Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Richard Serra "Tilted Arc" Controversy

Once upon a time, in our modern world, there was an ugly run-down plaza in New York between two high-rise buildings.  It was bare except for an out-of-use fountain, and offered no welcoming shade or places to sit.  People used the space only to move through it as quickly as possible.

Then, in 1981, a federal program called the General Services Administration commissioned Richard Serra to construct a work of art to fit into the space, and Serra produced the soon to become notorious Tilted Arc.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, raw steel, 1981, photo credit

As I mentioned in my last post on Serra, his sculptures are often site-specific, and Tilted Arc is undeniably so.  With Tilted Arc, (made of the same rusty looking steel that he later used for his Bramme for the Ruhr District) Serra is highlighting certain essences of the space around it.  By cutting through the center of the plaza, Tilted Arc requires people passing through to take a wide detour (perhaps an annoying detour, especially to a hurried New York business person).  Furthermore, the curve of the giant steel wall is so that it makes a visitor uncomfortable as he/she is walking by, as if it is perilously off balance and about to fall.  Due to these features, the sculpture tells a rather sophisticated message about industrial life and the discomfort of urban spaces, a message in fact, about the very plaza it is cutting through.

But at least some of the workers in the surrounding high-rises didn't buy it.  They felt that Serra's sculpture made the plaza even more ugly and uncomfortable than it was before, and that they wanted a sculpture in the plaza that encouraged use for rest and recreation, not one that made you want to hurry past before it fell on you.  Inchoate grumblings eventually turned into an organized protest spectacle, when in 1984, William Diamond, the new administrator of the General Services Administration, took it up as his own personal campaign to get the sculpture removed.  It took four years of highly contested debate, with strong voices both for removing the sculpture and keeping it, before it was dismantled and destroyed (I'm not actually sure how "destroyed" exactly... maybe melted down?) in 1989.  Goodbye Tilted Arc.

Except, not completely goodbye, because the story of Tilted Arc, raises some fascinating questions.  Who was in the right in this debate: Serra and the supporters of his sculpture, or those numerous workers who were not interested in the art-for-art's-sake thing but wanted a sculpture in the plaza which made them feel comfortable?  Do artworks in public spaces have an obligation to make the public using the space feel good, or can they portray some other message?  I'm eager to know what you think.

P.S. Apparently the poor plaza, relieved of Tilted Arc, was fated for ugliness.  It was redesigned, but by all accounts, not very well.  According to the website Project for Public Spaces, the plaza today is "an awesomely bad complex so disjointed it boggles the mind."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Monument to Industrial History

The German city of Essen is situated in a densly populated area of western Germany known as the Ruhr district.  Until the decline of the coal market in the 1960s and 1970s, this region was exceedingly industrial, thick with coal mines and coal processing plants.  (Perhaps you remember from school lessons on the industrial revolution, that processed coal, called coke, was needed in huge amounts to feed the furnaces in order to produce the great metals of industry, iron and steel.)  Today, most of the coal mines and processing plants in the Ruhr are shut down, although some are cleaned up and open to tourists.  Still populating the skyline however, the thin metal smokestacks remind residents and visitors of this regions history.

Also shaping the landscape are large heaps of coal refuse -the impure bits which couldn't be used in the delicate process of steel- and iron-making.  Nothing can grown on these mounds of coal.  They are mountainous monuments to the side-effects of industrialization, powerful and disquietingly barren.

In 1998,  Richard Serra, a great contemporary sculptor of iron and steel, erected a monument on top of one of the coal heaps in Essen.  I visited it last year.

The sculpture cannot be seen without a bit of work.  To even get to the coal heap, I climbed an exhaustingly long staircase, leading out of a rather normal looking picnic area.  But on reaching the top of the staircase, it felt as if I had come out onto the moon.

The ground was dry, black and crumbly.  The green foliage which had moments before surrounded me gave way to emptiness.  I was surrounded by nothing but wind and distance.  Ahead of me, on the top of the mound, was the sculpture Richard Serra had erected.  So far away, its shape mirrored the smokestacks dotting the horizon.  I continued my walk toward it, feeling almost like I was making some sort of a pilgrimage across a wasteland.  


Richard Serra, Bramme for the Ruhr District, 1998, raw steel

The sculpture is 14.5 meters high, 4.2 meters wide, and 0.13 meters thick.  It is made of rusting steel, with the kind whose surface which could scrape the skin of your muscles.  It felt gigantic when I reached it, although it was standing atop a mound much much more gigantic than it.  The bottom two meters, the part reachable by humans, had been graffitied, and the graffiti struck me as both an ugly desecration of the art, and yet somehow also an appropriate addition to the industrial aesthetic of the sculpture.  

Most of Serra's sculptures are what is called Site-Specific, an important term for contemporary art history, describing an artwork which is designed and planned to fit into a specific space, and would thus, not really work if it were transfered to another space.  I would argue that for a site-specific sculpture like this one, not only the steel making up the pillar, but the entirety of the space around, from the coal-mound underfoot, to the smokestacks on the horizon is part of the sculpture.  Even though Serra himself didn't build either the smokestacks or the coal-mound, by placing his pillar where and how he did, he causes the visitor to think differently about these things.  Serra said about this monument that he wanted to: "hold onto the moment, in which a civilization dies and something new begins".

Without Richard Serra's sculpture, I would have probably have been only appalled by the signs of industrialization which permeate this place.  With the sculpture, I was able to see the wistful beauty of this history.  

Come back tomorrow for another post about Serra, and some controversy with his site-specific sculptures.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

An art-lover's pleasure

For me, art is sometimes just the joy of coming upon a dazzling, dizzying landscape painting ...

and moving closer... 

and closer...

until the two-dimensional landscape has turned into 3-dimensional, abstract brush-strokes of color. Then I back up again and watch the abstract strokes turn back into a landscape. 

I repeat this exercise multiple times, and each time am filled anew with wonder that a painting can have two such distinct identities: one as a vision of a San Francisco landscape, and another as colorful paint in abstract shapes on a canvas.  

The photos in this post are my photos of Wayne Thiebaud's San Francisco, West-Side Ridge, (undated, but around 1990), from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How Little We Know

When in human history did we start making art?  

We can never know, but probably thousands of years earlier than the earliest artifacts archeologists can dig up.  For an artifact to survive long enough to reach the hands of an archeologist, it must be made out of stone, ivory or some other such permanent material.  I can only imagine that the first experiments in art happened with sticks in mud, or with charred bits of charcoal on faces and hands.

Löwenmensch (Lion Person), found in Hohlenstein-Stadel Germany, carved mammoth ivory 32,000 years old

What does this sculpture, uncovered in 1939 and created 32,000 years ago tell us our human ancestors?   Just think, 32,000 years ago means we're talking about primitive hunter-gatherer cavepeople.  The famous cave paintings of southern France, which you may have heard of, didn't happen for another couple thousand years.  This is SO LONG AGO.  And yet, the maker of this sculpture couldn't have been so different from us.  The artist had an ability for abstract thought so refined that s/he could, from seeing some cave-lions in his/her life, form in his/her mind a generalized symbol representing "cave lion".  S/he had such a firm grasp of this symbol that s/he could carve it into a piece of ivory, for others to recognize as a lion (even others who live 32,000 years in this artist's future, who know nothing about his/her culture).  This would be mind-blowing enough, but the artist didn't just reproduce a lion, but combined ideas to create a lion standing like a human, in other words, an object of fantasy, playfulness and imagination.  (As well as, perhaps, religious significance... we can't know for sure).  

It seems like the maker of the Lion Person was nearly as smart and creative as we are today. 
How little we really know about prehistoric society. 

Let me intrigue you with one more example:
At an archeological site in Turkey called Göbekli-Tepe, archeologists have uncovered the vast remains of a prehistoric temple, perhaps the oldest on Earth (it's 6,000 years older than Stonehenge).  It is made up of walls and megalithic stone pillars, carved with detailed scenes of animals by rivers (the first landscape art!).  Until it's excavation starting in 1994, archeologists had always (quite logically) believed that only with the advent of agriculture, which made searching for food a less full-time job, that early people had enough free time to do things like structure themselves into towns and civilizations, or build large temples.  That all makes a lot of sense... except that the temple at Göbekli-Tepe pre-dates agriculture in the region by a couple hundred years.  This can only mean that, in prehistoric Turkey at least, the complex coordination required to build a temple came first, and perhaps even lead to the invention of agriculture.  With this, our understanding of civilization is turned on its head.

Monolith from Göbekli-Tepe, Turkey, 11,000 years old

If I've intrigued you, read this interesting article about Göbekli-Tepe from the Smithsonian magazine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Useful Art History Websites

Is this blog itself too new to start referring you to other places on the web you might go to look up more about art history?  I hope not, because I'm going to introduce you to three places right now.  All three are great places to happily click around and procrastinate.  They're also great if you need to look up quality images and reliable information on a specific artist or art movement (well, the first two are great for that, at least).

Diego Rivera, Creation, 1922-23, Mural at Esquella National Preparatoria, Mexico City

I've been having a great time browsing this site.  Every time you enter the site, a new "featured painting" captures your eye.  For me today, it was this Diego Rivera mural.  They have good reproductions of a lot of paintings, including many which are intriguing and less well known.  I encourage you to go there, click around, and leave a comment here on this blog telling me of a painting you felt drawn too.  

2. Art History Resources
Angelo Bronzino, Venus Cupid Folly and Time, 1540-45

Want to know more about this wacky painting?  A professor named Dr. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe has built an incredibly thorough resource out of what must have started as a class website (there are still links to syllabi occasionally scattered throughout), but has grown into something more.  It is quite a treasure trove of links.  Some day, I hope my blog houses as much information.  

Artist Unknown, Sunday on the Pot with George, date unknown

Be ready for a laugh!  And be ready to wonder at the fact that this museum really truly exists, specializing in finding and curating all the awkward, odd and ugly works they can find, and curating them with silly tongue-in-cheek captions.  

So enjoy, and let me know what you find!

Monday, January 23, 2012


Yesterday was my sister's birthday, and in her honor, I present you today with a short history of a famous work of art about sisters: Sofonisba Anguissola's Three Sisters Playing Chess of 1555

Sofonisba Anguissola, Three Sisters Playing Chess, 1555, Cremona Italy 

The girls in this painting are three (out of a total of six) of Sofonisba's younger sisters: Lucia, and Minerva are playing a game of chess and Europa looks cheerfully on.  The scene reminds me of my childhood, where (as my mom describes it) my older sister and I would play together and my younger sister would watch avidly, entertained just by being around her big sisters.  The scene from my childhood didn't include a servant woman looking over at us though.  And my sisters and I played barbies more than we played chess.

How did Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian Renaissance girl, come to paint such a picture?  Born 1532 (plus or minus a couple of years), she has the stunning claim to be the first woman painter in Europe to achieve international recognition and admiration for her work.  Women just weren't painting at this time in European history.  Their education and freedom outside the home was severely limited.  Anguissola was able to succeed as wonderfully as she did for the same reason that any other women of this century succeeded -because she had one of those rare and wonderful fathers who believed (crazy, as all his contemporaries knew) that girls' education should equal that of boys.  So Anguissola and her sisters studied Latin, literature, music and painting.  They even learned chess, also usually considered a men's pursuit by less idiosyncratic fathers.

In 1546, Anguissola traveled with another one of her sisters to live with and learn painting from a great Italian master, Bernardino Campi.  Her education, of course, could not be exactly like that of a boy: she was not allowed to get anywhere near the nude men male artists would study to better understand anatomy.  Thus, she focused on painting faces.  When her apprenticeship was finished, she came home and taught the rest of her sisters how to paint.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait 1556

She was worked as a portraitist, painting on commissions from noblemen and women around her home, and in this way started to attract the attention of the big and powerful people in the art world.  Even Michaelangelo sang her praises.  Her fame caught the attention of King Philip II of Spain, and he hired her to come to the Spanish court, paint portraits of Spanish nobles, and work as an art teacher for his wife.  Anguissola lived and painted into her nineties.

Although she impressed her contemporaries, she was mostly overlooked after her death.  Art Historians who looked at her works characterized them as weak and "feminine", a typical demeaning assessment of any art by a woman artist in the past centuries.  Since the advent of the feminist movement in the 1970s however, there has been more interest and effort in a real understanding of Anguissola's work.  This work continues to go on.

Happy Birthday my big sister!!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Andy Warhol, Revisited; rebellion against Abstract Expressionism

Remember my recent post about Andy Warhol?  In it, I contemplated on how part of the meaning of his art is that it is supposed to be a joke, poking fun at the art establishment.

Well, last weekend, I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC to see their display of one of Warhol's grandest works, Shadows.  My visit there just reenforced my conclusions that was having some fun mocking the art world, particularly Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism was the art movement at the top of the pedestal in the 1940s and into the 1950s, featuring daring, animated application of paint, which did not directly represent anything in the world present outside the painting, except perhaps concepts like rhythm or power.  Think Jackson Pollock, or think Franz Kline:
Franz Kline, Delaware Gap, oil on canvas, 1958, Hirshhorn Museum

Abstract Expressionism was not just know for its particular aesthetic, but also for a kind of philosophy behind it that emphasized the individual emotional-soul-genius of the artist.  The act of painting, an Abstract Expressionist work, in the mind of an Ab Ex painter, was a process of spiritual creation.

Andy Warhol seems to have thought (perhaps fairly) that this philosophy was a load of garbage.  His work Shadows, demonstrates this opinion.  This work is a set of 102 paintings of equal size, featuring an image he got off of a shadow on the wall in his office.

Andy Warhol, Shadows, 1979, as displayed at the Hirshorn

Each painting individually looks like it could be an Ab Ex painting, with thick brushstrokes and an abstract sense of composition.  But instead of a painting process of "genius" and "spiritual creation" Warhol created his paintings as mechanically and efficiently as possible.
First, he and his assistants painted big chunks of canvas one color (with a mop, Warhol claims).
Next, he cut the now painted canvases into several pieces of the right size.
After that, he had a silkscreen technician silkscreen the black on top (sometimes the black was the shadow, sometimes it was the negative space behind the shadow).
Finally, he had them hung on the wall, just above ground level so viewers wouldn't kick them on accident.

I think this whole thing is actually kind of funny.

On the wall beside the paintings, the Hirshorn had put up some quotes from Warhol, about this work.  For example, "Someone asked me if I thought [my shadow paintings] were art and I said no.  You see, the opening party [at the gallery where they were first displayed] had disco.  I guess that makes them disco decor."  On the one side, this quote shows how Warhol played to the sensibilities of his audience.  He wanted to appeal to young, hip, anti-establishment people (or at least to people who were hoping to seem young hip and anti-establishment).  But it struck me also, being in front of the works, that these paintings would make fantastic disco decor!  Can't you just imagine them under strobe lights and vibrating music?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

1300 Revolution

Are you one of those people who goes to a museum filled with old master paintings only to find yourself stifling a yawn after a couple rooms of only bible scenes.  Didn't those old masters ever paint anything else?

Well, if this is an accurate description of you, I'm going to let you in on a secret that will hopefully make those bible paintings more interesting.  

Around the year 1300, there was a thrilling revolutionary shift in the style of Italian painting, connected to the developing new philosophy of Humanism.

Humanism is the shift in focus away from exclusive emphasis on heaven and hell, which was common in the Middle Ages, to more interest in life on this Earth. It is the acknowledgement that living is not just the preparation for dying and the afterlife, but had value of its own right.  Earthly life is even to be celebrated.  This kind of thinking makes me excited, so I can only imagine how thrilling it must have felt to the Italians of 1300, to whom this was all very new and revolutionary.  

How do painters go about indicating this shift in philosophy in their paintings?  Well, for one thing, they start painting the sky blue.  
Giotto, Adoration of the Magi, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Yup, a blue sky is revolutionary, because the sky as seen from our experience on Earth is blue.  With his choice of sky color, Giotto has set his Adoration of the Magi painting here on Earth, in a kind of location you or I might recognize!  Previously, skies had largely been painted gold.  This was partly because gold was presumably the color of the sky in heaven, and partly because in late middle ages culture, the value of a work of art came in large part from how expensive its materials were, so patrons were partial to gold-leaf skies to show off their wealth.  The painting below is a good example.

Guido da Siena, Adoration of the Magi 1270/1280, currently at the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg Germany

Both paintings are of the same story, but Giotto's represents the shift in philosophy to Humanism.  His painting shows how painters and patrons alike became more interested in the observation and reproduction of reality on Earth in artwork.  And this shift allows the viewer to relate to the painting in a whole new, Humanistic way.  So next time you are at a museum of old Italian paintings, notice the color of the sky in the paintings.  How does the color affect your feeling about the work, and how might it have affected the feelings of a fourteenth century Italian viewer?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Since presenting you with my definition of art in my very first post, (Art is an object, or an action framed in such a way as to make us reflect on and/or question our understanding of the world), people have been asking: where does aesthetics come in?  Don't we usually associate art with aesthetics, with beauty?  Isn't beauty essential to how we perceive and interact with art, how we judge it and determine its quality?  My short answer is "yes, definitely!".  My long answer:

One of my mother's favorite artists is Alexander Calder.  The undulating, animated aesthetics of his work appeals to her.  
Alexander Calder, Vertical Foliage, metal wire and paint, 1941, photo credit

My father, on the other hand, tends to prefer the Impressionists.  There work is often full of very appealing patterns of light, and a life found in simple moments.  
Auguste Renoir, Girl with a Watering Can, 1876, photo credit

My boyfriend has always been partial to the combination of precision and mystery present in Renaissance portraiture.  
Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1465-70, Museo Poldi Pezzoli

And my landlady just told me in a conversation yesterday that she has always loved the works of Helen Frankenthaler.  
Helen Frankenthaler, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973 photo credit

I've given all these examples because they show two things: that a gut feeling about how beautiful we find a work of art to be is probably the most important factor in how we judge and interpret art, and that this gut feeling is totally subjective.  

Which one of these people likes the most aesthetic work of art?  Ridiculous question, I know, but it makes a point.  Aesthetics is essential to our own personal relationship to art, (and is thus of the utmost importance), but it cannot be put into a definition of art because everyone's ideas of beauty are so different.  

Two corollaries which come out of my argument:  
- Aesthetics are not only personally, but culturally subjective.  One culture will generally tend to find a certain style beautiful while another culture doesn't see what the fuss is all about.  (The ancient greeks certainly thought their statues in contraposto were better than the ancient Egyptian symmetrical figures, but the ancient Egyptians had a different opinion.)
- Art experts and art critics may like or dislike a particular artist/art movement/art piece.  Their opinion of aesthetic quality does not, can not in any way invalidate your opinion, or my opinion if we feel otherwise about that art.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winter in Paintings

Even though I come from the California coast, January, for me, represents snow, bare branches and the ice skating season.  And so, here, for your viewing and pondering pleasure, a couple of artistic visions of winter:

Breugel, Peter the Elder Hunters in the Snow - January, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe Winter, 1573, Louvre Museum, Paris

I picked these paintings fairly randomly, just by racking over my brain back for the art works I knew having to do with winter.  But by placing them all on this page together, I've noticed a couple of things.  First, although the paintings spain roughly 350 years, they seem rather oddly to be grouped in pairs, with the paintings in each pair being painted within 25 years of their partner.

Hokusai, Katsushik Winter Evening in Japan 1760

Stuart, Gilbert The Skater (Portrait of William Grant), 1782, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The works of the pair above are the only ones of this group which were painted by non-Europeans (one Japanese artist, one American).  This means either that non-Europeans painted fewer winter scenes, or that I have a skewed knowledge of art history, and am more aware of paintings by Europeans.  I suspect the latter explanation is probably more the case.  Even the painting by Hokusai became important to western art historians (and thus well know to me) probably not as much for its own sake, but because European artists such as the impressionists "discovered", admired, and imitated Hokusai's work.  Furthermore, there is not a work among these six painted by a woman.  

Amiet, Cuno Schneelandschaft (Snow Landscape), 1904, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Malevich, Kazimir, Morning in the Village after Snowstorm, 1912, Guggenheim Museum, NY

Despite the limits to diversity among the artists of these paintings I mentioned above, the works span a remarkably broad geographic and chronological range.  They represent six different contemporary countries, respectively the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, USA, Switzerland, and Russia.  To me, the most striking thing about this set of paintings is how similar the visions of winter have been across this space and time.  Just compare the first painting with the last.  There are 350 years and thousands of miles between them, and yet both artists are trying to capture a village transformed by snow, and both evoke the feeling of the cold hard work of winter through their trudging figures, backs turned to the viewer, going about their life chores.

Which is your favorite painting, and why?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hank Willis Thomas

In his artist's statement for his show Strange Fruit, today in its last day on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Hank Willis Thomas wrote: 

"Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of 'black history' as somehow separate from American history, and to reinstate it as indivisible from the totality of past social, political, and economic occurrences that make up contemporary American culture."

Hank Willis Thomas, Strange Fruit, digital photo, 2011

I went to the Corcoran the other day, and was stunned and awed by the power of Thomas' work.  His work is impeccably, seductively beautiful.  (The image on this blog does not do it justice.  Check out his homepage too, for more, better quality reproductions.) But the subject matter of his photos and collages is some of the most painful and distressing features of American history: black slavery, sharecropping and particularly lynching. 

The pop-culture image of the black male body today is often shown as a sports hero -a basketball, or football star.  And it is a horrific truth of our past that the image of the black male body through the 1960s was often shown as the victim of a lynching.  These images was reproduced on postcards of the lynching "event" which people could buy and send to their friends and relatives to show what a fun time it was.  This visual flippancy about the violence and inhumanity of lynching strikes me as one of the most barbaric things about it.  I'm not putting an example of a lynching postcard on this blog, because the subject feels to horrific and overwhelming for me to try and frame in a single thumbnail image.  Go instead to the collection of lynching photos put together and discussed by the website Without Sanctuary.  

Thomas' artwork forces us to confront these lynching images in our contemporary context.  Are we yet free of this past, or is it haunting the lives of black people, the lives of all of us in America today?

For this Martin Luther King Day, I want to humbly acknowledge this part of our American history, our status as perpetrators and as victims, our need to face it.  I want to acknowledge the vital humanizing role that the civil rights movement played in putting a stop to lynching.  This history is, as Hank Willis Thomas says, "indivisible from the totality of... American culture."  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Andy Warhol and Pop Art

Andy Warhol. Campbell's Soup Cans. 1962
Warhol, Andy Cambell's Soup Cans 1962, polymer paint on 32 canvases, NY MOMA

A few weeks ago, my mom came home skeptical from an exhibit of Andy Warhol at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.  "People are so crazy about this artist," she said with a frown, "and yet, I don't get how he got so famous.  He made nothing original and yet he makes millions of dollars on the images of others.  It's like he's playing a prank on the entire world.  He's the tailor who sold the emperor an invisible new suit of clothes, and everyone admires his art, not trusting themselves to expose him as a phony."

My mom is not an art historian; she is an intelligent, observant woman who does not allow anyone else to make her opinions for her.  I've been thinking about what she said, and about Warhol, who indeed came to fame to a great extent from reproducing images from newspapers, brand graphics and even other artists.  Even when it is true that his huge body of work is in fact far more varied than this, he's most known for adapting the images of others.

Warhol was part of a movement, started in the 1960s, known as Pop Art.  Pop artists used and manipulated motifs seen in contemporary advertising.  People were surrounded by these motifs in their daily lives, so much so that they probably hardly thought about them.  Pop artists, putting these motifs in the unexpected context of the art world, reminded people to question them.  How much do these motifs from advertising affect our lives?  How does repetition (such an essential component of Warhol's Cambell's Soup Cans, and an essential part of how advertising appears in our daily lives) change the meaning of the motif?  The thoughts about the subconscious and inescapable power of never ending advertising, which are evoked by pop art, can even be downright scary.

Warhol, Andy Brillo Boxes, 1970 silkscreen on plywood, Allen Memorial Art Museum

All that being said, I think my mom, in her thoughts about Warhol, has a point.  Not that Warhol is a bad artist, but that his art should strike us as funny.  He is playing a bit of a cheeky, and rather genius prank, putting soup cans or brillo boxes in a museum where they clearly don't belong, making money from such a deceptively simple trick.  

(If you're interested in this artist, check out the very interesting Warhol Museum Website, where I found quite a bit of information about Warhol that surprised me.) 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Photography and reality

Photography.  No other medium crosses so many boundaries.  Photography has been used to (among other things):

*make art
*document sociological, anthropological, medical "truths"
*report about current news
*capture the image of a loved one for all eternity
*advertise and propagandize

This versatility makes it one of the most exciting media to think about in all of art history.  In all these uses however, we often think of photography as a document, capturing a moment in time.  And photographers who recognize this psychology, can have a lot of fun.

Gregory Crewdson, Ophelia, digial C-print, 2001 (more info about Crewdson)

We are used to thinking of photography as capturing an image of reality.  Crewdson uses this assumption to his advantage, and surprises us by using the photograph to lie.  He has directed this photo like a movie or a play; he staged and set up every intricate detail and prop.  The reality his photos represent comes entirely out of his imagination.  

Imagine if this scene were in any other medium: if it was a scene on your TV screen when you pressed pause while watching a movie, or if it were painted on a large canvas in oils.  The composition would still be interesting, but it's essence would be lost, because this image is about the jarring juxtaposition of seeing something so unreal done with a camera, that is supposed to show only what is real.  

Crewdson is an extreme example, but he follows a long and noble tradition of photographing the unreal.  One of the earliest photographers, Hippolyte Bayard, also used photography to make a joke about reality.  
Hippolyte Bayard, Portrait of the Artist as a Drowned Man, 1840

In this photo, Bayard took clever advantage of one of the weaknesses of the early technology.  In early photographs, sun-browned faces and hands appeared very dark, so Bayard emphasized his blackening face and hands in the composition to make it look as if he could have drowned a couple of days ago and is already starting to decay.  Yuck!  (Art historians know from the note he wrote on the photo that Bayard made this photo faking his suicide by drowning to protest how little recognition and money he got from the government of France for his photographic inventions.)  

We expect truth with a photo, and yet often get only partial truth, edited truth or no truth at all.  Photographers can choose their lighting, their angle, their props, when they snap the shot, and where they crop.  The subjects can choose to smile even if they are not happy, or play dead, even if they are very much alive.  Even though we all know this to some extent, we still associate photography with truth and this is why the photographic fake still has such great power.  

Researching for this post I came across a fun website: The Hoax Photo Database.  Not only is there interesting information about the Bayard photo above, they have a whole index of staged and edited photos, from the 1840s to today.  

How do the photos you've come across in your daily life (news, facebook, ads etc.) manipulate the truth?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


In real life, we almost never stand with our weight evenly divided on both feet.  We're usually leaning more weight to one side, which makes the knee on the standing leg a bit higher, and the hip on the standing leg stick out a bit to the side.  When a sculptor takes this uneven division of weight into account in his/her work, we say that the sculpture is standing in "contraposto".  Check out, for example, this guy:

Polycleitos, Canon (today called Spear Bearer) roman copy of original from 450-440 BC (Naples Museum)

Contraposto perfected!  His right leg holds the majority of his weight, and you can see just beautifully how it tips the rest of his body ever so slightly.  Greek classical sculptors, like Polycleitos, were obsessed with achieving naturalness in posture, and ideal beauty in bodily form.  Does this sculpture seem natural and beautiful to you?  

Contraposto can be even more clearly demonstrated by looking at a sculpture not standing in contraposto.  For that, we turn to an example from ancient Egypt:  
Artist Unknown, Menkaure and Khamerernebty, 2490-2472 BC (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

Although King Menkaure has one foot farther in front of the other, as if he is striding powerfully forward, his body is highly symmetrical, his shoulders, hips and knees even.  Like the classical Greek figure, these two are highly idealized, but because they are not standing in contraposto, they look less in-this-world than our Greek friend, more formalized.  

So next time you see a statue of a standing figure, stop and notice whether or not it is standing in contraposto.  If it is, does it help the statue seem more natural?  If it doesn't, does the statue strike you as  distant and formal?   

P.S. That Egyptian statue is from 2490 BC!!!   The idea that a sculpture that complex with that much meaning behind it could have been created 4500 years ago thrills me.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What is Art?

What is Art?

This is certainly a much more enormous question than those three short words make it seem.  I will probably come back to this question hundreds of times in this blog, but here are some initial thoughts:

Usually, when people ask this question, they have some rather difficult to define modern piece in mind: (is a factory-produced urinal, signed (with an invented name), and placed on a pedestal art?)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

For many other things, we have less trouble defining them as art.  What about the stunningly intricate page of a manuscript from the middle ages:


Chi Rho Iota Page from the Book of Kells - made in Iona, Scotland, late 8th or early 9th century.

When I think of “art,” this is what comes to my mind.
Artist Unknown, Chi-rho-iota Page from The Book of Kells, eighth/ninth century

We classify this as art without hesitation, and yet, when it was made, it was part of a devotional practice, not necessarily meant to be thought of as art as such but as devotion to god.  The artist is unknown, and he would most certainly not considered himself an artist as such, but a monk, and perhaps a craftsman.  

What art is, differs across time and space, across cultures.  

But here's the definition I find most satisfying, and the one I think about when I write this blog:  Art is an object, or an action framed in such a way as to make us reflect on and/or question our understanding of the world.  

Thus, Duchamp's Fountain is art because we stop and ask (among other things) "woah!  what is this doing in a museum?  Does the artist have the right to take credit for a urinal, made in a factory? 

The Chi-rho-iota Page is art because we search for clues of a story among the intricate details.

The word "framed" is very important in my definition: art is about the context within which we interact with an object or action.  Thus a dinner party, for example, could be just a dinner party.  Or if we stop and ponder the human connection, ceremony and tradition it represents, then a dinner party is art.  In fact, the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, in his 1992 performance Untitled (Free) invited guests to an art gallery to help prepare and eat thai curry and rice, turning the act of eating, for this moment, into art.  

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Free) 1992 David Zwirner Gallery, NY (photo credit)

So what do you think about this definition?  What is art to you?