’s enough? Not by a long shot. This was the full menu as well as a sample plate.

They then announced to our table, in a private room, that the meal was being served and plates to share arrived down the center of the table. These consisted of vegetable tempura, cooked salmon, chicken and filet mignon cut in small thin slices. Those of us who were uninitiated thought that this was the end of the meal, but we sat down again as trays of small, delicious pastries and frozen delicacies arrived. Throughout the meal beverages both alcoholic and not were served by the incredible disciplined staff.

Some of us took a break from eating on the balcony outside our dining room. It overlooked the Miami river where we had a view of pleasure boats and yachts of all sizes as they came through with sun bathers and crew. One boat was so large that I wondered if it belonged to a junior oligarch.

Our last unusual experience, other than our flights all being on time, was the drive back to Miami International Airport. Even though there had been plenty of taxis at the airport, we did not see them anywhere else. Some in our group had cars, but often we took Ubers which were very efficient and plentiful. Our Uber to the airport was particularly interesting. First of all, I was surprised when I saw that our driver, David, was picking us up in a black Tesla. Never had an Uber driver with a Tesla before! This sleek car with a tinted glass roof looked like it had come right out of the movies. It was new to us to the point where David had to show us how to open the doors. This, however, was not the most remarkable thing: David turned out to be an individual innovative enough to start a business and invest in it. He told us that he owned two long haul trucks, hired drivers, and had just about saved enough to buy a third truck. First, I asked, so why are you driving for Uber? He said he did it partime to make some money, to be able to stay near his family and not have to be away trucking across the country all the time. Prying some more, but trying to do it politely, I asked him if he had a business degree. His reply really surprised me: he said he learned by watching a year of YouTube. He thought this was more efficient (and probably less expensive) than spending his time in classes. I had so many more questions, but it only took 15 minutes to get to the airport. Someday, I believe I will see David’s Trucking Company … or maybe he is just going to write a great novel!

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Banned Book Clubs

I am writing this just before we are heading to Miami for the university graduation of a grandson. I have had this fantasy of Governor DeSantis greeting us at the airport and at first, I thought I would spit in his face for his autocratic rule. Then I thought that may not be the most diplomatic thing to do!

Why not thank him for his banning books in his state’s schools. Why, you might ask. Simple answer: if you have ever had or interacted with children you know that there is no better way to motivate a child to do something than telling them not to.

I am sure you have read the HEADLINES:

The New York Times:
Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal:
More Than 1,000 Books Banned from Schools Since July 2021, Study Finds

Newsweek Magazine: 
Recent Surge in Banned Books Targets Titles, With Focus on Race, Sexuality

From the Miami Herald:
Banning Books in America is a Sorry Vote for Ignorance

Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald

I could go on and on. Thank goodness it has made so many headlines. People say to me that is not as extreme as burning books. True, but all the books could not be burned: a few always survived. There are so many issues regarding autocratic censorship but at this point, the backlash has resulted in ameliorations of the problem.

Did you know there has been a Banned Books Week since 1982? In 2022 the dates of the event will be September 18-24. By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.

Banned Book Clubs are nothing new, they have just had impetus from recent actions of state governments and parents who want to decide what students and the general population should read and learn. If you think about it there are so many people who want to tell you what is good and bad for you. But I won’t go down that rabbit hole.

Bookstores have started Banned Book Clubs. You might think that banned book clubs in bookstores have commercial motives but do not believe it. If you start a book store it is not to make a fortune but because you enjoy books and think it is an important contribution to the community and society in general. King's Books in Tacoma, Washington started a Banned Book Club a decade ago that has been meeting monthly ever since. Needless to say, it has garnered a lot more interest lately.

It is not just bookstores that have Banned Book Clubs. The American Library Association keeps lists of challenged and banned books in order to inform the public about censorship efforts that affect libraries and schools. In 2021 there were 729 books on their list which a person or a group was trying to suppress and eliminate from public libraries. I am sure that list has grown since then and governments are one step away from that mostly addressing l libraries in schools.

Happily, individual libraries and librarians are at the forefront of keeping freedom to read what you wish alive and encouraging young people to learn history and societies priorities through reading. The Brooklyn Public Library is offering free digital library cards to young people ages 13 to 21 across in the U.S.

To my delight I now know that teens themselves are starting these clubs, not just to read the banned books but most importantly to discuss them. What better way to learn than by hearing what others think about what has been read? In-school clubs, however, need to be run by the students themselves without teacher involvement as teachers could be in danger of losing their jobs or worse. If you think I am exaggerating Governor Glenn Youngkin has set up a tip line for people in Virginia to report educators who are teaching critical race theory.

An encouraging example of a youngster taking things into her own hands is the story of a 14-year-old 8th grader, Joslyn Diffenbaugh. Learning about the efforts in Texas to remove some books from school libraries. She got together with her local bookstore the Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and started their Banned Book Club which now meets every other week to discuss books that have been contested.

Progress depends on young people being curious and reading opens the world to them.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Imagining Native Americans

If you are a passionate collector, you often purchase more works of art than you can fit into your home and that is what closets are for!

I was doing a little spring cleaning and came across this engraving we bought many years ago when we visited a London drawings dealer. It neither fit into his inventory nor in our collection but the image of an imaginary Indian in headdress we found amusing. The print is signed Albert Welti fec, the artist, and Hch. Wetteroth impr., the printer. Title translated from the German, “The Poor Sinners’ Entry into Heaven”. Albert Welti (1862-1912) was a painter and etcher, born in Zurich and died in Bern. Except for some studies in Munich it seems he did not travel and presumably had never seen a native American.

The print inspired me to look into the subject of Indians seen through the eyes of non-Native artists.

What is believed to be the earliest rendering of Native Americans was discovered only a decade ago in the collection of the Vatican in a fresco by the Renaissance artist, Pinturicchio (1454-1513). Between 1492 and 1494 the artist was working in the Borgia apartments. During the restoration of the fresco an indistinct detail began to emerge of two naked men with headdresses. The director of the Vatican Museum, Antonio Paolucci posited that these were Native Americans as its date coincides with Christopher Columbus’ description of the inhabitants after his first trip to America. Here is an image of the entire fresco and the detail referred to.

In 1975-76 in celebration of our bicentennial the National Gallery in Washington D.C. together with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux de France in Paris, put on a traveling exhibition called, “The European Vision of America”. In it there was a tapestry over 11 by 16 feet designed by two Flemish artists and woven in Brussels in the late 17th century. Here you see the image of the Indian Princess mentioned below who became the standard symbol of the Americas for Europeans.

The Metropolitan Museum, which came rather late to collecting Native American Art, did an exhibition in 2018-19 called, “Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America.” The Museum’s description of the show states “European artists invented a visual vocabulary to depict America, creating long-lasting stereotypes such as the ‘Indian Princess’ and the ‘noble savage”. Of the 45 works from the Met collection in the show, this one seems very appropriate for our time. It is a drawing by an Anglo- American artist, Frederick Styles Agate (1803-1844) titled “Indians Lamenting the Approach of the White Man” ca.1830.

On this point present day Native Americans can agree. Note this canvas by Cochiti artist and cartoonist, Ricardo Caté.

The self-taught American artist George Catlin ((1796-1872) took a documentary approach. He had practiced law briefly and became interested in Native America when a delegation of Plains Indians arrived in Philadelphia on their way to Washington D.C. in 1828. Two years later he decided to move out west to St. Louis to record the Native American heritage before it disappeared in the rapid advance of the Anglo-American frontier. In 1839 he took his paintings and artifacts on tour through European capitals. British engravers created hand colored lithograph of the Catlin paintings that were disseminated far and wide feeding the fascination with a culture that was strange and new to Europeans.

In 2018-2019 the St. Louis University Museum of Art did an exhibition, “Race and Representation: Euro-American Depictions of Native Americans and Their Culture.” It included “The Buffalo Hunt, Chase” and “The Buffalo Hunt Surround” from Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, engraved by the British artist John McGahey in 1844. Did Catlin foresee that Indian hunters would be replaced by Anglos firing from trains for sport and decimating the herds?

Most people, even in this country, are unaware of the rich culture of Native America. We left New York in ignorance, since the Indians represent just .2% of the population in the entire state; to live in New Mexico where they represent 10% and there are 8 pueblo tribes living within an hour and a half of our house. You do not have to leave this country to learn about another culture, and leave the fantasies behind.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Drama of Dust & Sandstorms

The other day in Santa Fe we got an Emergency Message on our phones from whomever sends out these things. It said, “High Winds and Dust Storms. No visibility. Pull over to the side of the road. Turn off your engine and turn off your headlights.” Happily, we were at home. We just closed our windows, though the temperature outside had reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and marveled at the swinging trees, hoping no branches would fall on the house. The only difference between our “high desert” dust storms and desert sandstorms is the size of the particles the wind picks up from the surface of the dry earth.

There are so many threats these days from environmental phenomena in different parts of the United States, but they are not new nor unique to this country. The first thing I thought of was “The Dust Bowl” of the 1930’s caused by high winds during an excessively dry period. The winds carried dust in the region from Texas to Nebraska asphyxiating people and livestock, and ruining crops.

The dust bowl offered a great subject for artists. I discovered on line a record of the painting “Drought” by Joseph Paul Vorst (1897-1947) sold at auction in 2014. It illustrates the devastating impact of a dust storm in Boise, Oklahoma in 1935. Vorst has been credited as the most significant Latter-day Saint painter of his time. He was born and educated in Germany and came to the States in 1930. His work has been exhibited in many major American museums including the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the White House!

The drama of dust storms has attracted artists from other countries as well. A Hungarian artist, Peter Zelei captured a dust storm in a photograph taken in 2017. Though the image may be manipulated, as its dimensions of 27.56 inches square, it must envelope the viewer in the actual experience. I might start out with this photo as the introduction to my imaginary exhibition.

A pen, wash and chalk drawing In the Metropolitan Museum by the British artist William West (1801-1861) ”A Column of Oriental Travelers Scattered by a Dust Storm” suggests his biblical scene of Israelites passing through the wilderness preceded by a pillar of clouds. Looking at details there seem to be people and a camel running from the whirlwinds termed dust devils.

Desert sandstorms provided a popular subject for Orientalist painters.
Ludwig Hans Fischer (1848-1915) was an Austrian artist who received a grant in 1875 to travel to the Middle East and Palestine where he recorded his impressions in watercolor sketches. This watercolor that was sold at auction in 2019 titled “The Khamsin” (1891), evokes the effect of that dry, hot, sandy wind of the Middle East.

Hermann David Salomon Corrodi (1844-1905) an Italian artist was very well connected. He knew Queen Victoria and received commissions from the British Royal family. His extensive travels included Egypt and Syria and offered the opportunity to view and paint its sandstorms like this “Camel Train in a Sandstorm.” His work can be found in the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Dahesh in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago as well as museums in Qatar and Rome.

Switching continents, Andres Vivo (1955-) is from Uruguay where he still lives and works. He studied there with several well-respected Uruguayan artists. I found no evidence of his travel and there are no deserts in Uruguay, so I assume that this scene is from his imagination. He does say, “Painting the sea and sky provides me with the perfect excuse to express myself in my love of color and bold strokes.” I found this image in the Saatchi Gallery in Los Angeles.

Returning to the U.S. there is a work I wish I could have owned, an oil on paper by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) in the Detroit Institute of Arts. It symbolizes the westward expansion when people travelled for opportunity, from the Louisiana Purchase making swathes of land available for settlement, to the gold rush. In the process buffalo herds were decimated. Bierstadt made several trips out west, his first was in 1859 with Colonel Frederick Lander along the Oregon trail to South Pass, which is today in Wyoming. He found the land so exiting and painted great panoramic works to record the newest part of our relatively new country. Although he painted two large-scale canvases of the subject, “The Last of the Buffalo” 1888, this single figure “Buffalo in a Sandstorm” is a more poignant icon.

Depictions of the dust and sandstorms are romantic representations of a world one would rather not experience first-hand.