Sunday, December 27, 2009

Western Modernism re-made, part I

Mona Hatoum World, 2004, at Site Santa Fe

Over the past fifteen years or so I have been lecturing, curating, traveling and teaching about how non-Western artists have reinvigorated Western Modernism by reinterpreting it from many different perspectives. When cultural tourism allowed for a wide range of Western curators to visit new places--like the Johannesburg or Istanbul biennials--how to place non-Western artists into a Western historical context became a topic of some importance.

How not to repeat the problems of MoMA's Primitivism show or the Pompidou's Magiciens de la Terre, where the curatorial premise reduced whole continents of artist's works into a formal mimicry of Western modernism?

It all boils down to context context context (location location location, or the place from whence you view the work).

Of course many institutions will work with non-Western artists to be fashionable, but to truly understand the intellectual import of these artist's work in considering post-independence Africa or Palestinian diaspora for example, is another thing.

Gabriel Orozco in How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age, Walker Art Center, 2003

Hatoum's work, above, is the globe in marbles. One false move, one petulant kick, and the whole thing goes haywire.

Orozco's installation, below, is a maze punctuated by signifiers of travel--a train or plane ticket--to suggest the dislocation of travel, flight, emmigration, diaspora. Both these artists rely on their own cultural histories to vault across the brittleness of late, mannered Modernism to create a fresh, vibrant world for us to consider. Imperialism is as much intellectual as actual, and these artists raise those issues in new ways.

I hope to be exploring some of these ideas with some of these artists, over the next few years, at Laumeier Sculpture Park and through my teaching at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Because of the uniqueness of our space, we have some great opportunities to vault beyond what a traditional institution can do and see what the second decade of the 21st century will hold.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Build It, But Will They Come?

Kevin McMahon and Akua Nyame-mensah "The Bilbao Boom or Bust?" in Next American City, issue 25, pp. 30-31.

Of all the news analyses of the trends of the '00's I have particularly enjoyed the writing about the museum building boom of the past decade.

This recent article in Next American City and Robin Pogrebin's December 12 article in the New York Times both explored the trend of large museum additions and the resulting economic impact on the museum itself. (We know this routine: a museum expands, the director leaves, staff is laid off. Rinse. Repeat.)

I started anticipating the "Bilbao Effect" in 1998 faced with the addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum being completed. But since the economic collapse of the 1980s I have also bemoaned the grafting of for-profit management and market-expansion goals onto non-profits to disastrous effect.

What if, like businesses, non-profits don't have endless capacity for market expansion unless they "buy" other businesses (or expand their own space)? What if we cannot force increased market share (museum attendance) just because we're bigger? What if the expanded institution misinterprets the new entertainment options available and thus misinterprets their own mission and goals accordingly? What, ultimately, is the value of the preservation of material culture in our throw-away American society?

Is, perhaps, the museum model still a fundamentally European ideal?

Of the examples in the article above--Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Akron and Roanoke--I would say the Zaha Hadid building in Cincinnati had both an impact on the city and the art world because of the budget kept in check, it was the completion of a first museum building by a woman, etc...

But the most important question is: have the exhibitions at any of these institutions matched the ambitions of the building for the better elucidation of ideas, the unearthing of new content, the reinterpretation of the past in light of the present and future?

I would say rarely has that happened. So what, then, is the ultimate goal of the "Edifice Complex"? More realistic understanding of the museum's role in contemporary society, getting back to non-profit roots, actually press politicians and supporters to understand what museums do for the community, and not just in terms of tax revenue.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Place Your Bets Here

My friend Judith Patrylak (shout out from Phoenix!) and I went to Cahokia Mounds last weekend to see one of the most significant cultural touchstones of the St. Louis region.

Judith had studied Native American history in one of her many past lives; I am interested in re-animating our cultural histories in as many ways as possible.

What I learned:
Much of our cultural heritage has been lost through attrition, neglect, manifest destiny.
Many St. Louis residents have never visited Cahokia.
The State of Illinois has to cycle out Illinois state maps with Rob Blagojevich still listed as governor. (The state's bird=jail bird?)

What struck me was the smartness of a display at the end of the "tour" in the Visitor Center.

They didn't just tell you the current archaeological theories for the collapse of Cahokia Mound society--they asked you to bet on which one won (or lost, depending on your perspective) with money fed directly into the display.

What a brilliant funding strategy!

"Failure of Leadership" was not the highest-grossing of the four winning answers, but given the climate discussions in Copenhagen this past week, we might want to start our own bets.

One of my favorite recent reads was Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail. Collapse kept coming back to me while thinking about cultural sustainability because, ultimately, this is what we are up against.

I don't mean just non-profits, I mean the various institutions that fulfill the "social contact" that has driven Western Civilization for the past 500 years.

We should all take lessons from Cahokia.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What a difference a year makes

Sparkly Christmas tree at the Fountainebleau hotel, Miami Beach.

Just got back from ArtBasel Miami. I do miss the warmth of the south--did it really have to rain?

I skipped Miami last year, art fair weariness. I have no problems with the market. However, as a curator, I simply got tired of having to fight to talk to dealers who were so focused on selling to institutions, not necessarily helping to build a more firm artistic career. The market calming down is a good thing for curators and artists, but maybe not for the dealers.

This year I went to Miami in a different position and therefore my goals were different. I was able to meet with several members of my new International Advisory Committee (check Laumeier's website soon for details): Silvia Karman Cubina, director of the Bass Museum of Art, Beverly Adams, curator of the Diane and Bruce Halle Collection of Latin American art in Phoenix and Laurie Farrell, Director of Exhibitions, Savannah College of Art and Design. I had great conversations with all three of these experts who will be helping us work on outdoor temporary projects and collections-based exhibitions. I can't wait.

And of course I did see a lot of art.

The on-going rash of deer has not died down--I first started noticing this about five years ago in Miami (simultaneous with the storm of snowmen in art, and I've got the pictures to prove it).

Bambi and a big rack (titled by Beverly)

Bambi in the head / spot lights outside the convention center

The blizzard of snowmen several years ago was certainly a response to being in the lush tropics of Miami (just as the rash of genitalia in art was a symptom of hotel art fairs before that).

Gratitude towards junk culture at Nada Fair

The Taco Bell work was nicely ironic given the predominant influence of Latin American in Miami. Taco Bell is but a ploy of the fast food industry to sell a foreign culture's cuisine in a non-threatening (and non-spicy?) way to Americans. Right outside the convention center's doors is a polyglot range of food types rarely found in mainstream kitchens.

I moved rather quickly through the fairs with various friends and colleagues (hence my shocking lack of names for many of the works I am showing you). I ran into many colleagues whose own works or ideas will be great to bring to St. Louis--this is the biggest part of what I brought back with me from Miami.

I also got over to most of the private collector spaces--the Cisneros Foundation, the Margulies collection (needs some curatorial focus, a good architect might help snap that place together) and the new Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz space.

Inside the new De la Cruz exhibition space, with Allora & Calzadilla missile in foreground

Outside the De la Cruz space

The view outside this gorgeous new space brought home the inherent difficulties of selling, buying, making, presenting and loving art. With the obvious surrounding poverty of the area, the work of Allora & Calzadilla and Ana Mendieta became sharper, while the seductive work of Jim Hodges became softer. I look forward to seeing if they impose quasi-curatorial themes to their shows, a la Rubell, or toss things out choc-a-block like Marguelies.

Miami is really the wild west of the American art world, for good or bad, but they've really had an impact on how we see the arts in that city. The cabbie who returned me to my hotel had moved to Miami from Surinam about 25 years ago, and he said he's going to miss us art people because we are helping their economy.

Now that is the true shock of the current bad economy--that people are looking to the art world to help them.

What a difference a year makes.

all photos courtesy the author

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Banking and non-profits

Me (car) visiting Kale (canon) in jail.

I played Monopoly on Thanksgiving Day with my nephew Kale Lund, we had a ball for at least two hours until he got bored. I had to read the rules again because it had been decades since I've played (but I did stick with my strategy of buying up utilities and most of the properties I landed on--some things you never forget).

There was a whole "other" section in the rules I didn't remember at all. They dealt with selling properties back to the bank if you get into a financial crunch, but only after you've sold off your houses and hotels. If your competitor buys your property, you get the best price you can get. If the bank takes it, you only get half of the property's original value. (I guess I wasn't the only kid not reading those rules, hmmm?)

I was reading "The Chronicle of Philanthropy" yesterday as part of my holiday reading package. There were articles about non-profits dealing with how to keep staff (and CEO!) morale up, how a non-profit theatre is adopting the practices of a co-op farm in up-state New York to stay solvent, and about a new group of foundations dedicated to lending money to non-profits to help them cover short-term and re-negotiate long-term debt. This is a new hybrid form of non-profit foundation that wants to stabilize our important non-profit sector, in all of its dimensions. (It looks like these were the kids who did read through the Monopoly rules!)

Lessons for me? Games that teach math skills do work; that you can inculcate a sense of mutual responsibility from a kid's youngest years; that greed ultimately tears a hole in our social fabric; and that moral responsibility takes many forms.

Kale and I were playing the Hawaii version of Monopoly. He owned Waikiki Beach, I owned the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory for a few non-binding hours. See? With fiscal discipline and hard work, dreams can come true (for individuals and non-profits).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Four-letter "f" word...


Despite my best editing efforts, I couldn't make the lovely trees outside my window look better than this. I had been told October in St. Louis is normally sunny and mild--lucky me, the rain came instead. (Perhaps I shouldn't have used the "rain" setting on my white noise machine in Phoenix all those years?)

But on the up side, I found these cookies at Trader Joe's the other day. Maple Cream cookies were my favorites growing up in Calgary. Now that's a celebration of fall!

Monday, November 9, 2009

If bodies were buildings

If my spine were a building, I would collapse.

I learned this after looking at my x-rays from my visit Saturday to my new chiropractor Dr. Stephen Costantino (I would recommend him to any St. Louisian reading this).

My sudden, recent pain is certainly linked to my new work station in a tilted attic room; I'll take steps to remedy my desk and computer disposition immediately. What caused my long-term internal listing could be many things, but I blame it mostly on a life spent bowing my head, reading books. Yet another hazard of my profession.

My rather distressing x-rays made me think of Wim Delvoye, a Belgian artist with whom I did a studio visit several years ago while on a trip sponsored by the Flemish government.

Delvoye digs into old technologies and infuses them with new light, as in the way he uses sometimes sexy, sometimes distressing images in his stained glass windows.

In the chapel image above Delvoye has matched his imagery with the delicate tracery carved into medieval chapels of Europe. It is often hard to believe that those slender, brittle bones of stone allow for an intimate feeling within the soaring heights of Gothic Cathedrals, but they do. This is why those churches are such enduring icons of spiritual faith.

Lest you think Delvoye only celebrates the microcosm inside the macrocosm of the Church, look at this other image, a dolled up killing field.

Given the great irony of his other works it is clear Delvoye does not hold harmless the pieties of faith of any sort--each has created its own killing fields.

Gothic Cathedrals stand today as monuments to the past. I am not an obsessive materialist--millions of things have been made over time, millions have been lost but many remain--but I hope art work like Delvoye's endures past our time as testament to the on-going testament to great human creation and great human destruction.

bottom two images from Wim Delvoye's website.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blogging from place

Green patch of my "place": table decoration from Laumeier's 2009 gala Out of the Park.

My dear pal Mary Louise Schumacher, art and architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has asked me to be here "foreign" correspondent for her own blog, Art City, link below.

(You may remember Mary Louise as my driving co-pilot in my move from Phoenix to St. Louis--she's the one who took the great picture of the burning truck.)

What she has done with her blog, Art City, is focus the energies and attention of the arts community in her region by becoming an expanded site for galleries, artists, dealers, collectors and their various audiences. The growth of the site, her addition of art maps, and features like "Pitch your Show", is an unparalled way for visual arts people to stay informed about the activities in the city. Art City is certainly a great model for other newspapers hoping to keep readership.

But Art City could only have happened on-line--no print publication could, or would, do all that for the arts, a notoriously bad sector for print advertising.

So we might well ask: what commitment do newspapers have to supporting the visual arts? They pay Mary Louise's salary--and that of the other arts writers at the paper who haven't taken a buy-out--THAT's what the Journal Sentinel is doing.

Sad that other newspapers don't gauge their arts writers' success by the same values they gauge a business writer: the interrogation of institutions and individuals, the highlighting of new trends, the health of the sector, the expansion of outlets and franchises, etc... Turns out arts writers do exactly what the business writers do (I mean that in a good way), only with more adjectives!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Exploring Laumeier Sculpture Park

Pump house, disused, Laumeier Sculpture Park.

I took another cart tour of the Laumeier Sculpture Park on Friday (note to self: when in doubt, bring a scarf). Bill Briggs, one of Laumeier's enormously talented staff (County), showed me this stone house built over the fresh water supply used by the residents of the area 100 years ago. As you can see, the original pool has been degraded, and the stream itself has self-diverted, despite the best efforts of some Boy Scouts.

Stream on LSP grounds.

Standing in front of the pump house made me think of Robert Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed, built on the grounds of Kent State University, Ohio, in 1970, just months before the National Guard killed students protesting the Vietnam War. As part of Smithson's investigation of entropy, he piled soil on top of the woodshed until its center beam collapsed. After the Kent State Shootings, the shed became an emblem for the collapse of social order--and of so many other things.

© Jane Crawford and Robert Fiore, Sheds, 2004, 22 min. color, sound

What struck me when looking at Laumeier's pump house was the inevitable way in which human interventions disappear--indeed, in which human marks become erased by the powerful forces of nature. As we embark on a new range of projects at Laumeier, I hope we can take into account the shifts in the ways we perceive earth works, artist interventions into--and definitions of--"public space," and the on-going, mutually affective relationship between humans and earth.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nancy Spero, Queen

Nancy Spero installation at the Cairo Biennial, 1998, photo by Barry Iverson; all images, unless otherwise noted, are by the author

Two friends just sent me the link to the NY Times' obituary of Nancy Spero, which I had missed, here in my move "cocoon".

Nancy was an inspiration to me for two reasons.

As a young curator working at MoMA, I went with a colleague from Prints & Illustrated Books over to meet Nancy. Of course I knew her work and was thrilled for the strong visual world she created through her collages. Despite her fame within the downtown arts community, she was kind and gracious and spoke frankly about the work, which tells not only abut the past but about our collective feminist future.

Many years later, in 1997, I approached Nancy to propose her work for the 1998 Cairo Biennial, and Nancy's work was chosen. My first trip to Cairo was shocking--I had a haunting, almost out-of-the-body experience after seeing the pyramids (remind me to tell you about the Winchester house "incident"). There was something about that place that I felt in my bones, despite being Northern European stock.

Nancy's installation was deceptively simple: her three assistants were to stamp images directly onto the walls of the Palace of Arts in Cairo. However, because the building was still in litigation, four years after its completion, we had to find a quick solution to not mar the walls with the paint. The Egyptians I worked with were both proud of Nancy's use of mythic symbols from Egypt's Pharonic past, but also somewhat defensive that a Westerner would "borrow" these forms.

The day of the Biennial's opening in Cairo was the day we bombed Iraq in the first war. The official opening the day's events attacked Nancy as the American representative--shocking, given Nancy's history and politics. Luckily, the first person to speak on our panel about Nancy's work couldn't be bothered to listen to the translation of this official's rant--she went blithely on about pattern & decoration in the work of Nancy Spero. In any case, my experiences in Cairo were transformative, thanks to Nancy.

Marwan Rechmaoui's work at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, 2008

In addition to visiting one of the most glorious countries on earth, I came to work with many great artists from Egypt and the region, and indeed, I have worked, traveled and written about contemporary art in the area for a decade (the last article, on Beirut's "Home Works IV", was published in Art Papers last spring). And my work at F.A.R. (Future Arts Research) @ ASU, on desert aesthetics, was rooted in my reading, writing and finding ways to travel to the region.

Ghada Amer, Untitled (Milwaukee Love), 1998, photo courtesy the author

I commissioned works from Ghada Amer in 1998, Lara Baladi in 2004, and most recently, Ahmet Ogut, in 2008. Other artists whose work I supported include Mona Marzouk, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Halil Altindere, and Khaled Hafez. Scott Bailey, with whom I co-founded a curatorial practice program in Cairo in 1998, was a great inspiration and friend in negotiating the complex social issues of Cairo.

Work by Khaled Hafez, courtesy the artist

I had three dreams when I was a child: sky diving (are you crazy?), scuba diving and living in Africa. Because of Nancy Spero, I did one (Red Sea) and had close encounters with another. Nancy was not just a global leader in a radical, political, visual feminism, she was a personal inspiration to many women of her own generation, and mine.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cement in St. Louis

I went to see some art last weekend in St. Louis, visiting the Pulitzer Foundation (as well as re-visited the Contemporary Museum and stopped by Bruno David's gallery, smartly placed just across the street).

It was a gray, overcast, calm day.

Of course I don't have any pictures from the Pulitzer's show Ideal (Dis-) Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer, with paintings from Harvard and the St. Louis Art Museum--so I took pictures of the external environment to give you a sense of the light levels inside the galleries. One of the exercises of the show was clearly to show how these works owuld have been perceived when they were painted.

My favorite room was the one in the back, next to the Ellsworth Kelly, with the four proto-Renaissance works. That is the period I love for the dense emotional intensity packed into the small figures, the glittering surface of the Byzantine-influenced church that mirrors the radiant light of God. Compared to the bloodless, hyperbolic Renaissance works in the other rooms, these small works feel alive to me (many people love the Renaissance, more power to them, I find no emotional comfort in those works).

In the largest work in the room, Girolamo di Benvenuto di Giovanni del Guasta's Madonna and Child with Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Monica, Augustine, and John the Evangalist, no date although the artist lived 1470-1524 (shouldn't they make an educated guess?), floating on St. Nicholas's torso was a disembodied head of a child. The child's disc of a head glowed in the dark, which to me was a meaningful expression of the mystery and faith embodied in religious ritual painting compared to the fleshy, Baroque-bordering-on-Rococo works in the other rooms.

It strikes me that the richness of this painting, and the story of Saint Nicholas, is a testament to the value of place in one's spiritual life. Each city, town, burg, village generates its own sense of mystery and life, and the del Guasta painting describes the joy of living in one's time, while knowing of one's history.

Floating back down to the courtyard I experienced the Richard Serra work "Joe" again, and again, felt a bit dizzy and disoriented not ten feet into the work. What imaginative glory and intellectual abuse this Serra provides.

What I loved about the Serra, against the grimy gray sky, was that it didn't provoke depression at the advent of fall, but rather, an inevitability of the abstractions we face in our daily lives--like spirituality, community, place. Balanced against my transport from the del Guasta, I felt refreshed on that fall day by experiencing art. Fabulous.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Accidental Sculpture

During my first weekend driving around St. Louis, I saw some very interesting accidental sculpture in extraordinary public space, such as the beautiful installation above in the mid-century modern (mostly late 40's, not so much Eames) shop above, TFA on Grand.

Driving around around the waterfront of St. Louis we saw this single wind generator next to an urban home, then below, an angel lost amongst the industrial grid that imprisons the river.

There are two glorious strands of deliberate architecture in St. Louis, however. Most well-known is the St. Louis Arch by Eero Saarinen, commemorating Thomas Jefferson and the march towards Manifest Destiny, the conquest of the west.

Oddly, it is the Cahokia Mounds that are the most exquisite sculpture project in the region, the sculptures that refute the Arch as a monument to the American continent

There are many strands to tease out of all; I will continue this investigation anon.

(The bottom two pictures were captured from their respective websites; the rest are courtesy the author.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Road Trip Art

A selection of room keys, PHX - STL:
Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix (most lush experience)
Sheraton, Albuquerque (palm trees???)
Hyatt Express, Tulsa (rather dull suburban location)
Moonrise Hotel, St. Louis (best bed)

Museums make art experiences happen deliberately. Road trips make art experiences happen accidentally.

Some of my favorite images from my four day tour with Mary Louise:

Bathroom painting, Munds Park, AZ (image of Munds Park):

Mega-church, OK:

Sculpture Park, Coffeeyville, KS:

Pump jacks, a selection of sizes:

Finally, remnants of unpacking:

The efficiency of the American I-highway system made our trip fast, but our detours made it interesting. We drove through Window Rock, AZ, to see the administrative capital of the Navajo Nation, and Tucumcari, NM, a formerly thriving town on Route 66 but now a struggling enclave of dilapidated 1950s motels, to measure the impact of the highway system on small town America.

We also stopped in Coffeeyville, KS, where my grandfather Ogden grew up. The docent at the historical Brown Mansion confused our looking for the downtown (mostly empty storefronts) with their commercial strip (Arby's, gas stations), a testament to a town that hasn't yet revitalized its old real estate stock with boutiques and bars (too far from KC and Tulsa?)

The most dramatic image was outside Amarillo, TX (see previous post), which consolidated Amarillo's reputation for me.

Small town America looks like Stephen Shore to me, although Robert Frank loomed large in my mind while driving as well. Like any art experience, I learned a lot about the world in this trip, the trials and tribulations of people living outside big cities--and in our go-go, internet connected world, what a great and rare privilege it is to spend four days with a friend. We found artistic moments everywhere, thanks to the refined eyes of photographers who allow us to frame images laden with social and political content.

On a side note: I'm for the government's stimulus package, but improving roads seems less urgent than helping these smaller communities reinvest in themselves.

© all images author and Mary Louise Schumacher

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Burnin' Truck Loads of Art

© Mary-Louise Schumacher

My dear pal Mary Louise Schumacher and I recently took four days to drive from Phoenix, Arizona to St. Louis, Missouri, for me to take up my new post as Executive Director at the Laumeier Sculpture Park.

We had four fun days of yakking about art, life and America. We would cover two topics per day, and eight hours was often not enough time for all our side-trips.

Our best image of the trip: this burning truck-load of cars, which threw off an incredible wall of heat as we passed dangerously close (what WAS that police car doing?)

This trip led me to reflect on my art career, which has led me deliberately, nomadically, zigzagging across the country: KS, NY, LA, MKE, PHX, STL. Each shift was triggered by a new school, new opportunity or a personal change.

The cumulative effect is that I have lived in big markets and small, each with their own great riches. We all are connected on-line, but we only live in one place, and finding that form of groundedness is what makes a move both challenging and rewarding. I have found the center in the most dispersed places, each with its own gem artists and jewel institutions that give a place, and its residents, life and meaning. With my move to St. Louis, I am honored to enter into a rich and complex society that, while outward looking, takes great meaning from within as well.

Buzz Spector, an artist friend from my LA years and recently installed dean of the College and Graduate School of Art, part of Washington University's Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, sent me the lyrics from Terry Allen's 1979 double album, "Lubbock (on everything)" in response to our burning truck picture:

Truckload of Art


Once upon a time…
Sometime ago back on the east coast
In New York City, to be exact…
A bunch of artists and painters and
sculptors and musicians and
poets and writers and dancers
and architects
Started feeling real superior
to their ego-counter-parts
Out on the West Coast…so,
They all got together and decided
They would show those snotty surfer upstarts
A thing or two about the Big Apple
And…they hired themselves a truck
It was a big, spanking new white-shiny
Chrome-plated cab-over
With mudflaps, stereo, tv, AM & FM radio,
Leather seats and a naugahide sleeper…
All fresh
With new American Flag decals and "ART ARK"
Printed on the side of the door
With solid 24 karat gold leaf type…
And they filled up this truck
With the most significant piles
And influential heaps of Art Work
To ever be assembled in Modern Times,
And it sent it West…to chide
Cajole, humble and humiliate…the Golden Bear.
And this is the true story of that truck…

A Truckload of Art
From New York City
Came rollin down the road
Yeah the driver was singing
And the sunset was pretty
But the truck turned over
And she rolled off the road
Yeah a Truckload of Art
is burning near the highway
Precious objects are scattered
All over the ground
And it's a terrible sight
If a person were to see it
But there weren't nobody around

Yeah the driver went sailing
High in the sky
Landing in the gold lap of the Lord
Who smiled and then said
"Son, you're better off dead
Than haulin a truckload
full of hot avant-gárde

Yes…an important artwork
Was thrown burning to the ground
Tragically…landing in the weeds
And the smoke could be seen
Ahhh for miles all around
Yeah but nobody…knows what it means
Yes…a Truckload of Art
Is burning near the highway
And it's a tough job for the highway patrol
Ahhh they'll soon see the smoke
An come runnin to poke
Then dig a deep ditch
And throw the arts in a hole

Yeah a Truckload of Art
Is burning near the highway
And it's raging far-out of control
And what the critics have cheered
Is now shattered and queered
And their noble reviews
Have been stewed on the road

Allen's lyrics were in protest of New York's attitude towards LA / San Francisco. Both cities are getting along quite nicely, thank you, and have developed rich communities outside the East Coast.

While I would never advocate burning truck loads of art, I do agree that great art exists everywhere, you just have to learn context and history to understand the specific Modernist nuances of each community.

I look forward to doing that in St. Louis.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Great Architecture into Great Museum Part III

This is the final in a three-part series by architect Eddie Jones on the topic we’ve been debating for years: Has there ever been a museum with the courage and sophistication to combine both “great architecture” and “great museum”?

Eddie Jones:
In Fort Worth, Texas, you will find THE museum. There is a large, tree shaded, grass covered park. Crossing the park—soft steps, birds singing—you approach a gravel court, passing under a tree canopy and find a composition of sixteen large concrete vaults.

image courtesy the blogger

This is the Kimbell Art Museum, designed in 1972 by Louis Kahn. The Kimbell is considered the touchstone of art museums by which all others, new and old, are measured. The architecture is simple, repetitive, functional and most importantly, beautiful. People will go see the Kimbell regardless of the collection. No one can attend an exhibition and ignore the building. Generally everyone of any age, income, or education level will leave knowing they have had an unforgettable experience. The curators are happy, fundraisers never break a sweat, Fort Worth and Texas covet the bragging rights. Believe me, there is not an architect alive who would not honor this building.

Fortunately there are other excellent examples of architecture daring to be great, yet not at the expense of art exhibition. Many of the best museums are from the hand of Renzo Piano--The Menil Collection and Twombly Gallery, Houston (Texas again!); the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; and the Chicago Art Institute expansion.

Typically a new museum is commissioned by a municipality, foundation, institution or private patron. Apparently, there exists a misconception one has to make one of only two choices: between iconic, knock-your-socks-off architecture, or a program which recedes so the art projects. Frankly I am all for diversity! America is defined by diversity and we can never have too many museums, and we are in no danger of too much architecture. So bring it on!

Perhaps the rarity of another Kimbell makes the accomplishment that much more valuable. However, the aspiration remains the worthiest of goals, one to which I am intellectually aligned.

Marilu response:
Eddie raises some really important issues for me. What is the niche, core business of a museum in today's multi-media world? How do museums become as dynamic and interactive as the other entertainment options available to us today? How do new theories in visual literacy help our field understand our changing role within our communities?

When I visit museums I have many experiences, intellectual, physical, emotional, aural. How does the space embrace or reject me; what decisions have they made to foreground free, public access versus an immediate jump into the business end of the place, the galleries? How do all the art forms work together, or are traditional material separations kept in order? The answer depends on the type of museum you have, but often, non-aesthetic concerns swamp the delicate nature of space and art so that both seem compromised.

I was at the Kimbell in the spring for my first visit. After everything I had hear and read about the building I was somewhat disappointed--I've been trained to want bigger and better, shame on me!

While it was clear the space was elegant and well calibrated, I found the spaces overhung and ticky-tackied up with temporary panels holding one work each. I was thrilled to see the "new" Michelangelo panel, and loved the "for adults only" section of the "Love in the Renaissance" show (I had never heard of a birth tray before). Overall, however, the museum building should work on concert with the art works contained therein, and even the Kimbell felt pressed upon to give the appropriate honor to its objects. Even a glorious building can fail if its primary function--to celebrate and frame art--is overwhelmed by other issues.

This, ultimately, is the crux of my point with Eddie--the museum building still must serve its intended purpose, or it might just as well be a hotel or supermarket. While the other museums he mentioned have many great works of art and real iconic presence, they seem beholden to the Kahn.

Which museums, then, DO I like, for their chaos or control, their illumination or their modesty?

The Beyeler Foundation in Basel. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit. The Louvre, Paris. The Coptic Museum, Cairo. The Broad Foundation, Santa Monica. A fancy one in Seoul whose name I can't remember, and I imagine the new contemporary space in Beirut is crisp in its elegant simplicity. Each is what it truly is, a product of its place and time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Great Architecture into Great Museum Part II

image copyright: Kevin J. Miyazaki

Part Two of Eddie Jones's discourse on museums we like / don't like:

Eddie Jones:
Sometimes cities will commission an art museum prioritizing tourism over serious art education.

Consider Milwaukee, Denver and the poster child of civic transformation, Bilbao.

All three of these recent blockbuster museums have been extremely successful. Clearly the goal focused on dynamic urban form, assuring the city an elevated position in the cultural pecking order. In exchange, logical, conventional, flexible, economical and curator-friendly public exhibition space is relinquished.

Even I, who will confess to value architecture over any other art form, finds these new museums to be a curatorial nightmare and programmatically deficient! However, given the goal, these museums deliver.

On the other extreme, one can exalt Dia: Beacon’s old box factory and the Judd Foundation’s converted railroad and munitions buildings in Marfa, Texas. Simple, elegant and originally designed for other purposes, these buildings enclose spaces any curator or artist would happily embrace. Paintings and sculptures soar in their unassuming day-lit rooms.

Although they do not care to represent state of the art architectural possibility, I would say the small towns of Beacon, New York and Marfa occupy a unique place on an elite list of art-oriented cities.

Marilu's response:
I was in Bilbao just after the new Guggenheim opened, and was surprised by how little activity there was around the building. No doubt this one of the most spectacular sites for a museum, which seemed like an alien ship landed from the future. I was in Bilbao again, ten years later, and met the director of the new museum in Vitorio-Gastiz, the provincial capital; he lived in Bilbao.

I asked him if the Guggenheim had any affect on the arts community in Bilbao and he said no, it did not. Yet the waterfront was bustling with activity, new restaurants had opened up around the Guggenheim, small b & b's had popped up, the government had a new underground system. The Bilbao effect continues, but not for the local art scene.

What could the museum have done to embed the museum more effectively into the life of the city the way they got the politicians to pay for the thing? If there is no ripple effect outward for the arts community, what are we, as professionals, demanding of our profession?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Compare and Contrast: Museum vs. Casino

both images copyright: Potawatomi Bingo Casino

The post by Eddie Jones has brought to mind a conversation I've been having with architect Will Bruder, who, in addition to creating glorious, green buildings around the region and the globe, studied sculpture at UW-Milwaukee. Will and I have talked about the impact of buildings on a city's pride of place, and the intriguing comparison between the aesthetics, ethics and economics of the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Potawatomi Nation's Bingo Casino.

Briefly: The Milwaukee Art Museum's delicate Santiago Calatrava addition budget started at $35 million and ended up at $120 million (they added the brise soleil, parking lot and formal gardens). It took years to pay off the debt, there's been great turnover in staff, and in the meantime, caused great financial stress on other non-profit organizations in the city, whose own donations dropped as a result.

While everyone might agree that the building has become the spectacular icon as intended, the "Bilbao" effect (iconic building drives economic prosperity in the region) came to life in the U.S.

But some larger questions remain: what is happening inside the building, is the space used effectively enough, has this landed spacecraft had a ripple effect in the arts community, etc...

By contrast, when the Potawatomi Nation was allowed to build a casino in the Menomonee river valley, a former industrial site used by tanneries in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a sense that the tribe was getting bum land. People fought against the Casino in downtown Milwaukee, couched in anti-gambling rhetoric but often with a soupcon of something else. An article in the local weekly paper had an interesting observation: We have taken from the Native Americans what is most important to them--their land--and they are taking away from us what is most important to us--our money. The history of treatment of Native tribes in the state became an issue in this building.

Once the Casino was up--$120 million of their own money--the city realized how in-fill in the valley would connect the disconnected parts of the commercial corridor of the city. All of a sudden, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson wanted to up the taxes on the casino, beyond what had been negotiated before and with other Casinos. When in-coming Governor Jim Doyle, however, was willing to renew, and renegotiate, the Tribe's compact on the land, the Potawatomi announced they would double the space of the casino, another cool $120 million from their own coffers. The Tribe handled their own resources and has played a leading role in the revitalization of the entire area.

What struck me in this story was the similar budgets between the high-end, arch modernist building of the Calatrava addition and the for-profit, low-end, also modernist block of the Casino.

Is MAM suffering an "edifice" complex (I used this phrase well before the book came out): gorgeous exterior, empty interior? (In my medieval art history class they called this the butter tax, and affected buildings such as Notre Dame--the wealthy would give for above-ground building, not for substructure construction, which is why the church has had foundation problems). Despite a constant stream of good shows, the program has never been able to get out from under the shadow of the shell. Should architecture dominate what art museums do?

The Potawatomi Bingo Casino, on the other hand, has lots of content--gambling, restaurants, entertainment, and has continued as a hot bed of economic activity and tax dollars for the state.

Ultimately, what is intriguing in this building comparison is the schism that exists in public dialogue about the role buildings play in our image of self and community, and how people with different concerns and goals try to control that image. We, as citizens, typically have little to say in what is built in the environment, but we have a lot to gain or lose if we aren't more vocal in issues concerning our urban environment.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Great Architecture into Great Museum

As part of my on-going series where I invite friends to write about contemporary art, I have invited architect Eddie Jones to finally put into writing the discussion we’ve had over the years regarding museums we like / don’t like, and why Frank Lloyd Wright made it tough for curators to work with spaces (this, you must understand, is blasphemy here in Phoenix.)

This is the first in a three-part series “Has there ever been a museum with the courage and sophistication to combine both “great architecture” and “great museum”?” completed by Eddie on a flight between New York and Charlotte on August 5, 2009. To his notes I will append a few thoughts.

Eddie Jones is the founding principle of Jones Studio, Inc., and together with his rakish brother Neal Jones and a staff of smart, funny architects and designers, have created elegant, soaring public and private buildings.

I did a project, one of my favorite ever, with Jones Studio at SMoCA, several years ago. When Jones Studio came to visit SMoCA for a site visit I remember saying to them that we'd love to do a show with them but I disliked architecture shows, they are rather dull, and a museum needs to be about life.

The entire studio moved into the gallery and worked for four months, during which time they engaged with the deliberate, and hapless, audiences who wandered in. I've never seen a museum space so energized and vibrant, and together we tried to understand what this experience meant for museum practice as it intersects with architectural practice.

This series is a result of our talking about what we like about museums, and whose fault is it if they don't work.

image copyright:

Eddie Jones:

“Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.” – Ernest Dimnet, The Art of Thinking

Yes, my art buddies, architecture is art. In fact, only when a building achieves the elusive quality of art can it be described as architecture. If I really want to piss you off, I can argue it is the most difficult of art forms because it necessarily involves the responsibility of human habitation and, as it has been said, “Architects have to leave their work out in the rain!”

Therefore, I find the programmatic intersection of art and architecture, i.e. the art museum, to be a fascinating challenge and an opportunity to explore the relationship of museum visitor, curator, artist and architect.

The Guggenheim Museum is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, appropriately with a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition of drawings and models. Much has been written about the extraordinary original drawings and the buildings, which changed the course of American architectural history.

The Guggenheim, like it or not, remains a remarkable and unique way to experience a one-of-a-kind art museum. Study the circulation diagram: few remember Wright’s intention to take people to the top level, allowing a slow, thoughtful decent along the famous spiraling ramp. As of this writing, it was only a few hours ago I spent the morning reveling in the drawings and exhilarating space of Guggenheim.

However, the curating was weak and uninspired. For example, upon entering the rotunda, people were immediately directed “up” the ramp opposite to the architect’s intention.

Hence a dilemma: are curators unable or unwilling to cope with a unique exhibition space OR are architects making the art secondary to a dominant form?

I believe Wright sincerely aspired to connect the act of viewing art with the form of the space to the point that the physical form was a direct result of the exhibition experience. Not only was the circulation augmenting and simplifying movement, it was balanced with a central day-lit point of reference, allowing visitors to see where they had been and where they were going. The display walls were tilted outward and lit from above, not unlike the painter’s easel.

Marilu's counterpoint:
I didn't see the Wright show at the Guggenheim, but like architects, some curators get it, some don't. I am often shocked at curator colleagues who think two-dimensionally about space, where objects are little toys moved around inside a maquette of the space, not taking into account the other elements that come into play between works and between work and audience.

When I moved to New York in the 1980s I visited the Guggenheim and went up to the top and worked my way down, as Wright intended. I felt a little nauseous the whole way, as if I was being sucked into a giant drain. One of my first internships was for Tom Messer, where I did some office work for the reinstallation of the Guggenheim's Justin K. Thannhauser Collection. The space was cramped and dingy, but that is being corrected now.

What we need to consider with the Guggenheim, however, is that Wright was first contacted about the commission in 1943 and the building completed in 1959. The world--and the art world--changed totally in that time, and despite its modern feel, the museum has limitations a Beaux Art classic like the Met does not have. (And no way he could have predicted Museum's extreme fascination with the new).

Still, I always have the feeling while in the museum that Wright preferred small, obedient art works, nothing fussy, nothing dramatic--no scratchy detritus from World War II, no Abstract Expressionism, no Bay Area Funk--just the jewel-like objects in the Guggenheim's vaults.

Frank Lloyd Wright was the first starchitect, the one whose overarching design sensibility freed architects to dominate the discourse about art--a domination many museum curators have to deal with every day.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Face of Grain

two pictures from the drive between Detroit and Milwaukee

This grain elevator in Chelsea, Michigan reminded me of my first apartment in New York, my bad cooking, my first efforts from the "Joy of Cooking" (that brownie recipe was wrong I tell you!) I started using simple boxed foods like this corn muffin package, luckily, I've moved on to making things from scratch, growing fresh vegetables when I have access to a garden, and so forth.

I took this second image at the Oasis on the Illinois tollway north of Chicago. Ritz has really snapped up its graphics!

I feel conflicted: if corn is the source of our fast-food obesity, why haven't we outlawed it, controlled it, regulated it? Nature is just doing what she does; it's up to us to be mindful of it.

Although there is so much high and low-level dissension over farm subsidies and the calories in packaged food, we must remember how important advanced food distribution and preservatives have been to preventing widespread hunger in the US. The bounty that faces us now needs to be recalibrated. Farming has been an honorable and critically important job to every society; how can we encourage organic, local farming practices while feeding the country? I suspect I'll learn more about this living back in the mid-west.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Modern totems

all images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy the author

I was in Washington in mid-July to participate on an NEA panel (doing "the people's work," as Kevin says), and had the chance to see lots of art in different museums. New Orleans artist Ron Bechet and I got our exercise by running to and from the Mall every day at lunch, seeing the National Gallery West, the National Museum of African Arts and the Hirshhorn Museum. It was great to share the pleasure of being in big buildings full of cultural richness from around the world.

On Friday, after the panel, I walked to the National Museum of American Indian that featured an exhibition of the artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). I'm not a fan of Scholder's work--although much of what I read makes me understand how his work broke through the cliches of "native" art--but I was struck by his obelisk from 1987, somewhat hidden in the garden outside the museum.

This work seemed to throw out a real challenge to the culture that has suppressed Native peoples in the US, represented by the thrusting Washington Monument nearby. (Begun in 1848, the Washington Monument was intended to be the largest structure on earth. Construction halted during the Civil War, but was finally completed in 1885.) That Americans would commemorate their new republic with a cultural form borrowed from an ancient, "pagan" culture is interesting--why not borrow the indigenous American form of a totem?

Fritz Scholder Obelisk, 1987, bronze, detail bottom

Unfortunately, however, Scholder's obelisk also looks Egyptian, influenced, no doubt, by the time he spent in Egypt. I never found a didactic panel that explained the work. The Museum missed the opportunity to toss out a social bomb in the form of an art object, but they are right to avoid the kind of controversies caused when Museums look at history through different eyes.

The Native American artist who does artistically bridge the death-defying gap between white and Native cultures is Brad Kahlhamer. His obelisk, Waqui Totem, 2007, below, is sharp edged, sarcastic and penetrating. Kahlhamer embraces and challenges both Western and indigenous artistic forms, creating vibrant, sex-death-and-rock 'n roll odes to finding identity and spirituality in contemporary America.

images courtesy of Brad Kahlhamer

Kahlhamer's totem was built of cardboard then cast in that uber-art material bronze. It's a bird of prey / nightmare head, tree limbs stripped of leaves by rapacious industry and a provisional base suggestive of the persistence of the ancient myths of Native spiritual systems.

Kahlhamer's totem would be a spectacular apparition on the mall in honor of the millions of Native peoples who lived in North America upon first contact. His work reclaims not only the physical shape of Native American art, but some of its psychic space, too. This work would be a testament to the persistence of indigenous peoples and their evolving cultures long lain dormant underneath the self-aggrandizing myths of the American conquest of a wild but empty paradise.

I think the issue of internal diaspora or exile is a compelling and urgent one for Native artists, and deserves much broader discussion in the art world.