Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Forgotten Artist File: Meret Oppenheim

As I begin my series that focuses on lesser known and forgotten artists, my first choice is an artist who is remembered and talked about today, but really only for one artwork.  It’s not uncommon for artists to be associated with one or two well-know pieces.  It’s hard to discuss Salvador Dali, for example, without mentioning The Persistence of Memory.  Pablo Picasso is remembered for epic paintings like Guernica.  But, even if you don’t know very much about either of those artists, you’ve probably seen a couple of other pieces besides their most famous works.  Such is not the case with Surrealist Meret Oppenheim.  If you’ve seen any of her works, chances are it’s this one:
The piece is entitled Object (Luncheon in Fur) and was created in 1936.  It’s a simple sculpture consisting of a teacup, saucer, and spoon that have been covered in the fur of a Chinese gazelle (not rabbit fur, as I was told years ago).  It’s a sculpture that’s been reproduced endlessly in art history texts.  It is the most commonly cited example of Surrealist sculpture, and also one of the few works by a female Surreal artist that gets reproduced and discussed regularly today (there were many important female artists who were practicing Surrealists, and they have unfortunately been written out of most art history texts.  Perhaps it’s a topic for another post). 

Object epitomizes the ideas of the Surrealists.  A teacup is a common, everyday item.  Perhaps something we use every day.  When covered in fur (a material we probably don’t want to put in our mouths) it’s removed from its common use and becomes foreign.  The juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar stirs the unconscious and causes uneasiness in the viewer.  The Surrealists wanted to conjure primal desires and drives, things we hide from others (and maybe even ourselves) but are there nonetheless, simmering in our subconscious.  Our primitive ancestors hunted their food, and bit into fur-covered flesh.  Now we are more civilized and drink from china teacups.  It doesn’t mean that our primitive urges have completely disappeared, though.  It is these kinds of base emotions and primal urges that people see in Object, and that has lead to its continued dissection and discussion.  Unfortunately, it’s the only Oppenheim piece that receives such scrutiny.

Meret Oppenheim was born in Berlin 1913.  While still a girl, her parents moved the family to Switzerland.  She travelled to Paris as a young woman to study art in 1932 and was introduced to the Surrealists by Alberto Giacommetti a short time later.  She formed close associations with the Surrealists as well as other artists living in Paris, and it was a meeting with Picasso that spurred the creation of Object.  While visiting with Picasso and his lover Dora Maar in a cafĂ©, Picasso noticed Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet and remarked that anything could be covered with fur.  As the story goes, Oppenheim almost immediately conceived of Object and rushed to buy a teacup and saucer at a Paris department store.  The piece became famous immediately after Oppenheim finished it.  It was exhibited to great fanfare in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937, and visitors chose it as the quintessential Surrealist symbol.  This adulation was a double edged-sword.  On the one hand, the sculpture thrust Oppenheim into the international spotlight, but it also created an enormous shadow that she spent the rest of her life trying to escape.

After bursting onto the world stage, Object took on a life quite separate from its creator.  The piece was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, where it remains on near-permanent display.  Countless people have viewed this strange little object, and I’d argue that it still has the same power to affect us that it did 70 years ago.  The materials used to create it are still common, and their combination still seems foreign.  It remains a strong and memorable piece amongst MoMA’s extensive Surrealist holdings.  It gained notoriety absent from the rest of Oppenheim’s oeuvre, and Oppenheim herself is almost a footnote in art history, known for this one piece and really nothing else.

Exhibition poster for a show
in Berne, 1968
In reality, Oppenheim continued to create work, both sculptural and two-dimensional.  She returned to Switzerland in 1937 and worked for years to shake off the gigantic reputation of Object.  She created the piece when she was only 24, and grew to resent the fact that to most people, it represented her entire career.  Oppenheim went on to have a lengthy and respected career that lasted until her death in 1985.  She showed her work mostly in Europe (predominantly Switzerland, France, and Germany) but had a few exhibitions in the United States as well.  In addition to her sculptures and paintings, she also experimented with fashion design and public art.  She was much loved in her adopted country of Switzerland and in 1975 was awarded the Art Award of the city of Basel.

Finding reproductions of her work is a little difficult.  There are some images available online (although the majority of images available are various reproductions of Object).  My local library had a few books, but unfortunately, most of the photos in both of these books are black and white.  Below are some images of her works that I had never seen before.
Beginning of Spring, 1961

The Cocoon (It's Alive), 1971

Greyish Blue Cloud, 1980

Three Murderers in the Woods, 1936

I close with an image of this fountain designed by Oppenheim for the city of Berne, Switzerland.  It consists of a tower surrounded by water pipes.  Moss and small plants grow on the pipes, and the appearance of the fountain changes according to the season.  This piece was constructed in 1983, shortly before Oppenheim's death.  It is still there today, a lasting legacy to an artist who deserves to be remembered for more than one work of art.

Next week, I'll cover a different forgotten artist.  It might be someone you've never heard of before. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Forgotten Artist File: An Introduction

     Art history doesn’t proceed in a straight line.  You wouldn’t know this from looking at an art history book, though.  Every historical survey tells basically the same story, a grand tale of important artists and artistic movements that have become the canon of art history.  This history continues to evolve on a daily basis, and every year sees more artists create art, and every decade produces important artists worthy of inclusion in official art history narratives.  As time passes, authors seem to compress more and more art history into the same number of pages.  Historians can’t include everything.  If they tried that, art history textbooks would be unwieldy tomes thousands of pages long, and nobody would attempt to read them.  Historians instead have to come to a consensus on what the most important art movements were, and whose work is reproduced and recorded.  Masters like Rembrandt and Picasso will most likely always be included in art history books, and art movements like impressionism and surrealism continue to inspire new generations of artists.  Art historians are forced to create an “official narrative” of sorts, deciding what is generally believed and accepted to be the most important timeline.  It’s inevitable that things get left out of this official narrative.  As time passes and art history grows, historians get fewer and fewer pages to devote to an important period or artist.  Many artists get left out entirely.  These artists run the risk of becoming cultural ghosts.  Their works are relegated to dark museum storerooms (museums often promote an official timeline as well), and their stories are only told through old books and journal articles that might not get seen by anymore.
Like Lisa Simpson, I get excited by periodicals.
     But, art is never as cut and dried (or as logical and orderly) as might be depicted in a book.  Important art movements rarely have easy start and end dates.  They overlap and compete with each other for dominance.  Differing movements contradict each other or build off movements of the past.  A movement may be incredibly important only to eventually lose its hold on history.  Conversely, an underground movement or individual artist may be barely reported in their day but later go on to make a comeback years later.  Artists may have incredibly bright, successful careers only to fizzle out and be forgotten a few years later.  There’s so much more to art history than what you might read in an art history textbook, but unfortunately that information often get buried in old books and magazines.  The Internet is where most of us get our information from these days, but reliable chronologies can be even harder to track down there.  Another thing that often gets lost on the web is context.  It can be hard to get a sense of the society an artist lived and worked in from only looking at pictures on a screen.

     Old art journals and magazines are amazing repositories of art history, but I fear this reference is underutilized by art history students today.  When I was in college, the internet (at least the internet as we know it today) was in its infancy and hardly a useful research tool.  If I wanted to research art (or any subject for that matter), I had to go to the library.  The old issues of Art in America and Artforum kept in the Alfred University library was where I received a large portion of my art history education.  Pouring over these old volumes between classes I was able to see art history in the making.  In these pages, the official timeline had not yet been written.  Artists who would go on to become world famous held their first solo shows in small galleries.  Artists who were once considered masters (but may now be forgotten) had their work interpreted by important critics.  Galleries and museums, now long closed, advertised upcoming shows.  Holding those old magazines, I was holding the exact publications that previous generations of artists had read and been influenced by.  To read them is to make a physical connection to art of the past, and art history in general.  It was (and still is) so much more personable then researching articles online.  Looking at old journal articles puts you in contact with the culture of the time period.  Everything about them, from the advertisements to the layout styles to the font choices puts you in the head of artists and graphic designers of past generations.  In short, old journals (art or otherwise) are a record of human communication.  Reading cold, unadorned text on a computer screen just doesn’t have the same effect.

     There have been many artists throughout history who have been unfortunately forgotten or marginalized.  Many times the internet presence of these artists is small or nonexistent.  It doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them or be inspired by their work, though.  Over the next few weeks I plan on rediscovering some of these artists and presenting some of their work here, letting these cultural ghosts see the light of day once more.

Next week, the first entry in the forgotten artist file.  It might be someone you’ve never heard of.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Schadenfreude on Display: The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, Part 4


     Over the past few weeks, I’ve been documenting the rise and fall of Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art.  Over forty years after its closure, it’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those who thought the Gallery could succeed and thrive in the competitive New York art scene.  To run the GoMA, Hartford chose Carl J. Weinhardt as curator.  Weinhardt was initially reluctant to run the Gallery (Hartford’s iconoclastic views on abstract art were well known at the time) but was eventually won over and hoped the museum could rise above its associations with a man whose artistic philosophy was widely derided by established critics. In the March 21st, 1961 issue of the New Yorker, Weinhardt stated:

            “What I really want for the Museum is to be pro, not anti. I feel we should show things because we are for them, and not simply because we are against what we’re not showing” and hoped that “the Gallery may stimulate new trends in this direction, in addition to throwing light on what already exists and is being neglected by other museums.”

      It wasn’t to be.  The lackluster collection, partnered with Hartford’s anti-abstraction stance, doomed the museum.   His beliefs were almost comically outdated at a time when abstraction and non-objective art were commonly accepted and collected by museums and institutions across the county.  After World War II, non-objective art had helped put America on the map as a serious player in the art world, and one could argue that the art infrastructure that grew in New York after the war was built squarely on the shoulders of abstraction (especially the work of the Abstract Expressionists).  Simply put, abstraction was firmly established as a valid art form by the 1960s. By ignoring it Hartford was ignoring a large swath of art history, one widely acknowledged as being an important (if not the most important) contribution to art histroy of the twentieth century. 

      There were certainly those who were distrustful of abstract and non-objective art back then, as there are today.  Perhaps we look at such works and ask ourselves “why is this art?”  There are those who believe that these artists were con men, pawning nonsense off on an unsuspecting public, but this couldn't be farther from the truth.  The Abstract Expressionists were trying new things and experimenting with new forms.  Unsatisfied with the status quo, they challenged the system and created works that still cause us to ask questions, and don't offer up easy answers.  The fact that a Jackson Pollock painting made sixty years ago can still engender fierce debate speaks to the power art has to engage our mind, as well of question our basic expectation of what art can be.

     Abstract art isn’t always easy to read or appreciate, mainly because it’s so open to interpretation.   We may not understand abstract art when we first look at.  Maybe we find it downright confounding.  I think the main obstacle people face when interpreting abstract art is coming to a work with the belief that it has one set interpretation that we can’t see.  We may look at it and say “what’s this about?”, thinking the artist intended a single meaning that everyone has to see.  If we can’t see it, then we’re just not getting it.  What we often don’t realize is that the meaning is whatever we make it.  We have the power to make the work about anything we want, which in turn makes the work relevant to us.   It can evoke deep emotions, or we may like the colors that the artist used.   Perhaps it doesn't move us at all, and that's a valid response, too.  Abstract art can mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.  It offers such a wide range of personal interpretations that the works can remain relevant for extremely long periods of time.  Realistic art can occupy this role in our lives too, of course, but Hartford wasn’t willing to acknowledge the fact that abstract art can move us just as much as a realistic image.   Instead, he played into the old misconception that abstract art was reserved for the elite, and could only be understood by art historians.  He thought he was giving the public what they wanted, but in the end he sold us all short.  The human mind has an amazing capacity to find meaning in the abstract.  It can help us learn more about our own minds, as well as the world around us.  Hartford refused to recognize this, and in turn created a reverse ivory tower, an isolated island (both literally and figuratively) on Columbus Circle that was seen as irrelevant before it even opened its doors.

Next week, I start a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of before.