What’s Happening? Art Buchwald Lunches With Claes Oldenburg

The week before The Pop Art Festival in Washington DC, Art Buchwald had lunch with Claes Oldenburg, WGMA Assistant Director Alice Denney, and publicist John Mecklin. The topic was Oldenburg’s upcoming Happening, Stars. Buchwald wrote (in the first person plural) about the lunch in the April 16, 1963 edition of the Washington Post:

Pop art, in case you’re wondering, is the latest thing, in which artists use anything form comic strips to American flags to give a new concept to reality and illusion. (It’s more than that too, but we’re not sure how much more.)

“Mr. Oldenburg,” we said, “What is a Happening?”
“There is no definition. I don’t know myself what a Happening is. It’s putting all the elements and senses together and composing a picture. Sight, sound, smell, imagination. Everything plays a part.”
“I see,” we said. “How do you organize a Happening?”
“I buy things at the Goodwill Industries, the Salvation Army, and second-hand shops. Then I find a place to have a Happening in. It must have three-dimensional space and it’s best if the thing you find is characteristic of the composition you’re trying to create.
“Naturally,” we said. “Where is your Happening going to take place?”
“I’ve had a lot of difficulty finding the right spot. You see, at a Happening the place where you do it is as important as what you do. I found a rug cleaning shop which looked just perfect, since there was lots of junk in it. But the Fire Department wouldn’t let me use it. Fire Departments and Police Departments and vice squads give us the most trouble about our Happenings.”
“That’s because they’re square,” we said.
“So I’ve decided to give my Happening to the Washington Gallery itself. Now I know you’re going to say this violates the idea of holding a Happening in a typical place. But in this case the gallery is okay because the walls are white and it’s typical of the Washingtonian’s yearning for everything in the city to be white. Therefore it’s really a good place for a happening.”

As we left the restaurant we stopped by Mrs. Denney’s station wagon, which she had lent him to scout for things for the Happening. In the back were a baby carriage, six small footstools, a bird cage, a first-baseman’s mitt, a mirror, an iron bedstead, and two pairs of saddle shoes.
“What are you going to do with all that?” we asked.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Oldenburg said. “I might use them in the Happening and I might not. It all depends on how I feel.”

What’s Happening? Tracking Stars, Claes Oldenburg’s 1963 Washington DC Happening

It’s been a few months, and now I’ve been researching it so many places, I can’t remember exactly where I first discovered that Claes Oldenburg did a Happening in Washington DC. And an early one, too. He was invited by Alice Denney, the assistant director of the fledgling Washington Gallery of Modern Art, for The Pop Art Festival she was organizing alongside her pioneering show of Pop Art, “The Popular Image Exhibition,” which opened in April 1963.
Pop was still barely being defined. By including a lecture/tape recorder performance by John Cage and a multi-ring dance event organized by Billy Kluver and featuring Yvonne Rainer and the Judson Church crew, Denney’s expansive view seems to have equated Pop with early 60s avant-garde. If there’s a thread that persisted, it was the artists’ engagement with the popular culture, in contrast to the prevalent self-referential mode of Abstract Expressionists. [The WGMA had just opened with the first Franz Kline retrospective.]
Anyway, it’s a bear trying to find out what this Happening was all about. There was one, there were two. It/they happened at a rug cleaners off of Dupont Circle, and/or in the Gallery itself. It was called Stars and/or Cleaners.
The confusion is partly the ephemeral, had-to-be-there nature of the medium, and partly the fragmented, subjective nature of the accounts I’ve collected so far. Whether written in anticipation of the event or in its aftermath, PR-excited or cynical, they’re incomplete and/or inconsistent. And none is definitive or gives a clear picture of Oldenburg’s intentions or plans, or even what happened. And of course, there are few-to-no substantive reviews.
And then there’s the art historical blind spot that DC inhabits in the art world, and that the art world inhabits in DC. [The Kennedy era seems to be one of the few times that official Washington seemed interested, not just in contemporary art, but in art as it was happening. And that obviously didn’t last, though the institutional vestiges of Camelot and the WGMA linger on, from the NEA to the Art In Embassies program to the Washington Project for the Arts, which is on its third or fourth life right now under my friend Lisa Gold.]
So rather than just write up some mega-post posing as an MFA thesis, I’m going to post an anthology/bibliography for Stars, which will include the articles and accounts I’ve found, plus some interviews I’m doing with folks who were involved with the Happening itself. I’ll keep this post updated with links as I go:
Claes Oldenburg: Raw Notes (1973) contains “Documents and scripts for the performances: Stars, Moneyhouse, Massage, The Typewriter, with annotations by the author. It was republished in 2005.
It turns out Stars was originally called Cleaners, after its first chosen/intended venue. The dates were April 23 & 24, 1963:

This is a town of initials, automobiles and cleaners to mention some important things. Also long dresses + monuments. I will be asked no doubt in what way does what i do here reflect Washington…
My pieces have two titles, the first being one which describes the form of the piece…The second title is the thematic title.

Oldenburg selected Aristo Rug Cleaners, located on P Street around the corner from the WGMA. His notes mention the activity of the site, and how “the interaction of white shirts and brown and black (employees)” embodied the city itself.

After a visit to Washington for the purpose of using the place [the cleaners], I did form the title STARS, already more specific than the first stage. This came from seeing very clear stars in the sky on the last moment of my visit and seemed to concentrate certain physical properties of the place, f. ex. the patriotic motif. The radiated way the streets are built. But the title was still abstract in that it was achieved part from a particular place in Wash. where the piece might be done.

Then Oldenburg set out to design the event, collect props, and cast all his players during a two-week preparatory visit. Next up will be a friendly preview of the performance from that prep period by Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald.

Sehgal, Herzog, Patel, Oldenburg: Some Links I Like

A great post on language & progress, Claude Levi-Strauss & TIno Sehgal. Some of the most interesting commentary I’ve read on discerning the actual structure and contours of Sehgal’s This Progress, too. [futureofthebook.org via @briansholis]
Which makes me wonder: do the works come with NDAs? Are they secrets? Trade secrets? Can the instructions be shouted from the rooftops? Could the unwritten transmitted/purchased instructions be performed or recited publicly as entertainment, as part of a critical discussion, or in an effort of collective preservation? Are they really just a couple of lines [“Roll around kissing constantly. Every few minutes, strike a pose from a famous work of art.”] or are they more elaborate? Obviously the parties concur that there is some intellectual property right being transferred, but what is the implication for the artist–or his dealer or a collector or museum–either disseminating the instructions or refusing to do so?
Ramin Bahrani’s short film Plastic Bag tells the story of a lone plastic bag’s Odysseus-slash-V’Ger-like journey to find home and its creator. Werner Herzog stars as the plastic bag. Seriously. [via mrdanzak, thanks andrew]

Speaking of epics, Grain Edit has a wonderful interview with Sanjay Patel, the Pixar animator/illustrator/Charles Harper fan who went from self-publishing the awesomely kawaii Little Book Of Hindu Deities to creating a modernist graphic version of the Ramayana. [grainedit]
I’m liking what I can see of Eamon O’Kane’s paintings about Le Corbusier’s somewhat dickish relationship with and interventions in Eileen Gray’s architectural masterpiece, the E-1027 Villa at Roquebrunne. They’re at See Line Gallery, but the big pictures are at the LATimes. [Related: at a 2007 MoMA conference, Beatriz Colomina called Corbu’s alterations of E-1027 an architectural “rape”.]
I’ve been doing some research on early Happenings staged in Washington DC by Claes Oldenburg. More on that as it develops, of course, but there’s no need to wait on sharing this very self-amused Time Magazine account of “The Pop Art Festival” organized by the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in April 1963:

Blue Wrench.
Happenings are old stuff in the artiest alcoves of Manhattan, but of course that means nothing in Washington square. This one was prepared by Artist Claes Oldenburg, who makes those huge sailcloth hamburgers. Washington society prepared by getting itself puffed, powdered and sloshed. Little dinners were eaten intimately in Georgetown. The jolly crowd then collected at the gallery to see what was going to happen. Nearly everyone sat on campstools–White House Art Adviser Bill Walton, FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby, Mrs. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Those. [sic]
A member of the gallery staff announced that she had successfully achieved blue ice cream. She had mixed blue dye and vanilla ice cream with a monkey wrench. The New Frontier moved an inch forward on its stools.
This was obviously going to be some happening.

Does anyone know how Time and others [Old Media types, mostly] insert the unique tracking url into my copy&pasted quote of their article? I assume it’s to prevent/track automated scraping and republishing, but from their page code, I can’t figure out how they do it.
And lastly, I went to hear John Gerrard talk about his time/duration-intensive work at the Hirshhorn last week. He’s got a very different project going on, what with the environment, and the orbit of the sun and energy and industrialization and video game engines and what not, but it was nice to see that he’s nearly/slightly as engrossed with using Google Earth as a creative tool as I am. He pulls colors from the satellite images to create site-specific palettes for his digital landscape re-creations.
Which, whoops, come to think of it, may be problematic. Just yesterday, Stefan at Ogle Earth laid out a not-insigificant case for why it matters that–whoops–all satellite imagery, including Google’s–is color-enhanced. “It is the case that colors in satellite imagery are always false, albeit made to look realistic (just as with those pretty pictures of galaxies and planets).” [ogle earth via @felixsalmon]

Found, Sort Of: Vern Blosum

You remember how, a couple of months ago, I could find next to nothing online about Vern Blosum, the mysterious artist whose crisp, deadpan paintings of parking meters were featured in one of the very first museum exhibitions of Pop Art, “The Popular Image,” organized by Alice Denney in the Spring of 1964 1963 at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art?
Well, we’re making a little progress. I’ve been in touch with people who know or knew Blosum and his work. As I piece his story together, I’ll present it here. For an artist to show alongside Warhol, Rosenquist, and Oldenburg, and to be collected by MoMA and Larry Aldrich [1], and then to practically disappear, well, it’s fascinating.
What I really wanted to do, of course, was to find and see Blosum’s work, to see how it might relate to those earliest Pop contemporaries, and maybe see how it holds up. But all my searches came up empty. Until tonight. Somehow, Blosum’s entry in an art history teaching image database at California State University [WorldImages at SJSU, to be specific] showed up on Google.
There’s a very clean image of Blosum’s 1962 painting, Time Expired, which is listed as being in MoMA’s collection [a mystery again because MoMA’s online catalogue comes up a blank]. I’m looking into that, but first, just look at this.
It’s not a flat, billboard style like Rosenquist, or a flattened silkscreen image like Warhol or a deliberately graphic/comic style like, say Lichtenstein. And it’s not photorealistic, and certainly not Photorealist, despite how Cal State apparently teaches it, Instead, it’s quite illustrative, the city street version of Wayne Thiebaud’s diner desserts. I think it’s really quite nice.
[1] Actually, I misread that. One of the only web results for Blosum was in Larry Aldrich’s 1972 interview with Paul Cummings in the Smithsonian’s Oral History collection at the Archives of American Art. That led me to a couple of lengthy discussions with folks at the Aldrich Museum about whether they have the Blosum painting Larry clearly said he’d bought. They don’t.
Now I see why. Aldrich is talking about the MoMA painting above, Time Expired. He created a multi-year fund for Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller to purchase new work from emerging artists, and he was telling Cummings what works the Museum got from the fund each year. This 1962 Blosum came into the collection in 1963, just as, or just before, Denney was assembling her show in DC.
It’s funny, because the dynamics and challenges for museums to collect new work don’t seem to change that much. It can still be tough, or at least problematic, for curators to ask their donors to buy unproven and/or less expensive work, partly because of ask fatigue, and partly because big donors like to donate for big things.
Also, Aldrich’s unabashed discussion of using his fund to get the Museum’s curators to do his “shopping” for him is simultaneously awesome, refreshing, and cringe-inducing.

One to help young American artists, and quite frankly, the second one was a personal selfish one in thinking that in essence they could help my efforts and sort of do my shopping for me, because, as I said, I could only get out once every two weeks and sometimes I wasn’t even able to successfully do that. And I was under an impression, which I since learned was a mistaken impression, that they had people combing New York galleries all the time. Which I discovered was not the case.

He then recounts all these collecting war stories where he “loses” work to the Museum, or where he complains that prices have gone up because he’d let MoMA buy an artist’s work before he got it himself. He sounds a bit tacky, but passionate, with a good eye, and in his telling, at least, if there were any potential conflicts, the Modern always prevailed.
Previously: Anyone tell me about Vern Blosum?

What Is Progress, And The Paper [Of] Record

Can I just suggest that, when you buy an article from the New York Times Archive, you go ahead and buy a 10-pack? In addition to supporting your local paper in their time of financial distress and dire need [ahem], you can use the other nine articles for exploring whatever random people, thing, or history crosses your mind?
Which is how I found Roy Bongartz’ Sunday arts feature from August 11, 1974: “Question: How Do You Buy A Work of Art Like This?/ Answer: With A Check”
The piece could’ve been read straight in one of Powhida and Dalton’s #class sessions. Burden, Beuys, LeWitt, Acconci, de Maria, Bochner, Ray Johnson, Ian Wilson:

…these artists, all of them young “conceptualists,” had decided to lift their work clear out of the category of investment property. By shifting the emphasis of their work to the pure thought and by refusing to offer any saleable object, they were mounting a deliberate attack on the traditional business of art. The artists’ intention was to leave the dealer with nothing to sell, the collector with nothing to buy, and the museum with nothing to squirrel away.
[turn page, see continuing headline, “Buying Conceptual Art – Photos, Sets of Directions, Receipts”]
…The secret is that there is always something to sell.

Artists need to eat. Collectors want to buy. Ronald Feldman “authenticates” Burden’s gunshot wound with a check. And voila! These rebels’ most cunning attempts to escape or destroy the art market have been thwarted before brunch. We can now move on to the crossword.
But beyond the apparent news-worthy novelty of certificates, documentation, and instruction-based work, and the vastly divergent view now of some of the namechecked artists–Ryman and Sandback have a conceptualist collectible object problem?–you know what the funniest thing about the past is? It’s the little differences:
That as long as the instructions [which sell “for as much as $8,000”] are followed, “it doesn’t matter at all whether it’s you, Sol LeWitt or your Uncle Elmer who does the marking.”
That dealer/wife Mrs. John (Susan) Gibson is aghast at an invitation “from a Washington DC gallery” to show Robert Cumming’s text & photo-based work–wait for it!

–in the photography section! Mrs. Gibson insisted Cumming’s work go into the fine arts section because he was not showing photographs, but conceptual art. The reply was, well, we hope this is what photography will become. “Too late,” said Mrs. Gibson. “This is what fine art has become.” It was a standoff–no show for Cumming.

And then there’s the eerie familiarity of Ian Wilson, “a kind of extremist even in SoHo, [who] simply comes in and talks. This is all that he does, and he’s made a career of it.”
The quote is from Sonnabend director Ealan Wingate:

“Here the art becomes so abstracted there is no object whatever. Yet in a way there is always an object because an idea can be a subject. [hey, wait– -ed.] There is, also, always the piece of paper, the bill of sale, which says you bought it.”

And then comes Bongartz’ explanation of the paper gauntlet Wilson threw down across the ages to Tino Seghal:

You can commission Wilson to do a piece; for example, he may come to your house and talk with you about Plato for a while. The two of you might discuss, say, the subject of unreality, and that would be it–and you’d get your receipt.

For all the fun of digging through the Times’ archive on my own coin, it’s not all eye-opening, perspective-correcting or knee-slapping blog fodder. Even at $1.50, you sometimes click through to a dud, but overall, it still feels like money well spent. And not just because seeing vintage discussion of an under-remembered predecessor should at least cast a critical shadow on the current hype over Seghal’s artistic innovations.
There’s an extra, bonus level of irony, though, in paying to read a 36-year-old Times article about artists successfully selling nothing–and then in worrying that I’m quoting and recapping it too much, thereby damaging the damaged Times’ economic position, or at least earning me the wrath of the copytheft maximalists.
But, oh, look, here’s the whole article for free online. Apparently, the Times repackaged a bunch of arts coverage in 1978 as a topic-based anthology. Which was scanned into Google Books. Of course, it’s formatted differently, probably from a different edition of the paper. So it doesn’t have the $1.50 PDF version’s awesome illustration of Wilson’s work:
The secret is that there is always something to sell.

Bidwell And The Lost Virginia Abstract Expressionists

In 1961, Hazleton Laboratories, a pioneering biological sciences testing company based in Falls Church, Virginia, was growing rapidly. For one of their expansions, executives and scientists were given allocations to buy cutting edge abstract art for their offices.
Which was fortuitous because, as a group of forward-thinking Hazleton wives in McLean told their husbands, their bridge club was actually sponsoring a very promising young abstract painter named Bidwell. Perhaps after a bit of vetting by some galleries in the District who know this kind of art, the company might consider collecting Bidwell’s work?
So the wives took Bidwell’s paintings to three galleries in DC for evaluation. One canvas, “Snow in July,” which was executed with housepaint and a stick in an action painting style reminiscent of Pollock, was said to exhibit a “tremendous sense of design and color,” and might sell, the dealer said, for as much as $150. I believe that is “Snow In July” on the left in the photo above, being held by Mrs. Jiro Kodama. The painting Mrs. Lewis Van Hoose is holding is unidentified.
The bridge club arranged a private showing of Bidwell’s work–and then revealed to their husbands that the whole thing was a scam. For six months, the women had taken turns painting the works themselves during their bridge games. Their original plan was not just to sell the work to Hazleton, though; according to the front page story in the Washington Evening Star, it was really to “show how modern art can be phony.”
I first learned of the McLean bridge club’s “artistic slam” from Nina Burleigh’s 1998 book, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer. She cited the Star article as an example of postwar Washington culture’s derisive, even philistine view of modern art. The suburban wives’ parodic production is almost a perfect mirror of the amateur-yet-serious pursuit of abstract painting by the Georgetown wives Burleigh cast as Meyer’s peers.
Of course, there are many problems with this story, at least as it comes down. Conflating McLean and Georgetown makes as much sense as Greenwich and Greenwich Village. And the Bidwell exercise only came to light after the fact, and was only ever depicted as a generalized condemnation of modern art’s scammy bankruptcy: the wives declined to name the actual galleries they claimed to have visited, and the reporter, Gilbert Gimble, didn’t bother to check, or to question the wives’ misrepresentations of the work. And no actual art experts were asked about the project; it was all just a sensible, amusing, suburban pin in the “high-brow” art world’s balloon.
But as contemporary critique, the Bidwell incident was hardly novel, or even up to date. By 1961, Abstract Expressionism had been presented as America’s official Dominant Art Form–or at least LIFE Magazine’s–for over a decade. LIFE kicked off the “debate” over whether Pollock was “America’s greatest living artist,” way back in 1949. But even in 1959, they were still publishing multipart, pseudo-analytical service pieces for understanding “Baffling U.S. Art”.
What if, instead, Bidwell were taken at face value–or at least at the face value afforded by decades of art critical hindsight? Are there feminist implications to the reality that parody was apparently the only means available for these women to engage the prevailing cultural discourse? [Their next collaboration, they said, would be “to write a sexy novel.”] Or that the only way for women’s art to make the front page of the paper is as farce?
Reading about the bridge club’s actual process and project, I’m struck by how it resonates with the works of later artists and collectives, from Paul McCarthy to Matthew Barney to Karen Finley to Gelitin and Reena Spaulings and Bruce High Quality Foundation.
I’ve included the entire text from Gimble’s article after the jump. It ran on page A1 of the March 14, 1961 edition of the now-defunct Washington Evening Star, and is available via microfilm at the DC Public Library. Make of it what you will.

Continue reading “Bidwell And The Lost Virginia Abstract Expressionists”

‘Hier ist die Future’ By Matthew Thompson

I just bought this incredible poster at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, designed by Mies van der Rohe, in DC. It’s for “Hier ist die Future,” an exhibition held last year at the library by British artist Matthew Thompson.
Thompson explored the intersections of King and Mies, civil rights and modernism, by re-creating a minimalist, triangular plywood shelter designed by UMD architecture professor John Wiebenson and his students for Resurrection City, the 2,800 person encampment on the National Mall organized as part of King’s and the SCLC’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign in the summer of 1968.
The PPC was intended to expand the Civil Rights Movement’s mission to include the needs and rights of the poor; Resurrection City, originally conceived as City of Hope, was to be an in-government’s-face reminder of the invisible poor while King and others lobbied for new jobs, welfare, housing, and education-related legislation.
Unfortunately, King’s assassination that April, followed by poor organization, horrible weather, and then Robert Kennedy’s assassination in June, left Resurrection City an ineffective mess.
Thompson obtained the original drawings and plans for the Resurrection City shelters from Wiebenson’s widow, along with archival photos and materials of the encampment. He furnished his version with a Barcelona chair, his poster, and a 1971 coffee table book on urbanism.
The Social Sciences division of the library did a video podcast with Thompson that offers the best discussion and documentation of the project I’ve found so far. [dcpl-socialsciences.blogspot.com]
The Library also posted installation shots for “Hier ist die Future” on flickr [flickr]
“Hier ist die Future,” by Matthew Thompson, 8 January – 28 February 2009

In Your Face, Detroit!

The nightly LED show on the facade of the new Motor City Casino in Detroit [via sweet juniper]

Multiverse a now-permanent installation by Leo Villareal at the National Gallery of Art:

I think it’s clear that when it comes to this sort of thing, DC clearly has Detroit beat!

That’s What She Said

So I went to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian this morning to do a little research on the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Unfortunately, most of the WGMA’s archives are still at the Corcoran, which merged [ahem, subsumed or salvaged?] with the WGMA to save it in the late 60s.
Still, I did find another account of “the Gallery’s Wesselmann Incident,” as WGMA Chairman Julian Einenstein put it. And though it differs from the version Mary Meyer biographer Nina Burleigh heard from Alice Denney, it doesn’t necessarily contradict it.
In May 1963, Einenstein was told by James Truitt–yes, husband of, and a Gallery trustee, and someone who was very involved in its creation–that Art News would be running an editorial about the WGMA rejecting Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #21, above.
It turns out they were just running a letter from the artist, complaining about the situation, but before they knew that, Einenstein composed a letter to Art News editor Thomas Hess, giving him “the facts.” The letter was apparently never sent. [I’m not quoting at length here because I didn’t really pay attention to what restrictions I agreed to about publishing Archive material. The kid was getting a little antsy in her stroller, and I didn’t want to wear out her welcome.]
The whole thing went down in April. Einenstein framed the dispute as the result of “internecine warfare” between WGMA director Adelyn Breeskin, and the assistant director, Alice Denney, who was curating the show. Breeskin reportedly thought the painting of a nude figure with JFK was “in poor taste,” and rejected it. Einenstein said it was Breeskin’s decision to make.
Denney sought to reverse the decision “by both subtle and direct means. The pressure which she was able to apply was considerable,” leading Einenstein to call a full Board meeting. Eleven Board members then voted, not on whether the painting was appropriate or not, but on whether Breeskin had the authority to make the decision. They all affirmed she did, and #21 was out.
You can see how this version could mesh with Burleigh’s [which is Denney’s]. And it’s easy to imagine Einenstein’s description of Denney’s “considerable” pressure including getting Meyer to take the issue straight to JFK himself. What Einenstein didn’t mention, though, was that Breeskin had already told the Board she would be resigning. The folders for the months before and after the “Wesselmann Incident” are full of Einenstein’s letters soliciting recommendations for a replacement director.
Whether the Board was staying supportive of its director’s authority, even as she was on her way out, or whether some Trustees didn’t want the painting, but didn’t mind having Breeskin’s fingerprints on the knife, is still not clear. But I’m tempted to just say, “Forget it, Jake, It’s Washington.”

On Tom Wesselmann And The DC Dither

When DC art lecturer and blogger John Anderson emailed to ask if I’d heard about the scandal surrounding the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and the Tom Wesselmann, I was like, “Tom Wesselmann scandal? Do tell!”
He pointed me to Nina Burleigh’s account of it in A Very Private Woman, and now that I’ve read it, I’m kind of confused.
According to Burleigh, the problem involved Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #44, 1963 [top], which was included in Alice Denney’s “The Popular Image Exhibition” in April 1963. Several of the Gallery’s trustees previewed the show and “questioned the propriety of the collage” which included “a framed portrait of the president of the United States with the silhouetted nude body of a movie star,” who was interpreted to be the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe:

[The trustees] called for a personal meeting with Alice Denney. They demanded that she remove Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude No. 44 from the show. “It was ironic, because we all knew what was going on at the White House,” said Denney’s assistant at the time, Eleanor McPeck. “Kay Graham and Marie Harriman and some others insisted this picture be taken down and taken out of the show. The board was very conservative. They were simply not prepared for it.”
Alice Denney objected, but the board members were the museum’s financial lifeline. Reluctantly, the curator prepared to take the Wesselmann down. But behind the scenes the matter had come to presidential attention. Mary Meyer, by then one of the president’s occasional lovers and a confidante, told him about the little art imbroglio. She described the Wesselman collage with the Monroe nude beneath his official portrait. She told him about the ladies of the gallery board, all in a dither. The image of grande dames such as Marie Harriman scrambling to protect his reputation was too funny. The president laughed at the story and told Mary to tell the little Gallery of Modern Art that he wanted the Wesselmann to hang. The collage stayed in the show. [pp. 182-3, footnote: Alice Denney, Eleanor McPeck]

Which is awesome and hilarious, and it’s become a part of Wesselmann’s own story, too. But. That nude in Great American Nude #44, modeled after the artist’s wife Claire, is hardly Marilyn Monroe. And with that actual radiator, actual coat, and actual telephone that was wired to ring every six minutes, this thing is more a multimedia assemblage than a “collage.”
And as for JFK, I know JFK. JFK was a friend of mine. And you, head of a woman cropped from a Renoir painting, are no JFK.
All Burliegh’s descriptions of supposedly scandalous elements–the sitting president leering at a reclining nude–actually match up to an earlier Wesselmann, Great American Nude #21, painted in 1961 [below]. But that nude looks even less like Monroe than #44, who, you could at least imagine just had her dress blown off by a steam grate.
As the luck of the market would have it, both of these Wesselmanns have been resold in the last few years. Great American Nude #44 sold at Christie’s in 2002 for $944,500. “The Popular Image” is listed at the top of its exhibition history. Then in 2007, the Abrams publishing family sold Great American Nude #21 at Sotheby’s for $4.1 million. But there’s no mention of “The Popular Image” at all. After a 1962 exhibit at Tanager, Harry Abrams bought the picture in 1963 and didn’t show it publicly until 1976.
A press release for the Sotheby’s sale [pdf] boasted about #21‘s controversy:

Demonstrating the potent power of Wesselmann’s imagery, the work was censored from a 1963 exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art reportedly because the image of the President and a nude appeared together, perhaps with the Marilyn-like lips, a loaded reference to Kennedy, and Monroe, who was recently deceased. Wesselmann wrote a letter to the editor of Art News in the summer of 1963 against the museum’s decision to censor the work.

So what really happened? Was #21 in “The Popular Image” show, only to get pulled after all? Did word of JFK’s pillowtalk intervention come too late, or only after the fact? Or was #21 the image bandied about when deciding on Wesselmann’s inclusion in the show, but it was never at risk of actually making it in? And was #44 ever at risk of being pulled from the show? The only thing I know for sure is that despite some rock-solid sources, the Washington Post never mentioned the issue–or Wesselmann’s participation in the show–at all.

Mary Meyer, Proto-Minimalist?

I’ve been poking around to find examples of the artwork of Mary Pinchot Meyer, the Washington DC painter who was connected romantically to both Ken Noland and JFK. When her work is discussed at all, she’s generally been associated with the Washington Color School, typified by Noland’s and Morris Louis’s saturation techniques using liquid paint on unprimed canvas.
But that’s clearly not what’s going on in this work, Half Light, from 1964, the year she died. It is crisply painted geometric abstraction. If it resembles anything, it’s proto-Hard Edge-style Minimalism.

[2019 update IT IS NOT. According to Mollie Salah’s May 2019 lecture at the National Gallery of Art, Meyer did in fact use the archetypal WCS staining technique, figuring out how to control the edge of her paint. We need to see more even more!]

“This looks like that” is a pretty feeble art critical tool, I know, but it’s still fascinating to consider Meyer’s work when looking at, say, Carmen Herrera’s Rondo, which was made a year later in New York, and which entered the Hirshhorn’s collection in 2007, only after Herrera’s incredibly prescient-seeming work was “discovered” by the market in 2004.
Whatever the circumstances, contexts or differences between these two artists’ works, Herrera’s remarkable story serves as a reminder of just how incomplete our generally accepted notions of art history are, even–or especially–for the very recent past. And it also throws deserved doubt on the arbitrariness of amateur vs. professional, and successful vs failed when it comes to artistic production.
It’s impossible to say from one painting, of course, but do we know that Mary Meyer should not be considered one of most accomplished painters ever to work in Washington DC?
Half Light, 1964, donated in 1976 to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by Meyers’ sons [americanart.si.edu]
Rondo, 1965, Carmen Herrera, Hirshhorn Museum purchase, 2007 [hirshhorn.si.edu]

The Washington Wives School

You start pulling on a thread, and you never quite know what starts to come out. For some great stories about the Washington Gallery for Modern Art and “The Popular Image Exhibition,” reader JA suggested, I should really check out Nina Burleigh’s 1998 book, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer. So I did, and wow. No kidding. But I’ll get to that.
In addition to conducting an affair with JFK and getting killed soon after his assassination, Mary Pinchot Meyer was also one of Anne Truitt’s best friends, Kenneth Noland’s lover for a fairly extended period, and a very serious painter herself.
As Burleigh describes it, Georgetown and DC’s insular, faux-hemian postwar art community–including the members of the nascent Washington Color School–provided the havens for Meyer’s emotionally rocky life. [There are no images in the book to support it, but Burleigh repeatedly hints Meyer’s own painting was central, if not formative, in the development of the Color Field School generally, and in Ken Noland’s adoption of his signature bulls-eye specifically. Timing and other people seem to disagree with this idea, but I can’t immediately find any images of Meyer’s work. (see new post above) I’ll have to come back to this.]
New art, whether it was Abstract Expressionism in the 50s or Pop Art in the 60s, was met with criticism and suspicion from even the most politically liberal of Washington’s fundamentally conservative, power-anxious, ruling class. And art and culture were strictly gendered at a deep level almost unimaginable today–or maybe not.
A couple of brief excerpts really captured the character and challenges of Truitt’s environment in a very unfamiliar way. For me it makes her creative and career accomplishments all the more remarkable to see more of the very specific local culture in which she was working.

Often the main ties between art and power were through the wives, many of whom either sat on gallery boards or were amateur artists themselves. For at time it seemed every other wife in Georgetown was either taking painting lessons or setting herself up in a studio, though most remained firmly in the dilettante class. Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was linked romantically with one of the Washington women who painted, Sarita Peet, who went on to marry artist Robert gates, one of Mary [Meyers’] teachers at American University. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson’s wife was a painter. Helen Stern, wife of lawyer Philip Stern and one of Mary’s closest friends, painted. The wife of Estes Kefauver, Nancy Pigot Kefauver, was a painter. [she was the one tapped by the Kennedys to create the Art In Embassies program. -ed.] Tony Pinchot Bradlee, Ben’s wife, eventually had her own show of sculptures. V.V. Rankine, the wife of a British speechwriter, shared studio space with Mary for a time. In a few years, Mary herself became one of the links between Washington artists and power politics.
Portraitist Marian Cannon Schlesinger, then married to Arthur Schlesinger, recalled that most Georgetowners were not all that interested in art but liked having artists in their midst to buttress their cultivated sensibility…
Marital ties between politics and the arts brought support to real artists who were struggling without money or personal connections. Having a cabinet secretary as a guest on the opening night of one’s show was all to the good. Better yet, the women’s husbands often had the money to buy the work…
Among serious artists, the capital was ruefully regarded as a backwater. New York was where they’d rather be. Washington did not provide much of a market for modern art, recalled Alice Denney, who handled the work of many of the big New York abstract artists in Washington. “I couldn’t sell a Jasper Johns then.” [p.154-5]

Whaddya know, the assistant director of the WGMA and the curator of “The Popular Image” had previously been a dealer. [Founded Jefferson Place Gallery, in fact, the Deitch Projects of its time and place.]
DC’s spirit of suspicion, amateurism and of dismissing artmaking as a wifely diversion reached a zenith/nadir in an event that sounds so much like a script for a Paul McCarthy video, I want to see it re-enacted:

By the late 1950s modern art was not regarded as subversive; rather it was just silly, or at best baffling. In 1961 the Washington wives of a group of scientists and diplomats won fifteen minutes of fame [sic] when they decided to become abstract artists during their regular bridge games. Those who took breaks from the card tables went into the kitchen and splattered canvases with kitchen items–flour, syrup, ketchup, house paint, and anything else that would stick. After a few months they showed their “paintings” to their husbands, who found them amusing, and to a few Washington galleries, who showed interest and offered to buy them. Then they broke the story to the Washington Evening Star, which covered their stunt with tongue-in-cheek glee. “An Artistic Slam,” said the headline. “Ten suburban bridge club women have pulled a fast one on modern art…Among them they have 37 children.” [p155-6]

Is it really that far off from Clement Greenberg’s description of Anne Truitt a couple of years later in Vogue?
update: Thanks to DC arts veteran and expert John Anderson for insights and corrections.

Anyone Tell Me About Vern Blosum?

verne_blossum_wp.jpgAs I’ve been digging into the history of modernism and contemporary art in Washington DC, one of the most prominent events I keep coming back to is “The Popular Image” and its performance companion, the “Pop Art Festival.”
Organized Alice Denney in the Spring of 1963 for the fledgling Washington Gallery of Modern Art, “The Popular Image Exhibition” was a very early exhibition of Pop Art, coming at the same time as the Guggenheim’s Pop/Object show [which, unlike the DC show, traveled around the US], and less than six months after Walter Hopps’ seminal “New Paintings of Common Objects” show in Pasadena. Alan Solomon, who wrote an essay for the DC catalogue, then reconfigured the show a bit that fall for the ICA in London [1], where it introduced the US variant of Pop to Europe.
I’m most fascinated with the Pop Art Festival, which included a Happening by Claes Oldenburg designed for a DuPont Circle dry cleaners; a sprawling Judson Church/Yvonne Rainer/Kluver/Who knows who else dance performance in an Adams Morgan rollerskating rink; and an opening night tape recording performance by renowned Pop Artist John Cage. I know, right? But let’s wait on that. There’s a mystery from the show first.
A Washington Post preview from April 14, 1963 titled, “Eruption of Pop Art Slated for This Week,” mentions an artist I’ve never heard of, and who I can’t find mentioned in any other reporting or reviews of the show: Verne Blossum.
“Verne Blossum, who is inspired by parking meters with red ‘violation’ flags,” is mentioned between Roy Lichtenstein, “who likes comic strips,” and Jim Dine, “who attaches a lawnmower to a canvas and paints around it.” Blossum’s painting [above], is reproduced alongside Large Campbell Peeling Can by Andy Warhol. So that’s a pretty nice grouping. And yet.
And yet, they spelled his name wrong, for one thing. It’s Vern Blosum.
In 1967, the NY Times reported that his parking meter paintings series, titled “Time Expired,” was the subject of questions at a lunchtime docent tour at MoMA. “It’s a series of time paintings culminating in a giant expiration,” he replied. But no work by Blosum appears in the Museum’s collection today.
In his Smithsonian archives interview in1972, Larry Aldrich also mentioned buying Blosum’s work, but none is listed in the Aldrich Museum’s collection database, either.
I mean, it sure seems like the guy was doing something right in the 1960s; his almost complete [apparent] disappearance–or at least his delayed re-indexing online–makes me want to find out more.
UPDATE: Woohoo, I’m hearing details from a couple of people, and am following some hot leads. This has the markings of a great story. Stay tuned.
[1] In his May 2009 dissertation at Case Western, titled “Just what was it that made US Art so Different, so appealing?” [pdf] Frank G. Spicer III notes that Blosum, George Brecht, and Robert Watts were in the DC incarnation of “The Popular Image,” but were not shown in London.

‘Little Uglies’

I’ve had a research question simmering on the back burner for a while, trying to figure out what the history of modernism and contemporary art have been in Washington DC. Partly, it was the dearth of good modernist architecture that got me wondering, then a crash course in the history of contemporary art and official Washington generally, and the odd genesis of the Hirshhorn Museum specifically. Then there was some sporadic attempts at securing Washington’s place at the art world table [more on those later].
Then last spring, I attended a dinner in the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Though they were originally built in an off-the-shelf, 1950s corporate modernist style that matched the building, in 1969, Walter Annenberg, Richard Nixon’s newly appointed ambassador to Great Britain, gutted the space and installed the current veneer of neo-colonial splendor. That gut job stood in nicely for the essentially anti-modernist hostility of the Washington Establishment. Little did I know.
In the the latest batch of White House documents released by the National Archives and the Nixon Library this week is an incredible 1970 memo from Nixon to his chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, outlining a direct, political assault on the NEA’s support of “the modern art and music kick,” which he he associated with “the Kennedy-Shriver crowd,” art whose supporters “are 95 percent against us anyway.”
The LA Times’ Christopher Knight has some great context and quotes, but the full document is well worth a read [pdf]. My favorite part is the postscript, which has Annenberg’s fingerprints all over it:

P.S. I also also want a check made with regard to the incredibly atrocious modern art that has been scattered around the embassies around the world…I know that [Kenneth] Keating has done some cleaning out of the Embassy in New Delhi, but I want to know what they are doing in some of the other places One of the worst, incidentally, was [career Foreign Service Officer Richard H.] Davis in Rumania.
We, of course, cannot tell the Ambassadors what kind of art they personally can have, but I found in travelling around the world that many of our Ambassadors were displaying the moder art due to the fact that they were compelled to because of some committee which once was headed up by Mrs. Kefauver and where they were loaned some of these little uglies from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At least, I want a quiet check made–not one that is going to hit the newspapers and stir up all the troops–but I simply want it understood that this Administration is going to turn away from the policy of forcing our embassies abroad or those who receive assistance from the United States at home to move in the direction of off-beat art, music, and literature.

The “little uglies” probably came from MoMA’s International Council, which, along with the DC-based Woodward Foundation, often arranged embassy art loans.
Until the creation of the committee Nixon referred to, that is. The Art in Embassies Program was started in 1964 by Nancy Kefauver, who was selected by John and Jackie Kennedy for the post. In a 1990 NY Times history of the AIEP, David Scott, who helped Kefauver get going, recalled that Washington was scorning modernism just fine before Nixon took over:

“It was at a time when we were still fighting the battle of whether modern art was seditious or evil or un-American…As a result of the McCarthy period, people were very suspicious about having any government agency deal with abstract art. If you didn’t like the art, maybe the person was a Communist.”

Digging around, I’m kind of intrigued by Michael Krenn’s 2005 book Fall-out shelters for the human spirit: American art and the Cold War, which looks at the US Government’s interactions with the private art world, primarily through the State Dept, the USIA, and the Smithsonian. From the preview:

What the government hoped to accomplish and what the art community had I mind, however, were often at odds. Intense domestic controversies resulted, particularly surrounding the promotion of modern or abstract expressionist art. Ultimately, the exhibition of American art overseas was one of the most controversial Cold War initiatives undertaken by the United States.

At $50, though, I might need a little more than a Google Book preview.
Meanwhile, poking around MoMA’s archive site to try and see what some of these ‘little uglies’ might have been, I found the 1966 exhibition, “Two Decades of American Painting 1945-1965,” organized by Waldo Rasmussen, which included 111 works by 35 postwar artists, including Gene Davis, Hans Hoffman and Jasper Johns.
It was a straight-up museum exhibit, not embassy art, but it did travel to India and Australia from Japan, and was accompanied by a film program, The Experimental Film in America, which sounds specifically designed to give Nixon an aneurysm.
And the Johns that was in the show? the a White Flag painting from 1955, which the artist held onto until 1998, when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum.

‘The Art Game In Washington’

Recently I’ve been researching the postwar history of contemporary art and architecture in Washington DC. This article sounds like it could have been written last week:

The Art Game in Washington
Amid a growing art boom, local artists feel they are being overshadowed by national museums, budget-conscious curators, overly commercial gallery owners and a public that all too willingly listens to critics.

by Bob Arnebeck, The Washington Post Magazine, Sept. 17, 1978.