Posts Tagged ‘art’

visiting american gothic

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that before leaving Iowa in two weeks, my number one goal was to visit the American Gothic House — the house with that famous upper-story Gothic window in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which is, yes, a real, standing house in a small, 1,000-person town in southern Iowa called Eldon. And yesterday, with B. in tow, I did.

Eldon was a pretty out-of-the-way destination for Grant Wood, too. He lived in Cedar Rapids — not far from us! — and found himself in Eldon in 1930 for an art festival. During his visit, a local artist offered to drive him around the town (then a booming railroad community), and Grant Wood was captivated by this tiny country home outfitted with such a “pretentious” (his words) window. He asked the owner if he might include the house in a painting (she consented, and promptly cleaned the residence from top to bottom, not realizing he only meant the outside) and drew a quick sketch.

Back home in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood asked his sister and dentist to sit for the father/daughter portrait. He assured them that they wouldn’t be recognized. His dentist, Dr. B. H. McKeeby, was, and it ended their friendship. When he painted his sister Nan, he elongated her face to further distort her appearance. Dr. McKeeby and Nan were painted separately in his studio — not standing before the house. The artist never returned to Eldon.

It’s not clear what commentary (indeed, if any) Grant Wood meant to offer with this portrait. It’s known that he set out to paint the sort of people who would live in the house with the pretentious window. Some have interpreted the figures’ sour expressions as a satire of the rigidness and narrow-mindedness sometimes associated with Midwestern types, though it seems fairly unlikely that Wood, who adored his early years on his family’s farm, intended such a reading. The painting can also be seen as a celebration of the virtue of hard work and seriousness. Likewise, it’s not clear what the inclusion of the Gothic window implies: was Wood mocking the homeowners’ attempt to make the house look grander than it was, or honoring their effort to insert beauty into their everyday life?

Seeing the house (the real house!) in situ was quite extraordinary. If you look closely at the painting, you’ll note that the patterned curtain in the Gothic window has been swapped out for a gauzy white one. But it is otherwise completely unchanged. There is the same sense of attempted grandeur — a literal window of beauty — in an otherwise plain house, in an otherwise unglamorous town.

You’ve probably already guessed at the interpretation I prefer, if for admittedly sentimental reasons. I like to think Wood made the painting in praise of the farmer and daughter’s grasps at elegance. His topmost gold shirt button, her cameo brooch, the curl escaping her bun, the Gothic window — despite their dour faces, there are these extra efforts, the appeals to the aesthetic, for no real purpose and no functional reason. Just that it feels good to look at pretty things. It’s beauty for beauty’s sake.

So this isn’t exactly sound art historical theory. But it’s what I’m sticking with. Thanks to this quick road trip (the house is less than ninety minutes away), I can check off my number one Iowa goal and feel just a wee bit more connected to to the rolling prairie hills, via this house that has defined the state for so many.

The house center is manned by two grandmotherly sorts, and it stocks costumes for those (aka everyone) wanting to recreate the painting — and add to its already rich history of parodies. And … of course … what would a trip to the American Gothic House be without a photo op?


egypt in new york

I can’t believe I’d never been to the Temple of Dendur at the Met. I’ve spent hours at the museum, written many papers off the gigantic hall of European painting. Attended the annual college nights. The annual Medieval Christmas tree. Special exhibitions on Love in Renaissance Italy; Guitar Heroes; Stieglitz, Strand, and Steichen; Pissarro and Cezanne. The gorgeous (and fantastically photogenic) new wing of Greek statuary. The Damien Hirst shark. Koons on the roof. And yet, I never got my act together to see the seventeen thousand year old Egyptian temple that the Met just up and moved here fifty years ago? I mean, it’s in “When Harry Met Sally” — it’s not exactly secret.

I finally went on Tuesday. Please, don’t wait this long. The sight of an Egyptian temple silhouetted against Central Park is an unmissable experience. Plus, it’s practically free, thanks to the Met’s policy of suggested, not mandatory, admission. A great place to spend an afternoon.

quick hit: pollock for keeps

We had a little (by which I mean “big”) deaccessioning drama play out in Iowa over the last couple weeks. You’d be forgiven for not catching it; this isn’t exactly national news fodder, for all it should be. But I’m telling you about it now.

The University of Iowa has a Jackson Pollock painting. I bet you didn’t know that. Just like the Museum of Modern Art, the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) has a Pollock. And not just a sketch, but a large, important, relatively early painting gifted to the university by Peggy Guggenheim and appropriately titled Mural. It is easily the state’s most famous painting.

After the 2008 flood, which destroyed the art museum, Mural was relocated to the Figge Museum in Davenport, about an hour away. Its house, which is to say, the museum building, has not been rebuilt — the collection is dispersed between the Figge, the Iowa Memorial Union, the Studio Art building, and others — and soon after the waters receded there were calls to sell the Pollock to offset the costs of repairing flood damage. They quickly died down. One wonders what the point of rebuilding an art museum would be, if the Pollock were not inside.

But we don’t have to go anywhere near these philosophical questions, for it is not allowed on purely legal grounds. Peggy Guggenheim plainly donated the painting with the expectation that it be used in teaching, and she wrote that the Pollock should be returned to her, rather than sold, if ever the museum wished to deaccession it. As the UIMA pointed out, if her descendants chose to pursue the matter in court, “We could end up losing the work with no compensation.” Moreover, the American Association of Museums specifies that proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned works can only be put toward acquisitions or direct care of the collection. You can’t sell a painting to pay for a new carpet. You can’t sell a painting to raise salaries, or otherwise cover operational costs. And, it should be abundantly clear, you cannot sell a painting to fund an entirely separate scholarship program.

It should be abundantly clear, yes, but this did not stop State Representative Scott Raecker, Republican (of course*) from proposing a bill that would have forced the university to sell the Pollock to create a trust fund. (*Side note: Yes, it is always Republicans, and yes, I do feel compelled to point this out, if only to draw further attention to the blazing hypocrisy of a political party that crows “small government! no government intrusion!” while somewhere finding the gall to reach into a single art museum and remove a single painting. We saw this on a much larger scale this winter, when the Republican Congress threatened to pull the National Portrait Gallery’s funding over a four-minute video. But I’m sure you remember that mess. So let’s move on.)

The question of funding arts and (not versus) funding scholarships is a challenging and important one, all the more so during trying financial times. But we must ask, again, what is the point of funding art history or studio art students (as the bill would have, sort of) if they don’t have any art to study? The trade-off is so clearly, so blatantly, so horns-blowingly nonsensical, and thankfully other representatives realized this. The Pollock story has a happy ending: the bill died in the legislature after just twelve days. Mural remains safe in its cozy Iowa home.

thought of the day

Art galleries are laboratories where artists can take chances. And that’s a scary thing. Not just for the artist, but for the viewer. Unlike a museum, there’s no docent, no wall text, no art history book to tell you what’s good or bad, what it all means, why it’s so expensive or what it’s made of.

That’s scary, yes, but it can also be thrilling, as with anything that’s brand new. There’s a rush that comes from being among the first to experience something that’s never been seen before.

— Michael O’Sullivan in the Washington Post

the art institute

This Saturday, an RV has parked outside our living room, complete with a tent, beer pong table, and about ten Hawkeye fans shivering around their beer cans in the 30 degree temperatures. (As B is saying, though, “At least we shook down the neighbors for some cash.” So we are not exactly complaining.)

Last Saturday, though, we were at the Art Institute in Chicago. We got there before it opened and joined a small line of museum-goers under increasingly threatening skies that, around 10:20, finally broke into sheets of rain. Luckily one of us hadn’t forgotten her umbrella. Someone, who had clearly drawn the short straw for “most undesirable job” was going up and down the line hawking museum memberships. In the rain. I don’t envy it.

But would you believe it, I bought one. Hook, line, and sinker, no? First off, it’s actually a bargain: admission for students is $12 each; a student membership is $40, and you get a plus one. If B and I go back once more, well, here’s the money, walking back to my wallet. We also got to switch to the shorter lines, both outside and in.

I also bought a membership because my grandma loved the Art Institute of Chicago. There’s the story of when she was young and living in Chicago, and a certain art book caught her fancy. She couldn’t afford to purchase it in one go, so she returned every Friday, paycheck in hand, and plunked down a dollar. And so on for months, buying it in fractional increments, until she finally took it home. There’s some details I’m forgetting — I know the art book, or used to, I know the store and the number of months — but that’s the gist of it. And so I bought a membership for that, too.

The Institute just re-installed Marc Chagall’s “America Windows” (1977), pictured here, after a five-year absence for cleaning, conservation, and archival research. The plates were created to honor America’s bicentennial, and they celebrate the country’s religious tolerance and cultural freedom with depictions of music, painting, literature, theater, and dance. They were dedicated to Mayor Richard Daley, a great supporter of the public arts, and apparently made famous a decade later with an cameo in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Which basically means I need to see the movie again. The windows are immensely beautiful, and situated in a room with small-scale replicas or preliminary models of other public art projects around the city, giving the whole space a unmistakeably Chicago vibe.

We swung through many more galleries afterward. Hadn’t seen “Nighthawks” or “American Gothic” on any previous visits (!!), and last Saturday we finally Xed those off the proverbial checklist. You know, the paint on both, but especially the Hopper, reproduces a lot darker than it actually is. “Nighthawks” is bright. It is neon. It’s strident and terribly uncomfortable which, of course, is the entire point, but amazing how much the color contributes. We also saw the inescapable Seurat, pictured below.

That was a rather quicker breeze-through. I don’t like crowds.

Finally, the arms and armory room: just a preview for a much larger arms and armory installation. Coming sometime soon. The high ceilings also permitted the hanging of some really spectacular Medieval tapestries. There were also some horsies.

But by this point, both B and I were feeling a little peckish, and made a bee-line for Gage across the street.


If you have a chance to see Material World: Sculpture to Environment at North Adams, Massachusetts’s MASS MoCA, before it closes in February, I hope you do. The museum is a converted electronics plant, complete with rugged brick walls, heavily clanging doors, squared-off support beams, and wooden floor, all criss-crossed overhead with steel beams. It is beautiful. It radiates place. It bolsters the art inside, giving it a setting to dialogue with, in contrast to the “white box gallery” aesthetic of Chelsea, et al. I think white walls and concrete floors make the art look lonely and oddly small. Isolated planets in miniature. At MASS MoCA, they feel emboldened with context, history, an extra oomph.

And “Material World” is the perfect show for this old-soul building. Seven contemporary artists were invited to create large (huge) scale, site-specific installations in the museum’s second and third floor galleries, using uncharacteristically humble materials like fishing line, sheet plastic, bubble wrap, and paper towels. The result is an ephemeral delicacy that nonetheless looms large. (I almost wrote “booms large.” Not incorrect either.)

All of them were beautiful — truly — but “White Stag”, a crumpled paper dreamscape created by collaborators Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen blew me away. It crawled over two floors, coiling quietly on the lower and on the top-most, unfurled like so many trees before big factory windows overlooking the Berkshire mountains.

I wanted to curl up inside in the trees’ hollow knots (have you seen the California Redwood forests? Like that.) and explore every crinkled paper wrinkle and fall asleep in the museum. I’m trying to give you a little more to go on: quiet and white. Room-sized fragility but it still felt permanent. I didn’t want to leave, but since all museums must close, I instead bought the catalog and took (perhaps forbidden?) photos, and have now recommended this all to you. Just to say I haven’t felt so bundled together and rolled up cozy by art in a long time.

hits and misses in rockwell’s story

The new Norman Rockwell show at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art is, among many things, a delight. But there’s a fallacy at work, too, and no one’s made a peep about it. Least of all the New York Times, which I am currently eying with a distrustful, wary eye and will get to in a moment.

The good? Norman Rockwell was a masterful visual narrator, and the exhibition’s minimalist attitude toward wall text, save for a few inane quotes from Rockwell collectors Steven Spielberg and especially George Lucas (who both have manifested interesting reflections on Rockwell in interviews, which makes the quote selection all the more disappointing), showcases this talent.

First Trip to a Beauty Shop, Top Value trading stamp catalogue, 1972

Rockwell’s ability to “tell entire stories in a single, frozen image,” in Spielberg’s words, is a lost art. It’s an illustrator’s gift, and Rockwell was the best of all illustrators. We still tell stories in pictures, but they unfold in sequences, or come with subtitles (comic books, comic strips, New Yorker covers). For an image, much less a “fine arts” painting, to carry an entire account of an eight year old’s first, monumental visit to Mom’s fancy salon one Saturday afternoon, and her surprised, ebullient delight at this stylish coiffure — well that’s rare.

Happy Birthday Miss Jones, The Saturday Evening Post, 1956

Or there’s this one, which perfectly, effortlessly captures Miss Jones’s proud, fond smile at her pupils. She’s positively beaming at them. They’ve remembered her birthday, carpeting the edge of her desk with apples, flowers, and wrapped gifts, and the pack of them have scrawled “Happy birthday!” across the blackboard — clearly intending to surprise her and now settled into their seats with an innocent air of “What?” while the dropped chalk gives them all away. And since I’ve been on Miss Jones’s end of happy surprise, I’m inclined to think she’s impressed, thinking to herself, Well, look how sweet they are when they try. The painting is simple, but lavishly detailed, and it’s an accomplishment. And many more follow this pattern.

Window Washer, Saturday Evening Post, 1960

But there’s a real problem here, too, and if the museum was admirably hands-off in letting viewers explore the stories for their own sake, without chiming in with biographical irrelevancies, it seriously dropped the ball somewhere else.

Where was said ball dropped? . . .