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Manet: Portraying Life — An Interview with Curator Lawrence W. Nichols


November 5th, 2012 at 6:00 am

Édouard Manet: Portrait of Antonin Proust

Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883), Portrait of Antonin Proust, 1880.
Oil on canvas, 129.5 × 95.9 cm.
Toledo Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1925.108
Photo © Photography Incorporated, Toledo

Mr. Lawrence W. Nichols is the William Hutton senior curator, European and American painting and sculpture before 1900 at the Toledo Museum of Art where the major exhibition, Manet: Portraying Life is being presented. Mr. Nichols planned and organized this exhibit of the work of Édouard Manet (1832-1883), along with MaryAnne Stevens, exhibition curator at the London Royal Academy of Arts. Mr. Nichols joined CLR for a conversation about this landmark exhibit, the first to focus on Manet’s portrait paintings.

CLR: People are fascinated with the “back story” of great films, plays and books. Art exhibitions have their own behind-the-scenes lives, as well. Would you share some insights about how the Toledo Museum of Art came to partner with the Royal Academy to mount this great exhibit of portraits by Édouard Manet?

LWN: In a way, Manet: Portraying Life can be traced to the early years of the Toledo Museum of Art. Edward Drummond Libby, who founded the museum in 1901, purchased a portrait by Manet in 1924, Portrait of Antonin Proust. I was intrigued by the fact that another very different work by Manet, a restaurant scene, was exhibited at the same salon in 1880. This painting is entitled Chez le Père Lathuille – En Plein Air, from the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts Tournai. It was my aim to unite these two marvelous canvases.

Manet’s Antonin Proust is a formal portrait of his long-time friend, who by-the way was no relation to Marcel Proust. It is a three-quarters length view and Manet put a lot of effort into it. Chez le Père Lathuille shows a middle-aged woman meeting a younger man in an eyebrow-raising manner. It’s what we would call a genre painting. But Manet treated genre painting in such a way that it illuminated the society that he and Antonin Proust lived in. The idea formed in my mind that these two works could serve as the basis for a very enlightening exhibition on Manet and his world.

How did the Royal Academy in London become involved with your plans?

As I pursued my research into Manet, I discovered that MaryAnne Stevens of the Royal Academy was also planning an exhibit devoted to Manet. That was in 2008 and we decided to work together on a joint exhibition. The two of us showed-up on the doorstep of museums, world-wide, to explain our plans. We hoped that these institutions would lend the portraits by Manet that would enable us to explore this aspect of his work. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris was particularly helpful, lending us several key works. They were so enthused, in fact, that for a time it seemed that they might present the exhibit too, making it a three-venue show. But there were already scheduled exhibits at their museum that prevented them from having the necessary space to present the show.

Were there any notable difficulties in arranging for works to be loaned?

It took four years to secure the loan of Chez le Père Lathuille. The museum in Tournai, Belgium, which owns it, was one of the first that we visited in 2008. But it was not until September 2012, less than a month before the exhibit was set to open here in Toledo, that we finally secured their agreement to send the painting. It took a lot of delicate and persistent negotiation, but sometime you just have to put the pedal to the metal to get the job done.

How did you and Ms. Stevens organize the exhibition?

First of all, Manet: Portraying Life is not Read more…

American Mythologies: Grant Wood at the RNC


September 4th, 2012 at 5:00 am

Grant Wood: American Gothic

American Gothic, 1930. Grant Wood, American, 1891-1942
Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection

I wanted to use the occasion of the first of this fall’s heavily choreographed political conventions to revisit a painter powerfully associated with America’s myths of itself, a painter I believe to be both misunderstood and underrated – Grant Wood. Yes, that Grant Wood, painter of American Gothic, one of the most familiar and most parodied pictures ever. But most of his work is far less known, including such subversive takes on American mythmaking as Daughters of Revolution and Parson Weems’ Fable.

Wood remains a troubling and marginal figure for many reasons. As a young artist, he went off to Europe, to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France, but unlike Marsden Hartley, for example, he didn’t become an abstractionist. Instead, the key influences on Wood were the late-medieval/early Renaissance artists then widely referred to as “primitives”. Both Northern and Italian primitives helped shape Wood’s emerging aesthetic. He was also influenced by the painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) movement in Weimar Germany. These artists rejected what they perceived as the solipsism of the Expressionists, both their introverted subject matter and their painterly style. The New Objectivists sought to portray the facts of modern life – often seen with a jaundiced eye – in a crisp, clear style.

In his maturity, Wood left behind the bland, pleasant post-Impressionism of his student work and developed an ostentatiously smooth, glossy style, in which the very trees sometimes appear to have been machined-turned on a production line. Visible traces of the artist’s own idiosyncratic touch are banished in favor of a hallucinatory clarity. This choice again shows the influence of both Northern and Italian “primitives”, many of whom painted in tempera, a medium which by its nature tends to obscure the individual brushstroke. It also suggests the Precisionist style adopted in those same years by artists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. This in itself was almost enough to make Wood the object of critical suspicion in the postwar years, when the expressive brushstroke, the artist’s touch, was all.

And Wood would turn his back on the metropolis, too, in all its forms. He returned to his native Iowa, championing regionalism and supporting public art projects that aided – and celebrated – the rural and small-town world he loved. However, Wood himself did not fit neatly into this world – as his recent biographer asserts, he was in all likelihood gay. (Though, ironically, it seems the only people who ever used this to make trouble for him were his supposedly “advanced” artistic colleagues at the University of Iowa. Neighbors were proud enough of the local boy made good to overlook what they might not care to acknowledge.) The image of the perpetual bachelor in overalls, sharing his tiny studio with his aging mother and unmarried sister, dreaming of founding a heartland art colony, is a poignant one.

Wood himself existed at a strangely oblique angle to the all-American world he painted, and this perspective informed his work more than you might think. The only work whose satirical intent he openly acknowledged was the wonderfully titled Daughters of Revolution, in which three elderly members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, all pursed lips and tightly confined hair, stand in front of an aging, visibly foxed print of Washington Crossing the Delaware. As they stare balefully at the viewer, one holds up a willow ware teacup – emblem of middle American WASP gentility – her pinky artfully crooked. The irony of these women as keepers of the revolutionary flame (something emphasized by Wood’s decision to drop the article, leaving us with the base abstraction of Revolution) is delicious.

Wood performs an even more complex deconstruction of an American myth in Parson Weems’ Fable, which illustrates the famous cherry-tree incident invented, or at least heavily embellished, by Weems for his Life of Washington, published in 1800. The composition clearly references Charles Willson Peale’s self-portrait of 1822, The Artist in his Museum, in which the painter and collector is seen lifting a tasseled red curtain to reveal his carefully ordered gallery of natural and artistic wonders. This alerts the viewer to the fictional, constructed nature of the scene, as does the placement on young George’s childish body of a head taken straight from the familiar Gilbert Stuart portrait used on the one-dollar bill. The improbably round and perfect cherries dangling from the improbably round and perfect tree exactly echo the bright red ball fringe of the curtain. In the background, two African slaves pick cherries from an identical tree, under a dark cloud that threatens to blot out the bright sunshine that illuminates Washington and his father.

Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939. Grant Wood, American, 1891-1942
Image source: WikiPaintings

The visual rhythm of cherries, cherry trees and fringe is picked up again by the round green trees of the distant hillside, where a geometrically ordered orchard or plantation has been inserted into the wilderness. The counterpoint of green and red further animates the composition. The bright scarlet of Washington’s father’s coat leads the eye down his extended arm to young Washington’s hatchet, painted the same scarlet. This scarlet is contrasted to both the deeper crimson of the curtain, and the mellow brick tones of the house; the cherries echo all these reds. The bottle-green of Weems’ own coat forms a complement to the scarlet jacket, just as the positioning of his arms suggests a variation on the elder Washington’s pose. His coat harmonizes with the soft greens of the landscape, which also complement the reds.

It is a picture about imposing order on chaos – on the chaos of history and experience, the chaos of nature and wilderness, and the moral chaos of a democratic republic that tolerated slavery. But, the painting tells us, to impose order is also to fictionalize, to distort. It’s a good lesson to keep in mind in a season when we are being presented with carefully packaged versions of history, complete with carefully articulated morals. As I noted at this time last year, the transformation of history into a neat allegory of vice and virtue does violence to its real complexity – not that that bothers those who find that complexity threatening.

Another of Wood’s strategies was to use his pictorial style to emphasize the enigmatic oddity of myths and legends, to those not already familiar with them, and the intensely local nature of mythmaking. The way Wood transforms Concord, Massachusetts into a toy-town viewed from above in The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere has frequently been commented on. The stylized cliffs and trees behind the town, and the spire of the church, suggest the settings of those curious scenes from the lives of the saints appearing on individual panels of the altarpieces painted by Italian “primitives” such as Sassetta, which so often combine mute violence with an eerie stillness and a certain storybook charm (Compare, example, the endlessly repeated conical trees of Sassetta’s St Anthony the Hermit Tortured by Devils with the trees of Parson Weem’s Fable. ) The influence of this art on Wood’s Dinner for Threshers, which exalts farm life, has been noted, but it also hangs over such works as The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, in which we’re asked to contemplate the humble rural birthplace of a man who rose to the presidency – only to supervise the country’s slide into the Great Depression (Wood made the painting in 1931, while Hoover was still in the White House and the Depression was tightening its grip). Who? we find ourselves asking, as before a panel painting of some obscure patron saint. Why?

Spring in Town, 1941. Grant Wood, American, 1891-1942
Image source: WikiPaintings

There’s no question as to Wood’s love of this landscape. In echoing the sacral art of another time, he certainly hopes to bestow its aura on the cornfields and frame houses of his native ground. The last painting he completed, Spring in Town, appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post shortly after his death on February 12, 1942, not long after the United States’ entry into the Second World War. In it, the child seen pulling down the branch of a blossoming fruit tree is almost the mirror image of one of the boys gathering palms in Giotto’s Entry into Jerusalem. I remember being told in Art History 101 that the boys in the trees prefigured the Crucifixion; this detail seems to link this spring morning to a much larger narrative of death and resurrection. But Wood’s reverence was certainly not uncritical, and he is quick to remind the viewer that consolatory tales almost always represent a reordering of messy reality, and rarely give us the whole truth.

Remembering Robert Hughes – Re-watching American Visions


August 23rd, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Writer and art critic Robert Hughes

The late art critic and writer, Robert Hughes (1938-1912).
Photograph: Jeremy Pollard/Oxford Film/TV

The death of Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes on August 6, a week after the death of Gore Vidal, represents the loss to arts and letters of yet another elegant, fearlessly critical voice. Hughes became known in the US as the art critic for Time magazine in the 1970s. In 1978, he and Harold Hayes, a proponent of the New Journalism, hosted the first installment of TV newsmagazine 20/20 and rubbed so many people the wrong way the network promptly replaced them with the always-soothing Hugh Downs.

Hughes was best known for The Shock of the New, a history of modern art which appeared both as a BBC series (aired in 1980) and as a book, and for his history of Australia, The Fatal Shore. But the work that made me a fan of Hughes was American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, which aired in 1997, and which, like The Shock of the New was accompanied by a book of the same title. Though I’d studied art history, American art was largely terra incognita to me at the time, and watching the series was something of a conversion experience. It gave me my first sustained look at Joseph Cornell, and shed new light on figures like Albert Pinkham Ryder and John Frederick Peto (the latter a hugely popular Victorian trompe l’oeil painter whose works, Hughes says, are “booby-trapped with meaning… full of small-scale violence and decay”).

John Frederick Peto: Take Your Choice

John Frederick Peto (1854-1907), Take Your Choice, 1885, oil on canvas,
John Wilmerding Collection, National Gallery of Art

In retrospect, I realize the series helped me form my own mental canon of American art, focusing on outliers and visionaries, a visual counterpart to the American literary canon imagined by D. H. Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature. “The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism, “ wrote Lawrence, “have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it.” [sic – HH]

I’d often thought of watching it again, but it’s been very hard to find over the years. It doesn’t seem to have made it to DVD; a Google search leads only to boxed sets of VHS tapes, offered by private sellers on Amazon at prices ranging from $79.00 to $284.99. After I heard the news of Hughes’s death, I managed to track it down via the site Go to and you will be taken to a Youtube playlist comprising all eight episodes of the series in ten-minute segments. The quality is not ideal, and each segment repeats the last minute or so of the previous segment, presumably to prevent accidental omissions, but I’m very happy to have found it. I have since re-watched the series in its entirety, and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time around.

The series blends epigrammatic wit (and a few truly startling juxtapositions) with a sure sense of the major narratives of American art history, all of it anchored by lucid, often brilliant, readings of particular works of art. Towards the end of episode one, for example, Hughes leads the viewer through John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, noting Copley’s allusions to Roman and Renaissance art in the posing of his figures, acknowledging that the shark, while menacing, has “lips like a toothpaste ad,” and drawing attention to the heroic and individualistic treatment of the black sailor at the center of the composition. On another note entirely, the eighth and final episode offers the enduring pleasures of Hughes’s prickly encounter with Jeff Koons: “A kitten in a giant sock. Tell me about it.”

In episode seven, images of Jasper Johns’s target paintings of the mid-fifties are intercut with clips of the McCarthy hearings and atomic bomb drills; the camera then pans across a heap of battered eyeglasses (an unsettling image reminiscent of concentration camps and the famous Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last”). The image is a segue into Hughes’s presentation of the eerie boxed dream worlds, made up of just such odds and ends, which Joseph Cornell created in these same anxious years.

Two moments in particular have stuck in my mind since my first viewing in the 1990s. In episode seven, Hughes points out the relics preserved in Jackson Pollock’s studio at Springs, Long Island: “The holy coffee cans, the miraculous brushes, the sanctified shoes.” It’s a wonderfully witty sequence that illustrates how the myth of Pollock has had as powerful a hold on the American imagination as the reality of his paintings. It also suggests Hughes’s own impatience with the more sweeping metaphysical and theoretical claims made on behalf of Abstract Expressionism. Yet it does not detract at all from Hughes’s explanation of what he does find valuable in Pollock’s work.

The other moment that has stuck with me comes when Hughes addresses the huge importance in American art of ideas about nature and wilderness (virtual synonyms, in this country), starting with nineteenth century landscape painters such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. As the camera pans through the details of one of Cole’s epic landscapes, The Oxbow, an eerie keening rises on the soundtrack. Finally, we see the sounds are being produced by radical environmentalists conducting a sort of primal-scream encounter group/mass confessional session deep in the woods, bewailing the loss of old growth forests and their own failure to do more to save them.

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow

Thomnas Cole (1801–1848), View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s a long, uncomfortable sequence that captures the profoundly conflicted relationship Americans have with wilderness, sincere and theatrical at the same time, utterly heartfelt but somewhat narcissistic and occasionally just weird. Some viewers may find it a little much, but for me it gives an extra dimension to the discussion of what can seem a dull and conventional genre – landscape painting – that carries over through the rest of the series. In American art, a tree is rarely just a tree. (And this time around, I was able to appreciate Hughes’s mention in this episode of Charles Deas.)

American Visions manages to be both comprehensive and personal; Hughes covers vast swaths of art history without losing sight of the private sensations and responses that making looking at art worthwhile in the first place. Now that I’ve rediscovered it, I am seeking out The Shock of the New, which I have never seen. I’ll be sharing my reactions to it in a later entry.

A Distant Mirror: Fashion and Identity in Colonial Latin America


July 23rd, 2012 at 8:59 am

Pedro Jose Diaz: Portrait of Dona Maria Rosa de Rivera

Pedro Jose Diaz, Portrait of Dona Maria Rosa de Rivera, Countess of Vega del Ren, about 1785, Lima, Peru.
Oil on canvas.
Lent by the Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection.

On the final weekend of the Denver Art Museum’s Yves Saint Laurent retrospective, I was lucky enough to attend a gallery talk discussing the role of fashion in Spanish Colonial art. Appropriately, the day of the talk was also the birthday of Frida Kahlo, who no doubt would have enjoyed speaker Patricia Tomlinson’s exploration of the fusion of cultures — Native American and European, Asian and African– in colonial Latin America, and her discussion of the use of dress by artists and their subjects to express the complexity of their identities.

Colonial Latin American art and culture are not immediately familiar to many in the English-speaking world. The lavish baroque flowering of art, architecture, music, and literature which followed the Spanish conquest of the Americas does not much resemble anything in the Anglo- American experience. Compare, for instance, the lives and careers of seventeenth-century New England poet Anne Bradstreet and her Mexican contemporary, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Bradstreet’s poetry was largely private, while Sor Juana’s skills as a poet, dramatist, and composer were heavily in demand in the courtly world of colonial Mexico, despite the controversy she aroused as a female scholar, a nun who had taken the veil in order to ensure the maximum freedom in which to pursue her intellectual interests. (Another telling detail, suggesting the greater visual and material riches of the Spanish colonies — no visual record of Bradstreet exists, while Sor Juana was painted at least three times.)

Today, to step into galleries dominated by devotional paintings lavished with gold, surrounded by ornate furnishings in which the familiar shapes of the baroque and the rococo have evolved in sometimes startling ways, is to realize just how much the world created by Puritan colonists was based on the rejection not only of the native culture they found, but also of much of the European culture they left behind.

But in New Spain, for all the brutality of the conquest, the cross-fertilization of cultures was widespread. (As can be seen in the Peruvian rococo painting just acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, in which a multiracial group enact a fête galante with mythological overtones on the banks of the Rímac river). This phenomenon, as expressed in dress, was the focus of Patricia Tomlinson’s talk. Tomlinson, a former archaeologist who now designs her own line of retro-inspired fashion, as well as working on the New World department’s curatorial staff, may be uniquely qualified for this approach.

In a portrait by Pedro Jose Diaz, a creole (that is, American-born) aristocrat, Doña Maria Rosa de Rivera, Countess of Vega del Ren, poses before a stylized European backdrop of columns and drapery. Her clothes reflect an unashamed opulence – gold brocade layered over more gold brocade, diamond and pearl jewelry at her wrists, neck, and ears, more jewelry visible on the dressing table before her. There are even diamond buckles on her shoes. Yet the most intriguing detail, says Tomlinson, are the multiple braids in which she wears her hair. Though the origin of this style is not certain, it far more closely resembles the styles worn by mummified sacrificial victims of the Pre-Columbian period than it does any European style.

Continuity with the Incan past is even more evident in two other works in the museum’s permanent collection. In an Immaculate Conception with Indian Donor, painted in the early 1700s in either Peru or Bolivia, the donor – the man who commissioned the painting – wears a wool cloak in the current European fashion over a brilliant red shirt – it is an uncu, dyed with cochineal, a sign of status in the Inca world, forbidden to commoners under Incan law. A more inclusive sentiment is expressed by the native Andean garment seen in St Joseph with the Christ Child, painted in Bolivia around the year 1710 by Melchor Perez Holguin – the Christ child wears an elaborately patterned sash, woven in the style of the indigenous Aymara people, forging a link between the painting’s viewers and their newly introduced savior.

Melchor Perez Holguin, Saint Joseph with the Christ Child

Melchor Perez Holguin, Saint Joseph with the Christ Child, about 1710.
Potosi School, Bolivia. Oil on canvas.
Denver Art Museum; Bequest of Robert J. Stroessner.

Two secular works from eighteenth-century Mexico reflect even wider-ranging influences. Mexico was a center of trade between Europe and Asia, a link reflected in the format, even more than the content, of a rococo folding screen also in the museum’s collection. The folding screen as a type of furniture was borrowed from east Asia, and the small decorative panels along the bottom of this example hint at those origins. The scene depicted is officially entitled Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home, but Tomlinson says it is known behind the scenes as “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll”, as it shows the Beautiful People of colonial Mexico enjoying all the pleasures their world had to offer.

Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home

Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home, Anonymous, about 1730 – 1750.
Mexico. Ten panel folding screen, oil on canvas.
Gift of the Collection of Jan and Frederick Mayer.

The fashionable woman at the card table at far left, wondering how to play her latest hand, wears imported Asian silk, as does the woman in the center, apparently responding to an improper suggestion from her male companion. The woman behind her wears an ornate version of the native Mexican rebozo, trimmed with silver tassels. The woman playing her guitar amidst a group of men drinking at the right wears a more traditional rebozo. Another woman seated at the card table holds a cigarette – perfectly acceptable behavior in colonial Mexico.

We catch a glimpse of similar fashions and pleasures, enjoyed in far more humble surroundings, in a beautiful casta painting by José de Alcibar. The casta painting, unique to colonial Latin America, was a proto-anthropological genre illustrating the process of racial mixing in a society where whites, blacks, and Indians lived side by side. Many of these images engage in a kind of racial profiling, showing the alleged antisocial tendencies of some mixed-race categories, but this quiet domestic scene suggests the work of Chardin.

José de Alcíbar: From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto

José de Alcíbar, From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto (De español y negra, mulato), about 1760.
Oil on canvas.
Denver Art Museum, Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer; TL-24504.
Photo © James Milmoe.

A Spanish man, wearing a banyan, a fashionable leisure garment of printed cotton imported from India, lights his cigarette while his African partner prepares a pot of chocolate (like tobacco, a product of the New World). She wears a traditional striped rebozo and delicate pearl earrings – more common in the Americas than in Europe, and so an affordable everyday luxury. The couple’s son, bracketed by his parents, helps his father hold the charcoal brazier used as a lighter. The soft grisaille of the background reveals a shelf of dishes, emphasizing the enclosed, domestic nature of this intimate family space.

I started this entry with a reference to Frida Kahlo, and I’ll finish it with another. The vernacular Mexican style which Kahlo loved (and which helped to camouflage her injured leg) has its origins in the cultural and material exchanges of the colonial world. Known as the China Poblana, romantic legends trace it to a Christian convert of Asian origin (some say Chinese, some Mongolian, some east Indian) who was brought to city of Puebla as a slave, and died as a popular saint, venerated by all. More mundane theories trace the name to the Chinese cloth wealthy Pueblan women bought for their maids’ dresses. (Wonderful footage here of Kahlo wearing China Poblana as she and Diego Rivera welcome Trotsky and his wife in 1938).

A style of the people, worn without a corset, the China Poblana acquired overtones both of sanctity and licentiousness . Rebecca West describes how Fanny Calderón de la Barca (a Scottish writer married to the first Spanish ambassador to independent Mexico) was pressured out of wearing the China Poblana to a costume ball, suggesting the dress was associated by some with prostitution.

West finds this tangle of associations wholly appropriate to Kahlo, for whom self-presentation was a work of art: “So, Frida Kahlo wore the dress of an alien saint, which was perhaps also the uniform of successful prostitutes; which was in either case a boast of beauty, and an insistent demand that, though beauty is only lent to us, the loan should be laid out to the best advantage before the merciless lender takes it back.”

Landscape and Memory: Wildfires Threaten Colorado’s Built Heritage


June 28th, 2012 at 10:28 am

Mesa Laboratory

I.M. Pei’s Mesa Laboratory, home to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado.

When people think of the devastation being wrought by western wildfires, it’s damage to the natural environment that comes most readily to mind. Yet in the last few days, we in Colorado have seen fires breach the wildland-urban interface (as it’s called here) and threaten cities. On Tuesday, June 26, the lightning-sparked Flagstaff fire caused sections of western Boulder to be put on pre-evacuation notice (i.e., pack your things, get the cat in its carrier, and be ready for the evacuation call). Meanwhile, in an even more serious development, winds in the Colorado Springs area drove the already-expanding Waldo Canyon fire down the foothills into the western suburbs of the second-largest city in the state.

The worst consequence of such fires is the threat to lives and neighborhoods, yet also under threat now are some of the built landmarks that embody a region’s history and contribute to a sense of place. As I watched the news (safe in central Denver), I found myself wondering about the fate of two structures, one at the edge of each city, whose connections to the wider world are not well known.

I.M. Pei’s Mesa Laboratory, part of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was evacuated late Tuesday ahead of the Flagstaff fire. As environmental writer Bill McKibben noted on Twitter, the evacuation of the nation’s center for research into global warming in response to a wildfire fueled by drought conditions and an unprecedented heat wave, is “beyond irony.” The center is a striking monument to the mountain west of the Cold War years, when much of the region was flush with government investment. (The region offered wide open spaces — such as White Sands or Area 51, as well as a dry, sunny climate, and was presumed to be out of reach of Russian bombs.)

Pei, who designed the building in the early sixties, drew inspiration from the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde in far southwestern Colorado, as well as memories of mountaintop Buddhist retreats in his native China. But the building is best known to the wider world as one of the locations for Sleeper, Woody Allen’s futuristic scifi comedy of 1973. It’s there that Allen and Diane Keaton find themselves caught up in the plan to clone the future state’s beloved Leader from cells in his nose, the only body part to survive assassination. (I’ve written before about the current fate of Colorado buildings used in Allen’s film, notably the iconic Sleeper House, and how ironically apt they are, given the movie’s dystopian mood.)

Far less known, its links to the wider world of arts and letters obscured by the passage of time and by cultural shifts its builder could hardly have foreseen, is Glen Eyrie. A Tudor-revival castle perched above Colorado Springs, Glen Eyrie was the home of General William Jackson Palmer, a railroad baron of the Gilded Age who founded the city (as well as the Denver and Rio Grande railroad) and oversaw its growth into the elegant “Newport of the Rockies”, frequented by European aristocrats sampling the Wild West and wealthy tubercular patients from back east seeking a cure in the mountain air. Further south, in Pueblo, he built the Colorado Coal & Iron Company plant which grew into the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron, whose nearby coalfields were the scene of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914.

Glen Eyrie Castle

Glen Eyrie castle, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Glen Eyrie was originally a conventional, if very large, Victorian house, but after the death of his wife, Mary, known as “Queen”, Palmer replaced it with a more lavish structure. “As Colorado is peculiarly free of old castles, he had to build one for himself,” a journalist noted in 1914.

So far, all very local. But during Queen’s lifetime, she had left Colorado to live with her daughters in England. She is said to have been advised to move to a lower elevation after a mild heart attack, yet the fact she went as far as England lends credence to the stories she found Colorado Springs too raw and remote for her liking. In England, she installed herself and her daughters in Ightham Mote, a moated manor house in Sevenoaks, Kent, dating to the fourteenth century and now a National Trust property. There Mrs. Palmer and her daughters lived by candlelight, staged Christmas feasts for the manor’s tenants, and pursued the acquaintance of artists and writers. And there, in the manor’s Tudor chapel, her daughter Elsie Palmer was painted by John Singer Sargent, resulting in one of his most memorable portraits.

If this all sounds like an episode in a Henry James novel, that’s perhaps because Henry James was one of the figures whose acquaintance Mrs. Palmer sought. In Confronting Elsie Palmer: John Singer Sargent as a Painter of Real Women, an honors thesis completed at Emory University in 2010, Alexa L. Hayes quotes a letter from James describing a Christmas visit to the Palmers at Ightham Mote as “ ‘a queerly, uncomfortable yet entertaining visit’ with ‘General Palmer, a Mexican-railway-man, and his wife and children. I didn’t know them much . . .and the episode was the drollest amalgam of American and Western characteristics . . . in the rarest old English setting.’” (General Palmer had by then founded the National Railroad of Mexico). The Palmer family’s relationship with John Singer Sargent seems more of a success; in addition to painting Elsie, Sargent also depicted the family and their house in A Game of Bowls, Ightham Mote, Kent.

Sargent’s portrait of Elsie Palmer is aesthetically bold, unique among his works, as far as I know, for its flirtation with a Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic . Elsie faces the viewer head on, posed more like a saint in an icon, or a medieval picture of an enthroned royal, than a fashionable sitter. Her simple white dress, whose flowing lines owe more to the Aesthetic movement of William Morris than to Victorian high fashion, also evokes the middle ages. The repeated pattern of the Tudor linenfold paneling behind her creates a decorative surface rather than an illusionistic space. Her pale, unsmiling face and loose, straight hair recall the women painted by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Elsie Palmer’s ties to the English intelligentsia would only grow stronger. In 1908, she married L. H. Myers, an independently wealthy English writer on the fringes of the Bloomsbury group. Myers is best known for The Root and the Flower, a collection of novels set in sixteenth-century India in which the inner lives of characters at the court of the Mughal emperor reflect the spiritual and psychological upheavals of Myers’s own world. (The Root and the Flower is currently available in a single volume from NYRB Classics.)

Given Myers’s sympathetic portrayal of a milieu in which Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian currents mingle, it’s strange to think of him in relation to contemporary Colorado Springs, now known not as the Newport of the Rockies, but as the “Evangelical Vatican,” even if it’s only a relationship by marriage. (Boulder, now… They’d take him in with open arms, a vegan chai, and a visiting professorship at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He’d probably like Crestone, too.)

The mental distance between the different worlds Elsie Palmer occupied does not seem to have lessened in the past hundred years. Nevertheless, her portrait hangs in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which is not only remaining open during the fire, but also, according to their website, offering free admission “as a resource for staying indoors [out of the smoke- HH], avoiding the heat, and enjoying art, “ — a wonderful move.

Glen Eyrie has long been the property of a Christian organization, The Navigators, which restricted access for many years but has since opened the property on a limited basis to visitors and hikers. It remains a beloved landmark, judging by the many expressions of concern posted on social networks even as the fire spread to residential neighborhoods. Preliminary reports indicate the castle has survived; another much-loved local landmark, the Flying W Ranch, was not so fortunate. I hope Glen Eyrie — and the Mesa Laboratory — will continue to stand, emblems of the region’s history and of the sometimes surprising cultural currents that have shaped this part of the world.

The Forgotten Sculpture of John B. Flannagan


March 29th, 2012 at 5:30 pm

John B. Flannagan, Standing Ram

John B. Flannagan (1895-1942), Standing Ram, Executed circa 1927-39
carved stone
9½ in. (24.1 cm.) high on a painted wood base 1¼ in. (3.2 cm.) high
Image source: Christie’s

Embrace all living forms, each for its plastic adjustment to a theme – living for warmth. No narcissistic worship for humanity – contra, the stately dignity of the Mountain Goat, the ironic pensiveness of the apparently thoughtful Monkey, and (in his greater moments) the timeless yet rebellious patience of the Ass.
— John Bernard Flannagan

I’m not writing this appreciation of sculptor John Bernard Flannagan (1895 – 1942) on the occasion of a retrospective of his work, or the publication of a new monograph, though I wish I were. I don’t generally respond all that powerfully to sculpture, but I was deeply moved the first time I saw images of his work (sadly, I’ve never seen any of it in person). His sculptures, like his wonderful Elephant of 1929-1930, or his Chimpanzee of 1928, were often carved directly from the rock; they are both roughhewn and elegant, radically simple but powerfully emotional, immediately evoking both the natural forms of the stones from which they are made, and the living creatures they represent. It’s sad to think of them languishing in obscurity. I admit I first thought of writing about Flannagan because of the parallels to Weldon Kees – both came from the Midwest, both struggled with obscurity and poverty, both died as suicides. But Kees, with his cult following, seems like a rock star compared to the all-but-forgotten Flannagan.

Flannagan (with two ns – this is important) was once celebrated, in a minor way, for helping introduce direct carving, also called taille direct, into American sculpture – the practice of working right on the stone itself, letting the carving process influence the final shape, rather than preparing a model in another medium and reproducing it in stone. Yet since his suicide – after a difficult life marked by many losses and terrible poverty – Flannagan seems to have largely dropped out of the sight of everyone except those with a professional stake in the history of American art. The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art have significant holdings, but the phrase “not currently on view” seems to pop up frequently in researching them. The Figge Museum in Davenport, Iowa, has a lovely carving of a sleeping fawn.

Smaller pieces seem to come up at auction fairly frequently and auction houses are one of the chief sources of images online, though at least one lists a piece as having “not sold.” There doesn’t seem to have been a retrospective since the one at the Museum of Modern Art that opened shortly after his death in 1942 (I just purchased a copy of the catalog on Abebooks for under twenty dollars). The most recent full-length study of his work I could find reference to was an unpublished dissertation submitted to the University of Minnesota in 1965.

Even his name works against him – the Wikipedia entry for “John Flannagan (Sculptor)” begins with a note: “Not to be confused with John Flanagan (sculptor)”. The other John Flanagan (with one n), may not be a household name, either, but in 1932 he was responsible for one of the more familiar examples of three-dimensional design in this hemisphere – the U. S. quarter dollar coin. The other Flanagan, born in 1865, spent five years as a studio assistant to Augustus Saint Gaudens, perhaps the most celebrated and successful of all American sculptors, and enjoyed a long career marked by numerous government commissions, as his work on the quarter dollar suggests. Though much older than John Bernard Flannagan, he outlived him by ten years.

As I mentioned above, John Bernard Flannagan (with two ns) was, like Weldon Kees, a son of the Midwest, though the outlines of his early life are a much starker essay in prairie gothic. He was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1895; when he was five, his father died, and his impoverished mother gave up her children to an orphanage. When he created an image of a child leaning against its mother, he wrote, “As a boy I very rarely saw my mother, and I think that the whole psychological story of what that means to a child is implied in this piece.”

Flannagan managed to reach the Minneapolis School of Art, but dropped out to join the Merchant Marines when the U.S. entered World War I. In 1922, after leaving the Merchant Marine, he resumed his artistic training in New York, and soon found a mentor and patron in painter Arthur Bowen Davies. Davies, no longer a household name either, was one of the organizers of the famous Armory Show of 1913 and was associated with the painters of the Ashcan School, though his dreamy symbolist landscapes bear little resemblance to their gritty urban canvases (he was also, apparently, a longtime bigamist). Davies hired Flannagan to work on his farm in Rockland County while schooling the younger man in art.

Later, Flannagan was provided with a stipend by a New York gallery, and Guggenheim fellowships allowed him to spend the early thirties in Ireland, where he would scour the fields for stones whose forms called to him. But the later thirties brought two car accidents, the second of which is said to have involved a head injury. His suicide followed a divorce and a stint in a mental institution. “The story has unfolded to its tragic dénouement, and may someday be told – portrayed in the mood and with the complex overtones of a Dostoyevsky character,” wrote Carl Zigosser in the Museum of Modern Art catalog.

His work, especially his use of direct carving, shows his affinity for the primitivist strain in modernism, and his animal sculptures in particular often seem almost totemic, charged with the living spirit of the creatures they represent. The Museum of Modern Art catalog contains immense riches in this vein – the Monkey and Young of 1932-33, the Head of a Child, emerging from a round moon-like stone, of 1935, the Restive Acrobat (another monkey), and the Frog, both of 1938. Even the insect kingdom gets its tribute, with Little Creature, a 13-inch high grasshopper carved from bluestone in 1941, not long before its creator’s death.

Flannagan’s human figures, like the New One of 1935 (in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) or Jonah and the Whale: Rebirth Motif of 1937 (at the Brooklyn Museum), often deal with archetypal themes of birth and regeneration, as their titles suggest. Flannagan’s ideal was one of simplicity and purity, of an integrity of form and material purged of the coldness that sometimes seemed to afflict modern art: “Pure abstraction is dead,” he wrote. “Make it come alive by the use of living form. Warm the cold geometry of abstraction with a naturalism in which the superficial and accidental have been eliminated by their union with pure form.”

The same passage continues with the assertion that “A thing should never be finished—should rather always be in a state of becoming.” That sense of life in process – and of art itself as a life process — infuses all of Flannagan’s work. I can only hope that his work is still a “state of becoming” in another sense – that it will continue to be discovered and enjoyed. Zigosser wrote in 1942 of Flannagan’s “disinterested and truly mystical passion for humility and anonymity” and of how “he would have liked nothing better than to have had his work merge into the great anonymous plastic tradition of Egypt or medieval Europe.” Perhaps Flannagan would have enjoyed the irony of having his name obscured by the name of a sculptor whose work really has become part of the fabric of daily life. But I still hope readers of this blog will remember it.

Into the Void: The Bicoastal Legacy of Weldon Kees


January 26th, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Weldon Kees

Weldon Kees (1914-1955)
[Image: Poetry Foundation]

Making my way through Denver’s new Clyfford Still Museum, I was delighted to find the name of Weldon Kees on the famous “irascibles” letter of 1950, declaring the non-participation of New York’s most “advanced” painters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition of new American painting. In the 1930s Kees worked in the central Denver Public Library, just across the street from the new Still museum, filling a number of roles while studying for a degree in library science at the University of Denver. A wry and merciless observer of others – and of himself – he wrote to friends of “Shy virgins wanting to reserve Married Love by Marie Stopes… The deaf and dumb lady who handed me a piece of paper with this legend: ‘goon with the wing.’”

An elusive and haunting figure, best remembered for his poetry, Kees had taken up painting only six years prior to signing the “irascibles” letter. By 1949, he had succeeded Clement Greenberg as art critic for The Nation. By the fall of 1950, he would abandon New York for San Francisco, where the “Poet’s Follies” he organized, mixing burlesque, jazz, and poetry readings, starred a young Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (Kees was a skilled jazz pianist with a passion for early blues and ragtime). Seemingly the archetypal young man from the provinces (he was born in Beatrice – pronounced Be-AT-rice – Nebraska, in 1914. The pronunciation comes first hand from a Beatrice native of my acquaintance), Kees complicated the trajectory of his career by leaving the cultural capital of New York for California, and by foraying into painting, jazz, and film making.

In 1955, a year after divorcing his wife, Kees’s car was found abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge, keys still in the ignition. Despite the occasional rumor that he had in fact run off to Mexico – one of the alternatives he proposed in the last weeks of his life – he almost certainly jumped to his death. Friends searching his apartment after his disappearance found a curdled saucer of milk left out for his latest cat, Lonesome, and copies of Dostoievsky’s The Devils and The Tragic Sense of Life, by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamono, at his bedside.

When I first thought of writing about Kees, I intended to use his movement from east to west to demonstrate how the west coast held its own cultural significance in midcentury America — as the proving ground for the Beats and later for the counterculture. Stills, as I noted in my review, spent several formative years as part of the Bay Area art scene. And when abstraction began to emerge as the key style of postwar American art, the “Northwest Mystics”, dominated by Seattle artist Morris Graves, were taken as seriously as the New York School painters. Kees himself wrote that “the jazz, some of the painting, the landscape, the temperature, have it all over the E. seaboard.”

The standard view is to contrast California mysticism and hedonism with New York radicalism and intellectualism, to the detriment of the former, but the movement back and forth of figures like Kees, Stills, and the Beats undermines this easy dichotomy; Kees’s colleagues in San Francisco also included Pauline Kael, just making her name as film critic. Another such bicoastal figure is Harry Smith, the “Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel” and creator of the influential Anthology of American Folk Music; Smith arrived in New York, having spent his own formative years in the Bay Area’s bohemian circles, bearing an impeccable left-coast pedigree – a native of Bellingham, Washington, he claimed his real father was the notorious ceremonial magician Aleister (sic) Crowley, who had supposedly encountered Smith’s mother while swimming in Puget Sound.

Yet when I sat down and read Kees’s poetry, another theme forcibly asserted itself – the deep pessimism, the sense of looking into the void, that played such a part in the midcentury state of mind. From his first poem, “Subtitle” — “Kindly consult/ Your programs: observe that/ There are no exits. This is/ A necessary precaution” — through “For My Daughter” – “I have no daughter. I desire none.” – to the “Robinson” poems with their chilly, almost offhand evocations of modern anomie, Kees balances sly detachment against “yawning existential horrors” (to quote an internet comment on an article on Kees).

This is very different stuff than the angst of later confessional poets such as Lowell and Plath, whose despair is essentially personal, rooted in disappointment and disillusionment. Kees, by comparison, proposes that this is simply how it is, and does so with enough coolness and elegance that it comes as no surprise that Wallace Stevens wrote to Kees ordering a volume of a limited edition of his verse. Yet Stevens rarely provides anything like the visceral tug of dread supplied by the lost and nameless dog of “Dog,” or the legless beggar of “La Vita Nuova.” “Crime Club,” perhaps my favorite, juxtaposes a suburban corpse, found with the note “”To be killed this way is quite all right with me’” with the detective, now “incurably insane,” “Screaming that all the world is mad, that clues/Lead nowhere, or to walls so high their tops cannot be seen.” The closest thing to it may be the bleaker fiction of Shirley Jackson, whose story “The Lottery” was published in 1947.

Kees’s painting is not quite so intense an experience, though it does exhibit continuities with the poetry. A reviewer for the New York Times, seeing some of it in 1999, observed: “It isn’t particularly innovative work, but its dark pessimism, very much in the character of its time, has a polished, personal edge and is cumulatively forceful.” A Boston critic, employing a candor Kees himself would have admired, said of a 2010 exhibition that “I find second- or third-tier abstract expressionism as depressing as anyone, but Kees is better than that.” As others have noted, Kees’s painting carries echoes of Picasso and, especially, Miro as much as of his New York contemporaries (though his painting “After Hours,” with its hieroglyphic-like surface patterns, evokes the work of Adolph Gottlieb). The sleek, faceless gray figure of “Monument” distantly suggests the unnerving biomorphs of French surrealist Yves Tanguy.

Weldon Kees: After Hours

After Hours (n.d.) by Weldon Kees
[Image: Coilhouse]

The importance of Kees’s painting does not lie in any claims to innovation, so much as in the connection it provides between his poetry and the work and thought of the artists around him at the moment when Harold Rosenberg spoke of “the void” as the only certainty of modern life. It is the unflinching directness with which Kees gazed into the void that makes his best work memorable. Pessimism has a very bad name in American culture, but it is hard for me not to admire the willingness of Kees and his contemporaries to name the discontents of a war-battered world faced with the threat of nuclear annhilation. Kees was willing to suggest that perhaps this is not the best of all possible worlds – or that, if it is, we’re in deeper trouble than we ever imagined.

Madness and Mesmerism: Charles Deas Revisited


November 14th, 2011 at 12:16 pm

When I saw the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition of the art of Charles Deas last fall, I was as intrigued by the story of Deas’s life as I was by his art. There is a tragic fascination in the way his brief but brilliant career was cut short by mental illness, which led to his commitment to New York City’s Bloomingdale Asylum at the age of 29. Especially fascinating was this enigmatic detail: an acquaintance’s comment that Deas’s illness had first manifested itself in part as “an unnecessary anxiety about the new science of magnetism.”

The “magnetism” referred to here was the kind of “magnetic” healing often known as mesmerism, after its most famous and controversial practitioner, Anton Mesmer. A royal committee debunked Mesmer’s scientific claims in 1784, and researchers’ interest focused instead on the ability of the “magnetic operator” to induce a trancelike state through the power of suggestion (hence, “mesmerize” as a synonym for “hypnotize”).

The story of “magnetism” is a rich and strange one: In Mesmer’s Paris apartments, those seeking treatment crowded around baquets, or magnetized tubs, while those overcome by the experience might need to be carried off to one of the padded and curtained “crisis rooms.” Alternatively, patients could go out to the country and sit under a specially magnetized oak. The committee members who investigated Mesmer’s claims included Benjamin Franklin, chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and Dr. Joseph Guillotin. (Some years later, in the chaos of the revolution, Lavoisier would die in Guillotin’s most famous invention, as would another committee member, Jean Sylvain Bailly.)

Mesmer baquet

The sole remaining example of Mesmer’s baquet, on display at the Musée d’Histoire de la médecine et de la Pharmacie, Lyon, France.
Image source: Cabinet

How might Deas have encountered magnetism? Author Andrew Scull notes that “despite its official rejection mesmerism lived on, and during Victorian times would enjoy a remarkable underground popularity among the well-to-do and the chattering classes, even while medical men dismissed it as a worthless anathema. In the book accompanying the Deas exhibition, curator Carol Clark speculates that Deas may have sought out “magnetic” therapy.

But it could be both simpler, and more complicated, than that. The linkage of madness and mesmerism, and the accounts of Deas’s subsequent treatments, rang a bell. A few years before, I’d come across a book, The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness, by British author Mike Jay. Matthews spent most of his adult life confined to Bedlam (more formally, Bethlem — that is, Bethlehem — Hospital), the infamous London asylum; his primary doctor published a book describing Matthew’s elaborate delusions of persecution as part of an ongoing battle over his institutionalization.

Matthews himself provided a technical illustration of the loom and its workings; in 2006, artist Rod Dickinson, working from Matthews’s drawing, built a version of the machine in collaboration with the Tyne and Wear Museum, which was displayed in the Laing Gallery, Newcastle.

Put as simply as possible, Matthews thought he was being tortured and his thoughts disrupted by remote control, via magnetic currents produced by a machine called the “air loom.” Matthew’s “air loom” was operated by a gang of seven: villainous Bill the King, wisecracking Jack the Schoolmaster, crude Sir Archy, the enigmatic Middle Man, scheming Augusta, poor, maltreated Charlotte, and the sinister Glove Woman, the most skilled operator of the machine.

Jay argues that Matthews’s magnetic “air loom” was an old-school version of what modern clinicians refer to as “influencing machines,” a common feature of psychotic delusions. As Jay observes, “Clinical psychiatric case notes hum with secret radio transmitters, omnipresent surveillance systems, devices implanted in TVs or heating systems or the subject’s brain, controlling beams from political elites or alien craft.” But in 1800, Matthews had no tinfoil from which to make a hat.

So perhaps Deas’s “anxiety about the new science of magnetism” was simply a predictable manifestation of paranoia, of the delusions of persecution which frequently mark the onset of psychotic illness. But this does not mean it is of no interest. Far from it, argues Jay: “It’s well recognized that such delusions have a tendency to worry and tease at rips in the cultural fabric, interpolating themselves into gaps in the social psyche. Delusional subjects often unsettle those who encounter them not by just by the form of their condition but its content: they can reflect back a disturbing, often nightmarish certainty about free-floating anxieties in the broader culture.”

This throws an interesting new light on the haunted landscape of Deas’s art, in which cultural and personal anxieties seem to shade into each other. It also makes me wish we had not lost A Vision, the religious painting created by Deas after he was institutionalized, said to be full of “dim and half-revealed shapes of horror which afflict the feverish minds of the insane” that made “the blood chill and the brain ache.”

What “free-floating anxieties in the broader culture” might Deas have reflected back to in America of the 1840s? The visionary Shaker revival known as the Era of Manifestations had begun in 1837; in 1844, the millennial Millerites had their Great Disappointment, and Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois. In 1848, the year Deas was institutionalized, the Fox sisters made their first claims about communicating with spirits, including an entity they called “Mr. Splitfoot,” after an outbreak of poltergeist activity in their home. Out of these claims came Spiritualism. (The word “séance”, which the Spiritualists would make so familiar, had also been applied to the sessions Mesmer held in his Paris chambers).

Undoubtedly, Deas’s illness put a sadly premature end to his career as an artist. But grasping the visions of his madness may allow us to read more into the visions of his brief artistic flowering. And, as Jay demonstrates, the lines between individual and societal madness may be blurrier than we like to think.

Maryhill Museum of Art, One Hundred Miles East of Portland


September 27th, 2011 at 8:34 am

Maryhill Museum of Art

Picture of the Maryhill Museum of Art from the 1940s.
Image source: pauldorpat

Castle Nowhere

A hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge is neither lush nor densely wooded. The landscape starts to dry out dramatically around Hood River, and by the time you reach Maryhill, on the Washington side of the river, golden grasslands reminiscent of California roll to the very edge of the deep black gorge. Today the bluffs are home to wind farms and vineyards, but this stretch of the gorge still feels remote. Workaday towns such as The Dalles and hamlets such as Goldendale and Lyle seem to have little in common with trendy Portland or Hood River. When I was there last year, fierce winds roared through the gorge, and clouds hid the distant peaks of the Cascades.

All the more surprising, then, to find a Neoclassical mansion of warm buff stone, where glossy peacocks strut across green lawns, and spreading trees shelter flower beds and contemporary sculpture, hundreds of feet above the river. The biography of the mansion’s builder is entitled “The Prince of Nowhere” and the house itself was dubbed Castle Nowhere. This is the Maryhill Museum of Art.

I first heard of Maryhill when I came across a book on the Théâtre de la Mode. I was doing research on the New Look, the wasp-waisted retro-Victorian style that emerged in the later forties as fashion’s riposte to wartime austerity.

The story of the Théâtre de la Mode is as follows: As the Second World War drew to a close, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture – the Parisian fashion industry’s chamber of commerce — sought to reignite international consumers’ desire for French luxuries. The result was a touring exhibition of 27” tall wire mannequins, dressed in couture outfits made from scraps of luxury material that had managed to survive the war, posed in theatrical sets made by artists such as Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard. After touring Europe, Great Britain, and the United States, the “little ambassadors” landed first in the basement of the City of Paris department store in San Francisco, and eventually in Maryhill.

Théâtre de la Mode: Maryhill Museum of Art

Théâtre de la Mode: Maryhill Museum of Art
Image source: Maryhill Museum of Art

The Théâtre de la Mode has its permanent home on an upper floor of the museum. The tiny wire figures, with their colorless porcelain faces, are ghostly little presences, despite their finery, and their settings – opera houses and ballrooms, columned cityscapes, leafy parks and fantastical gardens — are like an artful mirage of the Europe destroyed by the war. The war erupts into view in Cocteau’s surrealist scene, “Ma Femme est une Sorcière,” (recreated for the museum by Anne Surgers). Mannequins in pale satins and gauzy tulle pose in a lofty attic whose roof has been torn open as if by an air raid, revealing a black and white cityscape seen as if from the angle of a pilot. It is as if Miss Havisham of Great Expectations has hosted Eva Braun’s final dance party in Downfall. Lower floors display, among other things: furnishings made for (and in some cases possibly designed by) Queen Marie of Romania, covered in gold leaf and richly decorated in a sort of folkloric Art-Nouveau style; an extensive collection of Native American art and artifacts; an exhibit on the life of Loïe Fuller, the dancer – born Marie Louise Fuller, of Fullersburg, Illinois — whose performances, using state-of-the-art lighting and stagecraft, mesmerized the intelligentsia of 1890s Paris (just think of her as the Lady Gaga of her day); and, last but not least, a collection of sketches and models by Fuller’s good friend, Auguste Rodin.

How on earth did these diverse and improbable collections end up in this most improbable of locations? It seems that Fuller, Queen Marie of Romania, and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, heiress to a San Francisco sugar fortune and patroness of the arts, were all personal friends of Samuel Hill, the builder of Maryhill. The eccentric Hill, lawyer, entrepreneur, and the son-in-law of a railroad tycoon intended “Castle Nowhere” as his home, seat of a model agricultural community, but made it instead into a museum at Fuller’s urging. Queen Marie of Rumania came west to dedicate the building in 1926, and Spreckels oversaw the early growth of the museum after Hill’s death.

Lavish, eccentric, and beautifully maintained, the museum reminded me of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but with a west coast gloss, and a grand and rugged western setting. I encourage anyone traveling the gorge east of Portland to discover it.

Purity and Danger: The Many Lives of the Italian Renaissance


August 25th, 2011 at 8:58 am

The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne

The Ideal City, Fra Carnevale (Italian, 1445-1484(?) ), ca. 1480-1484
[Image source: Art Walters]

A year or so into my graduate studies in medieval and early modern European history, I had my TV tuned to a rather cheesy show on the paranormal, with segments about alien abductions and ghostly voices and such. A man came on to explain how all major events in human history actually correlated with some cosmic phenomenon or other – sunspots, or maybe solar flares. As proof of his theory, he’d produced a graph of the phenomenon similar to an EKG or a seismograph. “You see?” he said, pointing to an angling upward of the line, “the Italian Renaissance.”

As a budding historian, I laughed, but was also flattered. The idea that a certain set of intellectual and aesthetic developments on one small peninsula of one small continent represented some kind of measurable cosmic impact, like the Tunguska Event or the asteroid that that may have wiped out the dinosaurs, was undoubtedly a PR triumph for my field. (How did he know his graph wasn’t registering the rise of the Inca empire, or the heyday of the Ming dynasty?)

The minor media flurry over Michele Bachmann’s apparent disapproval of the Renaissance seems to be another such PR triumph. As Wonkette notes, these stories pretty much write themselves. An evangelical philosopher, Francis Schaeffer, whom Bachmann cites as an influence produced a series of educational videos describing Western civilization since the Middle Ages as one long decline and fall into secular depravity. As Bachmann has, in the past, seemed a bit hazy on these matters, I’m not sure that examining her historical thinking would be especially fruitful. However, as someone with a vested interest in “the Renaissance,” I have to jump in.

First of all, medievalists – at least the ones I’ve known – have never been wild about the term, as it reinforces the idea of the Dark Ages in which no one did anything but scratch their flea bites and run away from Vikings. Medievalists (and most of the ones I’ve known, for the record, have been thoroughgoing secularists) tend to see continuity rather than revolutionary change.

More importantly, the good-for-you, vitamin-enriched Renaissance we know today is itself a fairly recent, and largely American, historical construction. I’d recommend anyone interested in the topic turn to Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, edited by Gordon S. Wood and Anthony Molho. Molho’s own contribution is entitled “The Italian Renaissance, Made in the USA,”; he contends that the field was defined for many years by American scholars who saw in 14th and 15th century Italy a mirror of their own society and its ambitions.

One of the earliest of these writers – now almost forgotten – was critic and collector James Jackson Jarves. In an essay entitled “A Lesson for Merchant Princes,” Jarves describes the businessmen of Renaissance Florence as the source of its greatness, but warns that America cannot expect similar greatness unless its merchant princes learn it is “more honorable to spend money for wise purposes than to make it”; he also warns that the American focus on the nuclear family might undermine its citizens’ civic spirit. I doubt the Tea Party would have much use for Jarves.

American uses of the Renaissance are placed in an even wider context by Eugen Weber in “Western Civilization,” an essay in Imagined Histories tracing the rise of courses by that name. The purpose of “Western Civ,” Weber argues, was to synthesize the information Europeans got in courses on their own national histories, link it to American history, and to provide a crash course in civics and culture along the way. As an American creation, “Western Civ” was naturally an optimistic narrative of progress, in which the Renaissance and the Enlightenment played key roles. The evangelical reading of history cited by Bachmann essentially flips this scheme on its head, reading progress as backward and downward, rather than onward and upward.

But there have been other Renaissances, more shadowed and ambivalent. For the Victorians, the problem with the Renaissance was not that it had too little religion, but too much, of exactly the wrong kind. Roman Catholicism troubled and fascinated English and American Protestants, even as they admired the art produced under its aegis. The legendary excesses of the Borgia and Medici popes (the latter Michaelangelo’s employers) sat uneasily alongside tales of martyrdom, and wild stories of young girls imprisoned in convents (still rife in 19th century Boston), or even walled up alive. For this era, one of the chief symbols of Italian art, of both its achievements and the world that produced them, was the alleged Guido Reni portrait of Beatrice Cenci, executed for conspiring with her brothers to murder the father who had forced her into incest. As I’ve noted before, the painting plays a central role in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun, along with the faun of the title, by Praxiteles, embodying the allure and the danger tangled up with the very idea of art in the post-Puritan mind. The tragic, tainted Miriam exactly resembles the supposed portrait of Beatrice, while an Italian count — named Donatello — whose character has a distinct pagan cast, is the double of the faun.

Henry James evokes this Dark Renaissance when he sends Isabel Archer to Italy in The Portrait of a Lady; there she marries the cruel and manipulative Gilbert Osmond, a connoisseur and collector of early Renaissance art, who says he would have liked to have been the Pope. He lives like a latter day Medici or Borgia, with his illegitimate daughter, surrounded by his pictures and objets. Far from keeping virtuous Americans like Isabel Archer away from Italian art and its dangers, such associations seem to have lured them, challenging them to plumb new depths, to test their moral frontiers in ways not possible at home.

The apotheosis of this view of Renaissance is almost certainly English aesthete Walter Pater’s famous reverie on the Mona Lisa, which appeared in his book The Renaissance, published in 1893. Pater — who supposedly liked to put himself into a kind of trance by repeating “Botticelli, Botticelli” as a kind of mantra — said the Mona Lisa expressed “the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of Paganism, the sins of the Borgias…like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and knows the secrets of the grave…”

And vampires were not the only forbidden lovers evoked by scholars of the Renaissance. Renowned poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whose many works included a seven-volume study of the Italian Renaissance published between 1875 and 1886, was one of the first writers in English to defend gay sexuality and propose related legal reforms in his privately circulated essays. So perhaps Bachmann and her mentors are right, at least by their rules, to fear the Renaissance. Those who ask unsettling questions of their own societies have certainly found the Renaissance “good to think with,” in the phrase of anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

In The Stones of Florence, one of my own favorite modern thinkers about the Renaissance, Mary McCarthy, notes that the invention of the modern world was “not, of course, an unmixed good,” and wonders if “a terrible mistake was committed here [in Florence], at some point between Giotto and Michelangelo, a mistake that had to do with power and megalomania, or gigantism of the human ego.” But there’s a difference, I would argue, in McCarthy’s embrace of ambiguity, her unwillingness to draw a pat moral from the story. The pursuit of knowledge – which is, after all, what the Renaissance has come to stand for – carries risks. When the artists Brunelleschi and Donatello were seen measuring and digging among the ruins of Rome, McCarthy tells us, locals thought they were using black magic to seek buried treasure.

Stacey Steers’ Night Hunter


July 8th, 2011 at 9:00 am

Stacey Steers Night Hunter Still

Still from Stacey Steers’ Night Hunter
Image source: Stacey Steers

Night Hunter, a fifteen and a half minute film by Boulder artist Stacey Steers, places silent film star Lillian Gish in an animated setting created from 4000 collages made up of black-and-white Victorian ephemera. Though the title seems to derive from the classic 1955 thriller, The Night of the Hunter, in which an older Gish starred with Robert Mitchum, the Gish that Steers claims as her own is the early Gish, D. W. Griffith’s Gish, whose waifish build and eerily doll-like face made her an emblem of female innocence tested and wronged in silent films one step removed from stage melodrama (the movies from which Steers has borrowed footage include Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and True Heart Susie).

Here, Gish finds herself amidst a riot of Freudian imagery – snakes, earthworms, and phallic blades of grass; mysterious pulsating eggs that seem to ooze blood. Among the few touches of color (added by hand) are splashes of red in Gish’s clothes (and oozing from those eggs). These, along with the old house deep in a tangled wood which forms the setting, evoke Little Red Riding Hood, perhaps the modern world’s favorite fable of sexual awakening and sexual danger. Flights of death’s head moths underline the conjunction of Eros and Thanatos.

Night Hunter, which has already been shown at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York City, and as part of a media show at Berlin’s Galerie Zink, can be seen through August 14 in the Denver Art Museum’s media installation space, The Fuse Box, along with individual collages used in its making and Night Hunter House, a three-dimensional realization of the film and its setting. The style and technique of the film strongly recall the collage novels of Surrealist Max Ernst, such as Une Semaine de Bonté, and the surrealist-inspired shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell — for many it will recall the animated segments of Monty Python as well.

Max Ernst

Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté 2
Image source: Paulo Coelho

Cornell Tilly Losch

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), 1935-38
Mixed Media
The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy Aimee and Robert Lehrman.
Image source: C4 Contemporary Art

It’s a style I myself fall for every time, and I find myself wondering why. It seems to be in the air these days, as a few minutes browsing on Etsy will confirm. On New Year’s Eve 2005, I saw DeVotchka (the Denver band best known for their work on the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack) perform at northwest Denver’s Oriental Theater, a silent-era movie house whose murals of Alhambra-esque gardens were then gently decaying without any interference by restorers. It was the perfect setting for DeVotchka’s mix of gypsy, mariachi, and Mittel European influences, and for the black-and-white film clips that accompanied the performance. I found myself reminded of the aesthetic of McSweeney’s, which also plays with the styles of the past.

But it’s not just me. I won’t explore the musical angle, as I am nearly perfectly ignorant of the subject and I would rather debate Irish politics with a mixed group of Sinn Féin and Ulster Unionists than weigh in on the indie music scene. I’m afraid I can’t offer any real conclusions on the visual front, either. Perhaps our cultural moment – if there is such a thing – favors ruins, fragments, and nostalgia, half-heard echoes of the past, over brave new worlds of ideal form.

I only know that I myself have always been drawn to those elements of modernism that favor memory and bricolage over starting from zero – T. S. Eliot rather than Gertrude Stein, Joseph Cornell rather than Jackson Pollock (classic “postmodernism” is a different story — too self-conscious). And Surrealism proper worked best in collage form, I’ve always thought – I’m inclined to agree with the art teacher in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin who calls Salvador Dalí “Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by gypsies in babyhood” (though Rockwell is pretty surreal, if you think about it…). Whatever its appeal to our culture as a whole, I find this kind of art most powerful when, like our actual dreamscapes, it is made up of things half seen and half remembered, made part of a new whole.

Badlands Revisited


May 11th, 2011 at 11:44 am

Unmade Bed by Imogen Cunningham

Terence Malick plays the ‘Caller at Rich Man’s House’ in his 1973 film Badlands.

In honor of the premier of Terence Malick’s fifth film, The Tree of Life, at this year’s Cannes film festival, I’m updating my previous post relating Malick’s first film, Badlands, and the photography of Robert Adams. As I mentioned, Badlands was filmed on location in southern Colorado, and recently I finally made it to Pueblo, Colorado’s Rosemount House Museum, aka the interior of the “rich man’s house.” Fans of Malick’s offbeat, lyrical American aesthetic should find plenty to like there.

The exterior shots of the rich man’s house, including the scene in which Malick himself has a brief cameo as an architect, mostly show the Bloom Mansion in nearby Trinidad. While the Bloom Mansion’s Charles Addams-esque facade no doubt made it an irresistible location, the mid-Victorian rooms inside are relatively small and cramped.

Trinidad, Colorado's Bloom Mansion

Trinidad, Colorado’s Bloom Mansion.

While I’ve yet to fulfill my dream of visiting other Badlands sites, this website records someone else’s visit to the ghost town of Delhi, whose gas station/store featured in the late scene where Martin Sheen, on his final run from the police, unaccountably stops to empty Sissy Spacek’s suitcase of its high school textbooks and girlish clothes. (See clip at the bottom of the linked page.)

The connection to the early work of Robert Adams turns out to be stronger than I realized – if not quite strong enough to justify this post. Driving south into Pueblo along I-25, I was surprised to see off ramps leading to Eden, Colorado, subject of Adams’s early monograph, now almost absorbed into the eastern sprawl of Pueblo. Rosemount, a mansion built in the early 1890s by prominent local businessman John A. Thatcher, stands in for the more gracious old neighborhoods of Pueblo, a former steel town once dominated by Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Mills, set down incongruously on the arid, cactus and juniper studded plains once crossed by the Santa Fe trail. Now a likable and mellow workaday town of about a hundred thousand, its wide, sun-struck streets are lined by architecture reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings.

Rosemount Mansion, Colorado

The Rosemount House Museum, Pueblo, Colorado

Rosemount was occupied by Thatcher’s son, Raymond Thatcher, until his death in 1968, so when Malick chose it as a location in the early 1970’s, it presumably had undergone little restoration. Today, docents in period costume, largely unaware of the mansion’s moment in the history of independent American cinema, lead the visitor through lavishly furnished late Victorian rooms kept in deep shadow. Badlands fans will recognize the gorgeous woodwork of the central hall (I think I found the closet Sheen locks the rich man and his maid in), the dining room mural reproducing Francois Boucher’s rococo painting, The Nest, which Malick’s camera pans through slowly as Sissy Spacek rings the edge of a wineglass, and the gilded harp she experimentally fingers.

There’s an even stranger treat awaiting connoisseurs of small-museum oddities in the attic — the Andrew McClelland collection, put together at the turn of the last century by a globetrotting local philanthropist for the benefit of his less-travelled fellow Puebloans. The star of the collection is an Egyptian mummy, on full and grisly display. A second mummy and other Egyptian artifacts went to form the core of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Egyptian collection, but the climate-controlled museums of our urban centers don’t generally let you this close.

The collection also includes a taxidermied albatross, native Australian fishing spears, and embroidered slippers for bound feet of Chinese women. In the hallway outside hangs a copy of the so-called portrait of Beatrice Cenci, once attributed to Guido Reni. The portrait, once believed to depict the tragic heroine at the center of a web of incest and murder in baroque Rome, was the Mona Lisa of the early nineteenth century – the one painting English and American tourists had to see in order to prove they’d really been to Europe – and it played a key role in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s late novel, The Marble Faun. Beatrice’s portrait also crops up in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Portrait of Beatrice Cenci

Portrait of Beatrice Cenci, formerly attributed to Guido Reni.
Roma, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

For Malick completists who find themselves in the mountain west, and the merely curious, Pueblo lies 112 miles south of Denver and 283 miles north of Santa Fe.

Denver’s Camera Obscura Gallery Closes


May 9th, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Denver Camera Obscura

Former home of Camera Obscura.

Earlier this month, Denver’s nationally known Camera Obscura Gallery closed its doors, a consequence of the recession and, perhaps, the owner’s advancing age — Hal Gould, himself an acclaimed photographer, is now 91. The gallery, one of the first in the country devoted to photography as a fine art, opened in 1979 with an exhibition of Eliot Porter’s Birds in Flight. I was deeply saddened to hear of its closing; for me, as for many, it had been one of the landmarks of Denver’s art scene.

For over three decades, Camera Obscura occupied a two-story warren of rooms in a late-Victorian townhouse just across the street from the Denver Art Museum, so a visit to the museum often ended with a visit to Camera Obscura. This was most likely to happen if I was with my mother, herself a photographer. As other former visitors to the gallery have noted, Gould himself was almost invariably on hand to greet you. An immediately recognizable figure with his silver beard and western-style bolo tie, Gould always seemed eager to engage in conversation –- though, as I remember, his advancing deafness could make this a challenge.

In dramatic contrast to the wide-open, sleekly minimalist aesthetic of most modern art galleries, Camera Obscura’s displays rambled through a series of rooms whose uniform coat of white paint barely obscured their past as a Victorian home. It was in this casual, intimate, even cluttered environment that I encountered many of the luminaries of modern photography, such as Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Imogen Cunningham — my mother bought a print of Cunningham’s Unmade Bed from Gould.

Unmade Bed by Imogen Cunningham

Imogen Cunningham, Unmade Bed, 1957.

My own most vivid memories are of a retrospective of O. Winston Link’s photographs of the steam-powered Norfolk and Western railroad. Link photographed the trains and landscapes they travelled through in the late fifties, the twilight of the great era of train travel. His coolly beautiful, elegantly composed photographs capture the contradictions of midcentury America, in which horse-drawn carts still might appear at small rural stations, while drive-in movie theaters and brightly lit swimming pools rose in glossy suburbs. Seeing Link’s work in a space that mixed high art with domesticity only heightened the experience. Gould also sold photography books, and one day I found a used copy of an Aperture monograph on pioneering English photographer Frederick H. Evans, another landmark in the development of my appreciation of photography.

O. Winston Link, Hot Shot Eastbound

O. Winston Link, Hot Shot Eastbound at the Laeger Drive In, Laeger, West Virginia, 1956
[Image source: The Silver Lining]

O. Winston Link, Swimming Pool

O. Winston Link, Swimming Pool, 1958
[Image source: The Silver Lining]

Camera Obscura also featured contemporary work, such as Baghdad and Beyond, Iraqi photographer Zoriah’s images of the American occupation, in 2008, and championed local photographers such as Gifford Ewing, whose work evokes that of fellow Coloradoan Robert Adams. For more than thirty years, Gould made Denverites and out-of-towners alike part of a very personal conversation about photography and its status as fine art. While Gould continues with his own photography and with his memoirs, and a retrospective of his own work is opening in the historic Byers-Evans house across the street, the gallery he ran for so long will be sorely missed.

A New Take on “Primitivism”? Man Ray, African Art, and The Modernist Lens


March 21st, 2011 at 9:00 am

Roland Penrose - Paul Eluard and ELT Mesens, masks

Roland Penrose (photographer), Paul Eluard and ELT Mesens
having a conversation wearing masks

Downshire Hill London England,1936
©The Roland Penrose Estate
[Image source: Billyjane]

Of all the images I encountered in Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens, which completed its North American tour this winter with a stay at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (the catalog also won the International Tribal Book Award) the one that most caught my imagination was a photograph by British Surrealist Roland Penrose. It shows fellow Surrealists Paul Eluard and E. L. T. Mesens posed in conversation, gesticulating vigorously, wearing dark suits and carved African masks.

What startles the eye is how completely the two men are transformed. The masks seem no more or less arbitrary a form of self-fashioning than Eluard’s rumpled socks or Mesens’s white pocket square. The picture opens itself up to a range of readings. Do the masks conceal or reveal? Did Penrose intend a Freudian allegory, using African artifacts to reveal the “savages” beneath the suits? Or are we to think of the masks of Athenian tragedy and Japanese Noh, elements of the rituals by which life becomes art?

There are other questions to ask as well. Can this be anything other than two white men reducing the artifacts of a nonwhite culture to the status of props in their cerebral games? In my years as a graduate student, the academic word on artistic primitivism seemed unambiguous. It was straight-up cultural imperialism, an act of appropriation by western artists and intellectuals eager to project their own Hearts of Darkness onto the so-called savages. But this always seemed less than completely satisfactory to me, part of the story but not the whole of it.

Many of the pleasures of Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens lay in its exploration of the many facets of the modernist fascination with African art, from serious engagement to frivolous exoticism and back again. Celebrities of the Harlem renaissance posed with African sculpture in the studio of African-American photographer Carl van Vechten. Haute couture milliner Lilly Daché collected Congolese hats, which inspired some of her own avant-garde designs. At the lowbrow end of the spectrum, a French publication entitled “Une nuit de Singapore”, would-be highbrow erotica full of dusky maidens, used images of African art to illustrate a textbook example of Edward Said-style Orientalism.

Man Ray, Mode au Congo

Man Ray, Comtesse de St. Exupery Modeling an African Hat, Mode au Congo, 1937
© 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS),
NY/ADGAP, Paris, Baltimore Museum of Art.
[Image source: The Jewish Press]

The core of the exhibition, as the title suggests, was Man Ray’s photographs of African art objects, many of them owned by the Danish collector Carl Kjersmeier. Walker Evans photographed some of the same objects, and the contrast between his images and Ray’s was striking. Where Evans photographed objects head-on, in relatively even light, as if for a catalog, Ray used dramatic angles and raking light. The play of light and shadow in Ray’s images create a sense of life, even of movement. In an untitled photograph, an antelope headdress from Mali and a female figure from the Ivory Coast are, in the words of the exhibition label, “intertwined in a web of light and shadow”; the serrated crest of the headdress, in bold silhouette, seems to be in motion.

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Badlands and Lost Edens: The Photography of Robert Adams


January 26th, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Movie still: Badlands

Terry Malick’s 1973 film, Badlands

My favorite movie of all time is Badlands Terence Malick’s classic independent, which has had a firm grip on my imagination since I came across it on late-night television as a teenager. It was not until several years later that I learned the movie had been made in my home state of Colorado, on the arid plains east of Pueblo and realized that part of its hold on me came from the fact that the landscapes – and above all the light – were more or less from the world of my childhood. I bring this up here because I cannot write about photographer Robert Adams – a retrospective of whose work was on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery, in Vancouver, British Columbia, for four months this winter at the Vancouver Art Gallery – without writing about Malick’s film. They share a similar aesthetic, “so spare and poetic it chills you to the bone” as the Los Angeles Times said of Badlands (a quote that now appears on the DVD case).

Adams: Burning Oil Sludge North of Denver, Colorado

Burning Oil Sludge North of Denver, Colorado, Robert Adams, American, 1973
Gelatin silver print, 6 x 7 5/8 in.
© Robert Adams

The hugely prolific Adams — he has published more than thirty books — may now live in Astoria, Oregon, but he is most strongly associated with the Denver metropolitan area. Adams was born in New Jersey, but came to Colorado with his family while a teenager; he later worked in the state as a professor of English literature before turning to photography full time. Adams recorded the ever-expanding suburban sprawl of the 1960s and 1970s, and his haunting, classically composed photos of tract houses and shopping centers engulfing what had been farmland helped define what was dubbed the New Topographics movement after the landmark 1975 exhibition. The New Topographic photographers, many of whom worked in the West, focused on exactly those aspects of the landscape which the idealized visions of Ansel Adams (no relation), Eliot Porter and others had neglected. By contrast, the New Topographic photographers and their successors — such as Richard Misrach whose images of nuclear test sites were collected as Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West — aimed to expose the toll that a human presence was taking on the vast yet fragile landscapes of the arid West.

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