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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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“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.

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…

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…

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…

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…

In Camera Lucida, his mediation on the history and nature of photographs, Roland Barthes wonders about the medium’s “essential feature” that distinguishes it from “the community of images,” from paintings, drawings, or etchings, for example. Barthes writes:

To see oneself (differently from in a mirror): on the scale of History, this action is recent, the painted, drawn, or miniaturized portrait having been, until the spread of Photography, a limited possession, intended moreover to advertise a social and financial status — and in any case, a painted portrait, however close the resemblance. . . is not a photograph. Odd that no one has thought of the disturbance (to civilization) which this new action causes.

I’ve always been struck by this word “disturbance” Barthes uses to describe those early encounters with photographic portraits. The word evokes not only a cultural ripple in the history of image making, but also conjures a psychology of… More…

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Walker Evans book American Photographs. The collection of 87 images, selected by Walker himself from the larger exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 1938, established him as a serious chronicler of the American scene as well as a skillful and lyrical photographer. This year, the museum has reissued “American Photographs” and has mounted a slim show of images from the original exhibition.

   

“Walker Evans American Photographs” and “American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe” The Museum of Modern Art, New York Through January 26, 2014.

Evans’ photographs are so often just fragments of a scene, capturing moments of quiet, abandoned decay. We encounter a heap of model-Ts rusting in the field, deteriorating movie posters, the actors’ peeling faces revealing the weathered walls underneath, a lumpy and… More…

“The masses are always the other, that we do not know, and can not know,” wrote British critic Raymond Williams in the 1950s just as terms like “mass culture” and “mass entertainment” were increasingly common in Britain and America. For me the term mass evokes as much the behaviors of everyday life as the religious ritual carried out with weekly precision through much of my childhood. Indeed, mass has it origins in such gatherings of believers. But as Williams reminds us, beyond the cathedral walls the word mass can be quite slippery. “In our kind of society,” he writes, “we see these others regularly, in their myriad variations; stand, physically, beside them. They are here, and we are here with them. And that we are with them is of course the whole point. To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people.” For Williams, this distancing intent illuminates… More…