05 December 2016

Henry James, Meet Walt Whitman!

"Their being finely aware - as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware - makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum of sense to what befalls them.  We care, our curiosity and sympathy care, comparatively little for the stupid, the coarse, and the blind;care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping  to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient." -  Henry James, excerpt from the Preface to the 1908 edition  of The Princess Casamassima.

"Do you know so much  that you call the slave or the dullfaced
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight.... and he or
      she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together  from its diffused
      float, and the soil is on the surface and water runs and veg-
      etation sprouts from you...and not for him and her?" - Walt Whitman, excerpt from Leaves Of Grass, 1892.

I. - If ever two writers were meant for the scholastic exercise of "compare and contrast" it would be these two:  Henry James (1843-1916) the aesthete and Walt Whitman (1819-1892) the free spirit.  But that is not why I put them together here.   Rather,  their  views of the relationship between aesthetics and moral worth seem designed for our current moment.
Whitman's poetry was as distinctive as that of his contemporary Emily Dickinson; where Dickinson's poems arrived as briefings from an alternative reality, Whitman's embodied his  experiences in an expansive, generous, and  democratic epics, as in Leaves Of Grass.  Although  admired by the Transcendentalists on its initial publication, Leaves of Grass was more typically derided as "trashy, profane, & obscene."    In our time, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b.1919) and Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), descendants of Whitman, also write themselves into the larger social narrative.  Their poetry is personal but not solipsistic.

II. - Another sort of embodied or concrete poetry can be found in Scotland.  There is a garden where Whitman-esque 'garden poems' are carved, one word at a time into stones, a plentiful substance in the rocky Alban soil.  Little Sparta, as the garden is now known was the brainchild of Sue Finlay and Ian Hamilton-Finlay, artist and poet living near Edinburgh.  The original garden,  accurately named  Stonypath, was planted in 1966 and has been elaborated on several times since. These lines from "Integrity" by Adrienne Rich would be a fine candidate for a walking poem.  For Whitman, like Rich, patience would have to be an active virtue.

" A wild patience has taken me this far

as if I had to bring to shore
a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor
old sweaters, nets, spray-mottled books
tossed in the prow
some kind of sun burning my shoulder-blades.
Splashing the oarlocks.  Burning through.
Your fore-arms can get scalded, licked with pain
in a sun blotted like unspoken anger
behind a casual mist." - excerpt from "Integrity" from A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far by Adrienne Rich, 1981

Revised: 12/06/2016/
To read more:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti - Starting From San Francisco, New York, New Directions: 1961.
Adrienne Rich - A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far,  New York, W.W. Norton: 1981.

Daniel Boudinet - Little Sparta, the garden of Ian Hamilton-Finlay and Sue Finlay, at Stonypath,  1987, Dunysre, Scotland.

28 November 2016

Waiting Woman

For a stone figure to emanate the humanity of breath  and consciousness is no small achievement; no wonder that statues have  long been subjects of veneration in places of worship.  Unlike the standing figures in medieval Christian cathedrals, modern sculptural figures are seldom didactic, although their meaning is enhanced by extended contemplation. In the singular figure of Waiting Woman the American sculptor William McVey has  created a figure of outward withdrawal and inward attentiveness; this is a source of her attraction.  
William Mozart McVey is one of those artists whose works are more familiar today than their maker.  McVey's most famous public public work is a statue of Winston Churchill (nine feet tall, bronze, 1966) that stands in front of the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.    He was born in Boston and educated in Cleveland but McVey found himself incompatible with his teacher so he practiced sculpting by carving tombstones for a local cemetery.
Thanks to a small grant,  McVey was able to study in Paris from 1929 to 1932, but he  needed the money he earned as a tour guide at the Louvre.  In Paris, McVey was more fortunate in his teachers, Charles Despiau and Marcel Gimond.  Both men had worked in the atelier of Auguste Rodin and Gimond had also studied with Aristide Maillol. Indirectly then, McVey gained access to  the two greatest living French sculptors of the time.   Where Rodin's figures were the epitome of naturalism, it would be Maillol's style that would influence younger sculptors.     McVey incorporated elements of Cubism and abstraction in  Waiting Woman; the resulting vocabulary made the full humanity of his subject visible. He creates a sense of intimacy for the viewer without intrusion on his subject,  a fine and subtle achievement.

Another example of McVey's work is The Good Samaritan from 1952, also located in Cleveland.

William McVey (1905-1995) - Waiting Woman,  1954, stone, 23.75 x12.96 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art.

22 November 2016

Norman Lewis: Heroic Evening

"That's white of you, Thomas Hoving"  read the sandwich-board  sign worn by Norman Lewis.  It was the year 1969, when Lewis and others walked the picket  line outside the Metropolitan Museum to protest the absence of black artists in the the museum's documentary exhibition Harlem On My Mind.   Hoving, the met's director,   was just two years into his tumultuous tenure; hia name would become shorthand for the commercial exploitation of art but this demonstration was an event of a totally different kind. The idea to show the flowering of black arts  through the eyes of white artists was  bad in so many ways that it seems to have been dreamed up by sleepwalkers.  Norman Lewis was an African-American artist whose work, both figurative and abstract, combined spiritual elements and political consciousness in uncommon ways.  Only now, decades after his death are we beginning to appreciate his achievements.
At the time Lewis was the only one of the picketing black artists  whose work had been shown at the Met, albeit only in  group exhibitions, in 1933, 1942, and in 1953 when  two of his drawings were included in an exhibition of works from the private collection of Edward Wales Root.  Root  was an art instructor at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and, when he died in 1956,  he  bequeathed his collection (227 paintings by 80 American artists) to the Munson-Williams Proctor Art Institute in nearby Utica.  When a new museum building, designed by Philip Johnson, opened in 1960, its sculpture court was named in honor of Root.  And that is where I had my first encounter with Heroic Evening.
That an African-American artist at mid-century was possessed of a painfully split consciousness is not surprising.   After making the transition from realism to abstraction, Lewis offered some thoughts on the matter, like this: "(O)ne of the discouraging things in my own self-education, was the fact that painting pictures didn't bring about any social change."

Measuring about six feet tall by four feet wide, Heroic Evening has the scale it title suggests. It is an especially optimistic version of forms that Lewis often used in his paintings.  For Lewis,  flickering lights of movement or procession could represent lynch mobs or Ku Klux Klansman on the march but here the wave-like layers of blue seem benign, reminding us that we too are water.    I can never finally decide whether I think I see birds  soaring above clouds or fish  darting near the ocean floor or an abstract  vision of human emotions.   Even without its title, this is a visionary work, a picture to spend time with, and be immersed in.

Revised 11/23/2016.
Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis is a traveling retrospective now on vie at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 8, 2017.

Image: Norman Lewis (1909-1979)  - Heroic Evening, 1963, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

16 November 2016

Utica, New York: Art Lives Here, Too

This is the scene across the street from the Mohawk Valley Refugee Resettlement Center    You can see a bit of the Art School at the left, behind  a corner of the Munson-Willaims-Proctor Art Institute; in the foreground Alexander Calder's Three Arches, a representation of the museum's three founding families, installed three years after Philip Johnson's Museum building opened in 1960. 
Sculpture is arguably the closest medium to the human in all of art.   At the center of Philip Johnson's design for the museum is a large two story sculpture court.  I find this suggestive of a deeper meaning than the arbitrary creation of space, especially when thinking about what happened to European museums during World War II.   Paris, Rome, Cologne, all cities whose museums evacuated their artworks, as much as possible, to safe havens in the countryside, away from bombs and pillage.  Take the Louvre, where thousands paintings were removed from their frames and hidden in old stone castles, leaving behind shadows on gallery walls and frames littering the floors.  What was left were sculptures, too large or too heavy to move,  ghostly witnesses in waiting.

Viewed from any angle, Meeting Again is a reminder of that history.  Two  figures raise each other up as they embrace,  the power of their mutual gaze levitates them, the wounds of time and distance painfully present in their reunion.  In Ernst works there are  elements of the figures that line the walls of Gothic cathedrals, elongated, simple, yet expressive.    Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) was  the outstanding German Expressionist sculptor between the two world wars.  He could make bronze take on the rough hand-worked quality of the3 old wooden  figures.   Barlach was widely admired in the 1920s but, come the 1930s,  his works were confiscated by the authorities and removed from museums, his figures rightly understood as reminders of the dire consequences of war and, so, dangerous to the Nazi cause.   As an infantryman during World War I, Barlach had been sickened by what he saw in the trenches; he spent the rest of his life embodying  his terrible knowledge in  figures of powerful emotion and when he could no sculpt, he turned to making prints.

Another embrace,  Affection, is  one of the most loved pieces in the Museum's collection, and the sculpture court always seems empty without it.   The girl and the dog lean into each other with a shared bliss that is evanescent; by the time we understand it, it has gone.  That it is exactly life-size makes its effect that much more poignant.  Through Zorach's touch, black marble appears to breathe; its sleekness owes something in style to Art Deco but its effect is embraceable, if not actually allowed by the guards. For the Lithuanian-born American Zorach (1887-1966), sculpture was a language like music or speech, to be used for "the things one does in seeking for the inner rhythms  of nature and life." - excerpt from  Art Is My Life by William Zorach, 1967, p.167.

Like the city of  Utica, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute welcomes everyone.  And, unlike other major museums in the Northeast, you don't need $ to walk through its doors.

1. unidentified photographer -  MWP School of Art, 2016, courtesy Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. unidentified photographer - Alexander Calder - Three Arches, 1963, courtesy Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
3. Ernst Barlach - Meeting Again (also known as Reunion), 1926, bronze, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
4. William Zorach - Affection, 1933,  black marble,  Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

08 November 2016

Hope Lives Here: Utica, New York

When I feel low, I often spend a day in Utica.  A  forsaken rust-belt city in the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York may not seem like a cure for depression, but it is and I have taken its welcome for granted for too long.   Three girls stand on the south side of Genesee Street,   ready to welcome new comers on a cold night in December.  The street is an important one; facing each other across its width are the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.  This is the big heart of this city.

Utica became a city because of the Erie Canal.  Incorporated in 1832, the  railroads followed, beginning in the next year, and eventually  the New York State Thruway came through the north end of the city; all routes following  the path known as the Mohawk Trail.   Utica built an industrial economy from its natural resources - furniture, textiles, machinery, lumber (from the nearby Adirondacks) - and immigrants.   Its history is not simple; the textile industry fed on the cotton imported from southern slave states, yet the city also became a major station on the Underground Railway in the 1850s. 
The jobs that left upstate New York for the South  in the decades following World War II, are the jobs that are now leaving there for other countries.  A once proud city of 100,000, Utica shrank  to 60,000 by 2000.   The one thing most people have heard about Utica's struggles is the bumper sticker that read "Last One Out Of Utica, Please Turn Out The Lights."  The original version of  the familiar song we know as "Red River Valley" was originally about their river: "Mohawk River Valley."

Once again Utica opened its doors  to refugees.  It began in the 1970s when Roberta Douglas and Catholic Charities made the city a haven for Amerasian children exiled from Vietnam.  Then in the 1990s, refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina were welcomed,  and then Somali Bantus, Sudanese, Burmese Karens,  Bhutanese, Nepalis, Russians, and now Latinos.   Today,  fully a quarter of the population is made up of refugees and their children.  People who came seeking sanctuary and stayed to make homes, rehabilitating run-down buildings, and starting businesses.   This, too, is not simple but it is good.  As testified to by the man holding a hand-lettered sign on a cold December night last year: "Refugees Welcomed In Utica."
To  read  more:.
Starting Over: Bhutanese-Nepali Refugees in Utica, NY by Kathryn Stamm, et al in Himalaya Journal, Hanover, New Hampshire..
 - Office of the State Comptroller of New York, Honorable Thomas DiNapoli, Albany.

1. Refugees can play soccer with me - Love and Rage Media Collective, Utica, NY.
2. Bhutanese-Nepali residents of Utica, NY, Himalaya Journal, Hanover, New Hampshire.
3. Refugees Welcomed In Utica,  Love And Rage Media Collective, Utica, NY.
4. Tina Russell for the Utica Observer-Dispatch -  Fadumo Ali, age 15 and Rica Akimeli at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Museum for the exhibition Portraits of Hope: Faces of Refugee Resettlement in Central New York , August 12, 2016.
5. Utica In Winter - courtesy of State of the Reunion.

01 November 2016

Leaves Of Gold

Imagine receiving a package wrapped  in leaves of gold like these.  It could have happened if you had been  a French aristocrat during the 18th century.   

Something about the vivid colors that come with autumn here in the northeastern United States reminded me of brocade dore (gold brocade).   The French have a name for these papers - feuillets à vernis doré -  which translates roughly to 'leaves painted with gold' and it was from French that I first learned about them, and then that they  were a German creation.   First manufactured in the city of Augsburg around the end of the seventeenth century, the papers and used by  bookbinders to decorate special editions.   The French were quick to borrow the custom but it took decades for them to master the creative process, so that when the philosopher Diderot used them to wrap the volumes of his monumental Encyclopedia in the 1750s, the papers he used were still imported from Germany.  
There were two types of gold papers, varnished or embossed.    To make a varnished paper (Bronzefirnispapiere) a paste of shellac mixed with bronze powder, copper, tin or brass was used to coat the paper.  The paper was then passed through a press, after being stenciled with a design. Varnished papers were gradually superseded by embossed papers (Brokatpapiere), sometime between 1720-1730.  Embossed papers, as their name implies, had a raised surface and the additional dimension. The papers were primed with a metal alloy and then pressed with heated metal plates.   Any residue of metal was dusted off.  

Styles varied too.   German  prints  were designed with human characters or animals scattered among the flowers, fruits, and foliage whereas the French taste leaned toward more rational arrangements based on  small geometric patterns of stars, circles, etc. Here  very autumnal colors appear in an early French gold leaf print, dated 1710, by Jean-Rene Jouenne,  a chevalier in the King's army.   If you look  through the colors, you see a symmetrical arrangement around a central axis, suggesting a tree trunk.

For more go to Conde Library at Chateau de Chantilly.
The exhibition Papiers de garde dores at the Conde Library  in 2005 was the first major display of the gold leaf papers in France.
And for an entirely different and amazing version of packaging as art, read How To Wrap Five Eggs by Hideyuki Oka, New York, Weatherhill: 2008.

1. apricot and gold paper, German State Library (Staatsbibliothek), Berlin.
2. green on copper, German State Library, Berlin.
3. Jean- Rene Jouenne (or Jouanne) comte d'Esgrigny, Mesnil, and Hervilly,  Paris, 1710,  University Library (Bibiotheque universitaire), Poitiers.
Giovanni Francesco Maria de Pretis of Urbino, 1706, University Library, Poitiers.
Stepahnus Salagius - animal print, 1778,   University Library, Poitiers.
bronze relief on varnished gold paper

28 October 2016

On The Wings Of A Bat

This little bat carries a heavy load on its shoulders.  In a 1974 essay titled  "What is it like to be a bat?", Nagel uses the bird with the double-jointed wings to argue that reductionist  theories of the mind will never be able to explain consciousness.  When neuroscientists scan the brain, the activity they see is not thought or memory, but the movement of neurons.  
Enter Mary Midgley,  a British philosopher who has likened philosophy to plumbing, and has accused her colleagues of habitually "biting off less than they can chew."   She makes a similar argument, this time using an ordinary table as an example: to a carpenter a table is a solid object, while to a particle physicist a table is a group of atoms that is mostly empty space. Meanwhile, Nagel looks forward to the emergence of a  post-materialist philosophy.  And the little bat flies through a sky, suffused by the yellow of an unseen sun, oblivious to the shrinking horizons of the neuroscientists. 
And you thought this post would be about about Halloween.

A note about the artist: Florence Lundborg was born in San Francisco in 1871 where she studied art with Arthur Mathews.  After the turn of the century she moved to Paris where she studied with Whistler. Her mural, painted for the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915r eceived a bronze medalFortified by this success, Lundborg moved to New York City where she illustrated books and became a staff member at The Lark,  where her woodblock prints often appeared on its covers.

Read: "What is it like to be a bat?" here.
Read: Are You An Illusion? by Mary Midgley, London, Acumen: 2014.

Florence Lundborg (1871-1949) detail of the cover of The Lark, November 1895, color woodcut, Mettropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

15 October 2016

Jim Dine: The Multi-Colored Bathrobe

"The canvases are the size of me with my arms out." - Jim Dine to Constance Glenn, 1983.

I was standing in the art storage stacks at the museum the other evening along with my classmates as we looked at the largest woodblock print any of us had ever seen.   Jime Dine's Bathrobe may not be larger than life in a technical sense but it was larger than any bathrobe I have ever worn.

"Describe not the object itself, but the effect it produces," wrote the French poet Stephane Mallarme.   Nietzsche was the more direct when he famously declared "God is dead."  But it was Mallarme (1842-1898), in his guise as critic, who developed the idea of art as the replacement for religion.   You can love modern art and sidestep Nietzsche but you can't avoid Mallarme; his ideas are either illustrated or  refuted by artists who have come after.
Take the Abstract Expressionists, who denied there were any romantic elements in their works,  ignoring the emotional and spiritual elements viewers admired in their canvases.  Think of the shimmering layers that appear when you gaze for several minutes at a Mark Rothko painting.    Pop artists of the 1960s, whose cool appraisal of ordinary objects, seemed to sacralize them as much as satirize them confound Mallarme's discrete categories.  What of  artists who need to portray the object in order to get to the effect it has on them?

Jim Dine (b.1935)  was a young artist from the Midwest who first attracted attention in New York, the center of the postwar art world, in 1959 when he participated in several Happenings, a type of chaotic performance art that signaled a change of mood from  somber expressionism to something like bacchanalia, Dine has always said that drawing is, for him, the basis of all art, even his sculptures.  Eventually, he was no longer satisfied by what he saw as awkward and inept drawing by the Abstract Expressionists.   In the 1960s Dine fit in with Pop artists with his images of real life objects like hammers and paintbrushes; teh difference was that, as Dine put it, the objects gave him "a vocabulary of feelings."

Dine began to use the bathrobe in 1964 as a form of self-portrait, and he has made dozens and dozens of them since.   Stretching a paper or canvas or, in this case, a piece of wood, to human size has underlined the intimacy he finds in this everyday garment.   Alan Solomon, an art historian, understood this when in 1967 he called Dine " a hot artist in a cool time."

This Bathrobe from 1982 is work of mixed media.  It is a fourteen color woodcut (you can count them for yourself,) with black paint used for the outline.  Standing next to Bathrobe I felt those black lines move on that rigid surface, like so many motions of putting on and taking off, the lineaments of a personal relationship. 

Jim Dine - Fourteen-color Bathrobe, 1982, Schaefer Art Galleries, Syracuse University, NY.

08 October 2016

Panda Haven

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
 - excerpt from "Inversnaid" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1881) 

The mountains of southwestern China are certainly wild and wet; in photographs they are lapped by rivers of mist.  Sichuan the name of the province that means the land of the four rivers, is the place where the Himalayas drop down toward the river basin.  Rugged and remote, it has long held tight to its secrets, its variety of plants and animal species unknown to the larger world.    But, every now and then, for two thousand years, those who made the difficult journey to Sichuan returned with stories of marvelous, elusive plant-eating animals. 
Panda is the Nepalese word for "bamboo-eater."   The giant panda is a bear; the red panda is either a cat or a raccoon, a question that has remained since  Frederic Cuvier saw his first red panda in 1825.  Then, in 1868, another Frenchman,  Armand David, arrived at a village in Sichuan  to teach at a Jesuit school there.  What Pere David learned there made him famous, identifying  and classifying hundreds of plants, birds, and animals.  Thanks to him, the gerbil and the giant panda entered our world.  He was  also a pioneer in the study of animal geography, a discipline that has contributed to bringing back the giant panda from the brink of extinction.  For a long time after Pere David brought word of the panda back to France, they called it" Pere David's bear."
We did not mean to endanger pandas, we admired their gentle habits but we encroached on their territory, cutting down the trees where they carved out their birthing dens and turning the land to farms, driving them ever higher into the mountains, where it was colder and less hospitable to bamboo.  What wondrous lines might another Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, have given us if he had been to the haven of the giant panda?

1. Henri Milne-Edwards - Folio, plate 50, Ursus melanoeucus, female, c.1869-74,  French National Museum of Natural History, Paris.
2.  unknown artist - Butterfly among the flowers, c. 16th-17th century, India, Louvre Museum, Paris.