Thursday, October 8, 2015

Let's look at art, neighbor

Growing up in the 1970s, I watched a lot of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.  Children’s T.V. programming was limited in those days.  Sesame Street was around, of course, and living close to Canada gave me access to classic CBC kid’s shows like Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant.  By writing about Mister Roger’s Neighborhood for this blog, I don’t mean to infer that the show is a “ghost”, it still airs intermittently on PBS and some episodes can be found on-line, but it isn’t as widely seen as it was in its heyday, and this is unfortunate, since it was a respectful and innovative show that treated children as people capable of intelligence and insight.  Fred Rogers never talked down to his viewers.  He discussed topics that were relevant to children of the 70s and 80s (like divorce), and in doing so created a relevant contemporary forum for contemporary family issues.  Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, but his show was never preachy- he treated all children as his neighbors and spoke to them on their level.

The show featured many types of segments, from remote segments filmed outside of the studio to the stories that took place in the Neighborhood of Make Believe.  Just this past weekend, I was channel surfing on a Saturday morning and caught an episode of the show that dealt with art (both the making of and looking at) in Rogers’ characteristic easy going style.

In the age of instant re-watchablitly, I was expecting to be able to find the episode on YouTube and just post a link to it here so any reader could just watch it and see what I was talking about, but the episode isn’t available there so I find myself relying on my memory as much as I normally do when I write one of these posts (if anyone who reads this is able to find a version of it online, please send me the link).

The episode is from the show’s 11th season, episode 9, and first aired on June 2, 1981. In it, Rogers travels to the Carnegie Museum of Art to look at some paintings (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed in Pittsburgh).  Walking through the museum’s halls with one of the curators, he stops and studies three paintings.  The first is Portrait of a Boy by John Singer Sargent, 1890.  Then, they move on to view Vincent van Gogh’s Wheat Field after the Rain (Plain of Auvers), also 1890.  Finally, they visit the large and colorful Queen Louise of Prussia painted by Joan Miro in 1966 (this painting is a little bit of a Cultural Ghost in itself- it’s hardly represented online at all).
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of a Boy, 1890

What I found so remarkable about the show (and why I wanted to write about it here) was how long the two spend looking at the paintings.  Visitors to art museums often speed through works of art, spending only seconds looking at each one.  Rogers presents the work very differently.  The camera lingers over each of the paintings for a couple of minutes while he talks about what might be going on in the picture.  That he can talk about the painting in ways that make the work relevant to young viewers while still talking about it intelligently speaks to what a great educator he was. 
Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field After the Rain (Plain of Auvers), 1890

When talking about the Sargent, for example, Rogers considers what children might think about the young boy depicted in the work.  After being told that the boy would have had to sit for potentially hours while Sargent painted him, Rogers notices that he looks a little bored (something a child who has to sit through a long day at school can definitely relate to).  When contemplating the colorful Miro, Rogers doesn’t ask the curator what it’s supposed to be a picture of, but instead immediately identifies parts of the painting that look like other things.  He says he sees a moose head in the upper right, and the curator says that children who visit the museum see a helicopter in the upper left.  Finding things we find important in a work of art (regardless of what the artist intended in many cases) is what keeps are alive, and Rogers totally nails this aspect of it, letting children at home know it’s O.K. to see these things in a work of art.  I think we often lose track of this innocent viewing and look at art through different eyes as we grow older.  We might look at a non-objective painting like the Miro and ask “What’s this supposed to be” instead of “what do I think I see?”
Joan Miro, Queen Louise of Prussia, 1966

 In fact, by using these three works, Rogers presents the three basic categories of art.  The Sargent is realistic, the van Gogh abstract (simplified and exaggerated) and the Miro is non-objective.  It’s an intelligent and well-thought out collection of work that asks the viewers to contemplate different ways of making a picture. 
When Rogers returns “home” (the studio), he introduces that episode’s Neighborhood of Make Believe segment, that also happens to revolve around art making.  King Friday is having an art competition and all of the inhabitants are getting ready to participate.

The Land of Make Believe segments were probably the segments I looked forward to most as a child (what kid doesn’t love puppet shows?). As an adult, I can appreciate the lo-fi appeal of these segments.  The puppets have a charming hand-made appearance, and Rogers doesn’t really try to disguise his voice in his puppetry performances- any kid watching knew it was him doing many of the voices.  Even though he’s not visible, his presence is still felt in these segments, and this really creates the sense of make believe he so strongly advocated.  Outside the puppet arena, Rogers was the kindly guide and mentor, but in the land of Make Believe he was allowed to play.  The characters in the land of Make Believe really act as surrogates of emotions and feelings.  Shyness, confidence, sadness, and happiness are all embodied by the friendly human and animal inhabitants.  Then there’s Lady Elaine Fairchild.
Dude, what the hell?

Wikipedia describes Lady Elaine thusly: “Although a frequent antagonist, she is not portrayed as evil, but as someone who challenges authority.  Nice try Wikipedia, but any kid that grew up in the 70s knows that Lady Elaine is a stone-cold schemer.  In this episode, she tries to Sherrie Levine her way into the competition by presenting a post card of the van Gogh Plain of Auvers as her own work.  Lady Aberlin sees through that crap in about two seconds, though, and chides Lady Elaine for trying to cheat.  This bit is important because it introduces the idea of originality and honesty.  If someone is going to compete in a competition, they must do the work themselves. 

In conclusion, I wanted to write about this episode because it seems so different from how children’s programming is made today.  Not to say that contemporary programs are bad or deficient in some way, but just different.  Sometimes it’s good to see evidence of a time when a kindly television host took to time to introduce art to children and let them just look. This episode has so much to teach kids about art it’s really- wait, what? Big Bird’s in it too? Holy crap, this is like the greatest episode ever!

 Now, if I could only prove that Casey from Mister Dressup was Lady Elaine’s long lost child…

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Discovering Burchfield's Buffalo

I grew up in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca.  It was pretty ordinary, as suburbs go, but West Seneca was special in one regard: a famous artist once lived there.  My father told me this when I was a kid and it was kind of a magical thought, since Buffalo in the 70s and 80s was not always seen as particularly remarkable.  I knew even then that artists usually lived somewhere more exciting, like New York City, so a famous artist living in a regular everyday place like West Seneca made it special and gave me an early pride in my hometown.  The artist was Charles Burchfield.

Burchfield wasn’t from Buffalo (he grew up in Ohio) but moved to the city as a young man and lived in the area until his death in 1967.  He lived within the city of Buffalo for a short while but eventually settled in what was then called Gardenville (Gardenville in now a neighborhood within the larger town of West Seneca).  That Burchfield lived in a place called Gardenville makes sense, seeing as how he’s perhaps most well-known today for his fantastical nature scenes.  But, Burchfield also documented Buffalo’s industrial landscape, capturing the infrastructure around the Buffalo River and Erie Canal.  Railroad architecture, grain elevators and bridges feature prominently in his earlier work, and some of them are still standing.  Some of these structures feature in Burchfield’s painting called Black Iron, so I decided to look further in to them.

Charles Burchfield, Black Iron, 1937

Black Iron is a watercolor painting created in 1935.  It features two railroad drawbridges (technically called bascule bridges) running parallel across a river.  A train can be seen crossing one of them.   Several of these bridges cross the Buffalo River as it weaves between the countless grain elevators that still feature prominently on the city’s waterfront.  Since there’s such a high number of these bridges still around (many of them still used by trains), I figured that this was where Black Iron was painted.   I didn’t know if the bridges Burchfield saw were still around, but when scanning the river from the air via Google Maps I quickly found that there was only one possibility for the location.
  On the edge of Red Jacket River Front Park and just south of South Park Avenue, two side-by-side railroad bridges cross the Buffalo River.  It’s the only place where two bridges cross the river at such close proximity to each other.  Could this be the place that Burchfield painted 80 years ago?  I couldn’t really tell from the Google Maps pictures.  All I could really see was that they were drawbridges, and that the one on the left (the west) was locked in an upright position.  Railroad tracks no longer cross that one, and it’s been up for as long as I can remember (even though I’d never seen the bridges up close until I started this story, the raised drawbridge is visible from a distance, and can be seen from the highway when driving in to the city).  In order to know for sure if these bridges were the ones featured in Black Iron, I would have to see them up close.
I traveled to Red Jacket River Front Park on a warm and sunny day a couple of weeks ago and made my way to the bridges, which are located at the easternmost edge of the park.  One thing I noticed right away was how much plant growth separated me from the river.  Burchfield’s painting was done right from the river’s edge, and the view from the park’s path was different.  As I approached the bridges, I could see the operational one clearly, but the raised drawbridge was completely overgrown, obscuring the details of it from my current location.  The one bridge looked right but I couldn’t see enough details on the raised bridge to know if I was in the right place or not.  I was going to have to get closer.
The view of the bridges from the park. The passing train was a happy coincidence.
I retraced my steps a little and found a small clearing (not really a path per se) that led right to the water’s edge.  I made my way down there and was happy to see that there was a fairly substantial layer of driftwood and old plants that made a path of sorts along the river.  It was a little squishy in places but was solid enough for me to make my way towards the bridges.  When Burchfield was working on Black Iron, he got stuck in the mud so badly a railway worker had to pull him out.  I didn’t want to suffer the same fate so I proceeded carefully.  As I made my way towards the bridges, I started to get a better look at the raised bridge and started to see signs that I was in the right place.  For starters, the pattern of trusses on the bridge seemed to match what Burchfield had painted.

This was encouraging, but I needed to get closer to the bridge to try to see more if it.  The bridge is almost completely overgrown and I still couldn’t see much more than the raised deck.  I continued to make my way to the base of the structure.  I was soon close enough to the bridge and could finally glimpse some of it through the thick underbrush.  Peering over a short concrete wall I found myself face-to-face with the bridge’s massive counterweight.  Even though it isn’t in the same position as in the Burchfield painting, I could see that it was clearly the same shape.  I could also see an elevated catwalk that’s also visible in Black Iron.  I was now convinced that this was the same bridge.  

I looked around at some of the other pieces of bridge architecture I could see from my position.  To my right there was a platform made of steel girders.  I knew that this was the platform that once held the shed next to the bridge in Black Iron.  The shed (probably some sort of control room) is long gone, but the platform that held it is still there, as are the steel structures above the platform, also visible in Burchfield’s painting. 

I could see by comparing the bridge to the painting, Burchfield created an incredibly accurate depiction of the bridges.  The placement of the big and small architectural details of the structures is pretty remarkable.  It’s also remarkable that enough of the unused bridge is still there in order to make a positive identification.

As I searched for more information on the bridges, I came across the following picture.  This photo shows the same bridges and further confirms the location.  This picture was probably taken in the 1940s or 50s (judging by the look of the cars) and at that time the little shed on the side of the west bridge is still there and looks pretty much the same as it did when Burchfield painted it years earlier.  Also, you can see the hint of a water tower looming over that bridge in the background.  This tower is still there too (you can't see it in any of the pictures I took but it's definitely still there).  You can make your own comparisons:

After slogging through the underbrush to get closer to the bridges I feel closer to Burchfield, too.  I’ve always felt close to him spiritually due to our shared residency in West Seneca, but now I feel closer to him physically as well.  I was able to stand in almost the exact spot he did, and that made him more real somehow.  The bridges in Black Iron weren’t generic or anonymous, but these bridges.
When Burchfield painted Buffalo’s industry, he was painting a landscape that was changing.  By the 1930s, the greatness of Buffalo’s shipping industry was already starting to fade a little, and his paintings show this transition.  Black Iron shows two bridges that were still being used, but other paintings depicted rusting and decaying structures.  My visit to the bridges reinforces this idea of change and transformation.  In future posts I hope to find more of the places and buildings Burchfield painted while he was one of Buffalo’s most famous residents.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be someplace you've never been.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jean Michel Basquiat and the Joy of Original Sources

Recently my local PBS station aired Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat.  I had never seen it before but after watching it, I wanted to do a little digging into the movie’s subject.  Jean-Michel Basquiat occupies a near-mythic position in the art world and it’s hard at times to separate the art from the man.  Over the years, Basquiat has become the poster child for the excesses of a live fast and die young lifestyle, and I think that even today discussion of his celebrity equals or outshines discussion of his art.  Was he always seen this way?  I wanted to go back and explore how Basquiat was viewed and talked about before he died.  How did his contemporaries feel about him?  I decided that a good source to re-visit wasRené Ricard’s essay entitled “The Radiant Child.”  Not only was it written by someone who knew him, it’s also one of the first in-depth critical responses to his art.

René Ricard was a critic and poet, and aspects of his relationship with Basquiat play into the myths and legends that continue to surround him to this day.  For example, it was supposedly Ricard who told Basquiat “I can make you a star”, bolstering the narrative that Basquait was a special and unique breed of artist who was destined for greatness (this exchange is featured in Schnabel’s film, where Ricard is played by actor Michael Wincott).  Ricard’s essay was written at a time when Basquiat’s career as a professional artist was only a few years old.  He had been known as a graffiti artist for a while, but his foray into fine art was still evolving.  Would Ricard’s essay be a gushy promotion of Basquiat’s art, or something else?  I had never read it before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  After reading it, I feel that “The Radiant Child” functions today as a fascinating glimpse of how Basquiat’s career was changing perceptions of what could constitute art in the 1980s.

The article first appeared in the December 1981 issue of Artforum.  What surprised me most about the essay perhaps is that even though the article is most closely associated with Basquiat’s career, it discusses other artists as well.  It’s so associated with Basquiat today, by the way, that a documentary on him produced in 2009 was called The Radiant Child even though that title comes from work made by Basquiat’s contemporary Keith Haring.  Basquiat is talked about at length in the article for sure, but other artists are mentioned and discussed in an effort to place graffiti art squarely within art historical practices.

The goal of “The Radiant Child” is not to only bolster Basquiat’s career, but to place him within a history of art making that was evolving outside of the traditional art museum and art education system.  Basquiat is held up as an exemplar of that movement, but he is part of a movement that also includes other important artists.  Basquiat (as well as Haring and Judy Rifka) are the artists who were transforming graffiti art into in to fine art.  In Ricard’s words:

“Artists have a responsibility to their work to raise it above the vernacular. Perhaps it is the critic’s job to sort out from the melee of popular style the individuals who define the style, who perhaps inaugurated it … and to bring them to public attention.”

-René Ricard, “The Radiant Child”, ArtForum International, December 1981

That statement really brings into focus that reasons why Ricard saw Basquiat as so transformative.  He came from the realm of street art, but his paintings weren’t just re-creations of his graffiti tags.  They referenced graffiti art, but looked like works of art that belonged in an art gallery.  Again, Ricard says it best:

“…what the pictures are internally about is what matters. If you’re going to stand up there with the big kids you’ve got to be heavy, got to sit on a wall next to Anselm Kiefer next to Jonathan Borofsky next to Julian Schnabel and these guys are tough they can make you look real sissy. There’s only one place for a mindless cutie and it ain’t the wall, Jack”

I love that quote because it gives a pretty good sense of Ricard’s voice.  He abandons art speak at this point in the article and addresses would-be graffiti artists in the vernacular of the 1980s.  It is here where he lays out his thesis for the entire article (and perhaps for the whole graffiti art movement):  You can come from the streets, and you can try to move from painting on a wall to painting on a canvas, but your work has to say something.  Just writing your tag (a “mindless cutie”) on the wall isn’t going to cut it.  Basquiat’s paintings didn’t look like his graffiti.  They included aspects of graffiti (writing, symbols, etc.) but aimed to transform it into something else, perhaps something that’s hard to describe.  Ricard basically says that Basquiat’s art is important because it looks like art.  Far from being a bit of pretentious critic-speak, saying that it “looks like art” is an effort to place Basquiat within art history.  He might not have had the same training as someone like Anselm Kiefer, but he created art that can be discussed and interpreted the same way. 

The article, as it appears in the December 1981 Artforum

When I set out to read Ricard’s article for this post, I wanted to go right to the original source.  You can read it on-line (Artforum has itavailable on their website), but so much is missing there.  For starters, the artwork that Ricard uses to illustrate the essay isn’t there, making the text seem kind of sterile.  As mentioned above, Ricard doesn’t only discuss Basquiat in the article.  He also mentions Alain Jacquet, John Ahearn, and Joe Zucker, among others.  Examples of their work are reproduced in the original article along with documentation of some of Basquiat’s street art.  But, one wouldn’t know this from reading it on-line (the only way one can access the article as it originally appeared is by having a paid subscription to Artforum- not cheap by the way).

So, I went to my campus library and found the original issue.  Picking up the actual magazine and leafing through it shows me so much more about the art world in 1981 than the on-line version of the article ever could.  Mainly, the article is given context that can be experienced in a very tangible way.  On Artforum’s website, the article is presented alongside every other article without a sense of chronology.  The magazine, however, is a snapshot of the early 80s.  The articles, along with gallery advertisements and exhibition reviews, give a clear picture of what was happening at that moment.  One can flip through a year’s worth of old magazines and chart an artist’s success (or failure).  Artists who were lauded in their time might be forgotten today, but conversely an artist who received little attention when they first started showing their work could be much celebrated now.

When I was studying art in college, old magazines formed a large part of my education.  In breaks between classes I would flip through the bound collections of magazines in the library, watching decades of art making unfold before me.  Seeing everything side by side matters, and that’s something that gets lost on the internet.  Devoid of context, Ricard’s article loses its immediacy and impact.  Today we know that Basquiat became a star, but in 1981 that wasn’t so certain.  In the pages of that magazine, Ricard makes his case for including Basquiat among the greats, a poet extolling the virtues of an artist who was not yet a household name.  It was that magazine, that physical object, where someone might have learned about Basquiat for the first time.  One can travel to the past, in a way, through these old sources.  On-line, stripped of its illustrations and jockeying for attention with all the other articles Artforum presents on their website, this is lost.  The article’s importance gets buried in a sea of data.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be something you've never heard of (or read).

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Rediscovering Peter Blume

Shortly after I started this blog I introduced a feature called the Forgotten Artist File.  I wanted to explore the work of artists who at one time had been well-known but were currently disregarded by art historians or forgotten altogether.  One of the artists I featured was American painter Peter Blume.  Perhaps he is most remembered today for his epic painting The Rock (currently in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago), but apart from this one work his art has been little seen for decades.  This perhaps will change, though, since the Pennsylvania Academy of FineArts (PAFA) in Philadelphia is currently presenting a large retrospective of his work.  Driving home the idea that Blume is largely marginalized is the fact that this show is the first major exhibit of his work in nearly 40 years.

The field of art history can be incredibly selective and, frankly, exclusionary.  When covering American art, for example, historians may only choose to cover those periods and artists who, in hindsight, were the most important in furthering new and innovative ideas.  Art history texts are also sometimes limited in size, so exclusions may merely be the victim of a limited number of pages.  When looking at American art of the 1940s and 50s, Abstract Expressionism clearly comes out as the winner.  Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (among many others, of course) are the artists who are mentioned today, and still engender theoretical discourse.  One could argue that Pollock is discussed as much today as he was when he was still alive.  His work was as shocking as it was innovative, and he is rightly remembered as one of the most important American artists of the 20th century.  But, although Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists made lasting contributions to American art history and art history in general, they were hardly the only artists who were getting attention at the time.  Blume, along with artists such as Charles Burchfield, George Tooker, Philip Evergood, Ivan Albright, and Henry Koerner constituted a different art historical narrative of the mid 20th century.  Their work was based in realism, but introduced ideas imported from European modernism like abstraction and surrealism.  They received recognition and accolades.  Their work was collected by major museums (especially the Whitney Museum in New York).  But today, they’re hardly mentioned.  Open up an art history survey published within the last 20 years and you’re unlikely to find them listed.

It’s surprising to see how quickly this marginalization occurred.  In my library I have a copy of the book American Art of the 20th Century by Sam Hunter and John Jacobus, published in 1972  They  write extensively about these American surrealists and acknowledge their contributions alongside the work of the Abstract Expressionists (although this is sometimes done grudgingly- they clearly do not like Burchfield’s watercolors).  I also own a newer version of the text, re-dubbed simply Modern Art and published 20 years after the other book (Admittedly, these are not identical books, but the authors are the same and many of the same illustrations are used in both).  In the newer version, these artists have been almost completely removed, as if their contributions to American art meant nothing.  Burchfield and Evergood make the cut, but that’s about it.  Abstract Expressionism, though, gets over 10 pages. This is unfortunate, since these artists took European ideas (like surrealism) and re-interpreted them to create something quintessentially American.  Below I’ve placed Blume’s South of Scranton next to Yves Tanguy’s Indefinite Divisibility.  It’s not hard to see how European Surrealism inspired Blume:

Show like the current one are important because they remind us that there are many facets to art history besides the grand narrative that art history book usually present.  These kinds of shows can re-ignite interest in an artist that was previously forgotten or considered “minor”.  This has recently taken place with Charles Burchfield and perhaps now Blume will follow.    There’s certainly room for him in art history, if we only know where to look.

Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts through April 5, 2015