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For several centuries the pose in a portrait served as a key element, and was often joined chiefly with the sitter’s clothing, and occasionally the background, as crucial supplements. These three elements — the body held, covered, and situated — were enlisted to support the emotional meaning of the work. Moreover, the elements were generally in service to the look on the subject’s face. This look was meant either as an expression of a true identity or as a comment on the world (including the viewer) onto which the subject looked. The resulting overarching emotion might embrace hauteur or graciousness or melancholy, emotions that could possess an ironic cast, but were often presented as pure and unadulterated. This complex of emotions is usually what catches us and holds us, inviting us to return gaze for gaze, to repay alert sensitivity with open absorption.

More… “In Honor of Faces”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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The Metropolitan Museum Breuer on 75th Street and Madison Avenue (the former site of the Whitney Museum now relocated to hip new quarters downtown) currently features an exhibition that seems perfectly suited to an outpost of the Met. What should an outpost do, after all, if not reframe and critique the masterworks of the established space? The exhibition now on display, entitled Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, does this with intelligence and panache.

More… “Non Finito”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Installation view of Picasso Sculpture. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 14, 2015–February 7, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Pablo Enriquez
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The praise for the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition, boldly but simply entitled Picasso Sculpture, contained one superlative after another. Roberta Smith, writing in the New York Times, asserted of the show that “Many exhibitions are good, some are great and a very few are tantamount to works of art in their own right — for their clarity, lyricism and accumulative wisdom.” Peter Schjeldahl told his New Yorker readers that he felt Picasso was likely “more naturally a sculptor than a painter,” though “all his “training and early experience, and by far most of his prodigious energy, went into painting.” Such claims as these mean that their subject occupies an immense place in the canon of great artists, and a pivotal position in the long stretch of art history. Though known for his nearly stupefying reputation as the master modernist painter, and now also as Picasso the genius sculptor, we need not let his repute become the be all and end all of our ways of looking at, and measuring the weight of, this complex individual (I almost said phenomenon). There have been negative assessments before this; John Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), for example, remains a book well-worth reading. But the amount of laudatory print on the subject, in popular and academic idioms, grows a bit more daunting every year.

More… “Measuring Genius”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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Georgia O’Keeffe was notoriously private about her artmaking. “I can never bear to have people around me when I’m working,” she told The New Yorker, “or to let anybody see what I’m doing or say anything about it until it’s finished.” She was never eager to say much about her aesthetic ideas, either.

So the opportunity to consider the form and technique of O’Keeffe’s art — rather than its postcard-perfect content or manufactured meanings — was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. Two back-to-back museum exhibits in Santa Fe, overlapping for one weekend.

Together, “Georgia O’Keeffe in Process” at the New Mexico Museum of Art and “Georgia O’Keeffe: Line, Color, Composition” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum gathered more than 90 of her works, ranging from her earliest family portraits to her last, lustrous watercolors.

When she was a young girl, not even a teenager, O’Keeffe declared that she would grow up to be an artist. Today, she has become such a fixture of American popular culture — as self-made woman and New Mexico icon — that it’s easy to forget: first and foremost, Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist.
More… “Line, Color, Composition”

Ann Daly, PhD (AnnDalyWriter.com) is an essayist specializing in women and women’s history. She is the author of six books, including Done Into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. She is currently working on a book about Georgia O’Keeffe.
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Exhibition labels – those little placards on the walls beside the thing part of the art – are no longer optional to conscientious looking. In the imagined past, we might have taken in a landscape and breathed, “Isn’t that lovely? Just look at those brushstrokes!” But the priorities of contemporary art have foreclosed on this option. We might even go so far as to define contemporary art as that species of aesthetic work (as opposed to modern, folk, etc.) for which the label is as important as the specimen. Otherwise we risk missing the conceptual forest for the material trees.

Since the 1990s one of the more dominant strains of new work has been a technologically-oriented conceptualism that — if it doesn’t dispose of humanity altogether: the bodily, the gestural, the domestic – finds its importance only in the way those bodies have extended themselves through technology, a technology well-removed from the state of nature, the nuts-and-bolts of existence, anything a patron could begin to brim sentimental over.

Such art is often interested in incorporating materials not typically found in an art gallery, at least not 25 years ago: open source models, industrial units, server platforms, new plastics. At its best, such work lays bare the hidden cables that stitch our new world together, make us suddenly hyper-conscious of the pattern of which we form a part, an invisible part. Exhibition labels are doubly important in such work: without the ideas behind the work, which almost always require spelling-out, we have nothing.
More… “Immaterial Worlds”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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But did the people of India really wish to be photographed?

“Whatever person you decide to photograph,” Antonino Paraggi says in Italo Calvino’s 1955 short story, Adventures of a Photographer, “you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night.” He adds, “Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images.” Antonino becomes an amateur photographer obsessed with documenting almost every moment of his life. When he begins to date the lovely Bice, this obsession becomes even more acute as he turns his lens upon her every move from surveillance shots along street corners to private moments waking up in bed.

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.

Looking at looking

A few years ago, the journalist Janet Malcolm interviewed the German artist Thomas Struth in Dusseldorf. She accompanied him to a nearby factory where he photographed industrial machines. Malcolm watched from a distance as Struth worked at his meticulous and time-consuming process. At one point in this visit, Struth discussed the work and influence of Bernd and Hilla Bechers, his photography instructors at the Dusseldorf Academy where he studied art in the 1970s. The Bechers produced a huge collection of now iconic black and white photographs of water towers, coal burners, blast furnaces and factory facades gathered from the industrial landscapes of the Rurh valley near Bernd’s childhood home. The work spans nearly three decades beginning in the late 1950s. What they produced were cool and crisp images, repetitive in composition, and nearly hypnotic when viewed together. The lighting is always overcast to avoid shadows. The distance between camera and… More…

Performance art or pointless?

In the spring of 1914, Mary Wood entered the Royal Academy of Art’s summer exhibition with her shawl and a meat cleaver. Wood, described by news reports as a woman of “distinctively peaceable appearance,” stood in front of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of the writer Henry James, took out her cleaver, and hacked the work with three quick swings, shouting, “Votes for women!” This is how the Sun newspaper reported what happened next:

The visitors to the gallery turned suddenly in the direction from which the shout came but were too late to prevent the mischief. They saw a middle-aged woman hacking the picture with a cleaver. The first jab broke the glass and cut the canvas. The second blow damaged the canvas still further, and although the woman was then seized by a detective, she succeeded in delivering a third blow.

Such “mischief” was decried in press reports, even… More…

Alexandre Falguière (c.1875)

Fifty years ago a show of male nude art at a small gallery in Long Island, New York provoked the confusion and disdain of the critics. The poet and art critic John Ashbery complained in New York Magazine, “Nude women seem to be in their natural state; men, for some reason, merely look undressed.” (Ashbery’s concern here might have been masking his own homosexuality.) In a more sympathetic response, Vicky Goldberg noted that the homoeroticism that many of the works provoked cast such art “from its traditions and in search of some niche to call its home.” But it was Gene Thompson at the New York Times who pointed to the deeper concerns of this show when he wrote, “there is something disconcerting about the site of a man’s naked body being presented as a sexual object.” We have thankfully moved beyond such acute prejudices. But even today looking at… More…

Uwaki no so (Fancy-free type) from the series Fujin sogaku juttai (Ten Types in the Physiognomic Study of Women), c. 1792 - 1793.

In the autumn of 1859, American journalist and businessman Francis Hall wandered the shops of Yokohama, Japan. Hall had just arrived in the city, five years after Commodore Perry forced a trade treaty on the country, opening ports to American ships under threat of naval attack, and ending a centuries-long isolation of Japan to most foreigners. In his journal, Hall recorded an encounter in one shop where the owner and his wife pulled out a number of boxes that contained carefully wrapped books “full of vile pictures executed in the best style of Japanese art.” He continued:

[The shop owner] opened the books at the pictures, and the wife sat down with us and began to ‘tell me’ what beautiful books they were. This was done apparently without a thought of anything low or degrading commensurate with the transaction. I presume I was the only one whose modesty could have… More…