Inventing Abstraction?

The web of communication between abstract artists

The web of communication between abstract artists

I went to the MOMA show Inventing Abstraction a little hesitant. How can you “invent” abstraction? Was it a bit like “discovering” the new world, in that people were already living there for thousands of years before Columbus got there? And the discovery really only counts if a bunch of Europeans follow you there, sorry Eric the Red. Indeed abstraction was not a new thing in 1910, it was only a new thing in European Fine Art Painting (very proper noun). Try asking an Islamic Craftsman of the 10th century what he thinks about the invention of abstraction, or a celtic manuscript illuminator, or a native american weaver, and the list goes on and on. It is only because abstraction was simply not done in European painting that it could be reinvented as art, elevated from the ghettos of design, or craft, or non-western art. Which, don’t be silly, don’t count. The only reason we can pinpoint 1910 as the year abstraction was “invented” was that it sparked a movement of abstraction throughout art in multiple countries. It was the invention of abstraction because of what followed, just as the discovery of America is all about the aftermath. I guess the exhibition title the Popularization of Abstraction in European Painting simply didn’t have the same ring to it.

The show pays surprisingly little attention to the processes and slow approaching dance that artists played with pure abstraction. They were nervous about abandoning form and slowly inched to the precipice. From this exhibit you might think Kandinsky saw an almost abstract Picasso and then single handily invented abstract art. But the incredibly awesome chart of artist’s communication makes clear that this was a group effort, artists like little nerve cells brought abstraction into the mainstream collectively, not in the solitary genius model. The show is mostly a very beautiful demonstration of the flowering that followed once the flood gates of abstraction were open, and how abstract art meant different things to different people. Was it the science of sight or the spirituality of form?

Georgia O’Keefe

The shows biggest success is tying visual art to dance, music, and literature. It shows the radical changes that all three were undergoing, the connections between these creatives, and how each pushed the other further.

Another problem I have with the invention of abstraction, and I promise this is the last one, is that the show and people in general don’t hold to the strict definition of abstraction that is required to fabricate its invention. So for example, something can’t merely be abstracted, that is it wasn’t the invention of abstraction if the painting was based on a real object, and then reduced to an abstraction. This is necessary because otherwise we wouldn’t get as good of an ah-ha moment. But the moment that abstraction is invented this requirement is tossed right out the window. The show itself includes many Futurist images that aren’t even as abstract as the Picasso that starts the show. Or Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers, which are certainly depictions of something, though maybe not flowers. Or there are many other examples, Marsden Hartley, the Rayonists, and Robert Delanauy, I mean for god’s sake he painted pictures of the Eiffel Tower! So the definition of Abstract art required to create it’s invention is so limited that the show couldn’t stand without breaking it. But of course we’re not willing to limit ourselves to the very purest abstraction, which even Kandinsky never really reaches, we can’t just have an exhibit of Malevich’s squares.

Malevich, Black Square

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Baroque is Back

The Baroque style of art, which essentially spans the entire 17th century, was vilified in the 19th century and forgotten in the 20th. But it seems that the 2000’s might see a revival of my favorite style of art, and it’s just about time. Art styles always go in and out of favor, but the Baroque has spent a lot of time in the dog house. It’s the red headed step-sister of the Renaissance, but I’m hoping it’s poised to have its cinderella moment.

The evidence I’d like to present is this most recent exhibition seasons, which saw not one but two major Baroque shows,  Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy at LACMA and Bernini: Sculpting in Clay at the Met. Caravaggio has lead the Baroque’s rehabilitation. He suffered the same fate as the period, but his image and popularity have been on the increase for about half a century now. Major scholarship led the way, and now Caravaggio is the subject of more study than Michelangelo. Caravaggio is now a major blockbuster artist, and his show at LACMA was wonderful. Caravaggio’s popularity suffered because there aren’t many examples of his art in the US, you have to travel to Rome to fall in love with him. His artwork suffers greatly in reproduction because of the dramatic contrast of light and dark in his work known as tenebrism. Reproductions are either too dark and hide the detail you can see in person, or lightened, but then lose the blackness for which he was known. At the show the several works of Caravaggio were eye opening, always more impressive than I think they might be based on images in books. I enjoyed the focus on the Caravaggisti, you can see how widely influential he was in his time.

Caravaggio's St. John the Baptist

Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist

The other Baroque show was of the bozetti (clay models) of Bernini. It was much different than I expected. It was one: huge and two: crowded. I thought it would be small, his art is notoriously hard to see outside of Europe, and really Rome. But the Met chose its subject well, and had a huge assortment of beautiful clay models, as impressive for their craftsmanship as the full-size objects are for their grandiousity (well maybe not quite). The lovely thing about these models is that they are practically all from the artist’s hand. Bernini was at the head of a huge studio that built giant installations, works of art many stories tall. Much of the final carving was done by his assistants and loses that bravura workmanship.

Bernini's Daniel in the Lion's Den

Bernini’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den

Bernini is trailing Caravaggio in present day fame, ironic because Bernini in his time was the most powerful, famous, and sought after artist in the world. In my opinion he is best sculptor to have ever lived, a true genius with marble, he surpassed even Michelangelo. The trio of the Rape of Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, and David completed near the inception of his career are mind-blowingly awesome. A sculptor who had made just one of these three and done nothing else for their entire lives would still be counted among the great artists of all time.

The show at the Met was filled in my totally unscientific estimation (corroborated by my companions) with art history types. This actually gives me hope, as scholarship often leads popular opinon, more books and more exhibitions eventually translate to more appreciation. Art Historians really do have a key role to play to introducing the public to new artists and periods, and pointing out what to appreciate about them, what makes the artists of the Baroque great. One more reason that art scholarship should be published open access. People love to learn about art, but they often only get to the information that comes out in scholarly articles (locked behind paywalls) after it has trickled down, made its way into wall plaques and popular non-fiction.

All in all these two artists’ rising popularity will hopefully bring a whole period back into the spotlight. These shows are just the beginning. The Caravaggio show is the case in point, using Caravaggio to bring in the crowds, the show is actually full of other Baroque artists, his Italian collegues: Orazio Gentilleschi (unfortunately no Artemsia), Giovanni Baglione; his spanish adherents: Ribera and Zurbaran; his French fans: Simon Vouet, Georges de la Tour (an artist I think has the potential to go big next); his Netherlandish admirers  Ter Brugghen and Honthorst. Caravaggio is the Baroque gateway drug.

Georges De La, Penitent Magdalene

Georges De La Tour, Penitent Magdalene

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Open Access, the Humanities, and Image Rights

I was recently asked to present at a panel discussion for Open Access Week. Below is the prepared text of my presentation, you’ll find the slides here.

Open Access is essentially about removing the walls around research. One such barrier is the skyrocketing price of journals. This journal crisis has been the rallying cry of much of the open access movement, especially for libraries who are suck with the bill.

But in the humanities this is not the case, we’re dead last among journals for average price. Which of course is a good thing. But if there is no Journal Crisis in the Humanities, why do we still need open access? What does Open Access have to offer humanities scholarship?

What we really have to ask ourselves is what is the current publishing model doing to hinder humanities scholarship. How has erecting pay-walls and limiting access hurt our scholarship?

The first problem is that these Pay-walls have divided western scholars from the rest of the world. If they don’t have subscriptions they can read our scholarship, even our relatively cheap journals can be a reach. This disconnect in research access is happening at exactly the same time we are trying to make humanities scholarship more and more global.

It’s open access that has become the global standard. In other countries where the publishing industry was never entrenched, it is often the predominant mode of scholarly publication. Western humanities needs to join the global community and communicate openly with scholars world-wide.

The second problem is the pay-walls of traditional publishing have created a divide between academia and the public. The public at large has no way to access the valuable scholarship that the humanities are producing, often in areas that have great public interest: art, literature, music, film. People really do want to learn. Scholarship made available in institutional repositories and which can be found with Google, can generate heavy traffic.

But limiting of the availability of scholarship has given the impression that the humanities doesn’t offer anything of value to the public. No tech innovations no medical breakthroughs. What is our value? We believe the knowledge we produce enriches society, so we have an obligation to allow our work to become part of public discourse. It is an essential part of demonstrating the humanities value.

Typical article questioning the point of the humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

So I believe there are clear benefits to the humanities in tearing down these pay-walls. But how do we get there?

We need to remove the barriers to open access that exist in humanities publishing. Issues like tenure, lack of OA journals need to be solved. But one issue that Art Librarians can help fix is Image rights.

Scholarly publishing in the humanities in general, and art history specifically relies on images. These can often be hideously expensive, making publishing open access a near impossibility.

What can we do to fix this problem?

First, we can wield fair use effectively, by arguing that scholarly use is transformative use. Libraries recently got together and crafted a code of best practices for fair use. It argues that online exhibitions using in copyright images add significant scholarly value and are in fact fair use. The College Art Association is currently drafting their own code of best practices, which will hopefully apply these principles to art publishing.

Second, we can free public domain images. These have continued to be controlled by museums and image libraries, who charge for items that are free and un-copyrightable. Compare for example Bridgeman Art Library whose website states that all the images are copyrighted photographs, this of course is not actually true, perhaps it wasn’t intended to be a factual statement. On the other hand the National Gallery of Art recently launched an open database of high-res images, these public domain images can be put to whatever purpose.

So what then is the library’s role? It needs to facilitate and educate. I have been and will continue to offer consultations on image rights and fair use. I’ve taught class sessions on images, both how to find them and how to use them legally. We are planning on offering an image workshop next semester, through our learner’s lunch series. And I am currently building an image copyright guide for the library’s website to supplement our robust guide on finding images.

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Cross Country Tour

So this past July I moved from New York City to Boulder, Colorado. When I moved out of my house it was 100 degrees and humid, it was this temperature throughout pretty much the rest of the country. Luckily our U-Haul had air-conditioning. But the most awesome part (or at least two of them) were the museums we went to, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. We were foiled from going to the Toledo Art Museum (it was closed). I felt these two museums provided a lesson in contrast, as to what each curator(s) made of their decidedly divergent collections.

Cleveland Museum of Art

I have to say, I loved the Cleveland Museum of Art. First of all, they have a Caravaggio, which is pretty amazing and rare to find in the US. For me, they could have had this painting in a decrepit warehouse with nothing else and it would have been wonderful, but they did have much more (but nothing better). The gallery labels and impeccable organization is what really stood out here. Each room was organized around a theme, explained on a placcard by the door. These were informative and clear. The labels on each painting were well done too, clear, not overly complicated, and gave you the information you need to know. It often gave a good mix of basic information to get the viewer oriented and more advanced analysis. So while I knew most of what they said in say the Baroque rooms, others areas I felt like I was really learning something. They didn’t have a overwhelming amount of works, but each was well selected, and seemed to really embody some idea or period in art history.

Crucifixtion of Saint Andrew by Caravaggio

At the Chicago Institute of Art, obviously their collection is amazing (though in my own taste only their Caillebotte could challenge Caravaggio’s painting as the best in either collection). I found their labels confusing, in some cases practically unreadable. Going through the Impressionist collection, I am I imagine like most people, I read the labels of the art works I find especially interesting (if you don’t you’ll never make it through the museum). But everytime I stopped to read I felt like I was in the middle of a story, as if I opened a book on the artist to a random page and started reading. I was often at a loss, thinking “come on label I don’t even know who this artist is, let along what the hell you’re talking about.” I pretty much gave up on finding any interesting information on any of the paintings in the collection and just looked (which was good enough).

Caillebotte Detail of Paris Street, Rainy Day

The architectural addition by Renzo Piano was beautiful as per usual. The restaurant Terzo Piano was spectacular, just amazingly delicious, I highly recommend it. Though for some reason like all museum restaurants it closes at 3, so you have to have a fancy dinner for lunch (or in our case, breakfast).

Ryerson and Burnham Libraries – The Art Institute of Chicago

Finally we visited the Art Library, where my friend, Emily, did research for her thesis on a Manet painting in the collection. It was a beautiful space with an especially nice touch of the names of famous art historians along the frieze. It was nice because I feel like it’s a group that often doesn’t get a lot of recognition and this is the perfect place for it. The library was request based, kind of intimidating (like I find most museum libraries), but with very interesting resources. Pamphlet collections never cease to amaze me, but sometimes I struggle to find examples of research that puts these ephemeral collections to good use.

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Bi- and tri-ennial NYC

This year both the Whitney biennial and the New Museum triennial where held. Despite the New York Times’ breathless assertions of the “first time ever!” this is really only the second time the New Museum has had its triennial and this kind of occurrence will happen every 6 years. But nonetheless, These two shows revealed two emerging foci in contemporary art.
The Whitney’s show was all about performance and audience interaction. At least that’s what I was led to believe by the stellar New York Times review. However, upon arriving I only found the remains and evidence of such works. Yes the big downfall of event based art, you have to be there at the right times. I wasn’t. I like to go to my museums when I have time, not when the artist does. Some works seemed like outright false advertising. The artist who was going to practically live in the museum and use it as her studio, only really was going to be there for 3 performances. I want my performance artists to be more Marina Abromovic about this, be there all the time, maybe even live there. I found the show to be overall underwhelming. The paintings were mostly forgettable, the performances weren’t performed. Lets also not forget that the Whitney isn’t cheap, many people can’t go to the Biennale at multiple different times times to see the scheduled performances.

Lutz Bacher’s strewn baseballs at the Whitney looked better in person

On the other hand I was pleasantly surprised by the New Museum triennial. The trend here was globalism but also message art. It was for the most case art-activism, which in my opinion has just as many pitfalls as performance art. However this show managed to mostly avoid them. Often artivism means tacking up some pictures of your trip to Africa. There’s often a hint of paternalism and too little attention paid to aesthetics. The new museum avoided this pitfall by going global, choosing artists working to improve or critique their own culture or it’s domination by the west. Most everything here was both pleasing to the eye (or ear). Many of the pieces stood out conceptually, such as the artist who traded favors with inmates. Others nailed interaction such as the “flying carpet.” One of my favorites was the advertising agency who were paid to rebrand communism. The works were engaging, I wanted to stay and watch everything.

Adrián Villar Rojas who first wowed me at the Venice Biennale had another great piece at the New Museum

It only goes to show that being on trend only gets one so far. Performance might be all the rage, but it is still essentially an exclusive medium, only those in the know, plugged in and dedicated often get a chance to see the show, everyone else gets the left-overs. Don’t get me wrong performance art can be great, but don’t leave all the show’s remains just to point out to people what they missed, it’s rude and usually pretty danged ugly. Globalism and activism can too often be crass and shallow, or not be art at all, like donating to charity as a gift to someone, it’s great that you did this but it isn’t a gift (or art). I’m glad the New Museum once again showed that art can say something important without being preachy and without sacrificing it’s own visual appeal.

Thesis = Done!

I am very relieved to have finished my thesis. Though I finished the bulk of the writing a month ago, the process of final polishing, securing approvals, printing it out (a hefty expense), and depositing it at the library is done now as well. My biggest challenge now is to answer that ever present question: What is your thesis about?

This question is all kinds of hard for me. First of all, does the asker really care? If not and I launch into a protracted explanation I may put them to sleep. But if they are, how to explain something that requires a good amount of specialized knowledge to understand well? I often assume people know things about art history that they don’t, or about history in general. I blame the education system (I joke, kinda). Knowing what the Baroque was or the specifics of the Counter Reformation aren’t exactly mainstays of American education. Often the best you can hope for is familiarity with the Renaissance (it was about rebirth or something?) and the Protestant Reformation (95 theses!). This shouldn’t be seen as some kind of snobbery, most certainly most people don’t need to know this, and there are many things that I have just as superficial (or less) knowledge about.

So then what is my thesis about? Well, the one sentence answer is it’s about the decoration of Jesuit churches in the Baroque era. A little more specifically it is about three Jesuit churches in Rome: Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, Il Gesù, and Sant’Ignazio, which were all decorated in the High Baroque style in the second half of the 17th century. Let’s make one thing clear, these churches are awesome! If you ever go to Rome you simply have to go see all of them. What makes them so fantastic is their Baroque styling which is gaudy as hell, but strong and powerful rather than fanciful.

Sant'Andrea, in its baroque glory

The triumphant, powerful, affecting and emotional style of the Baroque was a direct product of the Counter-Reformation (the Catholic reform movement in the wake of the division of Christendom). It sought to bring the faithful back to the fold by appealing to emotion, by provoking reactions by being dramatic and even theatrical. It stands in dramatic contrast to the art of the Renaissance which appealed to the intellect and emphasized eternal forms and platonic ideals.

The interior of the Gesù

As amazing as I find the Baroque style, after its fall from favor it was vilified as decadent and empty. The Jesuit too were denigrated (rightly or wrongly, but I have a soft spot). They were blamed for the spread of the Baroque, and “Jesuit Style” became a pejorative, as well as implying a world-wide conspiracy on the part of the Jesuits to spread the Baroque across the globe supplanting the more pure classicism. We come a long way from this view, but the role of the Jesuits in the invention and propagation of the Baroque is still rife with intrigue, a mystery I probed a bit in my thesis.

In actuality the Jesuits came late to the Baroque party. The style was in full swing by the 1630’s Bernini was already doing up St. Peters in full Baroque grandeur, and several other churches were being decorated in elaborate ceiling paintings (a hallmark of the style). What took the Jesuits so long? Well the order had been dedicated to simplicity and austerity from its beginning a hundred years before. The question we have then is why the shift? They had held off so far, why give in now?

Bernini's Baldacchino in St. Peters in its Baroque glory

The answer I came up with (perhaps not the only answer) was that the Baroque style was uniquely suited to argue for the Jesuit conception of salvation and to undermine the views of their critics. This is the part of my thesis that gets all religious studies, but it is always vital to really understand the theological backdrop of Church art. The problem is theology is incredibly nuanced and often gets boiled down to gross simplifications and the more you investigate the more you find.

Despite this warning the best simplification I can articulate goes a bit like this. There are two forces at work in the process of becoming saved, free will: man’s own agency to do good works and and grace: god’s gift of goodness to people. The respective importance of these two concepts was endlessly debated even or especially within the Catholic Church. If we start with one axiom that there are only be a limited number of saved individuals, we can take these two concepts on different logical paths. If God is all powerful it stands to reason then that if he gives you his grace you are incapable of saying “no thanks, I’ll pass”, God’s grace in this conception is irresistible. From this we must then assume that God doesn’t just offer this grace to anybody, because then everybody would be saved (and this violates our axiom). Thus free-will is practically non-existent, and there is some very strong predestination going on.

On the other hand, if we say that man’s free will is paramount, we must say that God’s grace isn’t so irresistible after all. Then we can say that God does offer this much reduced grace to everybody, and those who are saved are those who say “okay, sign me up.” Free-will is preserved and predestination is de-emphasized (but lets be clear, even Catholics believe in a form of predestination, but in this conception God merely knows what you plan to do with your own free will, logical paradoxes be damned). This was the position of the Jesuits, while the former was that of some of their biggest critics the Jansenists and the Quitests. These groups were in fact Catholic (yes their theology has ties with Protestantism, but only because Luther and Calvin took their theology from Augustine who first wrote on the power of Grace, and who was a doctor of the Catholic Church as well as a saint). While these positions seem stark it was really more of a continuum, which of course didn’t stop each of the groups from painting the other as extremists.

A representation of Heresy among the Damned at the Gesù

What then follows is an analysis of the iconography and style of the three churches put in this context. How do they trumpet Jesuit theology, how do they promote the tenets of free will and universal salvation. These were especially important ideas in the 17th century due to the Jesuit mission to convert pretty much everyone.  The Baroque was a powerful style that overwhelmed the viewer, opened up the heavens before them, and showed them the path to salvation. In these churches, the Jesuit order used this to embed their opinions on these theologies into the church structure itself. I’ll leave the actual visual analysis for the thesis itself.

Free Will Under Fire: Jesuit Church Decoration as Theological Argument

The Blessed overflow the frame at the Gesù

A New Job!

I have some very exciting news, I have accepted the position of Art & Architecture Librarian. I am so pumped! When I entered my degree program, this is the kind of position I dreamed of getting. I am going to have a lot to learn, but will be joining an awesome team. I know I’m lucky to have found an amazing job in this job market, but it is possible to succeed.

In the course of relentlessly pursuing this position, I had to give a presentation on Technology & the Art Librarian. I presented on how Visual Literacy skills are vital if we want students to use the digital resources libraries are creating such as Digital Libraries or Institutional Repositories. See my tongue in cheek discussion of Visual Literacy over at the Desk Set’s blog. I’m posting my presentation slides over on my portfolio.

A Brave New World at NYPL

No doubt most people have heard about the pending reorganization at NYPL. I have no inside information, but as a user I certainly have an opinion. It is not one however of immediate revulsion nor praise. The plan is pretty simple, tear out the stacks that are the center of the 42nd Street Library, replace them with a modern 21st century public library designed by Norman Foster, close Mid-Manhattan and SIBL and fold their operations into 42nd Street. I want to take each of these actions one a time, so I can fully wrap my mind around the unending pros and cons. I’ve been bad at posting recently, but this semester has been quite an adventure. I’ve also been moonlighting over the at the Desk Set as March’s guest blogger. I’m putting up a companion piece over there that looks at the ramifications of this plan for the Art & Architecture Collection.

Remove the Stacks

The research library was built somewhat like so many other big research libraries, a doughnut shape with a jelly filling of stacks. And the stacks are closed, aka you request your books, you don’t find them yourself. Most big university have abandoned this model, whether they simply open their stacks, or tear them out and build a more modern area for shelves. I think I can pretty easily rule out open stacks at the research branch, I don’t trust the public that much… though I’m not sure why college students are thought to be so much more responsible. So you say why do things need to change? Well to be honest they don’t, I think the current system works great, but the stacks occupy a large chunk of valuable real estate in a landmark building, it’s not surprising someone wants to put it to another use. On the point of removing the stacks, I’m essentially neutral, certainly I see their value, but since I can’t go in, I can’t really appreciate them. I see the appeal of replacing this storage space with people space.

But the most major downside of this plan, is the removing of 2 million of 3.5 million books to offsite storage. This strikes me as simply wrong, a bad, horrible, no good idea. Now I’m am a big believer in offsite storage, shelf space is gold and not everything deserves it. But this seems to be a staggering number, a number that will seriously decimate research at NYPL (in fact, if we’re being literal, it’s much worse than than, far more than one of every ten). It’s already a trek to the library, I don’t want to be made to come back days later when my books are actually available. I love to find newly discovered citations waiting for me on the shelves. There are alternatives, such as onsite compact storage. NYPL could also alleviate some of the worst parts of off-site by implementing services such as scanned articles from periodicals and much faster turn around times. But as it stands, this seems to be severely sacrificing one of the library’s most redeeming qualities, as it is simply one of the best public research libraries in the world.

The Reading Room at NYPL's 42nd Street library

A modern Library

When I first moved to New York, I was actually quite surprised that it did not have a great circulating public library a la Seattle Public Library. When I first visited the 42nd Research Library, I thought this isn’t a public library! Of course it just wasn’t like any I’d ever been to before, but it has it’s own unique charms. However, it certainly does not fill the needs that are met by a world-class public library in the 21st century sense. The Mid-Manhattan library attempts to live up to that goal. To put it lightly it fails miserably. It is ugly, it is dirty, it is badly designed, outdated, over-crowded and broken. When I told a friend we could study there she said, “You mean the one with all the crazy people?” I mean come on New York city, I know you can do better than this. It is the neglected Cinderella of the system, while the research branch spent millions on lights to illuminate its surface, this library fell into further disrepair all while meeting the information needs of so many more people than the 42nd street branch.

Building a new modern public library is I think an excellent use of funds and a badly needed service. Will placing it in the middle of the beautiful but fortress like 42nd street library be the best idea. I have my doubts, besides the tourists, it can already be a nightmare getting into and out of this building. Can these problems be solved? I sure hope so. Perhaps they’ll build a new entrance on Bryant park, that seems to make sense, though it would only further mar the historical integrity of the building. But whether that’s worth it is another question.

The backside of the 42nd Street Research Library

Closing Branches

Kids with no place to study now :(

This strikes me as the worst part of the deal. Libraries are supposed to fight to their last dying breadth against branch closings, not propose them! First it was the Donnell Library that closed, with the Children’s center opening at 42nd Street. The hotel chain who they sold the building to was supposed to build space for a library at this location, still hasn’t happened. Now the location where the kids in the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler do their Michelangelo research no longer exists. It’s sad. Mid-Manhattan maybe I can understand, it is right across the street from 42nd street. But they serve completely different purposes, 42nd street awes tourists and provides for serious researchers. Mid-Manhattan does everything else a public library needs to. Yes, it needs a renovation bad, and that was the original plan, until of course, budget cuts. SIBL seems like a defeat as well. I’ve never used this library, and I’ve heard it wasn’t very welcoming. But it represented a serious investment in the public availability of science research. Also, it’s far enough away to serve different people than 42nd Street. But alas progress will be financed by selling off these assets of NYPL, and it’s a bad deal.

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Pacific Standard Time

Banners for Pacific Standard Time at the Getty

Southern California is currently proclaiming its place in the history of art with a full court press. Over 60 shows are happening, all under the umbrella of Pacific Standard Time, spurred on by grants from the Getty (oh but they can’t afford BHA?). While I was in California for the holidays I saw two of the biggest shows: Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in California Design and California Design: Living in a modern way. The two shows are practical opposites. The getty show doesn’t have all that much to work with, but it does a lot with it. The LACMA show has almost too much to work with, and the end result is jumbled.

Pacific Standard Time is presented thematically, and presents a history of Los Angeles art and artists that doesn’t just pigeonhole them into movements invented to describe New York art. The result is extremely coherent and educational for someone unfamiliar. There are some really wonderful pieces. David Hockney’s Splash visits from the Tate. There was also an excellent mini-exhibit put on by the conservation lab of De Wain Valentine’s Grey Column (excellent bit on the conservation of contemporary art, and the ethical dilemma it poses).

The catalog as I’ve come to expect from Getty Publications is outstanding, and comes with that stylish sophistication that big serious catalogs sometimes feel above. The catalog is really the meat of the show, as it is arguing for new ways of looking at LA art, at the influences from abroad, but more importantly from California itself from early muscle magazines to modern design. You get a sense of that in the show, but the catalog is meant to set the canon on LA art history. The section on David Hockney I thought was especially well done.

Ed Ruscha & David Hockney at the Getty

LACMA’s show on California design is a visual feast, but it takes its layout from a California house and has an open floor plan, which works great for indoor/outdoor living, not so great for an art exhibition. It has some big show stoppers like a Studebaker Avanti, an Airstream RV, and the Eameses’ living room, carted wholesale from their home in the Pacific Palisades (and lets just say they weren’t into decluttering back then). The show is ostensibly divided into themes like “selling California design” or “the California look”, …, but the curvy open arrangement means I could never quite tell which theme any object belonged to, it didn’t help that the relation between themes and objects seemed pretty tenuous in the first place. California Design of course is quite a bit more famous and written about than its art. So while the exhibit was beautiful (and it was, don’t get me wrong, it was stunning), there wasn’t much new there, and the attempt to add didactic themes was not successful. The show’s biggest achievement is its incredibly broad array of objects from furniture, fashion, graphic design, ceramics, textiles, etc etc, it really showed how all encompassing the esthetic was. But it was this broad array that also made the show seem unfocused.

The California Design show at LACMA

After getting the catalog I noticed that the show was supported by Mattel, whose original Barbie was featured in the show, and a reissue of said Barbie was available in the Gift shop. This relationship made me extremely uncomfortable. This harks back to the issue I brought up in my previous posts, are the curators giving Mattel the imprimatur of art in exchange for monetary support of the exhibition? My guess is that it is not in any way so quid-pro-quot, but enough that such apparent conflicts of interest should be avoided. The circumspect researcher should look askance at the catalog’s placing of Barbie with the other icons of California Modern.

Pretty Exhibition Catalogs

The show was, in my opinion, shown up by its much less showy neighbor, on the art of colonial Latin America. I’ve taken a class both on Aztec art and on the art of the new world contact, so it was quite impressive the number of objects they obtained for the show. My absolute favorite piece (which was new to me) was a vessel that the Aztecs would have put sacrificial hearts in, that the missionaries had turned into a baptismal font (the potential analysis of this appropriation kinda makes my head explode). This show was split up into room (see museums don’t just do this for fun) that progressed through pre-contact, the art of conquest, and the interesting hybrid of religion, race, and culture that developed. The catalog will be an invaluable source on a hot topic in art history.

Folding screen map of Mexico City

What this whole event makes me as a Librarian think about is how do you go about recording this event and saving its history for posterity. As the Pacific Standard Time catalog says, it’s more than a show, but is a part of the history of art itself now. Documenting the ephemera like the PST website, all the supplemental materials from events, openings, and galleries, it’s quite a task that hopefully someone is paying attention to.

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That’s by Caravaggio?

Caravaggio's Flagelation of Christ

For Christmas I was very happy to receive Sebastian Schutze’s Caravavaggio: The Complete Works. First of all it is just an over the top gorgeous book. Of course it’s oversize nature will make it a tough fit on a regular height shelf, it’s a coffee table book that makes you realize you need a nicer coffee table. The huge pictures are all wonderfully done, the close ups are stunning, you can see the cracks in the paint and the weave of the canvas. It even has fold-outs, so I was sold! With this book you can get closer to the works then is possible in person (not that it can compare in any way to that singular experience).

Although the pictures are wonderful, I really have no great love for books heavy on images and light on any other redeeming value. Lucikly this book delivers on that front as well. The main text, though not a proper biography, highlights the main points of art historical discussion, pointing out scholarly disagreements, admitting holes in our knowledge, and generally giving a good sketch of what we think we know now. Unfortunately you can’t exactly curl in a comfy chair with the book, if you try to rest it on your legs it will cut off their blood supply. The meatiest part comes at the end, with the catalogue raisonne, listing all the works by Caravaggio, their history and current location (perfect for planning your Caravaggio centered travel). It has been enormously helpful at clearing up the confusion and anxiety that I feel every time I visit the Caravaggio wikipedia page, which always makes me go “That’s by Caravaggio?!” as I question that I know anything at all. Turns out many of the works listed on wikipedia are as I had suspected copies of lost originals by Caravaggio, but these copies have been sometimes said to be the real deal. Caravaggio has always been controversial, and his attributions are no different. Although Schutze takes a mostly neutral stance, his thoughts are implicit in the separation out of the merely attributed works. He carefully notes which particular scholars think a work is autograph, what the documents say, the provenance (aka the succession of owners), as well as some light connoisseurship. The works attributed to Caravaggio by other scholars generally range from possible, to unlikely, to what are you smoking, are you blind, really, really?!

Caravaggio's The Conversion of St. Paul

This brings me to my next subject, evaluating art historical information, which in view of competing attributions, can be quite difficult in figuring out who to trust. The biggest complicating factor is money, the market, and prestige. An attribution to a famous artist can be worth millions to a private collector or art dealer, for a museum it’s worth visitors and name recognition. Of course, art historians generally call it like they see it, and uphold a high standard of impartiality, as much as it pains collectors to get the bad news or museum to attach the dreaded “school of …” to their label. Reading through the Caravaggio catalogue it seems clear which scholars are consistently attributing works that subsequently are not accepted by the rest of the community. I do not mean to necessarily impugn these scholars as it is perfectly legitimate to have an expansive view of an artist’s oeuvre, but it shouldn’t be surprising either that these same authors are the most sought after for opinions on authenticity.

Caravaggio's Head of Medusa

The practical result is that the student of art history has to be extra careful to review all the scholarship (or at least a recent summation), and not rely on the one JSTOR article that says a work of art is the product of a particular artist. The relationship between the artist and the work is a foundation of art historical analysis, but for many works this identification is a theory not an axiom. A catalogue raisonne is an excellent source to check the reliability of an author or an attribution, and formulate your own conclusion on a work. When writing an analysis of a work of art, it is important to know if you are in safe territory and can proceed with certainty about the authorship of your subject, or whether you are on the outskirts of art historical consensus, and should certainly acknowledge the doubt as well as provide your own line of reasoning as to a work’s authenticity.

Hopefully this post was enlivened by my photographs of Caravaggio’s work, which since they are pretty securely attributed are irrelevant to the content.

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