Sunday, June 26, 2016

Currents 2016

Late to the party yet again but we were not in town for most of this show which lasted just 3 weeks.  Every year there is a New Media show with artists from all over the world.  See my Missive from last year.  The most important thing to repeat is that New Media is a 21st century term that translates as where art meets technology.  This means that it is much more interactive than a traditional art exhibition and could not be more different.

The main show is always at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe known simply as El Museo.  Located in a former warehouse, the organization has a large permanent collection of art from local and international artists which is rotated regularly in a small gallery but the larger space is available for outside fairs.  They also have a black box theater.

Going into the Currents exhibition I find a disorienting experience because you go into a totally black space lighted only by the individual exhibits, which are usually moving and flashing everywhere.  Since I am not as steady on my feet as I once was, I walk very gingerly.  Then like an oasis you encounter an exhibit that intrigues and usually there are chairs or even a couch you can observe from.  If only more traditional museums and exhibitions would learn from this.  Often there are earphones for audio connected to the exhibit which I find sometimes adds and sometimes detracts from what I am watching.

This little Robot roaming around, it seemed within a limited radius suddenly grabbed my leg!
It let go quickly but I was surprised.  In fact I totally forgot to look at the label to identify the artist!   When I returned to the exhibition a few days later the tank shaped robot was not there but I learned it was also the Currents’ mascot and its name was Stanley made by Michael Schipling of Santa Fe.

“Nowhere Near” (2015) by Sarah Choo Jing  from Singapore is a bit easier than some to relate to.  Here are two street scenes where you have to look everywhere in the moving image or you might miss something.  In the first you see some action in two places and in the second part the only action is a woman in a window who I believe is washing her hair in the shower.  There are other scenes as well which force the viewer to concentrate and keep looking at the image in order not to miss something.

A new technology has arrived in the last few years at least commercially speaking and that is Virtual Reality.  With the right goggles and video you can look at a 3D image not only in front of you but also all around as well as above and below by simply moving your head and turning around.   As this develops it will bring us some fascinating material which could scare the hell out of us in a horror movie or help in our understanding of an historical event.  What knowledge you could absorb and observe if you could be in the middle of the second Continental Congress of July 2, 1776 and knowing the Declaration of Independence was going to be issued on July 4, listening to the arguments both pro and con about separating ourselves from the Crown!  There were several virtual reality experiences to be had at Currents.  I watched “Hypnagogic Hympnopompia” (2015) by Reilly Donovan of Seattle, Washington.  At first I thought the title was nonsense syllables, but, thanks to Google, I learned that it had to do with hallucinations during sleep.  This made sense as I as saw objects floating and moving all around me.  You need goggles and earphones to get the full effect but here is a video showing how you could use your hands to move around the scene.

We went with an old friend from New York, a museum designer who has worked at museums around the world, Clifford LaFontaine.  He found many of the entries rather superficial and not original.  I have picked as an example “New Millennium Workout Routine” (2014) by Yaloo from Chicago, a parody on our obsession with exercise.

Clifford’s favorite was by Yang Yongliang “Code and Noise: Rising Mist” courtesy of Duval Contemporary.  The video image is done in the traditional style of Chinese painting and calligraphy.  It is about “the devastating effects of uncontrolled urbanization and Industrialization” but it also resembles a traditional Chinese landscape painting.  In my short video there is not enough time to see how the mist starts to rise eventually enveloping the entire landscape.  You can see, however the 3 waterfalls and at the lower left the cars on the highway and the bridge.  You will probably spot moving images I have missed.

I have always believed that art is a qualitative term and just being able to put paint on canvas or throwing a pot does not make one an artist.  The work has to reach a certain inspirational level.  I am still working on how much of what I saw at Currents qualifies but the search has been enjoyable.  Next year we will have to get to some of the other Currents events all around town.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation may have moved from its lovely property in Lower Merion Township near Philadelphia, but it has not gotten any easier to deal with than when Albert Barnes himself ran the show with his odd art historical ideas.  

At that time the Barnes was at its original site and one could enjoy the eccentricity of a very wealthy collector, Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951).  See my Missive from the last time I was there.  But to move it and do the same thing to a new building in Philadelphia just frustrated me.  I understand that the judge in the case acted in his King Solomon capacity allowing the move but insisting that every work of art remain in the same position as it was in Barnes' last instillation.  Since the latter moved his pictures around regularly I am not sure what the judge thinks he achieved.  Barnes did not have enough room to install all his paintings so some will remain in storage?!  Too bad the Judge did not leave well enough alone and keep the Barnes in the house that the collector and his wife had built for it.

This time the pictures became a cacophony of images for me.  Barnes had a very interesting eye and for some artists such as Cezanne and Matisse it could not be better.  This is also true for Picasso and Gauguin.  Unfortunately, it does not hold true for Renoir and while there are a few decent ones there are over 150 small truly dreadful potboilers which are heavily interspersed with some gems. 

One of the great Gauguins was placed between two Prendergasts making the latter seem like a mediocre artist, which I don't think he is.  The installation that bothered me the most was in gallery 1 where the great Seurat, “Les Poseurs” (The Models) was placed above the great Cezanne, The Card Players, so one could appreciate neither!

Barnes would not allow labels so they get around that with an audio guide as well as printed guides in each gallery.  Also, since Barnes wanted no interference from art historians whom he discouraged from coming to the Barnes, the printed guide mentions tentative re-attributions after Barnes's original designations.

What would have been wrong with limiting the number of people allowed in any one day into the old Barnes?  The people of Lower Merion enjoyed complaining about the tour busses but then protested when the Barnes was moved. 

The truth of the matter is that it was a battle between two titans.  Walter Annenberg (1908-2002)  and Albert Barnes, and since Annenberg lived longer, he won!  If you don't believe me, a huge atrium at the new Barnes, suitable for large parties, which brings in revenue, bears the Annenberg name who, of course, contributed a great deal of money to the entire effort!

I have the temerity to suggest that I could, on my own, turn the new Barnes into a first class museum without having to acquire a single work of art and by just changing the installation.  How wonderful it would be to show all the great masterpieces, and there are many, on the first floor and then use as much space as needed for all the Renoirs on the second floor with one important one in each gallery so that you could see the changes during various periods of the artist’s life.  I would put sculpture, possibly with the silver and pewter decorative arts, in their own galleries as well, rather than sky them high on the walls where they look like mere adornments or relegated assortments to mixed vitrines.

Pablo Picasso, “Child Seated in an Armchair"

Years, in this case half a century, after someone has died the world has  changed, following their wishes to the letter can very well do a disservice to their legacy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Main Point Books

My daughter, Cathy, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a combined major in English and Economics.  She then took her LSAT's for law school because she was not sure what she wanted to do after college.  She did well on the test but as Cathy put it,  "the essay on my law school  application 'why do you want to be a lawyer?' saved me”!

Instead Cathy got a job at a prestigious  public relations company, Hill & Knowlton.  Not satisfied with her well paying job and nice office, she went on for her MBA at Wharton Business school and got a job at Lever Brothers where she was given a cubical from which to market soap products.   Proving her father wrong yet again, she made back her tuition and lost salary within the year!

Like so many women of her generation she then left the labor force and went on to bear two sons, Joshua and Matthew.  As they reached junior high and high school she would pick up small jobs here and there using her business school skills and worked for her kids school in development.

Cathy loved to read from a very young age and always had her face in a book even in the bathtub!    When her boys were old enough to take care of themselves, it was only natural for her to follow her dream and open a book store.  Happily, throughout this process her husband, Jon, who is in the financial world, was there to support her and give her intelligent advice.

Photo by Dan Stiebel

Now her business degree came in handy.  The first question to answer was where to open the bookstore.  She lives in one of the towns outside Philadelphia and  wanted it to be within easy driving distance of home and find an area where she could depend on people interested in books.  She hit upon Bryn Mawr where there's are several colleges and the last book store, a Barnes & Noble, had closed 18 months before.  Her shop was lovely but modest, with little room for expansion.  We have been in a few times and It did have a wonderful selection of books.  In fact I was surprised to see that the Native American writer, Sherman Alexie had books in 3 different sections of her shop.   I have sent a few people from New York and even Santa Fe there who loved it and particularly Cathy's expert counsel on book selection, either for an individual or as a gift.

Photo by Matt Godfrey

Unfortunately, there is not enough going on in the area to bring the the foot traffic desired to Bryn Mawr's Lancaster Avenue.  When Cathy learned about a larger space in the nearby town of Wayne she went to see it.   There she found that the new space was larger and on a street with 4 restaurants and the movie theater emptied out a couple of doors down.  If you come in by train and walk into town you have to pass the new Main Point Books. This will all add up to far more foot traffic!  Her husband was also encouraging the expansion.  They both knew that if you don't grow you shrink. She went for it! 

Here is an interview Cathy gave about her book store and the opening of the new one:

In the extra space she is not going to put in the proverbial coffee bar but rather make more room for books and an expanded space for people to come and attend the more than 100 programs she has a year for book groups, children’s book readings and  authors signing their books and talking about them.

Main Point Books in Wayne is not quite ready yet.  It is scheduled to open on July 25 with the official celebration of its new home on Sunday, July 31 ... with a midnight launch party for the new Harry Potter Script, the play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

“The Improbability of Love” by Hannah Rothschild

Hannah Rothschild is the daughter of Lord Jacob Rothschild. And her first novel is an exciting satire on the art world called, “The Improbability of Love”.  She comes from the perfect world to write on this subject.

Allow me to digress, should you find yourself in England with a craving for French culture you need not cross the channel but visit Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschild residence that is now a museum, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, a one hour train trip from London.

I remember going there with my cousin Raphael Rosenberg who was working with Dorothy de Rothschild, known as Dolly, the widow of Baron James de Rothschild.  The land was originally farmland, which Baron Ferdinand purchased in 1874 to build the palace and gardens and was inherited by Baron James.  Raphael was assisting Dolly with an appraisal for the family and that is when I was allowed to come along.  I don’t remember the name of the curator who showed us around but he was known as the Colonel.  Waddesdon was turned over to the government as a trust house but Dolly supervised the opening of the ground floor slowly opening more and more of the palace until her death in 1988.  What a treat it was for me as a student to get up close and personal with the works of art with no crowds and no ropes holding us back.  Going back since has been wonderful but never quite the same!  In this short video you can see a few of the treasures from the house.

Waddesdon may now belong to the Nation, but it is administered by the Rothschild Charitable Trust overseen by Lord Jacob Rothschild.  You can see why the daughter of this philanthropist and art lover who continues to buy works of art for Waddesdon, and is herself on the board of the National Gallery in London, is perfectly equipped to write on the art world.

The novel includes a wonderful cast of characters.  At its heart is a young woman, Annie, whose aspiration is to become a great chef.  She buys a painting in a junk shop for an unrequited love and does not know what to do with it when she is stood up.  The hero of the piece is the painting itself, which is not shy to tell the highs and low points of its life.  It has lived in some of the great palaces of Europe but dwells on its owners such as Catherine the Great and Napoleon.  We learn that the painting is by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) the artist that brought to the fore, the fête champêtre, scenes of elaborate garden parties with plenty of frolicking most popular at the French Court.

Antoine Watteau, Wallace Collection

The picture refers to itself as "Moi", me in French, its first language.  “Moi” being from pre-revolutionary France, French phrases slip in every once in a while.

Annie wants to get rid of the picture but her alcoholic mother who has moved in with her daughter believes there is merit in the work and therein lies the plot.  How do you authenticate a painting?  What role does the condition of the picture have and what is it worth?

Believing in “Moi” Annie's mother, Evie, wants to investigate further and stuffs the painting into a plastic shopping bag, to take it to the Wallace Collection.  “Moi” complains bitterly that this is just not on for such an important picture, though no one knows this for sure at this point in the plot.  At the Wallace Evie takes the picture out of the bag and starts comparing it to paintings on the walls.

Nicolas Lancret, Wallace Collection

The picture shares the title with the book, “The Improbability of Love”, though never spelled out the theme appears in a number of the relationships including between Annie and Jesse, an artist and tour guide she meets at the Wallace Collection.  Jesse tries to teach Annie how to learn more about her painting.  They visit his friend the conservator at the National Gallery and he tells her to visit the drawings room at the British Museum.  On her own she visits the expert art historian who declares the masterpiece a fake.  Every stop both advances the plot and teaches something about the art world.

Like any good novel on the art market there is a “Nazi War Loot” angle and, of course, the inevitable auction.  The exaggerated motives for all the high and mighty to bid at the auction are hilarious, such as the President of France who feels it is a matter of French pride to repatriate this lost masterpiece and the Prime Minister of England wants to buy it just to spite the French, the Russian Oligarch wants to impress his girl friend, and the old dowager wants to liquidate her late husband’s foundation for this one last great purchase.

In between we get a number of lessons from “Moi” as well, such as his fear of the restorer as they can so easily damage his surface. There is the esthete Barty who shows the expatriate Russian what he can do to demonstrate his love for his girl friend.  The irrepressible Barty also tells the director of the National Gallery who complains that he has no time to look at art because he has meetings with Union leaders and lunches and dinners with prospective donors that he  is not alone -- the great  Renaissance sculptor “Donatello couldn’t pick up a chisel without Cosimo de Medici bursting into his studio.”

The most hilarious part of the book is probably at the end when you hear how all the characters ended up.  My intention, however, with this Missive is to encourage those interested in the Old Master world to read or listen to “The Improbability of Love”.  So no more spoilers!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Robert Lynch and Americans for the Arts

I was only vaguely aware of Americans for the Arts until Robert Lynch, President and CEO of for the last 30 years came to speak in Santa Fe a short while ago … and people want to know what you can do with a BA in English from Amherst!

Robert Lynch and Sophia Loren

In the middle of its 6th decade Americans for the Arts, in their own words, “Our mission is to serve, advance, and lead the network of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts in America. Connecting your best ideas and leaders from the arts, communities, and business, together we can work to ensure that every American has access to the transformative power of the arts.”

Americans for the Arts launched the New Community Visions Initiative last year.  It is a two-year program to explore the future of local arts in America and the role of community-based arts in enabling organizations, funders, cultural institutions, and artists in shaping that future.  This fits in very well with the effort that Estevan Rael-Gálvez and his group under the auspices of the Mayor, Javier Gonzalez, and the City Arts Commission is making to map culture in Santa Fe.  I wrote about this a few weeks ago.

The evening was sponsored by the National Endowment and came to Santa Fe through Creative Santa Fe, the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission and New Mexico Arts.  My wife being on the Arts Commission we had seats reserved in the sold out auditorium.

It is easy to sum up Lynch’s talk: the purpose of his organization is to convince the world that ART IS IMPORTANT.   They work to help communities understand the importance of the arts in culture with an emphasis on encouraging using the arts in the schools.

Robert Lynch turns out to be a wonderful lecturer and the audience stayed totally with him.  I can easily tune out when I am sitting in a talk but Lynch kept me interested.  He clearly had a “stump speech” but it was not read but spoken from a true belief in what the arts can do for society.  They have done the statistics and it shows that it represents 704 billion dollars a year and makes up 4.7 percent of the U.S. Economy!  Also, I have known for sometime that the disciplines in the arts can be helpful to children’s school grades but I did not know that they are important in crime reduction as well.

Mr. Lynch confirmed something that I had long suspected but never heard articulated by a professional, the main reason people don’t contribute to the arts is because they are never asked.  I remember the first Mrs. Henry Ford II after her divorce from the auto magnate moved to Los Angeles.  She complained to me that she had been “out there” for some time and nobody from the Los Angeles County Museum had been in touch with her!

Lynch’s first trip to Santa Fe was in 1974 so he is well acquainted with our town. He spoke of the great cultural resources here, through our residents, and spoke of the contributions that Robert Redford has made and that he has worked on projects with Americans for the Arts often in the past.

Robert Lynch & Robert Redford

Someone asked Lynch how technology was affecting the arts and I had the impression that the questioner expected a negative answer but Lynch without missing a beat said it is enhancing the arts and the example he gave which we could all relate to was the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live from the Met” series which many of us enjoy at our very own Lensic Performing Arts Center.  It keeps us in classical music all winter long until the Santa Fe Opera is here live in July and August.

Lynch had a wonderful turn of phrase.  We all know that promotion is vital for arts organizations and he defined that marketing as “the creative framing of the truth! 

How wonderful that there is such an organization as American for the Arts that can proselytize for what many of us believe is so vital to life!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Dismantling an Exhibition

Stories about exhibition installation are written fairly often but rarely about dismantling them.

For the last 10 months the Ralph T. Coe Foundation has had an exhibition representing about 10% of the collection legacy left by the late curator and director Ted Coe.  As a matter of fact, I wrote about it when “Connoisseurship and Good Pie” was installed at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, but the closing of a show is a sadder event and, therefore, usually ignored.

Taking it down sounds so easy but logistically it is not.  You cannot just turn up throw 200 works of art into your car and drive back to the Foundation.  It takes a lot of planning so that it is done in as orderly and timely manner as possible.  When an exhibition comes down a new one inevitably goes up so as welcome as you may have been, the institution now wants you out of there as expeditiously as possible.

Installation tool box for installation crew for the next show
and the table with soft wrap for packing up

If you do not have a large staff at your institution, it is helpful to have lined up some volunteers and, in this case, I was one of them.  Someone has to head the operation and keep track of everyone involved in the process in order to avoid errors.  In this case it was the Coe’s Curator and Executive Director, Bruce Bernstein, with the help of Assistant Curator, Bess Murphy.

Shortly before D-day that is de-installation day I received the following lengthy memo from Dr. Bernstein:  [my commentary appears between brackets in blue]

“Wheelwright De-Install
Everyone is working in teams: our objective is to safely finish taking all of the collections to the Coe Foundation on Thursday [Altogether the Coe teamp totaled 6).  Please do not deviate from planning without consulting Bruce.  The plan is designed to control object movement and tracking.  Please keep your hands clean, no dangling jewelry, no sharp edges.  Pencil only [On the theory that pencil can be erased should it accidentally get on an object].  Please remember we are handling irreplaceable art objects.  Work carefully and methodically to avoid problems.  Wheelwright will remove Plexiglas  [The objects were shown with plexi sheets in front of the cases].  We have catalog information with an image on small labels.  Place labels in cases with objects.  Some objects have mounts, consult only Bruce or Bess about which mounts return to the Foundation [The Museum had supplied some of their own blocks and mounts which we could not take with us].  We will try to mark which mounts return to Foundation.  There are several large objects; these will be last moved.  We will work in exhibition order, starting in the introduction and moving clockwise; if there is a question about which case is next, ask Bruce or Bess.

Volunteer John Whitman and President of the Coe, Rachel Wixom
watch Bruce Bernstein and Bess Murphy wrapping a larger object

Move your table close to the case.  [Packing had to be done on a flat surface on which to place the wrapping to be used] Place the object on the table. Soft wrap the piece.  Any questions about packing, ask Bruce.  (We will review packing before we begin) [Soft wrap means not using a box or crate but just tissue and soft non-abrasive materials].  On the outside of the wrapping place the sticker [which was placed in the case earlier] with the proper catalog information.  If there is a mount with the object: write the object number on a small white sticker and stick to it to the bottom of the base of the mount.  The mounts can be packed with their object –same, putting the mounts in first!  But ideally we will put the mounts to the side and move them in a single box.  For security and to not let things sit in the sun, we will pack a truck’s worth and then load the truck.  As you carry a tray out the door, Gerald [Yours truly] will check the piece off the inventory.  Place the tray on the truck deck. Gerald is inventory control [The catering trays with their wrapped art begin to be assembled at the door].

At the Coe Foundation we will unload the truck.  Since we have a limited number of trays they need to be unloaded and the wrapped objects placed on the waiting carts and tables. 
Return to Wheelwright, repeat.”

Rachel Wixom, watching over the first truck-load of art
before its departure for the Foundation

These rules gave a structure to those who had not done or had been directed differently elsewhere.   As we went along we found little things that still needed to be improvised but it all went amazingly smoothly as we worked around the museum staff that was removing the plexi fronts to the cases and getting ready for the next show by removing painted wooden blocks from the cases and piling them together so that they could be used as needed for the next round.

Of course, when all the art arrived at the Coe Foundation it had to be unwrapped.  As I sat there beginning to un-twirl tissue from the objects, a visiting curator walked in and said, “It’s like Christmas, isn’t it”.  Yes, that was exactly the feeling each piece of tissue that was removed revealed a treasure that had come home again.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Vigée Le Brun

Once again I am coming rather late to the party since when this is published the exhibition, “Vigée Le Brun:Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” will have closed at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.   There is, however, an additional venue from June to September at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The independent curator for the exhibition, who is not affiliated with a museum but rather with the trade, Joseph Baillio, is an old friend of ours.  He has a house in Santa Fe but we have hardly seen him here as he has toiled over the show for over three years.  His interest in the artist, however, has been for far longer than that.

Though we know he struggled with his Louvre publishers to make a proper catalog and not a picture book, which usually sells better.  He prevailed and they had to reprint the hefty result three times when the show was on at the Grand Palais in Paris.  New York, Paris and Ottawa all have varying catalogs not just because of language but also because different paintings were included.  The main reason for this is that the Russians refused to lend to the show in the United States, I presume on account of restitution issues.  Also, there were other paintings that were lent here and in Canada that did not go to Paris!

Vigée painted over 600 portraits during her career and the Metropolitan exhibition has 80 of them, which is not bad considering what it takes to get a loan these day both from public institutions and private collectors. Neither want to be without their treasures for too long.

Contrary to popular belief there have been important women artists in the past.  Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was one of the most popular portraitists of her time.  She painted the important people at court.  In 1774 at 19 she was admitted to the Academy of Saint-Luc, the guild for Master Painters and Sculptors.  Just four years later she became official painter to her patron, Queen Marie Antoinette, and in 1783 she was accepted as a member of the Royal Academy.

In 1785 Louis XVI commissioned an official portrait of the Queen and her children, which was unveiled at the Salon of 1787 before it was hung at Versailles.  The King had instructed that the painting be full length and full size resulting, of course, in the monumental tour de force of the official portrait.

Vigée, however, had the ability to look into the soul of her sitters, not just paint their likenesses.  For instance, in this painting of her daughter “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror” circa 1786 lent from a private collection.  Haven’t we all see our children or those of our family look contemplatively at themselves?  Here the reflected portrait of Julie seems to be staring back at the viewer!

When the French Revolution came Vigée’s association with the court made France a perilous place for her and she moved first to Rome, then Austria and Russia where she was welcomed by the aristocracy.  In Rome in 1791, she painted a portrait I handled at one time, that of  Countess Anna Potocka.  Vigée tells an oft-repeated story in her “Souvenirs” (memoirs) about Potocka: “She came to see me with her husband and as soon as he had left, she told me quite coolly: ‘This is my third husband; but I believe I’ll take back the first one, who suits me better, though he is a drunk.’”  Left out of the story is the fact that her first husband had died a decade earlier!

I will end with a painting not by Vigée but by Alexis-Joseph Pérignon (1806-1882) and shown after the subjects’ deaths.  It is based on another story in Vigée’s “Souvenir”.  It seems the pregnant artist missed a session with the Queen because of illness and arrived at Versailles the following day instead.  While the Queen had other plans she allowed Vigée to stay, the flustered artist opened her paint box and her brushes fell to the floor.  As she began to scoop them up the Queen stopped her and said,  “‘Never mind, never mind,’ said the Queen, and despite my protests she insisted on gathering them all up herself.“

Vigée was the first woman artist to achieve international acclaim in her own time and yet this was her first retrospective in France and only the second exhibition devoted to her work in modern times.  Ottawa is lovely in the summer so do go see the show.