Category: Sculpture

Sneak a Peek at THE EROTIC DOLL: A Modern Fetish

9780300152029

Marquard Smith is research leader and head of doctoral studies in the School of Humanities, The Royal College of Art, London, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Visual Culture.

In February 2014, we will publish a new book by Marquard, entitled The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish.  This will be the first book to explore the historical, theoretical, and phenomenological relations between men and the inanimate human form, such as dolls, mannequins, and artificial body parts, in the art and visual culture of modernity.  Set against a backdrop of the 19th century “invention” of heterosexuality, and distinctly modern configurations of fetishism, perversity, and animism, Marquard details fascinating encounters, including Oscar Kokoschka and his doll of Alma Mahler, Hans Bellmer and his poupées, the Surrealists and their mannequins, and Marcel Duchamp and his figure in Étant donnes.  Marquard argues that such encounters in the history of art and visual culture are also connected to encounters in capitalist modernity’s manufacturing and circulating of inanimate human forms such as waxworks, shop window dummies, and bespoke love dolls in our ever-more over-developed consumer culture.

In the following sneak peek from the book, he addresses Pygmalionism and the magical, transformative powers of early cinema.


In early adventures in moving images, cases of inanimate human form coming to life by technological conjuring include the animated still or ‘sequence’ photography of moving bodies in the experiments of Eadweard J. Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. These resonate with concomitant time-and-motion studies such as the invention of the scientific management of efficiency in the Taylorism of Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Fordism of Henry Ford. Attentive to the dangers of technological mechanisation of the human at the heart of industrial capitalism were also Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with its Evil Maria automata and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) with its mechanisationof- man thesis. Earlier still, Georges Melies had made his 1898 trick film version of Pygmalion and Galathea, his Coppélia: la poupée animée (1900, no longer extant), Poupée vivante (1908), and in 1903 his production of Illusions Extraordinaires (Extraordinary Illusions). As the cultural historian Michelle E. Bloom points out, this refers to Pygmalion implicitly by featuring Melies himself ‘as a magician who assembles dismembered body parts into a statue and then transforms the statue into a woman’.45 Things coming into motion, into emotion, do so by the cinematic tricks – cuts, fade-outs and so on – that prove that the magic of transformation is built into the very apparatus, techniques and affect of cinema. This is all closely tied, as Nead puts it, to a culture preoccupied visually and technologically with life and motion: ‘It is historically consistent that the story of Pygmalion enjoyed a renewed popularity in the visual arts late in the nineteenth century, just when attempts to design machines to create living pictures and moving images were escalating and had assumed a pressing momentum.’ The cinema became, thus, the culmination of Muybridge and Marey’s attempts to animate still photography by way of the sequence, an interest in ‘serial motion’ that is found in waxwork museums, where, like tableaux vivants, panoramas and dioramas, frozen scenes became proto-cinematic as participants mobilised the scenes by themselves moving through the displays.

As these examples suggest, the forever growing interest in Pygmalion and his statue from the late eighteenth century onwards, and specifically for my purposes in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, was tied to transformative powers. These are matter, magic, the imagination, and, as just noted, emerging ideas about first the physiological-isation, then the neurologicalisation, then the electric-ification and finally the technological machinisation of the human. In the context of such transformations, our sense of the (human) body is itself transformed, reconfigured from a bio-mechanical to a bio- electric or, better, a bio-technological system. Such artificialisation, such a turn from Man as God-given to Man as bio-technological machinic system is fundamental to the human body as it was transformed in and by modernity. It was precisely encapsulated by Walter Benjamin in a fragment of The Arcades Project where the technological supersedes the natural, leading to a dissolving of the natural, the aesthetics of beauty, gender, sexuality and reproductivity itself. It is telling that he fingered Hoffmann’s Olympia as emblematic: ‘The extreme point in the technological organization of the world is the liquidation of fertility. The frigid woman embodies the ideal of beauty in Jungendstil. (Jungendstil sees in every woman not Helena but Olympia)’.

Such fantasies of the idea of the ideal woman, and many others, are connected with irreconcilable tensions brought on by a number of factors. These include the emergence of feminism; the eugenicist fantasy of man-made perfection; a surfeit of figurations of woman as a sentimentalised and idealized ‘angel of the house’ to be worshipped or as an embodiment of gothic and demonic carnality; the damning (but also revering) of the (artificialised) nature of ‘woman’ in capitalist modernity’s bourgeois consumer culture as vacuous, stupid and frivolous; and man’s decadent indulgence in erotic daydreaming and fantasies of possession and their very opposite, a will to take flight from such sexuality. If there is at modernity’s heart a ‘primacy of artifice over nature’, according to the comparative literature scholar Charles Bernheimer in his considerations of decadent aesthetics, I might propose that this is tied to another ongoing friction, that between the primacy of artifice over nature, the ‘artificification’ of nature, or even nature as artifice, and the invention of (male heterosexual) sexuality as polymorphously perverse.

While excessively wide-ranging, historically and in terms of their medium, and grossly itemised for my purposes, these philosophical, literary, fictional, poetic, theatrical, graphic, painterly, sculptural, photographic and early cinematic inventions and re-inventions of the myth of Pygmalion and his statue all meld the magical, the imagination, modern science and technology. All include a belief in the idea of inanimate human form or matter becoming animate, coming to life, being brought to life, possessing the desire for life. All to a greater or lesser extent stress this potential and the durational process by which such animating works. This is where the creator, the animator, the artificer, a modern-day Pygmalion makes, crafts, wills human form, inanimate matter, the artificial into life and falls in love with his own creation: operisque sui concepit amorem. A desire to consummate such love is never far away. Yet it is rarely explicit, usually only intimated. This accounts for the pervasive assumption, erroneous to my mind, that ‘as long as the statue is marble Pygmalion’s desire can never be satisfied’. Tellingly, we have to look away from these creative types if we want to see the point at which falling in love with statues moves over to wanting to have sex with statues. It is not only to the artificer, the animator, the creative genius, the modern-day Pygmalion that we must turn but also to the ordinary man. In fact, to the ‘ignorant and uncultured’ ordinary man, although to the ‘educated’ man also, with a lust and desire forinanimate matter as matter. This is where Pygmalion meets Pygmalionism.

Curator Barbara Haskell on Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE

One of the exhibitions currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art is the extraordinary Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE.  According to Forbes magazine, the exhibition is “A long overdue celebration of the depth and breadth of the 85-year-old Indiana’s work over five generations.”  Yale University Press is distributing the stunning accompanying catalogue of the same title, and we recently had the keen pleasure of talking to Barbara Haskell, the exhibition’s curator and editor of the catalog, about Robert Indiana.

 

Robert Indiana Beyond LOVE

Y@rtBooks: Robert Indiana is known overwhelmingly for his work LOVE.  Tell us about how this iconic image has managed to be both a blessing and a curse.

Barbara Haskell: This image, which is arguably one of the most recognizable and famous images in 20th-century art, and is beloved all around the world, has, for Indiana, had a dramatically two-pronged effect.  On one hand, it has brought him immense fame, and on the other it’s brought him a certain kind of marginalization within the art world. When it first appeared and was taken up by the counterculture as a talisman of free love and free sex, and put on all manner of trinkets, the assumption was that Indiana was making money by selling the design, which he wasn’t.  He had never copyrighted it. In 1966, when he first introduced it, artists didn’t think about copyrighting artwork. And so the work has saddled him in the art world with an unshakable association; even art connoisseurs associate him with this one image. The rest of his work, which is a vibrant, often caustic comment on America – both a celebration as well as a criticism of the country – just got lost. Few people are aware or remember that in the early 60s, he was considered one of the seminal Pop artists.  Thomas Crow has noted that if you named, in 1962 or 1963, the top five Pop artists, Indiana might have been first on the list.

 
Y: Were the artists that came up alongside Indiana concerned about how his reputation was being increasingly dominated by this single image, and were they distressed on his behalf that his real voice was being lost?

BH: I don’t actually think so; his close friends were probably distressed, because they saw this image taking over the perception of his art and getting out of his control.  But most people in the art world probably weren’t aware that he wasn’t the motor behind all of these commercial products.  So I think the people that were concerned were a very small number.

 

Y: Robert Indiana had a troubled, unhappy, poor, and peripatetic childhood.  How has this influenced the art that he has made over a career more than a half-century long?

BH: I think his biography is a filter through which he saw everything.  His childhood was one of emotional conflict.  He was adopted, and his adoptive family was very poor – he has talked about always living on the wrong side of the tracks. His mother was pathological about various things; she suffered from an obsessive preoccupation with death, and she was unable to live in the same house for much longer than half a year at a time. His father deserted the family.  Indiana, though, saw himself as different from the people who had adopted him.  He has said that he realized early on that they were inept.  Art became his refuge – the vehicle for exiting what he called a “bleak, tawdry environment.” But those early experiences stayed with him to the extent that his vision of the world, his vision of love, remained very fraught.  Throughout his career, he dealt with the idea of love. One of his earliest pieces, The Sweet Mystery, is actually about love – “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” being a song about the pain and longing of love from the operetta Naughty Marietta. In the Indiana painting titled The Sweet Mystery, there are danger bars, like in a highway sign, so we see that already in 1961, he’s presenting the idea of love as a difficult, painful experience, one that is precarious and doesn’t last; it’s dangerous for human beings.  Later, in 1989, Indiana began work on the Hartley Elegies series, which are a lament for lost love.  Marsden Hartley had been in love with a German officer who died in WWI, and the whole Hartley Elegies series, particularly as Indiana begins to inject elements of his own biography into it, becomes about lost love.  The childhood disappointments that he experienced early on permeate everything that he did. And it creates a tension between celebration and alienation.  Because in many ways, Indiana is celebrating America – there’s an embrace of the innocence and the naïveté and the honesty of America, invoked through bold highway signs and visual symbols of the Midwest. And yet the subtext is disappointment and the difference between the idealized notion of love or the American dream, and the reality of these things, which, in Indiana’s paintings, is presented as failing to live up to the promise.

 

Y: How do Indiana’s pervasive nostalgia, and his use of language, contribute to his identity as a quintessentially American artist?

BH: Even his choice of name: Robert Indiana.  Until the eve of his 30th birthday, he was known as Robert Clark.  In choosing the new name Robert Indiana, he sought to assert his identity as an American. Stylistically and thematically, his work echoes this assertion. Indiana once said about the hard edges and highly saturated colors in his work: “How much more American can a technique be?”  And the very imagery in the work, too: it’s filled with references to highway signs, roulette wheels, billiard balls, and five-pointed stars. The wooden beam sculptures that he called herms have a quality of Americana about them – a sense of American folk art. In the paintings, there’s dynamic motion, circles that seem to be constantly moving; there’s a sense of energy, a sense of bold brashness that’s very American.  He makes this identity even more unequivocal by looking back to earlier American painters and making homages to Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella, and also to American writers; he begins his literary series by looking at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – which is among the most iconically American poems. He makes homages to Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Hart Crane. All of the literary texts that he chooses are iconcally American. And it’s very self-conscious, this notion that he has of being an American painter.

 

Y: Are there notable differences between the work that Indiana did in the 60s, when he was living in New York and surrounded by other artists, and the work that he did later, living a relatively more isolated life on an island off the coast of Maine?

BH: Living in a community of artists that included Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Jack Youngerman, Lenore Tawney, and Charles Hinman, among others, in New York in the 1960s was totally seminal for him.  His trademark features of highly saturated colors and hard-edged forms were the result of influence from Kelly and others in this group.  There is a nostalgia, especially in the work of the 1960s. He looks back on his childhood through rose-colored glasses, portraying his years growing up in Indiana as being rife with precious memories, and yet the actual experience of his childhood was so different.  As a result, there’s an ambiguity in the work from the early 60s. As he became more successful, his work did change to some extent.  The series he called Self-Portraits, each canvas depicting a different year of his life in the 60s and 1970s, is less critical – it’s more an inventory of things that he’s experienced, places he’s been, people he’s known. He uses the same hard-edged, highly saturated colors, but they tend not to have the caustic ambiguity that the early work has.  So I do think there’s a shift.   He goes back to earlier things, refreshing his art by reworking themes and images he introduced in the ‘60s. The works of that formative 10 year period were charged with a tension between celebration and alienation that is not always present in his post-1960s art.

 

 

Barbara Haskell is curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Shaping Humanity through Art and Science

Imagine working at an excavation site on a mission to unearth pieces of our prehistoric past. And suddenly you discover a skull underneath mounds of dirt, the remains of a distant ancestor who has remained hidden for millennia. Such a discovery was celebrated in Georgia earlier this month after an incredibly intact skull was discovered at the Dmanisi excavation site.

Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our OriginsFinding such an intact skull is an incredibly rare stroke of luck, for most times archaeology must make do with bones or bone fragments. Scientific investigation and technology have allowed us to infer about the skeletal systems of many proto-human primates. But is it possible that science can take us only so far in helping us imagine these piles of bones as remnants of living creatures that roamed an Earth so different from what we inhabit today?

To help us in this challenge, we need the knowledge of a scientist, the savvy of an investigator, and the vision of an artist. And John Gurche has combined all three strengths to reconstruct the bodies of 15 primates from 8 different species for the Smithsonian Museum Hall of Human Origins, which opened in 2010. Gurche’s book, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins, recounts his experiences—which involve dissection, scientific study, and sculpture—about the process of primate reconstruction, including that of the famous “Lucy.”

Watch the more detailed animation on the Yale Press YouTube channel.

 

From the analysis of the canines to the shape of the mandible to the prominence of the brow ridges, Gurche walks us through the series of questions and inferences he makes upon examining the bones of these ancestral primates. We learn what particular morphological traits relate one species to another. It allows us to understand what makes humans more related to Australopithecus Africanus than a chimpanzee, for example. Gurche also contextualizes a lot of his decisions by explaining the diet, tools, and behavior of the species he is studying. In his familiar, approachable prose style, he provides an insightful reflection about his experience while also giving us a lesson in biological anthropology.

It’s a very human story in that Gurche does not sugarcoat his failures and struggles in the process. He tells us about how 15 months of work crumbled away when his initial sculpture of Lucy disintegrated, revealing how the use of urethane was far inferior to the use of silicone in making the sculptures.  At times, Gurche finds himself having created a bust that inaccurately suggests a similarity with a different species or to achieve the desired look, he must have to make artistic choices that go against anatomical structures. Small details such as the wrong dental cusps or a slightly misshaped foot can suggest incorrect information about the primate, for these sculptures are as much teaching tools as they are works of art.

Using scientific knowledge in addition to technology, Gurche shows us the entirety of the skeleton that forms the basis of his work. From there, he uses materials such as clay, plaster, silicone, and acrylic. But beyond the difficulties of balancing the scientific with the artistic, there is also the matter of how to actually depict the reconstruction as a representation of a living being. The sculpture captures a swift moment in the life of the primate, so which moment should Gurche choose? When the primate is mid-motion while hunting or idle and lost in thought? What expression should the creature take and where does it look? As an investigator he asks these questions but as an artist, he conducts experiments such as studying live, moving  models to capture a sense of motion in his sculptures and instill a vital presence into them, showing how bone, muscle, and skin come together to make a living being.

There is something that happens between sculptor and sculpture that might be called animistic magic. This has to happen if the sculpture will work as an evocation of something alive… There must be a transition in his mind from the nonliving to the living, a process of imbuing nonliving materials with life. So there are, with each sculpture that succeeds in doing this, moments when you feel this transition happening under your hands as they move (blood flows, claw warms into flesh). Rationally, you are aware that this is a projection of your hope and your will onto clay and plaster, but still you feel that something else, some quality of the living, is present.

One might ask what the point is of reconstructing the bodies of these ancestral primates. Are the bones not enough? Does not the outline of the big picture suffice for us to understand it? We could ask the same question about why people stage yearly reenactments of famous battles or write novels about historical figures and events. There is a human fascination with making history come alive and feel real to us. Our past is more than just words on a page or the bare bones of a being; it’s a consciousness that we try to tap into for us to enjoy, be inspired by, and learn from for the future.

Penone Momentousness

PenoneA colleague of ours had the opportunity last week to attend the opening events for Italian artist Giuseppe Penone’s outdoor exhibition in New York’s Madison Square Garden, and offered the following observation.

Giuseppe Penone joins the ranks of prominent sculptors (Sol Le Witt, Jessica Stockholder, Mark di Suvero, and Leo Villareal, among others) to have shown their work in the urban oasis of Madison Square Park, as part of the contemporary art program Mad Sq. Art. Three of Penone’s signature tree sculptures are currently planted in the center of the park, on view through February 9, 2014. Cast from bronze, and so eloquently lifelike that you might miss them, the twisting, bending branches of Penone’s trees behave, on second glance, strangely. They reach for the ground, clasp one another’s limbs like hands, and cradle impossible objects: giant stone boulders taken from the river near Penone’s Italian home.

On a recent night, onlookers circled the sculptures’ trunks, painted a realistic flat gray, with glints of polished bronze showing through, touching their surfaces to check that the bark was metal and not wood. A look up, toward the sky, reveals the pale boulders clustered in the three trees’ branches, backlit by the spire of the Empire State Building.

After looking at some of the striking images of the installation available online, we were inspired to return to the equally striking publication on Penone that Yale University Press recently distributed for our colleagues in Belgium, Mercatorfonds.  This book begins with a long and thoughtful interview between Penone and art historian Benjamin Buchloh, and we are pleased to share with you the following excerpt that addresses Penone’s attraction to, and artistic approach to, the tree form.


B[uchloh]: For example, your work with trees is almost the opposite of a readymade.  You start with the industrial object and you return, through a process of re-naturalization, to the natural object.  It’s interesting to see how that goes against industrial order.  To recover what, exactly?  What do you want to recover?  Nature?  An origin?  An essence?

P[enone]: You could say an origin.  What fascinated me was the idea of recovering things in time.  It’s partly the fascination that archaeology can have, when the find things in layers of sediment, layers of history.  It’s a work that doesn’t simply emerge from an analysis and ideas about art, it’s also something instinctive.  I’d supposed that wood would give me the unbelievable possibility of going back through the time of the tree to rediscover its form at a particular moment of its existence.  I did have to think about the form, choosing to reveal just a part of the tree to make the work comprehensible – if I’d liberated the tree completely I’d have obtained a natural form, but not a sculpture.

B: For the beam, can you choose any old beam?

P: No, I have to choose a beam that seems to contain the centre of the tree within it, otherwise I have only fragments, pieces.

B: And how long did it take when you did it the first time, do you remember?

P: Three or four days for the first one, which was very small.

B: And did you do it by hand, or with an electric tool?

P: By hand.

B: That’s like an inversion of [Constantin] Brancusi’s process.  For Brancusi, it was liberating the essence of the material by making the surface more and more perfect.  Making marble look like the essence of marble, wood like the essence of wood, making the surface as perfect as possible.  You, on the other hand, remove material to return to the origin, the essence of the material.

P: In a way, in order to exist and become language, expression, comprehensible, a work needs to be demonstrative.  If Brancusci’s work didn’t show perfection, it wouldn’t be comprehensible.  In my case perfect work would mean freeing the tree completely from the mass of wood in which it’s encased, but then that perfection wouldn’t demonstrate the work.  To do that I retain part of the material from which the tree emerges.

B: And to reconstruct the origin along a temporal axis?  It’s a kind of backward movement, a regression perhaps, or reflection.  Its’ a kind of hidden agenda that you introduce into the work, it’s not an active, progressive, return to the source, rebuild a foundation, an essential truth…

P: No, it’s not about that at all.  No, in this case I rediscover a form that is natural, and there’s a kind of amazement, a surprise that’s provided by the material itself.  I did it for the reasons I mentioned before in relation to my work on the growth of trees.  My interest in trees, in their form, is of course an interest in nature in general, but it isn’t necessarily idealizing nature.  I make a work by following the material, using the possibilities of the material.  Deep down I’m saying something about sculpture, I’m not saying something else and illustrating it with a sculpture or an action.  And it’s more or less the same for all the work I do.  I try wherever possible to find a kind of archetype of the possible form of the material, because an archetype is about connections, a form that is synthetic, and synthesis is one of the most important elements in the creation of a work, because it’s a small space that has to contain so many things, so there has to be a great deal of synthesis to get to a work that is strong, and durable in time.  Otherwise it becomes a description and you add more and more… Sculpture in particular needs this, painting a big less, but sculpture needs a very strict synthesis.  You can also obtain synthesis as a consequence of action, of the working process itself.  And if you can find the logic of the material in the material itself, it’s easier to find the right form for its use.  I couldn’t reproduce the tree we were talking about in plaster or resin.  It would be meaningless.  It’s an interest in the material itself, and the material itself justifies the work.  What I’m saying may seem contradictory in the sense that I have also made trees in bronze.  But there’s another motive that impelled me to make that work, and that was to understand the technique of molten bronze casting.  Bronze casting is a technique based on falling, the force of gravity.  To obtain the object you want in bronze, you build a network of channels around the wax model, which takes the bronze to the entire surface of the sculpture and allows the air to escape.  These channels have the structure of a tree.  Trees escape the force of gravity.  A similar structure is made to create the form of the cast, which is obtained by falling.  These two things – the force of gravity and escaping the force of gravity – are totally identical forms.  For example, I was very moved by [Antoni] Gaudí’s study for the Sagrada Familia, where he hung ropes in space and attached weights to them to study the curves of his vaults.  Furthermore, bronze is a material, a technique that was invented at a time when human beings saw reality as animate.  I think it changed the way of seeing things to be able to create a material made by man.  Before that, they used stone.  So what was done there wasn’t innocent, I think it was something that affected the entire system of ideas about nature.  That couldn’t have happened without a ritualization of the process.  It’s an invention that gave its name to a period of human history, the ‘Bronze Age’.  And the melting process, with the furnaces like a womb, has something in common with the alchemical idea of transforming materials.  And all that was done at a time when there was a great respect for trees, for example, for all the nature that surrounded human beings.  Creating that supply structure for sculpture – I think, it’s my supposition – must have been a very considered thing.  And bronze acquires a colour that imitates vegetation very closely.  If you put a bronze sculpture outside, it oxidizes in the rain, the sun, it takes on very natural colours, similar to vegetation.  I’m very interested in this mimesis for the reasons I’ve just mentioned.

Excerpted from Giuseppe Penone: Forty Years of Creation. Copyright © 2013 by Mercatorfonds. All rights reserved.

Classic Modern: The Art Worlds of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.

Piaget39-43-3.tif

Photo: Courtesy of the Emily Rauh Pulitzer Archive

For the May 13 centennial of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.’s birth, Marjorie B. Cohn, author of Classic Modern, the first biography of Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. to focus on his art collecting—arguably his greatest passion—and his role in bringing modernism to the American Midwestwrites here about one of the pleasures of writing the biography of a man whose life ended only twenty years before: interviews with his friends.

Marjorie B. Cohn—

The widow of Joseph Pulitzer Jr. (1913-1993), Emily Rauh Pulitzer, who had been my friend for many years before her marriage, knew of my scholarly interest in the history of collecting, and so after Joe’s death she asked me to write his cultural biography.  Eventually I agreed, she took the pledge not to be a “torch-bearing widow” – that is, to offer me her cooperation and no interference – and we began a partnership in the endeavor.  One of Emmy’s first essential acts: she prepared a list of persons I should interview, beginning with his oldest surviving friends.  As I learned more about Joe, I formed my own list of other interviewees who were only his acquaintances or perhaps even not that, just other actors on the same stages on which he had moved through a long life with multiple roles in art culture.

But this reminiscence is about those interviews with friends.  I immediately went to visit the very oldest – a few men and many women – some so frail they were already housebound.  I decided, given their age, that I should take handwritten notes.  A tape recorder or laptop would be obtrusive, even intimidating to many, especially, I realized, to several women from the same social caste into which Joe had been born, more than ninety years before.  A machine would have lacked gentility, it would have suggested somehow that their words could appear on a witness stand.  Yet the memories of two of these women provided essential, unimpeachable testimony.

Classic Modern: The Art Worlds of Joseph Pulitzer Jr.Joe was a handsome man, elegant and attentive to women with whom he had been a friend.  It seemed – and several of them admitted as much to me – that they had all been a little in love with him, although their romantic lives had taken other paths.  And so they were all delighted to reminisce about what had been a wholly positive association, perhaps among the most glamorous of their entire lives.  Each of them had long and detailed impressions and experiences to relate, often with exact dialogue of the conversations of a half-century and more before.

After his return from college, Joe lived in a room above the garage in his parents’ house.  One of my interviewees, in her nineties and living in a St. Louis retirement home, remembered he had given a party there, which must have occurred after October 1936, because Joe had already acquired his great “Negro Period” Picasso, Woman in Yellow.  He had hung it in his room, and she remembered sitting on his bed and asking him, “How can you wake up in the morning and see a woman as ugly as that!”  Later she thought he should have dismissed her with “You silly woman…” but instead he replied, “Some day you’ll understand.”

Photo: Courtesy of the Emily Rauh Pultizer Archive

Photo: Courtesy of the Emily Rauh Pulitzer Archive

The other interviewee was an equally elderly woman living near Chicago who in the early 1940s was studying with the conservative regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton.  Joe, who was at that time married and living in a house of his own, had brought home from the Nazi “degenerate art” auction of 1939 Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle, which was filled with evidence of the artist’s starts and stops in the course of execution of this great early modernist canvas.  “Why,” she asked Joe, “did he show such a struggle he had in painting it?”  This was not the technique that she was being taught.  “Some day,” Joe replied, “you’ll understand.”

Neither woman knew the other’s report of their conversations.  I was so lucky to have caught their enduring memories, to learn verbatim not only about my biographical subject’s precocious understanding of the European breakthrough to painterly abstraction, but also his patience, unlikely in so young an advocate for the modern, with St. Louis contemporaries whose artistic sensibility differed from his own.

Marjorie B. Cohn is Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Emerita, at the Harvard Art Museums.

Eva Hesse: “Pre-Sculpture”

Kirsten Swenson, a contributor to the new book, Eva Hesse 1965, edited by Barry Rosen, writes here on the artist’s important transitions beginning in the last five years of her short life, as Hesse changed media from drawing and painting to sculpting the works for which she is so widely known.

Kirsten Swenson—

The sculptures made by Eva Hesse beginning in late 1965 up to the time of her death in May, 1970, are canonical works of postwar American art, yet the paintings and drawings made throughout her “pre-sculptural” career have just begun to receive sustained attention.  Over the spring of 1965, Hesse transitioned from drawing and painting to sculpture by way of a series of reliefs that she created near the end of a fifteen-month German residency.  The reliefs summon a complex set of issues ranging from Hesse’s personal history fleeing the Holocaust on the Kindertransport as a small child, to her ambitions as an Abstract Expressionist painter, and her meditations on femininity through a careful reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.  The catalogue Eva Hesse 1965 explores these themes in depth, as did a panel at the BrooklynMuseum last month.  So how did Hesse reach this point of transition?  Who was she as an artist?  What brought her to 1965, and the critical work that she made in Germany that year?

In 1962, Arnhard Scheidt, a German industrialist and art collector, saw an exhibition of bluestone sculptures by Hesse’s husband, Tom Doyle, whom she had married in 1960.  In response he invited Doyle to live and work in his textiles factory on the RuhrRiver in the small industrial town of Kettwig not far from Düsseldorf.  Hesse “was thrown in as lagniappe,” the couple’s friend Lucy Lippard noted.  Hesse later described the situation as “an unusual kind of Renaissance patronage,” a remark that captures the cultural remove of these fifteen months from the New York art world of the mid 1960s.  It was 1963, and both artists sensed that the New York art world was undergoing a change.  It “was like halftime at the football game,” Doyle told me in an interview, with the fading of Abstract Expressionism and upsurge of Pop Art.

From the start, Hesse struggled to paint in Germany.  This return was not neutral—belonging to a family of German Jews, in 1938 she had been evacuated from Hamburg on the Kindertransport at age 3, and both maternal grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. Over the summer and early fall of 1964, Hesse produced numerous works on paper that combined collage, watercolor, gouache and drawing.  These compositions document her frustration with painting: many are cobbled together from discarded drawings and paintings, as if Hesse had mined a trove of rejected work for discrete successful elements that were cut out, traced, and reassembled.

In late 1964 and early 1965, she executed a series of dozens of machine drawings using black and colored inks on paper. Clean outlines describe organic forms, often sacs or tubes, or machine-derived devices comprised of interconnected parts.  Some contain collage elements.  The confident rendering of detail achieves an authoritative presentation, calling to mind medical diagrams of the body’s internal systems or technical drawings of mechanical systems.

Recasting the body’s reproductive and digestive systems in terms of the commodity-producing machinery of industry was a major Dadaist trope between the wars, associated with Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia.  Both Duchamp and Picabia famously imagined human reproductive organs as impotent, absurdist machines. Eroticized machines comprised a specific existentialist literary genre evolving from Duchamp and his friend the writer Raymond Roussel—autoerotic apparatuses fueled by desire, but for which the functioning biology of reproduction is denied.  The absurdist iconography of Duchamp’s Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) includes a “bachelor apparatus” and “bride” assembled from machine/organs with specific functions (such as “sex cylinders”).

In the fall of 1964, as Hesse began her machine drawings, she and Doyle encountered dozens of Duchamp’s drawings, paintings and plans, including his 1913 plans for the “bachelor machine,” as he referred to the bottom half of the Large Glass, in an exhibition at the Bern Kunsthalle.  At the invitation of director Harald Szeemann, Doyle’s sculpture was shown in conjunction with the Duchamp exhibition.  Hesse would also have been aware of the Dadaist female and male-sexed dessins mécaniques from the Société Anonyme collection at Yale that featured Picabia’s Prostitution universelle.  Machine systems spoof causality in human relationships in Picabia’s drawings.  In fact, art historian Ellen Johnson was able to determine that Picabia’s drawing Prostitution universelle was on view at the Yale Art Gallery while Hesse was enrolled.

Prostitution Universelle, Yale University Art Gallery

When Hesse made her first mechanical drawings in November of 1964, she was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and descriptions of the new drawing series and quotes from Beauvoir run together in her journals  “…if crazy forms do them outright.  Strong, clear.  No more haze.” Next sentence: “Simone DB writes woman is object—has been made to feel this from first experiences of awareness.  She has always been made for this role.  It must be a conscious determined act to change this.”  A few days later, on November 22, Beauvoir came up again in Hesse’s journal’s:

Transcendence to arise above beyond into another space

immanence – inevitability

“In boldly setting out towards ends, one risks disappointments; but one also obtains unhoped for results; caution condemns to mediocrity.”

* (same as in my drawings)

(392 SS)

What woman essentially lacks today for doing great things is forgetfulness of herself; but to forget oneself it is first of all necessary to be assured that now and for the future one has found oneself.

Beauvoir’s notions of immanence and transcendence were resonant for Hesse as concepts that could be enacted through her art. Hesse’s notes define transcendence as “forgetfulness” of oneself—the ability to focus on abstractions or “another space,” life beyond everyday self-consciousness of gender difference.  The mechanical drawings, and their translation into relief sculpture, were boldly personal and incautious, conspicuously unconventional departures from the traditions of painting and sculpture.  Could transcendence be symbolically enacted in drawings?

The drawings quickly lead to a series of reliefs (some even served as plans or studies) composed of string, found mechanical parts from disassembled looms in the Scheidt factory, or even pieces of Doyle’s sculptures.  As you can see from this photograph, the reliefs also address gender—here, 2 in 1 cartoonishly substitutes for the artist’s breasts.

Hesse’s work was often funny—absurd was the term she used.  This photograph was taken by her friend, Manfred Tischer, to be used in a brochure for her first solo show in Germany at the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle.  The reliefs—and her pose here—are animated by humor mixed with ironic recognition of the complicated status of being a woman and an artist, a theme that Hesse grappled with in her private writings throughout the 1960s.  They’re remarkable documents of one of the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century.

Kirsten Swenson is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art and Aesthetics in the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell and a contributor to Eva Hesse 1965.

Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century

Edwardian OpulenceEdwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century opens with Giovanni’s Boldini’s Portrait of a Lady, which features a popular society woman seated on an elaborately embroidered coral silk settee fanning herself with a great black ostrich feather fan.  As she leans toward the viewer with a coquettish smile, the sleeve of her black satin dress slips suggestively down her shoulder, openly inviting the viewer’s stare.  With her conspicuous display of wealth and sexuality, she epitomizes the self-confidence of the British aristocracy at the advent of twentieth century, which believed that its wealth and political power were destined to remain unchallenged.

The Yale Center for British Art’s Edwardian Opulence surveys the visual and decorative arts in Britain during the reign of King Edwards VII (1901-1910) The exhibition is comprised of 170 objects including whimsical bell pushes crafted by Carl Faberge for the royal palaces, two exquisitely delicate diamond broaches, the marble bust of Lady Melba whose acting career was described by one admiring critic as “decades of monotonous brilliance,” and cinema clips of the British royal children driving around the streets of London in miniature Cadillac motors cars.

The exhibition delights in documenting the flamboyance of the Edwardian period; nevertheless, it  insists that the period resists easy definition.  The exhibition acknowledges the Edwardian period has become “almost synonymous” with the Gilded Age and Belle Époque in today’s imagination, evoking associations of ostentation, unbridled consumption, and indolence.  The British Empire’s expansive trade networks and its robust manufacturing industries flooded the British aristocracy with mercantile wealth of the newly affluent upper-middle class that demanded entry into its ranks.  With the invention of photography and the proliferation of illustrated newspapers, the social conventions, habits, and rituals of elite long hidden from view were documented for the first time.

The exhibition, however, challenges that notion that the Edwardian period was nothing more than a “lingering coda” to the Victorian Age—a protracted garden party abruptly ended by the outbreak of the Great War.  The exhibition reminds us the preoccupation with the opulent lifestyles of the entrenched ruling elite belie “a turbulent cataract of social, economic, and political change.” The short period witnessed the rise of the Labor movement, agitation for women’s rights, and unprecedented technological innovation. The Suffragette and electricity light-switch belong to the Edwardian Era just as much as lavish parties and country houses.  With its careful selection of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and decorative art, the exhibition highlights the dualities that define Edwardian period.

Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century runs through June 2, 2013. The exhibition is accompanied by an exquisitely illustrated catalog, edited by Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager and published by Yale University Press. A slideshow of images from the exhibition is featured on the blog for T: The New York Times Style Magazine

Caro: Close Up

Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word and Image at the Victoria and Albert Museum, curated the exhibition Caro: Close Up, and opened the show on October 17th with an illuminating lecture.  The exhibition features Sir Anthony Caro’s early paintings and smaller sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, and Bryant’s lecture focused on a thought-provoking assertion: the way a work of art is displayed changes our understanding of that work. Although Caro, a prolific artist boasting a career spanning six decades, is most famous for his large, abstract steel collage sculptures fashioned from recycled steel, he has also produced many smaller scale sculptures in mediums ranging from ceramic to paper.

These smaller sculptures, Bryant observes, have an intimacy about them that the viewer poorly appreciates when they are displayed in traditional museum gallery spaces, with artificial lighting and backdrops of austere white walls. Inspired by the ways in which private owners of Caro’s art as well as Caro himself integrated his smaller sculptures into their homes, where they take on a new and warmer character, Bryant sought to re-create this effect in an exhibition here at Yale.

Yale Center for British Art is perhaps the ideal setting for an exhibition that endeavors to inspire the same intimacy between viewer and art that one feels when the art becomes a part of one’s home. Designed by the renowned mid twentieth century architect Louis Kahn, the Yale Center British Art’s interior space—with its travertine marble floors, columns, and oak and Belgian linen walls—perhaps bears more resemblance to a British country home than many museum spaces.

Exploiting the unique intimacy of the museum’s interior space, Bryant designs an exhibit that showcases the energy and vitality of Caro’s work. By placing the piece Deluge in front of a large window looking out on to a tree whose branches seem to cascade downwards, Bryant invites the viewer to appreciate the harmony between the sculpture and its setting. The interplay between the sculpture and setting creates a narrative so that the viewer not only looks at, but listens to and converses with the sculpture. In and through this narrative, the viewer understands the work intimately—and ever moreso as the sun changes position, the light changes, and the process of looking and understanding begins anew.

Below is a fantastic video interview of Sir Anthony Caro by Julius Bryant, which took place earlier this fall at Caro’s studio in Camden Town, in North London.

Caro: Close Up runs from October 18, 2012 to December 30,2012 and is accompanied by a fully illustrated book published by the Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Press.

Rediscovering the English Prize: A Conversation at the Yale Center for British Art

On Wednesday evening, more than 150 people made their way to the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) to attend the opening lecture of The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, An Episode of the Grand Tour. The exhibition is touted as a cross-section of the Grand Tour, and is perhaps the most thorough one that currently exists.

Scott Wilcox, chief curator of art collections at the YCBA, began the discussion by introducing the story of the Westmorland. Upon leaving Italy in 1778, the British merchant ship was captured by the French Navy, and much of its contents eventually ended up in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. But the materials never received much attention until, in the 1990s, Dr. José María Luzón Nogué, Academician for the Real Academia, stumbled upon them. He then began a major research project to catalogue and identify these artistic and historical treasures; this research is the basis for the exhibition today.

But it wasn’t easy to classify and date these paintings, sculptures and books from crates upon crates of cargo. María Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui, Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, talked about one of the first challenges that the team faced: finding out what the initials on the crates meant.

The English Prize is in many ways a triumph of archival work. As Dr. Luzón Nogué pointed out, “This is not just an exhibition; this is the presentation of a story, a complicated story. It took us plenty of time—and when I say us, I mean a hundred scholars, in Italy, France, Britain.”

But The English Prize tells more than one story—not just the story of the twenty-year undertaking of this massive, meticulous research project, but also the stories of the travelers who lost their treasures. Here, Sánchez-Jáuregui introduces one such Grand Tourist, Frances Basset.

(If Basset’s portrait, by Pompeo Batoni, looks familiar, that’s because it’s featured on the cover of the beautifully illustrated catalogue for the exhibition, The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, An Episode of the Grand Tour, published by Yale University Press in association with the Yale Center for British Art, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.)

The discussion ended with a presentation of some of the more interesting artworks from the collection. In this video, Wilcox talks about six watercolor paintings by the famous 18th-century painter, John Robert Cozens, comparing his older works to his earlier ones, while Sánchez-Jáuregui introduces an engraving dedicated by Giovanni Battista Piranesi to Frances Basset, explaining as well how it sheds light on the role of tutors on the Grand Tour.

In keeping with the spirit of the historical event, the reception following the talk boasted a wheel of Parmesan cheese (32 wheels of the very dairy product was also on board the Westmorland!).

 

The English Prize is open from October 4, 2012 to January 13, 2013 at the YCBA. Admission is free and more details can be found here. The catalogue, edited by María Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui Alpañés and Scott Wilcox, is now available from YUP.

Eminent Biography: Michael Hirst on Michelangelo

Born March 6, 1475 not far outside of Florence, Italy, Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni seemed already to have the credentials to become the quintessential Renaissance Man. His hometown—Caprese—has since been renamed Caprese Michelangelo in honor of this most highly celebrated of artists.  Michelangelo’s early life, however, was notable for his father Lodovico’s financial troubles: Although the Buonarrotis were bankers, family debt and dowries had given Lodovico, his elder brother, and their families much concern living under one roof. Nevertheless, Lodovico was able to send second son Michelangelo to Florence to study with Francresco da Urbino, and later to apprentice at the Ghirlandaio workshop, which would lead to a career closely involved with the Medici family and their influence over the Papacy in Rome.

Today, we publish art historian Michael Hirst’s major new biography, Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475-1534. Hirst, the leading authority on Michelangelo, sheds fresh light on the years when Michelangelo built his reputation with the Pietá, the Sistine Ceiling frescoes, and many other masterpieces. This free excerpt from Chapter IX, entitled “A Vulnerable Artist”, describes Michelangelo’s Florentine years at the height of their anxiety, when the Medici family was overthrown in favor of the republic, following the 1527 sack of Rome. Hirst details Michelangelo’s changing public and political roles during the period, the artist’s subsequent flight to Venice, and the creation of his lost painting of Leda and the Swan, addressing his complex psychological relations with his family, friends, and powerful patrons.