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 Info.com, 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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The Trawick Prize

In 2002, the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District, a non-profit organization in that Maryland city created The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, a juried art competition awarding $14,000 in prize monies to contemporary artists in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.

The founder, Carol Trawick, is committed to honoring contemporary visual artists with this award. Concerned because in the first few years of the Prize painters were being ignored by the jurors, Ms. Trawick three years into the Prize generously made the same commitment to area painters by creating a separate Bethesda Painting Awards(also funded by Ms. Trawick).

I cannot say enough good things about Ms. Trawick and the fact that in an area dominated by some of the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world, it has been a small business owner who has taken the challenge of ponying up a considerable annual cash prize to recognize an area artist and hopefully place the region on the national fine arts map, is the kind of act that makes one feel good about the generosity of individuals.

Over the years the Trawick Prize has gained momentum and recognition as the top contemporary art prize in the Greater Washington DC region, and some of the area’s premier curators have served as jurors.

In 2004 David Page of Baltimore, MD was the Best in Show winner of $10,000. The next year, Jiha Moon, then of Annandale, Virginia and now residing in Atlanta, Georgia won the top prize. In 2006 James Rieck of Baltimore, Maryland won top honors and last year Jo Smail from Baltimore, won top honors.

Last night I dropped in to Heineman-Myers Contemporary Art in Bethesda (where the show will he held this year) to get a preview and an early first look at the fifteen artists who have been selected as finalists for the 2008 Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards.

The work of these 15 finalists will be on display from September 3 – September 27 and the prize winners will be announced and honored on Wednesday, September 3rd at a special press event held at the gallery. As it is the norm, the Best in Show winner will be awarded $10,000; second place will be honored with $2,000 and third place will be awarded $1,000. A “Young Artist” whose birth date is after April 11, 1978 will also be awarded $1,000.

The entries were juried by Molly Donovan, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art; Irene Hofmann, Executive Director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, MD and Leah Stoddard, former Director of Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville, VA.

Depending on who amongst those three jurors is the “leader of the pack” or the guiding hand for the other, will determine who will win the prize. Five will get you ten that the DC area artists in this show were muscled in by Donovan, Baltimore’s by Hoffman and so on. I’ve been on many “art-by-committee” panels and know how they work. As Jose Marti wrote: “I know the monster well, for I have lived in its entrails.”

This is why it is important for artists to ensure that they are known and their work visible, to their local area curators.

This particular jury committee did a really good job in selecting the 15 finalists. The exhibition is among the best Trawick Prize finalists exhibitions, and it is an crucial mix of art and conceptual ideas, a little play on kitsch themes by a couple of intelligent artists and even a touch of what’s trendy and slicky in the macro art world today.

If Donovan is the leading voice in the jury panel, then I believe that well-known DC artist Maggie Michael will be the winner. I have seen loads of her work and even curated some into past exhibitions. Her entry into this competition is by far the most complex and interesting work of hers that I have seen to date. In the gallery piece by Michael, she has combined all of her previous elements of poured paint, then she peels some of the layers back and nail some of them, with an interesting distressing of the substrate by drilling a big hole in the center and also by adding a graffiti like spraying on the background. I could be off slightly in my guess and Donovan may lead the prize to Maggie’s talented husband, Dan Steinhilber.

If Hoffman is the leader in the panel, then all roads lead to Baltimore’s Tony Shore, whose dark brooding works on black velvet play off a working man’s view of art as an intelligent and creative play on elevating a kitsch substrate to a high art level; the working class’ artist as hero is what Shore is all about.

If Stoddard has the leading voice in the panel, then the prize goes to my good friend and talented artist and blogger from Charlottesville, Virginia Warren Craghead III.

After visiting the show, and after considering in depth the work that I saw, here’s how I would give prizes in this show:
By Joseph Barbaccia
I would give a very good look and consideration to the shiny, elegant and very sexy forms by Joseph Barbaccia, slowly but surely becoming one of the nation’s capital area iconic sculptors. What Barbaccia does to contemporary sculpture is a three dimensional version of what Shore does to painting. They are both using kitsch elements and substrates of the contemporary world to create smart and intelligent works of modern art. Barbaccia’s spectacularly gaudy “Every Man’s Dream” is a glorious achievement of color and sequins and shininess and it is certainly worth of a very close look for the top prize and perhaps setting this artist’s career on an upswing.

Washington’s Molly Springfield is not only one of the nicest persons that you’ll ever meet, but also one of the most amazing talents in the DC area’s art scene, and her technical work is so superbly perfect that we fixate on its tiny imperfections to reassure ourselves of its creation by hand rather than machine. But she goes beyond that and marries her graphite drawings with interesting ideas, concepts and clues about her own sense of growing up and becoming an adult.
Art by Molly Springfield
Molly, at one time or another, has been on almost every finalist’s list for almost every prize in the area for the last few years, and it’s probably due to strike soon.
Painting by Heide Trepanier
Although I am not familiar with Heide Trepanier’s work, there’s something powerful and exciting about the piece illustrated here, which although tends to remind me a little of some earlier Maggie Michael, nonetheless leaps from it in the way that Trepanier has isolated the paint with lines to almost reveal to us Boschian figures and animals and aliens in her work.

My prizewinners would be:

Best in Show: Molly Springfield
Second Place: Joseph Barbaccia
Third Place: Tony Shore

A public reception will be held on Friday, September 12, 2008 from 6-9pm in conjunction with the Bethesda Art Walk. This is easily the best art show in DC this month - don’t miss it!

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Tale of a Lost Leger

It’s a tragic story, one that institutions everywhere should heed now that remodeling, renovation and rebuilding seem to be a nationwide phenomenon.

According to WCVB’s website, Wellesley College seems to have lost a painting by Fernand Leger.

Here’s how this unfortunate event appears to have unfolded:

Painted in 1921, “Woman and Child” had been on loan to an exhibit at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. When it was returned to Wellesley, the college’s museum was in the midst of a construction project. So the crate sat around someplace, apparently. The sense one gets from the article is that it was just chucked in a corner, more or less. I realize that sounds harsh, but so, to all of us, is the loss of an artwork by an acknowledged master.

Finally, with construction complete, it came time to assess where things were. And no one knew where the Leger was. Talk is that it might even have been thrown away with a bunch of similar, empty crates.

Ladies and gents, the facts are clear: had this multi-million-dollar treasure of an artwork been stored in a high-tech art storage facility such as Mind’s Eye, it would continue to bring pleasure and inspiration to future generations. And at what cost, anything even remotely comparable to the loss sustained by Wellesley College? I think not.

As these museum reconstruction programs continue, I hope that those in charge are giving serious consideration to the temporary storage of their works of art. This is no task for interns or do-it-yourselfers.

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Pricing Artwork

Recently I had an interesting email exchange with a very well-known artist, whose work I have sold (in my capacity as an art dealer and gallerist) many times in the past, including to American and Latin American museums.

She was giving me prices for her new work, and checking up with me (and all her other dealers I assume), because she had noticed that some galleries were selling a particular limited edition etching for “$3,000 each, when the gallery price should be $5,000.”

I’ve never seen this work listed for under $5,000, but I digress.

She affirmed that the gallery price for that particular work was $5,000 and that only she could sell her own work in her own studio for $3,000.


This is a harsh lesson that most artists need to learn very quickly: An artist cannot afford to compete with him/herself when it comes to prices.

Nearly all emerging artists, when first dealing with a gallery encounter the business fact that a gallery has to make a commission from the artist’s work in order to make ends meet as a business. The first reaction of the artist is sometimes to “bump” the price to meet the gallery’s commission.

No good!

The exact same editioned work can’t be sold for $1000 in DC, for $4000 in London, for $800 in Brazil and for $500 bucks in your studio. The same size painting cannot wonder all over the price scale depending where it’s being sold.

See what that does?

1. It can damage the reputation of a dealer. Imagine the collector who pays $1,000 in London and then he sees the same work for $500 elsewhere? The immediate reaction is “that dealer ripped me off,” not realizing that the artist is the one who is ripping everyone off by creating price confusion and trying to pass the gallery commission off to the collector. A good artist and gallery relationship is a symbiotic one, not a money struggle.

2. It will damage the reputation of the artist and will always bring the “real” price of the work down to the lowest price, when the idea is for art dealers and artists to work together to raise demand and thus prices; not have prices wondering all over the scale.

This is very different from the secondary art market, where auction prices can wonder wildly all over the place.

But artists must be consistent in their pricing and accept the fact that if they are going to work with an art gallery or art dealer or both, then they can’t have them competing with each other and also with the artist, because a good art dealer’s job is to protect both the artist and the collector.

Of course there are nuances to this process… both dealers and artists should have a specified leeway to give collector’s discounts to ahhh… collectors, and also offer discounts to multiple buys when someone buys several works at once.

But not discount your own work by 50% just because it is being sold out of your studio.

That just drags your prices down and will cause your art dealer to scold and educate you, or even drop you.

Of course, like some artists that I know, if you do not need an art dealer and can sell your own work all the time, then — since you are the only one selling it — you control prices and can do whatever you want, and hopefully won’t be having art “sales” where you’ll be “discounting” the work that you sold to collectors a week earlier for a specific price, to a much lower price.

It’s a little complicated at first, but once you truly examine the issue, then it should be clear to see that the idea and goal is to expose your artwork, get it seen, commented upon and — if that’s your goal — sold for a fair and reasonable price, and letting the laws of economics take it to where it should be.

But definitely not under the “blue light special” of your own studio.

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“Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today” at the Peabody Essex Museum

Maori Tattoo Today\

Banner for the exhibition “Body Politics” at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts

Salem, MassachusettsTo look at the face of an elderly person in any culture is to see their history. Assuming they haven’t been Botoxed or lifted, every wrinkle, every line is part of the narrative—hard living etched into place, overindulgence gently plumping out the creases, and gravity, over time distending cheeks and jowls.  The mostly youthful faces of the Maori shown in the photographic exhibit,  “Body Politics,” at the Peabody Essex Museum here, contain more than personal history. They are writ large with the symbols and messages of their culture.  

Writ, as in inked.  Inked as in tattooed.


Lauren (Piata) Heenan: “My moko is the moko of a woman proud to be a wahine.”


To be honest, it’s a shock to see.  A filigree in blue black ink is like a curtain over facial muscles. Is that a grimace…or the ink? How do I match up what’s in the eyes to what’s on the skin? These faces are fierce!  But I’m imposing my New England-bred, New York City-honed identity on people who have an entirely different life and culture. (Yes, of course I’ve seen plenty of tattoos, but on the face, not so much. And certainly not with such an urgent sense of  culture and self.)  The decision to receive moko, to be tattooed with the symbols and stories of their culture—indeed, to receive the specific patterns of their familial ancestors—is not just personal among the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. One’s entire family and iwi (tribe) are involved. Permission must be granted from the elders, a design drawn up and accepted.

Moko is not new.  For hundreds of years it has been part of the culture. Organic spiraling designs feature fernlike shapes that symbolize new growth as well as ancestral roots. Each design, customized so that its whorls and eddies fit the contours of its wearer’s face, is unique as a distinct record of whakapapa (genealogy), whenua (land), and personal accomplishments. New Zealand has been under British rule since 1840, according to the wall text, and in 1907 the colonial government banned Moko and denied Maori access to their language, land, and beliefs. Gangs revived the tattooing initially, not so much with tribal patterns but with words like “Mongrel” and “Outlaw”  to assert their independence over authority. That rebellious spirit pervaded the larger culture, and regular folks took the ink.

“The revival of Moko for many of us is really exercising our rangatiratanga—our fundamental right to exist,” says Tame Wairere Iti, whose image is on the banner I photographed in front of the museum (top). He is a robust man with shoulder-length hair, ink-blackened lips, and a frond-like facial pattern that swoops down to the chin and up to the forehead from a starting point on the bridge of his nose.  An accompanying video shows him as the host of a Maori language radio program and identifies him as a Maori Cultural Advocate.

Maori culture not a closed loop. Contemporary wearers of moko live contemporary lives. While the patterns typically come from or are inspired by one’s ancestors, their wearers are attired in fleece sportswear and Nike logos, and there is at least one groups of practicing Rastafarians with dreadlocks to accompany their moko.

Photographer Hans Neleman has documented some of this revival. The Dutch-born, New York-based photographer visited New Zealand in 1997 and was inspired to record the faces of  the people he saw. Receiving permission from the Maori elders after agreeing to work within their cultural parameters, he returned the following year with an 8×10 camera and a crew of three to travel the country, “capturing the renaissance of ta moko,” he says. His sitters approved their images, and each shared something of her or his story, which accompanies their large-format photograph in the exhibition.


  Piri (Dave) Iti

“I am the only member of the New Zealand Army to wear a full face moko,” says Piri (Dave) Iti, who sought the approval of his wife and family before taking the moko. He is photographed in his uniform.


Kimiora Ereatara Hohua

“The bottom of the design represents my mountains, the sides my whakapapa, the curls at my lip my children, and the top spirals each side of my family,” says  Kimiora Ereatara Hohua, whose chin moko is complemented by larger tattoos on her upper arm and thigh. Women’s moko tends to involve the chin rather than the entire face, though some women are additionally tattooed on the forehead.


  Dion Hutana

And the gang members? For some, moko has changed their lives. Dion Hutana, photographed in a suit, says, “Originally I put the moko on as part of the gang experience. Then it changed with my life. Now I’ve got no choice but to speak the body language.”  

That body language typically means, says one sitter, ethnic pride and  “a healthy context for my body: no drink, no smoke, no drugs.”

The exhibition consists of large-format color photographs installed in the museum’s photography gallery, a second-floor wraparound balcony overlooking a collection of Colonial American objects. It’s an effective exhibition space. A wide perimeter encourages both intimate looking and step-back views while affording wider vistas of the exhibition across the balustraded opening.

After my initial apprehension, I enjoyed reading the faces and the snippets of story that accompanied them. But the photographic style is just a little too reminiscent of the Gap ads from that period. I guess this is what happens when a commercial photographer ventures into territory that embraces sociology, portraiture and fine art. Still, if you’re in the area, go see the exhibition. (Just don’t go in late October, when the area around the museum turns into a Halloween horror show).

“Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today,” organized by Karen Kramer Russell, PEM curator of Native American Art, will be up through February 1, 2009.

Photographs (except top image) by Hans Neleman, courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum 

. . . . . . . . .

Museum postscript:  Founded in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum is the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States. It began as the East India Marine Society, when Salem was one of the largest trading ports in the country. Its members, Salem-based sea captains, returned from their Asiatic voyages with objects to establish the collection, which also consisted of objects and artifacts of Native America and New England marine history.

The soaring lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum

The lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum

If you visit Boston, drive up to Salem—or take the commuter line from North Station (about 30 minutes), which will bring you to within a short walking distance of the museum. Recently renovated by architect Moshe Sadfie, it boasts a new lobby whose soaring spaces and strong curves are reminiscent of the sailing ships that brought back the early acquisitions. If you are an architecture buff, the museum contains the 200-year-old Yin Yu Tang House, recently installed after a piece-by-piece dismantling in China (the video is informative and quite moving); as well as three nearby properties: Salem homes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  And if the weather is nice, walk Derby Wharf, a half-mile jetty that runs straight into the hah-bah (you know, where the boats are) where a recreation of the 18th Century “Friendship,” a three-masted schooner, is docked.

Speaking of pronunciations, you’ll be marked as a tourist for sure if you pronounce Peabody as pee-body. Everyone in these parts call it pee-b’dy.

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Art versus the Olympics — a losing competition?

This is from a Wikipedia entry, so take it for what it’s worth:

Art competitions formed part of the modern Olympic Games during its early years, from 1912 to 1948. The competitions were part of the original intention of the Olympic Movement’s founder, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. Medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport, divided into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

The art competitions were abandoned in 1954 because artists were contended to be professionals, while Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs. Since 1956, the Olympic cultural program has taken their place.

Art competitions turn my stomach, truth be told. I don’t care whether it’s kids’ work or juried shows. It seems ignorant to me to treat artworks like Holsteins at the county fair. “Well, Bob, Glenridge Thunder’s got great head carriage, wrecking-ball testicles and a topline you could split wood on, but I watched him walk into the ring, and — bad news — he’s sickle-hocked. Sorry, Son. Maybe next year.”

In a short paper (pdf), Beatriz Garcia, a doctoral student at the Center for Olympic Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona — yes, with all the world’s other problems solved, the A.U. of B. has gone on to tackle the desperate issues presented by the Olympics –  tells us about a clause in the Olympic host city contract that requires the production of an Olympic Cultural Program. But this provides little reassurance to that city’s arts organizations, which will now be competing for the attention the visiting hoards will lavish on the Games.

Ms. Garcia goes on to inform us in another, more-detailed paper on the subject (pdf), that Olympic Cultural Programs are wildly inconsistent from city to city, lasting from three weeks to, in some cases, four years. And here’s the kicker: proposals for cultural programs that were presented by cities during the bidding stage are often not followed through on once a city has been selected. There’s no mechanism in place to enforce promises made during bidding, apparently.

Funding for Olympic Cultural Programs is spotty at best. This makes sense, even if I wish it didn’t, considering that they compete for (incredibly exhorbitant) investment resources with the games themselves.

Perhaps the arts have only themselves to blame if people are apparently more interested in seeing the Torch Relay than in attending a show of Olympics-inspired artwork.

But that could be some seriously funny artwork. Let’s take a fantasy-walk through just such an exhibition, shall we?

John Currin’s stretched-out Neo-Mannerist women, cackling wildly while snapping their backs on the uneven bars.

Picture an Olympics-inspired Richard Serra — thick rectangular mega-tons of steel to suggest the airy flight of a gymnast.

“Tara Donovan’s installation, Mound, consisiting of ten million jock straps arranged into a forty-foot heap, suggests the myriad ways in which our male-dominated culture flaunts its testosterone-fueled fantasies while absolving itself of all responsibility.”

Here’s an Olympics-inspired Damien Hirst: a kangaroo split down the middle, posed in full running extension in a tank of formaldehyde.

Murakami could make giant fiberglass statues of his body-fluid-squirting boy and girl engaged in a competition for distance and accuracy. Perhaps they could be directed at a Bill Viola video of swimmers in ultra-slow-motion.

Maybe the host city’s museums win during the Olympics, and maybe their arts districts get extra visitors, too, and we should all be happy for that. But as far as the Olympic Cultural Program, Ms. Garcia makes it sound like an afterthought at best.

And really, artists of all stripes out there, when have you ever benefited from what the jocks are doing? Didn’t we always eat on opposite sides of the cafeteria?

But I could have it all wrong. If I ever visit a host city during the Olympics — which, incidentally, would be the perfect reason for me to stay as far away as possible — perhaps I’ll find that it’s become a worldwide nexus for the arts, with musicians on every street corner, theatre troupes performing in every park, and art installations on the water, in the air, and spilling out of every enclosed space.

Incidentally, if you’re in Beijing right now and you’re reading this, first, check behind you; I think you’re about to be arrested. But if there’s time before they slap the cuffs on you, I’d be interested in hearing about the Beijing Olympic Cultural Program.

Until I hear more about the Olympic Cultural Programs in Beijing and previous host cities, I’ll have to be content merely to marvel at a world that supports a Center for the Study of the Olympics, while no nation on Earth is apparently wealthy enough to feed a small island whose people are so destitute that their children are forced to eat mud.

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