the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

The Art of Secrets

Posted by gninja on January 29, 2008

Wired lets me know of a new book coming out, Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.


(Confiscated comestibles at JFK airport.)

From Amazo’s synopsis:

In An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon documents spaces that are integral to America’s foundation, mythology and daily functioning, but remain inaccessible or unknown to a public audience. She has photographed rarely seen sites from domains including: science, government, medicine, entertainment, nature security and religion. This index examines subjects that, while provocative or controversial, are currently legal. The work responds to a desire to discover unknown territories, to see everything. Simon makes use of the annotated-photograph’s capacity to engage and inform the public. Transforming that which is off-limits or under-the-radar into a visible and intelligible form, she confronts the divide between the privileged access of the few and the limited access of the public. Photographed with a large format view camera (except when prohibited), Simon’s 70 color plates form a seductive collection that reflects and reveals a national identity. In addition to this monograph, there is also an exhibition of Simon’s work opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art in March 2007.

Immediately, I had thoughts of Peter Aertsen when I saw the image above.


(Peter Aertsen, Meat Stall [with Flight into Egypt], 1551).

It’s not that the images are all that strikingly familar.  But the crowded still-life and sense of something “hidden” underlying it runs throughout both.  In the case of Aertsen, various interpretations have been offered including the religious symbolism of Carnival versus Lent (manifested as meat vs pretzels and fish) and some contemporary land dispute alluded to on the sign in the upper right.  In the same way, Simon has arranged the array of illicit foods at JFK into a composition that demands we ask some questions.  The “property of” boxes in the background, the growing plant emerging from the heaps of trashed produce in a stainless steel sink, a decomposing  animal’s head peeking out at us from the vegetation.  This is the property of no one, and yet it’s a cornucopia.  It’s eerie.

Other images include a man in solitary confinement, nuclear waste, and a braile issue of Playboy.  All beautiful photographs, every one of them (that I’ve seen).

What I like most about these photographs, though, is Simon’s ability to create an image that not only aestheticizes the covert and often threatening, but that also underscores the obscurity of the subject.  Her subjects are mostly devoid of active human presence, and they announce their separation from the activities of the everday.  She focuses on cages or empty compositions, darkness, and sterility to remove them from us.  Yet, at the same time, her images are incredibly simple.  It’s as if the most harmless looking things hidden from our view are those which wield the most power when released.

A final image of a bottle of HIV:


Posted in art | Leave a Comment »

Oh. My. God.

Posted by gninja on January 24, 2008

There are art history superheroes.  Where do I sign up?

Seriously.  I want a monogrammed laser point(and-shoot)er when I join, too.

Posted in art, art history | 6 Comments »

Garage Aesthetics

Posted by gninja on January 22, 2008

There is a great, great article about parking garages at the Washington Post.  Hell, I’ve never parked a car in my life (no driver’s license), and I find this fascinating.


The article reviews a talk (based on the speaker’s new book) dealing with the design and evolution of parking garages.  The basic premise is that garages, once impressive architectural works, became uglier as motorists demanded greater convenience.

Towards the end of the article, the journalist adds some editorial commentary that I had hoped–but never expected–would be made:

McDonald’s passion is not undiscriminating, but it is premised on some things that we would all be better off questioning. Garages, McDonald argues, are a necessity, essential to our fundamental American right to mobility in an urbanized world. The challenge is to build them better.

Yes, they can be built better than they have been (they can intersect with mass transit, they can be hidden underground or disguised behind better facades). But until the economics of urban land use and the demand for huge amounts of parking change, they can never really be made beautiful. They are almost always too large to be successfully hidden and, rather like funeral parlors, no matter how nice they are on the outside, you always know what’s on the inside. In the case of garages, it’s hundreds of little environmental disasters that burden their owners with debt, insulate them from society, frazzle them with constant cleaning and maintenance and pollute a crowded world.

If you hate garages — for being city killers, for ruining neighborhoods, for discouraging mass transit — there is no such thing as a good garage.

Which brought, to my mind, an interesting question.  Can aesthetics prompt (or be instrumental in) a movement to  get rid of these things and, as a consequence, cars?  It’s an idealistic question, to be sure.  Nevertheless.
Now, we know parking garages are ugly.  Most of the ones I’ve seen anyway.


Why ugly?  It is a giant box plunked onto the street, aesthetically oblivious to its surroundings.  It has no architecturally elements that encourage the eye to move in a manner that engages the mind (just long horizontals or negative space across a facade of uniform color and texture).  Look, if you like Philliip Johnson, then this is probably for you .  But, even then, aren’t Johnson’s buildings supposed to give the mind little to do when looking at them?  Maybe four years at List Art Center just made me bitter.

The point, though, is that, clearly, this kind of ugliness hasn’t caused a great enough reaction to cause people to ditch their cars.

But, maybe this a product of naturalization in design.  It’s common for the mind to accept images (or sights) as givens when no alternatives are presented. (This is why the use of two projectors or side-by-side images on Powerpoint is so successful in art history classes– comparison forces the mind to consider alternatives).

So.  What if, instead of designing better and more beautiful garages (like the ASU one pictured up top), people start designing better and more beautiful bus depots, subways, etc?  Give people visual alternatives and perhaps behavioral alternatives will ensue?

I’m such an idealist.

Posted in architecture, art, art history, urban space | 13 Comments »

Historical Memory and the Valle de los Caidos

Posted by gninja on January 17, 2008

(Note: rushed post; I’ll come back later to clean up and round it off.  Left un-edited.  I think I mention lazy somewhere in here.)

The NY Times put up an article a couple days ago, discussing a controversial law passed in Spain, known as the “Law of Historical Memory” (does the name of that law not scare you?; it scares me). One of the monuments affected by the law:


One of the law’s clauses:

la ley establece que los escudos, insignias, placas y otros objetos o menciones conmemorativas de exaltación personal o colectiva del levantamiento militar, de la Guerra Civil y de la represión de la dictadura deberán ser retiradas de los edificios y espacios públicos. La retirada no será de aplicación cuando [..] concurran razones artísticas, arquitectónicas, o artístico-religiosas protegidas por la ley, lo cual podrá aplicar a iglesias.

(the law establishes that the emblems, insignias, plaques, and other objects or commemorative mentions of the personal or collective exaltation of military uprising, of the Civil War, and the dictatorial repression should be removed from buildings and public spaces. The disposal will not be applicable when…artistic, architectural, or artistic-religious reasons protected by the law coincide, which could be applied to churches [my translation; apologies for any errors].

So. As with most laws (I believe), the language is interesting. For one, what constitutes “exaltation”? And secondly, who decides whether artistic, architectural, or artistic-religious (?) reasons are applicable? See! Art history is political. The Valle de los Caidos (purportedly constructed by labor forced from republicans) presents a case in which those “artistic-religious” reasons apply, but the government still has decided to alter the monument’s meaning:

se regirá por las normas aplicables a lugares de culto y religiosos. Se dispone su despolitización, prohibiéndose los actos de naturaleza política [..] exaltadores de la Guerra Civil, de sus protagonistas, o del franquismo y que la fundación gestora del Valle incluirá entre sus objetivos honrar y rehabilitar la memoria de todas las personas fallecidas a consecuencia de la Guerra Civil de 1936-1939 y de la represión política que le siguió.

I’m too lazy to translate. I might come back later to do so. In any case, it calls for a “depoliticization” of the site, which consists of a prohibition of political acts there, but at the same time honoring all those who died as a consequence of the Civil War. I don’t know.

I’m actually not writing this post in order to debate the obvious issues and controversies involved (revisionism and the like). Instead, I thought I’d sketch out a few of the ways in which the Valle de los Caidos is a brilliant (political) monument. Franco certainly knew what he was doing. Or, at the very least, hired someone who knew what he was doing.

For starters, it’s located in a valley, which also figures prominently in the name. There’s nothing subtle here about its resonance with a certain very well-known Psalm.

Then there’s its placement in a carved-out hill (mountain?), reminiscent of the catacombs and early Christian martyrdom.

The arms of the facade recall St Peter’s (and, oddly enough) Hatshepsut’s tomb. I’m pretty sure the former is the allusion, but I bring up Hatshepsut because of the long tradition of embracing, funneling entrances. Although I don’t know if anyone was ever meant to enter Hatshepsut’s tomb.

stpeters.jpg hatshepsut_1.jpg

The cross atop is placed against the backdrop of the sky, giving it the appearance of hovering, ethereally, over the monumental ensemble. The resulting impression is of divine authorization.

Posted in architecture, art, art history | 4 Comments »

The Art World Olympics

Posted by gninja on January 13, 2008

At the Australian:

They used to call it the art world Olympics.

But that was something of a misnomer because, unlike the real Olympics, the Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art focused on Europe. The UNESCO-sponsored congress used to be very much about Western art, with the history of other places simply ignored as irrelevant.

As far back as 1975, however, the committee, known as CIHA, realised it was too Eurocentric. It took until the early 1990s, however, for an expansion to take effect. It was decided that the conference, held every four years like the Olympics, should shift out of Europe and into centres that had previously been left out of art history. Centres such as Australia.

Next week, the 32nd congress of CIHA will be held at the University of Melbourne. It will bring together more than 600 participants from a record 47 countries, a number convener Jaynie Anderson, professor of art history at the university, is proud of. It signals, even before the talking begins, that her theme – Crossing Cultures – has been recognised as the hot topic for art history at the beginning of the 21st century.

Good for CIHA.

My only addition to posting this article is a reaction to a–I think–throwaway quote at the end of it:

[Jaynie] Anderson, an art historian steeped in the Italian Renaissance, is no less adamant about the need for a radically new approach.

“This conference is edgy,” she says, “I’ve been surprised that the political edginess of art history has not been exploited more.

“People think art history is not political, so there’s been very little political analysis.”

Really?  What people?  The history of art is inherently political.  From its institutional inception in the 1870s, art history has determined what is and what is not worthy of the label ‘art,’ or at the very least, worthy of a vocal position within Western culture.  If artist X or monument X doesn’t get dissertations, articles, and books written about him/her/it, then she/he/it becomes a cultural tree-falling-in-the-woods.  When art history textbooks neglected to mention women artists, there was no art by women.  Obviously, there was, but in not including it in the canon, female artists were rendered virtually invisible.

These are some damned banal statements to be making here.  Which is why I’m all the more surprised by the comment that “people think art history is not political.”

Posted in art, art history | 7 Comments »

De-gifting LACMA

Posted by gninja on January 12, 2008


Hey, if re-gifting can make it, so can its ‘de’ counterpart.

An article detailing trustee Eli Broad’s decision to rescind his gift of 2000 works of art to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was sent over my way by husband. An excerpt:

LACMA was poised to become the nation’s only encyclopedic museum — with collections ranging through all historical periods in every part of the globe — that would also have a major commitment to contemporary art. Since Broad, a LACMA trustee who occupies the stratosphere of the world’s contemporary collectors, won’t himself make the institutional pledge, that scheme has disintegrated…. When LACMA officials announced several years ago that Broad had pledged $50 million to build BCAM on its Wilshire Boulevard campus, his large collection was in the front of the art world’s collective mind. LACMA may be encyclopedic, but its strengths have never been in the modern sweep of 19th and 20th century art. For art after 1950, a Broad gift could make a huge difference.

It’s a jerk move, on the one hand, but on the other, he still gave the institution $50million. Any complaints about the donation-that-wasn’t bring to mind Tracy Jordan’s compensation for spending two days making a movie for Shaq: “A million dollars, a yellow Bentley and nothing!”

As I’ve indicated in at least one previous post, I do think it’s imperative that art be made visible to as many people as possible. But for more than just the sake of argument here, the dismay that this collector will not be donating his 2000 pieces to LACMA sounds far more related to the prestige of the institution than to the accessiblity of the art it would display. In fact, the public visibility of art is not mentioned once in the article.

Right. So the writer’s sympathies clearly lie in a place I don’t think has much pathos. That’s fine. A more intersting question, though, is what other models there mght be for displaying art (not in reproductions) to the public. I’m way out of my league here–this topic is not so much art history as it is business admin or something. But knowing that Broad probably won’t give his goods to LACMA, what alternatives are there (aside from the likely scenario that he’ll open up his own gallery)?

I’m posing this as a question with no intention of answering it. The point is to expose the critical outrage for what it is–bitterness about the future of a museum’s reputation.

Now that I think about it, the alternative Broad himself expressed doesn’t sound “nonsensical” to me at all.

Which brings us to Broad’s second nonsensical idea. He thinks museums should collectively share works of art — an administrative and curatorial nightmare, which makes museum professionals cringe — and that functioning as a “lending library” of art to institutions is “a new paradigm and a model for other private collectors.”

Posted in art, art history, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums | 1 Comment »

Lempicka Gift

Posted by gninja on January 11, 2008

For [insert invernal holiday of your choice here], husband got me a painting of Tamara de Lempicka’s Girl with Gloves.


I’ve always found de Lempicka’s art appealing. If I weren’t focusing on medieval art, I’d definitely go in for Art Deco.

In any case, I thought I’d look her up in JSTOR to see what articles turned up. Surprisingly little. There are a few monographs on her and a handful of articles, but that’s about it. I wonder why. I will say, however, that I (ironically) like the title of this one: Matthias Thibaut, “Van Dyck für das Jazz Age.” I guess it works (she painted portraits of the elite), but my God, is it really necessary to make that comparison?

Posted in art, art history | 4 Comments »

Masterpieces and Social Change

Posted by gninja on January 11, 2008

There’s an interesting post over at the Design Observer on Ernst Bettler. In brief:

In the late 1950s, Bettler was asked to design a series of posters to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfäfferli+Huber. Aware of reports that P+H had been involved in testing prisoners in German concentration camps less than 15 years before, he hesitated, and then decided to accept the commission. “I had the feeling I could do some real damage,” he said later.

And indeed he did. He created four posters featuring dramatic, angular black and white portraits juxtaposed with sans serif typography. Alone, each poster was an elegant example of international style design. Together, however, a different message emerged, for it turned out the abstract compositions in the posters contained hidden letters…Hung side by side on the streets, they spelled out N-A-Z-I. A public outcry followed, and within six weeks the company was ruined.

The ‘A’ portion of the campaign:


The post goes on to explain that Bettler’s legend was more myth than fact, as discovered by Andy Crewdson. Nevertheless, it brings up a good topic for discussion.

Regardless of the era in which it was created, I always ask myself to what extent the art I’m studying or researching at any given time was formative or symptomatic. Am I researching art as document or generative force? The answer is rarely one or the other, and the extent to which it is either varies from work to work. But the following question is an important one to ask: as agents of social change, how effective are”masterpieces”? I don’t mean art in general, but specifically those works we refer to as masterpieces. The term itself is a complicated one to define. But, no matter which definition one uses, a masterpiece is in some respect (if not primarily) unique. According to the Grove Dictionary of Art:

Term with three main meanings, successively of diminishing precision: (a) a test-piece of work submitted to a craft organization as qualification for entry as a master (e.g. ‘Hans submitted his masterpiece to the guild in 1473’); (b) a work considered an artist’s best and/or most representatively central (e.g. ‘Hans’s masterpiece is surely the Passion cycle in Berlin’); (c) simply a work considered very good and/or canonical, either absolutely (‘Hans’s Passion cycle is a masterpiece’) or in some particular respect (‘a masterpiece of colour’)… A further complication of definition is that the various western European synonyms—particularly the French chef d’oeuvre, Italian capolavoro, German Meisterstück and Hauptwerk—have had different histories and still have different nuances.

Considering I teach a course entitled “Masterpieces of Western Art”, I think I should explore the term in depth at some later point. For now, though, I’m addressing meanings 2 and 3 as they relate to social change.

My question is: if an object is unique, what are the means by which it can create a reaction large, important, active enough that it causes social change? What has to happen? Does it have to exist in a society where reproduction (photographic, digital, analogue) and dissemination are possible and common? Does it have to participate in the daily life of the community (e.g. the very visible Parthenon)? Does only one person–albeit an influential one–have to see the piece?

We (as in art historians) look at masterpieces so often and assume they resonate, and I wonder how these unique works intersect with the daily concerns of the people who see them. Perhaps, more than any other objects we observe, it is the masterpieces that are symptomatic and emblematic; and the art and everything else that comprises visual culture (Visual Culture? I don’t know if “we” capitalize it yet) that’s formative. Maybe what we use to define a masterpiece is its encapsulation of definitive and culturally-specific values. Values that are worked out and reinforced in art that is far less masterful and far more ordinary.

I really need to read Walter Cahn’s book already.

So, is (graphic) design a more effective agent of social change than a masterpiece? I have no idea. It’s not really a question meant as googlefight material. My point is that I would like to know how a masterpiece–something with an original circulation far narrower than that of a national ad campaign or popular font–can supersede its literal singularity to become something formative and galvanizing.

Posted in art, art history, politics | Leave a Comment »

History of Art Healing

Posted by gninja on January 10, 2008

While I recover from a pretty nasty cold…


(Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon van der Paele, 1436)

It occurs to me that, when sick, I’d probably most like to be in a room filled with Jan van Eycks (paintings; not the guy) and other early Netherlandish paintings.  It could also depend on the season.  I don’t much feel like looking at early Netherlandish stuff when the weather’s warm.

In any case, in my sickly leisure (boredom?) I was trying to think of any art history studies that have been done on art therapy.  From just a quick glance, I gathered that the literature on art therpay in the “sciences” is vast.  A search for those keywords on Columbia’s Libary Catalogue turned up 616 hits, and each one I clicked on was listed in a health sciences, sociology, or medical collection.  There’s even an American Art Therapy Association.  JSTOR turned up about the same kind of results when I searched various combinations of “art” and therapy- or healing-related terms.  Looking through David Freedberg’s Power of Images, I found no section on art as curative.  This is all just to say that an art *history* study of the therapeutic role of art in X time period or X culture would be interesting.  I’m sure it’s been done.

Posted in art, art history | 2 Comments »

The Robber Baron’s Age of Rembrandts

Posted by gninja on November 8, 2007

Good commentary from the Guardian. According to Richard B Woodward:

What is unseemly about The Age of Rembrandt is the jingling sound of money audible throughout and the subliminal appeals for more of it to replenish the museum’s coffers. The title of the show is a misnomer and a ruse. The curators aren’t examining the Dutch society that allowed Rembrandt and his contemporaries to flourish but rather celebrating the New York society that could afford to buy their work.


(A portrait of JP Morgan. Not done by Rembrandt. That would be impossible. Or prescient.)

By and large I had the same response when I saw the exhibition. But, unlike Woodward, I took not so much issue with the title of the show (though I do agree with him), but instead with the lack of curatorial presence in the show. Rather than just group the paintings on the walls according to their donors, why not make some kind of effort at addressing what their art-purchases (and donations) say about these prominent families? It would do a great service to the public to strive less towards curatorial transparency–at least in this case. Include photographs of these families next to their works, and show what else they collected. Even if only through photographs. Juxtapose a formal portrait of Morgan with one done by Rembrandt. How were these families modeling themselves. There really a whole slew of ways this show could have been handled that could have satisfied both the museum’s desire to honor (and solicit more) donors, as well as the museum-goer’s desire for a an exhibition that is intellectually engaging.

Posted in art, art history, exhibitions, exhibits, galleries, museums, new york | Leave a Comment »