Category:dc

January 28, 2015

Richard Nixon's Last Look

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Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow over Dark Blue, 1964-5, from a suite of 27 color lithographs, ed. 29/75, loaned to Henry Kissinger for display in his White House office. Collection: SAAM

Who was Henry Kissinger's favorite artist? Ellsworth Kelly. But that's not important now.

While searching through the White House art loan records for the Nixon administration yesterday, I noticed that over the years, Kissinger borrowed several Kelly prints for his office, including the one above. It was a gift of the artist in 1966 to the National Collection of Fine Arts, which became the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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Claes Oldenburg, Scissors Obelisk, aka Scissors as Monument (Scissors Obelisk, Washington, D.C.), 1967 or 1968, ed. 144. Collection: SAAM

I first started wondering about art in the Nixon White House a couple of months ago, after I stumbled across a NY Times article describing a 1978 NCFA White House Loan inventory that showed hundreds of artworks missing, mostly from the Nixon era:

More than 100 prints, including a Claes Oldenburg poster, "Scissors Obelisk," and an Andy Warhol "Flowers" poster, borrowed and displayed in the White House, at Camp David, and in the Presidential helicopter during the Nixon Administration, have not been found where they were supposed to be.
The reason I'm writing this should now be clear: Richard Nixon had art on his helicopter.

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I was doing some research in the Smithsonian Archives this afternoon, and I stumbled across this letterhead from the National Collection of Fine Arts, the precursor to the American Art Museum. That kaleidoscopic star is fantastic, and it still looked like it had been engraved yesterday.

I tried to find the designer, so far to no avail. But I did find this rather slapdash 1965 NCFA flag, where the design of the star outshines the star-eats-earth logo of the Smithsonian itself.

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National Collection of Fine Arts Flag, 1965, image: siarchives

That star-within-a-star reminds me of the US Bicentennial logo, which was created by Bruce Blackburn, the same guy at Chermayeff & Geismar who designed NASA's mod "worm" logotype.

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It also kind of reminds me of Gabriel Orozco's geometric drawings and paintings. Orozco, of course, shows with Marian Goodman.

It's just one word in one tweet, so it really shouldn't become the point, but those who follow me on Twitter know I have a thing for the language of art news sites, and their poetic idiocies of the market. This, however, just pissed me off.

It is as pure a sign as you'll find of the pathology of current money-fixated art world that last night a half dozen media outlets filed hundreds of bid-by-bid tweets from an Impressionism auction, yet the "bizarre news" is that artists are literally trying to save lives by drawing attention to one of Europe's existential political crises.

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I had never heard of the Center for Political Beauty before this morning. They are the artist collective whose mission is to engage "in the most innovative forms of political art: a type of art that hurts, provokes and rises in revolt in order to save human lives."

They removed crosses commemorating some of the East Germans killed while trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and have reinstalled them on what they're calling the European Wall. The Center for Political Beauty has announced that they will cut down portions of the EU's border fence on November 9th, during the official ceremonies surrounding the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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">politicalbeauty.de: Keine Benutzung der Bilder ohne vorherige Genehmigung!

The photo above of a cross on a fence along the Bulgaria-Turkey border is circulating with the AFP wire service story that is the lone, primary source of English-language coverage of CPB's project. I'll never look at a Cy Twombly chalkboard painting the same way again.

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The images and details that don't circulate, though, are more damning: At least 136 people died or were killed trying to escape across the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989. The UNHCR says over 2,500 Africans trying to reach Europe have drowned or gone missing this year alone. The CPB says the number of people who have died trying to enter the EU since 1989 stands at over 30,000.

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Here is a photo by Massimo Sestini of a boatful of African and Syrian asylum seekers who were intercepted by the Italian navy last June. This situation is anything else--an outrage, a humanitarian crisis, a "rendering void of the legacy of the Holocaust," as the CPB puts it, but it is not bizarre.

And artnet should be shamed for their tendentious attempts to mock and marginalize artists pursuing something beyond the callow complacencies of the market.

UPDATE: I'm still not satisfied with this yet, or how or why it bothers me, but I'm reading Thierry du Duve's "Art in the Face of Radical Evil" [October, Summer 2008, pdf], about MoMA acquiring and showing photos of Khmer Rouge execution victims from Tuol Sleng, and about whether they're "art," and what are the implications if they are:

Sobriety in exhibition design, noncommittal wall texts, and clever avoidance of the word "art" in press releases won't succeed in hiding the fact that our aesthetic interest in photography is shot through with feelings, emotions, and projections of sympathy or antipathy that address the people in the photos beyond the photos themselves. I am convinced that something of that emotional response to the properly human ordeal of the subjects in the Tuol Sleng photos had a say in MoMA's decision to acquire them. To suppose otherwise would be to lend the acquisition committee undeserved cynicism.
This feels like it's inching closer.

November 4, 2014

Welcome Back, Gwenfritz

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[The] Gwenfritz is back where it belongs. The National Museum of American History has conserved Alexander Calder's site-specific stabile and reinstalled it in a reflecting pool on the building's west end, 30 years after it was displaced by a vintage band shell from a mental hospital.

The removal of Gwenfritz in violation of the artist's intentions was cited as a contributing precedent to attempts to move Richard Serra's Tilted Arc from its site in Federal Plaza a few months later.

Anyway, it all sounds good, and from the NMAH's flickr feed, it looks good. "It's always great when you're able to honor the artist's vision," said Smithsonian American Art Museum sculpture curator Karen Lemmey, in a way that unsettles me, perhaps because it reminds me of the offhandedly mercenary Lumbergh in Office Space.

Conservation of Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz [eyelevel.si.edu]
Previously, 2010: After 26 Years, The Smithsonian Will Put Alexander Calder's Gwenfritz Back Where It Belongs.

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About two weeks ago, artists from the Sage Coalition in Trenton, New Jersey, sought and obtained permission from the Trenton Downtown Association to paint a mural on the metal shutters of a vacant storefront. They decided to paint a large portrait of Michael Brown and the text, "Sagging pants...is not probable cause." The artists saw it as relevant to both the memory of Brown and his killing in Ferguson, Missouri, and to their own experience with racial profiling at the hands of the police in Trenton.

Yesterday, according to NJ.com, "The Trenton Downtown Association elected to remove the image after hearing concern from police officers that the mural sends a negative message about the relationship between police and the community." TDA director Christian Martin "said police said the painting did not promote peace in the community."

The image was buffed by a municipal graffiti blasting crew yesterday. Sage collaborator Byron Marshall shot and narrated the scene.

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David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, reinstalled inside at WPA, 1988

The situation feels like an inversion of the destruction of How Ya Like Me Now?, a 1988 billboard-sized painting by David Hammons of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesse Jackson, which was momentarily installed across the street from the National Portrait Gallery in DC. It was almost immediately set upon by sledgehammer-wielding locals who did not care for its negative message.

'Sagging Pants is Not Probable Cause' Mural Removed After Concerns From Trenton Police [nj.com]
Previously: How Ya Like How Ya Like Me Now?

The Smithsonian has added the Hirshhorn Museum's audio archive to their digital library collection, and it's great. Too often in the art world, what happens in Washington not only stays in Washington, it's forgotten in Washington. So it's unsurprising that the Nation's Attic has interesting, even important stuff in it that really should be dusted off.

One of the first recordings I headed to this weekend was a lecture by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in association with his Summer 1994 retrospective. I hadn't heard Felix's voice in almost 20 years, and I'd never heard him talk at length about his work. I was not prepared, either, to hear him say he was getting tired about an hour into the recording. After that, I couldn't not hear his exertion to complete what was clearly a difficult, but imperative task.

It turns out I was also not prepared for how unfamiliar his work sounded in his own words. And how different his practice was from the received, sort of calcified, canonical understanding of it. The things he emphasized vs the things we saw or now see as being elemental.

Felix read part of his 1993 interview with Tim Rollins, which we know. But he also talked along to a selection of slides, which I tried to follow along in my books. Easily half the works he discussed were not included in ostensibly definitive catalogues and anthologies. Many had different titles. Some weren't illustrated.

All of this is of a piece with Felix's work, though. He would change the titles of pieces. Works he showed and sold were, near the end of his life, recategorized as "additional materials" and "non-works." But some things, installations and site-specific projects in particular, seem to have been sorted out of his canon completely and/or ignored by critics.
We work with what we have, but we too often don't see what else there is. And when we find out we've been using incomplete or inaccurate info, we're slow to adapt.

So here's a single example. It's a piece Felix started his Hirshhorn talk with, and which he said "is a key to a lot of my work, and also the way I am." And it's piece I'd never heard of or seen, whose bare, incomplete, and contradictory references in the record so far I have completely overlooked. The artist called it "Untitled" (Quatrenium).

Here's what he had to say:

Here is an interview [in Danish, subtitled] with Danh Vo, on the making and exhibition of We The People (Detail), his full-scale copy of the Statue of Liberty. Many of the 400+ pieces of We The People were rotated and stored at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Denmark in 2012-13.

I am enthralled with this work; it strikes me as one of the smartest, most elegant, and provocative sculpture projects in years, and yet it didn't occur to me until Vo mentioned it that Gustave Eiffel, who designed a steel armature to support Bartholdi's copper repousse skin, did not see the Statue of Liberty installed in the US.

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But reading up on the Statue's history, it turns out the entire statue was assembled in Eifell's factory in France, and then disassembled for shipping. Also--and I did know this and should have remembered it--the statue began as parts, exhibited. Bartholdi made the statue's arm and torch, which traveled to the US for the 1876 US Centennial, and which remained installed in Madison Square Park for several years afterward. And the head was exhibited at the Paris World's Fair in 1878, all as part of a fundraising, promotional effort for the project.

SMK TV: Danh Vo - We the People [smk.dk youtube via @aservais1]

If I ever get a PhD it will be in the US Pavilion at Expo67 as a gesamtkunstwerk. So much going on there, and in my years of fascination and study of it, it just keeps on giving.

And I am stoked for the Queens Museum's show, opening to day, on Thirteen Most Wanted Men, Andy Warhol's short-lived commission for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. It sounds amazing, with an impressive amount of archival research and new understanding.

I haven't seen it yet, but I have been bothered by a line that's cropped up in several reviews of the show, which makes me think it's not accidental, calling the 13 Most Wanted Men panels "Warhol's only public artwork."

This characterization only holds up if you define public art so narrowly as to make it irrelevant [which is something that happens to public art a lot, actually, but that's not the point here.] Warhol exhibited work in at least three World's Fairs in a row--1964 in New York, 1967 in Montreal, and 1970 in Osaka. And the first two were commissions. In fact, I'd suggest that the New York and Montreal projects are so similar, that they really should be considered together. Warhol's Expo 67 works suddenly feel like a direct response to the controversy in 1964. When faced with the prospect of wading into another political conflict over his subjects, Warhol chose to depict himself.

warhol_13most_wanted_install_1964_sm.jpg

In 1964, Warhol painted 25 panels--22 with mug shots, 3 blank/monochromes--on 4-foot square masonite panels. The images came from an internal NYPD pamphlet that gave the piece its title: 13 Most Wanted Men. These were painted over in aluminum house paint within two days.

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Thirteen Most Wanted Men overpainted and covered by tarp, 1964. Photo: Peter Warner, via Richard Meyer's Outlaw Representation

Later they were covered with a large tarp. They have since been lost or destroyed. In his incisive history 2002 book, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, Richard Meyer quotes John Giorno's story about the origins of Thirteen Most Wanted Men, and that the mug shots came from the gay cop boyfriend of another painter, Wynn Chamberlain. [No one's mentioned it, but I assume this is all in the Queens Museum show. Right? And the show will surely explain why Philip Johnson told Warhol in 1963 not to talk about the sources of the paintings? Johnson, who surely knew as much about power, rough trade, and a man in uniform?]

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Warhol painted 25 panels with Robert Moses' headshot, taken from Life magazine, as replacements. Philip Johnson rejected them, and they are also now considered lost or destroyed. [This photo is by Mark Lancaster, who helped Warhol make the Moses panels and much else. There's a great interview with Lancaster at warholstars.org.]

During the Summer of 1964 Warhol reused the screens to create paintings on canvas of the 13 Most Wanted Men, which Lancaster cropped and stretched. Nine of these are currently in the Queens Museum show.

In 1964 he began making the Screen Tests, which were inspired both by the Thirteen Most Wanted mug shots and the photobooth pictures Warhol began using in 1963. He created Most Wanted series of women and boys as well.

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Warhol visiting Expo 67 with the de Menils, that's John de Menil at left, not Buckminster Fuller, as some online sources would have it. image via menil.org

In 1967 curator Allan Solomon commissioned Warhol to make large paintings for the US Pavilion at Expo 67. Warhol created eight giant Self-Portraits. They are 6-feet across and based on a photo by Rudy Burckhardt. Six of them were installed in Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, above Jasper Johns' Dymaxion Map. Four of them are visible above, in a photo taken during Warhol's visit to the Expo with John & Dominique de Menil. The one on the lower right is now in the Tate Modern.

If the Thirteen Most Wanted Men censorship was really as concerned with vice, power, and the homosexual gaze as Meyer argues, then Warhol's uncensorable Self-Portraits read like an act of defiance. For his 2nd World's Fair, Warhol didn't shrink from political conflict; he met it straight on and came out on top.

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I went to the Phillips yesterday to see the "Made in USA" show and to get out of the rain. After seeing the nice John Frederick Peto trompe l'oeil, I was distracted and annoyed by the grain of the canvas in some John Henry Twachtman painting or another. No sooner had i sworn eternal allegiance to gesso than I turned the corner, went up 1/3 a flight of stairs, and was stopped cold by Augustus Vincent Tack's painting, Evening. And I had to take it back.

What an amazing little painting. The Phillips is Tack Central. They have 79 of them. I've never seen this one, though, nor its similar-looking partner Dawn, which faces it in the stairwell.

Almost every Tack in any other museum was foisted on them by Duncan Phillips. [Tyler did a nice post on the Tack paintings in the Phillips in 2011.] Born in 1870, Tack painted classical moderne murals, more traditionalist portraits, and extraordinary landscape photography-based abstraction.

Obviously [sic] it's the abstractions that amaze here. He really only did them for Phillips, between 1922 and 1934, who apparently became disappointed when they didn't change the course of abstraction and modernism. [Curator Leslie Furth writes about Phillips' unrealized hopes for Tack's critical uptake, and how the artist seemed to drop the abstract ball decades too soon.] Tack, Phillips wrote in 1933, was destined to have "a limited reputation as an...eclectic painter...rather than as one of America's most original painters." This, from his biggest fan.

augustus_tack_dawn_phillips.jpg

Evening and Dawn were painted after this letdown. "Between 1934 and 1936," is how the Phillips dates these abstractions, which were variously willed to the museum by the artist or bought from his wife's estate in the 1950s. Tack would blow up details from photos of Death Valley and transfer the forms of clouds, rocks, mountains, sky, whatever was there. [Stieglitz was taking similar-sounding photos, abstractions of clouds known as Equivalents, at the same time. Several are in the show.]

Let's be real here, though. He's sort of like family for the Phillips, the wistfully visionary uncle, but the reason anyone cares about Tack at all is because his paintings look like Clyfford Stills. Bafflingly so. Frustratingly so. Amazingly so. Still was the titan Cronus to the AbEx Olympians. But what would that make Tack? Uranus? Except the lineage is not clear, or even suggested. Still was sure Newman stole zips from him [which makes him, what, Prometheus?], but though Still was in Virginia in the 20s and 30s, and may have visited the Phillips, no one really considers that Still got the core of his abstraction strategy from Augustus Vincent Tack. It's more likely [to me] that their paintings are similar because their inspirations were similar: the powerful forms, colors, light, and space of the western landscape.

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But that's not important now. What really blew me away about Evening was that Tack had painted a painting of a painting. That's entirely flat, as flat as a Peto, and just as tricky. The abstract center, where Tack signed it, has the tooth of the canvas still visible, but the mat/wall part, the smudged space around it, is smooth. And it's possible that it's a mat, not a wall. Maybe it's even likely. Dawn has a hardboard mat/border around it. See the shadow along the top edge? And Evening has no shadow. This is not a academic trompe l'loeil. But the little white along the top edge of the painting, which separates it from the schmutz, could read as a highlight.

Forget Still. Was Tack anticipating Johns? And Richter, for that matter? Was Tack an eclecticist painter too many decades ahead of his time? I doubt it. And that's the problem with a word like "anticipate." It seems to me that Tack was in and of his time and place, and as a capable, open-minded painter, was aware of a whole range of possibilities. And he tried them. And they worked. But he also stood apart from the social structures and networks in which art history was self-consciously created.

Tack's practice and his trajectory should make us more aware of the social, interpersonal forces at work in art history, and of the bias we have for a heroic narrative of breakthrough, discovery or innovation. Many of the painting possibilities we credit to later painters were also known to a random guy like Augustus Tack. But he didn't influence anyone, except Duncan Phillips. Which, on the flipside, Phillips' championing of Tack's polyvalent work to the institutional powers of the day also didn't stick. But maybe our more eclectic time can find something to learn from someone like Augustus Vincent Tack. Off to the library.

I'm pleased to see some actual critical response to Richard Serra's sculptures, and Martha Schwendener is more right than wrong in her review of Serra's latest shows at Gagosian. But this retelling of the Tilted Arc controversy is based on several faulty premises that are amply documented and refuted in the written record of the case.

It's hard to approach Mr. Serra's sculptures without some kind of baggage. There is, of course, the unfortunate 1989 "Tilted Arc" episode, in which that commissioned sculpture by Mr. Serra was removed from Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan after complaints from neighbors and workers that it impinged on their use of Foley Square. In the aftermath of that fiasco, rather than fighting for the rights of artists creating public sculpture, Mr. Serra's response was to make abstract drawings with puerile titles like "The United States Government Destroys Art" and "No Mandatory Patriotism," both from 1989.

When exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, these drawings seemed only to iterate Mr. Serra's myopic misunderstanding of art in the public realm. As the art historian Leo Steinberg put it, the space of Federal Plaza was Serra's "raw material, but there are a thousand people working there, so this is not raw material but the space of their existence."

The campaign against Tilted Arc was started by a judge in the building, and it became an ascendant conservative rally that pulled in the likes of Rudy Giuliani. Public opinion, even the opinion of the workers in the Federal Building was not opposed to the sculpture. The commission assembled to judge the work, fate was stacked, and its recommendations went against the evidence it assembled.

What I bristle against most, I suppose, is Schwendener's idea that Serra did not "fight for the rights of artists creating public sculpture." That is exactly what he did when he sued the GSA to stop the removal of the work, and to declare it destroyed when it was removed. In the legal context of the time, this was, unfortunately, the most that could be done.

Of all artists, Serra has pushed the hardest for the primacy and autonomy of the artist's vision. His take-it-or-leave-it stand is certainly annoying and abrasive to some people, but it is principled, and it is at the core of his practice, and apparently, his personality. He's not a collaborative guy. He's not a compromiser. He compared Robert Venturi's plan for Pennsylvania Avenue to the Nazis. He walked out on Helmut Kohl and removed his name from the Berlin Holocaust Memorial rather than take the chancellor's suggestions. [Schwendener mentions the memorial in her review, but ignores Serra's involvement.] He apparently walked out on Steve Ratner when asked to pitch for a Hudson Yards public art project.

It may very well be the case that Serra is unsuited for public art and the political rigamarole that it requires. But he wasn't poisoning the well so much as pissing on a reactionary fire that had already been lit during the Reagan Era. If such non-accommodationism is damaging to artists' prospects for making public art, then maybe we should consider the processes by which public art comes to be. Maybe the gargantuan spatial spectacles Serra produces now really are optimized for private consumption, the single decisionmaker, the big checkwriter. But whatever Serra's faults, the public art ecosystem in the US has rarely produced works that command such a spirited defense as Tilted Arc received back in the day.

Previously:
On those "Revenge Drawings": Richard Serra was not pleased with the US Government
Serra interview from 1982: And I AM. An American Sculptor.
You really should have The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents, the 1990 compendium of material from the case [amazon]

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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It Narratives, incl.
Shanzhai Gursky & Destroyed Richter
Franklin Street Works, Stamford
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TheRealHennessy Tweets Paintings, 2014 -
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Standard Operating Procedure
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CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
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"Exhibition Space"
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Destroyed Richter Paintings, 2012-
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