Black Refractions

Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem

History of Application: Talking to You, 1977, McArthur Binion (detail below)

One reason we look at art is to see ourselves reflected; I know that place, we say, that light, that joy or pain, that’s part of who I am. It’s reassuring, that affirmation that we’re not alone. Art is also revelation, showing us what we don’t know about ourselves and the lives of others.

Since the murder of George Floyd and the international protests, I’ve been thinking about Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem, a traveling exhibition I saw at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) in Northampton, Massachusetts, this winter, and its power to reflect and provoke reflection, as in “consideration,” as in “light returned from a surface.”

Nwantinti, 2012, Njideka Akkunyili Crosby

Black Refractions spans a near century of art-making by nearly 100 artists of African descent, with Bill Traylor, born in 1853, at one end of the spectrum and Jordan Casteel, born in 1989, at the other. It has a star-studded lineup: Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Aboud Bey, Mark Bradford, Juliana Huxtable, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, Faith Ringgold, Bettye Saar, Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Ann Weems, Kehinde Wiley, Fred Wilson …

Spirit of the Elements, 1979, Betye Saar
Echoes of Harlem, (detail) 1980, Faith Ringgold

… And one international in scope, featuring artists from or working in Africa, China, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean as well as the United States.

Untitled, diptych from Afro Muses series, 1995-2005, Chris Ofili, living in Trinidad and Tobago

Previously hosted by The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, it was scheduled to make two more stops after leaving SCMA in April. The show closed early because of the pandemic and is scheduled to open in May 2021 at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

Festive Vista, 1980, Hughie Lee-Smith

Beautiful, inspiring, stimulating, it’s not the kind of show where you kick off your critical faculties and take everything in from the aesthetic equivalent of an overstuffed chair.

With some exhibitions, you can dive deep or drift. That might mean taking a show of Constable’s admittedly superb, revelatory landscapes, for instance, at face value, treating it as a day at the beach, a vacation from your own troubles and what the poet Matthew Arnold called “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery.” It might even deliver a dose of hope that the world is better than it seems, a “land of dreams,” to quote Arnold again.

Space, 1966, Alma Thomas

Beauty, nourishment, hope, an escape route to dreamland: All that can be found in Black Refractions, but also sorrow, struggle, pain, and dislocation. It’s not easy being face to face with harsh realities, but more than ever, it feels essential. And because the show presents the sensibilities of so many artists, it also manifests resilience, strength, assertion, courage, resistance, and transcendence.

Black Wall Street, 2008, Noah Davis
Lawdy Mama, 1969, Barkley L. Hendricks (next to two Betye Saar works)

Purists might argue that art should be viewed and have an impact without the viewer knowing the artist’s life story. I’m not a purist. I was moved by the stories of people who, against seemingly overwhelming odds, made extraordinary art, Clementine Hunter and Bill Traylor, for example. I wanted to know more about Elizabeth Catlett, James VanDerZee, and others (See the brief bios and links to more information at the end of this post.) I’m not immune to star power, either, as exemplified by 33-year-old Juliana Huxtable, who already has exhibited at MoMA, New Museum, and the Whitney.

Untitled (Man Dying), 1940-45, Clementine Hunter
Untitled (Dog), tempera on cardboard, n.d., Bill Traylor
The Midnight Ramblers, 1925, James VanDerZee

Mother and Child, 1993, Elizabeth Catlett

Anyone who skipped reading the wall labels would still feel the strong narrative pull of, among others, River, Maren Hassinger’s snaking sculpture of chain and rope, Mickalene Thomas’s rhinestone-encrusted Panthera, and Kehinde Wiley’s Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), a portrait of a man standing amid the floating clouds of his hair.

These and other works can be seen as investigations into history, stereotypes, and social constructs and values but also into the natural world, the nature of painting, and the nature of portraiture.

Portrait of a Young Musician, 1970 Beauford Delaney

In other works, formal considerations seem to be what interested the artist, but that generalization may or may not hold when you take a closer look.

Number 74, Leonardo Drew

If there is a generalization to be made about Black Refractions, (and I know I’ve made some and will make a few more before I’m through), it might be that generalizations don’t do it justice. Quite the contrary, in fact. Take the idea of “black art,” for instance.

In the exhibition catalog, Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden states, “For me, to approach a conversation about ‘black art’ ultimately meant embracing and rejecting the notion of such a thing at the very same time.”

Khee I, 1978, Jack Whitten

So many of the artists represented in the show have come up against institutionalized ideas about what Art is and who can make it.

A related question: What should art do? To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, should it be a mirror held up to reality or a hammer to shape it? (Brecht came down on the side of “hammer.”)

The Room, 1949, Eldzier Cortor, the first painting in the museum collection

The Studio Museum in Harlem started out as a hammer, or maybe an artist’s mallet, an instrument to carve a new vision out of obdurate materials. As Columbia art history professor Dr. Kellie Jones explains in the catalog, the museum was founded as “a place to support artists of the African diaspora, who, throughout history had been largely shut out of exhibition and commercial opportunities … during a time of unbridled protest in the world of culture.”

That would be 1968, a time fraught with protest. The civil rights, antiwar, women’s, and environmental movements were all taking to the streets. Activism and advocacy, a desire to alter present reality and rewrite art history, have shaped The Studio Museum’s development over the past 50 years.

The museum wasn’t conceived as a repository of art, but it now has more than 2,500 works in its collection, reflections of myriad perceptions of reality, social, political, personal: Art as a hammer and a mirror.

Silence is Golden, 1986, Kerry James Marshall

Besides the imagination, complexity, and nuance evinced by the works in Black Refractions, there is wit. Wry, ironic, sometimes sardonic, it denotes the disconnect between an individual’s dead-on perceptions of reality and society’s assertions of what is.

Steam’n Hot, 1999, Willie Cole

The primary definition of refraction is the phenomenon of a ray of light being deflected from a straight path as it moves from one medium into another. It’s diversion; it’s distortion. It’s also what makes a mirage and a rainbow.

This show presents creativity refracted: passing through painting, sculpture, photography, video or another art form, informed by intellectual inquiry, honed by artistic rigor, sometimes forced by the artists’ experiences in the world to take a harder, longer path but not broken. Given form, substance, life.

This post is my attempt to convey my appreciation of the exhibition and show a sampling of the art in it. For those who want to know more about it, the museum website is a great resource and so is the exhibition catalog. The museum itself is closed but has online offerings.

Clementine Hunter (1886-87-1988), the granddaughter of an enslaved woman, began painting in her fifties, using supplies left behind by a guest of her wealthy employer, and went on painting for nearly another 50 years, on whatever material she could find: paper, roof shingles, window shades.

Born into slavery and a sharecropper most of his life, rendered jobless and homeless by crippling rheumatism in his seventies, Bill Traylor started making art in his late eighties, when he was sleeping nights in the backroom of a funeral home in Montgomery, Alabama. He made more than a thousand drawings and paintings using materials he found or was given.

Elizabeth Catlett merged activism with art-making. Born in Washington in 1915, she was denied admission to Carnegie Institute of Technology after the school learned she was “colored.” She went on to study with Grant Wood and Ossip Zadkine, made stylized, sensuous sculptures, such as Mother and Child, designed posters for Malcolm X and Angela Davis. In 1959, the State Department declared her an “undesirable alien” because of her leftist politics (she was living in Mexico at the time) and denied her a visa to return to the United States throughout the following decade.

The photographs of James VanDerZee (1886-1983) captured many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as middle-class blacks and street scenes—the essence of a time and place. The arc of his career was wide, too: in 1925, he did the portrait of the Midnight Ramblers. A year before his death, he photographed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Scottish Spring

Being in a Scottish garden in spring is enough to send you reeling.

 

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Famous for its lochs and tors and braes and burns and sheep on a heath, Scotland has many beautiful, venerable, and unusual gardens tucked among its rugged natural formations.

These photographs were taken a year ago on the grounds of Inveraray Castle in Scotland, and in Crarae Garden and Arduaine Garden, both National Trust for Scotland conservation sites. The three gardens are close to one another in villages on the west coast, in Argyllshire, a few hours’ drive north of Glasgow. 

At a time when they and other public gardens are off-limits, I thought even a virtual glimpse of greenery might be welcome. 

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For starters, the bluebells. Maybe there’s a Pantone number, but there’s no word for their color, a shade that sets vibrating some neuron in the brain dedicated to beauty. When you look closely, the source of the shimmer reveals itself: each bell on the stalk is not one color but two, streaked blue and violet.

The bluebells were flourishing among the trees and in the garden beds, in the woods, in shady spots along the side of the road—everywhere.

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Rhododendrons and their close cousins, azaleas, were blooming, too.

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At some spots in Crarae, they filled the frame, towering overhead, spent blossoms spilled across the paths, each a grove unto itself.

I saw rhododendrons in a lot of places in Scotland, but I don’t think you can have too much of anything flowering in spring, especially in a northern place. Apparently, the three generations of Campbells who cultivated Crarae felt the same. More than 400 rhododendron species grow there.

The rhododendrons at Inveraray Castle are of mythic proportions—you could hide an army under them.

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The trees in these gardens were spectacular, scaling things up, adding rhythm. Their heft and stature turns the design of a garden into architecture.

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Some of the trees in the Inveraray Castle grounds may date back as far as the late 17th century. Mature trees give a garden gravitas and a time line: They say (nicely), we were here before you were born. Flowers are fleeting, and that’s one reason we love them. The hardy mother plants that birth them may be decades-old, but the blossoms last just a heartbeat or two in the pulse of a garden. Planting a sapling as part of a garden scheme is an act of faith, done with the knowledge that you may never see it reach its full glory.

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An Inveraray Castle tree.

 

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These gardens spoke in a voice both rough and soft, the horticultural equivalent of a Scottish burr.

There were astounding effects, such as that of the paved riverbed that borders Crarae.

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DSC00986And charming ones: a circular bed bracketed by arbors, already sporting blowsy creamy-yellow roses, at Arduaine.

There were plants, camellias, for one, that are fragile exotics where I live, cajoled into bloom in the shelter of greenhouses, blooming out in the open at Crarae. And palm trees at Arduaine.

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Hedges as meticulously coiffed as the ladies who lunch.

(But note the missing slat at the bottom of the gate and the stalk coming out of the planter. This is another example of the particular charm of these gardens, mingling the domesticated and the free-ranging, delicate and flamboyant, close care and free rein. The Japanese term wabi-sabi comes to mind: imperfections that make perfection. In fact, that term is especially apt here, as sabi can be translated as “withered.”)

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And there were wild corners and passages, and the fact that the wildness was probably shaped and nurtured by an unseen hand and a keen eye didn’t diminish the thrill of them. It takes tremendous craft to make all the elements of a garden blend and cohere in a way that looks natural.

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I felt I was learning something at every turn from the horticultural artistry that places a few ferns in a clearing by a stony path or conjures a Van Gogh drawing* via squiggly undergrowth at a slant.

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I loved turning down a path and being dazzled by unexpected, poised juxtapositions of colors, shapes, and textures. I’ve been watching a lot of ballet online lately, and it’s the same sort of sudden emotional uplift when Emma von Enck (or Ashley Bouder or Tilor Peck or…) swirls en pointe across the stage.

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And, last but not least, there were moments when I savored the look of a single flower in a lot of green.

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Inveraray Castle, the stately home of the Duke of Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell, was built in the 18th century and added to after a fire in 1877. (Downton Abbey fans might recognize it as “Duneagle Castle,” seen in a Christmas episode). It has 16 acres of gardens and extensive parkland (the estate all told is 60,000 acres). The castle itself is enchanting; maybe a post for another time.

In 1895, James Arthur Campbell, back from managing tea estates in what was then Ceylon, sunk a spade into the earth, and started to make a garden. Arduaine Garden (Ard-doo-a-nie), overlooking Asknish Bay, was the result. Like Crarae, 14 miles away, Arduaine has many plants from Asia—including Rhododendron zeylanicum, grown from seed that came with consignments of tea from Ceylon—and from South America. At one, glorious point, six gardeners were employed to tend the plantings; for nearly two decades after World War II, a nanny, Miss Yule, looked after it, according to Historic Environment Scotland. Arduaine remained in the Campbell family until 1971, when nurserymen Edmund and Harry Wright, bought it, and over the next 21 years, restored and added to it. They gave it to The National Trust for Scotland in 1992.

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The path to Arduaine.

Yet another Campbell, Grace, Lady Campbell, initiated the creation of Crarae Garden in 1912, and her son, Sir George, and grandson, Sir Ilay, enhanced and expanded this “Himalayan glen,” as it is often described. Many of its rare specimens were obtained by intrepid plant explorers, including George Forrest, Ernest Wilson, and Grace’s nephew, Reginald Farrer, by venturing deep into the highlands and hinterlands of China, Korea, Tibet, and other Asian countries.

Farrer’s story is a fascinating one. Born with a cleft palate and a hare lip that needed several surgeries to correct and made his speech hard to understand, he was home-schooled, spending a lot of time roaming the forests of his Yorkshire home; he memorized a botany book at the age of 8.  He went to Oxford, traveled, made gardens, wrote 21 books, founded a plant nursery, introduced the threepenny-bit rose (R. Farreri ‘Persetosa’) and several other plants, became a Buddhist in Ceylon during one of his several plant-hunting expeditions, and died, age 40, “working hard among the plants and camping on the high passes,” in his words, of the Minshan mountains of Burma (now Myanmar).

Just before his death, he wrote his cousin Osbert Sitwell: “Right away over on the far side of the uttermost edge of nowhere, I sit in a little bamboo shanty, open at every pore to the winds that blow … no letters, no papers, no news, nothing to remind me of the mad world I hate … It is extraordinarily, incomparably, delicious and restorative.”

 

* For comparison, a Van Gogh drawing, “A Group of Pine Trees Near a House,” 1889:

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Hunter for a Cure

 

Objects in Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum remind us that the fight against disease has been going on for centuries.

 

 

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The term “wet specimens” alone could put you right off, I know.

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That’s the technical term for the body parts on display at the Hunterian Museum. Last spring, I visited this Victorian neo-Gothic pile, part of the University of Glasgow.

The museum is named for William Hunter (1718-1783), the anatomist, surgeon, and teacher who bequeathed thousands of objects, including shells, fossils, minerals, coins, paintings, antiquities, and an extensive library, to the university.

But now that the coronavirus has put us all in storage, I wanted to focus on the jars of preserved medical specimens on display there. I admit, in my weirdness, I was drawn to them even before the current plague made them seem newly relevant.

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They might seem unappealing oddities or at best quaint curiosities, antiquated tools compared to the sophisticated equipment now being used to investigate and treat COVID-19. (Despite having that technology at their disposal, researchers and medical staff feel the frustration of knowing they can’t get answers fast enough.)

Yet these jars hold history. They remind us that the history of medicine is a story of a long slog, of getting down to the nitty-gritty, getting close to the body, in all its stages and states. And of researchers handing on what they learned generation to generation to build a body of knowledge.

Preserving these specimens—a lymphatic vessel, the reproductive organs of sparrows—required patience, precision, and expertise. So does developing a body of knowledge, devising a cure.

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For Hunter, specimens were vital to his medical practice, research, and teaching. He is variously credited with contributing to our understanding of the lymphatic system, obstetrics, cardiovascular disease, rheumatic disease, and bone and joint disease. Written more than two centuries after his death, a 1990 article about his contribution to dental science noted “Hunter’s teaching methods are still influential today, and his specimen collection is one of the most comprehensive in existence.”

Much has been written about the man as well as the scientist; the accounts sometimes contradict each other. He was generous, he was parsimonious; a gentleman, a social climber. By all accounts, he was an interesting person.

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According to a 1968 JAMA article, “Of a contrary temperament, [Hunter] was born in Lanarkshire in the environs of Glasgow on the family estate, Long Calderwood. The family was large, some were tubercular, others were gouty, but the stock was outstanding, and means were available for proper education of each of the children. At the age of 14, William began his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he remained five years and acquired the reputation of a good scholar.”

C. Helen Brock, a Glaswegian physician who devoted 30 years of her life to the study of the man, presented a different perspective on Hunter’s early years, stating that because the farm’s soil was “unsuitable,” his father “lay awake at night” worrying about meeting family expenses—he sold off land to pay for William’s college education—and Hunter grew up in “an atmosphere of financial anxiety.”

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Sent to university to prepare for a career as a Presbyterian clergyman, William chose science over religion and went on to study medicine in Paris and London. In his “darling London,” he seems to have proceeded from one success to another, among them being made Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte. He delivered 14 of  her 15 children.

Thanks to his labors, Hunter became well-known and wealthy. (One admirer said Hunter “worked till he dropped.”) His circle include leading painters and writers, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Tobias Smollett, and Benjamin Franklin, when Franklin was living in London.

In 1767, Hunter moved into his new, expensive Great Windmill Street residence, which also housed his school of anatomy and museum. “Anatomy is the only solid foundation of medicine,” Hunter wrote. “It is to the physician and surgeon what geometry is to the astronomer. It discovers and ascertains the truth, overturns superstition and vulgar error …”

“William Hunter,” by Johann Zoffany, collection of the Royal College of Physicians, London

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He commissioned an architect to design his house but was frugal in other ways, dining out, a friend recalled, on a couple of eggs and a glass of claret. Instead of pouring drink down his gullet, he poured his fortune (£20,000 on coins alone) into acquiring “the trappings of civilisation,” in social historian Roy Porter’s words.

In 1768, Hunter wrote a friend, “My affairs go well. I am, I believe, the happiest of all men. I am sinking money so fast that I am rather embarrassed. I am now collecting in the largest sense of the word.”

Acquiring examples of nature’s astounding diversity and man’s innovativeness. Amassing knowledge. Indulging a soft spot for the lowly violin beetle? A Collector Extraordinary.

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Since arriving at the University of Glasgow in 1807, the collection has grown. In the 1940s, for example, the museum purchased fossils collected by pioneering paleobotanist Emily Dix. (Hers is a tragic tale.)
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Also on display are medical and scientific instruments of a later date, such as the 19th-century lithotrite, above. Their looks, so spare, so machined, so carefully crafted for a specific purpose, attracted me more than their significance. I took their pictures but am a little ashamed to admit I didn’t get their names or note their purpose.

Still, you don’t have to study them long to see they have their stories to tell—and some of the narratives might, well, make your skin crawl. You might not really want to think about how that lithotrite operated (the movie Dead Ringers comes to mind…). Yet, for their time, they were advanced technology.

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The specimens, like the instruments, are beautiful, delicate, mysterious, elegant and, yes, often grotesque. In a way, we’re like them.

Removed from the outside world, suspended, isolated behind glass. Objects to be studied, tested, and traced, and containers of bits and pieces of data that build a body of medical knowledge. What will our own bodies yield up to examination? Will we test positive for the COVID-19 virus? How will we respond to its presence? Will antibodies show up in our systems? And will the accumulation of all the data ultimately lead to a vaccine and a cure?

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The lymphatics of the intestine. Lacteals. Porpoise

We may look with alienation at these “preparations,” at what is normally interior and concealed, just as we suddenly see our fellow humans in a new, unsettling light. We are as unfamiliar, complex, mysterious, survival-intent, and even repellent right now. Understandable; still, how strange it is.

We conceal ourselves, cover our faces with masks, our hands in gloves, dressed for moving through a storm, as if we were guilty of something. How quickly our former ways seem archaic. How quickly we have been transformed.

 

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Assorted postscripts and links:

My post doesn’t do justice to the wonders of an institution that also includes the Hunterian Art Gallery (beautiful Whistlers!), an anatomy museum, a zoology museum, and the exquisite reassembled McIntosh House. More: Hunterian, 

You might find this article heartening: It profiles researchers at just one institution—Stanford University—applying their various and impressive kinds of expertise to the task of fighting COVID-19.

I’m all for that: Hunter’s library contains texts about a terrible plague in 1721, one of which touted coffee as a possible means of warding off disease-ridden pests.

Last fall, I wrote about another collector, not in Hunter’s league, yet interesting all the same: William Skinner. His collection lives on in a former Congregational meeting house in South Hadley, Massachusetts (owned and overseen by Mount Holyoke College).

The end: The 1782 engraving below shows William Hunter in his museum on Resurrection Day, among searchers of their missing parts. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

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Starbucks, Hartford

 

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“We are all busy thinking things that nobody ever knows about.”  Wallace Stevens

I took this photograph during the winter. Since the pandemic hit, it has taken on a different character to me—nostalgic, also suggestive of the spotty, blurry nature of human relations, through a glass, at a remove. Everyday life is a lot about being with people, but often on one’s own: alone together. Is poet Wallace Stevens’s quote an apt description of contemporary life or just an obvious one? Maybe during this moment of global crisis, our thoughts are more aligned than they were a couple of months ago.

Spring No Matter What

IMG_0918One of the big little heartbreaks of the pandemic for me, so small in the scheme of things, but sad all the same, was the Smith College bulb show having to close barely into its two-week March run. For the part 100 years, just when winter is in its last gasp, and everyone needs some spring, the Botanic Garden staff have coaxed thousands of bulbs into flowering at the same time, an extraordinary feat and a riotous spectacle.

 

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This year, all the plants were in their glory—and peaking behind closed doors.

 

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Impossible to reproduce the sensations of being in the Lyman Plant House, varieties of every imaginable spring flower, from forsythia to grape hyacinths, everywhere you look, arranged in tiers like a fantastic choir: the brilliant color, the mingling sweet scents in the cool air, the play of light, the murmur of industrious bees. But maybe this sampling of pictures of previous shows, as well as of Smith gardens and of mine, will cheer up anyone who’s hunkering down and can’t get to the show that spring puts on.

 

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The Wadsworth Atheneum: A Museum Most Worthy

Here goes: my version of a virtual tour of Hartford’s venerable art museum.

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It won’t pay your bills, but art can be a source of solace in turbulent times. So I write about a museum no one can visit right now. Having weathered nearly two centuries—it’s the oldest public art museum in the country—the Wadsworth Atheneum will persevere, and so will we.

wadsworth exteriorThe Wadsworth Atheneum: The name conjures up 19th-century well-heeled New Englanders and their earnest enthusiasm for learning and collecting and for classical culture. The temple of Athena that Connecticut Yankee Daniel Wadsworth built in 1842, though, wasn’t a latter-day Parthenon but a golden granite Gothic Revival castle designed by two leading architects of the time, Andrew Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town.

Buildings in Tudor and Renaissance Revival styles came later. In 1934, the Avery Memorial opened, “the first American museum building with a modern International Style interior,” according to the museum’s history.

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The result is a gorgeous hodge-podge of connected structures forming a square around a courtyard. The Atheneum is one of those museums (the Yale University Art Gallery being another) that serve as a sort of tutorial on architectural movements as well as art movements.  

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The museum’s extensive holdings, added to over the years by Pierpont Morgans and a Colt firearms heiress, among others, provide what amount to survey courses on the art movements.

 

P1110605You can circle Yayoi Kusama’s 2018 painted bronze “Pumpkin,” which looks like porcelain,  and try convincing yourself that the bouquet flourishing in an ornate basket (circa 1751, a gift of J. Pierpont Morgan Jr.) really is made of porcelain.

If, before you came in the Main Street door, you didn’t admire Tony Smith’s “Amaryllis,” which keeps company with Calder’s “Stegosaurus” on the museum grounds, you can cosy up to “Spitball,” a stripped-down sculpture perched on a pedestal and looking out the window at its big sister.

P1110615Or tease out connections between objets (more than 200 of them) in the cabinets of curiosities, such as a giant lace coral, a geode, and a 1,000-year-old glass bottle.

 

 

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In the mood for sensory overload? Just beyond the cabinets gallery, Sol LeWitt’s epic “Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls” might do it for you.

The busy Victorian furnishings of the Goodwin parlor also give the eyes a workout. An equally exuberant LeWitt, “Wall Drawing Number 793 C” (above), dips and curves around Gray Court, the Main Street entrance lobby.

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In her review of the Wadsworth’s 2015 major and masterful renovation, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith talked about how a museum can “nourish the art… and the people who love it.”

Nourish is just the right word. Delicious, rich, and luscious work, too, when it comes to conveying the sensory feel of the Atheneum. How it feels, for instance, to walk into one of the Atheneum’s high-ceilinged galleries, painted deep gray, cool light cascading from frosted skylights onto a wall of  landscapes full of weather.

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Or to be brought up short by the piercing blue eyes of a Van Gogh self-portrait, set off by its teal background.

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The Van Gogh and the landscapes, the Degas street scene, Sisley’s “Pike,” and Bassano’s “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine,” to name only a few of the museum’s show-stoppers, would stand out no matter their setting. Still, the Atheneum’s atmosphere enhances the experience, accentuates the strengths of the works, and encourages you to savor each one.

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I may have over-savored: Drifting into a dead end on an upper floor of Avery Court, I had to retrace my steps. No hardship. I got a second look at George Bellows’s “Pulpit Rock” (none of his sweaty boxers slugging it out, just ocean swells bashing Maine’s brawny granite coast). And Robert Motherwell’s winsome “Line Figure in Beige and Mauve” (1946).

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The rampant “Stegosaurus,” by Alexander Calder

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Footnotes:

To learn more about the Wadsworth, you can visit its website.

This 1992 American Heritage article is full of fascinating information about the Wadsworth’s history, a history that includes several firsts, including the premier of Balanchine’s first ballet choreographed in America (the Wadsworth sponsored his immigration) and of an opera by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, and the first Minimalist art show, curated by Sam Wagstaff early in his career.

One of the loftier atheneums established in the 1800s is the Boston Athenæum (note the very proper Bostonian spelling), from which I and a friend were evicted when we were college girls. And, I mean, girls, brash budding intellectuals who breezed into its vestibule under the mistaken assumption that it was open to hoi polloi hippies, not just to Boston Brahmin members whose families had subscribed for generations. Times have changed: Now, you can visit it without a starchy WASPy matron shooing you out the door.

The Dubliners

At home, and thinking about Ireland on St. Pat’s Day.

IMG_0906Almost two years ago, I went to Ireland and had a grand time.

What’s grand about Dublin? The people, the parks, the pubs, the presence of history, the nearness of the sea, the museums, the Georgian architecture.

Always a dangerous and irresistible byproduct of travel is the impulse to generalize about a place, a city, a country, from a quick touching down, a mere matter of days, but what I felt there was Dubliners’ eagerness to enjoy life and one another, their being less focussed on smartphones, more on face to face.

Now, at a moment when close encounters have been replaced by social distancing (how fast did that phrase go viral?), with nary a parade in sight, I’m revisiting Dublin virtually and doing a little sharing of the green.

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Featured in these photographs are the National Gallery, the Long Room of Trinity College’s Old Library and Trinity’s campus, the Little Museum of Dublin, Fallon & Byrne Food Hall, Christ Church Cathedral, Matt the Thresher restaurant, Merrion Square Park, the Temple Bar Food Market, and Cavistons Food Emporium in Sandycove.

Explore more of Dublin in my blog posts about Bloomsday (June 16) in the city and my first trip there, and in this article for GoNomad.

 

The Exuberance of Peter Schjeldahl

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The Betye Saar show at MoMA in December.

I inherited my New Yorker habit from my mother. Among my earliest memories are tracing Saul Steinberg cartoons and reading articles from the magazine aloud to her in the kitchen, sounding out every other word and asking its meaning, as she cooked dinner. (Thank you, Mom.)

Now, in my kitchen and elsewhere around my house, months’ worth of issues wait hopefully for my attention, each promising masterful writing on stuff that matters. I know I’m not the only one who feels guilty recycling them before their time. If the publishers went from weekly to biweekly circulation without telling anyone, imagine the unsuspecting subscribers’ giddy sense of accomplishment: “I got through the entire issue before the next one came.”

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IMG_0791So this is a roundabout way of saying I didn’t get around to reading Peter Schjeldahl’s article, which ran in the October 21 issue, about the newly enlarged Museum of Modern Art, until this week. (Online you can find it under the headline “The Exuberance of MoMA’s Expansion.”) The photos here are from my visit there in December. I had a terrific time and fell in love with Betye Saar’s art, still I wish I’d read the article before I went.

But if you’re going to make wishes, why not go big? So I wish Schjeldahl and I could stroll MoMA’s airy halls together. He asks in the review, “Can we talk?” and I say, “yes, please.” He recommends visiting the museum with “a gabby friend or two,” and I raise my hand.

 

I’m not really angling for an invitation to hang out with him, I’m just taking a moment to thank him.

Over the years, Schjeldahl’s reviews have jogged, poked, and shook up my thinking; he has turned on the lights, and he has entertained me. A wonderful stylist, he has taught me about the art of writing and writing about art as well as art itself. Reading his reviews is like being with a gabby, brilliant friend, touring the world’s galleries. The MoMA piece, for instance.

 

598px-Piet_Mondrian,_1942_-_Broadway_Boogie_WoogieHere he is, standing in front of that poster child of modern art “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” by Piet Mondrian, “a starchy Dutchman enamored of the foxtrot and ideal democracy,” in Schjeldahl’s words.

He describes the painting so that it almost dances before your eyes, then asks, “How did Mondrian do it? And what is it, exactly, and how does whatever that may be matter?”

 

Boom! Let’s get down to it, the fundamental questions to ask ourselves every time we meet a work of art. I’m stopped in my tracks, but he keeps right on going, confidently, not arrogantly, suggesting ways of seeing it. (While I’m at it, thanks to the late critic John Berger, for Ways of Seeing, a book about art that years ago shook and woke me up.)

Then Schjeldahl asks of you that, interpret the painting how you like, “Only luxuriate in the good luck of having eyes to see with and a body that responds to bopping suggestion.”

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What do you ask of critics? Be knowledgable, smart, and curious. Schjeldahl is all that, and his writing is full of insights and energy and discernment. Reading him reminds you that criticism is more than describing and critiquing; it’s getting across the feeling that comes from looking at great art. Even not-so-great art, if it moves you. Joy, pleasure, agitation, puzzlement, calmness, sadness. The experience’s not just cerebral, it’s elemental.

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And how many art critics make you burst out laughing? That’s my reaction when he talks about an art ism I’ve struggled to come to terms with.

“Disproportionate space is given to conceptual artists of the seventies: fledgling baby boomers, for the most part, who presumed to conjoin art and life in the moment but mainly muddled them with work that, as if on perverse principle, is visually boring. To be important then as much as entailed being unappealing. This is a gross generalization, unfair to many, but the impression of a slough in art history is unshakable.”

I’m so with him. But even if I weren’t, I’d still have piquant ideas and juicy language to chew over.

Then he’s off again, sharing his exuberance, stoking our wonder: “I’m veering around here, as you will in your turn. So many stories!”

Let’s hear it for veering, steered by an expert veerer.

 

 

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Read: Let’s See; Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988–2018; and The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978–1990.

 

Looking at the Met Breuer

Two splendid shows, brave architecture, and ample people-watching opportunities.

 

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Photo by Glenda Altarejos 2018/Wikimedia Commons

I hadn’t been to the Met Breuer since it was the home of the Whitney Museum. The Whitney moved downtown in 2015, and a year later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art took over the landmark 1966 building and now operates it as a space dedicated to modern and contemporary art.

It’s not exactly a lovable landmark, more in your face than ingratiating. Designed by that master of Modernism Marcel Breuer, it sits saturnine among the Upper East Side apartment buildings and brownstones, each floor projecting farther into space, looking improbable in more ways than one. 

Improbable, but also confident, even brave. I like the jolt the exterior gives your expectations, and the interior’s capacious galleries, hospitable to the art on exhibit and to the people who come to see it. The windows are few and far between in the galleries; when you do come upon one, the view takes shape as an artwork.

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Breuer’s use of luscious materials give the interior warmth and texture: walnut parquet, bluestone, and terrazzo floors, bronze fixtures, burnished teak banisters, coffered ceilings and rough-surfaced concrete walls. According to the Met’s website, Breuer himself worked on the lobby’s walls.  

On entering the Breuer, I felt a surge of affection rooted in much earlier visits, when I was a newly-minted grown-up exuberantly exploring the city’s glorious art collections for the first time. The building was young, and so was I. This visit, I was aware of the distance between then and now, but I was just as glad to be there.

 

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IMG_0408Back to the present. I was there to see the show Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory (through January 12). Her drawings of waves and paintings of starry nights display her astounding artistry. It’s quiet virtuosity, and not just technically brilliant. Celmins uncovers the cosmos in, for instance, a near-microscopic close-up of a shell—mostly dots and tiny curves on a white plane but as much a complex marvel as the humble product of nature it portrays.

Some humor there, too. (What writer doesn’t warm to a giant pencil?)

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And tragedy: In the Sixties, Celmins did disturbing, misty paintings of military plane crashes. The horror is veiled in beautiful watery brushstrokes, as if to reproduce the fuzzy nature of visual childhood memories reviewed years later. Or did she choose to blur the images because, mystifyingly, that makes them more terrifying, less easily dismissed?

For the first decade of her life, Celmins lived in the thick of World War II and its aftermath; air strikes from Allied planes were a constant threat as her family fled across Germany to escape the Russian army invasion of their native Latvia. “There was an incredible anxiety from that time that I didn’t really understand at all,” she has said about that period (more details here). And, of course, when she was making this art, the Vietnam War was ramping up.

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The show was moving and beautiful (and I haven’t even talked about the moonscapes or the spiderwebs), but I ended up taking more pictures of the museum-goers, whose dress had the same coloration as the dominant palette of the show: white, black, and all the grays in between.

I was drawn to the look of the people, but beyond that, in museums I am sometimes enjoyably distracted by people looking, the interactions between the viewers and the viewed (unless they linger too long in front of something I want to see). When they really look, it’s wonderful to see. One of our better moments as humans. And this show especially rewards such close examination. As Roberta Smith in The New York Times advised in her review: “Bring your nose close. Let it slow you down.”

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Museums make great backdrops; the aura of the art rubs off a little on the people in these settings, so the act of standing or taking a step forward takes on a dramatic element. And to get back to the architecture, people nicely set off its scale. Think of those snapshots of tourists posed beside an Egyptian pyramid or a redwood.

 

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On the second floor, the Met Breuer shows off some outstanding recent museum acquisitions. Home Is a Foreign Place, the artwork from which the show’s title was taken, is a set of 36 elegant woodcuts by Zarina Hashmi, created in 1999. Each print can hold its own, but grouped together, the prints speak to their neighbors and form a whole, coherent artwork.

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And that was just the beginning. Room after room, there was something, lots of surprising, delightful, gorgeous things. Three examples: “Tightrope 5.1” by Elias Sime (2009-14) is made of colored copper telephone wires, e-waste bought in the open-air markets of Addis Ababa; Faith Ringgold’s “Freedom of Speech” (1990) juxtaposes the ideal and the reality; and the installation “Untitled” by Kazuko Miyamoto (1977), is as much air as substance, composed of hundreds of yard of cotton tape yarn. “Home is a Foreign Place: Recent Acquisitions in Context” runs through June 21.

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One more modern artifact caught my eye as I was leaving: a pay phone, complete with instructions on how to make collect calls. Talk about revisiting the days of my youth.

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For a lucid exposition of the Met Breuer’s architecture, read this NYC Urbanism article. Vija Celmins’ story is told in detail, and the show reviewed, in this New Yorker piece by Calvin Tomkins. And Roberta Smith’s excellent review can be found here.

 

Falling for Fall

Observations regarding autumn, with a little help from a literary giant or two. 

 

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My favorite season? It was never fall. Too sad, too full of portent, too full of ending. Spring, on the other hand, makes my heart leap, always coming as a surprise even as  in those soupy, droopy, late winter days I strain toward the moment when color, warmth, light, and birdsong return.

And yet, a lifelong New Englander, I have in my own backyard the spectacular foliage that draws people from around the world. In fact, the marsh that borders the Stop & Shop parking lot (above) a mile from my house offers a riotous display every October.

(New England doesn’t have a corner on the leaf-peeping market. For centuries, the Japanese have made a point of savoring fall foliage. They even have a word for it, momijigari, “autumn leaf–hunting.” The kanji— 紅葉狩 —looks to me like trees shedding their leaves.)

 

Maybe it’s my roots finally asserting themselves, but the last few years, I’ve perceived more and more the particular beauty of what Keats called the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Two hundred years ago (on September 19, 1819, to be exact), the poet wrote “To Autumn,” which in three verses says it all much better than I ever could. He put his Romantic finger on what makes this time of year so beautiful, noting, for instance, how the season “conspires” with the sun

…to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease

 

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Those bees are alive, burrowing into a late-blooming squash blossom.

 

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Keats’s poem captures the essential paradox of fall, describing its fullness with the language of finality.  Fall’s unique aesthetic is ripeness verging on decay. Blazing color shading to washed-out pinks and dull golds and the earthy pigments: ocher, burnt orange, burnt sienna, burnt umber.

 

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Baby blue and cerulean skies giving way to cloud cover and rain coming down and down.

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And the leaves, of course, coming down, blanketing gardens; huddling in crannies; breaking loose from the trees and landing silently after a lazy, drifting descent to earth; clattering in a crowd down a street; lingering just long enough on a sidewalk to leave a tannic print. I like the tea-like scent of dry leaves, the rattling, percussive sound they make in the wind—the leitmotif of the moment. The Japanese also have a word, ochiba, for falling leaves, which “floating through the chilly air signal a waning of autumn,”according to a Japanese Times article

 

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“I find letters from God dropt in the street.” I don’t search for divine signs, but when I look down and see a bright leaf, I think of that line from Whitman’s “Song of Myself, 48.” (Neat coincidence: Whitman was born the year Keats wrote “To Autumn.”) 

 

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Autumn is a two-step revelation. First, the unveiling of the passionate reds, yellows, and bronze tones that have waited concealed beneath the summer green. They flare up, then they’re gone, and what emerges next, exposed, is the architecture of the trees, more sky, a longer view. Could coming to terms with the season’s melancholy, its way of underlining the passage of time, be a means to a zen, of accepting a simpler, barer landscape?

 

I’m not quite there yet, so it’s good that, in my town, just about the time when winter is clearing its throat behind the door, there’s a glorious autumnal last hurrah. Every November, the Smith College Botanic Garden stages its Fall Chrysanthemum Show.

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Its spring bulb show is probably the more popular, but I’ll let Keats have the last—drop-dead gorgeous—word on the dubious wisdom of weighing the merits of one season against another.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

 

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