Notes from the Field

  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • March 16, 2017

Béla Tarr—Till the End of the World

EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam
January 21 – May 7, 2017
Website: eyefilm.nl

 

Is it possible to make a satisfactory museum exhibition comprised of not much more than film clips? This is what curator Jaap Guldemond has done in collaboration with the renowned Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Tarr’s career has spanned the momentous changes that swept eastern Europe since the late 1980s. His accounts of social dysfunction and moral gloom are unsparingly bleak. His mastery of the long take rivals that of the late Chantal Akerman.

Tarr’s is a black and white world in which depressed and deprived people perform rituals of seemingly unending self-abasement, often in driving rain. A pre-adolescent girl strides purposefully yet stumblingly towards the ever-retreating camera, staring uncompromisingly into the lens, marching through day and night, carrying the cat she has killed. This sequence from Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour long 1994 movie, Sátántangó (Satantango), is projected in the same gallery as a sequence from Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies), 2000, in which two young boys refuse to go to bed and enact their own disruptive and obsessive ritual of clanging pan lids, jumping on the bed, and threatening their father with a stick.

Tarr’s socially deprived characters express homespun Nietzschean nostrums, as when a shaven-headed man braves a furious wind to come to a father and daughter’s cabin to... Read More

EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam
January 21 – May 7, 2017
Website: eyefilm.nl

 

Is it possible to make a satisfactory museum exhibition comprised of not much more than film clips? This is what curator Jaap Guldemond has done in collaboration with the renowned Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Tarr’s career has spanned the momentous changes that swept eastern Europe since the late 1980s. His accounts of social dysfunction and moral gloom are unsparingly bleak. His mastery of the long take rivals that of the late Chantal Akerman.

Tarr’s is a black and white world in which depressed and deprived people perform rituals of seemingly unending self-abasement, often in driving rain. A pre-adolescent girl strides purposefully yet stumblingly towards the ever-retreating camera, staring uncompromisingly into the lens, marching through day and night, carrying the cat she has killed. This sequence from Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour long 1994 movie, Sátántangó (Satantango), is projected in the same gallery as a sequence from Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies), 2000, in which two young boys refuse to go to bed and enact their own disruptive and obsessive ritual of clanging pan lids, jumping on the bed, and threatening their father with a stick.

Tarr’s socially deprived characters express homespun Nietzschean nostrums, as when a shaven-headed man braves a furious wind to come to a father and daughter’s cabin to ask them to refill his bottle with pálinka, a strong Hungarian brandy. Seated at their rough-hewn table—the same table in the gallery at which visitors sit to watch—he delivers a monolog on never-ending strife, the death of all gods, and the hopelessness of existence. This sequence is from A torinói ló (The Turin Horse), 2011, Tarr’s last completed feature film. Tarr’s inspiration was the famous incident when Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the maltreatment of a horse, which is said to have triggered his final descent into insanity.

Tarr’s characters also model the universe, as when at closing time in a bleak village bar, a young man organizes his fellow drinkers to enact a solar eclipse, playing the roles of the sun, moon, and planets, as a swaying, dancing human orrery (Werckmeister Harmonies). These are “simple people,” as the protagonist in the eclipse scene describes his companions. They oscillate between states of impassivity and sheer awkwardness, with outbreaks of angry determination, as when a crowd of men, many armed with staves, marches down a nighttime street in a sequence from Werckmeister Harmonies. Yet for all their bewilderment, these are people with inner lives that Tarr seeks to capture through bathetic monologs, and monotonous actions.

To reach these screened cinematic extracts in which the fictional figures are all, in their various ways, waiting for the Hungarian equivalent of Godot, visitors must pass through two galleries each containing an installation specially contrived by Tarr for the exhibition. One contains a dead tree from which all the leaves have been blown to swirl around the darkened gallery, animated by large roaring fans. Immediately preceding this Beckettian scene is the opening installation, Fence. Flanking fences of frontier razor wire lead the visitor through a border zone to a screen showing horrifying news footage of fighting, bombardment, and rescue attempts from rubble shot recently by journalists in Syria. The desperate refugees to whom Hungary closed its borders are the real, contemporary counterparts of Tarr’s movie characters. In the final gallery, we see one such figure in a sequence made specially for the exhibition, titled Muhamed (2016). A young boy in a shopping mall mournfully plays Arab melodies on an accordion while staring at the camera—again in black and white. Muhamed occupies an ambiguous position between fact and fiction, his stare daring us to deny the actuality of his predicament.

The thirteen film sequences—twelve from Tarr’s movies made between 1988 and 2011, plus the specially shot Muhamed—and the two opening installations, certainly make a compelling exhibition, skillfully and variously installed so as not to appear monotonous. Much, of course, depends on Tarr’s directorial skill as a cinematic auteur, but others deserve credit, too. Not least among them are the various cinematographers with whom Tarr has worked, most consistently Gábor Medvigy, screenwriter László Krasznahorkai, and the composer, Mihály Víg.

One sequence stands out for its lucidity and delicacy, and its escape from the long cinematic shadows of Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. This is a segment titled Prológus (Prologue) from an anthology film, Visions of Europe (2004). The camera tracks slowly along the heads and shoulders of men and women standing two or three deep in a line against a building. When the camera reaches a window, it opens, and from it a young woman dispenses a plastic cup of soup and a plastic bag containing two small rolls of bread to each person in the line as he or she shuffles past. She has an embarrassed smile and word for all. There follows a list of names: that of the young woman followed by those in the line, each an individual, each with an inner life, however downcast. The delicacy and pathos of these five minutes of film derive as much from the superlative cinematography of the great Dutch master, Robby Müller as they do from the quiet patience of the performers, under the direction of Béla Tarr. Yet this exhibition is truly one of Tarr’s own vision spanning the last thirty years of his career, and Jaap Guldemond and his colleagues at EYE Filmmuseum have been fully vindicated in their decision to present Tarr’s work in this form.


Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Jane Whitehead
  • December 5, 2016

Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections

The Crucifixion. Leaf from the Potocki Psalter. Paris, France, ca. 1250. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 57.707. Gift of the Schaeffer Galleries in memory of Dr. Georg Swarzenski.

Houghton Library, Harvard University: Manuscripts from Church & Cloister
September 12–December 10, 2016
 
McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College: Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety
September 12–December 11, 2016
 
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Italian Renaissance Books
September 22, 2016–January 16, 2017
 
Website: beyondwords2016.org

 

While hunting for rare volumes on vacation in Venice in 1890, the art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) discovered a French sixteenth-century manuscript book of hours illuminated with exquisite miniature paintings. The artist was unknown at the time, but Mrs. Gardner knew quality when she saw it. Now identified as the work of Jean Bourdichon (ca. 1457–1521), court painter to four French kings, from Louis XI to Francis I, the book is one of the highlights of the exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.

Gardner was one of many wealthy, art-loving Bostonians who imported medieval manuscripts to New England in the late 1800s, along with other less portable artifacts including sculpture, ironwork, and panel paintings. Thanks to this concentration of riches, often gathered first in private collections and later donated to institutions, including public libraries and colleges, Beyond Words presents what is billed as the largest array of medieval manuscripts ever shown in North America, drawn from nineteen Boston-area institutions.

When the historian of medieval art Jeffrey Hamburger came to Harvard University... Read More

The Crucifixion. Leaf from the Potocki Psalter. Paris, France, ca. 1250. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 57.707. Gift of the Schaeffer Galleries in memory of Dr. Georg Swarzenski.

Houghton Library, Harvard University: Manuscripts from Church & Cloister
September 12–December 10, 2016
 
McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College: Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety
September 12–December 11, 2016
 
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Italian Renaissance Books
September 22, 2016–January 16, 2017
 
Website: beyondwords2016.org

 

While hunting for rare volumes on vacation in Venice in 1890, the art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) discovered a French sixteenth-century manuscript book of hours illuminated with exquisite miniature paintings. The artist was unknown at the time, but Mrs. Gardner knew quality when she saw it. Now identified as the work of Jean Bourdichon (ca. 1457–1521), court painter to four French kings, from Louis XI to Francis I, the book is one of the highlights of the exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.

Gardner was one of many wealthy, art-loving Bostonians who imported medieval manuscripts to New England in the late 1800s, along with other less portable artifacts including sculpture, ironwork, and panel paintings. Thanks to this concentration of riches, often gathered first in private collections and later donated to institutions, including public libraries and colleges, Beyond Words presents what is billed as the largest array of medieval manuscripts ever shown in North America, drawn from nineteen Boston-area institutions.

When the historian of medieval art Jeffrey Hamburger came to Harvard University in 2000, he was familiar with Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Venetian find, now known as the Bourdichon Hours. He suspected that a wealth of medieval material lay dormant in Boston collections, much of it inadequately catalogued and unknown to scholars. With William Stoneman, then librarian of Houghton Library, Harvard’s rare book repository, he began a systematic trawl of local institutional collections that netted around three thousand medieval manuscripts and fragments dating from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries.

Along the way, Hamburger and Stoneman joined forces with Italian specialist Anne-Marie Eze, then associate curator at the Gardner; Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America; and Nancy Netzer, director of the McMullen Museum at Boston College. The five collaborated as cocurators of the exhibition and coeditors of the 375-page, fully illustrated catalogue, with entries by eighty-three international experts.

Through their selection of over 250 books, single leaves, and cuttings, the curators tell the history of the book over the course of a thousand years in Europe. They bring to light the variety and richness of medieval material in Boston-area collections, and explore the tastes and preoccupations of the Brahmin collectors of the Gilded Age.

Each of the three venues highlights a particular kind of book production and readership. Houghton displays “Manuscripts from Church and Cloister,” showing books mainly made by and for monks and nuns from the seventh century through the twelfth century. “Manuscripts for Pleasure and Piety” at the McMullen explores the growth of a lay readership and the role of secular and religious books in medieval society, and “Italian Renaissance Books” at the Gardner charts the birth of the modern book in fifteenth-century Italy, and the importance of the Renaissance humanist library as a storehouse of intellectual and visual culture.

The display at Houghton Library focuses on the central role of books in the lives of medieval monks and nuns. Books created in the scriptoria, or writing rooms, of monasteries and convents ensured the transmission of classical literature and learning, as well as preserving and annotating religious texts and promoting practical guidelines for the good life. 

Christ washing the feet of the apostles and scatter border. Ff. 36v–37r from prayer book of Antoine de La Barre - Master of Claude de France (illuminator). Tours, France, ca. 1518–20. Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Typ 252.

 

Hand-made books were expensive and time-consuming to make, and their bindings were often fitted with chains to ensure that they did not wander from their proper place, as four chained volumes of genealogies and sermons from Germany and northern Italy attest. Another rare survival is an ingenious medieval bookmark—a long strip of parchment with a little rotating wheel that allowed the reader to mark the precise column and line where he or she left off.

A line drawing on a page from a German twelfth-century copy of a Gospel commentary gives a glimpse of the human relationships and labor behind this communal scholarly effort. The scribe—a tonsured, robed monk—is shown kneeling in deference to his abbot, while presenting the volume he has just finished. Above his head is a Latin poem, thanking the abbot for keeping him busy, and assuring him that “it is for sure a pleasure to copy, for it is distasteful to be idle.”

A document from the Cistercian abbey of Saint Mary at Sawley in present-day Lancashire, England, shows the origin of the term indenture. The jagged-edged parchment from around 1265, with black wax seal still attached, concerns an exchange of lands. An indenture was made from a single sheet of parchment with two identical records of the agreement, notes William Stoneman in his catalogue entry. The sheet was then cut along a zigzag line, or into teeth, hence indenture. Each party retained one part, and in case of future disagreement they could be matched to prove authenticity.

If the indenture shows the importance of mundane matters such as land management to ecclesiastical institutions, three large leaves from the Noyon Missal (France, ca. 1225–50), show the artistry with which texts for the celebration of the sacred mystery of the Mass could be adorned. Elaborate illuminations show Gregory the Great against a burnished gold ground, seated at his writing desk, inspired by the dove of the Holy Spirit. An athletic figure of Christ rises from the tomb, and allegorical figures of Ecclesia and Synagoga flank the Lamb of God, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. On the most elaborately illuminated leaf, with the prayers for the consecration of the host, even the notation of the Gregorian chant is highlighted in gold.

Across town at the McMullen Museum on the Brighton Campus of Boston College, while there are still plenty of Bibles and other religious texts on show, the focus is on the place of books in medieval society beyond the monastery walls. The growing importance of visual demonstration in matters of both faith and science fueled an expansion of imagery, ranging from exquisite, jewel-like miniatures by master painters to rough and ready anatomical diagrams showing physicians how to treat specific ailments by bleeding.

The McMullen recently moved to new premises at the former Boston archbishop’s residence, at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. With its light-filled atrium, expanded exhibition space, and roof terrace with spectacular views of downtown Boston, the museum is well equipped to host the largest section of Beyond Words.

The opening gallery offers a primer in manuscript book making. A video shows the laborious stages, from the preparation of parchment from sheep, goat, and calf hides, to the ruling of pages prior to writing, and the underdrawing and gold-leaf application that went before the addition of the final, brilliant colors—derived from ground minerals and organic plant materials, usually mixed with egg white to make tempera.

Exhibits in the opening section show manuscripts in various phases of production: parchment pages nested into “gatherings” before binding, sheets showing underdrawing, an instruction manual on the use of various scripts, and an unfinished Gospel page in which the scribe has left a large Q-shaped void for the addition of an illuminated capital letter. “These manuscripts are not simply vessels for text and image—they are material objects in which every feature was crafted with a view to their function and expressive purpose,” said Hamburger in a phone conversation about the ideas behind the exhibition.

Medieval book production was a highly collaborative process. Illuminators often relied on model books to give their productions the authority, authenticity, and accuracy considered crucial in the realm of religious texts. On display are two tiny, exquisite drawings from early fifteenth-century Prague showing the heads of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin of the Annunciation. With her high forehead, narrow chin, and pursed, rosy-red lips, the Virgin Mary reflects contemporary ideals of courtly beauty. The drawings would have been part of a collection showing heads of holy figures to serve as models for use by artists in illuminations and other media, such as panel painting.

Two rare surviving examples of complete model books—a late fifteenth-century French compendium of botanical and costume studies, and a book of bird designs for a moralized bestiary—are among selected exhibits accompanied by wall-mounted iPads. These allow viewers to “turn the pages” of a complete digital facsimile and so overcome an inherent limitation of book exhibits, the fact that only one opening can be displayed at a time. Set at half brightness, so as not to outshine the originals, the tablets enable not only exploration of other, hidden, pages, but also enlargement of details from the page on display. Since much of the fascination of these manuscripts is in the weird and playful creatures that flourish in their margins, the chance to see them in high magnification is a real bonus.

Technology also brings to life the music preserved in one of the McMullen’s treasures, a fourteenth-century German Franciscan antiphonal. This well-thumbed compendium of music used by monks for their daily services shows signs of wear and tear, with wax stains on some pages, says Michael Noone, chair of the Music Department at Boston College. Thanks to its accompanying iPad station, visitors can access video of seven chants from the volume, sung by a Spanish group specializing in medieval music performance.

With so much material to digest, the smartphone-accessible online audio guide, narrated by the curators, is an invaluable resource. In one of her lively contributions, Anne-Marie Eze describes an intriguing survival from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, an image collaged from devotional books looted by French soldiers during Napoleon’s occupation of Rome at the end of the eighteenth century, showing the Last Judgment. “When people think of the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgment they think of Michelangelo’s famous fresco, so it’s very interesting to see an almost contemporary image of the same subject, and to think about the interrelations between monumental art and illumination in books,” she says.

Recently removed from its constricting 1969 binding for conservation, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s exquisite Bourdichon Hours is displayed here sheet by sheet—offering a rare chance to see the original miniatures side by side. In his audio guide narration, Hamburger draws attention to Bourdichon’s skillful deployment of varied light effects and his use of elaborate architectural frames to mediate between the viewers’ space and the dramatic scenes of Christ’s passion and other devotional images.

The Pentecost. F. 121r from a book of hours, Jean Bourdichon (1457–1521, illuminator). Tours, France, ca. 1515–20. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 6.T.1.

 

The third-floor Monan Gallery at the McMullen takes the visitor into the realms of power and politics, and courtly pastimes including hawking and the tournament. Highlights are the first conduct manual for women written by a woman, by the prolific fifteenth-century French author Christine de Pizan; and a magnificent thirty-four-foot-long illuminated French roll telling the history of the world from the Creation to the time of its production in the 1470s.

Among the three venues hosting Beyond Words, the Gardner offers the most elaborately designed presentation, using paintings, furniture, and classical antiquities from the collection to evoke an Italian Renaissance humanist scholarly studiolo, and deploying scrims with life-size photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library to summon the architecture of sixteenth-century Florence. In the age of digital media, when many question the future of the printed book, this segment of Beyond Words invites visitors to think back the 1400s when the invention of printing signaled the beginning of the end for the hand-painted, hand-written manuscript.

The show charts the humanist book from its origins in Florence around 1400 to its flowering in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century. Alongside the humanist bestsellers—Boccaccio’s Decameron, Dante’s Divina commedia, Petrarch’s Trionfi—are books of mathematical games, maps, and views of whales and sharks and other exotic creatures, as well as religious works for both public and private devotion. Among the Italian Renaissance books recently discovered in Boston-area collections are a prayer book of Pope Julius III (r. 1550–55) and a book used in the preparation of the Mass in the Sistine Chapel, painted by Vincent Raymond (d. 1557), the first official illuminator to the popes, as cocurator Anne-Marie Eze notes in her introductory catalogue essay. As Eze also notes, Isabella Stewart Gardner, fascinated as she was by historical art patrons who shared her name, would have been delighted by the inclusion of sumptuous books of hours that once belonged to Isabella, queen of Naples (1424–65), and Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539).

A comprehensive website, beyondwords2016.org, offers detailed information about visiting each venue, a calendar of public programming, a link to the smartphone-accessible audio guide, and a searchable database of objects in the show. With guaranteed funding to maintain the website for five years, the curators promise regular infusions of new material. Updates are also posted on Twitter @BeyondWords2016. If these media prove anything like as durable as the parchment, ink, and paint that came before them, the great scholarly effort behind Beyond Words may have a long afterlife.

 


Jane Whitehead is a writer in the Boston area.

 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • June 30, 2016

Found: An Exhibition Curated by Cornelia Parker

The Foundling Museum, London
May 27 – September 4, 2016

 

William Hogarth was a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital, chartered in 1739, and his example ensured the commitment of leading artists to “Ornamenting this Hospital.” The Hogarth Fellowship commemorates their involvement. Cornelia Parker (b. 1956), the most recent recipient, has used her appointment to mount an exhibition of works contributed by over sixty fellow artists, writers, and musicians. The premise of the project is that each thing shown should have been found by its contributor. They thereby echo the human purpose of the hospital, which is to care for abandoned children. Parker is among the most admired, respected, and well-liked artists of her generation, and she has drawn on her wide circle of acquaintance to create this thoughtful exhibition. Many of the objects are distributed among the existing displays of the museum, playing off things in the permanent collection. Others are gathered in the temporary exhibition gallery.

The Foundling Museum is an extremely difficult venue in which to make display interventions owing to the superb quality of the artworks donated to the hospital by leading eighteenth-century artists. They include paintings by Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, and Richard Wilson. Louis-François Roubiliac’s portrait bust of George Frideric Handel (a supporter of the hospital), and ornately carved wood... Read More

The Foundling Museum, London
May 27 – September 4, 2016

 

William Hogarth was a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital, chartered in 1739, and his example ensured the commitment of leading artists to “Ornamenting this Hospital.” The Hogarth Fellowship commemorates their involvement. Cornelia Parker (b. 1956), the most recent recipient, has used her appointment to mount an exhibition of works contributed by over sixty fellow artists, writers, and musicians. The premise of the project is that each thing shown should have been found by its contributor. They thereby echo the human purpose of the hospital, which is to care for abandoned children. Parker is among the most admired, respected, and well-liked artists of her generation, and she has drawn on her wide circle of acquaintance to create this thoughtful exhibition. Many of the objects are distributed among the existing displays of the museum, playing off things in the permanent collection. Others are gathered in the temporary exhibition gallery.

The Foundling Museum is an extremely difficult venue in which to make display interventions owing to the superb quality of the artworks donated to the hospital by leading eighteenth-century artists. They include paintings by Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, and Richard Wilson. Louis-François Roubiliac’s portrait bust of George Frideric Handel (a supporter of the hospital), and ornately carved wood paneling by William Hallett add to its richness. An even greater challenge is the presence of small things that in other circumstances might scarcely be remarkable but that are here extraordinarily invested with affect. These are the tokens left by parents (mostly mothers) consigning their children to the hospital, usually out of desperation. These tokens were to ensure that any future claim for their return might be verified. Many are kept in the Billet Books, the records of admission. One is displayed open to show the page recording the admission of a male child. Affixed to it is a pink ribbon cockade, of the kind commonly attached to boys’ caps to identify their gender. This is the token of child number 13,733, admitted on August 21, 1759. Given the circumstances, these simple things—coins, scraps of embroidery, cheap jewelry—carry a considerable emotional charge.

To place other things among these charged objects can be no casual undertaking, and not every contributor rises to the occasion. Some clearly gave more thought to Parker’s project than others. Among the successful additions in the gallery containing the tokens is a vitrine containing a photograph from about 1911 of Cornelius Alfred Phipps, then aged about seven, wearing a sailor suit and holding a bucket and wooden spade. Phipps was the grandfather of artist, Sue Pritchard, who found it among her mother’s possessions after her death in 2012. Phipps had himself been brought up in an orphanage in view of his mother’s inability to care for him following his father’s death. He was reunited with his mother when he left school. Shown with the photograph are not only fragmented pieces of his sailor suit, but also the very spade held by the boy. These are relics of a childhood that parallels those of the children in the hospital, but one distinguished by reunion of mother and son, and the private preservation until her death of things that characterized her dearly loved child.

The museum contains many tokens of the hospital’s and its governors’ wealth and social standing. Among them is a case containing the hospital’s silver. The fine chargers, cups, and ewers were intended for both use and display on great occasions. Into this array, Humphrey Ocean has introduced a circular, plain, but variously dented, apparently silver object that at first is scarcely distinguishable from the platters that flank it. But, as Ocean explains in the accompanying label, it is a car hubcap that he found many years ago in Peckham Road, London, and that he has kept in his studio ever since. Its character and status is a gentle reproach to the grandeur of the social claims associated with the vessels it accompanies, as well as a reminder that beauty can reside in abjection.

The aesthetics of degradation informs several other works in the exhibition: a glass bottle encrusted with the hardened casts of marine tube worms found off the west coast of Ireland and contributed by Dorothy Cross; a military helmet, probably a World War I Austrian M17, eroded to a lattice of fragile metallic corrosion, found in the Veneto and contributed by Ackroyd & Harvey (Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey); soiled and crumpled pawnbroker’s coupons covering the year 1951, pierced and threaded on a string over eight feet long, each, as contributor Ron Arad states, “a document of someone’s hard time.”

The aesthetics of degradation can shade into the aura of the relic. In one of her own contributions, There must be some kind of way out of here, Parker has installed on the walls and floor at the base of the museum stairwell several worn pieces of the dismembered staircase from 23 Brook Street, London. There is an echo here of the woodwork of her sculpture on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Transitional Object (Psychobarn) (April 19 – October 31, 2016), a scenery flat of a Victorian gothic house inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the Bates family’s mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But the sympathetic magic of these staircase remnants depends on their verifiable associations. She recovered them from a dumpster outside the house in Mayfair in which Jimi Hendrix lived in a top floor apartment between 1968 and 1969. It was recently converted from office space for the Handel House Trust (George Frideric Handel had lived next door) into a museum. These were the stairs up and down which Hendrix, to use Parker’s term, “scampered.” Hendrix had himself been a child in precarious circumstances, his parents having given up three of his four siblings to foster care and adoption. Like Parker’s rooftop sculpture in New York, There must be some kind of way out of here is a locus of associations that grow ever more disturbing the more one recollects them.

The pieces that work best in this exhibition are those that take on the challenge of sentiment directly: sentiment in the eighteenth-century sense of openness to tender emotion. This is not sentimentality in the contemporary, pejorative sense of self-indulgent sadness, sympathy, or nostalgia, but an acknowledgment of the power of affect in addressing the human condition, in this place exemplified by the fate of helpless children and the anguished mothers who gave them up. By these criteria, one piece steals the show.

A well-lit second floor anteroom has been emptied of all furniture. There the visitor sees a life-size likeness of a newborn infant, lying face down as though at the breast but finding small comfort on the plain wooden floor. This is Antony Gormley’s Iron Baby (1999). The sculpture suggests vulnerability on a macro- as well as a microcosmic scale, for it is cast in a material that, as Gormley notes, forms the core of our fragile planet. Gormley made it from a “body case” derived from his newborn daughter, Paloma, now a London architect. Several sculptors have made personally invested likenesses of their own infant children—Hiram Powers’s Loulie’s Hand, 1839 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC), Paul Manship’s Sarah Jane Manship, 1930 (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA)—but none suggests tenderness with such eloquence for both the human at her most helpless, and for the entire Earth. Antony Gormley’s Iron Baby is the fitting emotional focal point and climax of Cornelia Parker’s varied but rewarding exhibition project.*


Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

*The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue: Found: An Exhibition Curated by Cornelia Parker (London: The Foundling Museum, 2016).

 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • June 7, 2016

Krieg: eine archäologische Spurensuche

Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle (Saale)
November 6, 2015 – May 22, 2016

 

A tangle of human skeletons embedded in a soil matrix presented vertically in a gun metal grey case well over twenty feet high dominates the entrance to this exhibition on the archaeology of war. The bones and skulls, many of them open-mouthed as though caught in a last agony, seem about to tumble onto the viewer standing beneath. This is a mass grave containing the remains of forty-seven soldiers, stripped of their clothes and tossed naked into a shallow pit. This is not a mere representation of a grave, some carnival ghost train mock horror, but the grave itself and its actual human contents.

These were soldiers killed in a battle between Catholics of the Holy Roman Empire led by Albrecht von Wallenstein and a Protestant army of Swedes and Sweden’s German allies commanded by the Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf (also known as Gustavus Adolphus or Gustavus Adolphus the Great). In the Battle of Lützen (November 16, 1632, NS), a key battle of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedes saw off the imperial threat to their northern German allies, but their charismatic king was one of approximately 7,000 killed.

This exhibition takes the discovery of the mass grave in 2011 and its excavation as a starting point for... Read More

Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle (Saale)
November 6, 2015 – May 22, 2016

 

A tangle of human skeletons embedded in a soil matrix presented vertically in a gun metal grey case well over twenty feet high dominates the entrance to this exhibition on the archaeology of war. The bones and skulls, many of them open-mouthed as though caught in a last agony, seem about to tumble onto the viewer standing beneath. This is a mass grave containing the remains of forty-seven soldiers, stripped of their clothes and tossed naked into a shallow pit. This is not a mere representation of a grave, some carnival ghost train mock horror, but the grave itself and its actual human contents.

These were soldiers killed in a battle between Catholics of the Holy Roman Empire led by Albrecht von Wallenstein and a Protestant army of Swedes and Sweden’s German allies commanded by the Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf (also known as Gustavus Adolphus or Gustavus Adolphus the Great). In the Battle of Lützen (November 16, 1632, NS), a key battle of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedes saw off the imperial threat to their northern German allies, but their charismatic king was one of approximately 7,000 killed.

This exhibition takes the discovery of the mass grave in 2011 and its excavation as a starting point for an archaeological examination of warfare in hominim history up to 1632. It proposes that archaeological evidence is immediate, empirically incontrovertible, and objective, whereas that of documents is the result of human calculation, subject to interpretation, and therefore untrustworthy. This is the view of processual archaeologists who study what used to be called “prehistory” (Vorgeschichte: a discredited term) rather than the informed opinion of historians or post-processual archaeologists trained to interpret texts and things as complex human products that are never quite what they seem.

What is to be learned from such excavations, and why might historians want to obtain such information? There is much to be said for improving the scope of accounts of the past to include ordinary people, rather than focusing exclusively on the elite. Challenges to exclusively elite history were mounted long ago so that “history from below” is now so well established that its practitioners often accommodate an entire social range in their accounts. Even if Krieg is questionable as archaeology, it nonetheless presents historically useful data on ordinary soldiers. For instance, the analysis of tooth enamel led to the identification of their geographical origins. Most were from within the Holy Roman Empire, and only two or at most three were from Sweden. The majority were likely Wallenstein’s infantry, though one, who had a previously healed leg injury, was probably a horseman. Krieg gives insights into the elite’s experience of battle and its ultimate consequence no less than that of the unidentified soldiers. Leading a cavalry charge, King Gustav Adolf was shot several times and killed. Among his clothing taken by imperial soldiers was the buff moose hide coat he wore (Royal Armory, Skokloster Castle, Stockholm). Sent as a trophy to Vienna, it was only returned to Stockholm following World War I. Gustav Adolf’s antagonist, Wallenstein, is represented by the taxidermic mount of one of the war horses he rode during the battle, and his red velvet-covered saddle embellished with gold braid (both Muzeum Cheb). Wallenstein survived the battle by little more than three months, for he was assassinated in February 1634.

The ambition in this exhibition to cover both high and low in the account of the Battle of Lützen is admirable. There must be, though, an ethical concern over exhibiting the remains of the dead. The excavation of the mass grave, and the analysis of the remains, respectfully conducted, might be ethically acceptable. This accomplished, though, one might make a case that responsibility to the dead requires their re-interment without exposure to the public gaze.

European treatment of those killed in battle changed between the seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. One watershed was the American Civil War, vividly described by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering (2008). As Faust shows, for the first time, governments took responsibility for the respectful burial of the dead, ideally with individually marked graves. The British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens memorably implemented this innovation following World War I in his meticulously sited cemeteries in northern France and Flanders. War cemeteries became sites of remembrance at once public and private.

As a consequence of the nineteenth-century change in war burial practice, it would be scarcely conceivable to exhibit the remains of the dead disinterred from a mass grave from a nineteenth or twentieth-century conflict. Should contemporary standards be applied retrospectively to the fallen of earlier European wars? It seems reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of the soldiers from the Lützen mass grave were Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, and hoped to find rest in consecrated ground. However secular an archaeological or historical project might be, is there not an obligation to the dead that transcends any advantages to be gained from public display, and conceivably even from scientific curiosity?

Are such qualms characteristically North American but not European? In Skull Wars (2000), David Hurst Thomas discusses the indignities and insults to which settler scientists have long subjected Native American bodies, prompted by the recently concluded case of so-called Kennewick Man or the Ancient One. He is an approximately 9,000-year-old human skeleton discovered in Washington in 1996. After twenty years of legal wrangling, he is to be returned for reburial to the five tribes that claim him as an ancestor. The current protection of Native American human remains, including the obligation of institutions receiving federal funds to repatriate them to Native successor communities on demand, is in stark contrast to their previous treatment as objects of anthropological research. Many Americans, whether Native or not, have either long respected the dead or have been newly sensitized to the obligation to do so. Even if some may still see no wrong in analyzing human remains, many would draw the line at their display. Thomas argues that “scientists must deal with human bones in a more respectful and sensitive manner.” From a North American viewpoint, this seems incontrovertible.

The display of the dead—at least, some classes of the dead—may not be as questionable in Germany as it has become in North America, but even making such an allowance, the display in Krieg arguably crosses a line. An exhibit of these skeletons designed to promote understanding could have been presented horizontally, in the same plane as the grave existed in situ. Instead, these people are transformed into a monumental relief. But this is no sculptural representation, rather a ghoulish spectacle: a sublime aestheticization of the actual dead. This Barnum style showmanship may bring press and public attention, but its sensationalism seems unconscionably exploitative.

The analysis of the skeletons has arguably added to the historical understanding of the Thirty Years War, but their display in an otherwise engaging exhibition is a miscalculation.*


Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.


*The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial publication: Harald Meller and Michael Schefzik, eds., Krieg: eine archäologische Spurensuche (Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss Verlag, 2015).

 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • July 18, 2015

Brandbilder: Kunstwerke als Zeugen des Zweiten Weltkriegs

Carl Schuch, Still Life with Wild Ducks, 1885. Oil on canvas, 62.3 x 76 cm, on loan from the City of Hannover.

Carl Schuch, Still Life with Wild Ducks, 1885. Oil on canvas, 62.3 x 76 cm, on loan from the City of Hannover (pre-war state, black and white photograph).

Niedersächsischen Landesmuseum Hannover
May 8 – September 6, 2015

 

When does an artwork become so compromised by damage or deterioration beyond the power of conservators to restore that it loses its artwork character? Can such a damaged thing acquire non-art aesthetic characteristics that compensate, in some sense, for the losses of those aesthetic characteristics it had as an artwork? These are but two of the questions immediately prompted by an extraordinary exhibition in Hanover comprising European paintings that were damaged to varying extents by fire during an air raid on the night of October 8–9, 1943. But other, more sinister, considerations emerge on further perusal.

First, let us consider some of what is to be seen. Some of the paintings have been recuperated to a considerable extent, including a large canvas painted in 1902 by Max Slevogt that stands in the center of the gallery, a portrait of a Württemberg dragoon officer on horseback. Others present insurmountable challenges to conservators, as well as to viewers seeking to identify a subject. Among them is a Still Life with Wild Ducks (1885) by Carl Schuch. This painting is now no more than black, cracked and blistered paint crusts. Yet this canvas unquestionably has an aesthetic character, albeit inadvertent, the direct consequence of its near destruction.

The presentation of this and other badly... Read More

Carl Schuch, Still Life with Wild Ducks, 1885. Oil on canvas, 62.3 x 76 cm, on loan from the City of Hannover.

Carl Schuch, Still Life with Wild Ducks, 1885. Oil on canvas, 62.3 x 76 cm, on loan from the City of Hannover (pre-war state, black and white photograph).

Niedersächsischen Landesmuseum Hannover
May 8 – September 6, 2015

 

When does an artwork become so compromised by damage or deterioration beyond the power of conservators to restore that it loses its artwork character? Can such a damaged thing acquire non-art aesthetic characteristics that compensate, in some sense, for the losses of those aesthetic characteristics it had as an artwork? These are but two of the questions immediately prompted by an extraordinary exhibition in Hanover comprising European paintings that were damaged to varying extents by fire during an air raid on the night of October 8–9, 1943. But other, more sinister, considerations emerge on further perusal.

First, let us consider some of what is to be seen. Some of the paintings have been recuperated to a considerable extent, including a large canvas painted in 1902 by Max Slevogt that stands in the center of the gallery, a portrait of a Württemberg dragoon officer on horseback. Others present insurmountable challenges to conservators, as well as to viewers seeking to identify a subject. Among them is a Still Life with Wild Ducks (1885) by Carl Schuch. This painting is now no more than black, cracked and blistered paint crusts. Yet this canvas unquestionably has an aesthetic character, albeit inadvertent, the direct consequence of its near destruction.

The presentation of this and other badly damaged works in a setting that uses the art museum apparatus of display, invites viewers to attend to the current aesthetic qualities of the paintings. In addition, many viewers will bring aesthetically validating memories of artworks by later artists, such as Alberto Burri, who deliberately employed the destructive capacity of fire in their works. Such associations can only encourage and enhance an aesthetic response to these damaged remnants. Yet the curator responsible, Claudia Andratschke, has not presented these things unequivocally as objects of aesthetic contemplation—that they are this is an unintended irony—but rather as witnesses to the destruction wrought by a pitiless aerial bombardment.

The late W.S. Sebald analyzed Germans’ reluctance to address the consequences for their country and for themselves of the Allied bombing campaign in his great essay, On the Natural History of Destruction (1999). This exhibition is further evidence that the amnesia that so bewildered and angered Sebald, while slowly receding, still retains its power. This vestigial power lingers in the sobriety of tone of the labels and text panels in the exhibition, and of the accompanying publication.Claudia Andratschke, Brandbilder: Kunstwerke als Zeugen des Zweiten Weltkriegs (Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2015). The firsthand evidence presented is chilling but discreet. Typed letters from the archives on view seek and convey conservation advice following the raid. These are letters of a kind to be found in many art museum archives, but, unlike those from other times and places, each of these concludes with a signature following the closing words, “Heil Hitler!”

Andratschke addresses not only the immediate circumstances of the fire that destroyed and damaged so many artworks, but the climate of fear, hatred, and power abuse in which this occurred. Equaling the shock of seeing so many artworks damaged beyond repair is that of the story of the administration responsible for them. The art historian, Ferdinand Stuttmann, a Nazi party member since 1933, assumed the leadership simultaneously of the major Hanover museums following the flight to the United States in 1937 of the suspended director of the Landesmuseum, and the near simultaneous dismissal of the director of the municipal Kestner-Museum, whose wife was Jewish. Having consolidated his power, Stuttmann arranged for the receipt of artworks confiscated from Hanover’s Jewish community. The exhibition includes works acquired by Stuttmann from the confiscated property of Gustav and Elsbeth Rüdenberg, who were among the many Jews deported from Hanover to Riga, Latvia in December 1941, and who subsequently perished in the Nazi genocide. The unrecognizable Schuch still life, mentioned above, was theirs, as was the relatively well-preserved canvas, Die Nacktheit (reclining female nude), by Lovis Corinth (1908). The Rüdenbergs’s heirs may have been financially compensated after the war so that their eleven surviving, fire-damaged, paintings might remain the property of the City of Hanover, but—perhaps inexplicably to contemporary museum visitors—Stuttmann, rehabilitated following denazification, became director of the Landesmuseum again in 1952, retaining the post until his retirement in 1962.

Above all, though, it is the blackened ghosts that are the artworks, through their pathos and inadvertent aesthetic power, which implicate both perpetrators and victims in shameful acts. No one comes out of this well, except perhaps the victims of the victims—the Rüdenbergs and their ilk. This important and disturbing exhibition shows us that only now is the amnesia of which Sebald wrote with such sorrowful anger beginning to recede in the discursive field of the museum, a full seventy years after the end of the war. 



Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

 

 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • April 7, 2015

After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997

Exhibition view of After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997 at the Queens Museum. Photo: Hai Zhang.

Queens Museum, New York City
March 8 – June 28, 2015

 

Arshiya Lokhandwala, independent curator and founder of the Lakeeren Gallery in Mumbai, has assembled a fascinating exhibition in two complementary parts that offers visitors to the Queens Museum in Flushing’s Corona Park a selective crash course in Indian art from independence to the present.

To show Indian artists’ engagement with international Modernism, she successfully appealed to private collectors in the New York area to lend examples of works by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (active from 1947 to 1956) and some of their contemporaries. This was an era when painting still ruled, and artists left India, usually temporarily, for Paris and, increasingly, New York, several with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. They sought stimulation from the School of Paris and emerging Abstract Expressionism. V. S. Gaitonde, for instance, drew inspiration from the works of Mark Rothko, with whom he became acquainted. In spite of their urge to work within European and North American internationalism, their best paintings retain a cultural peculiarity that is distinctively Indian. The abstractions by Ram Kumar derived from his visit to the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) on the banks of the River Ganga (Ganges) in the early 1960s are the high point of the first part of the exhibition. One canvas... Read More

Exhibition view of After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997 at the Queens Museum. Photo: Hai Zhang.

Queens Museum, New York City
March 8 – June 28, 2015

 

Arshiya Lokhandwala, independent curator and founder of the Lakeeren Gallery in Mumbai, has assembled a fascinating exhibition in two complementary parts that offers visitors to the Queens Museum in Flushing’s Corona Park a selective crash course in Indian art from independence to the present.

To show Indian artists’ engagement with international Modernism, she successfully appealed to private collectors in the New York area to lend examples of works by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (active from 1947 to 1956) and some of their contemporaries. This was an era when painting still ruled, and artists left India, usually temporarily, for Paris and, increasingly, New York, several with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. They sought stimulation from the School of Paris and emerging Abstract Expressionism. V. S. Gaitonde, for instance, drew inspiration from the works of Mark Rothko, with whom he became acquainted. In spite of their urge to work within European and North American internationalism, their best paintings retain a cultural peculiarity that is distinctively Indian. The abstractions by Ram Kumar derived from his visit to the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) on the banks of the River Ganga (Ganges) in the early 1960s are the high point of the first part of the exhibition. One canvas in particular sets bold, irregular blocks of rich blue and orange in a maze of earth colored forms infused with the fluidity of a Max Ernst.

If the anxiety of the painters of the Progressive Artists’ Group generation to be internationally relevant revealed itself in the adoption of European and North American Modernist conventions, that of the current generation represented in the second part of After Midnight shows how artists can address specifically Indian themes while yet conforming to the conventions of the global art market that allows their work to function in the successive biennials that dominate the international art world today. Anita Dube (fig. 1) has created a huge linear form on one wall incorporating the epigram familiar from Francisco Goya’s suite of etchings, Los Caprichos, “The sleep of reason creates monsters.” So far, so European; but each and every sinuous line of this 2001 work that constitutes the monster and its epigram is composed of individual enameled votive eyes of various sizes used in Hindu devotions. The sleep of reason to which Dube alludes has a specifically confessional cast, for the monster to which it gives rise is implicitly that of Hindu extremism responsible for the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, and other outrages that have subsequently led to huge loss of life.

Fig. 1. Anita Dube, The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters, 2001, installation of enameled eyes. Courtesy of the artist and Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai.

 

Equally political within a specific cultural nexus is the monumental work by Jitish Kallat, Public Notice (2003) (fig. 2). Kallat stenciled the entire text of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech given at midnight as India gained independence on August 14, 1947 in flammable adhesive onto five huge acrylic mirrors. When he set fire to the letters, burning them into the surface, the mirrors buckled. The resulting panels, each in a glazed heavy steel frame, recall the angry stenciled texts of African American artist, Glenn Ligon, but the resonance is specifically Indian. Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech has a cultural standing in that country equivalent to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 in the United States.

Fig. 2. Jitish Kallat, Public Notice, 2003, Burnt adhesive on acrylic mirror, wood and stainless steel, 5 parts, 78 x 54 x 6 in. each. Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, New York. Photo: Hai Zhang.

 

Mithu Sen can work on a large scale, too, but her piece in After Midnight is intimate. She has gathered a plethora of odd, small things, from plastic dolls to kitsch phalluses, in a dimly lighted cylindrical vitrine titled MOU (Museum of Unbelonging) 2 (2015). Some of the toys, keepsakes, and votive items are Western, others Indian. The juxtapositions are messy but deliberate: a votive eye like one of the thousands used by Anita Dube in The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters is laid atop one of Albert Einstein’s in a print of the famous photograph of the physicist sticking out his tongue. A momentary irrational irruption of Western rationalism is itself overlaid by a token of Hindu irrationalism.

Most effective as a reminder of the lives of those millions who exist outside the immediate terms of Western rationalism and cupidity that contribute to the reduction of those millions to penury is a composite object that serves as an anti-monument, What does the vessel contain that the river does not? (2014) by Subodh Gupta (fig. 3). A real river rowboat is loaded beyond the gunwales with the useful things and detritus of a human life: soiled blankets, battered cooking vessels, a mattress, clothing, wire mesh, oars, pieces of charred wood with the smell of combustion still lingering. This is not an image of hopelessness, rather of the ingenuity of desperation that still far outweighs burgeoning high tech and middle-class prosperity in the world’s most populous democracy.

Fig. 3. Subodh Gupta, What does the vessel contain that the river does not?. 2014. Found boat, found objects, found utensils, fabric, steel, found fishing net, bamboo, rope, plastic pipe. 573 x 152.4 x 122 cm. Photo: Hai Zhang.

 

Several of the eighteen individual artists and collectives in the exhibition have had recent exposure in North America and on the international biennial circuit, but their work remains to a large extent little known to an American audience. Their cultural specificity is their strength: viewers would do well do attune themselves to Indian issues. After Midnight gives New Yorkers who take the Number 7 train to Mets-Willets Point that opportunity. 

 


Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

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  • Book Reviews
  • by Christopher Long
  • March 11, 2015

Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897–1907

In the spring of 1903, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser founded the Wiener Werkstätte. The company, officially recorded in the commercial court records as the Wiener Werkstätte Productiv-Genossenschaft von Kunsthandwerkern (Productive Cooperative of Artisans), was neither truly a cooperative—it was in reality operated essentially as a manufacturing firm and retail store—nor an alliance of artisans. Though highly skilled craftspeople were involved in the making of all  . . . Read more.

In the spring of 1903, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser founded the Wiener Werkstätte. The company, officially recorded in the commercial court records as the Wiener Werkstätte Productiv-Genossenschaft von Kunsthandwerkern (Productive Cooperative of Artisans), was neither truly a cooperative—it was in reality operated essentially as a manufacturing firm and retail store—nor an alliance of artisans. Though highly skilled craftspeople were involved in the making of all  . . . Read more.

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  • Book Reviews
  • by Tony Cutler
  • March 9, 2015

Les arts de l’Islam au Musée du Louvre

Readers of West 86th, published in the United States, may be surprised to find here a review of the French edition of this book when there exists a perfectly good English-language translation. The reason is that the latter, and to a lesser extent the former, are already “rare” books. When, soon after the books’ simultaneous publication in Paris in September 2012, the editors of West 86th sought to obtain from the Louvre a copy (in either language) for me to review, they were informed that the English . . . Read more.

Readers of West 86th, published in the United States, may be surprised to find here a review of the French edition of this book when there exists a perfectly good English-language translation. The reason is that the latter, and to a lesser extent the former, are already “rare” books. When, soon after the books’ simultaneous publication in Paris in September 2012, the editors of West 86th sought to obtain from the Louvre a copy (in either language) for me to review, they were informed that the English . . . Read more.

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  • Book Reviews
  • by Kim Dhillon
  • March 8, 2015

Please Come to the Show

I recently purchased a used copy of the art historian Ursula Meyer’s Conceptual Art (1972) on Amazon for £1.76, plus international shipping and postage. It arrived in the post a week or so later after being dispatched from New York to my home in London. When I opened it, I noticed that the inside cover was stamped with the name and mailing address of the previous owner: Dan Graham. The artist was using a P.O. Box at Knickerbocker Station on East Broadway in Manhattan when he owned the book. . . . Read more.

I recently purchased a used copy of the art historian Ursula Meyer’s Conceptual Art (1972) on Amazon for £1.76, plus international shipping and postage. It arrived in the post a week or so later after being dispatched from New York to my home in London. When I opened it, I noticed that the inside cover was stamped with the name and mailing address of the previous owner: Dan Graham. The artist was using a P.O. Box at Knickerbocker Station on East Broadway in Manhattan when he owned the book. . . . Read more.

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  • by Ken Ames
  • January 8, 2015

Book Jackets

I’ve been struggling lately trying to write a review of an art museum publication that is not very good. One of the problems is that the jacket seems to promise something that the book doesn’t deliver. Or maybe it’s just that the contents don’t live up to the jacket. Whatever the case, the two don’t work together. This is probably not so much an instance of bait-and-switch as evidence of insufficient managerial oversight at that museum. But that is not the point here. What I want to say is that contemplation of this particular book jacket—tolerable enough on its own terms—prompted me to look with fresh eyes at book jackets more generally. And so I discovered what many others already know: the design of book jackets, the matching of covers to contents, is an art form worthy of far more recognition than it typically receives. There is wonderful work to be savored out there.

Yes, I know that I come late to this particular feast. I recognize that people have long gone to school to learn the art and mystery of this craft and that it rests on a substantial body of both sophisticated theory and on lived experience and experiment. I realize that collectors have long been attentive to the materiality of books and thus to jackets and covers. My... Read More

I’ve been struggling lately trying to write a review of an art museum publication that is not very good. One of the problems is that the jacket seems to promise something that the book doesn’t deliver. Or maybe it’s just that the contents don’t live up to the jacket. Whatever the case, the two don’t work together. This is probably not so much an instance of bait-and-switch as evidence of insufficient managerial oversight at that museum. But that is not the point here. What I want to say is that contemplation of this particular book jacket—tolerable enough on its own terms—prompted me to look with fresh eyes at book jackets more generally. And so I discovered what many others already know: the design of book jackets, the matching of covers to contents, is an art form worthy of far more recognition than it typically receives. There is wonderful work to be savored out there.

Yes, I know that I come late to this particular feast. I recognize that people have long gone to school to learn the art and mystery of this craft and that it rests on a substantial body of both sophisticated theory and on lived experience and experiment. I realize that collectors have long been attentive to the materiality of books and thus to jackets and covers. My interest is not that of a practitioner or of a collector, however, but merely of an appreciative spectator. I find it intriguing to observe designers’ varying responses to the problems and possibilities posed by different classes of subject matter and authorial intent. Once one becomes attentive to book jackets, the prevailing high level of accomplishment becomes apparent. And impressive as well, considering that most design takes place within a social context. Only insiders know how many players with egos and opinions had to be placated before a given cover design could be approved. We outsiders, on the other hand, can just sit back and admire the outcome.

Most book jackets involve some balance or words and images or, if not images, graphic devices of some sort. Not surprisingly, the covers of art books, by which I mean books about the visual arts, tend to privilege image over text but they do so in different ways, depending on the emphasis of the volume. Consider a couple of the strategies used for jackets on books that take the format of the catalog, whether of an exhibition or a collection. One of the most common exploits the synecdoche effect, where a part of an object may stand for the whole and/or one object for many. The jacket for Jared Goss, French Art Deco (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014; cover design by Susan Marsh) offers a recent example of this formula. The book is a catalog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s French Art Deco holdings, which number many objects in varied media. The entire jacket—front, spine, and back—is given over to a continuous image of a single object, in this case a detail of an extraordinary—and enormous—églomisé glass panel by Jean Dupas and Charles Champigneulle, originally part of the furnishings of the ocean liner Normandie. The image is dominant—and absolutely arresting; text is suitably minimal.

This jacket image actually engages a double synecdoche. First, the image on the jacket depicts a part of a larger object, seen in its entirety inside the book. So far so good.  Second, however, this one glass panel is used here to stand for the whole of the Metropolitan’s collection of French Art Deco, or at least that fraction included in this book. Strictly speaking, however, it cannot do so, since every object is specific and can only represent itself or an exact replica of itself. The Metropolitan’s volume includes well over twenty-five different classes of objects, the most numerous of which are vases, pieces of furniture, and textiles, in that order. A glass panel twenty feet high can in no sense represent any of those if we interpret “represent” narrowly. One could argue that the image on the jacket of French Art Deco actually depicts the most spectacular object in the collection and is decidedly not representative. And yet the portion of the object depicted is highly effective, in part because of its design and color and in part for its ambiguity. To anyone not familiar with the glass panel, the image is mysterious (what, exactly, is this thing?) and at the same time stylistically quintessentially French Art Deco. So, representative it is not but successful in attracting attention and piquing curiosity it most surely is.

Electing a single spokes-object for a book’s jacket is a reasonable approach but sensible people may well disagree about which object that should be. The question is not wholly—or merely—academic. Part of the function of the jacket is to attract the attention of potential buyers and to serve, along with the text and imagery within, as part of a composite artifactual ambassador for the author or authors, sponsoring institution, or publisher. Book jackets are no simple things.

Another example of the synecdoche strategy appears on the jacket for Ellenor Alcorn, English Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Vol. I (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1993; design Cynthia Rockwell Randall). Instead of a detail of an object, here we see the entire object—two objects, actually—an intricately engraved sixteenth-century parcel-gilt ewer and basin, photographed against a black background. The image stretches from the front cover to spine to back. Five very short lines of text, elegantly understated, appear in the upper right corner. While here too the objects selected are arguably the most spectacular in the collection, showing them in their entirety rather than as details eliminates cognitive ambiguity. No need for uncertainty about what we are looking at. Where the French Art Deco cover trades on ambiguity, this one succeeds by eliminating ambiguity. Both jackets exploit the wonder that powerful objects can evoke but they do so in different says.

Randall also was responsible for the design (and, presumably, the jacket) for Volume II of the MFA English silver collection, published in 2000. In this case, she opted to use two views of the same object, a wonderful chinoiserie sugar box dated 1747/48. A greatly enlarged detail of the sugar box’s elaborate and fanciful decoration entirely fills the front over. There is no text whatsoever (the title is on the spine). The back cover carries an image of the same sugar box at about its true size, setting up an intriguing and effective visual dynamic between the enlarged portion and the whole.

A reversal of this arrangement appears on the jacket of Wolfram Koeppe, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012; designers Miko McGinty and Rita Jules). Here the front cover carries the image of the upper two-thirds of one of the Roentgens’ lavishly complicated cabinets, while the rear offers a close-up of a sumptuous miniature interior, revealing just how imaginative and finely wrought these extraordinary objects are. Here too words are sparingly employed; the images carry most of the weight of communication.

The synecdoche, of course, can work well for any study dealing with multiple objects and is not limited to catalogs. One particularly striking example adorns the jacket for Wayne Craven, Gilded Mansions (Norton, 2009; jacket by Robert L. Wiser). Wiser opted to use images of three different Gilded Age mansions to convey the contents of the book. The back carries a full-color view of the library at Biltmore. The spine (a mere three 3 cm wide), offers a slender vertical slice of the dining room at Kingscote in Newport, a sly trick on Wiser’s part, I think, to test reader visual acuity and architectural knowledge. The front cover comes closest to realizing the book’s title, offering a detail of the upper corner of the dining room at Newport’s Marble House, about as gilded a mansion ever built on this side of the Atlantic. The books’ title and the author’s name are identified in subdued white lettering that is part of the jacket yet somehow, and appropriately, apart from the image itself. 

There are probably thousands of capable uses of the synecdoche device on book jackets that might be mentioned here but I wanted to single out one additional cover in particular, in part because I was so taken by it the first time I encountered it. I am talking about the jacket for Mark Wilson Jones, Origins of Classical Architecture (Yale University Press, 2014; Gillian Malpass designer). The three surfaces of the jacket are treated differently. The spine bears white lettering on a black ground identifying author, title, and publisher. That is all. On the back, an image of a red-figure krater from the Museo Archeologico in Agrigento emerges from its own black ground, signaling that Jones’s inquiry reaches beyond conventional boundaries of architectural history. (What might a krater tell us about a temple?)  

The front carries the most powerful image, a view of the entablature of the so-called temple of Concord (also) at Agrigento, once crisp and possibly polychrome forms now worn to a uniform soft ochre. The Doric order is one of the most familiar idioms of western architecture but this image re-enchants the form, making it both completely comprehensible at one level yet equally incomprehensible on another. Seeing, even seeing very clearly, does not necessarily mean understanding. Appropriately, Jones ends his far-ranging study of origins with ten pages of questions both answered and unanswered. But I digress.

A second common strategy used in designing jackets for art books plays with the idea of the sampler. This can take a couple of different forms. One involves what we might call the group portrait. An excellent example appears on the front of the jacket for Charles L. Venable, Silver in America 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor (Dallas Museum of Art/Abrams, 1994; Ed Marquand and Tomarra LeRoy designers). Save for a small rectangle of text, the entire surface is given over to a single image of what looks to be a random and disorderly assortment of twenty or so pieces of silver flatware of various styles, forms, and periods. The splendor is obvious, so also profusion and diversity. Points well made. 

Clustering images of several individual objects is a different way of creating the sampler. An effective example adorns Annette Carruthers, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland (Yale University Press, 2013; Emily Lees designer). Here front and back are laid out identically. Each bears seven object portraits arranged in a lateral 2-3-2 format, which puts one image in the middle of the composition while allowing for lively visual interplay among all seven objects. This approach works well when objects are in diverse media as they are here (architecture, stained glass, textiles, jewelry, etc.) and no one object or medium can represent all. On the other hand, it may not be easy to locate seven objects that will play nicely with each other on the same page. Each solution generates its own problems.

I have noticed that all of the jackets discussed here have been dependent on excellent photography. So, by all rights, I should have credited photographers. But photographers are dependent on printers to make the most of their images. And so we should acknowledge printers. Printing looks best, of course, on well-chosen, quality stock, thus paper and its manufacturers deserve recognition. And so it goes. The traditional tangible art book is a very complicated artifact, a product of the work of many and inviting engagement and pleasures both intellectual and sensory. To my mind, the currently trendy e-book can’t hold a candle to it.

Considering their artifactual complexity, it might be worth rethinking the way we review art books. Rarely these days does anyone reviewing a movie comment only on the acting.  Cinematography matters. So too the script, the score, the sound effects, the sets, the costumes, the casting, and all the rest. Movies and books are very different artifacts but like movies, books are also group creations. Key participants are usually listed in the small print fore or aft of the main text. The average review typically focuses on the contribution of the author and less often on the totality of the book as object (or work of art). Many of the books in our field (and all of those mentioned above) can be understood as forms of material culture that comment on or assess material culture. In other words, the entire package is the message. Recognizing that, we might want to be more attentive to the whole. Closer examination of the jacket would be a good place to begin.

 


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

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  • by Barbara Karl
  • November 13, 2014

Capturing Flags

Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires were uneasy neighbors. Over long periods the borders were not precisely fixed—let alone completely sealed—and remained porous. Though they were in constant economic and diplomatic contact, this period was often marked by turbulence. The Ottomans fought wars of varying intensity against the Austrian Habsburgs in the Balkans and against the Spanish Habsburgs in the Mediterranean. During the sixteenth century, the Ottoman army dominated the field, advancing as far west as Vienna as early as 1529; it was not until the end of the seventeenth century that the Habsburg armies were able to drive the Ottomans back. The Battle of Vienna in 1683, in which the second Ottoman siege of the city was lifted, was a turning point in this history, marking the retreat of the Ottomans and the further advance of the Habsburgs into the Balkans.

Tangible mementoes of these hostile encounters survive in the form of booty. Abundant plunder from the Ottoman-Habsburg wars are still housed in Vienna’s museums, dateable to the periods of conflict from the later sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Among the various army camp artifacts are a large number of simple Ottoman cotton flags and rather fewer valuable silk flags. Two of the latter are the focus of my recently published article in... Read More

Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires were uneasy neighbors. Over long periods the borders were not precisely fixed—let alone completely sealed—and remained porous. Though they were in constant economic and diplomatic contact, this period was often marked by turbulence. The Ottomans fought wars of varying intensity against the Austrian Habsburgs in the Balkans and against the Spanish Habsburgs in the Mediterranean. During the sixteenth century, the Ottoman army dominated the field, advancing as far west as Vienna as early as 1529; it was not until the end of the seventeenth century that the Habsburg armies were able to drive the Ottomans back. The Battle of Vienna in 1683, in which the second Ottoman siege of the city was lifted, was a turning point in this history, marking the retreat of the Ottomans and the further advance of the Habsburgs into the Balkans.

Tangible mementoes of these hostile encounters survive in the form of booty. Abundant plunder from the Ottoman-Habsburg wars are still housed in Vienna’s museums, dateable to the periods of conflict from the later sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Among the various army camp artifacts are a large number of simple Ottoman cotton flags and rather fewer valuable silk flags. Two of the latter are the focus of my recently published article in Textile History [1]. Both flags were booty pieces captured from the Ottoman army. The first is directly linked to the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683; the second was captured a year later near Hamzabeg, not far from Ofen. The captured flags both appear in a 1684 publication explaining the meaning of the flags and translating its inscriptions for the European reader (figs. 1 and 2).

FIG. 1. Print of the Ottoman flag captured by King Jan Sobieski from the tent complex of Kara Mustafa Pasha in 1683. From L. Maracci, Gründliche Verdolmetsch- und Außlegung der Sprüch, Sinnbildnuß ... so sich auff denen, von dem Erb-Feind Christlichen Namens Anno 1683 den 12. Sept., bey Entsätzung der Stadt Wienn, und Anno 1684 den 22. Julij bey Hamzabegh ... eroberten Haupt-Fahnen befinden (etc.) (Vienna: Leopold Voigt, 1684), p. A III. © SLUB Dresden/Digitale Sammlungen, aus: Hist.Turc.407,14.

 

FIG. 2. Print of the Ottoman flag captured by Charles of Lorraine near Hamzabeg in 1684 (now in the Wien Museum). From L. Maracci, Gründliche Verdolmetsch- und Außlegung der Sprüch, Sinnbildnuß ... so sich auff denen, von dem Erb-Feind Christlichen Namens Anno 1683 den 12. Sept., bey Entsätzung der Stadt Wienn, und Anno 1684 den 22. Julij bey Hamzabegh ... eroberten Haupt-Fahnen befinden (etc.) (Vienna: Leopold Voigt, 1684), p. B IV. © SLUB Dresden/Digitale Sammlungen, aus: Hist.Turc.407,14.

 

Both flags date roughly from the third quarter of the seventeenth century and were most likely produced in imperial workshops located in Istanbul. They feature a complex inscription program focusing on Qur’anic verses that served to remind soldiers of their faith, while invoking a divinely protected victory; the inscription also placed the Ottoman soldiers in a direct line of succession from the earliest fighters of Islam, the comrades-in-arms of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sultan entrusted the valuable and intricately woven silk flags to his most important commanders before they went into battle. Once captured, they became formidable propaganda tools for the enemy. The first of the two flags was sent to the Pope in Rome and hung up in St Peter’s to commemorate the victory at Vienna. The second was paraded through Vienna’s own streets and hung in the cathedral where it was shown to the populace once a year to commemorate the day the siege on the imperial capital was lifted. Thus, the captured flags—once powerful symbols of Muslim Ottoman strength and power—were transformed instead into relics of a victory over one of the perceived hereditary enemies of the Holy Roman Empire. Display of the captured flags affirmed the Catholic sense of mission embodied by the Pope as vicar of Christ and secured the place of the Habsburg Emperors as the divinely ordained earthly protectors of Christendom against what were then perceived as infidel intruders.


Barbara Karl is Curator of Textiles and Carpets at the MAK-Museum für angewandte Kunst/Gegenwartskunst in Vienna. She will be a Research Fellow at the Bard Graduate Center from October to November 2014.


[1] Barbara Karl, “Silk and Propaganda: Two Ottoman Silk Flags and the Relief of Vienna, 1683“ in: Textile History, 45 (2), Maney Publishing, 2014, pp. 192-215.

 

 

 

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  • by Ken Ames
  • September 15, 2014

Changes

According to its “Traffic Report” for August 30, 2014 (p. B2), the most-read online business article in the New York Times for the preceding week was “Retiring: Moving to a Smaller Home, and Decluttering a Lifetime of Belongings.” What the title of that article lacked in poetry it more than made up in its succinct description of a major transformation taking place within American society today. Three words—retiring, moving, and decluttering—capture the essence of the phenomenon. We may assume, as has been the case with so many other sweeping social changes, that these too will bring profit to some and loss to others.

And that brings me to a recent pair of experiences on a sunny Sunday afternoon in beautiful Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The first part of this tale of two industries begins at an antique shop we have frequented on and off over the last few years. As we approached on this particular day, we could see the conventional “open” banner hanging along the roadside. Surely a good sign. But, we wondered, would there be parking? We found out soon enough. Yes, many parking spaces available. All of them, in fact. Our entrance into this multi-dealer shop tripled the number of occupants in the building to a total of three, one of whom was the proprietor. 

We offered a... Read More

According to its “Traffic Report” for August 30, 2014 (p. B2), the most-read online business article in the New York Times for the preceding week was “Retiring: Moving to a Smaller Home, and Decluttering a Lifetime of Belongings.” What the title of that article lacked in poetry it more than made up in its succinct description of a major transformation taking place within American society today. Three words—retiring, moving, and decluttering—capture the essence of the phenomenon. We may assume, as has been the case with so many other sweeping social changes, that these too will bring profit to some and loss to others.

And that brings me to a recent pair of experiences on a sunny Sunday afternoon in beautiful Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The first part of this tale of two industries begins at an antique shop we have frequented on and off over the last few years. As we approached on this particular day, we could see the conventional “open” banner hanging along the roadside. Surely a good sign. But, we wondered, would there be parking? We found out soon enough. Yes, many parking spaces available. All of them, in fact. Our entrance into this multi-dealer shop tripled the number of occupants in the building to a total of three, one of whom was the proprietor. 

We offered a few pleasantries about nice weather and our surprise at the low turnout and were treated to a lengthy and heated oration from the proprietor on the status of the antiques business and more. He had been selling antiques at that location for five years. Each year had been successively worse and this was the worst of all. And it wasn’t just the antiques trade that was in decline. Everything that the Baby Boomers had once sustained was now in trouble. Golf was suffering, boating too. The slips used to be all rented out but now half are empty, and so on and so forth.

Wandering around the shop we saw only one other browser, who had come in after we did. We also saw empty booths, goods deep-discounted, and a general air of abandonment. The whole place, once lively and full of attractive objects, had become pretty depressing. The experience at the antique shop stood in marked contrast to a very different experience earlier in the afternoon, when we lined up with scores of others waiting to visit an “open house” of model apartments in a new “independent living” complex for active seniors (so, not a nursing home) in a small city nearby. This four-story, multi-wing building offered studio, one-bedroom, and two bedroom apartments as well as shared studios and suites, about 125 units in all. Apartment rental fee included utilities, two meals a day, weekly housekeeping, local shuttle service, and more. The flashy brochure listed a host of additional amenities, among them on-site rehab facilities, laboratory services, a health center, hair-dressing and barber services, a library; a computer lab, and a dozen other features. All brand new and very seductive. 

The apartments won’t even be ready for occupancy until well into the fall but the open house was mobbed. Did I mention that? And unless the stars scattered across the prominently-posted floor plans were lying, a substantial number of apartments had already been reserved. Hint to those seeking investment opportunities: Pay attention.  There may be profit to be made here. But, obviously, some are already onto it. 

So as one industry slowly sinks below the horizon, another rises in its place. And that brings us back to the three key words in the NYT article: retiring, moving, and decluttering. Retiring, of course, is the prime agent here, along with longer life expectancy.  Downsizing comes next, although the practice is not universal. There are those who, for one reason or another, intend to hang on in the old house until the end. And some do. Occasionally it works out well, other times decidedly not. Some of those planning to hang on have a conversion experience of sorts when visiting a place like the one described above. While family or friends may have to drag them there, they soon recognize that life could be so much easier, so much more pleasant, without the weight of maintaining the big, old, and often multi-story story house pressing down on them. 

Then there is decluttering. I notice that my word processing system, admittedly out of date, underlines the word in red, which means it is a neologism of sorts. The term also represents a reassessment of goods that were previously defined otherwise. My aged copy of Webster (1975) defines clutter (in noun form) as “a crowded or confused mass or collection” and “litter, disorder.” That was pretty much the way Elsie de Wolfe understood the term back in 1913, when she published The House in Good Taste.  And what one did with clutter was clear it out. 

But clutter is such a harsh redefinition of what the NYT title describes as “a lifetime of belongings.” What strange alchemy is it that transforms treasured possessions into just so much dross? ‘Tis the alchemy of age, my friends, and the law that changing positions prompt changing perspectives. But questions do arise. If, for instance, there is downsizing, is there also upsizing? We see mega-mansions rising wherever there is money. Don’t these need furnishing? And how about cluttering in the first place or, to put it more favorably and the way it was once understood, creating nurturing domestic material environments and accumulating tangible records of lives lived? Are those ideas still operative?

The young (or the younger) now have as couple of possibilities ahead of them. Assuming that they have disposable income, this is a wonderful time to be buying. You want to acquire antiques? Go out into the marketplace and have a look around. You may be surprised by what is out there and, often, how little you have to pay. On the other hand, a long line of studies has repeatedly shown that experiences far outweigh goods in their ability to generate happiness. So what to do? Spend one’s life buying it all and then, in one’s senescence, liquidating? Or, by contrast, by-passing the cycle altogether and from the outset crafting a life thick in experiences but thin in goods? Ah, as someone once said, that is the question. . . .

 


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

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  • by Ken Ames
  • August 25, 2014

In Praise of Roundabouts

I set off yesterday afternoon on an automobile trip to the bank. I can sense that you are already unsympathetic. Why don’t I do my banking online and stay off the road? But the bank is not the point here. The point is time and the nature of travel itself. The route I took was a familiar one. First a turn to the left, then another to the left and one to the right. All fine so far. But then the red light. If I had wanted to go right, I would have been on my way; Pennsylvania allows a right turn on red. But I wanted to turn left and that meant waiting.

I have no problem with waiting my turn. Nor do I wish to be seen as one of those restless, impatient American, always in a rush. That’s not it. It’s just the senseless waiting at an intersection when there are no cars coming either way and thus no real reason to stop. Except for that red light.

While pausing there for nearly two minutes with the car’s engine idling away, fumes lightly wafting into the air, thoughts of driving in France came gently to my mind. Yes, there are traffic lights in France. Quite a few of them. But there are also roundabouts.  And it is about... Read More

I set off yesterday afternoon on an automobile trip to the bank. I can sense that you are already unsympathetic. Why don’t I do my banking online and stay off the road? But the bank is not the point here. The point is time and the nature of travel itself. The route I took was a familiar one. First a turn to the left, then another to the left and one to the right. All fine so far. But then the red light. If I had wanted to go right, I would have been on my way; Pennsylvania allows a right turn on red. But I wanted to turn left and that meant waiting.

I have no problem with waiting my turn. Nor do I wish to be seen as one of those restless, impatient American, always in a rush. That’s not it. It’s just the senseless waiting at an intersection when there are no cars coming either way and thus no real reason to stop. Except for that red light.

While pausing there for nearly two minutes with the car’s engine idling away, fumes lightly wafting into the air, thoughts of driving in France came gently to my mind. Yes, there are traffic lights in France. Quite a few of them. But there are also roundabouts.  And it is about the benefits of roundabouts that I sing today. They make so much sense. Look left, go right. I wish that I had thought to count roundabouts when we first set out on our most recent trip to France. We didn’t, so I could only guess how many we went through, but the number was considerable. Sometimes you could simply slide into the roundabout, only slowing enough to navigate the turn. In other cases, it really was necessary to stop for other traffic already in or entering. The point is that one only stopped when the flow of traffic made it necessary. Little or no traffic in the roundabout, little or no waiting. It all makes so much sense. 

And since it does, I find myself wondering why roundabouts are so rare in this country. While waiting for yet another red light to change to green, I often find myself measuring the area taken up by the intersection and mentally calculating whether a roundabout could fit into the same space. I am sure that it often would. But, of course, roads are only half of the travel equation. Vehicles are the other half. And that may be where the plot thickens. 

Cars in Europe are, on average, smaller than cars in this country. Not a novel observation, of course, but for me, at least, the source of one of the chief delights of travel there. It is not just old towns and cities, ancient buildings, and the like that differ from what we have here in the United States but contemporary material culture as well and automobiles in particular. It is true that no place in Europe seems to be immune to invasion by large Mercedes equally familiar here but they are in the minority. Far more common, in France at any rate, are all of those many models of Renault, Peugeot, Citroën, and others that we never see in this country. Travel in France offers an ongoing exhibition of contemporary European automobile design and the show is very impressive. Having small cars in France or elsewhere in Europe is not wholly a matter of choice but it does incline one to consider the possibility that cars in this country are rather larger than they need to be. A matter worth pondering at some point….

But it is not just large cars that make the idea roundabouts in this country problematic. Imagine trucks hauling fifty-three-foot trailers entering the average French roundabout. The maximum allowable length of a trailer in France (and nearly everywhere else is Europe) is 12 meters, or just a hair under 40 feet. A little elementary geometry leads one to recognize that American-size trucks could not navigate the average French roundabout.  Vehicles must conform to the roads they travel and vice-versa. The scale is smaller in France and larger here. Whether that is the real reason for the paucity of roundabouts in the United States I do not know, but they have a positive function in smoothing the flow of traffic and make good sense where employed.

So, to the many delights of travel in France, add driving a wonderful little car that you can’t buy here over secondary roads and around the many roundabouts that dot the landscape. For the best effect, lease a small diesel with five forward gears and make driving through roundabouts into a dance of sorts. For one feature of roundabouts I have not mentioned here is that they can be fun. I don’t know anyone who would say that about waiting for red lights to turn green.

 


 

Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

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November 1, 2014

For reasons unknown, the Wisconsin DOT has begun to install roundabouts in the midsection of the state (In a belt I have noticed from Madison up towards Green Bay) and when getting my DL renewed in Michigan, I noted a flier on 'How to navigate a roundabout". So the idea is catching on. And indeed, traffic engineers have long known that the roundabout has higher throughput than a controlled intersection. It is more interesting, however, to think about the roundabout vs. the traffic light as manifestations of two different societies and the implications of control/freedom and obedience/autonomy in North America vs. Europe, respectively. Isn't it fascinating that a country that praises the freedom of the open road (as well as the free individual) has so much more controlling traffic technologies? Or perhaps we praise the open road because so many of them are anything but open.

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  • by Ken Ames
  • July 17, 2014

Strawberries

The strawberry season has come and gone. To be more precise, the season for locally-grown strawberries has come and gone. Strawberries are still very much in evidence at the big-box grocery stores but they come from somewhere else, very far away.  

One of the distinctive features of our current age is the shrinking of distances and the concomitant irrelevance of the seasons, at least as they pertain to foodways. Not so long ago, strawberries were pretty much a seasonal treat, available in the Northeast in May or June, depending on your location. Strawberry shortcake, at least when made with fresh berries, was a June event in Connecticut, where I grew up. Now strawberry shortcake is available anytime we want it. I think that industrially-produced berries from a continent away don’t taste the same as local berries freshly picked and that the strawberry shortcake made from them is a pale reflection of the real thing, but that is just one opinion. Let the record show, however, that as a youth I spent many a June morning between 8 a.m. and noon picking strawberries for the princely sum of six cents a basket, sampling the wares as I went. I know what fresh strawberries taste like.

It is true that at the present time berries locally grown are usually at least twice... Read More

The strawberry season has come and gone. To be more precise, the season for locally-grown strawberries has come and gone. Strawberries are still very much in evidence at the big-box grocery stores but they come from somewhere else, very far away.  

One of the distinctive features of our current age is the shrinking of distances and the concomitant irrelevance of the seasons, at least as they pertain to foodways. Not so long ago, strawberries were pretty much a seasonal treat, available in the Northeast in May or June, depending on your location. Strawberry shortcake, at least when made with fresh berries, was a June event in Connecticut, where I grew up. Now strawberry shortcake is available anytime we want it. I think that industrially-produced berries from a continent away don’t taste the same as local berries freshly picked and that the strawberry shortcake made from them is a pale reflection of the real thing, but that is just one opinion. Let the record show, however, that as a youth I spent many a June morning between 8 a.m. and noon picking strawberries for the princely sum of six cents a basket, sampling the wares as I went. I know what fresh strawberries taste like.

It is true that at the present time berries locally grown are usually at least twice as expensive as berries shipped in from afar. The difference in price can be reduced by picking your own berries at a nearby farm, if that option is available. Even so, we are left with the uncomfortable realization, once again, that buying local is a modest luxury of sorts, available to those with the time to shop at farmers’ markets or roadside stands and willing and able to pay twice the supermarket price. Formerly commonplace locally-grown strawberries have become boutique specialty goods. 

What is curious about the current situation is that agribusiness berries have not put an end to local production for local consumption. There remains a considerable market for the latter. It should be noted, of course, that for many people strawberries are strawberries.  Strawberries in June, strawberries in January, it’s all the same thing. And there is no point in paying $6 for something you can buy for $3. Or two for $5 with your discount card. Yet there are others who are content to let at least some of their food choices be guided by the seasonal rhythms of the place they live. For some, there is great pleasure in anticipating the gustatory delights that come with each of the seasons and, then, taking full advantage of the bounty when it arrives. It might seem perverse, but there are people who are content to limit their eating of strawberries to June and their eating of sweet corn and fresh tomatoes to the months they are locally grown. Really good is worth waiting for.    

The notion of place has received a considerable academic attention in recent years as chain stores and restaurants have created a certain sense of sameness across the country, often erasing or obscuring regional distinctions and any sense of local history. The title of Kevin Lynch’s classic text of 1972, What Time Is This Place?, however, neatly captures the idea that place is inseparable from time. Lynch was primarily concerned with historical time, most clearly evident in the marks that humans have left on the landscape. But calendar time, or the sequence of the seasons, the changing aspect of the natural world as it passes through its annual cycle, is equally important. As the artifactual world increasingly displaces the natural world, the sequence of the seasons may come to mean little more than changes in the weather. No small matter that, what with more extreme climate conditions, but the more benign features of the seasons are lost as well. 

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times (7/9/2014), Roger Cohen suggested that the problem for the French these days is that they distrust modernity. Technological change has redefined space, deeply troubling for a people who give so much cultural weight to the concept of terroir. The French are not the only ones wary of certain aspects of modernity, of course, as Americans’ increasing interest in eating locally and seasonally makes clear. Both these eating strategies are responses to the seasonless everywhere/nowhere of America’s gustatory abundance. We indeed can have everything all the time if we don’t care where it came from. So which is it to be?  Here and in season or everywhere all the time.

We sort of answered the question for ourselves last night. Dinner was corn on the cob and caprese salad with wine. The corn was local. The tomatoes and basil for the caprese were of our own growing but the mozzarella and olive oil came from afar. Our cheap red wine was from Napa, California. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov has argued that this is the best of times for those who love wine. Never before have so many different wines from so many different places been available. And so too with food. Extraordinary abundance and diversity. And so we have choices. We can eat local or not, as we wish. Strawberries all year ‘round or just in June, as suits our wishes and our desire to honor or ignore the seasons. All of this agonizing about what to eat when, of course, probably strikes millions around the globe as a quaint first-world problem, an affliction of the privileged, so to speak. And so it is.


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

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  • by Ken Ames
  • April 29, 2014

Perishable Goods

Go on to Google and look for Belter furniture. Just click on “images” and an entire page of Belter and Belteresque objects will appear. Search for Wooton desks and you will also be rewarded with many score of objects. Now try Gardner & Co. veneer chair seats or something along those lines. In fact, try any and every combination of chair, chair seat, veneer, plywood, and perforated that you can think of, with or without adding Gardner, and see what comes up. Not much, most likely. Go through a similar exercise with eBay. Considerable success with Belter, tolerable response to Wooton, but little or nothing for Gardner. What does this mean? 

Very little, of course, without some sense of context. All three of these names—Belter, Wooton, and Gardner—have become prominent in the canon of innovative furniture produced in the United States during the nineteenth century. John Henry Belter patented and produced a form of up-market plywood furniture, mostly seating pieces, notable for extraordinarily elaborate piercing and carving. Although Belter’s documentary trail is slight, objects manufactured by his firm and competitors in the years between roughly 1845 and 1865 are abundant today, even surprisingly so.

William S. Wooton introduced his patented Cabinet Secretary desk in 1874. It met with immediate success. Although the object bore some visual resemblance to so-called quarter-cylinder desks... Read More

Go on to Google and look for Belter furniture. Just click on “images” and an entire page of Belter and Belteresque objects will appear. Search for Wooton desks and you will also be rewarded with many score of objects. Now try Gardner & Co. veneer chair seats or something along those lines. In fact, try any and every combination of chair, chair seat, veneer, plywood, and perforated that you can think of, with or without adding Gardner, and see what comes up. Not much, most likely. Go through a similar exercise with eBay. Considerable success with Belter, tolerable response to Wooton, but little or nothing for Gardner. What does this mean? 

Very little, of course, without some sense of context. All three of these names—Belter, Wooton, and Gardner—have become prominent in the canon of innovative furniture produced in the United States during the nineteenth century. John Henry Belter patented and produced a form of up-market plywood furniture, mostly seating pieces, notable for extraordinarily elaborate piercing and carving. Although Belter’s documentary trail is slight, objects manufactured by his firm and competitors in the years between roughly 1845 and 1865 are abundant today, even surprisingly so.

William S. Wooton introduced his patented Cabinet Secretary desk in 1874. It met with immediate success. Although the object bore some visual resemblance to so-called quarter-cylinder desks common at the time, having what appeared to be two doors below a section that opened upward, the desk actually opened side-to-side to reveal an intricate and complex private world of drawers, shelves, pigeonholes, and other accommodations for the proliferating paperwork of business. Wooton’s timing was felicitous; over the next decade or so, his desks were purchased by the rich and powerful around the globe. Like Belter furniture, Wooton desks inevitably fell out of fashion but by the end of the twentieth century both had become cult objects of sorts, collected, restored, and exhibited.

In the 1870s, Gardner & Co. enjoyed international acclaim for its innovative three-ply veneer chair seats and derivative products. The company’s line grew from a relatively simple object, patented on May 21, 1872. This was a three-ply veneer chair seat, initially intended as a replacement for worn-out cane seats. Before the advent of Gardner’s new product, old cane seats had to be manually removed and new ones manually woven in their place, a process that could take a few hours. Gardner’s replacement seats were attached in a matter of minutes with a handful of brass-headed tacks. The principals in the Gardner firm swiftly recognized that their three-ply material could be bent to various shapes and extended into great sheets. The result was an impressive range of chair types and settees, all outfitted with seats and backs of perforated plywood.

Gardner & Co. figure prominently in the documentary record. The firm exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876; the Philadelphia Free Library’s Centennial collection has a photograph of that installation, illustrated and noted in various Centennial publications. Gardner & Co. were also present at the Paris exhibition of 1878, displaying their products to a far wider international range of potential customers. After 1872, advertisements for Gardner products appear frequently in trade literature, some of it generated by the firm, other by agents carrying their goods. Quite by accident, while looking for something else, I came across an advertisement for Gardner seats in an Australian newspaper. So the world knew of this product.

A few Gardner & Co. trade catalogs survive, exact number unknown. The 1884 catalog provides images of well over one hundred different products but since many of these came in different sizes, the actual number was significantly higher. Furthermore, many of the settees could be special-ordered with designs or texts requested by the purchaser, so the total number was higher still. If that were not enough, this catalog indicated that specialty catalogs were available, for railroad seating, for instance. Testimonials from satisfied purchasers are scattered throughout the text of the 1884 publication, indicating sales to churches, Sunday schools and parsonages; music halls; the Masons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Honor; and the state of Alabama.

Years ago I tried to follow up on these testimonials but churches had moved, lodges had folded, and music halls closed down or refurbished but the state of Alabama still had the chairs mentioned in the testimonials. But all in ruinous condition. And this brings us back to our initial wonderment about Gardner products. All evidence indicates exceptional international success yet only a handful of objects still survive. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the product simply did not endure. It really wasn’t much good. 

Plywood chairs are commonplace today, arguably a different form of testimonial to the appeal of Gardner products. But few if any of today’s chairs are only three-ply. The Gardners had a good idea but practice demonstrated that three-ply was too thin and did not hold up to prolonged use. There may well have been issues of glues, finishes, or unanticipated effects of the perforating that also undercut product durability. Whatever the cause, the average Gardner chair encountered on the secondary market today is a rather sorry affair of split and separated plywood, unattractive to behold and no easy matter to restore.

In his classic text, Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion distinguishes between two types of historical facts he labels constituent and transitory. The latter are short-lived, without creative force or energy. The former are just the opposite and “form the core of historical growth.”[1] It is not entirely clear where Gardner chairs fit into Giedion’s dichotomy. They could be considered transitory, for the material objects apparently truly were short-lived, probably to the dismay of a great many buyers. On the other hand, the idea behind the seating could be termed constituent, for it later generated impressively numerous progeny. In the end, perhaps, a high grade for the idea, at least in the abstract, but a failing grade for its execution. 


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 


[1] Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 389.  

 

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  • Ken Ames
  • by Ken Ames
  • April 1, 2014

Hobby Businesses

People are still wondering what happened to the antiques business. Until recently, the trade was a stable and enduring fixture of American culture and commerce. It seemed to only grow stronger with every passing year. But it has indeed fallen on hard times. Explanations for its decline will vary but few will deny, looking back on it all, that the business had experienced something of a bubble in recent years. And bubbles usually burst.

It is the bubble itself rather than the bursting that concerns us here. How did it come about? An explanation requires a closer look at a business that, despite its longevity, is not widely understood by those who have not been part of it. The literature on the workings of the trade is not extensive and what exists is only useful up to a point. Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire (New York: Pantheon, 1994) provides an informative and entertaining account of the practices of a few players but concentrates, for the most part, on the upper end of the trade. Briann G. Greenfield’s Out of the Attic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) offers sound history but again looks mostly at prominent dealers. Although the most visible and prestigious segment of the antiques phenomenon, the relatively small high end rests on a much larger–and once vast–substructure of... Read More

People are still wondering what happened to the antiques business. Until recently, the trade was a stable and enduring fixture of American culture and commerce. It seemed to only grow stronger with every passing year. But it has indeed fallen on hard times. Explanations for its decline will vary but few will deny, looking back on it all, that the business had experienced something of a bubble in recent years. And bubbles usually burst.

It is the bubble itself rather than the bursting that concerns us here. How did it come about? An explanation requires a closer look at a business that, despite its longevity, is not widely understood by those who have not been part of it. The literature on the workings of the trade is not extensive and what exists is only useful up to a point. Thatcher Freund’s Objects of Desire (New York: Pantheon, 1994) provides an informative and entertaining account of the practices of a few players but concentrates, for the most part, on the upper end of the trade. Briann G. Greenfield’s Out of the Attic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) offers sound history but again looks mostly at prominent dealers. Although the most visible and prestigious segment of the antiques phenomenon, the relatively small high end rests on a much larger–and once vast–substructure of lesser dealers. This substructure, it turns out, was essential to the growth of the bubble.

Many people know that the antiques business is unlike most others in one important way: dealers compete with customers for goods. Unlike conventional retail operations, which buy their stock from jobbers or manufacturers, antique dealers must find all of their stock on one or another of the secondary markets, whether other dealers, collectors, previous customers, auction houses, or whatever. Most of these sources are also accessible to potential customers. Another difference less well known, perhaps, is that antiques dealers can be divided into two groups, uneven in size. With all due apologies for any connotations the terms may carry and for egregiously over-simplifying a complex demography, we might call these professionals and amateurs. Or perhaps full-timers and part-timers would be more accurate. Most of the dealers at the high end are full-time professionals. By that I mean not merely that they know their trade thoroughly but also that they derive much of their income from the business. Professionals may have come up from the ranks, starting out as pickers or flea marketers. Or they may have been born to the trade, following in the footsteps of parents or even grandparents and, not incidentally, sometimes inheriting substantial stock. Some escaped from the world of museums.  A few entered the business at the top, armed with a large bankroll.  Not all of those have done well but that is a different story.

Amateur or part-time dealers have certain advantages over many of the professionals, however. The most significant is that they don’t really have to make money in the business. Profit is welcome, even desirable, but not essential. That is because most amateur or part-time dealers have other sources of income. Some hold day jobs and buy and sell on weekends. Others are in partnership with someone who has a steady job and benefits. Some are retirees who get by on Social Security and pensions. And there are many other variations on this basic scheme. The point is that income from buying and selling is supplemental rather than essential. Although hard to know for certain and at least partly a matter of definition, it is my impression that part-time dealers far outnumber the full-timers.

Another important difference between professionals and amateurs is that the latter are often also collectors. Professionals, with an eye on both profit and reputation, typically buy the best goods they can–and then sell them. Their own houses are often furnished with the goods they can’t sell. Everyone in the trade makes mistakes now and then; some dealers end up living with them. On the other hand, and although by no means universally true, a fair percentage of amateur dealers approach their participation in the trade with different objectives. For them, the business provides access to goods they would like to collect or furnish with. Rather than extracting profit for living expenses, which they don’t need to do, they plow profits back into more stock. And they may be inclined to keep the best for themselves, at least for a while. 

So consider the following scenario. A couple with sufficient means recognizes that they like antiques and would like to acquire more. They decide to go into the business, providing initial funding from their own checkbooks. They pay themselves no salary and willingly spend long hours driving to shops or attending auctions. In the 1980s and 1990s they find that it is astonishingly easy to buy in one place for X and sell in another for X plus 20 percent. Or 30 percent. Or sometimes much, much more. The money rolls in and they buy better and better goods. And the interiors of their houses become much more interesting. After all, they buy a lot of stock over the years and one has to store things somewhere.

Being a dealer has its advantages. For one thing, dealers are entitled to a tax number, which means they don’t have to pay state tax on purchases intended for resale. That cuts the purchase cost of goods. Furthermore, the trade typically grants other members of the trade deeper discounts than it offers to retail buyers. For another, dealers have privileged access to goods at antique shows. It is general knowledge that any real bargains at a show are snatched up by other dealers before the show opens to the public. Some dealers sign up for large shows precisely because they expect to buy well. Selling at any given show is not essential, since goods bought well at one show can usually be profitably sold at another. At least that used to be the case.

The percentage of transactions at a given antique show involving the trade selling to the trade surely varied. It was not unusual, however, to hear dealers comment at the end of a show that nearly every one of their buyers had a tax number. In other words, almost everyone had become a dealer. But in the flurry of buying and selling and the resulting ever rising prices, few noticed that retail buyers had slipped away, driven away perhaps by what amounted to runaway inflation in the antiques market. The antiques business, augmented and energized by hoards of amateur or part-time dealers, had become a self-perpetuating machine, fueled from within rather than from without. At least that is one plausible explanation of what happened. And then the whole thing stalled.

It may not be fair to attribute the antiques bubble wholly to the participation of amateur, part-time, or hobby dealers. It would be even less fair to assume that many of the players were aware that they were creating or sustaining a bubble. For all, it seemed to be the best of times and conditions were propitious in the extreme. What those conditions were, however, is another story for another time.

 


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

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  • by Ken Ames
  • March 14, 2014

A Question of Value

It started with shoes. I bought a pair two and a half years ago at an outlet in Freeport, Maine. I paid $100. Something of a departure purchase, these shoes were unlike any I had previously owned but swiftly became my favorites. They felt good on and looked great. About six months ago, however, one shoe began to show a peculiar and highly visible pattern of wear, so I reluctantly gave up the shoes.

But I began to wonder whether or not these shoes had been good economy. Assuming two years or twenty-four months of use, they cost me about $4.16 a month or a bit less than fourteen cents a day. Such figures obviously make little sense in themselves, however, so as a comparison, I bought a pair of similar shoes on the secondary market for $15. These lasted only six months but, at $2.50 a month or a meager eight cents a day, they surely were a better bargain, all things considered. To complete the experiment, it might have been appropriate to also buy a pair of first-quality shoes and run the numbers. Yet assuming $200 for the new shoes, the pair would have had to last for eighty months or over six years to better those bought on the secondary market. I might have tired of them long... Read More

It started with shoes. I bought a pair two and a half years ago at an outlet in Freeport, Maine. I paid $100. Something of a departure purchase, these shoes were unlike any I had previously owned but swiftly became my favorites. They felt good on and looked great. About six months ago, however, one shoe began to show a peculiar and highly visible pattern of wear, so I reluctantly gave up the shoes.

But I began to wonder whether or not these shoes had been good economy. Assuming two years or twenty-four months of use, they cost me about $4.16 a month or a bit less than fourteen cents a day. Such figures obviously make little sense in themselves, however, so as a comparison, I bought a pair of similar shoes on the secondary market for $15. These lasted only six months but, at $2.50 a month or a meager eight cents a day, they surely were a better bargain, all things considered. To complete the experiment, it might have been appropriate to also buy a pair of first-quality shoes and run the numbers. Yet assuming $200 for the new shoes, the pair would have had to last for eighty months or over six years to better those bought on the secondary market. I might have tired of them long before that.

Intrigued by values available in the secondary market, I priced out some of the goods around the house. Lamps bought for $5 or $10 years ago have proven good values.  One of the more striking instances of low cost averaged over time is a teak salad bowl, twelve inches in diameter, purchased for $2 at a yard sale some twenty or more years ago. At a dime per year, the daily cost is not even worth computing. Sterling forks obtained at $10 each a decade or two ago come to pennies per month and are likely to outlast us. The table on which I am now writing is a bit more complicated, partly because I don’t remember exactly the price or date of acquisition and partly because it once seemed to be a cherry table but, the finish wearing, is starting to look more like maple. Still, it probably comes out to less than $20 per year. To be completely accurate in assessing original cost for any of these goods, of course, the expense of driving to the yard sales, flea markets, and antique shows from which many of them came should be added to the calculations. And, needless to say, although buying low on the secondary market is both frugal and entertaining, similar reckonings can be made for utilitarian goods bought new.    

Calculations narrowly focused on objects of utility—shoes, forks, tables, salad bowls—are easily made.  But what of objects of little or no technomic value, things that don’t get used up or worn out? A painting hanging over our mantel cost $900 some twenty years ago. That comes to $45 a year, $3.75 a month, or under thirteen cents a day, about the same daily cost as the Maine shoes. And the price per temporal unit will decline the longer we own the painting. But are the shoes and the picture in any meaningful way equivalent? Measuring about thirty by forty inches framed and depicting a large sailing craft moving diagonally across the open water, the picture is unsigned and not easily dated. It projects a considerable feeling of “oldiness” but I would be cautious in the extreme in assigning it a date. There is little evidence that the painting has deteriorated since we acquired it; it is likely to exist in about the same condition for many years more. 

An important part of the satisfaction the shoes provided derived from the duration of their utility—how long they lasted—although I admit that the pleasures of wearing and admiring them were also significant. The primary attractions of the picture, on the other hand, are visual. It is pleasant to look at. It creates a satisfying focal point within the room. The colors work with other furnishings. There is some slight mystery about what is actually depicted. And so on. But is it a good value? If so, would it still be a good value if we had paid $9,000 for it rather than $900? For it to be worth the higher price, would we have to derive ten times more pleasure from contemplating it? An intriguing question. But then, how do I measure the pleasure the picture provides at present? As I have no reliable means of measurement, it becomes apparent that I also would have no means of calculating ten times that unmeasured pleasure.

Evaluating the shoes on the basis of utility makes it easy to amortize their cost over the total period of their usefulness. But that makes no sense for the painting, since the pleasure it provides is not used up over time. If it is worth $900 any day, it is worth $900 every day. This truth is embedded in the notion of the “million-dollar view” associated with prime real estate. The value of the view does not fall to $100,000 because we look at it ten times. The value of the view can be diminished by unsightly intrusions but it cannot be used up by being enjoyed.

All of this suggests some of the difficulties involved in evaluating the pleasures we derive from the objects in our lives. We assume that the purpose of some objects is to provide pleasure and that there is a connection between pleasure and happiness. Philosophers from Epicurus to Peter Singer have posited pleasure as a central feature of a well-lived life. But, despite some promising studies of brain wave responses to varied stimuli, techniques for measuring pleasure outside laboratory situations remain elusive. For those committed to leading examined lives in a time of static or diminishing resources, understanding the economics of pleasure would seem to have obvious utility. The matter is complex and difficult to sort out, of course, but it could be beneficial to assess the comparative pleasure value of shoes and paintings and a host of other goods. It might turn out that there is little or no consistent correlation between pleasure value and economic cost.


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 

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  • by Jilly Traganou
  • February 28, 2014

Design and Disaster: Kon Wajiro’s Modernologio at Parsons

Kon Wajiro, Household of a newly-married couple #3, Inside of the closet, 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.

 

Fifteen years ago, I first discovered the work of Kon Wajiro (1888-1973) at a library in Tokyo. I was immediately captivated by the intimacy of his meticulous ink drawings. Looking at his work felt like peeking into someone's closet and being afforded a view of their most intimate belongings. Illustrations of what a man in Futagwa wants and Illustrations of what a woman in Futagawa needs are two of his drawings. On the surface, you see an array of everyday items, from kimono and gloves to baskets and brooms, annotated and arranged with their names and price tags, a chronicle of objects from ordinary life. But Kon Wajiro's interests were not confined only to visions of private life and domesticity. He was equally concerned with the public realm. What were the paths of young modern girls in the fashionable Ginza district? What kinds of dogs roamed the streets of Tokyo? What were the postures of laborers napping on outdoor benches?  


Kon Wajiro, Illustrations of what a man in Fukagawa wants (with costs), 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.


Such drawings might look... Read More

Kon Wajiro, Household of a newly-married couple #3, Inside of the closet, 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.

 

Fifteen years ago, I first discovered the work of Kon Wajiro (1888-1973) at a library in Tokyo. I was immediately captivated by the intimacy of his meticulous ink drawings. Looking at his work felt like peeking into someone's closet and being afforded a view of their most intimate belongings. Illustrations of what a man in Futagwa wants and Illustrations of what a woman in Futagawa needs are two of his drawings. On the surface, you see an array of everyday items, from kimono and gloves to baskets and brooms, annotated and arranged with their names and price tags, a chronicle of objects from ordinary life. But Kon Wajiro's interests were not confined only to visions of private life and domesticity. He was equally concerned with the public realm. What were the paths of young modern girls in the fashionable Ginza district? What kinds of dogs roamed the streets of Tokyo? What were the postures of laborers napping on outdoor benches?  


Kon Wajiro, Illustrations of what a man in Fukagawa wants (with costs), 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.


Such drawings might look idiosyncratic at first—outcomes of obsession or curiosity—or impulsive attempts to capture the temporal. But this is not what they were made for. These drawings are part of a more systematic study to record and analyze material culture in a rapidly changing society. Kon named this study Modernologio, aiming to leave a comprehensive record of the "present," the fleeting and rapidly evolving reality that Tokyo's citizens were experiencing after the great earthquake of 1923. Indeed, one of the paradoxical outcomes of the devastation was the creation of a sort of a tabula rasa (the modernist dream) where visions of a new society would be seeded. Kon recorded the sometimes slow, other times rapid replacement of traditional Japanese items by modern ones, and the fusion of the two in domestic and public spheres.

 

Kon Wajiro, Illustrations of what a woman in Fukagawa needs (with costs and department stores' window signs), 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.

 

Besides its value as a historical record, Kon's work presents us with a great example of a marriage between design and ethnography. Having been trained as a designer who worked closely with ethnographers such as Yanagita Kunio and the Hakubōkai group, Kon was more than capable of drawing accurately from life. But not even photography would be capable of capturing what he drew by hand. His ethnographic accounts are not the predecessors of works like FRUiTS (a magazine featuring innumerable photographs of the quirky fashion of Harajuku). Instead, they are the products of hours of mindful observation, paralleled by quantitative analysis and pattern recognition. His work could be compared to that of Owen Jones or Christopher Alexander. Rather than illuminating the singular and the idiosyncratic, Kon attempts to reveal the deeper structures of human practice and the way they reorder the material world: the unity of making do and making sense. In that respect, Kon’s work presents to us a method of design analysis at its best.


Jilly Traganou is Associate Professor at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City.

Visit the show Design and Disaster: Kon Wajiro's Modernologio, curated by Jilly Traganou and Izumi Kuroishi, at the Aronson gallery at Parsons The New School for Design, from March 13–27. The opening reception will be on March 13, 2014 from 7:30-9:00, preceded by a lecture from 6:00-7:30 by Izumi Kuroishi as part of the Inside (Hi) Stories lecture series. For more information please visit:  http://www.newschool.edu/parsons/currentExhibitions.aspx?id=100078

Kon Wajiro, Traces of ants, measurement per 50 centimeters, 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.

 

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  • Conference Notes
  • by Kim Dhillon
  • February 28, 2014

Notes on the Marking Language Seminar at the Drawing Room in London

Conference: Marking Language seminar, Drawing Room, London
October 10, 2013

Related Exhibitions:
Marking Language, Drawing Room, London
October 10–December 14, 2013

Drawing Time, Reading Time, The Drawing Center, New York City
November 15–January 13, 2013


Bernardo Ortiz, Untitled, 2013 (detail); multiple sheets of paper – gouache on paper with fungi, electrostatic print on paper & graphite and ink on paper, hung on balsa wood. Courtesy the artist and CasasRiegner Gallery, Bogotá. Photo: Peter White.

 

In the past four years, we have seen a renewed interest in text as visual art form as evidenced in a surge of exhibitions that survey contemporary art and its relationship to written language. One of the most recent was a twinned exhibition examining written communication and drawing, held concurrently at London’s Drawing Room and The Drawing Center in New York. The London half, titled Marking Language, focused on an international survey of contemporary artworks using written language as image. On October 10, 2013, the Drawing Room held a conference in the pedagogical mode of a seminar, to tease out some of the questions underlying the drawings within the exhibition, explore their relationship to written language as communication, and discuss the conceptual thread with the parallel exhibition Drawing Time, Reading Time in New York.

The exhibition featured artwork with... Read More

Conference: Marking Language seminar, Drawing Room, London
October 10, 2013

Related Exhibitions:
Marking Language, Drawing Room, London
October 10–December 14, 2013

Drawing Time, Reading Time, The Drawing Center, New York City
November 15–January 13, 2013


Bernardo Ortiz, Untitled, 2013 (detail); multiple sheets of paper – gouache on paper with fungi, electrostatic print on paper & graphite and ink on paper, hung on balsa wood. Courtesy the artist and CasasRiegner Gallery, Bogotá. Photo: Peter White.

 

In the past four years, we have seen a renewed interest in text as visual art form as evidenced in a surge of exhibitions that survey contemporary art and its relationship to written language. One of the most recent was a twinned exhibition examining written communication and drawing, held concurrently at London’s Drawing Room and The Drawing Center in New York. The London half, titled Marking Language, focused on an international survey of contemporary artworks using written language as image. On October 10, 2013, the Drawing Room held a conference in the pedagogical mode of a seminar, to tease out some of the questions underlying the drawings within the exhibition, explore their relationship to written language as communication, and discuss the conceptual thread with the parallel exhibition Drawing Time, Reading Time in New York.

The exhibition featured artwork with a tendency toward using typewritten and handwritten language. Accordingly, as the artists drew with words, they emphasized obsolete or nostalgic material technologies in the visual form of the text. The Marking Language seminar featured two hour-long panels, centred on two themes, as well as a poetry reading by artist, poet, and publisher Karl Holmqvist. The first panel featured Colombian artist Bernardo Ortiz, Manchester-based Czech artist Pavel Buchler, and New York-based Lebanese artist Annabel Daou, and was chaired by writer and critic David Markus. With the title: The small movements of language, the power of the ordinary and the pursuit of almost nothing, the first panel began discussions focusing not on written communication, but on drawing. Bernardo Ortiz suggested drawing as something that exists between painting and poetry. This idea was championed by Frank O’Hara, whose poem, Why I Am Not A Painter (1956) served as the impetus behind Ortiz’s artwork in the show. A series of drawings with words, Ortiz constructs a visual translation of the poem using text, graphic lines, and abstract splodges, making an installation of landscape paper to be read/seen in a linear narrative way of viewing. The first drawing will pick up the first lines of O’Hara’s poem, the next a few more words repeated, and so on. Ortiz prints the lines from O’Hara’s poem repeatedly in a small, neat black typeface, and then overlays them with black bars recalling Marcel Broodthaer’s re-working of Mallarme’s famous symbolist poem, Un Coup de Dés. When text creates an image, does its linguistic meaning matter? Pavel Buchler, in response to Ortiz, suggested that drawing exists in the middle of the page, whilst painting reaches its edges.

But what is the relevance of considering language in these ways? What does it offer in thinking about text in art as written communication? The discussants advanced the idea of drawing as “propositional.” We draw to suggest what we might do—a plan, a sketch, a diagram. Drawings draft the future possibility. To Buchler, art is not about any particular medium, but about where it can take the viewer and how it can provoke him or her. Markus linked this to the Kantian idea of “purposiveness without a purpose” and it recalls too J. L. Austin’s idea of “speech acts” and performative utterances, where saying is doing. Considering the translation of language into visual text as art, the exhibition teased out possibilities for the relationship of drawing to writing. Are both propositional?

If we understand “written communication” (curator Kate MacFarlane used this term, and not “text,” “language,” or another descriptor in her introduction) in relation to drawing, this encourages a reflection not on the materiality of language, but on drawing’s communicative potential. All of the words in the exhibition show us letters written or brushed by hand, with the exception of Johanna Calle’s, whose artwork is typewritten, and Ortiz’s. And only Ortiz shows us text rendered with processes of recent technology such as digital text, using the Donald Knuth typesetting system TeX (1978) to layout his texts. TeX is unique because the user programs his or her typesetting digitally, rather than the digital program replicating the manual actions of laying out text (such as cutting, pasting, and dropping in an image). Otherwise, screen-based type, facsimile, Xerox, and other pre-digital and digital processes are visibly absent in the work grouped here.

The panel then turned to question the impact that a written letter has in the present, digital age. (Markus suggested we are already post-digital, but Buchler quickly challenged this point).  A written letter evokes an idea of authenticity, as well as nostalgia—something that many of the participating artists were investigating. Buchler reminded us that with traditional correspondence, you are holding in your hand the same piece of paper that the correspondent held—there is a material connection to the letter-writer through the support, the material, on which the text is inscribed. (The “hand” in handwriting suggests tactility, and is synonymous with penmanship, i.e. “it was written in her own hand.”) Buchler, in a nostalgic reference to his own upbringing in Czechoslovakia, recalled his grandmother’s efforts to teach him proper etiquette in letter-writing, during which he was instructed that though one must always reply to a letter, never to do so in under three weeks, in order not to place the other correspondent under undue pressure to reply. Now, Buchler joked, if one receives an email and does not reply within three-quarters of an hour, another will soon follow inquiring about receipt of the first.

Annabel Daou’s artwork was installed on the wall behind the panel, a blackboard painted square with the sentence “I am doing research” written repeatedly in her own hand in white chalk, inscribed over nine hours on the exhibition’s opening day. It is intended as a textual reference/remake of John Baldessari’s 1971 I Am Making Art. Considering the materiality of the support and its relationship to the text, Ortiz suggested “the page” as a useful concept, and an alternative to the material concept of paper, on which drawing has traditionally been inscribed. The page, he suggested, is not tied to the material, although it has material connotations. Indeed, this recalls Mel Bochner’s suggestion that No Thought Exists Without a Sustaining Support (1970), wherein white chalk letters scrawled on blackboard paint on a wall suggest that the support is both language and the material which manifests written language’s physical presence.

Annabel Daou, I’m doing research, 2013; chalk on blackboard. Drawing Room, 2013. Photo: Peter White.

 

Buchler’s Conversational Drawings stand out because they are the only artworks in the exhibition lacking a linguistic signifier, which leads one to ask, “what language are they marking?” The artworks are a series of simple line drawings on tractor-feed carbonless paper (similar to the paper that would feed Dot Matrix printers). The impressions on the paper—outlines of hands making gestures for shadow puppetry—will one day become invisible as the carbonless paper loses its trace. (It is the type of paper used for credit card purchases before chip and swiping technology became prevalent). The hands’ gestures initially seem to be examples for sign language from a manual, and Buchler indeed did make drawings of sign language gestures in the early 1980s when he moved to England from Czechoslovakia and knew little English. But we cannot see the shadow puppet that these hands could depict, only the instruction for the gesture.

Pavel Büchler, Conversational Drawings 1 (detail) , 2007;14 drawings on tractor-feed carbonless copy paper, 21.5 x 28 cm.

 

Opened to audience questions, the panel was asked about reception and the point of view of their audience. Are these artworks linguistic communication? Are we reading them or seeing them? Buchler rephrased the question from the artist’s point of view: What is it we present when we present a piece of text as visual image? He argued that text is something he decodes, whereas in the process of viewing images, he forgets and does not necessarily account for the text as something he is seeing. Thus, he suggests that images are allowed instead to wash over us, whereas text requires a subjective cognitive action. These questions access ideas dealt with in the foundational Conceptual artworks addressing written language and the subjective decisions an audience makes in the encounter of text as art, namely Smithson’s Heap of Language (1966) and his accompanying text LANGUAGE to be LOOKED at and/or THINGS to be READ (1967). As the South African-born Conceptual artist Ian Wilson wrote in retrospect on Conceptual art in 1994, “The difference between conceptual art and poetry, literature, and philosophy is that conceptual art takes the principles of visual abstraction, founded in the visual arts, and applies them to language.”[1] That is, however visually abstracted a word may be, Wilson argues we always see art first, and we read poetry. Though we may alternate between the two cognitive acts at almost imperceptible speed, when we encounter text as art, we encounter visual art, and we are viewers first.

The second panel, with the theme The look of words, the pictures they conjure and the memories they evoke, was greater in potential but quieter in discussion, despite thoughtful chairing by writer and Afterall editor Melissa Gronlund. The title suggests a text as a midpoint in the experience of an idea-as-art, igniting memories of the past, while conjuring ideas in our mind’s eye in the present moment. Even more so than in the preceding panel, the artworks of Colombian artist Johanna Calle and Swedish artist and poet Karl Holmqvist, recall Concrete poetry. Calle works on ledger paper and typewriter to create intricately detailed textual montages of words in the dying languages of the indigenous people of Colombia to describe rain and extreme weather. The words are depicted in a jagged font and letters are filled with smaller typewritten letters.  Focusing on ideas of narrative, Gronlund questioned the personal affect of Holmqvist’s writing, and suggested: “We use words to tell a story and that story is about us.” Holmqvist, however, said he was more interested in the ethereal and constant chatter of language in the air—such as the lyrics from popular musicians such as Rihanna and Beyoncé—than he was in his own story. He publishes his poetry in books, performs it, and installs it as wall text—as visual art—in galleries. Gronlund asked if his texts (which are visually laid out in a way that strongly evokes Concrete Poetry in his books) are “performance scores,” an idea art historian Liz Kotz put forward in her 2007 analysis of language in art of the 1960s.[2] Holmqvist clarified that his poems and installations are more fluid, existing in different manifestations, but that neither informs the other in a hierarchical way.

Only Buchler’s artworks straddle the New York and the London exhibitions. Drawing Time, Reading Time, which opened in New York on November 15, 2013, focused on the communicative transparency and opacity of text in art that emerged in the nineteen-sixties, as a suggestion of an alternate path to what the curator described as the Conceptual preoccupation with materiality of language.[3] In the New York exhibition, an additional gallery space showed the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson as a parallel exhibition. In The Shape of the Signifier, American literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels begins his discussion on the importance of individuality to textuality and the construction of meaning by discussing Dickinson’s manuscripts, in which she often insisted her notations and comments remain.[4] Michaels suggests that Dickinson’s blots and dashes are an integral part of the text for the physical immediacy they call up to the author and the reader. These artworks suggest the artists’ desire to communicate, yet a failure to ever do so fully. The attempt itself seems to be what brings artists back to written language as form and subject, again and again.


Kim Dhillon is a writer in London, and preparing a doctoral thesis at the Royal College of Art on text as critical form in contemporary visual art since Conceptualism. 



[1] Ian Wilson, “Conceptual Art,” Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds. (MIT Press: 1999): 414. First printed in Artforum, 22:6 (February 1994): 60-61.

[2] See Liz Kotz, Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (MIT Press, 2007).

[3] Drawing Time, Reading Time, The Drawing Center, press release, October 2013 http://www.drawingcenter.org/en/drawingcenter/5/exhibitions/9/upcoming/500/drawing-time-reading-time/

[4] Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton University Press, 2004), 2-4.

 

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  • by Ken Ames
  • February 25, 2014

The Great Chair Exhibition

The great chair exhibition has come and gone. I am referring here to the exhibition of sixteen mid-eighteenth-century chairs that took place at Bernard & S. Dean Levy on East 84th Street from January 20 through February 3 of this year. Organized by Philip D. Zimmerman, a familiar name in American furniture studies, the show was both a response to recent claims about the regional origins of the chairs and an exercise in the rigorous use of evidence. In other words, it dealt with matters both specific and general, microcosmic and macrocosmic.  Exhibitions like this should happen more often. 

The immediate impetus for the installation was an article published in the journal American Furniture arguing that a group of chairs sharing certain design and construction characteristics and long associated with New York actually emanated from Boston.[1] Zimmerman and Frank Levy did not find arguments supporting the claim persuasive and thus this exhibition. Zimmerman’s slender text written to accompany the chair display refutes directly if perhaps too briefly arguments laid out in the article.[2] Those who wish to follow the entire exchange should read the article and Zimmerman’s essay and decide for themselves, although now that the exhibition is over, much of the visible evidence assembled on 84th Street has been dispersed. For myself, I found the exhibition at Levy’s persuasive, although... Read More

The great chair exhibition has come and gone. I am referring here to the exhibition of sixteen mid-eighteenth-century chairs that took place at Bernard & S. Dean Levy on East 84th Street from January 20 through February 3 of this year. Organized by Philip D. Zimmerman, a familiar name in American furniture studies, the show was both a response to recent claims about the regional origins of the chairs and an exercise in the rigorous use of evidence. In other words, it dealt with matters both specific and general, microcosmic and macrocosmic.  Exhibitions like this should happen more often. 

The immediate impetus for the installation was an article published in the journal American Furniture arguing that a group of chairs sharing certain design and construction characteristics and long associated with New York actually emanated from Boston.[1] Zimmerman and Frank Levy did not find arguments supporting the claim persuasive and thus this exhibition. Zimmerman’s slender text written to accompany the chair display refutes directly if perhaps too briefly arguments laid out in the article.[2] Those who wish to follow the entire exchange should read the article and Zimmerman’s essay and decide for themselves, although now that the exhibition is over, much of the visible evidence assembled on 84th Street has been dispersed. For myself, I found the exhibition at Levy’s persuasive, although I may not have been an impartial judge.  

Beyond the specifics of the argument about origins, however, several aspects of the event merit mention. First, it is surprising, at least to those outside the inner circle of furniture historians, that the origins of a significant body of American eighteenth-century furniture can still be in dispute. Weren’t such matters resolved decades ago? Irving Lyon published Colonial Furniture of New England in 1891; American furniture scholarship is well into its second century. Yet knowledge remains partial. Lyon focused only on New England.  Others have concentrated on Philadelphia. Early New York, for a variety of reasons both historical and contemporary, has been comparatively under-studied. To outsiders, the emphasis on determining origins may seem a strange fixation, considering that other areas of material culture study have taken different routes. Yet unmoored objects, adrift in time and space, are of limited use as historical documents and provide unstable foundations for historical narratives. Perhaps more to the point, objects that cannot be named cannot, in a sense, even be thought. Until these objects are definitively fitted into the intellectual structure of furniture scholarship, they will remain more or less hidden in plain sight.       

Second, it is worth noting that the event provided an occasion not only for critically reviewing the evidence for the origins of the chairs but also, more generally, for providing an exercise in evidence analysis. Needless to say, such is not the normal fare of exhibitions. It isn’t even the normal fare of furniture scholarship. One might think that testing claims and hypotheses would be routine, but in this small field of study opinions often go unchallenged and declaration too readily becomes truth. Again, less important than the details of the evidence in this particular exhibition was the demonstration of method, subjecting each claim to careful, even cautious scrutiny and critically analyzing underlying assumptions.

Third, as an essential part of that process, the exhibition juxtaposed like objects with like. Actually, it juxtaposed nearly like with nearly like, since there were no identical twins in the mix. There is nothing new here, to be sure. The effect of this strategy in this particular instance was that similarities and dissimilarities within the group both became more pronounced. It was apparent that these chairs were members of a distinct and extensive group of furniture. The numerous variations, some subtle, some less so, suggested many hands at work, perhaps over a period of years. In any event, the installation of the chairs invited close examination and easy comparison, setting the stage for the little epiphanies that come with this kind of visual experience. Although I hadn’t recognized it before, I now see that part of the success of the exhibition was due to the way it enabled me and every other visitor to become an active participant in the inquiry. The exhibition did not preach or talk down. I now understand that the light touch of Zimmerman’s essay may have been strategic. A polemic, even if intellectually defensible, could have changed the nature of the exhibition experience, most likely in negative ways.

Fourth, the exhibition took place at a commercial site rather than a museum. Yes, this has happened before but it is nice to see it happen again. Although some fastidious souls might like to think otherwise, museums and the trade are parts of the same larger phenomenon and dealer/scholars have long made important contributions to study. It is a credit to the reputations of the Levy firm and Zimmerman that Winterthur, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, New York State Museum, and Van Cortlandt House Museum, as well a few private owners were willing to loan objects. (Four chairs and a mahogany desk and bookcase came from Levy inventory). Levy’s Upper East Side premises, somehow both cozy and opulent, provided a welcome alternative to the sometimes austere impersonality of museum installations. The space given over to the chairs was small, comfortable, and agreeably dense, framing an intimate encounter with a collection of intriguing objects.  Exhibitions don’t all have to conform to the same template or appeal to visitors by the thousands. Sometimes a special experience crafted for those most likely to appreciate it is just fine. The chair exhibition, I hasten to add, was open to the public. And admission was free.

Fifth, guess what? More chairs have turned up. Publish–or exhibit–and ye shall find. Zimmerman thought that he had located all relevant examples but it turns out that he did not. And so the plot may thicken. Perhaps some of the recently discovered chairs will hold clues to understanding the entire group. Or it may be that there are still more chairs out there somewhere that will. Perhaps what is now strongly likely may someday become certainty.


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 


[1] Leigh Keno, Joan Barzilay Freund, and Alan Miller, “The Very Pink of the Mode: Boston Georgian Chairs, Their Export, and Their Influence,” American Furniture 1996: 266-306.

[2] Philip D. Zimmerman, Boston or New York: Revisiting the Apthorp Family and Related Sets of Queen Anne Chairs (New York: Bernard & S. Dean Levy, 2014).  Zimmerman’s essay includes a bibliography of relevant studies, including a forthcoming article that lays out his argument in fuller detail.   

 


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  • Ken Ames
  • by Ken Ames
  • January 23, 2014

Postmaterialism?

It is no secret that the antiques business is in trouble. A friend who should know tells me that American eighteenth-century furniture now sells for half of what it did a few years ago. A major silver dealer who formerly did a brisk business laments that there are no collectors anymore. Buyers stay away in droves while his stock grows dusty on his shelves.  The last upscale antiques show I attended was embarrassingly under-peopled and “sold” signs were few in number. On eBay the cordial invitation to “buy it now” goes unheeded more often than not. What is going on here?

Some might say that it is simply that the antiques bubble has finally burst. The market had become over-heated and was due for a correction. Yes, there was a bubble and yes, it surely has burst but the continuing lack of energy in the market reflects something else. What might be the cause of the depressed state of the trade? According to one view, the economy is a likely suspect. Intensifying economic inequality between the haves and have-mores on one hand and the have-lesses and have-leasts on the other has not favored the antiques market. There are a few very rich collectors but their number is finite and they buy a small percentage of what is on offer. Once upon... Read More

It is no secret that the antiques business is in trouble. A friend who should know tells me that American eighteenth-century furniture now sells for half of what it did a few years ago. A major silver dealer who formerly did a brisk business laments that there are no collectors anymore. Buyers stay away in droves while his stock grows dusty on his shelves.  The last upscale antiques show I attended was embarrassingly under-peopled and “sold” signs were few in number. On eBay the cordial invitation to “buy it now” goes unheeded more often than not. What is going on here?

Some might say that it is simply that the antiques bubble has finally burst. The market had become over-heated and was due for a correction. Yes, there was a bubble and yes, it surely has burst but the continuing lack of energy in the market reflects something else. What might be the cause of the depressed state of the trade? According to one view, the economy is a likely suspect. Intensifying economic inequality between the haves and have-mores on one hand and the have-lesses and have-leasts on the other has not favored the antiques market. There are a few very rich collectors but their number is finite and they buy a small percentage of what is on offer. Once upon a time a vibrant middle market propelled the entire antiques system but tight finances have changed that. The loss of this once vigorous middle market, another sign of the declining cultural presence of America’s middle class, has been disastrous for the trade.

Or perhaps the culprit behind the declining appeal of antiques is creeping presentism, the notion that only the present counts and the past is irrelevant. There is ample evidence of this attitude within the academy, as we know too well. Entirely apart from the economy, presentism could account for declining interest in antiques, increasingly seen as irrelevant, obsolete, and unnecessary. The prevailing idea seems to be that as in the natural order so also in the artifactual order: new things come, old things must go. 

An explanation for market changes that I find particularly intriguing revolves around the idea of postmaterialism. Students of material culture may wish to take notice. The sociological version of this concept, generated by Robert Inglehart and others,[1] maintains that as societies become richer they tend to devalue material concerns. A recent (2009) study by Jan Delhey focuses on happiness across multiple societies and finds strong evidence that rich, post-industrialist societies are increasingly likely to locate happiness in post-materialistic rather than materialistic behaviors. As Delhey puts it, “happiness tends to be pretty materialist in poorer places, and more post-materialist in richer ones” (p. 50).[2] In other words, happiness derives less from buying and having than from doing and being. Quality of life is paramount. Rendered in terms of Maslow’s famous scale of human needs, post-materialist happiness corresponds to self-actualization.

Whether the financial upheavals of 2008 will alter this situation is unclear. However, ample artifactual evidence in support of broad societal movement from materialism in the direction of postmaterialism can be found in the history of domestic interiors in this country. In general, density of household furnishings gradually rises through the eighteenth century, peaks during the 1880s, then gradually decreases. Although dense interiors may still be found, today’s affluent are far more likely to furnish according to the law of fewer but better. 

But perhaps the real culprits in all of this are the baby boomers, now entering their own post-materialist phase. They are selling their big houses, moving to smaller quarters, and clearing out. If they visit antique dealers or auction houses it is more likely with thoughts of selling than of buying. Or maybe the ultimate problem is the Internet. Part of the fun of collecting antiques used to be in the hunt. You never knew where you might find something. But now you do know and much of the pleasure of the chase is gone. Whatever the cause, however, the effects on the antiques trade are the same. As in so many other lines of goods, supply far exceeds demand.

If this were only about the antiques business we might congratulate ourselves on not being in the trade and commiserate with those still trying to make a go of it. But there are wider ramifications. For instance, what will happen to the stuff? Where will it all go? And what of collectors and collections? Museums buy a few things but more often rely on collectors to augment their holdings. And then, what of scholarship? The simple act of collecting has long been the first building block of study in the decorative arts and material culture. We once thought that collecting antiques was a cultural constant in affluent societies. But perhaps antique collecting is actually a product of materialistic societies only. If that is so, it will be interesting to watch what happens to antiques collecting and to decorative arts and material culture scholarship in the coming age of postmaterialism. 


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 



[1] R. Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); R. Inglehart and C. Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 

[2] J. Delhey, “From Materialist to Postmaterialist Happiness? National Affluence and Determinants of Life Satisfaction in Cross-National Perspective.” World Values Research 2:2 (2009):30-54.

 

2 Comments
March 18, 2014

An enlightened article that is very nuanced in the discernment of subtle relations between late-capitalism and the Antiques trade. One thing that goes unmentioned is the rampant forgery, fakery and chicanery that existed in the Antiques trade prior to the "unmasking effect" of the Internet. Snobbery, false-scarcity and percieved "rarities" all contributed to the glut, the over-inflated prices and the crash that is described in this terrific article.

Posted By Al Doyle
January 29, 2014

It seems to me that age and wisdom as well as continued wealth encourages a less superficial materialism. What comes with affluence and an educated sense and appreciation for ones material life is the ability to focus on the small, particular and specialized aspects enjoyed by each of us in our own way. I too will find it interesting to see what specialist fields of study in the Decorative Arts gain prominence and who decides what is to be valued and worthy of our attention.

Posted By Peter Fleming

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  • Conservation Moments
  • by Miriam Clavir
  • March 5, 2013

Preserving Value

This mask, in the Museum of Anthropology collection was loaned for use in a potlatch in 1983 in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Willie Seaweed (Kwakwaka'wakw: 'Nakwaxda'xw). Wolf mask, ca. 1920-5. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. MOA ID# Nb3.1318. Photo: Jessica Bushey. Courtesy UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada.

In the early 1980s, a few years after I began working as the first conservator at the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada, I was asked to agree to a loan of pieces that would be handled and worn in a very non-museum environment. These objects, from the museum’s permanent collection, were wanted for use by a First Nations community member. They would be danced at a potlatch. Several other requests involving use soon followed. A few of the asked-for pieces were old; the others were contemporary and being loaned back to the artist who had created them. Nonetheless, my obligation as a professional conservator, especially clear in the early 1980s, was to serve as an advocate for the preservation of cultural property. As everyone has experienced, using something can result in wear and loss to the original physical object, and I saw the loaning of museum collections for dances and events as clearly being in opposition to the professional codes of ethics at the time that are adhered to by conservators. This was, remember, also almost a decade before NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) in the US, and the Museums and First Peoples Task Force report in Canada, “Turning the Page”.

The professional dilemma of how to resolve the apparently opposing needs of First... Read More

This mask, in the Museum of Anthropology collection was loaned for use in a potlatch in 1983 in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Willie Seaweed (Kwakwaka'wakw: 'Nakwaxda'xw). Wolf mask, ca. 1920-5. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. MOA ID# Nb3.1318. Photo: Jessica Bushey. Courtesy UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada.

In the early 1980s, a few years after I began working as the first conservator at the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada, I was asked to agree to a loan of pieces that would be handled and worn in a very non-museum environment. These objects, from the museum’s permanent collection, were wanted for use by a First Nations community member. They would be danced at a potlatch. Several other requests involving use soon followed. A few of the asked-for pieces were old; the others were contemporary and being loaned back to the artist who had created them. Nonetheless, my obligation as a professional conservator, especially clear in the early 1980s, was to serve as an advocate for the preservation of cultural property. As everyone has experienced, using something can result in wear and loss to the original physical object, and I saw the loaning of museum collections for dances and events as clearly being in opposition to the professional codes of ethics at the time that are adhered to by conservators. This was, remember, also almost a decade before NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) in the US, and the Museums and First Peoples Task Force report in Canada, “Turning the Page”.

The professional dilemma of how to resolve the apparently opposing needs of First Nations people and my responsibility as a conservator was also a personal quandary. My sympathies lay strongly in both camps. Was I ready either to be drummed out of the Museum of Anthropology for not signing the loan forms or to be drummed out of my profession for willingly putting museum objects at physical risk?

At the time, I saw that in this particular situation preserving the physical integrity of an object and preserving its conceptual integrity were undeniably in conflict. In attempting to resolve this conflict, I began to think about the meaning of “preservation,” the meaning of “use,” the meaning of “object,” and the meaning of the phrase “integrity of the object.” Conservators believe that their values are consistent with the best methods of preservation. How does this fit with the kind of preservation represented by dancing a mask or wearing a weaving: cultural preservation? What about physical materials deteriorating through use and that my profession is dedicated to preventing damage to, and conserving, material culture –and then contextualizing these statements and the First Nations requests to museums in the history of colonialism, the history of museums, and the values represented by conservation and museums, past and present? Further, when I use words like “cultural property” or “collections” or “objects,” what am I telling their originators about their heritage? What are “damage” and “deterioration”, for that matter? The results of research to answer these and related questions have been published in my 2002 book, Preserving What is Valued: Museums, Conservation and First Nations (University of British Columbia Press), and various articles in the conservation literature.  Today the situation I perceived initially as a conflict has developed into more of a “win-win” situation, but by no means has it been resolved in all places: not for conservators, museums, or indigenous peoples.

 


Miriam Clavir is Conservator Emerita and Research Fellow, University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, Canada.

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  • The Short Guide
  • by Jeffrey Schnapp
  • March 5, 2013

Where Does the Digital Humanities Come From?

The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

Where does the Digital Humanities come from?

The roots of computational work in the humanities stretch back to 1949 when the Jesuit scholar Roberto Busa, working in collaboration with IBM, undertook the creation of an automated approach to his vast Index Thomisticus, a computer-generated concordance to the writings of Thomas Aquinas. By means of such early uses of mainframe computers to automate tasks such as word-searching, sorting, counting, and listing, scholars could process textual corpora on a scale unthinkable with prior methods that relied on handwritten or typed index cards. Other early projects included the debut, in 1966, of Computers and the Humanities, the first specialized journal in the field. Seven years later, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) was founded, with the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) following in 1978.

By the mid-1980s computational methods for linguistic analysis had become widespread enough that protocols for tagging digital texts were needed. This... Read More

The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

Where does the Digital Humanities come from?

The roots of computational work in the humanities stretch back to 1949 when the Jesuit scholar Roberto Busa, working in collaboration with IBM, undertook the creation of an automated approach to his vast Index Thomisticus, a computer-generated concordance to the writings of Thomas Aquinas. By means of such early uses of mainframe computers to automate tasks such as word-searching, sorting, counting, and listing, scholars could process textual corpora on a scale unthinkable with prior methods that relied on handwritten or typed index cards. Other early projects included the debut, in 1966, of Computers and the Humanities, the first specialized journal in the field. Seven years later, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) was founded, with the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) following in 1978.

By the mid-1980s computational methods for linguistic analysis had become widespread enough that protocols for tagging digital texts were needed. This spurred the development of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). This important undertaking reshaped the field of electronic textual scholarship and led subsequent digital editing to be carried out in Extensible Markup Language (XML), the tag scheme of which TEI is a specialized subset. The first human- ities-based experiments with database structures and hypertextual editing structured around links and nodes (rather than the linear conventions of print) date from this period, as do the many pilot projects in computational humanities in the United States sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other agencies, organizations, and foundations.

 

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  • Conservation Moments
  • by Paul Stirton
  • March 4, 2013

Conservation Moments

In late January, the Bard Graduate Center in New York hosted a symposium called “Cultures of Conservation,” part of a Mellon-funded initiative to connect the practices and perspectives of museum conservators around the world into the interdisciplinary study of materials and material culture more broadly.

During the symposium, David Bomford, director of conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, called for an awareness of key moments in the history of conservation when values and approaches underwent a radical change. Citing a conference at Greenwich in 1974 on the relining of paintings on canvas, he drew attention to a major shift of emphasis in that field; from an approach in which the conservator applied specialist knowledge and technique to an object, to the opposing view allowing the object itself to dictate what was needed to conserve it.

This seemed a good basis on which to feature contributions related specifically to conservation issues here on the West 86th website. We have invited conservators to think of a specific moment (a date, a year, a decade) when their area of conservation underwent a radical change. This may have been due to a conference or publication, the development of new materials, the introduction of new equipment, or simply the tipping point of a slowly developing change of approach. Whichever moment is chosen,... Read More

In late January, the Bard Graduate Center in New York hosted a symposium called “Cultures of Conservation,” part of a Mellon-funded initiative to connect the practices and perspectives of museum conservators around the world into the interdisciplinary study of materials and material culture more broadly.

During the symposium, David Bomford, director of conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, called for an awareness of key moments in the history of conservation when values and approaches underwent a radical change. Citing a conference at Greenwich in 1974 on the relining of paintings on canvas, he drew attention to a major shift of emphasis in that field; from an approach in which the conservator applied specialist knowledge and technique to an object, to the opposing view allowing the object itself to dictate what was needed to conserve it.

This seemed a good basis on which to feature contributions related specifically to conservation issues here on the West 86th website. We have invited conservators to think of a specific moment (a date, a year, a decade) when their area of conservation underwent a radical change. This may have been due to a conference or publication, the development of new materials, the introduction of new equipment, or simply the tipping point of a slowly developing change of approach. Whichever moment is chosen, we hope it will be a useful way to bring everyone into the conversation, and allow non-specialists to get a sense of the debates that surround conservation across the full spectrum of materials and media.

Our first “moment” belongs to Dr. Miriam Clavir, conservator emerita and research fellow at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Her post is to follow and many more are to come.

If you are a conservator or have conservation-related interests, please forward these posts along and, of course, feel free to comment.

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Christine Griffiths
  • February 19, 2013

Painted Pomp: Art and Fashion in the Age of Shakespeare

Painted Pomp: Art and Fashion in the Age of Shakespeare
The Holburne Museum, Bath
26 January 2013–6 May 2013

 

Renowned for his incredibly detailed full-length portraits of courtiers during the reign of James I, William Larkin (1580s1619) is especially important to the study of historic costume and dress.  Nine portraits by Larkin of members of the Howard and Cecil families are currently on view at the Holburne Museum in Bath, loaned from English Heritage while renovations are undertaken at Kenwood House.  Displays of extant seventeenth-century fashions and objects accompany the paintings alongside quotes from Shakespeare, articulating the importance of clothing and accessories in the establishment of aristocratic identity.

The well-known portrait of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, (1613) is mounted above an early seventeenth-century Ushak or “Lotto” rug (English Heritage).  These rugs, acclaimed for their distinctive red and yellow geometric and foliate designs, were imported from the region of Ushak in present-day Turkey and were especially popular with European aristocrats.  Several examples of European leather accessories are displayed in the exhibition, including a pair of once-heavily perfumed gloves (Worshipful Company of Glovers/The Fashion Museum), an elaborately pinked pair of shoes (Ashmolean Museum), and a fan (Royal Collection) that was pierced in a manner echoing examples of Italian reticella (needle lace) featured elsewhere in the show.  Two men’s shirts decorated... Read More

Painted Pomp: Art and Fashion in the Age of Shakespeare
The Holburne Museum, Bath
26 January 2013–6 May 2013

 

Renowned for his incredibly detailed full-length portraits of courtiers during the reign of James I, William Larkin (1580s1619) is especially important to the study of historic costume and dress.  Nine portraits by Larkin of members of the Howard and Cecil families are currently on view at the Holburne Museum in Bath, loaned from English Heritage while renovations are undertaken at Kenwood House.  Displays of extant seventeenth-century fashions and objects accompany the paintings alongside quotes from Shakespeare, articulating the importance of clothing and accessories in the establishment of aristocratic identity.

The well-known portrait of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, (1613) is mounted above an early seventeenth-century Ushak or “Lotto” rug (English Heritage).  These rugs, acclaimed for their distinctive red and yellow geometric and foliate designs, were imported from the region of Ushak in present-day Turkey and were especially popular with European aristocrats.  Several examples of European leather accessories are displayed in the exhibition, including a pair of once-heavily perfumed gloves (Worshipful Company of Glovers/The Fashion Museum), an elaborately pinked pair of shoes (Ashmolean Museum), and a fan (Royal Collection) that was pierced in a manner echoing examples of Italian reticella (needle lace) featured elsewhere in the show.  Two men’s shirts decorated with delicate embroidery and cutwork identify the possibility of what lay beneath heavy brocaded and damask silk garments.

Unofficially, this exhibition signals the start of the year of the Stuarts, with a number of UK institutions “going seventeenth century,” to borrow the words of one British museum educator.  Officially however, Painted Pomp continues in the tradition of integrating material and visual culture for a better-rounded study of courtly culture. 

For more information, visit: http://www.holburne.org/painted-pomp/

 

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  • The Short Guide
  • by Jeffrey Schnapp
  • February 19, 2013

What Isn’t the Digital Humanities?

The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

What isn't the Digital Humanities?

The mere use of digital tools for the purpose of humanistic research and communication does not qualify as Digital Humanities. Nor, as already noted, is Digital Humanities to be understood as the study of digital artifacts, new media, or contemporary culture in place of physical artifacts, old media, or historical culture.

On the contrary, Digital Humanities understands its object of study as the entire human record, from prehistory to the present. This is why fields such as classics and archaeology have played just as important a role in the development of Digital Humanities as has, for example, media studies. This is also why some of the major sectors of Digital Humanities research extend outside the traditional core of the humanities to embrace quantitative methods from the social and natural sciences as well as techniques and modes of thinking from the arts.

The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

What isn't the Digital Humanities?

The mere use of digital tools for the purpose of humanistic research and communication does not qualify as Digital Humanities. Nor, as already noted, is Digital Humanities to be understood as the study of digital artifacts, new media, or contemporary culture in place of physical artifacts, old media, or historical culture.

On the contrary, Digital Humanities understands its object of study as the entire human record, from prehistory to the present. This is why fields such as classics and archaeology have played just as important a role in the development of Digital Humanities as has, for example, media studies. This is also why some of the major sectors of Digital Humanities research extend outside the traditional core of the humanities to embrace quantitative methods from the social and natural sciences as well as techniques and modes of thinking from the arts.

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  • The Short Guide
  • by Jeffrey Schnapp
  • February 6, 2013

What Defines the Digital Humanities Now?

The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

What defines the Digital Humanities now?

The computational era has been underway since World War II, but after the advent of personal computing, the World Wide Web, mobile communication, and social media, the digital revolution entered a new phase, giving rise to a vastly expanded, globalized public sphere and to transformed possibilities for knowledge creation and dissemination.

Building on the first generation of computational humanities work, more recent Digital Humanities activity seeks to revitalize liberal arts traditions in the electronically inflected language of the 21st century: a language in which, uprooted from its long-standing paper support, text is increasingly wedded to still and moving images as well as to sound, and supports have become increasingly mobile, open, and extensible.

And the notion of the primacy of text itself is being challenged. Whereas the initial waves of computational humanities concentrated on everything from word frequency studies and textual analysis (classification systems, mark-up, encoding) to hypertext editing and textual database... Read More

The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

What defines the Digital Humanities now?

The computational era has been underway since World War II, but after the advent of personal computing, the World Wide Web, mobile communication, and social media, the digital revolution entered a new phase, giving rise to a vastly expanded, globalized public sphere and to transformed possibilities for knowledge creation and dissemination.

Building on the first generation of computational humanities work, more recent Digital Humanities activity seeks to revitalize liberal arts traditions in the electronically inflected language of the 21st century: a language in which, uprooted from its long-standing paper support, text is increasingly wedded to still and moving images as well as to sound, and supports have become increasingly mobile, open, and extensible.

And the notion of the primacy of text itself is being challenged. Whereas the initial waves of computational humanities concentrated on everything from word frequency studies and textual analysis (classification systems, mark-up, encoding) to hypertext editing and textual database construction, contemporary Digital Humanities marks a move beyond a privileging of the textual, emphasizing graphical methods of knowledge production and organization, design as an integral component of research, transmedia crisscrossings, and an expanded concept of the sensorium of humanistic knowledge. It is also characterized by an intensified focus on the building of transferrable tools, environments, and platforms for collaborative scholarly work and by an emphasis upon curation as a defining feature of scholarly practice.

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  • The Short Guide
  • by Jeffrey Schnapp
  • February 2, 2013

What is the Digital Humanities?


The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available athttp://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

What is the Digital Humanities?

Digital Humanities refers to new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, trans-disciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publication.

Digital Humanities is less a unified field than an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated.

Digital tools, techniques, and media have expanded traditional concepts of knowledge in the arts, humanities and social sciences, but Digital Humanities is not solely “about” the digital (in the sense of limiting its scope to the study of digital culture). Nor is Digital Humanities only “about” the humanities as traditionally understood since it argues for a remapping of traditional practices. Rather, Digital Humanities is defined by the opportunities and challenges that arise from the conjunction of the term digital with the term humanities to form a new collective singular.

The opportunities include redrawing the boundary lines among... Read More


The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.

 

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available athttp://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 

 

Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

What is the Digital Humanities?

Digital Humanities refers to new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, trans-disciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publication.

Digital Humanities is less a unified field than an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated.

Digital tools, techniques, and media have expanded traditional concepts of knowledge in the arts, humanities and social sciences, but Digital Humanities is not solely “about” the digital (in the sense of limiting its scope to the study of digital culture). Nor is Digital Humanities only “about” the humanities as traditionally understood since it argues for a remapping of traditional practices. Rather, Digital Humanities is defined by the opportunities and challenges that arise from the conjunction of the term digital with the term humanities to form a new collective singular.

The opportunities include redrawing the boundary lines among the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, and the natural sciences; expanding the audience and social impact of scholarship in the humanities; developing new forms of inquiry and knowledge production and reinvigorating ones that have fallen by the wayside; training future generations of humanists through hands-on, project-based learning as a complement to classroom-based learning; and developing practices that expand the scope, enhance the quality, and increase the visibility of humanistic research.

The challenges include addressing fundamental questions such as: How can skills traditionally used in the humanities be reshaped in multimedia terms? How and by whom will the contours of cultural and historical memory be defined in the digital era? How might practices such as digital storytelling coincide with or diverge from oral or print-based storytelling? What is the place of humanitas in a networked world?

Coming soon: What defines the Digital Humanities Now?  

 

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  • The Short Guide
  • February 1, 2013

The Digital Humanities, Design, and Material Culture: A Short Guide and an Ongoing Conversation

A video introduction to The Short Guide to the Digital Humanities starring our very own (and the metaLAB (at) Harvard's) Jeffrey Schnapp.

 

As part of our directive to consider all aspects of design history and material culture, we would be more than remiss not to consider the enormous impact that digital culture continues to have not only on the rapidly changing practices and methods of producing scholarship in the humanities, but also on what the ongoing digitization of culture means for material culture writ large. 

The premise on which much of the hand-wringing within the academy, the publishing industry, and amongst lovers of books more generally is predicated is that we are, or that we will soon be living, in a post-print culture. And while books are still being written, pitched, acquired, edited, printed, bought, shelved, and read in massive quantities, there is no question that most of us now rely for our research, writing, and reading on technologies, networks, and displays that did not exist or at least could easily have been avoided twenty, ten, and even five years ago.

... Read More

A video introduction to The Short Guide to the Digital Humanities starring our very own (and the metaLAB (at) Harvard's) Jeffrey Schnapp.

 

As part of our directive to consider all aspects of design history and material culture, we would be more than remiss not to consider the enormous impact that digital culture continues to have not only on the rapidly changing practices and methods of producing scholarship in the humanities, but also on what the ongoing digitization of culture means for material culture writ large. 

The premise on which much of the hand-wringing within the academy, the publishing industry, and amongst lovers of books more generally is predicated is that we are, or that we will soon be living, in a post-print culture. And while books are still being written, pitched, acquired, edited, printed, bought, shelved, and read in massive quantities, there is no question that most of us now rely for our research, writing, and reading on technologies, networks, and displays that did not exist or at least could easily have been avoided twenty, ten, and even five years ago.

So let’s posit that we are already living in a rapidly evolving post-print world. For those of us in the humanities, this has already had a profound effect on our research and routines, our basic assumptions about the breadth and depth of information we can gather and consider, and of course on the ultimate outcome and dissemination of our findings.

Published in December by MIT Press, the book Digital_Humanities attempts to answer a question that has been difficult to avoid in recent academic discourse: “What is digital humanities?” and perhaps more poignantly for humanists, “How does this affect me?” One of its five co-authors is Jeffrey Schnapp—who in addition to being the faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, where he is Professor of Romance Literatures, teaches at the Graduate School of Design, and serves as faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society—is also a contributing editor to West 86th Online. (For information on the book and its other authors, please visit the MIT Press website.) 

In collaboration with Jeffrey Schnapp and with the metaLAB (at) Harvard, West 86th is pleased to host The Short Guide, an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities. We will be posting excerpts from The Short Guide in regular installments, in the hopes of generating and facilitating discussion around the topic, particularly amongst our readership of design historians and material culture specialists.

Some of the more general questions we might want to keep in mind are: What is meant by the term “digital humanities” and how does it affect the study of material culture?  What part does design have in the development of the digital humanities? And further, how does digital culture affect the study of material culture?

We hope you'll join us in the conversation.

 

Up Next: What is the Digital Humanities?

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  • From the Editors
  • November 7, 2012

West 86th Reviewed in the TLS

West 86th was reviewed in this week's Times Literary Supplement. Among the highlights of the review: 

"Articles are meticulously referenced and supported by photographs and graphics. The result is both stylish and comprehensive. Of interest both to the expert and the amateur enthusiast, West 86th is a splendid addition to scholarship on material culture in all its facets."

The article is in the Nov. 2nd print issue of the TLS and resides behind a paywall on line (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/reviews/other_categories/article1157912.ece)

West 86th was reviewed in this week's Times Literary Supplement. Among the highlights of the review: 

"Articles are meticulously referenced and supported by photographs and graphics. The result is both stylish and comprehensive. Of interest both to the expert and the amateur enthusiast, West 86th is a splendid addition to scholarship on material culture in all its facets."

The article is in the Nov. 2nd print issue of the TLS and resides behind a paywall on line (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/reviews/other_categories/article1157912.ece)

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  • From the Editors
  • October 9, 2012

The Material Record

What good is an archive anyway? An Oxford college principal's to decision to destroy the physical admissions records from its early years causes consteration. From the TLS blog.

What good is an archive anyway? An Oxford college principal's to decision to destroy the physical admissions records from its early years causes consteration. From the TLS blog.

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  • From the Editors
  • October 8, 2012

"A monument more lasting than bronze..."?

James Davidson reviews the Bronze exhibition, on display at the Royal Academy until December 9th, an extradorinary display of objects spanning nearly 6000 years. From the LRB.

James Davidson reviews the Bronze exhibition, on display at the Royal Academy until December 9th, an extradorinary display of objects spanning nearly 6000 years. From the LRB.

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  • Conference Notes
  • by Andy Hoogenboom
  • August 3, 2012

FILAF: Festival International Du Livre D’Art & Du Film

FILAF: Festival International Du Livre D’Art & Du Film
Perpignan, France
June 27-July 1 2012 

 

Before I attended this year’s FILAF festival, it was described to me as “an art historian’s delight.” Having enormously enjoyed the many great books and films presented there, I would add that it is a delight for anyone interested in art—from practitioners of every aspect of art to historians, curators, journalists and anyone with a serious “lay interest.” As this year’s catalogue puts it (in the English language section):

FILAF celebrates the best books and films about art published and released during the year…Books and movies about art are objects of specific interest to an art lover: they are vectors of knowledge and emotion that add to the works. More, they are often the first way for us to see works…They allow an understanding and appreciation so that without them [the works] would remain purely subjective.

The brainchild of philosopher Sebastien Planas and a group of friends, FILAF is sponsored by the National Institute of the History of Art (INHA) in Paris, as well as other institutions and individuals. It defines “art” very widely, from painting and sculpture to all areas of design and photography. There were so many excellent films to see and talks to attend about the books in competition for... Read More

FILAF: Festival International Du Livre D’Art & Du Film
Perpignan, France
June 27-July 1 2012 

 

Before I attended this year’s FILAF festival, it was described to me as “an art historian’s delight.” Having enormously enjoyed the many great books and films presented there, I would add that it is a delight for anyone interested in art—from practitioners of every aspect of art to historians, curators, journalists and anyone with a serious “lay interest.” As this year’s catalogue puts it (in the English language section):

FILAF celebrates the best books and films about art published and released during the year…Books and movies about art are objects of specific interest to an art lover: they are vectors of knowledge and emotion that add to the works. More, they are often the first way for us to see works…They allow an understanding and appreciation so that without them [the works] would remain purely subjective.

The brainchild of philosopher Sebastien Planas and a group of friends, FILAF is sponsored by the National Institute of the History of Art (INHA) in Paris, as well as other institutions and individuals. It defines “art” very widely, from painting and sculpture to all areas of design and photography. There were so many excellent films to see and talks to attend about the books in competition for the prestigious prizes, as well as “mediateque” talks and round-tables on all sorts of cultural matters, including museums and the arts, and collecting, that it was difficult to choose which event of the two (often three) strands to attend. Above and beyond that was the pleasure of socializing and holding informal discussions with like-minded people, often after the Q & A sessions that followed each talk or screening, or at the many wonderful dinners and lunches that help FILAF achieve its stated aim of providing an atmosphere of discovery and conviviality. This festival revealed southern French / northern Catalonian hospitality at its very best (Perpignan was for many years part of Catalonia).

Using a system of distinguished jurors for each of thirteen subject areas, each year FILAF makes its selections for book winners from several thousand books published around the world, from Brazil and India to the United States, France, and Britain. The criteria are not fixed in stone but include quality of thought and writing. Nearly one thousand books were on open display at the festival and from these the jurors selected the 39 finalists and, ultimately, the thirteen prize winners—one for each category such as Artists’ Books and books on Design, Non-Western Art, Collecting and Collections, Works on Paper, Photography, Film, Architecture, Sculpture, etc. (see below). The thirteen books then all entered the competition  for a yet higher level of award; the three top prizes of Prix d’Or (Gold Medal), Prix d’Argent (Silver Medal), and a Special Jury Prize (something akin to a Bronze). Nine films were selected for the festival and, again, three top prizes were awarded.

I found the films particularly stimulating, including that which won the Prix d’Or – Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions, a beautiful study of the architect Erich Mendelsohn (“the busiest architect in Germany in the interwar years”) by Israeli film maker Duki Dror. The story was told largely through archive drawings, some of which were sent to his wife from the front during World War I, and from her memoirs; indeed the film was as much about her as him. Several of the films showed artists at work, making visual the complex work processes of the individuals concerned, including Gerhard Richter. Film treats shown out of competition included a screening of Catherine Meyburgh’s splendid In Conversation: William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas (2010). There was a special screening of a compilation of extracts from films by the noted French documentary director Adrian Maben, who was honoured with a special award in this his seventieth year, and a screening of his 1989 documentary on Helmut Newton. In addition, by popular request, an additional full screening of a pristine restored print of his Pink Floyd at Pompeii (1972) was added to the end of the program. A brilliant mix of art film, documentary, and music video rolled into one, it confirmed Maben’s early standing as a filmmaker of note.  

I highly recommend it. I, for one, will be making every effort to attend in 2013.

Andy Hoogenboom

 

FILAF website: www.filaf.com


Andy Hoogenboom is an artist (printmaker, sculptor, photographer) based in New York. He is currently vice president of the New York Society of Etchers.

 

 

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  • From the Editors
  • June 8, 2012

The Mysterious Origins of California Design

The old narrative that California Modern is the technological expression of European Modernism adapted to a sunny paradise on earth may never have been quite right. But what is it then? Where did it come from? Alan Hess explores in his LARB review.

The old narrative that California Modern is the technological expression of European Modernism adapted to a sunny paradise on earth may never have been quite right. But what is it then? Where did it come from? Alan Hess explores in his LARB review.

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  • From the Editors
  • March 29, 2012

Towards a Materialization of Consciousness?

Or towards a materialization of the soul? Can everything be reduced to mere neuroscience? Of course not, but an article by Roger Scruton in the Spectator argues against neuroaesthetics as a legitimate discipline, while neuroscientists such as Semir Zeki and Eric Kandel, whose work is featured in an article by Alexander Kafka in the Chronicle Review, show that the humanities ignore recent discoveries at their own peril.

From Roger Scruton in the Spectator:

When it comes to the subtle features of the human condition, to the byways of culpability and the secrets of happiness and grief, we need guidance and study if we are to interpret things correctly. That is what the humanities provide, and that is why, when scholars who purport to practise them, add the prefix ‘neuro’ to their studies, we should expect their researches to be nonsense.

From Alexander Kafka's article in the Chronicle Review:

Of neuroaesthetics, Zeki says, "I'll be amazed if it doesn't explode in the next 10 to 15 years." He expects [Kandel's] The Age of Insight to be embraced by neurobiologists and the general public, but says it will be a further "irritation to people hostile to the idea" that cognition can be traced to specific neural correlates.

Zeki's message to art historians, aesthetic philosophers, and others who chafe at that idea is twofold. The... Read More

Or towards a materialization of the soul? Can everything be reduced to mere neuroscience? Of course not, but an article by Roger Scruton in the Spectator argues against neuroaesthetics as a legitimate discipline, while neuroscientists such as Semir Zeki and Eric Kandel, whose work is featured in an article by Alexander Kafka in the Chronicle Review, show that the humanities ignore recent discoveries at their own peril.

From Roger Scruton in the Spectator:

When it comes to the subtle features of the human condition, to the byways of culpability and the secrets of happiness and grief, we need guidance and study if we are to interpret things correctly. That is what the humanities provide, and that is why, when scholars who purport to practise them, add the prefix ‘neuro’ to their studies, we should expect their researches to be nonsense.

From Alexander Kafka's article in the Chronicle Review:

Of neuroaesthetics, Zeki says, "I'll be amazed if it doesn't explode in the next 10 to 15 years." He expects [Kandel's] The Age of Insight to be embraced by neurobiologists and the general public, but says it will be a further "irritation to people hostile to the idea" that cognition can be traced to specific neural correlates.

Zeki's message to art historians, aesthetic philosophers, and others who chafe at that idea is twofold. The more diplomatic pitch is that neuroaesthetics is different, complementary, and not oppositional to other forms of arts scholarship. But "the stick," as he puts it, is that if arts scholars "want to be taken seriously" by neurobiologists, they need to take advantage of the discoveries of the past half-century. If they don't, he says, "it's a bit like the guys who said to Galileo that we'd rather not look through your telescope."

 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • November 18, 2011

Rothko in Britain

This review first appeared in artUS  and is posted here with permission from the publisher.


Whitechapel Gallery, London
September 9, 2011 – February 26, 2012

 

Artlyst.com interview with Nayia Yiakoumaki, Archive Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery about Rothko in Britain.

 

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first large exhibition of the works of Mark Rothko in Britain, held in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961, the same institution has organized a single gallery show. Its focus is just one painting, Rothko’s Light Red over Black of 1957. I have yet to see a mature painting by Rothko that disappoints—though some in museums are insensitively displayed—so it is hardly surprising that this one work should so thoroughly and convincingly command the space it occupies. Viewers are encouraged to recline on beanbags before it, a considerate touch that acknowledges the demands the painting makes of them if they accede to its implicit demand for unhurried concentration of attention. While doing so, they can also listen to recorded commentaries on headphones by a variety of luminaries who recall their experiences of the 1961 exhibition. This might be enough in itself, but there is more.

... Read More

This review first appeared in artUS  and is posted here with permission from the publisher.


Whitechapel Gallery, London
September 9, 2011 – February 26, 2012

 

Artlyst.com interview with Nayia Yiakoumaki, Archive Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery about Rothko in Britain.

 

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first large exhibition of the works of Mark Rothko in Britain, held in the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961, the same institution has organized a single gallery show. Its focus is just one painting, Rothko’s Light Red over Black of 1957. I have yet to see a mature painting by Rothko that disappoints—though some in museums are insensitively displayed—so it is hardly surprising that this one work should so thoroughly and convincingly command the space it occupies. Viewers are encouraged to recline on beanbags before it, a considerate touch that acknowledges the demands the painting makes of them if they accede to its implicit demand for unhurried concentration of attention. While doing so, they can also listen to recorded commentaries on headphones by a variety of luminaries who recall their experiences of the 1961 exhibition. This might be enough in itself, but there is more.

Curators have the great privilege of access to materials that relate to the artworks in their care. These include correspondence with collectors, scholars, dealers, and sometimes the authors of the works themselves. Traces of business transactions, including dealers’ invoices, can also find their way into curatorial files. Although scholarly researchers can sometimes gain access to this material, it is rarely shown in public. The Tate, thanks to the perspicacity of John Rothenstein, acquired Light Red over Black two years after its completion. The exhibition organizers have persuaded the Tate to show the contents of the files. The result is an extraordinarily informative display.

The correspondence between Rothenstein and Sidney Janis, Rothko’s dealer in New York, reveals the fragile contingency of the conditions of acquisition of Light Red over Black. Janis offered a customary ten percent museum discount, so the Tate paid all of $4,500 for this great work. Was the paint application thin enough so that the canvas might safely be rolled for travel to London? Yes, Janis replied, though—perhaps fortunately—he made arrangements for it to be crated with another stretched painting to be delivered to London. Rothko’s own letter announces his pleasure at the purchase. Then we see the later correspondence in which he offers as a gift to the Tate a group of nine canvases originally intended for the Seagram Building in New York. He had withdrawn from the commission when he (and surely others) realized they were wholly unsuitable for a restaurant. He is to the point, polite, and urbane.

This impression is strikingly reinforced by a group of photographs made during Rothko’s visit to England in 1959. His enthusiastic reception by at least some artists and arts administrators helped inspire the respect and even affection he felt for Britain, which was to prompt the gift of the Seagram paintings in 1968. This is not to claim that Rothko’s generous gift was not without self-interest. His terms were clear. These paintings, which could never be alienated, would ensure him a room to himself, like Picasso and Giacometti, thereby asserting his newly earned status among the already acknowledged great Moderns. It was a brilliant assertion of ambition on Rothko’s part from which the knowing Tate worthies were ready to benefit no less than was the artist.

In the 1959 photographs in Cornwall, Rothko appears with William Scott. In contrast to the earnest, anxious Scott, casual in an polo-necked shirt, Rothko is a gently overbearing presence from another world, every inch the New York sophisticate, polite yet reserved in jacket and fashionably narrow tie. He looks totally though resignedly—even comfortably—out of place against a rough Cornish stonewall. In one photo his young daughter, Kate, clings to him, anxiously eyeing the lens. In another, at a rustic outdoor tea table crowded with pottery plates and mugs, he evokes the shade of the worldly Pieter Breugel visiting the so-called peasants in the sixteenth-century Flemish countryside.

Letters from those who saw him in Cornwall reveal the awe in which some British artists held Rothko, and expose their squabbling and jockeying for his attention. Patrick Heron complains that Peter Lanyon had deliberately kept him from seeing more of Rothko than he could help by not telling Rothko that he, Heron, was living and working in Cornwall (Rothko was understandably oblivious) and had not pointed out his studio to Rothko, even though Lanyon and Rothko had parked immediately in front of it. All this was done, Heron suggests, so that Rothko might think that Heron didn’t particularly want to see him, whereas he was in fact most anxious to spend as much time with the great New York painter as possible.

The Tate’s purchase of Light Red over Black in 1959, Rothko’s Whitechapel show in 1961, and his extraordinary gift of the Seagram Building paintings in 1968, quite overshadow the lionizing and the petty jealousies occasioned by his 1959 trip to Cornwall. However, the letters and photographs from that visit poignantly capture the incommensurability of the two worlds concerned: the emergent giant of Abstract Expressionist New York, and the British reticence of St. Ives, Cornwall, from where—for all the undoubted accomplishments of Scott, Lanyon, Heron, and others—only Barbara Hepworth survives unequivocally in the international canon.

If Light Red over Black is not sufficient to exemplify that chasm, a visit to Tate Modern to view the Seagram Building paintings in the light of Rothko in Britain, can only confirm the scale and scope of Rothko’s achievement. Their dark cold fires assuredly earned Rothko his place in the pantheon, for these are portals to aniconic mysteries; the antechamber to the infinite; afterimages of the blinding sight of omnipotence. Of course two years later he was dead, so the last letters on view at the Whitechapel are of condolence to his widow.

Given what Rothko must have seen in his mind’s eye, it is no wonder that his own expression in the Cornish photos is so abstractedly melancholic. We must thank the Whitechapel and the Tate for opening the files and giving us a glimpse of that great, visionary sadness.

Ivan Gaskell


Ivan Gaskell teaches history at Harvard University, using tangible things as historical sources.

 

 

1 Comment
April 28, 2012

Great article by Ivan Gaskell. Wonderful words to describe the work of a true genius. It was a pleasure to read! Thanks Ivan. Andres

Posted By Andres Galperin

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  • From the Editors
  • by Jeffrey Schnapp
  • September 15, 2011

Serial Quickening

Spinners is the first installment of Quickening (An Anthropology of Speed) that Jeffrey Schnapp--our newest Contributing Editor--will be publishing in West 86th in serialized form. From the Forward:

Human existence is defined by a set of “natural” paces and cycles: paces of walking, talking, breathing, and sensory perception, and cycles of wakefulness and sleep, activity and inactivity. Enabled and constrained by the capabilities of the human body, these spatiotemporal, perceptual, and communicational rhythms are embedded, in turn, within those of the natural world: day and night, seasonal flux, growth and decay, birth and death. When the relationship between the two is altered, the human as a category is pressed outward toward its boundaries: those with other orders of creatures, with more than “natural” forms of being and bodily expression, and with alternate modes of cognition, consciousness, or intellection. These boundary lines are themselves movable markers whose location shifts as a function of the everyday rhythms that characterize a given culture, conditioned by social conventions and technological possibilities. When mail coaches, trains, and automobiles first arose, their impact was traumatic and ecstatic; decades later, their velocities had been naturalized and normalized, absorbed within everyday routines. Speed, in turn, sought a home elsewhere: at the speedway, in the sky, between the planets, beyond the solar system, in atomic particles.

Quickening will take us... Read More

Spinners is the first installment of Quickening (An Anthropology of Speed) that Jeffrey Schnapp--our newest Contributing Editor--will be publishing in West 86th in serialized form. From the Forward:

Human existence is defined by a set of “natural” paces and cycles: paces of walking, talking, breathing, and sensory perception, and cycles of wakefulness and sleep, activity and inactivity. Enabled and constrained by the capabilities of the human body, these spatiotemporal, perceptual, and communicational rhythms are embedded, in turn, within those of the natural world: day and night, seasonal flux, growth and decay, birth and death. When the relationship between the two is altered, the human as a category is pressed outward toward its boundaries: those with other orders of creatures, with more than “natural” forms of being and bodily expression, and with alternate modes of cognition, consciousness, or intellection. These boundary lines are themselves movable markers whose location shifts as a function of the everyday rhythms that characterize a given culture, conditioned by social conventions and technological possibilities. When mail coaches, trains, and automobiles first arose, their impact was traumatic and ecstatic; decades later, their velocities had been naturalized and normalized, absorbed within everyday routines. Speed, in turn, sought a home elsewhere: at the speedway, in the sky, between the planets, beyond the solar system, in atomic particles.

Quickening will take us through the impact of motion on our senses and examine the material manifestations of speed that have altered our thought and history. In Spinners, we begin our journey with the wheel. 

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  • From the Editors
  • September 12, 2011

Comparative Bureaucracy

"The computer is lifeless, but there's a sheer joy in manual typing," From the LA Times: the death of the typewritten word is at hand--even in India.

"The computer is lifeless, but there's a sheer joy in manual typing," From the LA Times: the death of the typewritten word is at hand--even in India.

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  • From the Editors
  • August 26, 2011

Literary Matters

Literary theory has long been targeted as overly politicized and irrelevant. But the study of literature has given insights into human history and into the human condition at least as profound as anything claiming to be solely based in fact. "Knowing the past means knowing what people carried in their pockets, what they did with their sewage, where their dogs slept," says Scott Herring in the Chronicle Review. Could grounding the study of literature in objects offer a lifeline to a tired discipline, divorced (at least in public opinion) from reality or from anything that matters? 

Literary theory has long been targeted as overly politicized and irrelevant. But the study of literature has given insights into human history and into the human condition at least as profound as anything claiming to be solely based in fact. "Knowing the past means knowing what people carried in their pockets, what they did with their sewage, where their dogs slept," says Scott Herring in the Chronicle Review. Could grounding the study of literature in objects offer a lifeline to a tired discipline, divorced (at least in public opinion) from reality or from anything that matters? 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • August 22, 2011

Xu Bing, "Background Story 7"

Background Story in 60 Seconds: Front View courtesy of the British Museum.

 

This review first appeared in artUS  and is posted here with permission from the publisher.


British Museum, London
May 12 – July 10, 2011

 

Enter the British Museum, turn right, and there, against the deep blue background of the gallery walls, is a freestanding, sixteen-foot-high screen supporting a Chinese landscape. The image of steeply receding mountains, forest, and river is clearly a monochrome pen-and-ink drawing, a monumental hanging scroll. Or is it? The surface is backlit, so the landscape seems painted not on the side facing you, but on the reverse of the translucent screen. Or is it? On the left is a smaller hanging scroll. The landscape is similar. A label tells you that the scholar-artist Wang Shimin painted it in 1654. Why has Xu Bing reproduced it?

Venture round the back and discover the artifice. The light-box, open at the rear, is edged with fluorescent tubes. A jumble of branches, leaves, twigs, and teased hemp fiber is stuck to the screen with Scotch tape. Similar, locally gathered material, together with stubs of colored chalk and rolls of... Read More

Background Story in 60 Seconds: Front View courtesy of the British Museum.

 

This review first appeared in artUS  and is posted here with permission from the publisher.


British Museum, London
May 12 – July 10, 2011

 

Enter the British Museum, turn right, and there, against the deep blue background of the gallery walls, is a freestanding, sixteen-foot-high screen supporting a Chinese landscape. The image of steeply receding mountains, forest, and river is clearly a monochrome pen-and-ink drawing, a monumental hanging scroll. Or is it? The surface is backlit, so the landscape seems painted not on the side facing you, but on the reverse of the translucent screen. Or is it? On the left is a smaller hanging scroll. The landscape is similar. A label tells you that the scholar-artist Wang Shimin painted it in 1654. Why has Xu Bing reproduced it?

Venture round the back and discover the artifice. The light-box, open at the rear, is edged with fluorescent tubes. A jumble of branches, leaves, twigs, and teased hemp fiber is stuck to the screen with Scotch tape. Similar, locally gathered material, together with stubs of colored chalk and rolls of tape, litters the inside of the bottom of the light-box. Return to the front and disbelievingly correlate the shriveled vegetation stuck to the screen with the exquisite image on the front. Xu has recreated Wang’s landscape not in ink, but with the shadows cast by vegetable fragments stuck to the back of frosted acrylic. Where twigs and leaves stand out slightly from the surface, the shadows lose depth, darkness, and clarity. Their penumbrae imitate the delicate wash of diluted ink. The illusion is intense. Xu has created a contemporary trompe l’oeil that examines the conditions of representation in the Chinese tradition, yet participates fully in contemporary Western self-reflectivity.

This is a work of multiple resonances. What are Wang’s ink and paper but products derived from the vegetable world, like Xu’s, only more thoroughly processed and refined? Not before you enter the zone of direct light behind the screen are you literally enlightened. In front of it, you occupy the Chinese equivalent of Plato’s Cave, viewing the illusion of a shadow world that you take to be a real painted representation; yet behind it you see that this apparent reality comprises shriveled remnants of actuality.

Background Story 7 is the latest in Xu’s series of scroll recreations using light-and-shadow boxes, his first in vertical format. The project enacts a peculiarly Chinese procedure of imitation, emulation, and conversation with older art. In his 1654 hanging scroll landscape, Wang Shimin had imitated, emulated, and conversed with scroll paintings by Huang Gongwang, his predecessor by three hundred years. Vice-president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, Xu is a government official, as was Wang over three hundred years previously. As such, Xu is surely aware that the detritus of reality only finds its representational perfection in the contrivance of shadows to maintain illusions. In Background Story 7, as in earlier works in this series executed in China, Korea, Germany, and the USA, Xu exposes the illusion of perfection to be the skillfully improvised manipulation of messy reality. As in art, thus in life. 

Ivan Gaskell


Ivan Gaskell teaches history at Harvard University, using tangible things as historical sources.

 

 

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  • From the Editors
  • June 8, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

"There will be no records or CDs on the shelves of the future, few if any books," writes Sven Birkerts. "Everything will live in bits, in files — and how can this not modify the general atmosphere? We are removing the physical markers of culture from our collective midst. For a record store was not just a place to get records, as a bookstore was not only for finding the needed read. These were sites where the love of music and literature announced themselves across a spectrum of tastes. And though they were commercial entities, these emporia also symbolized the presence, the value, of their product to the community." Read more.

Does the dematerialization of the arts—of books, music, movies and the stores and spaces they once occupied—signify something darker? The end of a deeper and more primal tie to material things in general? Did these everyday objects (soon-to-be artifacts) of our existence tie us into nature and does our newfound existence in the cloud presage an even greater age of alienation?

"There will be no records or CDs on the shelves of the future, few if any books," writes Sven Birkerts. "Everything will live in bits, in files — and how can this not modify the general atmosphere? We are removing the physical markers of culture from our collective midst. For a record store was not just a place to get records, as a bookstore was not only for finding the needed read. These were sites where the love of music and literature announced themselves across a spectrum of tastes. And though they were commercial entities, these emporia also symbolized the presence, the value, of their product to the community." Read more.

Does the dematerialization of the arts—of books, music, movies and the stores and spaces they once occupied—signify something darker? The end of a deeper and more primal tie to material things in general? Did these everyday objects (soon-to-be artifacts) of our existence tie us into nature and does our newfound existence in the cloud presage an even greater age of alienation?

1 Comment
June 14, 2011

Not the medium but the content is dematerialized; I think better than dematerialization we should think of the shift to digital as a reorganization; in many ways the "primal tie to material things" is made more profound by the reduction of the public library to the personal device (however far along that process we are). I love to hold my iPad. The dependence on material things is not lost but transformed, for better or worse, in such a way that the textual criticism of contemporary cultural objects can now be conducted in the evaluative terms of International Design or Political Economy; and yet the imaginative world accessed through "books, music, movies" remains more or less the same imaginative world. The sinister, the dark, the foreboding, that mostly comes (for me) in the transition from used book store to Apple Store, or from the sense that by participating in culture through my devices I am also participating in/sustaining corporate structures that I disapprove of and do not -- maybe cannot -- understand. I'm not sure how my relation to any given object could be strictly seen as more or less "natural." I suspect that the sense of alienation could be closely linked to that distasteful but steadily increasing (seemingly necessary) participation in vast/faceless/rent-seeking corporatism.

Posted By Trevor

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  • Paperwork
  • by Ben Kafka
  • May 18, 2011

Paperwork Explosion

Read Ben Kafka's piece here.

Read Ben Kafka's piece here.

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  • From the Editors
  • May 4, 2011

Books Not Dead or Dead as Always

All this talk of the Death of the Book is nothing new, expounds Ben Ehrenreich in the Los Angeles Review of Books (which, for what it’s worth, exists only online). “The Book is a mountain,” writes Ehrenreich, “a goatskin, a forest, a slab of clay, a knotted string, a blinking screen, a reed, a flock of finches. It is a chorus line of electrons. Don’t freak out…” To what extent is the Book or the Idea of the Book bound up in materiality? And is it finally time for the newest age of biblionecrophilia to come to an end?

 

 

All this talk of the Death of the Book is nothing new, expounds Ben Ehrenreich in the Los Angeles Review of Books (which, for what it’s worth, exists only online). “The Book is a mountain,” writes Ehrenreich, “a goatskin, a forest, a slab of clay, a knotted string, a blinking screen, a reed, a flock of finches. It is a chorus line of electrons. Don’t freak out…” To what extent is the Book or the Idea of the Book bound up in materiality? And is it finally time for the newest age of biblionecrophilia to come to an end?

 

 

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  • Responses
  • by Paul Williamson
  • March 4, 2011

Anthony Cutler's "Carving, Recarving, and Forgery"

I am pleased to be able to support wholeheartedly Anthony Cutler's insistence on the fundamental importance of a close inspection of the physical properties of all medieval ivory carvings before proceeding with any wider study. Like Professor Cutler, I have been invited to opine on many pseudo-Byzantine ivories in the last thirty years; indeed, I know that we are often shown the same pieces, the Stuttgart Ascension relief (his fig. 21) being one of these. Spurious pieces continue to appear with relentless regularity, and in 2007 I saw on the London art market another modern version of the Christ Pantokrator plaque, illustrated as his fig.19, albeit more fragmentary and missing its lateral borders. Many of these carvings are clearly of nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century date, but there is reason to believe that several are of considerably more recent manufacture.

As Professor Cutler makes clear, the mistakes of the forger are not always simply technical, such as the misunderstood cutting of hinge-recesses (fig. 15). Old-fashioned connoisseurship–"a good eye"–and style criticism will always play a... Read More

I am pleased to be able to support wholeheartedly Anthony Cutler's insistence on the fundamental importance of a close inspection of the physical properties of all medieval ivory carvings before proceeding with any wider study. Like Professor Cutler, I have been invited to opine on many pseudo-Byzantine ivories in the last thirty years; indeed, I know that we are often shown the same pieces, the Stuttgart Ascension relief (his fig. 21) being one of these. Spurious pieces continue to appear with relentless regularity, and in 2007 I saw on the London art market another modern version of the Christ Pantokrator plaque, illustrated as his fig.19, albeit more fragmentary and missing its lateral borders. Many of these carvings are clearly of nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century date, but there is reason to believe that several are of considerably more recent manufacture.

As Professor Cutler makes clear, the mistakes of the forger are not always simply technical, such as the misunderstood cutting of hinge-recesses (fig. 15). Old-fashioned connoisseurship–"a good eye"–and style criticism will always play a key part in identifying copies and fakes, and it is perhaps surprising how often the forger is betrayed by iconographic solecisms or botched inscriptions. The great value of Cutler’s publications–on genuine as well as fraudulent Byzantine ivories–has been to open our eyes to how the objects were made, to look anew at the backs and sides, to interrogate the carving techniques and condition of the pieces and to ask what this tells us about the craftsman and the ‘biography’ of the work of art.  He has introduced new pieces into the literature, encouraged all of us to look as closely as he does, and has cast valuable light on ivories normally left unobserved, lurking in the shadows of conventional art history.

Dr. Paul Williamson
Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass
Victoria and Albert Museum
London

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  • 15 Things
  • by Jeffrey Schnapp
  • February 2, 2011

An Introduction to 15 Things

 

As someone who is neither a designer nor a design historian, but is engaged in various domains of design practice and in the study of the material culture of the industrial era, I tend to puzzle over how exactly to teach design history. The field is rich but still young. It remains underrepresented in research universities. Despite the bold promise of pioneering enterprises such as Alois Riegl’s Stilfragen, the disciplinary traditions of art history have mostly cast it outside the mainstream of forms of cultural historical inquiry (often to the detriment of the latter).

I open the first of my contributions to the West 86th Street blog with these reflections, intended as an incipit both to future blog entries and as a preface to the document attached here: the syllabus for an experimental seminar taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design during the fall 2009 semester, my first at the GSD. The experiment, entitled 15 Things, was shaped by scholarly appetites and curatorial experiences, but also by a sense of dissatisfaction with many of the standard sources on modern Italian design. It sought to distance itself from the “designer as artist/auteur” model of design historiography and, in so doing to also cross the history/theory/practice divide: to mingle historical and anthropological inquiry with the speculative making... Read More

 

As someone who is neither a designer nor a design historian, but is engaged in various domains of design practice and in the study of the material culture of the industrial era, I tend to puzzle over how exactly to teach design history. The field is rich but still young. It remains underrepresented in research universities. Despite the bold promise of pioneering enterprises such as Alois Riegl’s Stilfragen, the disciplinary traditions of art history have mostly cast it outside the mainstream of forms of cultural historical inquiry (often to the detriment of the latter).

I open the first of my contributions to the West 86th Street blog with these reflections, intended as an incipit both to future blog entries and as a preface to the document attached here: the syllabus for an experimental seminar taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design during the fall 2009 semester, my first at the GSD. The experiment, entitled 15 Things, was shaped by scholarly appetites and curatorial experiences, but also by a sense of dissatisfaction with many of the standard sources on modern Italian design. It sought to distance itself from the “designer as artist/auteur” model of design historiography and, in so doing to also cross the history/theory/practice divide: to mingle historical and anthropological inquiry with the speculative making of plausible (but imaginary) objects from the past or future descendants of real iconic objects, always animated and constrained by historical precedent. An exhibition, entitled The Thing Tank, featuring student projects from the seminar, was held at the GSD in January-February 2010.

15 Things presupposed the notion that industrial objects—even industrial objects—do more than document the development of industries and production processes, shifts in real or perceived social needs, or patterns of consumption, not to mention the intentions of individual creators. Such objects belong to families. They are indebted and haunted at birth. When interrogated, they tell tales that conjoin the actions of individual actors to those of collectivities, local microparticulars to global macroprocesses, in complex and unpredictable ways that can be reduced to labels like commodification only at the expense of historical nuance and anthropological completeness.

Commodification is a useful term under which to circumscribe the ever expanding universe of goods that accompanies the industrial revolution. It gazes down upon this universe from an altitude of 10,000 meters and what it observes are processes that, though undeniable, have necessarily been abstracted away from the everyday: into capital flows, alienations of labor from craft, animations of the thing at the expense of labor. What commodification, like its cousin consumerism, cannot adequately scrutinize, are the odd couplings of craft tradition and industrial fabrication techniques that shape much of the history of design; the unpredictable choreographies of self and things that can end up investing even the most standardized, trivial, or functional of objects with individual meanings or make them worthy of personalization. Here, a gaze at or below ground level is required and, with it, a methodology based on the “excavation” of sites where the residues of history (genealogy, material incrustations, documents, human traces) are concentrated. At least, that’s how I envisage my own approach to design history.

15 Things was an experiment that sought to probe the actual density that characterizes the world of industrial objects within a single national tradition: a density made up of crisscrossing forms of intentionality and intelligence (craft, thinking, technique, understandings of social needs, social fantasy) that extend from the process of making itself—napkin sketch to prototyping to production to the elaboration of plausible use scenarios—to patterns of human adaptation and use inflected by culture, society, and politics.

Jeffrey Schnapp


Jeffrey Schnapp is professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, where he also teaches in the Graduate School of Design. A cultural historian and curator who has collaborated with institutions such as the Canadian Center for Architecture, the Wolfsonian-FIU, and the Milan Triennale, his Trento Tunnels project—a 6000 square meter pair of highway tunnels in Northern Italy repurposed as a history museum—was featured in the Italian pavilion of the 2010 Venice Biennale. Visit his website.

 

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  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • February 1, 2011

FreePort [No. 001]: Charles Sandison, “Figurehead”

Photos: Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

This review first appeared in artUS  and is posted here with permission from the publisher.


Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
October 2, 2010–April 24, 2011

 

Follow the signs through the galleries of ship models and Chinese-export porcelain to a stairwell where projections flicker across the wall above. Climb the elegant stairs and emerge in a Federal-style chamber, some 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 20 feet high. The arched windows are blocked. The only light comes from sixteen projectors, ten at dado height, six at the cornice below the coved ceiling. They cast tumbling words, red and white, on the walls, ceiling, and floor. The words appear handwritten, for Charles Sandison scanned them from eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century ships’ logs and customs manifests. Groups of raw pixels swirl among the ever-shifting words. They resolve into log entries—“The First Part Fresh Breezes & Squally”—and diagrams of navigational calculations. These hold steady among the constantly stirring words before bursting into brilliant spume.

The largest gallery in the Peabody Essex Museum—East India Marine Hall, completed in 1825—has not been emptied to accommodate Sandison’s work. Sandison’s ever-shifting light falls on portraits of ships’ captains and merchants who founded Salem’s East India Marine Society in 1799. It falls, too, on wall cases of curios these voyagers brought back from the South... Read More

Photos: Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.

This review first appeared in artUS  and is posted here with permission from the publisher.


Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
October 2, 2010–April 24, 2011

 

Follow the signs through the galleries of ship models and Chinese-export porcelain to a stairwell where projections flicker across the wall above. Climb the elegant stairs and emerge in a Federal-style chamber, some 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 20 feet high. The arched windows are blocked. The only light comes from sixteen projectors, ten at dado height, six at the cornice below the coved ceiling. They cast tumbling words, red and white, on the walls, ceiling, and floor. The words appear handwritten, for Charles Sandison scanned them from eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century ships’ logs and customs manifests. Groups of raw pixels swirl among the ever-shifting words. They resolve into log entries—“The First Part Fresh Breezes & Squally”—and diagrams of navigational calculations. These hold steady among the constantly stirring words before bursting into brilliant spume.

The largest gallery in the Peabody Essex Museum—East India Marine Hall, completed in 1825—has not been emptied to accommodate Sandison’s work. Sandison’s ever-shifting light falls on portraits of ships’ captains and merchants who founded Salem’s East India Marine Society in 1799. It falls, too, on wall cases of curios these voyagers brought back from the South Seas and China, where they traveled in pursuit of trade and profit. The projected light also bathes nine carved and painted ships’ figureheads, each surging forward from the wall that supports it.

This installation, the first in a series of contemporary art interventions at the museum, marks an advance on Sandison’s earlier computer-generated data projections, for it marries theme and form perfectly. Sandison has contrived a phosphorescent sea in ceaseless motion using an algorithm derived from weather data streaming in real time. Words—some in Arabic—change direction as though caught by a shift in wind or current. The artist has incarnated the nautical memory of frail humans attempting to give shape and order to elemental flow through language and math in the great age of sail. Yet the images that froth and eddy imply more besides. They seem emanations from the room, its contents, and its absent original occupants, as though extrasensory perception has made visible all those intangibles that accompany the portraits and keepsakes. These emanations find evanescent embodiment in a matrix of wave and wind that stirs an ocean of human traces from long ago.

A display in an adjacent gallery, organized by Samuel Scott, associate curator of maritime art and history, complements Trevor Smith’s curatorial realization of Sandison’s vision. In Written on the Waves: Shipboard Journals and Logbooks, we can examine the very documents that Sandison scanned. Who could fail to be stirred by an entry in the logbook of the American privateer Tyrannicide describing a chase “within Gun Shott” in 1779, resulting in the disastrous springing of her main mast? We can read the very words, inked at sea and bound in coarse sailcloth, now cast by Sandison on the ceiling of East India Marine Hall. I can recall no museum intervention by a contemporary artist more evocative.

Ivan Gaskell


Ivan Gaskell teaches history at Harvard University, using tangible things as historical sources.

 


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  • From the Editors
  • by Daniel Lee
  • February 1, 2011

No Narrow Manifesto

Today marks the launch of West 86th Online, the digital supplement to West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, published by the University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. We'd like to welcome you and give you a taste of what our journal has to offer. As Paul Stirton, our Editor-in-Chief, mentions in his introductory comments in the first pages of the first issue of our new journal (Vol. 18 No. 1, due out later this month), "West 86th aims to bring interested scholars together. There is no narrow manifesto, and no methodological axe to grind." Words to live by, whether in print or online.

This site runs parellel to both our print journal and the digital version of the journal available to subscribers through JSTOR. Some things you ought to know about it: first, it is entirely free; second, its contents are unbound and may range further afield than what we allow into typesetting, printing, and binding; third, some of what appears here first—like Tony Cutler's authoritative article Carving, Recarving, and Forgery: Working Ivory in the Tenth and Twentieth Centuries, and Ben Kafka's lovely piece on the value and meaning Roland Barthes placed in what most would regard as the humdrum of everyday administrative work—will appear in forthcoming print issues; and fourth,... Read More

Today marks the launch of West 86th Online, the digital supplement to West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, published by the University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. We'd like to welcome you and give you a taste of what our journal has to offer. As Paul Stirton, our Editor-in-Chief, mentions in his introductory comments in the first pages of the first issue of our new journal (Vol. 18 No. 1, due out later this month), "West 86th aims to bring interested scholars together. There is no narrow manifesto, and no methodological axe to grind." Words to live by, whether in print or online.

This site runs parellel to both our print journal and the digital version of the journal available to subscribers through JSTOR. Some things you ought to know about it: first, it is entirely free; second, its contents are unbound and may range further afield than what we allow into typesetting, printing, and binding; third, some of what appears here first—like Tony Cutler's authoritative article Carving, Recarving, and Forgery: Working Ivory in the Tenth and Twentieth Centuries, and Ben Kafka's lovely piece on the value and meaning Roland Barthes placed in what most would regard as the humdrum of everyday administrative work—will appear in forthcoming print issues; and fourth, there is always room for improvement.

To quote Paul again (something I have grown rather fond of since I began working with him), "It may seem reckless to be launching a print journal in 2011." In part, that is why this site exists—to stave off recklessness. But it is here in the digital arena where we also hope to make some of our biggest discoveries and experience some of our highest moments (along with the inevitable lows of formatting for the web, sorting through frivolous and sometimes sordid comments, and competing for a domain name with a barely active neighborhood association in Indiana). Along with publishing selected articles and reviews from our print publication, we also want to break new ground by publishing first online and allowing authors and scholars to experiment with new forms, new lengths, and new modes of communication. We'd like our articles to begin conversations that can continue on this site and spin off in directions that may lead to new articles that will begin new cycles of publishing and conversation. The more participation we get, obviously the healthier this site will be and the more incentive we'll have to publish more content online.

So to get the ball rolling, please let us know what you think. Feel free to take issue with us, our authors, and our reviewers. 

Daniel Lee
Managing Editor

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