So many amateur painters have painted the swelling volumes of the church of San Francisco de Asis at Ranchos de Taos, and so many tourists have admired the blue skies and bold colors of northern New Mexico that these things threaten to become visual clichés. One of the virtues of this show’s wealth of katsina images is that they not only highlight what made O’Keeffe’s work distinctive, they also remind us of her place in the larger narrative of twentieth-century American art.
And that little black dress worn by Catherine Deneuve is as much an idea as a dress – the quintessential modernist fashion statement reduced to its absolute essentials. Its tidy collar and cuffs evoke both the modest office dress and the schoolgirl’s (or maid’s) uniform, but they are not white – the cuffs and collar are of delicate ivory satin, advertising not the wearer’s cleanliness, but her distance from labor of any kind.
The pair make their way through a crowded New York park. At the woman’s neck, a whistle such as a lifeguard might use dangles like a pendant from a choker. Why is she wearing such a thing? Is it a form of DIY fashion, or an early version of a rape whistle, emblem of an increasing fear of street crime, as well as the greater sense of vulnerability felt by women in public? It’s impossible to know – Winogrand snapped the picture quickly, and the tilted framing of the subjects betrays its spontaneity.
This was a world in which the color of the glass finial on one’s hat indicated with precision one’s rank at court; in which the bird or animal embroidered in silk and gold thread on a silken badge indicated a civil or military official’s place in the hierarchy. (Degrees of civil officialdom were represented by birds such as cranes or pheasants, while military rank was indicated by fiercer animals, such as tigers, leopards, lions, and the legendary quilin.)
The photographs in the retrospective are animated by the yearning for a sense of place, of belonging and by regret at seeing that place forever slipping out of reach, as a consequence of environmental heedlessness and of the inevitable passage of time.
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.
Marajó is a vast island lying at the mouth of the Amazon, much of which is underwater during seasonal floods. Between 400 and 1300 AD, a culture flourished here on artificial mounds built to rise above the flood waters. The current indigenous inhabitants disclaim any connection to the earlier residents; the makers of these objects had vanished before their ancestors arrived, they say.
The shepherds look up in bewilderment at the announcing angel whose golden halo, rose-pink robes, and orangey-bronze wings seem to glow. Surely, this is what a supernatural visitation should look like. And yet the effect of nocturnal shadow shows the painter to be as interested in earthly experiences as heavenly ones – here already is the keenly observational eye of the Renaissance.
Navajo “eyedazzler” rugs of the nineteenth century, in which brilliantly colored wools form intricate diamonds, are grouped together to emphasize the subtle formal variations introduced by individual weavers; the vivid reds, yellows, and greens which made the designs possible were the product of new chemical dyes.
A work such as Nam June Paik’s Electronic Fish of 1986, constructed from a 1948 wooden Philco television console converted into an aquarium, fitted with a soundtrack recorded on audiocassette playing on a vintage 1980s car stereo, and tuned to an analog TV signal, poses conservational challenges as daunting as any presented by a crumbling quattrocento fresco.
Viewed in context with Deas’s other works, Prairie on Fire brings together a number of themes that ran through his all-too-brief career – his talent for narrative and action, often with gothic overtones, his projection of established American myths, dreams, and nightmares onto the newly opened spaces of the American West, and an intensity and ambiguity of feeling that may hint at his own troubled inner state.
Student and then teacher at the legendary Bauhaus school, Bayer exercised his talents in fields as diverse as typography, architecture, and sculpture. He designed covers for Harper’s Bazaar, and applied his graphic talents to toothpaste and nose drops, moving easily from the cultural hothouse of Weimar Germany to the postwar corporate America of Don Draper.