Sunday, December 18, 2011

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

By Charles Kessler

Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures (until January 29, 2012) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a show of African art that took my breath away. The exhibition is a little hard to find. It’s in gallery 199 where some of the museum's changing exhibitions take place, just off of the barrel-vaulted hallway south of the main entrance where the large-scale Greek and Roman sculpture is on display. This is a major international exhibition that gathers more than one hundred rare works from many museums in the United States as well as collections in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Portugal and France. The show is a big deal and not to be missed.
The sculptures, the embodiment of an ephemeral oral history and tradition, evoke and idealize important people from Africa’s past. In addition to the art, there are about twenty documentary photographs, mostly postcards from the early 20th century, of tribal leaders, kings and their retinue, and other important people.
Chief Kétounou of Bonou Village, Early 20th century French Dahomey, Republic of Benin,
(Holly W. Ross Postcard Collection)
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any good reproductions of the dramatic highlight of the show — an astounding twenty-two full-sized figures made in the nineteenth century by Hemba masters in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Go see them in person if you can.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Day at the Met

By Charles Kessler

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was especially crowded Wednesday so I spent most of my time in the less popular galleries — the English and French Period Rooms and the galleries containing medieval and ancient sculpture. I don’t know why these galleries aren’t popular, but it’s fine with me.

I recently wrote that when I look at art I often notice that many works I'm looking at share some visual characteristic or a theme or subject. In Washington, for example, a lot of work struck me as funny, and at the Met I noticed that a lot of art from different cultures and periods was abstract. Not abstract in the sense of non-representational, but abstract in the old sense of the word — abstracted or simplified nature. These two heads from Graeco-Phoenician sarcophagi of the 5th century B.C struck me as très Art Deco.
And this and other 5000-year old Cycladic figures could have been made by Brancusi:
The Bastis Master, female figure, early Cycladic II, 2600 - 2400 B.C., marble, 25 inches high (#66.148)
There were even several small wrought iron Medieval sculptures that fell into the abstract theme:

And I noticed that the backs of a lot of sculptures were not only abstract, but were also funny.
(I apologize for the poor photos -- I couldn't find them on the Met's site so I had to use the ones I took with my iPhone.) 

The other common theme that kept coming up was what I call the  "awww, how charming motif" -- these sculptures for example:
And then there were the English and French Period Rooms located on either side of the Medieval Sculpture Hall where the Met's famous Christmas tree is located. (BTW, no photographs of the tree are allowed because, a guard explained to me, the tree is copyrighted! You can find a good photo here if you want.)

You're not going to find many good paintings in the Period Rooms, but the rooms themselves are appealing and pleasant, especially when they simulate light coming through the windows. And the galleries are practically empty so you have them to yourself for long periods. 
And on the way out, don't miss the Crypt Gallery of Byzantine Egypt under the Great Stairway.

All and all, an agreeable day at the Met.

Next post: a show at the Met that took my breath away, Heroic Africans, Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures (until January 29, 2012).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Art News, etc.

By Charles Kessler

Art News
Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in 1922 in their apartment in Paris.
Laura Gilbert’s site, Art Unwashed, has become a go-to site for insider museum news. The Metropolitan Museum has reported future exhibitions only until June 2012, but Gilbert managed to uncover their plans until June of 2013. Here are some of the exhibition highlights from her site:

Rembrandt and Degas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, February 23 to May 20, 2012.  Highlights:  two early Rembrandt self-portraits on loan from Europe.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, February 28 to June 3, 2012.  About 100 works collected by expatriates Gertrude Stein and her brothers.

Regarding Warhol: Fifty Artists, Fifty Years, September 2012 to January 2013.  Warhol and his influence, thematically arranged.  A Met rarity – a group show of contemporary art.

Bernini Models in Clay, October 2012 to January 2013.  50 models and several sculptures by the Roman Baroque master.


Typically museum websites are only about the museum itself — their collection, exhibitions, hours, etc., but the Walker's new site contains links and articles about the wider art world and hopefully will be an inspiration for other art museums.


More Bushwick Gallery News:

Storefront Gallery’s co-founder Jason Andrew informed me that Deborah Brown, Storefront’s other founder, has renewed the lease at its current location, and a new gallery will re-open there on December 18th with essentially the same name: Storefront Bushwick. The resourceful Jason Andrew will not be involved with the new gallery but will maintain his association with the Norte Maar Gallery.

Via L Magazine comes the news that Soho gallery Christina Ray will open a project space in Bushwick at the beginning of the year, and they will be changing their name to the Kesting/Ray Gallery to reflect the addition of David Kesting, Ray's husband, as co-director.


The Merce Cunningham Dance Company website has a complete series of videos documenting many aspects of the company. It’s called “Mondays With Merce” and includes 19 interviews with Cunningham that were filmed two years before he died. There are also forty-two interviews with Cunningham’s colleagues and dancers, and footage of 15 technique classes taught by Cunningham and rehearsal sessions of more than 30 works with him in charge. If you never saw Merce Cunningham or his dance company, this is the next best thing.


Warning: political commentary next — just skip it if you want.

Mr. Montgomery Burns
My first love was economics, and I still spend a lot of time reading the literature -- especially Paul Krugman's blog. Very occasionally I come across an article that's not well known, a least not known in the art world, but is so clear and compelling I want to call attention to it here.

A few months ago, billionaire Warren Buffett wrote a New York Times Op-Ed entitled Stop Coddling the Super-Rich. It was mainly about the fairness of taxing the rich; now Nick Hanauer, another billionaire, writes about the economic benefits of taxing the super rich: Raise Taxes on Rich to Reward True Job Creators

Hanauer is a famous venture capitalist who helped launch more than 20 companies, including aQuantive Inc. and; nevertheless in he wrote:
...I’ve never been a “job creator.” I can start a business based on a great idea, and initially hire dozens or hundreds of people. But if no one can afford to buy what I have to sell, my business will soon fail and all those jobs will evaporate. 
...The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the average American, but we don’t buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. 
...So let’s give a break to the true job creators. Let’s tax the rich like we once did and use that money to spur growth by putting purchasing power back in the hands of the middle class. And let’s remember that capitalists without customers are out of business.
Urban Planning:

“Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project.”
     --Bruce Ratner, the developer of the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, quoted in Crain’s, November 8, 2009

I'm a bit soured on Urban Planning lately after my bad experience with Jersey City's Powerhouse Arts District but, like looking at a horrific accident, I continue to read the literature. (I highly recommend the very readable, even entertaining, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It’s still the definitive book on urban planning but heartbreaking to read because, after 42 years, city planners still don’t get it.)

The New York Times had an article recently on how the Dutch, when they undertake big new development projects, put together what they call “structure plans.” Urban designers are called in to work out the best way to organize the site for the public good. They plan parks, squares, the street-scape, access to public transportation, and generally create a pedestrian-friendly environment. (This is the kind of thing the BMW Guggenheim Lab was concerned with.) The thing is, this is done BEFORE a developer submits a plan for the site. You might think "duh", but, except for Rockefeller Center and a few other notable places, that isn’t the way we do things here, e.g., Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and the re-zoning of neighborhoods like Lower Manhattan, Williamsburg and of course Jersey City (see our blog title photo above).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Barnett Newman -- It's Complicated!

The Craig F. Starr Gallery, 5 E. 73rd Street (just east of Fifth), has yet another terrific exhibition of relatively small work: Barnett Newman Paintings (until December 17th).
Barnett Newman, Untitled 3. 1949, oil on canvas, 23 ½ x 6 ¼ inches (private collection).
I complimented the dealer on the show, and on my way out, two nicely dressed middle-aged women asked me why I thought it was a good exhibition. I thought the show was a good one because the work was hard to assemble and it was installed sensitively, without over-lighting it. But of course they were really asking (and I think sincerely): “Why do you like this art?” I tried to help them by pointing out things about the work they may not have seen, but I knew that wouldn’t really satisfy them for a reason concisely put forward in a recent New York Times Opinionator post, Art and the Limits of Neuroscience:
Just as getting a joke requires sensitivity to a whole background context, to presuppositions and intended as well as unintended meanings, so “getting” a work of art requires an attunement to problems, questions, attitudes and expectations; it requires an engagement with the context in which the work of art has work to do.
I was also reminded of the famous exchange between Franz Kline and a collector irate about Barnett Newman's first exhibition. The longer the version of this story the better, and I found a good long one here:
Franz Kline and Elaine De Kooning were sitting at the Cedar Bar when a collector Franz knew came up to them in a state of fury.  He had just come from Newman’s first one-man show. ‘How simple can an artist be and get away with it?’ he spluttered.  ‘There was nothing, absolutely nothing there!’
‘Nothing?’ asked Franz, beaming.  ‘How many canvases were in the show?’
‘Oh maybe ten or twelve - but all exactly the same - just one stripe down the centre, that’s all!’
'All the same size?’  Franz asked.
‘Well no; there were different sizes; you know, from about 3 to 7 feet.’
‘Oh, 3 to 7 feet, I see; and all the same colour?’  Franz went on.
‘No, different colours, you know; red and yellow and green… but each picture painted one flat colour - you know, like a house painter would do it, and then this stripe down the centre.’
‘All the stripes the same colour?’
‘Were they all the same width?’
The man began to think a little.  ‘Let’s see.  No. I guess not.  Some were maybe an inch wide and some maybe four inches, and some in between.’
‘And all upright pictures?’
‘Oh, no, there were some horizontals.’
‘With vertical stripes?’
‘Oh, no, I think there were some horizontal stripes, maybe.’
‘And were the stripes darker or lighter than the background?
‘Well I guess they were darker, but there was one white stripe, or maybe more…’
'Was the stripe painted on top of the background colour or was the background colour painted around the stripe?’
The man began to get a bit uneasy.  ‘I’m not sure,’ he said, ‘I think it may have been done either way, or both ways, maybe…’
‘Well I don’t know,’ said Franz. ‘It all sounds damned complicated to me.’
Thinking it might be easier to get, I sent the women to see the Matisse and the Model exhibition (through December 10th - hurry) at Eykyn Maclean, 23 East 67th Street (just west of Madison). It's definitely worth seeing but, unlike the Barnett Newman show, this one is way over-produced with multi-colored walls and pretentious extra-large wall texts. There's some good work though -- and even the not-so-good work is interesting to see.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November Art News

By Charles Kessler

There’s been a lot of big news in the art world this month including yet another Leonardo da Vinci find. Last month I reported on art historian Martin Kemp’s extraordinary rediscovery of Leonardo’s La Bella Principessa, a portrait in ink and colored chalks on vellum. Artinfo interviews Kemp here about an even more important find, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi.
Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, oil on walnut panel, 25 13/16 X 17 7/8 inches  
Due to the blockbuster Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, London, there’s been more than usual  written about Leonardo. One of the most interesting is this post by Jonathan Jones, a Renaissance man himself, on Leonardo as an animal rights activist and a vegetarian. All this has added so much to the already wildly popular Leonardo exhibition that the National Galley had to crack down on ticket scalping — tickets were going for up to £800 ($1242) on eBay.

Then there’s the Met’s new Islamic wing.
Damascus Room, 1119 A.D., Syria, Damascus, 22 ft. 1/2 in. x 16 ft. 8 1/2 in.
(Gift of The Hagop Kevorkian Fund, 1970 #1970.170).
The Met’s website once again does an excellent job of providing visual and art historical information including several videos showing the installation and conservation process. Holland Cotter has an enthusiastic review of the new galleries in the Times.

And finally, there’s been more on Pacific Standard Time — the encyclopedic series of exhibitions about the history of Los Angeles art. Two reviews I'd recommend are by Roberta Smith and Peter Plagens.
Hard Edge group exhibition with works by Ronald Davis and Judy Chicago at Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles,
May 1964. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Rolf G. Nelson, 2010.M.38.2.
Plagens also wrote my favorite article on another big art event, the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.
The Clyfford Still Museum's center exhibition gallery.

Other Art News:
Paddy Johnson reports that even more galleries are moving into 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick. And to help you keep track, Pernod, the company that sells Absinthe liqueur, and WAGMAG, the online Brooklyn gallery guide, have teamed up to create an app that’s a guide to Brooklyn galleries and to nearby bars that serve Absinthe. It’s doesn’t have nearly the number of galleries as our Bushwick guide, and it doesn’t provide an efficient route to take, but like ours it’s free; and if they ever include a lot more of the galleries, it will be useful.

Bryan Appleyard on the website reports that in 2010 Andy Warhol’s work sold for a total of $313m and accounted for an astounding 17% of all contemporary auction sales. Appleyard does a good job of putting this in context. And on the topic of Warhol and Pop Art, here is an excellent interview with Art Historian Hal Foster.

Also from is this entertaining piece about an exchange of letters between Groucho Marx and, of all people, T. S. Eliot. The exchange was initiated by Eliot, a great fan of the Marx Brothers movies. One of my favorite of Groucho’s letters to the famously buttoned-down and anti-semitic poet includes this: “The name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed. I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate. Confide in me.”

Damien Hirst is one of those artists I hate to love. Jonathan Jones doesn't have this problem. In advance of Hirst’s upcoming exhibition at the Tate Modern next year, he wrote this appreciation:
Hirst stands far above his British contemporaries. The depth of his early work is extraordinary and dazzling. The intensity of his imaginative grasp of reality is unique. He makes art that is about life, and death, and money too, which is another absolute truth of our world – unfortunately. The whole of recent British art is a footnote to his brilliance.
Richard Prince, on the other hand, is an artist I love to hate — Laura Gilbert uncovered documents filed with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on October 26 that show what a phony the guy is.

The Daily Beast/Newsweek has an excellent profile on the art dealer Marian Goodman. It corresponds nicely with a 1992 profile of Betty Parsons from the archives of the New York Times that’s been tweeted around (is that a term?).

Finally, there are two informative posts by Jonah Lehrer about creativity:
Need to Create? Get a Constraint:
"It’s not until we encounter an unexpected hindrance – a challenge we can’t easily resolve – that the chains of cognition are loosened, giving us newfound access to the weird connections simmering in the unconscious."
And The Importance of Mind-Wandering:
"...not all daydreams are equally effective at inspiring new ideas. ...According to Schooler’s data, individuals who are unaware of their mind-wandering don’t exhibit increased creativity."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #20: The Rose at 50, Part 3: Community

By Carl Belz

Community interaction during my years at the Rose didn’t stop at the entrance to the university, it extended to the cultural community at large, particularly the community of artists whose studios we regularly visited, whose work we annually exhibited and acquired, and whose presence we invariably valued as a resource and soundboard for our program. All of which I felt was entirely natural to do—which I even went so far as to imagine anyone would do within a museum whose mission was identified with the art of our time and was physically located in or near a highly sophisticated and culturally endowed city, whether it was Boston or Chicago or San Francisco or anywhere else in the country. Yet, I detected no trace of that community in the “Collecting Stories” installation, let alone an institutional relationship to it, prompting me to describe here how it came about under my directorship and what it meant regarding our exhibition and collection programs.

We began exhibiting Boston area artists at the start of my tenure as director of the Rose, in 1974, in response to a handful of considerations. For instance:

(1) There was plenty of talent available, as I had seen around town since coming to Brandeis in 1968 and had then begun to describe in monthly critical reports to Artforum magazine, where I served as a regional editor prior to moving my base to the museum. I knew there were many shows waiting to be done.
James Weeks, Figure by a Bed, 1960, oil on canvas, 164 x 131.5 cm.,
(from a catalog of an exhibition, Rose Art Museum, 2 April - 14 May, 1978).
(2) I felt we could fill a need. While there were relatively few commercial galleries in Boston at the time, there was even less in the way of institutional support. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art occasionally acknowledged area artists but looked primarily to New York for major exhibition programming. Suburban museums in Lincoln, Framingham, Brockton, and Duxbury served mostly local constituencies, while the college and university galleries and museums, which were numerous—at Harvard, Boston College, Wellesley College, Tufts, and Boston University—tended to be insular in serving mostly their campus constituencies. In undertaking support through exhibitions of area artists, I believed we could help generate the feedback that was so vital to their studio practice.   

(3) I was attracted to the pleasures of learning about art through knowing art’s makers since the start of my professional career. I volunteered to organize and write about an exhibition of my studio faculty colleagues upon taking my first job at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1963; I supported Bay Area artists while I taught art history and was director of the Mills College Art Gallery in Oakland between 1965 and 1968; and I was already familiar with a growing number of Boston area artists whose studios I had visited, and whose work I very much respected, when I started at the Rose. I had my foot in the door to an untapped field. 

(4) Exhibitions of area artists would be economical. The program budget during my first year at the Rose was $4K, so you can see how it made sense to utilize the abundant resources at hand.

I picked the first few shows, but the vast majority was selected in tandem with curator Susan Stoops, my Team Rose helpmate for close to 20 years. Their purpose was to provide exposure, which meant giving each artist enough space to show a significant body of work, maybe only three or four pictures if they were really large, maybe eight to 10 if they were very small, which in turn meant limiting the number of artists to half a dozen on average. We titled the shows—“Stepping Out,” “Restless Natives,” “Worlds Apart,” “Seeing and Believing,” and “Out of the Woods” were among my favorites—but the titles came after the art was selected, and they were meant poetically, to suggest the aura of the artworks commingling, to evoke their shared karma. Through 24 years we covered a lot of media—painting and sculpture and their hybrids, installations, photography, paper works—but we never started out by looking for one medium or another, just as we never started out with a theme in mind, or an expressive genre such as abstract, representational, and so forth.

In fact, that’s why IMO the program worked so well, because it never started from an a priori concept—as group shows almost invariably do—it each year evolved out of a natural, open-ended process of building relationships by interacting with artists in their studios, seeing what was going on in and around town, and letting the experiences sink in. It was as though the process allowed the exhibitions each year to create themselves, as though all we needed to do was listen to the voices of the artworks we’d seen and allow them to speak for themselves, and we’d then know when we had enough for a show, which would resonate with which, what their number would be, and how and when the show would happen. The challenge lay in the looking and listening, the rest was easy.

Alas, those exhibitions stopped happening when I left the Rose, despite the fact that they had been endowed since 1983 as The Lois Foster Exhibition of Boston Area Artists, and there was no evidence of them in the 50th anniversary exhibition. A personal friend close to the museum suggested that my successors, Joe Ketner and Michael Rush, were troubled by the area artists designation, feeling it was limiting, even demeaning, to the artists’ stature in the community. If that were the case, however, it wouldn’t be news. In my own experience, there were always culturatti around who threw up smokescreens like that to mask their concern about being thought provincial—it was an effect of Boston’s proximity to New York.
In any case, and apart from our annual shows, Boston area artists were further visible among our monographic exhibitions, which included ambitious retrospectives of James Weeks, David Aronson, and Barnet Rubenstein and mid-career surveys of Todd Mckie & Judy Kensley Mckie and Katherine Porter. In addition, individual works by Boston area artists, acquired through gifts and purchases alike, always figured in, and helped significantly to define, subsets of the permanent collection that we continually sought to shape and develop—minimalism and postminimalism, realism, sculptors’ drawings, and photography, to name a few.

All of which reflects equally the highly creative cultural community we served and the highly rewarding dividends it paid. Ask any Boston area artist and they’ll tell you what that environment was like.  

(This is the third part of a three-part post)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Curatorial Flashbacks #19: The Rose at 50, Part 2: Education

By Carl Belz

With the survival of the Rose’s death threat, and strengthened by press releases issued from the office of new president Frederick Lawrence, discussion has pointed to the museum henceforth becoming more deeply embedded in the campus community and serving more effectively—maybe even serving exclusively—the university’s teaching mission, the goal being to become indispensable to its host institution as a whole. 

As the only director of the Rose who ever taught while at Brandeis, I submit the following on the subject of the museum’s relationship to the university community:

(1) I inherited the Charna Stone Cowen Student Loan Collection and kept it going throughout my tenure. It comprised prints, drawings and assorted artworks that were annually made available to students to hang in their dormitory rooms for $5 apiece. We periodically reviewed the collection to see if it contained objects that should be transferred to the permanent collection because of their increasing value. Early in my directorship, for instance, I found in the collection a wonderful 1942 David Smith bronze that I figured should be spared the hazards of the dormitory and sheltered more safely in my office. In any case, the program was always a big hit, a wonderful fringe benefit enhancing undergraduate life.
David Smith,  Table Torso, 1942, bronze, height 10 inches, formerly Charna Stone Cowen Student Loan Collection.
(2) I transformed the Rose Art Decorating Service (We Pick Up and Deliver) into a campus-wide operation. I learned early on that the museum was responsible for decorating the president’s suite and a few administrative offices, and, in an effort to beautify the Brandeis working environment and improve everyone’s quality of life—it was one of those utopian dreams I carried over from the 60s—I informally let it be known that members of the faculty and administration could borrow artworks from the Rose for their offices; they had only to make an appointment, spend an hour or so looking at pictures with our registrar, pick them out, and, subject to the director’s approval, we’d deliver and hang them. You probably figure I created a nightmare for Roger Kizik, our preparator, whose job it was to actually deliver and hang the pictures—as you can imagine, there was a resident art critic in every office complex—but he invariably met the challenge with aplomb and, mirabile dictu, became in the process a highly valued, campus-wide ambassador for the museum.  
Installation View, Judy Pfaff, Elephant, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, January 26 - March 5, 1995

(3) A significant amount of teaching took place in and around the Rose’s exhibition program, especially during the 1990s when, in a position newly created, education coordinator Corinne Zimmermann and curator Susan Stoops regularly worked with undergraduate interns in connection with special as well as ongoing projects. For a 1995 Judy Pfaff site-specific installation titled “Elephant,” a team of undergraduate concentrators from the Department of Fine Arts was enlisted to assist the artist throughout her creative process. Two years later, during a weeklong residency with Jonathan Borofsky on what he called “The God Project,” undergraduates from all academic departments were extended an open invitation to come to the museum anytime between 10 AM and 10PM, interact with the artist, make paintings expressing their spiritual beliefs, and then have those paintings exhibited in the company of several of Borofsky’s own works.

In addition, we periodically showcased work by members of the Department of Fine Arts studio faculty. I mounted a 1976 retrospective honoring the founder of the department, Mitchell Siporin, and a 1981 mid-career survey of paintings by Paul Georges. Group shows of the entire faculty, generally five or six artists, took place in 1982, 1987, and l994, the intervals informally determined via ongoing consults with the artists themselves. For each show, the artists individually presented gallery talks that I always enjoyed attending; coming in many cases from Yale’s graduate program, the painters in particular were culturally and intellectually informed, and, take it from me, they really knew how to talk.
Mitchell Siporin, Back of the Yards, 1938, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 36 1/8 inches, (Smithsonian American Art Museum, #1971.447.83).
(4) After becoming director of the Rose, I continued to teach a lecture course or seminar each spring on the history of contemporary art, and I also worked with individual students in one-on-one independent studies. Occasionally, either on my own or in tandem with an art department colleague, I was able to supervise an exceptional student in preparing an exhibition that was mounted in one of our public galleries. In any of these cases, however, my new base of operations radically affected my teaching. Instead of relying on slides alone, the age-old art historical practice, I had ready access to a broad spectrum of physical objects I could present to students for face-to-face, in-the-flesh encounters. Within a couple of years, I also realized I could introduce them to the context within which I was responsible for collecting and exhibiting those objects, so I initiated a bi-annual spring semester seminar on museum methods and procedures. The seminar ranged from practical challenges to ethical and aesthetic speculations, and it regularly included progress reports on the major exhibition I annually prepared for the close of the academic year—updates from the real world, you might call them. It was a seminar I personally had never taken, a seminar that didn’t even exist when I was in college or graduate school, a seminar whose content was derived not from theory but from my own day-to-day, ongoing, always enlightening, on-the-job training.

The educational programming outlined above, which was partly academic and partly administrative (read service oriented), was fully in place during Evelyn Handler’s tenure as Brandeis president, which was from 1983 through 1991. I reported directly to her office, and our meetings generally focused on development and administration. From the outset, for instance, President Handler directed me to beef up my small advisory committee into a full-fledged Board of Overseers that would “give, get, or get out,” as it was put at the time. Further on, she shared with me her wish that all Brandeis undergraduates would visit the museum at least once before they graduated. Thus did we become poised, she and I, for an ongoing and sometimes uneasy tug of war about the Rose’s intellectual or philosophical identity and program, about its institutional purpose—about whether it was first of all academic or administrative or developmental.

While working on the mandate to expand our Board of Overseers, I sought to finesse the second directive by explaining that Team Rose conceived its educational mission not as serving legions of students with a one-time taste of culture, but as serving them in numbers small enough to enable in-depth, lasting experiences. In treating aesthetic encounters as educational in and of themselves, we equated those encounters with knowledge traditionally gleaned in the classroom. Beyond service, then, and by way of intellectual (read academic) content, we conceived our exhibitions and publications as contributing to the ongoing discourse surrounding the art of our time. And, finally, we were in turn gratified by the number of students—large or small, depending on your perspective—who absorbed that mission, among them, Adam Weinberg, now Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Gary Tinterow, now the Engelhard Chairman of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Kim Rorschach, now Director of the Nasher Museum at Duke University; and—ever near and dear to my ex-jock athletic heart—Doug Stark, now Director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum in Newport, Rhode Island.

Does any or all of this programming—or maybe some variation on it—represent the kind of embeddedness that translates into indispensability? The question is not hypothetical, as I learned to my alarm on a lovely spring afternoon back in the late 1980s when President Handler told me during a reception at the Rose that I was not going to like what she was going to do to “my” museum. That’s all she said. What she meant, I had no idea. Only later did I hear secondhand that she was planning something draconian, like selling part or all of the collection. But whatever the plan, it never left the boardroom, because, as I was also told, steadfast opposition led by university trustee and devoted museum supporter Dr. Henry Foster instead prevailed. Thus did the question seem to become hypothetical, at least for a while—until it became again very much not hypothetical with the 2009 Jehuda Reinharz announcement. And now? I’d say it’s now not only not hypothetical, it’s very real and immediate, central to any discussion of the museum’s identity and mission at the moment it readies itself to move ahead under a new director.

(This is the second part of a three-part post)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Curatorial Flashbacks #18: The Rose At 50, Part 1: Collecting

Opening reception, "Collecting Stories," The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University (photo thanks to the Slowmuse website).
By Carl Belz

The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis recently kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration with an exhibition called “Art at the Origin: The Early 1960s,” an event that a few years ago seemed to have been cut off at the neck with the announcement by then president Jehuda Reinharz that the museum would be closed and the collection sold in order to keep its host institution financially afloat. The exhibition highlights paintings acquired by founding director Sam Hunter, all of them new at the time—by artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg, Louis, Kelly, Warhol, and Lichtenstein—paintings that effectively, and in some cases controversially, identified the Rose with the art of our time. That identity persists into the present and is widely appreciated, as evidenced by “Collecting Stories,” the second part of the current exhibition, which is displayed in the museum’s spacious Lois Foster Gallery and consists of acquisitions by subsequent Rose directors during the past four decades, many of them by artists who, loud and clear, voiced their support for the Rose during the bleak months of its threatened demise.

I spent 24 years as director of the Rose prior to retiring at the close of the 1997-98 academic year. Returning on a recent weekend afternoon to see the anniversary exhibition, I found myself excited to be once more among valued old friends, especially the Abstract Expressionist, Pop, and post-painterly warhorses comprising “Art at the Origin” that I’d hung countless times while visually writing and rewriting the histories of contemporary art they told.
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University with Stephen Antonakos neon sculpture
Yet my spirits dipped as I continued from “Art at the Origin” to “Collecting Stories.” The past 40 years, represented by a little of this and a little of that, also included old friends—some of them personal, you might say, insofar as I was involved in their acquisition—but for me the selections lacked the visual and thematic unities that highlighted the “Origin” section of the exhibition; fewer in both size and number, they also seemed to pale in comparison to the museum’s first decade, leaving the impression—unintentional, I’m sure—that the Rose’s glory days of collecting had come and gone in the 60s. With that, I began having doubts about what the Rose had accomplished during my own tenure as director. Had it really been as visually fragmentary and aimless as it now looked? Had it in fact lacked cohesive intellectual substance? Even the Steve Antonakos neon we’d acquired for the Rose façade in 1986 (see photo above), the signature and site-identifying commission I’d gone mano a mano with then president Evelyn Handler to have realized—even it had disappeared into storage. I felt in turn an urge to defend myself, to pen from my own perspective a few thoughts about the institutional history reflected in the current exhibition, including the mission that’s been publicized in conjunction with it. With your indulgence I offer them here.

Sam Hunter’s most important acquisitions comprise the Gevirtz-Mnuchin Collection of 21 artworks (hereafter GMC) that were purchased in 1962/63 with a one-time gift of $50K from Leon Mnuchin and members of his and his wife’s families. In the context of today’s art market, that $50K translates into an astronomical number and makes for a fabulous investment story—I could even add a chapter about the years I spent envying that $50K—but it’s not the story we’re interested in here. Which is:

(1) Ranging from AE through Pop and Color Field painting, the GMC represented a broad swath of contemporary expression, meaning its vision of the art of our time was bigger than smaller, more inclusive than parochial; as such, its presence would be felt in subsequent acquisitions by allowing wide latitude in their selection while encouraging depth at the same time. A balance of breadth plus depth, that was the ticket. But we don’t get that balance in the Lois Foster Gallery. We get a mix of genres, encountering realism (Gregory Gillespie), postminimalism (Ana Mendieta), and the feminist critique (Kiki Smith), for instance, and we thereby catch a glimpse of the edgy complexity of the 70s and the renewed expressionism of the 80s and 90s. Yet it’s a glimpse only; as far as the larger collection picture is concerned, we sense the range but are denied the richness, and we miss an important lesson about the content of the GMC. In fact, there’s plenty more to see where those isolated examples came from, including, for starters, major paintings by Bill Beckman and Agnes Martin and Joan Snyder, paintings that buttress significantly the kindred examples now in the gallery and demonstrate they are not as isolated as they appear. 
Joan Snyder, Painter, catalog for an exhibition with an essay by Carl Belz. Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, MA, April 15 - July 31, 1994.
(2) The fact that the GMC artworks were purchased rather than gifted signified a focused and proactive approach to shaping a fledgling collection and demonstrated a first principle in museum practice generally, which is: To sustain growth, you need funding, preferably endowed; you may be a developmental whiz, able to charm the birds from the trees in attracting gifts to your collection—which Sam Hunter seems very much to have been as well—but your credibility in selling your mission can be no better served than by putting your own money on the table to demonstrate that you really mean what you say.

That same proactive approach, signifying the Rose’s ongoing leadership in its field, has been supported increasingly by endowment since 1981 when the museum’s very first purchase fund was established. I remember the day. I remember sharing a congratulatory handshake with Vice President David Steinberg, with whom I had made the pitch for funding to the trustees of the Rose estate, who that day gave us $500K. I remember being thrilled that a major piece in our institutional puzzle, a piece missing since the museum’s opening 20 years before, was now in place. And would be there in perpetuity. And would thereby ease what had been my growing concern—that, in the absence of ongoing funding, the Rose would, by default, become a museum defined by the 60s alone. Take a look at the labels in the Lois Foster Gallery, they provide a subtext within the current exhibition that lets you see how those funds have proliferated and more fully appreciate the collection growth they’ve enabled.

(3) Prior to acquiring any pictures with his $50K gift, Sam Hunter wrote a memo to Brandeis president Abram Sachar—I came across a copy years ago, purely by chance—informing him of the gift and explaining that he, Sam, would be making the acquisitions and that they would be subject to no committee of any kind, otherwise the deal would be off. Wow, think about that, a truly free-wheeling image out of the past, like an image from another world, an image of museums “at the origin”—before they became “professional,” before spectacle and entertainment, before corporate support and the corporate model—museums before trustees and overseers whose worldly business success privileged them to tell seasoned museum experts how to conduct their museum’s intellectual and aesthetic business. Sam’s memo was prescient; you certainly wouldn’t find his acquisitions procedure in any museum handbook today, but that doesn’t mean its underlying concern isn’t still with us—as I learned the hard way with the Frank Stella acquisition that didn’t happen.

(This is the first of a three-part post)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

More Washington

By Charles Kessler

A lot of paintings at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington struck me as funny. I recently wrote that I found some of de Kooning’s women comical (and there is support for this in the de Kooning biography  by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan — highly recommended, by the way). I also recently found some of David Smith's sculptures playful, so maybe it's just my mood. But intended by the artist or not, I thought these paintings were a riot. See if you agree.
Frans Hals, Portrait of a Member of the Haarlem Civic Guard, c. 1636/1638, oil on canvas, 33 7/8 x 27 3/16 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1937.1.68).
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Daniel in the Lions' Den, c. 1614/1616, oil on canvas, 105 1/2 x 147 1/2 (National Gallery of Art, #1965.13.1).
Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555, oil on canvas, 49 x 41 9/16 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1937.1.34).
This is one of my favorite paintings and Titian obviously loved it since he kept it in his studio until his death, so I doubt it was intended to be funny. Nevertheless I can’t help thinking she’s saying: “Who, moi?” There’s less doubt about this painting though:
Giorgione and Titian, Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, c. 1510, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1939.1.258).
Raphael, The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, 1508, oil on panel, 31 3/4 x 22 5/8 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1937.1.25). 
I know this is no ordinary baby, but come on.


The contrast between the way traditional and contemporary art are displayed is more extreme at the NGA than anywhere else I know of. The West Wing, where their traditional art collection is housed, is a quiet, sedately lit, intimate space with plenty of places to sit, whereas the East Wing is over-bright and uncomfortable, and most of the galleries are way out of human scale. Some very public art like Stella, Calder, and Pop Art, can handle that, but most contemporary art isn't helped by this kind of dramatic space.

And some of the East Wing installations are just plain disrespectful:
From the left: Robert Morris, Nam June Paik and Richard Tuttle installed in a vestibule near an elevator.


Mel Boucher's art has become decorative and more popular. Coincidence?
Mel Bochner, Amazing!, 2011, oil and acrylic on canvas.
Mel Bochner in conversation with James Meyer, November 9, 2011, NGA East Building Auditorium


Who said nothing’s perfect:
Jun ware bowl with rosewood stand, early 12th-mid 13th century, China,  Jin dynasty (Freer, #F1982.14a-b).


"The Invention of Glory" (until January 8, 2012), an exhibition of The Pastrana Tapestries, considered among the finest surviving Gothic tapestries, is at the NGA. Why are tapestries always so drab?


I was surprised I liked Warhol’s Shadows so much, but the other major Warhol exhibition in Washington, the NGA’s Warhol: Headlines (until January 2, 2012), was a surprising disappointment. They seemed crude and unresolved — not always a bad thing, but not something I’d expect, or want, from Warhol.

Andy Warhol, A Boy for Meg, 1962, oil on canvas, 72 x 52 inches (National Gallery of Art, 1971.87.11).


Some good surprises:
Alberto Giacometti, Standing Man, 1929-30, painted plaster (NGA 66.2043)

Giacomo Balla, Futurist Flowers, 1918-25 (reconstructed 1968), wood and paint (Hirshhorn, #86.222.1-10)
Bernardino Luini, The Magdalen, c.1525, oil on panel, 23 x 19 inches (National Gallery of Art, #1961.9.56).
I guess there’s a hole in my Italian Renaissance art history, but I don't remember Bernardino Luini. Strangely the NGA website doesn’t have anything on his paintings, only his Fresco Cycle with the Story of Procris and Cephalus, and those frescos don’t look at all like his paintings.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Washington D.C. - Fall Color

By Charles Kessler

Resplendent fall foliage in Washington -- who knew?  It primed me for all the color-oriented art I was to see.
According to their website, The Phillips Collection has been devoted to exploring “the development of color and light in modern art;” and the main attraction at The Phillips Collection right now, the exhibition Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint (until January 8, 2012), fits in perfectly with this mission. It is also the primary reason I traveled to Washington.
Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Barre, early 1880s−1900, oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 38 1/2 inches
(The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.).
It is a comprehensive exhibition that deepens our understanding of Dancers at the Barre, one of the most famous paintings in their collection. The show consists of about 30 major paintings, bronzes, drawings and prints from around the world that shed light on this painting's subject, composition, style of painting and color choices. In addition there are photographs from a conservation study of the painting that show Degas’s continual revisions of the dancers' positions and the many adjustments in color he made. It's an impressive scholarly and aesthetic achievement. 

Dance was a major subject for Degas (he did more than 1500 works on the subject!) and it makes sense to me that he’d be attracted to ballet. Ballet dancers, even when practicing or just hanging around, get into more interesting poses than other people. They also seem to float when they move, and even their clothes, their tutus, are light and airy. All of this allows Degas to free his forms from gravity and let them flow, breathe and glow like colored air. 

BTW, if you love Degas, in addition to the work at The Phillips there are 19 paintings, 33 drawings and 38 prints at the National Gallery. Even more impressive, the National Gallery has the largest collection of sculpture by Degas in the world --  66 of them, a remarkable two-thirds of his entire sculpture production including 52 of his original wax models. This should be enough to indulge the most fanatical Degas admirer. (But if you still haven't had enough, there's the Degas and the Nude exhibition in Boston.)
Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881, yellow wax, hair, ribbon, linen bodice, satin shoes, muslin tutu, wood base, overall without base 39 x 14 x 14 inches (National Gallery of Art #1999.80.28). This is the only sculpture Degas exhibited in his lifetime.
Among the other Phillips exhibitions aiming to “explore the development of color and light in modern art” is Eye to Eye: Joseph Marioni at the Phillips (until January 29, 2012). Marioni is known for making almost monochromatic paintings that are composed of several layers of semi-opaque colors. His earlier work, like Robert Ryman’s, was about the physicality of the paint, and his later work, while superficially not much different, is more lyrical. I think he achieves this new lyricism the way Morris Louis does it in his "Veil Paintings" —  by showing what colors are underneath each layer, even if it’s just a little peek around the edge, sensitizing you to what colors are in the mix and thereby creating depth, light and air.

Joseph Marioni, Green Painting, 2010, acrylic and linen on stretcher, 142 x 147 cm.
Morris Louis, Faces, 1962, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 136 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum). 
And then there’s the Phillips’s Mark Rothko Room, an installation originally created in 1960 by the museum founder Duncan Phillips with Rothko’s involvement.  It’s a small room with one classic Rothko painting on each wall, it has a single bench in the middle, and there is a limit of no more than eight visitors at a time. That might sound nice, but I’m beginning to find it irritatingly precious and pretentious. The work stands up well enough by itself and these theatrical trappings are a heavy-handed embarrassment. 
On the other hand, the room in the East Building of the National Gallery with Matisse's cut-outs is unpretentious in spite of the restricted hours and low light necessary to protect the work.  I suspect the reasons for this are that the room is larger, the art is bigger and more assertive, and the raggedness of the cuts (Matisse's version of rough brushwork) makes the work feel very present.
Detail, Henri Matisse, La Negresse, 1952, paper collage on canvas (National Gallery of Art)
The other major exhibition in Washington is also involved with color  of all things, Andy Warhol: Shadows (until January 15, 2012) at the Hirshhorn. It’s a show of rarely seen work — 102 large canvases silkscreened and hand-painted (with a mop) blown-up photographs of shadows in Warhol’s studio. The canvases are hung arbitrarily edge-to-edge for almost 450 feet along the Museum’s curved galleries. I say hung arbitrarily because Warhol originally said they should be hung randomly, but when they were first exhibited, Warhol allowed his assistants to hang them any way they wanted (which wasn't random), and the Hirshhorn, unnecessarily I believe, stuck as much as they could to the original installation. 
Hirshhorn Museum installation view of Andy Warhol, Shadows, 1978-79. Organized by the Dia Art Foundation. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. Photo by Cathy Carver.
I don't ordinarily think of Warhol as a colorist, but this exhibition changed my mind. Not only are these gorgeous, virtuosic, luscious paintings in themselves, but the installation is a unique color experience in that, like architecture, it changes over time as you walk along it. The experience of one painting, or group of paintings, affects the experience of the next. It’s a thrilling journey.

Another nice thing about this exhibition is the presence of what the Hirshhorn refers to as  their "Interpretive Guides"  staff people who tend the exhibition but are not guards. Their job is to engage viewers about the work and answer questions. I hope other museums follow suit.