Archive for September, 2008


Next time use Google

“they couldn’t find a Native artist who did formal portrait sittings like this.”

Earlier this year James V. Grimaldi reported in the Washington Post that W. Richard West Jr., the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, spent $48,500 in museum funds to commission a portrait of himself. Asides from the sensationalistic issue being made about the cost of the portrait (funny how reporters always try to minimize the value of the visual arts) what caught my eyes was this statement: Silverman, of Polish descent, was chosen, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, after “they couldn’t find a Native artist who did formal portrait sittings like this.”

“The portrait of West by New York artist Burton Silverman hangs in the patrons’ lounge on the fourth floor of the flagship museum, which is dedicated to the arts and culture of American Indians. Silverman said West picked him after he saw a portrait Silverman had done of former Smithsonian secretary Robert McCormick Adams. The Adams portrait, completed about a decade earlier, was smaller and cost about half as much.”




Are you pulling my leg?

I’m not even remotely an expert on Native American artists, but off the top of my head I can think of a couple of Washington, DC area and former DC area Native American artists who are (among other things) excellent portrait artists. One of them, Michael Clark has made a worlwide reputation for his obsessive portraiture of George Washington, and he has also done dozens and dozens of portraits of JFK, Jefferson, Jackie O and many, many portraits. He’s in the collection of a couple of DC area museums I believe.

His brother Mark (who I think used to work for the Smithsonian for God’s sakes) is also a superb artist, a brilliant trompe l’oeil painter and has done many hyper-realistic portraits as well!

They’re both of Native American descent.

But we all know by now that most DC area museum curators ignore their own backyard. But couldn’t one just pick up a phone and call some art galleries in Santa Fe or Sedona?

Or use the web? So just for fun let’s see if we can Google some Native American portrait painters:

Mike Larsen.

Johnny Lee.

Mary Anne Caibaiosai.

Karen Clarkson

Reno Moreno.

OK… some are better than others, but if in less that five minutes I can come up with half a dozen Native American artists who appear to be portrait artists, including one - Mike Larsen - a Chickasaw portrait artist who was named the 2006 Oklahoman of the Year!

Note to Kevin Gover, who took over as the Indian Museum’s director earlier this year: when it’s time for your portrait and you’re looking for a Native American portrait painter: call me!

Or learn to use Google.

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Video Didn’t Kill the Art Star

Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
Pictures came and broke your heart
Oh-a-a-a oh

Michael O’Sullivan’s eloquent review a few years ago in the Washington Post made a powerful point about art videos. Read it here.

 And when I first read it in 2005, it really brought out some thoughts and words out of me.

I have never hidden the fact that in my experience most art videos (which I have sometimes called artists’ home movies) leave me pretty ambivalent, especially as I try to view them as art, (rather than entertainment) next to a great painting or sculpture.

I love movies, and maybe that’s why my brain has such a hard time accepting most - not all - “art videos” as art, rather than “artists home movies.”

In the nearly 70 year history of artists’ home movies, I can probably count in one hand the number of them that I would even remotely consider them as something more than a low budget attempt at making a film, and most of those on that list start before the VCR was invented.

Is making a film the same as making a painting? or an etching? or a sculpture? I could argue that case on both sides, I think.

Nonetheless, it is a fact that most of the voices in the art world that count and weigh in a lot heavier than mine, do still view video (pun intended) as the leading edge for creativity in the modern dialogue of the visual arts (even though the genre is now in its 7th decade).

Witness the recent video overload in this Whitney Biennial list as the most recent evidence.

A history lesson for anyone born after 1980 or so: Before everyone had VCRs (already some folks have no idea what a VCR is!!) or DVD players in their homes, if you wanted to see a movie, you generally had to go to a movie theatre, and if you wanted porn or nudies, many American cities had a seedy neighborhood where porn theatres were concentrated - when I was a kid in Brooklyn, that seedy area was in and around Times Square in NYC.

And just like video killed the radio star in that song, it also killed seedy porn theatres all over the landscape but concurrently it gave the porn industry a huge new life that they had never hereto dreamed of!

It also gave them access to the privacy of the home as it eliminated the requirement to visit a seedy theatre in order to view a porn movie.

And as O’Sullivan intelligently deduced a few years ago, now the old news of Vlogging Revolution handed us all a brilliant opportunity to once and for all do for art videos what VCRs and DVDs did for the porn industry (in a sense), but in this case somewhat remove them from our galleries and museums and put them on the web, where we can watch them whenever and wherever we want!

This is a win-win situation for nearly all; except (I think) video, ahem… artists.

Not for us mossbacks, but it will open up gallery and museum space for other artsy stuff, whatever else “new art” may be lurking out there now disguised as technology (I predict some sort of hologram-type stuff).

I like whatever technology brings to art, but I don’t like it when critics and writers and art symbiots opine that technology erases other art genres when we enter the modern art dialogue.

And for art video aficionados, it will deliver an exponential growth in the genre, as millions of weekend arts and crafts projects now take to the web and populate millions of sites such as YouTube full of new videos.

Did I write “will”? How about “have delivered”!

And I think that as soon as your Aunt Elvira (I do have an aunt so named) sets aside her weekend watercolors and oils, and picks up the new family digital camera (now fully capable of recording movies) and starts making art movies by the millions, I can guarantee that curators will leave tire tracks on their way to find something “new” in art.

The allure of the “new” in art has been an interesting topic for discussion over at Thinking About Art, and I found the below comment by Lou Gagnon right on the point of the issue:

“Innovation, in technology, is important in that it offers ‘new’ tools and techniques. What is made with these new tools and techniques is typically derivative of what was made with the old tools. Most innovation is fueled by a desire to make an existing process more efficient.

Humans have been mixing pigment with fat to document the human condition for tens of thousands of years. The innovations of fresco, oil or acrylic are derivative improvements. Photography offered efficient alternatives to painting in the already established need to document contemporary life (events, people and places). Video offers alternatives to photography in that the linear format has the potential to distribute a more explicit narrative.

Efficiency and effectiveness are not the same. The limit to a tool’s effectiveness is in the imagination of the maker. In art, I believe effectiveness is measure by the power of a work to engage people. Does the engagement temporarily distract someone from his or her daily existence or does it shift his or her paradigms and actions? Work premised on technology will be irrelevant when the technology changes. Work premised on the human condition has the potential to be timeless. Have there been innovations in light, color or form? What about fear, love, desire, freedom or apathy?

The ‘new’ in art is that unique intimate engagement between an individual and his or her relationship with these larger issues. That fragile union between the ephemeral and the eternal is magic.”

Amen! Long live to video and long live to all the other genres of art!

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The Dynamics of Buying a Work of Art

After setting up hundreds of art shows in galleries over the years, and dealing with both novice and experienced collectors, I am sometimes still amused by the dynamics that go into the decision to buy (or more often than not pass) a piece of art.

And I have detected a pattern most easily seen at an art fair.

Put together a few thousand people, paying an entry fee to enter the fair, an assortment of dealers, and a huge diverse variety of offerings and it’s an education in people watching.

The married couple:
“Do you like it?”
“Yeah, I like it- it’s just what we’ve been looking for.”
“Where would we put it?”
“We have a couple of spots that it’d fit.”
“Do you really like it.”
“Yeah, how about you?”
“Yeah, I kinda of like it.”
“Should we get it?”
“If you want it.”

(five minutes later)
“Let’s think about it.”
[To me] “Do you have a business card?”

The couple (not married):
Her: “Do you like it?”
Him: “Sssoright”
Her: “Where would we put it?”
Him: “Dunno.”
Her: “Do you really like it.”
Him: “So’OK.. Yeah, how about you?”
Her: “Yeah, I kinda, sorta, really like it.”
Him: “Dunno though”
Her: “What? You don’t like it?”
Him: “If you want it.”
(five minutes later)
Him: “Let’s think about it.”
Her or Him: “OK” [To me] “Do you have a business card?”

The Single Woman (SW) with a Woman Friend:
SW: “WOW! Now, I really like this!”
Friend: “Yeah… it’s nice”
SW: “It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
Friend: “I have a friend who does work just like this…”
SW: “I am really drawn to it!”
Friend: “Are you really sure you like it?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… why? Don’t you like it?”
Friend: “Yeah… it’s OK”
SW: “I think it’s really good… I think it’s the first piece in this whole show that I really like.”
Friend: “There’s a few more booths we haven’t seen.”
SW: “I think I’m going to buy this.”
Friend: “Are you sure?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… It’s a good price too…. why? Don’t you like it?”
(five minutes later)
SW: “Do you have a business card?”

The Single Woman (SW) with a Man Friend:
SW: “WOW! Now, I really like this!”
Friend: “Yeah… Cool”
SW: “It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
Friend: “I think it’s a lithograph” [it's actually a charcoal]
SW: “I am really drawn to it!”
Friend: “Are you really sure you like it?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… why? Don’t you like it?”
Friend: “I have something like it… I got it cheaper though…”
SW: “I think it’s really good… I think it’s the first piece in this whole show that I really like.”
Friend: “You like lithographs?”
SW: “I think I’m going to buy this.”
Friend: “Are you sure?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… It’s a good price too…. why? Don’t you like it?”
(five minutes later)
SW: “Do you have a business card?”

The Single Focus Dream Buyer:
[Walks straight up to one piece, never looks at the rest of the work in your booth]
“I’ll take this”
[Me] “Thank you… it’s a very striking charcoal drawing - will be that be a check or charge?”
[Me] “I can send you more information on this artist…”
“That will be great - I love this work - it’s exactly what I’m interested in!”
[Me] “I have a few more pieces here, would you like to see them?”
“No, thanks…”

The “I’m glad you’re here guy (IGYHG)”:
IGYHG: “Hey! I’ve been looking for you!”
[Me]: “Hi, how are you?”
IGYHG: “… been walking this whole fair looking for you!”
[Me]: “Yeah… lots of dealers this year… glad you found us!”
IGYHG: “Howsa been goin’?”
[Me]: “Yes… quite good actually…”
IGYHG: “Well, let me look at what you’ve got!”
[three minutes later]
IGYHG: “Well… I’m glad you’re here… see ya next year!”

The “I Shudda Bought It Last Year Guy (Shudda)”:
Shudda: “Hey! You’re here again!”
[Me]: “Hi, how are you? Yeah… It’s our 7th year here…”
Shudda: “… been walking this whole fair looking for you!”
[Me]: “Yeah… lots of dealers this year… glad you found us!”
Shudda: “Howsa been goin’?”
[Me]: “Yes… quite good actually…”
Shudda: “Well, let me look at what you’ve got!”
[three minutes later]
Shudda: “Where’s that really good watercolor of the fill-in-the-blank?”
[Me]: “Uh… I sold it last year - but I have a few more pieces by that artist.”
Shudda: “Ah! - I really wanted that one! Do you have another one?”
[Me]: “Well, no… it was an original watercolor, and I sold it; but I have —”
Shudda: “I really wanted that piece; and it was a good price too…”
[Me]: “Maybe you’d like some of his new work…”
Shudda: “I shudda bought it last year”
[Walks away]
Shudda: “You gonna be here next year?”

The “Where’s That Piece Guy (WTP)”:
WTP: “Hey! You’re here again!”
[Me]: “Hi, how are you? Yeah… It’s our 7th year here…”
WTP: “… been walking this whole fair specifically looking for you!”
[Me]: “Yeah… lots of dealers this year… glad you found us!”
WTP: “Howsa been goin’?”
[Me]: “Yes… quite good actually…”
WTP: “OK… last year I saw this piece… it was a fill-in-the-bank and I should have bought it then! “
[Me]: “Yeah… that is a nice piece.”
WTP: “I’ve been thinking about it for a whole year”
[Looks around the booth and doesn't see it]
WTP: “Do you still have it?”
[From here there are two paths...]
Path One -
[Me]: “Uh… I sold it last year - but I have a few more pieces by that artist.”
WTP: “Ah! - I really wanted that one! Do you have another one?”
[Me]: “Well, no… it was an original watercolor, and I sold it; but I have —”
WTP: “I really wanted that piece; and it was a good price too…”
[Me]: “Maybe you’d like some of his new work…”
WTP: “I shudda bought it last year”
[Walks away]
WTP: “You gonna be here next year?”
Path Two
[Me]: “Let me get it for you… I have it in the back!”
WTP: “Great”
[I bring it out and give to WTP]
WTP: “Yeah this is it! It’s great!”
[Me]: “This artist has done really well this last year and —”
WTP: [Handing it back] “Excellent! I’m glad you still have it… until what time are you going to be here?”

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Why isn’t Diebenkorn (or Neel) famous?

Terry Teachout, writing in the Wall Street Journal discusses one of my favorite pet peeve issues:

“Consider the case of Richard Diebenkorn, whose paintings are passionately admired by countless collectors and connoisseurs of modern art, not a few of whom place him close to the top of the short list of America’s greatest artists. But Diebenkorn, who died in 1993, has never quite made it into the pantheon of American modernism. MoMA owns a half-dozen of his paintings and works on paper, all of them first-rate. And how many are hanging there today? Not a one.

Why isn’t Diebenkorn famous? Because his work doesn’t fit into the standard narrative that many critics, scholars and museum curators use to explain the history of 20th-century art. For openers, he was a West Coast artist who spent most of his adult life in California when New York was universally regarded as the creative center of American art. And though he started out painting boldly colored Abstract Expressionist canvases that made perfect sense to the critics of the early ’50s, he took a sharp turn off the smooth road of history in 1955 and returned to figurative painting, producing an even more remarkable series of portraits, still lifes and suburban cityscapes.”

My pet peeve is not Diebenkorn’s lack of fame, although I agree 100% with Teachout in his case, but the underlaying point to his article.

His point is that the “accepted” art historical narrative, which is the only narrative taught to young minds in our schools, promulgated through art history books and enforced tenaciously by most curators and art critics, is spectacularly wrong!

Teachout drives a ferocious key issue home when he writes that:

‘The trouble with these narratives is that they’re dreamed up by theorists so eager to explain the world around them that they sometimes fail to pay attention to it. Such explanations cannot be cobbled together without tossing a lot of “unnecessary” spare parts into the dustbin of inevitability.’

It’s easy to find a dozen  Diebenkornian artists who don’t fit the accepted “art narrative” and just as easy for the galvanized “art narrators” to come up with heavy handed art words explaining the holes.

Alice Neel by Lida Moser
“Alice Neel in her New York City apartment” by Lida Moser

Teachout clearly and efficiently uses Diebenkorn as an example. In my mind Alice Neel is another brilliant example of someone who didn’t fit the narrative, and whose eventual success (according to her very good friend Lida Moser) was resented by many of her contemporaries, who didn’t want a representational female artist getting in the middle of the art narrative.

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Postmortem on an Ad Reinhardt Painting

Working horzontally, Reinhard brushed and rebrushed the surface to remove all traces of the stroke. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

 Ad Reinhardt in his New York Studio in the 1960s.  The artist worked flat, brushing and rebrushing the surface to remove all traces of the stroke. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


Ad Reinhardt was a New York painter of the mid-20th Century (born 1913; died 1967), who started as an abstract expressionist and ended up a minimalist. In a slow progression away from color and image, he distilled his work to a series of black paintings.  On the face of it, they are pictures of nothing, these big black canvases. Viewed close up and in person, they reward the serious viewer with subtle geometries, squares and rectangles, in a range of velvety black hues from red to green.


 Abstract Painting, 1960-1966, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum. It’s impossible to appreciate the subtleties of a Reinhardt painting on line or in print. Still, look carefully and you can see a nine-block cross and variations in value, if not in hue


We know that Reinhardt removed as much of the oil from his paint as was possible while still having it bind the pigment. The result was a powdery-looking surface that absorbed light. Slight intended variations in the amount of medium rendered differing degrees of matte. Reinhardt didn’t varnish these surfaces as that would have effectively pulled a curtain over the subtleties he worked so hard to achieve.

When viewing a Reinhardt black painting, the lighting must be right—which is not always the case, even at galleries and museums—otherwise shadows or hot spots obscure the nuances.  And you need to give your eyes sufficient time to become accustomed to the ambient lighting in order to focus on the dark image in front of you. Only then will it reveal its texture and chromatic richness.

So what happens when the surface of the work is scuffed, scraped or marred? It’s a jolt. That velvety expanse which so slowly rewards you with its color and ever-so-subtle surface becomes like a record with the needle stuck—remember those?— so that all you see is the hiccup of imperfection on the surface.

When he was alive, Reinhardt was known to repaint the surface himself  if  it returned damaged from an exhibition. He even made himself available to the institution or collector who acquired a work of his. This was not an archival or esthetic problem, as the materials and methods were his own and he was working in service to the integrity of the painting he had made. After his death, however, overzealous conservation may have made a bad situation worse. In some instances, cleaning a scuff has made larger areas of scuff. Some reckless conservators have “touched up” the surface, and in at least one instance,  they have virtually repainted the painting in their care. That would make it not a Reinhardt at all.

AXA, an art insurance comany, donated just such a damaged painting in 2000 to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Deemed irreparable after having its surface “restored” by spray painting (!),  Black Painting (1960-1966) became an object for study. In Imageless: the Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting, an exhibition on view until September 14 at the Guggenheim, you can see how the conservation department examined the painting. Working with the Museum of Modern Art and state-of-the-art laser centers on Crete and in the Netherlands, the Guggenheim’s chief conservator, Carol Stringari, and her staff carried out a complete physical examination of the painting with a series of experiments to see what had been done. (Stringari is probably the foremost expert on the conservation of Reinhardts, having worked on a Reinhardt exhibition held earlier at the Museum of Modern Art.)


Cross sections from nine parts of the Reinhardt painting, overexposed so that the black underlayers are clearly visible. Magnification is 280x. The topography includes a base of Reinhardt’s powdery pigment with various layers atop. Some may have been painted by the artist himself, but a top skin of acrylic paint, sprayed to “return” the painting to its once-pristine condition, caused irreparable damage to the work. (In the exhibition’s accompanying video, there are some scenes showing the conservators literally peeling off the acrylic after treatment by a laser–but the painting has been too damaged in other ways for the acrylic-removal to bring the painting back to “life”). Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


The idea was not to resuscitate the painting but to understand why and how it had died. Viewing the accompanying video was a bit like watching a crime scene show on TV.   Using scanning electron microscopes and spectrography, Stringari and her team were able to to identify the damage and restoration layers above the surface of the original painting. For starters, they confirmed what they’d suspected: that there was a layer of acrylic paint on the surface and that it had been sprayed on. Under the electron microscope–see the grid of images above–this application shows up as a film of plastic over Reinhardt’s powdery oil-based surface. Subsequent treatment with lasers allowed Stringari and her team to understand how to remove some of those non-Reinhardt layers.

 The point of this project was not to save the painting but to understand what \

This is a view of the painting under ultraviolet light. In any “forensic” study, the subject is viewed under different light and conditions. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


So why is this study important? For one thing, the forensic examination created a dossier of information about Reinhardt’s working methods and of the techniques used to “restore” the painting. The team learned what works and what doesn’t in terms of cleaning the surface of a Reinhardt painting. Laser equipment developed decades after the painting was made uncovered the mysteries of its making. The lessons and methods acquired will be useful not only in the conservation of other Reinhardts, but in any monochromatic work where even a small break in the purity of the field creates an enormous visual obstacle.


Carol Stringari, Chief Conservator at the Guggenheim Museum, who conceived and oversaw this project. Notice the cleanliness of her workroom? Image courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum


In an adjacent side gallery several Reinhardt paintings in pristine condition are on view.  This is an essential counterpart to the clinical nature of Stringari’s forensic work. Here in the  chapel-like viewing room with a platform for sitting, you have a chance to meditate on the work itself. This exhibition, up through September 14,  was organized by Carol Stringari, Chief Conservator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in collaboration with the Sackler Center for Arts Education.

. . . . . . . . . .

Should you miss the exhibition, here are some good links for more information:

. From Art, Carol Stringari on Exhibiting a Reinhardt “Cadaver” by Robert Ayers. This is an excellent Q&A with the chief conservator.

. From Art in America, Damaged Reinhardt to Serve as Guinea Pig by David Ebony. From the June 2001 issue of AiA, this brief article makes note of the project at its inception.

. From the New York Times, Tall, Dark and Fragile by Holland Cotter. This article is accompanied by a slide show of images.

If you’re in New York City:

. The Guggenheim Museum has a collection of Reinhardt paintings. You should inquire if they will be on exhibition.

. Reinhardt paintings are on view at the Museum of Modern Art  

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My Favorite Painting in Washington, DC

Watson and the Shark
Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley at the National Gallery of Art.

This spectacular painting seeks to depict an event that took place in Havana, Cuba, in 1749.

The naked guy in the water is fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, who was attacked by a shark while swimming alone in Havana harbor. Lucky for Watson, some of his mates were already at sea waiting to escort their captain ashore, and were able to fight the shark and rescue Watson, although the shark bit one of his legs off.

On his return to England, he got his fifteen minutes of fame and Copley painted this work.

If you study the painting carefully, you will realize that Copley probably had never seen a shark in his life, and his depiction of the great white in Havana harbor yields one of the most ungainly and ugliest non-sharks fish things ever painted.

I love to sit in front of this painting and watch people as they walk by and get mesmerized by the brutal event taking place and kids making fun of the shark.

What is your favorite work of art? Not just DC, but from wherever you [reader] hail from? Leave your favorite in the comments.

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