Posts Tagged ‘museum’

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.


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? . . .

museum internship + biscotti

Ten days ago, I had a phone interview for a summer internship with a modern art museum in DC. Four hours later, they called back and offered me the job. (Ahem. “Job.”) So for ten weeks this summer, I’ll be a regular 9-to-5’er — with time outs for intern field trips and panels — in the education department, researching the collection for docent training, organizing artist lectures and public events, helping out with children’s art programs, and so on.

The process of applying to summer internships began for me in late January and it’s been no picnic. Why can’t art internships get it together and standardize — or at least streamline — the application process? The Smithsonian wants everything submitted through their institutional database. A handful of places want snail mail packages, complete with sealed letters of recommendation and official transcripts. Some boutique-ish museums don’t even tell you, apparently steadfast in their belief that the head of Human Resources has nothing better to do with her time than field questions about whether unofficial transcripts are okay, or if writing samples are mandatory. I mean: seriously!

Thankfully, everything magically coalesced at the end and I landed one of my first-choice places. And last week I found myself in the happy position of having to thank recommendation-letter-writers for being such model recommendation-letter-writers. Flexible, generous, and, perhaps best of all, eminently punctual.

So I did what comes naturally. I made biscotti. And here’s why: one, they travel well. Two, they are a very Grown Up treat, being Foreign and therefore Classy. And three, well, I wanted to audition this recipe. (I didn’t say they were all selfless reasons.)

The audition verdict? They are quite Grown Up, by which I mean Not Very Sweet. A bit of a surprise, since there may only be a cup and a third of sugar, but they’re all CHOCOLATE and TWICE BAKED COOKIE and then the CHOCOLATE. Should be sweet, right? I wouldn’t serve them for dessert, but their tight crunch makes them the perfect vehicle for mid-afternoon-coffee-dunking.

Which is exactly how I imagined my former intern supervisor and seminar leader eating them, so . . .  TA! (Also: notice no butter. Makes for a waist-line friendly break, indeed.) I solicited some lovely help from a craftily-inclined friend and fellow blogger for packaging suggestions, and boom — these bundles are off to New York. And I can’t wait to follow them east in several weeks.

chicago two

The second half of the weekend, or “When B and N realized there was more to do in Chicago than eat.” (You’d think they starved us out here.) So while everyone else in the city was at brunch, we roamed the thankfully still-empty halls of the Art Institute and fed on Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon, Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Van Gogh’s Bedroom, and a whole room of haystacks. Besides this greatest hits tour of the Impressionists and Post, though, we spent the most time in their brand new, light-filled Modern Wing, which has all the modern European and (a bit later in the chronology) American names you’d expect, plus a whole other contemporary exhibit. More musings on this to follow.

What a terrible refrain, I can hear you moaning: then we were hungry again! In our defense, though, there’s not many places in Iowa City that serve Scotch Eggs. Which were one of Time Out Chicago’s “100 best things” two years ago and yes, we are horrified you hadn’t heard Scotch Eggs until now. Naturally we hightailed it to said Scotch Egg place, The Gage, for lunch.

It’s frankly incredible that this Irish gastro-pub exists right on Michigan Avenue, not even three blocks from the Institute. You’d never find such a place on Fifth near the Met, where the avenue through the eighties is entirely given over to classicizing apartment buildings and, a couple blocks over, nothing but delis, Chinese, and a fancy dinner spots. But the Gage exists and it is delicious, from the surprising Scotch Egg to the artsy, well-considered beer list to, well, the fish and chips.

Or what was fish and chips. Doesn’t fried food feel less gluttonous when it’s an haute cuisine version, with a delicately flaky battered crust around the delicately flaky fish? And when the tartar sauce comes in a wee cauldron? Hand cut fries, anyone?

No then. Oh well. On we trudged, straight through Millennium Park to the legendary Field Museum, which knows exactly why most people are here, and wastes no time delivering the goods. First a teaser dinosaur outside, and then Sue’s complete skeleton in the lobby. A T-Rex in the foyer! Clearly this is where dreams come true.

Sue’s five foot long head is housed upstairs in a great glass display case, as it’s too heavy for the steel armature that keeps her body together. This is the marvelous part. It took a team of seven scientists over 3500 hours to clean and repair the skull. Some teeth are a foot long. The Field Museum paid $8.4 million for her, the most ever paid for a fossil. And the hypotheses that X-rays and modern technology have allowed scientists to tentatively form are cooler still — that Sue had a broken rib, that she was an old dinosaur, that she was bitten in the cheek by another dinosaur (a theory that has since been refuted). It’s not even known whether Sue was a girl!

We also went through the Field Museum’s recreation of an Egyptian pyramid, which — being Sunday, being the afternoon, being designed for children and full of them — sent us straight into a cab and back to the hotel for some light Mexican food and blessedly, sleep.

The following morning, Monday and our last, we had a sunny side up breakfast at the Near North Side’s cheery Tempo Cafe. (Thanks, Kate!) The place was busy but the service was speedy and the eggs were hot. And after an entire skillet-full of eggs, hash browns, and sausage (dear lord, it did not seem like quite so much at the time), we had enough ammunition to mosey back down Michigan Avenue to Millennium Park and, for the first time this trip, behold the Giant Jellybean.

In sum: we didn’t cover everything in Chicago, and first and foremost on our return agenda will have to be some proper deep dish (no more stuffed!). But it was fabulous and then, just like that, it was time to go. The process of getting back to our doorstep was not “just like that” — we didn’t walk in until around one am — but that is, of course, a different story.

dirty snow and the art of/in next year

Well the blizzarding had to stop eventually, and eventually it did. We’ve been flurry-free for almost a whole week, and good thing too, for an important week it’s been: a final exam, my last French class with les petits, and early Santa visits to name a few. Of course, we’ve also entered that season of muddy snow mountains, which in my experience often outlasts proper wintertime. Our street looks like an unpaved road (having been skipped over in the initial plowing frenzy and now, I suppose, given up as a lost cause), between the initial flake cover, freeze, car tracks, melt, freeze, etc.

The main roads are totally, paved, though, and I made my paved-highway, ice-free way up to Cedar Rapids yesterday morning to see about a museum internship. And how, oh how shall I fill my days next semester? Perfecting a recipe for ricotta chocolate mousse that tastes more like . . . chocolate mousse? (Sadly, the devil in tonight’s dinner. I swear, I didn’t know it was diet food!) Actually finishing the stack of books on my bedside table that, despite SIX MONTHS of purely voluntary activities I have STILL not managed to polish off? Convincing Billy that fostering a kitten from the local animal shelter is one hundred per cent essential to our happiness? (IS. IT. EVER!)

Hopefully, all of the above. And for those keeping track at home, this too:

— Art museum internship, at last! I’m to settle into the education department, and next year may find me designing materials for blind and visually impaired visitors.

— Conquering the GRE. I took a practice test in May, failed half the math, and was so embarrassed that I promptly shut the books away for, er, the rest of the year. So in lieu of an academic class at the university, I will be my own task master. Just me, Kaplan, and the Princeton Review. Let us never again forget how to find the area of a triangle.

— Tut -or / -ee, in Italian, French, and German — the latter, in particular, until my translations of Winckelmann are so graceful that Columbia’s graduate program will be falling over itself to admit me.

— Testing whether all CraigsList job offers are, indeed, scams. If not: liaising between French customers and American customer service reps for an education software company . . . !? I have no idea if this is real, either.

And you, friends-who-are-readers: you’re part of the project, too. I’m going to get someone to come visit.