MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Fur Traders

From the Met’s YouTube archive: A closer look at George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845).

Filed under: American artists, art history, Metropolitan Museum

Pollock and Cage

Animator Léo Verrier’s new Jackson Pollock-themed short (above) leads Colin Marshall to compare this film fantasy of the birth of Pollock’s famous technique with the real thing: “Chance may have led him to discover this practice, but it hardly means he gave up control.”

Marshall quotes another filmmaker, the maverick Stan Brakhage, on Pollock, who recalls a trip to visit the painter:

But they [some New York painters] were like commenting and the used they words ‘chance operations’ which was no bother to me because I was hearing it regularly from John Cage. And the power and the wonder of it and so forth . . . but this really angered Pollock very deeply and he said ‘Don’t give me any of your “chance operations”.’ He said, ‘You see that doorknob’ and there was a doorknob that was about fifty feet from where he was sitting that was in fact the door that everyone was going to have to exit be. and drunk as he was, he just with one swirl of his brush picked up a glob of paint, hurled it and hit that doorknob smack-on with very little paint over the edges. And then he said, ‘And that’s the way out.’

Meanwhile, in If Jackson Pollock Wrote Music, Kyle Gann explores the connections between Pollock and composers John Cage and Morton Feldman:

In the middle of the 20th century, the arts exploded into a new and unsettling realm of abstraction. Paintings were no longer paintings of something; they were simply paint. Music, too, was no longer about melody; it had abandoned the grounding in tonality that had been its mainstay for centuries. For some composers, notably John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, music was now about sound the way paintings were about paint.

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art history, film, modernist composers

Titian’s Dog

IMG_1076

In a recent article in The American Scholar“Carnival of the Animals” — Jan Morris joins Ruskin in admiring the menagerie of non-human creatures in Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings.

“I have counted in his pictures 20 species of animals and at least 11 sorts of birds,” writes Morris, “plus a winged lion, a basilisk, cherubs, peculiarly multi-antlered stags, and sundry angels.”

This reminded me of another Venetian painter and his love of nature: the great Tiziano Vecellio. I spent an ecstatic afternoon last month at the exhibition Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Art at the Scottish National Gallery, which brought together Titian’s two Diana paintings as well as The Death of Actaeon — all part of his monumental mythological cycle of poesie canvases based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a vast commission by Philip II of Spain.

The detail above is from Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) and shows the goddess’s lap dog (a spaniel?) yelping at the male intruder who has unwittingly (so Ovid’s account goes) chanced upon the nude Diana and her nymphs as they are bathing in a spring.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon

Titian, Diana and Actaeon

Titian’s sequel painting narrates the denouement in which Diana curses the hapless Actaeon, causing him to be transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hunting dogs. Given this context, the nearly comic effect of Diana’s little toy dog shown in a frenzy is all the more startling.

Titian, Death of Actaeon

Titian, Death of Actaeon

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art history, Titian

Robert Hughes on the Impact of the American Revolution

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

The late, great Robert Hughes — one of my favorite critics — offers an art historian’s perspective on the American Revolution and its aftermath in his essay “The Decline of the City of Mahagonny” (from the anthology Nothing If Not Critical):

The American Revolution had held, deep in its heart, the vision of a corrupt Europe, a Europe whose hold was long and tenacious but which could be demystified by showing its moral obsoleteness. The idea that Europe was culturally exhausted was an important ingredient of American self-esteem. Its ancient craftiness, its subtlety, its strata of memory, its persistent embrace of elitist against “democratic” cultural values: these, in American eyes, were grounds for suspicion and even hostility…. Europe must be transcended, outdone.

Thus the power of Bernard Berenson’s appeal to the plutocrats of Chicago, New York and Boston at the turn of the century … was his promise of a new American Renaissance which would outdo the old, whose paintings and sculpture would nevertheless furnish indispensable refinement to the new.

Filed under: art history, book recs

A Van Gogh Acquisition in D.C.

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Delirium: the state induced by a mere couple hours at the National Gallery of Art, my old home away from home in Washington, D.C. This time I was able to finally see the National’s most recent acquisition: Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, which Vincent van Gogh painted most likely mere weeks before his suicide in 1890. This marks the ninth van Gogh painting in the National’s collection, six of which are on view (along with another 11 prints and drawings that can be seen by appointment.)

Hanging in the same gallery as five other late-period van Goghs — Girl in White (1890) (also from Auvers) La Mousmé (1888), The Olive Orchard (1889), Roses (1890), and Self-Portrait (1889) — the new acquisition invites the viewer to make some very interesting comparisons. Both the sense of a mystical energy animating the landscape and the drive toward abstraction seem to me the most striking features here.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into the possession of the artist’s brother Theo and was sold to a Berlin collector in 1906, who later sold it to the great National Gallery benefactor Paul Mellon in 1955. Mellon’s widow, Rachel Lambert Mellon, was given rights of possession of this painting for her lifetime but chose to relinquish it to the National Gallery. What must it feel like to have such an intriguing masterpiece in your home (in Upperville, Virginia, for Mrs. Mellon), day after day? How does one make the decision to then “relinquish” it for the public good?

Notice where van Gogh places the horizon, the mirroring undulations of fields, flowers, clouds, road (or is it a river?). And the pulsating energy, reflecting an elemental joy despite the artist’s psychological condition at this moment in his life. Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the National, observes the following:

Because there is so little to read in the composition, the focus is on the color but even more so on brushwork — the clouds whipping around in spinning circles, opening out and closing in, van Gogh’s brush squiggling across the surface in long calligraphic strokes. The paint is applied in thick impasto, creating the marvelous textured surface of van Gogh’s best loved paintings. Through his dynamic touch and vivid, unmediated color, van Gogh expresses the intense freshness of this slice of countryside.

Filed under: art exhibition, art history

At the Frye: Tobey and Teng

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Currently on view as a counterpart to the Frye Museum’s Noguchi exhibit is Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai. The latter, more modest in scope, also attempts to break new ground in considering cross-cultural connections and impulses shared between artists.

The American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) found himself at a turning point in his career when he discovered inspiration from the East. And, as with the Noguchi on display in the companion exhibition, a component of that inspiration was mediated early on by friendship with a Chinese artist. The friend in Tobey’s case, Teng Baiye (1900-1980), had moved to Seattle to study art at the University of Washington and met Tobey in the early 1920s.

Seattle was the city where Tobey had chosen to move in order to reboot his life and art after a disastrous attempt at marriage. (He eventually met his life partner, the Sweden-born Pehr Hallsten, in Ballard, according to one account.) Around three decades later, Life Magazine published its famous article hailing four “mystic painters of the Northwest,” which cemented Tobey’s image as a leading figure of the so-called “Northwest School.”

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Tobey’s early friendship with Teng gives this glimpse into his mature work its focus. The younger Teng taught Chinese calligraphy to Tobey, who later visited his friend in Shanghai in 1934. But with the onset of the world war looming, Tobey lost contact with his friend and never heard from him again. Some very intriguing questions emerge from this juxtaposition: what interpretation of a complex traditional aesthetic did Teng mediate, and what role did this play in Tobey’s evolution of his characteristic “white writing” style?

The exhibit is also about mirroring, and the same should be asked in the other direction as well: what did Teng take away from his time in Seattle, what did he gain from his friendship with Tobey? The shocking fact is that we apparently have so little to work with. The two ink-and-paper scrolls on display represent the only works by Teng on display.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin
right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

Teng’s absorption of Western influences made him suspect back home as China struggled toward its postwar identity as a nation. Teng became a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and was released from forced manual labor just a few years before his death. The vast majority of his artwork appears to have been destroyed — perhaps other works have survived in private hands, but the sparse knowledge we have is one of the points here. (Even the transliteration of Teng’s name has been maddeningly inconsistent among books in English, adding to the confusion over his legacy.)

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Meanwhile, as Life elevated Tobey to a new level of fame, questions about the identity of American artists in the postwar years were also taking on new urgency. But from today’s post-Cold War, global perspective, are we able to discover mutual influences beyond the mutual stereotypes of “East” and “West” that prevailed in the past century? As Tobey himself wrote:

Man today is challenged to extend his mental and spiritual horizons. Geographical barriers have given way before the light of science, invention and psychology. The great inventions that have demolished the former sense of special difference must await a new man who will use them positively. But this new will have seen a great light which burns away the barriers of prejudice and religious antagonism. The art of the future cannot germinate in antagonism and national rivalry but will spring forth with a renewed growth if man in general will grow to the stature of universal citizenship.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

At the Frye: Noguchi in China

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Variations on the East-meets-West meme are certainly familiar in art history, but the details really do matter. Take the case of Los Angeles-born Isamu Noguchi, the son of an “East weds West” union.

Noguchi’s hugely influential career as a sculptor, landscape architect, and furniture designer is usually examined with reference to the inspiration he found in Japan during his initial sojourn there in 1931. But the exhibition Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, which just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum, brings us fascinating insights about the impact of a very different Asian source: the fruit of Noguchi’s six-month-long visit to Beijing (then known as Peking) from July 1930 to January 1931.

Having spent some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim grant — where he worked as Brâncuși’s assistant — Noguchi was already developing a reputation with his abstract sculptures (and celebrity portrait busts to bring in cash). After returning to Paris for a show, he headed East but decided to make a lengthy detour from his intended destination of Japan and stopped in Beijing.

It was during this period of intense personal introspection that Noguchi was introduced to the master ink painter Qi Baishi (1864–1957). As had been the case with Brâncuși, they shared no mutual language in the conventional sense — Noguchi spoke no Mandarin, Qi no English — yet the young artist, in search of a father figure, discovered a remarkable affinity for Qi’s work. (During his deferred trip to Japan, he hoped to make a connection with his estranged real father, the writer Yone Noguchi.) They became friends, and Qi mentored Noguchi in the medium of brush ink paintings.

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis  Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

The result was more than 100 ink paintings known as the Peking Drawings. This exhibit, curated by Natsu Oyobe, is the first time a substantial number of these have been displayed alongside the work of Qi Baishi. “I did figure drawings, because that was what I knew how to do,” wrote Noguchi. “How ashamed I was of my limitations when I visited the painter Qi Baishi, whom I adopted as a teacher.” A selection of drawings created just before this life-changing trip is also on view, allowing us to assess the impact of Qi and other Chinese artists.

Especially striking is the difference in subject matter Noguchi chose, in contrast to the traditional themes of nature in Qi’s exquisite paintings: the human body, frequently nude, and mothers nursing or cradling babies in particular. In terms of scale, with their elongated dimensions, we can already see Noguchi’s later aesthetic foreshadowed.

In an essay in the fine accompanying catalogue, Lang Shaojun observes that “the basis of Noguchi’s painting remained essentially Western… His sketches are free and uninhibited, not subject to the constraints of a plastic realism associated with fine lines. Heavy ink sketching is superimposed on precise, delicate, realistic images. A layer of abstraction deconstructs and destroys the original sketch. The conscious intertwining of these two different methods creates a form-like body and its shadow, a shapeless non-shadow, an isomorph of a tangled national identity.”

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker pointed out during the press preview that Chinese scholars and art historians are keenly interested in this topic at present — and in the similar cultural cross-connections explored in the Frye’s adjoining new exhibit, Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai (to be discussed in a separate post).

“When you come upon your own culture mirrored in art through these sorts of connections, from another culture, it makes you see things you didn’t realize were there,” she remarked. Because of the disruptions of history and political developments over the last century, “what we are learning about these relationships now is on the cutting edge of scholarship.”

Birnie Danzker’s own essay in the catalogue, “Grabbism: 1930s,” underlines the larger implications of the young Noguchi’s confident borrowings and the productive line of questioning these open up:

The debate about the true nature of Noguchi’s drawings and sculpture from the 1930s and whether his work is closer in spirit to that of his teacher Qi Baishi or to that of the Chinese modernist Lin Fengmian is a fascinating study in how, after a century of cultural exchange between modern China and the West, the phenomenon of mutual “misreadings” of Western and Western art…now constitutes an integral part of the history of art.

–Thomas May

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

Damage Control at the Hirshhorn

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand

Landing: detail of photograph by Thomas Demand


My first trip back to the Hirshhorn after an absurdly long hiatus was well rewarded: I could have easily spent many more hours exploring the exhibition Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950.

Harold Edgerton’s landmark films of the U.S. government’s nuclear tests in the 1950s launch the show. They set its underlying tone of dizzying terror mixed with a paradoxical beauty. The aftertaste this leaves – uniquely disturbing yet fascinating – is comparable to the old-fashioned aesthetic rubric of “the sublime,” as the critic Philip Kennicott aptly points out in his excellent Washington Post review:

Most visitors, conventionally secure in the magical belief that these weapons will never again be used, will find them beautiful in a limited, purely visual way. And that isn’t particularly strange: Since the 18th century, we have had an aesthetic category for this — the sublime — into which we place and contain things that are awesome, boundless, incomprehensible and beyond imagining. There is even a measure of old-fashioned pride in our love of the sublime: Look what man has wrought.

The end of the Second World War was seen to mark the “zero hour” – and the start of something ominously new after so much destruction and nihilism – yet no doubt in the coming year we’ll encounter many reminders of how consciousness was radically changed by the earlier cataclysm that erupted in 1914. And many of the exhibit’s works provoke comparisons with the recurrent theme of revolution and overthrow that has shaped modernity itself.

One of Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s notorious piano destructions appears in the vicinity of the films of nuclear detonation. The aftermath evidenced by these ruins of twisted wire and axed wood encourages the viewer to try to make sense of the rubble – perhaps even to imagine the sounds that could now be elicited from it. It’s ultimately a romantic gesture, an echo of the rock gods of the ’60s and the sacrificial offering of their instruments at the climax of a performance: as if to signify a point of extreme expression and release, after which …only noise or silence can rule.

One of the most profoundly unsettling uses of musical imagery occurs in Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag from 2000, a video piece viewed within a narrow gallery space. It shows the artist roping a Stratocaster guitar to the back of his pickup truck and dragging it mercilessly across a rural Texas landscape. The soundtrack consists of the instrument’s tormented screams, amplified from speakers strapped to the back of the truck. Marclay’s reference to the horrendous contemporary lynching of James Byrd is beyond chilling.

The natural life cycle of music – the birth and death of sounds – is distorted in ways that underline how utopian is the illusion of the artist’s control of material. I also found myself repeatedly thinking of the principle of entropy and the natural decay of order. Here and in many of the other installations, videos, photographs, and concept pieces, the glorification of violence from earlier in the twentieth century is turned on its head, forcing us to rethink the facile acceptance of destruction as part of the pattern of “progress.”

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Kennicott reflects on the ambivalence of destruction as metaphor and the political claims of art:

There is no readily agreed upon contract for when it is okay to destroy things in the name of art, but there are degrees of transgression and limits to the acceptability of consequences. There is a big difference between Rauschenberg’s asking for and receiving permission to erase a drawing by de Kooning and the vandalism of the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who painted cartoon clown and animal faces onto an original set of Goya’s 1810-1820 “The Disasters of War” etchings. In no conceivable universe is the loss of these Goyas compensated for by the trivial graffiti the Chapmans have added, which not only defaces them but further victimizes the victims of war Goya originally depicted.

One can generate elaborate justifications for vandalism to put it into seemingly acceptable art terms. Ai Weiwei may have destroyed an ancient urn (given what we know about China’s art market, there’s no certainty it wasn’t a fake), but only in the name of calling attention to the Chinese government’s systematic destruction of ancient neighborhoods and historical sites (and as a further criticism of the crazy, commercial race to own and exchange antiques). And the Chapmans may have been satirizing some underlying sadism in Goya’s work and perhaps the aestheticization of war through art as well.

Those arguments mean something only within the insular and deeply provincial space of the art world, where people still have an inflated sense of art’s power and often believe it can effect direct and revolutionary change in the world. The worst of what is on display in this exhibition is driven by the false belief that art can somehow compete with political power if it finds images or ideas or gestures that are stark enough, violent enough, to cut through the noise. In fact, compared with people who have real power — over armies, economies and the means of entertainment — artists have virtually none at all and are too often driven to a kind of futile rage through a vague sense of their own impotence.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history

Diebenkorn in Berkeley

Diebenkorn
(Richard Diebenkorn, “Seawall,” 1957. Oil on canvas. 20 x 26 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Phyllis G. Diebenkorn, 1995.96. © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.)

Currently on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is a must-see retrospective: Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years (1953-1966) (through September 29). This exhibit of more than 130 paintings and drawings curated by Timothy Burgard is a revelation on many levels.

There are insights to be gained here not just into the narrative of this major artist’s evolution but about the seductions of abstract and figurative painting relative to each other, about the influence of a particular landscape, its aura and light, on those aesthetic choices, and — most intriguingly for me — about an artist’s capacity for self-critique and unexpected leaps.

As you work your way through the context of Diebenkorn’s experiments with light and texture, the sudden reemergence of the human form is haunting, even astounding, upending comfortable notions of the historically inevitable “progress” of 20th-century painting in a way that has relevance for the similar tug-of-war between serialism and tonality among composers of this period.

Diebenkorn-figure on porch

(Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), Figure on a Porch, 1959 Oil on canvas 57 x 62 in. (144.8 x 157.5 cm) Oakland Museum of California, gift of the Anonymous Donor Program of the American Federation of the Arts, A60.35.5 © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. All rights reserved.)

Even the abstract paintings from the early years in Berkeley reveal an ambiguous attitude toward the “real world.” They are, as the excellent catalogue by Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven A. Nash, and Emma Acker aptly describes it, “not completely nonobjective, or lacking in references to imagery, real or imagined.”

In Richard Diebenkorn’s own words:

All paintings start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression. To call this expression abstract seems to me often to confuse the issue. Abstract means literally to draw from or separate. In this sense, every artist is abstract … a realistic or nonobjective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.”

Filed under: art exhibition, art history, visual art

The Color Revolution

Color Revolution

Increasingly in this centenary year of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, we’re coming to see how much of modernism has involved an unpredictable marriage of the avant-garde and commercialism. Serge Diaghilev was a daring impresario but also a canny businessman. As for Schoenberg’s “air from another planet,” people who tend to write off atonality nowadays forget its far-reaching presence in film scores.

The management of color, too, turns out to have played a significant role in retuning tastes to the modern era. Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s The Color Revolution gives a fascinating account of color as a potent psychological and social tool manipulated by “color engineers.”

Blaszczyk’s lively history of the modern era’s preoccupation with color and her discussion of color’s influence on innovation in industry and design make me wonder how this shift affected perceptions of music as well — contemporary and canonical. Her focus is on American industry, which took important cues from the Paris scene. But Blaszczyk mentions other developments and influences from Europe, such as Alexander Scriabin’s experiments with color projections synchronized to his scores.

“Ever since Isaac Newton, people had been fascinated by the apparent analogy of the seven steps in the musical scale and the seven spectral colors in the rainbow,” writes Blaszczyk. This line of thinking even led to attempts at social engineering:

During the Enlightenment, a mathematician named Louis-Bertrand Castel dazzled Paris society with the first color-music instrument, an ocular harpsichord that diffused pigment light through windowpanes at the strike of a key. In 1893, a British inventor named Alexander Wallace Rimington had patented a Colour Organ that used gas jets and arc lamps to generate colored light as an accompaniment to musical instruments; the idea was to translate musical tones into visual hues. Rimington’s taste-making objectives presaged those of Albert Munsell: he hoped to sharpen the senses of the British working class and to teach them to prefer the palette of the Chartres rose windows over the crass aniline shades of Manchester calicos.”

In the mood for a little Klangfarbenmelodie?

Filed under: art history, book recs, style

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