Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Terrible Day

A ghastly turn of events in Iran today. I cannot imagine the fear and the rage that must blanket that country tonight. I am already haunted by a video clip I wish I had not seen, of a young woman in her last moments. What is there to do, but persist? But how many others will be sacrificed to a flailing, jealous regime on its way down? Stupefied, sorrowful, I offer another Persian miniature, for lack of anything else to say. It features a Persian king known for his prowess as a hunter and a lover. But I selected Bahram Gur in the Green Pavilion in honor of green, the color held up by crowds as the hue of Iranian aspiration. Tabriz, 1481.

A Curator's Perspective

The other day I received a note from Joyce Schiller, the new curator of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies (and recently of the Delaware Art Museum). Joyce has been sampling some of the Graphic Tales back catalogue, so to speak, and was spurred to write by an exchange from last April. The back-and-forth at the time had to do with my enthusiasm, and David Apatoff's skepticism, for the work of Kerry James Marshall. One of the issues in play was the role of institutions (and particularly, museums) in the establishment of reputations and what some see as a "seal of approval"–deserved or otherwise–for the work of a given artist. Joyce offers the perspective of a curator who has worked inside such institutions. Wise words:

This is not intended as an apologia, but merely a personal observation. I am not speaking here for all art museums, art museum directors, or art museum curators nor as the voice of any specific museum. Having been employed at a variety of museums over the past thirty years, I have had the opportunity to see what happens behind the public spaces of various institutions. While most of the museums I have worked at have been focused on one (or two) subject specialties, the institutions that are encyclopedic in nature have developed an interesting approach to collecting art being produced contemporaneously. They tend to collect broadly, knowing that later some curator or director may weed their collections down (hopefully) to the great stuff from that period. It seems to me that collecting within the timeframe of an object’s creation is a slightly risky business. While each curator or director may be certain that their choices are “the best” later generations may re-adjudicate their choices. For example, in 1909 and 1911 the Saint Louis Art Museum hosted exhibits of then contemporary Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923). After each installation the institution purchased a couple of his paintings. This meant that his work would be in the collection to be enjoyed by the institution’s community and be available to be worked on by successive generations of museum staff. Well, not exactly. In the 1930s the museum’s director and curator decided to begin to weed out some of Sorolla’s paintings since his sun-filled realism was then out of fashion—not modern. By the time I was on the Museum’s staff, there was only one Sorolla painting left in the SLAM collections.

[shown at the top of this post: Under the Awning, 1910, the only Sorolla painting SLAM kept. Oil on canvas; Collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum]

Then in 1988 and 89, a new Sorolla traveling exhibit was organized. It was seen at four venues, including the Saint Louis Art Museum. This was the first large traveling exhibit that I worked on along with a wonderful set of team members. It was an eye-opener. This was an artist about whom I know next to nothing and eventually I learned that some of the best works traveling with this show had indeed once been in the museum’s permanent collection. No museum’s collections can grow unchecked. They all weed in one way or another. I do not know of any acquisition budget nor a storage budget that are big enough to get and keep everything directors and curators desire. But some curators have been known to collect broadly with the unsaid understanding that in another time someone may move and change status of something they collected. What’s on today’s walls will change tomorrow. Very little is sacred.

[above: Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Two Sisters, Valencia, 1909; oil on canvas; now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, once in the collection of SLAM.]

And often what you see on the walls today with the implication that the museum and its curators think this is the best stuff, will in fact be relegated to storage tomorrow and perhaps even out to the market place the next day. Each curator realizes that their legacy is one part the objects they directly acquire for the museum, one part the scholarly material they create about their collections, and one part the charming of donations of objects from dealers and collectors out of their hands and into the museum’s.

Thanks to Joyce for taking the time to capture that context for the rest of us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Noseful of That

I know, I just wrote yesterday that I wouldn't be posting much this summer. But this is a perfect excuse for a blog post.

Above, another example of the disregard with which visual cultural materials are treated when they're not "Art." The illustration above was reprinted in the New York Times on June 17, 2009. It accompanied an article by Abby Ellin about the use of olfactory stimulation to suppress appetite for weight-loss purposes.

The credit line for the illustration was "Advertising Archive," an aggregator of advertisements and periodical illustrations which sells usage rights to material they've scanned and dumped in their database.

I don't begrudge the Times or Advertising Archive their business purposes, but where is the credit for this illustrator? I am pretty sure that the piece was produced by Robert O. Reid, a midcentury illustrator who did a lot of work for Collier's. I can't be certain. The waitress's impossibly thin waist and the blend of cartooning and volumetric handling are staples of Reid's work, although the brushwork is a little rougher. It's possible that this is an imitator of Reid's style.

The conventions of periodical publishing at the time (circa 1940) included clear illustrator credits. They know whose work this is. Why is it acceptable to treat such material as if it had washed up on the beach?

For the record: a brief biographical note about Reid can be found in the online resources of the Charles Craver Tearsheet Collection in the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis. The Reid image below is an interior illustration for the August 26, 1939 edition of Collier's.

This is more evidence of an unacceptable gulf between the standards applied to what is conventionally called "fine art" and other forms of visual material. You could certainly find aggregations of artworks from the 1940s for publishing applications, all of which would require the citation of the artist. Zealously so. Red flag, people! Illustrations, cartoons, and other published images are not now, and have never been, produced by "the culture." They're made by actual people who are active participants in the creation of the things we live among, and by which we are influenced.

This should be fixed via correction in the Times.

Hat tip to emerging illustrator and former student Rachel Harris, who brought this to my attention. (I take the daily Times, but missed it.) Thanks, Rachel!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Persian Miniatures, Iranian Protests & Other News

I have been tracking events in Iran like many around the world, inspired by the protesters and worried by what appears to be an increasingly thuggish response by the regime to being caught in a clumsy move to manipulate–determine?–election results. I know precious little about the Persian tradition in illumination, but when in the presence of such objects I have always been moved by their grace and aesthetic power. At the top of this post, the Presentation of the City from Mi'raj-nama (Ascension of Muhammad), from the Sarai Albums at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. The work was produced by the School of Tabriz at the beginning of the 14th century. I got this image from a site for an art history course at Bilkent University in Istanbul (a city I have always wanted to visit). I would have credited the professor, but I failed to figure out who was teaching the course. My bad.

Reports suggest that two people have been killed at Tabriz Engineering University. I have been moved by events in Iran in the broadest sense. But I have also found myself thinking about my own students and my own university, imagining what it would be like to see nationalist thugs on motorbikes ripping through our facilities, attacking our students! My thoughts and prayers are with the protesters in Iran.

In other news: I expect to post a little less frequently this summer, in large part because I am forcing myself to buckle down and do longer format writing for a book project addressing under-considered topics in modern graphic history. I'm making progress. Unfortunately, the focus required to do such writing leaves less time and brain space to do the sustained riffing that blogging entails. I am hopeful that the investment will pay off, and I entreat GT readers' patience. I'll try to post informally on this and that, just to keep things freshened up a bit. But there won't be much heaving lifting this summer...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Signal Event

Returned from New England on Sunday, after a working day at the Norman Rockwell Museum on Friday. The folks at the Rockwell have assembled an impressive group of people and organizations variously invested in the history of illustration. I was there as an advisor and as one of three representatives of Washington University in St. Louis, an institution with a significant and growing committment to modern graphic culture.

Among the highlights:

Had dinner on Thursday night with my friend Stephanie Plunkett, the Rockwell Museum curator, and Dennis Dittrich, illustrator, President of the Society of Illustrators and stand up comedian. We had a lively discussion of the academic landscape of illustration, art history, and culture studies, and laughed a great deal.

I got to meet the great Walt Reed, the historian of American illustration and founder of Illustration House, an auction house devoted to illustration and cartooning. (Reed's first history of illustration in the United States appeared in 1964.) What a charming, thoughtful and engaged fellow. He made the arresting observation that if he were to write a new history of illustration, he'd begin the narrative "six months ago." How about that for intellectual flexibility from a nonagenarian! It was also a treat to meet Walt's sons Roger and Jeffrey.

I met the new curator of the Rockwell Center, Joyce Schiller, an omnivorous scholar of illustration and with an arch sense of humor and a voice that would have brought her cash and fame had she gone into radio.

I got to hear a stem-winder of an art history talk by Alex Nemerov on an Edward Hopper painting. (Ground Swell, 1939; below)

I got to sit with Danielle Rice (Director of the Delaware Art Museum, a museum educator by training) and Christine Podmaniczky (Associate Curator of the Brandywine Museum) guardians of the Pyle-Wyeth nexus. We had a blast talking among ourselves and Laurie Norton Moffat, Rockwell director, about all the great exhibitions we'd curate together given a chance.

Danielle, a fellow blogger, has posted a thoughtful reflection on art and illustration as a follow up to our dinnertime chat.

I also met Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum, and got a chance to sneak down to New Britain before I left, where I saw the newly acquired N.C. Wyeth painting of Jim Hawkins and Israel Hands in ship's rigging, just before the former shoots the latter. From Wyeth's Treasure Island work of 1911. (Below.) Most (all?) of the rest are at the Brandywine museum, if memory serves.

Also got to see my friend and Washington University colleague Jeff Pike, who I hadn't seen in months.

It was a great group, devoted to great project. I'd have enjoyed speaking at length with everyone there, and hope to get the chance next time.

Publication watch: Look for the new Frank Schoonover catalogue raisonne, (Schoonover, Smith and Dean) and for Walt Reed's upcoming book on the career of Harvey Dunn–two reverberating, Brandywine-inflected careers. As a side note, I can't wait to get to Wilmington to see the Schoonover studio, the Delaware Museum, and (again) the Brandywine.

Regular GT readers will recognize the theory and history of illustration and cartooning–plus the historiography of same–as central concern of this blog.

For background, here are some representative posts on the subject: on the influence of Immanuel Kant in this field; on analytical separatism; on visual culture, race and ethnicity; my recent commencement address to students from the College of Art at Washington University, re the new visuality; more in the context of studio teaching: on storyboarding, and on narrative illustration and economy one and two.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Weekend with Norman

Headed for the Berkshires today. Not to goof off, but to join others at a meeting organized by the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, an arm of the Norman Rockwell Museum. I serve on an advisory board to the new Rockwell Center, which is taking the study (and the promotion of the study) of American Illustration for its mission. Looking forward to the trip. The Rockwell folks are really great. And Stockbridge, Massachusetts is plenty charming in the summer...