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Archive for the ‘exhibits’ Category

Not Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Victoria: Autograph, Allograph, Again

Posted by gninja on August 3, 2007


(No longer part of the Van Gogh oeuvre. Head of a Man at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Australia.)

The NGV announced today that they would accept the findings of the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands and no longer ascribe Head of a Man to Vincent Van Gogh.

I do find it amusing that the newspaper went with the headline, “NGV’s ‘Van Gogh’ a Fake”, as if the artist, a contemporary of Van Gogh, had been a forger intent on deceiving audiences and buyers. Of course, we have no idea whether such was the case. We certainly have no confession from a 19th century Robert Thwaites, so it isn’t exactly fair play to call Head of a Man a ‘fake.’

Regardless, the article brought me back to thinking about Nelson Goodman (as I had been doing in my previous post) and, in general, art history’s relationship to attribution and forgeries. Possibly needless to say, art historians have always been fixated on attribution, whether such-and-such an artist created such-and-such a work. If nothing else, it lent (lends?) the discipline the scientific appearance it strove to attain from its institutionalized beginning in 1870s Germany. As, most notably, with Morelli and others, art historians collected data and ‘evidence’, compiling lists of traits and styles so as to categorize the history of the world’s art into neat and tidy schools and periods.

So, of course, in this Linnaean system getting it ‘right’ and being able to pin works to individuals and specific dates was vital to the establishment of an accepted and credible discipline.

By the 1970s and 1980s, when art history was going through a lot of changes (very energizing to the field), this kind of connoisseurship and even antiquarianism came into question. Or, at the very least, art historians no longer took for granted the importance of a work’s originality and endeavored to locate the reasons for, in a word, caring.

Nelson Goodman’s book Languages of Art tackled the question of the allograph and the autograph, which led to a series of debates on the differing values (monetary and otherwise) of an original and a forgery which cannot be told apart by the naked eye. Goodman argues that, even if we cannot tell the difference between the two, the knowledge that one is a forgery and one is an original produces an aesthetic difference which then alters our perception of the works.

I love the response of Thomas Kulka to this argument, in his article, “The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries” (Leonardo, 1982). He calls Goodman a snob. Heh. However, beyond that, Kulka makes the insightful point that works may be judged on the basis of art-historical value and aesthetic value. While the former judges a piece of art based on its production during a precise moment in time and its effect on later history (and relationship to prior history) the latter bases its judgment purely on the aesthetic quality of the work. So, while the original and forgery may have equal aesthetic values, their art-historical values are vastly different. This argument is clear enough and by no means hard to arrive at. For my part, I think it’s a pretty good case: some works are good because of their artistic value, and other works are good because they extended beyond their frames and contemporary contexts to affect people and history.

Yet Kulka met with criticism. Goodman didn’t respond too well (Leonardo, 1982), nor did Jacques Mandelbrojt (Leonardo, 1983). Their responses insisted on the importance of authenticity, which must be discerned in the aesthetic quality of the piece.

It’s an old guard view because at risk in this argument is the reputation of the field and its foundation in the sciences. Art historians, by and large, cannot stand being told that there is no way to ‘prove’ their arguments. So they have to revert to science and scientific method. It’s all silly and has a rather immature attachment to historical positivism.


Returning to the NGV and their not-Van-Gogh. I’m happy that they’re still going to display the painting– it’s a confident move that declares the directors are not exclusively concerned with headlining names but also with the works themselves. But, as with my final statement in my post about Robert Thwaites, the work itself now gains currency and importance just from the debates its sparked regarding forgeries, originals, and attribution. All of which should be included somehow in the presentation of the piece. Let the audience know what they’re viewing, the recent debates about it, and push them to form their own opinions about the significance of authenticity. That’d make for a great exhibition.

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Rudolf Stingel and Having to Be There: Participation

Posted by gninja on July 26, 2007


At the Whitney right now is an exhibition of works by Rudolf Stingel. (I have to admit–and I’m chalking this up to my being a medievalist–I’d never heard of Stingel before. But apparently, he [an import to the NY art scene from Italy] made a hit debut in 1991 with a great big orange carpet, and has been, as far as I can gather, a darling to the critics ever since.)

You can find reviews of his current Whitney exhibition here and here. In short, it’s the best exhibition I’ve been to in a long, long while. It epitomized for me why I go to a museum because it gave me what cannot be replicated elsewhere or in any other format.

From the Whitney website:

Employing such materials as rubber, carpet, painted aluminum, Styrofoam, and paint, Rudolf Stingel’s work questions and disrupts the viewer’s understanding and experience of an art object. Although Stingel’s work does not always involve paint on canvas, it continually reflects upon some of the fundamental questions concerning painting today, including authenticity, hierarchy, meaning, and context. While Stingel, who was shown in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, has created major installations for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and numerous other institutions, this is his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, surveying his career to date and including a new site-specific work.

Despite how much I was enamored of this show–and the experience of experiencing it– it has some shortcomings that are not so much a product of the exhibition as the result of its seductions.

The show includes several large rooms, each one devoted to between one and three works. But because of the relationship between the works and the gallery space, each room has the feeling of an installation, or I might even venture, a performance. The first room (pictured above) elicited some variation on “ooh” and “ah” from every person entering the room. It’s simply a large room with walls covered from floor to ceiling in aluminum foil panels, illuminated by a massive, somewhat low-hung chandelier glowing with soft warm light. Like entering the Tin Man’s ballroom. Unfortunately, I had approached from the stairwell, but I can imagine the effect of entering the room unaware of what would be in there would have been all the more exciting had I taken the elevator. Very theatrical.

I soon learned that the aluminum foil was actually a medium on which the museum-goers were invited to draw, place stickers and buttons or whatever else they had on hand. Some of the panels were transports from the same exhibition at the MCA, thus retaining a local flavor outside of its locale. It was a bit strange to see some shout-outs to Chicago in a museum in NY.

Clearly, this DIY aspect of the show went down well with the critics, though I thought it was the weakest part of the exhibition. Aside from the obvious criticism–that the invitation for musuem-goers to participate is gimicky– it detracted from what would otherwise have been an overwhelming experience of dislocation. Not only was the opulent and sumptuous effect of the room unexpected in the context of the Whitney museum, but it was also achieved through the use of an everyday item (aluminum foil) juxtaposed with a luxuriant lighting piece (the chandelier). The marks made by visitors, while fun, lessened the extravagant impression created by the use of these two strikingly different materials.

At the same time, Profiling, the other current exhibition at the Whitney which I discussed in a previous post reveals the shortcomings of the use of audience participation in Stingel’s show. Whereas the pieces in Profiling required the participation of museum-goers in order to communicate a very pointed and topical message (the simultaneous allurement and threat of omnipresent surveillance), the participation requested in Stingel’s exhibition lacked any sort of direction or, to be blunt about it, point. It seemed more an appeal to the increasing self-absorption of us these days, due to which it’s presumed we lack the attention span for anything not directly related to us. And rightly so. For chrissakes, each of the three headlining exhibitions at the Whitney now allow some form of participation (the Summer of Love one includes a kind of carpeted love cave in which people are allowed to cavort; picture the adult version of waiting in line for a carnival moon walk / bouncy castle, and you’ve got the right idea).

In any case, sometimes participation works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of Stingel’s aluminum walls, I’d say it merely amounts to a questioning of the author of a work of art.  Something which is neither new nor underdiscussed (if you’ve got access to JSTOR, just search in the art history journals for collaborative art or audience participation and art, and you’ll see what I mean).

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Profiling the Profilers: Update

Posted by gninja on July 9, 2007

Apropos yesterday’s post about the Whitney exhibition, “Profiling,” I woke up this morning to read this item in the NY Times.

By the end of this year, police officials say, more than 100 cameras will have begun monitoring cars moving through Lower Manhattan, the beginning phase of a London-style surveillance system that would be the first in the United States.

The Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, as the plan is called, will resemble London’s so-called Ring of Steel, an extensive web of cameras and roadblocks designed to detect, track and deter terrorists. British officials said images captured by the cameras helped track suspects after the London subway bombings in 2005 and the car bomb plots last month.

If the program is fully financed, it will include not only license plate readers but also 3,000 public and private security cameras below Canal Street, as well as a center staffed by the police and private security officers, and movable roadblocks.

Exciting stuff, eh? So, while I’m out on Wall Street, giving guided tours (a little plug for myself), I could hundreds of cameras on me! Tracking my every move! I’ll be a star!


Hi mom!

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Profiling the Profilers

Posted by gninja on July 8, 2007


I saw some great stuff at the Whitney today. Not a bad way to cool off in this 95 degree heat.

The first (small) exhibition I saw was Profiling, well-placed on the museum’s first floor. According to the curators:

Profiling features two artworks that present a dialogue on issues surrounding surveillance, protection, privacy, and identity by exploring the use of automated systems for tracking and “profling” people in public spaces. The connection between surveillance and entertainment is at the core of SVEN-Surveillance Video Entertainment Network by artists Amy Alexander, Jesse Gilbert, Wojciech Kosma, Vincent Rabaud, and Nikhil Rasiwasia. SVEN uses a computer application to track visitors’ movements through space and to analyze their “rock star potential.” A video-processing application uses the live camera feed to generate music video-like visuals. In David Rokeby’s surveillance installation Taken, two side-by-side projections provide different readings of the activities in the gallery space. A continuously accumulating history of the movements of people in the gallery is juxtaposed with a “catalog” of gallery visitors’ headshots that have classifying adjectives, such as “unsuspecting” or “hungry,” randomly attached to them. The projects brought together in Profiling expose the absurdities and subvert the effects of surveillance technologies.

People entering were clearly drawn to the digital images, either for its rarity in a museum or for the chance to see themselves projected on the wall of museum. Immediately past the attendant taking tickets, to the left, is a dark room with a split screen showing images of museum-goers walking about the room. On the left side was a screen containing a series of still-frames, each one an image of an museum visitor. The tiles were constantly shifting around, and periodically, one would be blown up to fit the entire space of the screen, and would be accompanied by a title, such as “unthreatened.”


On the right side of the screen, shifting, ghost-like images of the same people floated about as looped sequences.


I recall my entrance into the room and move toward the far corner being shown several times. A roving white-lined square honed in on people, heightening the experience of subjection to surveillance– as opposed to voyeurism. It felt menacing to see the back of my head focused in on and highlighted for everyone’s eyes.

For all its smallness, the exhibition was a good one for several reasons. For one, it accentuated the lurking sense of vulnerability I already feel when I visit a museum or other public space under surveillance. I am never just looking at works of art. I’m also feeling the lens of the camera on me, as well as the eyes of guards and perhaps even other museum visitors. So the exhibition was relevant to the museum-going experience itself.

It was also good because of its relevance to current concerns with privacy and governmental infringements of those rights. While on this side of the Atlantic we have illegal wiretapping (so, an audio invasion) on the other side there are concerns with omnipresent–though legal–CCTV. These works, while entertaining, effectively achieve the threatening nature of ubiquitous surveillance. The titles I mentioned above, in particular, portray the the perils of innacuracy in public profiling. They produced in me a sense of helplessness and futility at the specter of being misrepresented by the titles appended to my recorded image.

It’s a thoughtful exhibition, carried out really well.

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Apocalypse Then: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan

Posted by gninja on June 27, 2007


A month ago, I went to see the exhibition of the Las Huelgas Apocalypse manuscript at the Morgan Library and Museum (I think that’s their new name– they underwent some kind of re-branding after their major renovation). In short:

The Las Huelgas Apocalypse is the largest and latest (1220) of a five-hundred-year series of medieval illuminated commentaries on the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of Liébana. The series is considered Spain’s most important contribution to medieval manuscript illumination. Visitors to the exhibition have the rare opportunity to view fifty of the Las Huelgas miniatures because the manuscript was disbound for the preparation of the facsimile; the leaves will be displayed in their original order.

Unfortunately, no photography was allowed (goodness, I hate that policy), so I can’t show any of my own images of the gallery.

The exhibition was laid out quite simply, in one room, with pages from the Las Huelgas manuscript behind glass frames mounted on the walls around the room. In the center of the room was a facsimile of the manuscript (a rather good idea, I thought), along with some cases filled with other Apocalypse manuscripts for comparison purposes. Simple enough.

I spent about 45 minutes in the gallery, maybe a bit less, and– as someone who studies manuscripts– I felt a bit disappointed in myself for not lingering. It took some reflection to figure out why I wasn’t all that impressed or intrigued.

(By the way, if you want more information on the exhibition, there are two reviews here and here. )

With the exception of the small selection of other manuscripts on display, it was pretty much a one-man show. The manuscript was displayed with virtually no supporting actors (to carry out the analogy), so all our attention was of necessity focused on it alone. True, it’s a spectacular manuscript, filled with eye candy. But– and I think this is a problem in the study of medieval art in general– there was no attempt made whatsoever to create an argument, to get the viewers to think. Which leads me to believe that the aim of such an exhibition can only be two things: 1) to put up an aesthetically impressive objet d’art and have audiences ooh and ah; and 2) to appeal to an audience already familiar with the art on display and equipped with the knowledge to make his own comparisons, or to draw her own conclusions about the work.

I understand that I’ve been fostered in the still strong Wolfflinian tradition of art history that encourages comparison (if you have access to JSTOR, I recommend this article), so I’m predisposed to wanting the images I look at placed up against other images. Still, though. These are Apocalypse manuscripts. There are so many ways to go with this– it could’ve been a great, great exhibition. And not necessarily in the (supposedly sensational) way that the Royal Academy dealt with the topic in 2000.

First, and perhaps this is a bit of a quibble, if the title of your exhibition is a play on words, that play on words should be justified. Otherwise–as I think it is in this case–the title is just cutesy and irrelevant to the content of the show. But if you’ve got a title like “Apocalypse Then”, why not include contemporary images (or imaginings / allusions) of the Book of Revelation? It would have made it a more far-ranging show (though by no means as far-ranging as one that would use contemporary apocalyptic images), but keeping things within limits is what curators are meant to do anyway.

But if something like that is too gauche for the “stately” Morgan, then why not draw better comparisons between the other Apocalypse manuscripts on display? There is a longstanding tradition of Apocalypse manuscripts, and we learn a lot about visual communication from the different ways in which these manuscripts are laid out and illuminated. Just one example demonstrates what I mean: the decision to include St John (the author of Revelation) as a witness to the scenes, outside of the miniatures’ frames, or to keep him as an active figure within the frames of the miniatures determines how the reader-viewer will conceive of the text– as a form of prophecy or vision, or a mystical experience felt viscerally by St John.

So while it was enjoyable to see the folios of this manuscript and digest the images, I could also have gotten the same experience from a facsimile soon (I assume) to be purchased by the arts library at Columbia. When I go to a gallery or museum I want more than just to look– I want also to be challenged to think about what’s before me, and it’s the duty of the curator to spark that process.

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Rant: Neither Medieval Nor All That Artful

Posted by gninja on June 24, 2007

My alternate subtitle, by the by, was “Take This Art and Shove It!”

I’m not really supposed to be bloggerizing– I’m supposed to be Latinizing–but I just get so mad sometimes…

The venerable Frick Collection of NYC, admittedly one of my favorite galleries in the city. Small, beautifully appointed, and possessing a pretty spectacular range for its size– is now on my shit list, though I doubt they care. They should’ve been relegated there earlier, but I’m coming to this information late, it seems.

They don’t allow children under 10 to visit the gallery. Period. No children.



The Collection attempts to preserve the ambience of Mr. Frick’s private house, and visitors are therefore asked to observe regulations necessary for protecting the works of art and their domestic setting. Because few ropes or cases are used to guard fragile objects, children under ten are not admitted to the Collection, and those under sixteen must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, see Children or download our Policy on the Admission of Children (Adobe Acrobat required).

Sure, a day at the Frick may not be the most exciting way for a ten-year-old to spend her day, but what the hell? There seems little reason to their policy aside from their simply being stuffy assholes. I love, by the by, how there’s a section devoted to this policy, too.


Allow me to relate a brief anecdote. Last October, a seminar I attended went to the Frick one day for class. This seminar was taught by university professor Richard Brilliant, yes, Richard Brilliant. He was continually hassled by the guards there because of the Frick’s policy on lecturing.


Policy on lecturing?

Group Visits

Group visits are by appointment only. Lecturing in the galleries is prohibited. For more information, see Group Visits.

Oh, that, policy on lecturing. It seems disseminating knowledge and discussing art in an art freaking gallery is somehow offensive to the legacy of Mr. Frick. I get it. Brilliant, like the gentleman he is, agreed pleasantly to comply and then resumed lecturing us each time a guard came by to harrass him. After the trip, he wrote a pretty harsh letter to the gallery and then read it to us for our approval before sending it off. I really love that man.

Anyway, people have to pay insane admission charges to get in to the gallery. I guess the assumption is that they’re all wealthy and of employable age enough to pay someone from The Frick staff to tell them exactly what each work of art means and why it’s important. No questions!



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