• Exhibition Notes
    • Reviewed by Jane Whitehead
    • April 25, 2019
  • Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America
  • Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America
    McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
    February 11–June 2, 2019
    Website: McMullen Museum of Art

    A monumental Meiji-era bronze sculpted eagle with a nine-foot wingspan broods over the Daley Family Gallery at the McMullen Museum of Art. Now restored to its original appearance, for decades the eagle hid in plain sight atop a granite column on the Boston College campus, beloved as a college mascot but battered by the New England climate, its craftsmanship disguised by weather damage and heavy gilding.

    For exhibition cocurators Diana Larsen (assistant director of the McMullen) and Victoria Weston (associate professor of art at the University of Massachusetts Boston), the rediscovery of the Boston College eagle was the starting point for a wide-ranging exploration of the context of its making and the circumstances of its acquisition in Japan by philanthropists and art collectors Larz and Isabel Anderson, the original owners.

    With nearly one hundred objects drawn from over a dozen collections, mostly from New England, Larsen and Weston have created a rich, materially diverse setting for reconsidering the Boston College eagle. Juxtaposing artifacts including bronze, silver, and ivory sculptures of birds of prey; elaborately painted folding screens; scroll paintings; intricately carved netsuke; and lacquerware, ceramics, and textiles for the export market, Eaglemania explores several interlocking themes. These include Meiji-era bronze sculpture production, the depiction of birds of prey in Japanese art, and the enthusiasm with which wealthy late nineteenth-century Americans—and Boston Brahmins in particular—embraced Japanese art and culture.

    A short video in the gallery recapitulates the rediscovery and restoration of the Boston College eagle. By 1993, the “golden eagle” that for decades had served as a campus landmark and college mascot was deemed beyond repair. A replica was commissioned from reproduction sculpture specialists Skylight Studios in Woburn, Massachusetts, cast, and installed atop its column. The original sculpture remained in storage at Skylight, until in 2015 a faculty member at Showa Boston, a Japanese language and culture institute, saw it there and tipped off Boston College that the abandoned work might repay investigation.

    Dismantled, damaged, and dust-covered as the eagle was, Larsen immediately recognized the quality of its craftsmanship when she first saw it in pieces at Skylight Studios, and arranged for its removal to a Boston College storage facility and its examination by experts in Japanese art, including Weston. They confirmed her initial assessment that the piece was from the Japanese Meiji period (1868–1912), and Larsen commissioned Boston-area restorers Rika Smith McNally & Associates to undertake its conservation.

    The video compresses two years of painstaking repair, cleaning, gilding removal, repatination, lacquering, and waxing into minutes, culminating in the reassembly of the sculpture on a custom-fabricated armature designed and made by Skylight Studios. With its original greenish-gray patina restored and its surface detail revealed, especially the finely chased modeling of the bird’s head and the subtle tones of bronze in the eyeballs, the sculpture bears comparison with works by master metalworker Suzuki Chokichi (1848–1919), Larsen and Weston suggest.

    Suzuki Chokichi specialized in depicting birds of prey, observed minutely from life. He set up his own workshop at age seventeen, went on to become director of the Japanese government-sponsored manufacturing and trading company, Kiryu Kosho Kaisha, and successfully exhibited at many international exhibitions and worlds’ fairs, from the 1870s through 1904. He played a leading role in “promoting a global craze for Japanese bronze artifacts,” writes Joe Earle, former director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York, in his catalogue essay, “Suzuki Chokichi: Master of Metal Raptors.” Whether he was involved in any way with the Boston College eagle is presently unknown, as Earle acknowledges, but the piece would likely never have been made without his “pioneering efforts in nurturing a Western taste for Japanese raptor sculpture in metal.”

    Regardless of its authorship, the Boston College eagle is a rare example of monumental Japanese bronze casting. Two other sculptures strikingly similar in form and scale are known, installed in open-air sites in Kansas City and London, and for comparison, video projections of these works flank their Boston cousin in the central, culminating space of the exhibition. None of the three is signed, though the bottom part of the Boston eagle’s craggy bronze base—where a signature might have been found—has been removed. In the same gallery, Suzuki Chokichi’s Eagle with Outstretched Wings, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, provides a unique opportunity to compare the Boston College discovery with a work securely attributed to the master metalworker.

    Three introductory galleries anchored by splendid pairs of painted folding screens explore the cultural and thematic roots of raptor images in the Edo period (1615–1868). Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, eagles were rare in Japanese art. Those that were depicted drew on Chinese models, as seen in two six-paneled screens painted by Soga Nichokuan (active ca. 1620–60), showing single figures of a hawk eagle in a pine tree and a golden eagle perched on a rock.

    Hawks and hawking were much more common than eagles in Japanese experience and art, Weston notes. Owning and training hawks was the prerogative of the Samurai elite, for whom elaborate albums combining closely observed images of birds with instruction in the art of hawking were produced. Four leaves from an Album of Hawks and Calligraphy by Kano Tsunenobu (1636–1713) are fine representatives of the genre. Also clearly designed for an elite market is a pair of folding screens from around 1780, depicting two contrasting scenes featuring different varieties of birds, rendered in saturated mineral pigments against gold foil backgrounds. One shows chickens by a stream, with a large cage filled with songbirds; the other, a caged habitat for hawks and fledglings.

    Only after Japan’s opening to western trade in 1853 did Japanese artists embrace eagles as subjects guaranteed to sell to European and American buyers whose countries adopted the bird as a national symbol, emulating ancient Rome. Typical examples on show are a bronze Eagle on a Gnarled Wood Stump (ca. 1880), from the workshop of Genryusai Seiya, and a woodblock print by Ohara Koson, Eagle on Rocky Shore, from around 1910.

    Tracing the provenance of the Boston College eagle led Larsen and Weston deep into the world of Larz and Isabel Anderson of Washington, DC, and Brookline, Massachusetts. Fresh from Harvard College, Larz Anderson (1866–1937) first visited Japan in 1888, and declared it the “Wonderland of the World.” He subsequently made three further trips, including a brief stint as American ambassador in 1912. In 1897 he married Isabel Weld Perkins (1876–1949), whose estate, Weld, in Brookline, became their country home. There, the eagle was installed in successive Japanese-style gardens, until Isabel bequeathed it on her death to her private secretary, Augustus Anderson—no relation—who gave it to Boston College in 1954.

    The Andersons’ primary residence in Washington, DC, now the Society of the Cincinnati, houses the Andersons’ archive and a museum of the couple’s possessions. At the end of a long day’s research in the archive, Weston and Larsen found a handwritten packing list proving that the eagle was among thirty-one cases of Japanese objects shipped home from Yokohama by the couple on their honeymoon in 1897. Until that point, Weston had thought it likely that they acquired the eagle at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, which featured an elaborate Japanese exhibit, including gardens and a replica village.

    Eaglemania evokes the Andersons’ milieu with a gallery installation recalling a grand fin-de-siècle reception room that showcases several of their Japanese acquisitions. These include an eighteenth-century porcelain Imari punch bowl and stand, a Meiji-period gilt-bronze temple lantern, and a seventeenth-century gilded wood figure of the seated Buddha. Larz is represented by a 1916 bronze bust by Bruce Wilder Saville, showing him in full diplomatic uniform, on loan from the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline. Isabel appears in a full-length portrait by Cecilia Beaux, from 1900–1901, showing her as a society beauty in a diaphanous, low-cut white dress with gold trim. Like most of the Andersons’ possessions on display, the portrait comes from the Society of the Cincinnati, Washington, DC.

    The portrait contains several Japanese references, including a gilded folding fireplace screen and, prominent on a table in the foreground, a crystal ball on an ivory dragon stand. The original of the crystal ball, or its twin, stands in a case next to the portrait, the sole survivor of a pair purchased by the Andersons for three thousand yen on their honeymoon. As Weston notes in her catalogue essay, crystal ball gazing was a fad in the later nineteenth century, as part of a fascination with the occult. A small selection of the Andersons’ published and unpublished writings on Japan, with some of Larz’s humorous sketches of their travels and Isabel’s 1914 travel guide, The Spell of Japan, suggests that their engagement with the country and its culture went beyond tourism and polite diplomatic contacts.

    For western Europeans and Americans who lacked the means to travel abroad, the international exhibitions, or worlds’ fairs, that took place regularly in major cities in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century offered a glimpse of faraway places and their peoples and cultures, and a chance to acquire a range of goods designed for the export market. Larsen and Weston have assembled representative examples, several from the McMullen’s own collection, including a gilded, glazed earthenware “Satsuma” tea set from around 1870–90, with dragon and Buddhist saint (rakan) images, and a monumental cast and hammered silver punch bowl from 1890, also writhing with dragon motifs, made by Arthur and Bond, an English-owned manufacturer and dealer based in Yokohama.

    At the conclusion of the exhibition, the Boston College eagle will be installed permanently on the second floor of the McMullen Museum’s glass atrium, its wings silhouetted against the sky. It will never again be subject to the rigors of the New England climate, now that the research prompted by its rediscovery has so conclusively staked its claim to a place in the history of Japanese art and American collecting.

    The exhibition is accompanied by a 134–page catalogue edited by Victoria Weston: Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America (McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2019).

    British-born writer Jane Whitehead is based in Boston. An Oxford graduate, she was associate director of Health Promotion Services in Cambridge, England, before moving to the US in 1992. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, ArchitectureBoston, The Horn Book Magazine, and many local newspapers and alumni publications.

    • Exhibition Notes
    • Reviewed by Ivan Gaskell
    • November 20, 2018
  • Phyllida Barlow—tilt
  • Phyllida Barlow—tilt
    Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street
    November 14 – December 22, 2018
    Website: www.hauserwirth.com

    Until she represented the United Kingdom at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Phyllida Barlow could scarcely be said to have been a star in the contemporary art world. This is not to say she was unknown. Far from it. She had long been something of a marginalized stalwart. In London, as a teacher at the Slade School of Art for over forty years, she fostered such brilliant talents as Anthony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, and Martin Creed, but, although a Royal Academician, remained almost always behind the scenes. All that has changed.

    Now she has come to New York with a major exhibition of new work made since her triumph in Venice. She describes the new pieces as economical and stripped down. The layers of hessian dipped in cement are largely absent, though the sense of exquisitely improvised assemblages of discarded utilitarian things from some dystopian city streetscape remains.

    Some works are on a scale that crowd the space and impinge on the viewer, such as untitled: hung4; 2018. This is a gathering of four large plywood boards, each with a circular hole cut in it, aligned with each other out of kilter, painted shades of red and orange, and suspended from the ceiling. Barlow said that she had tried a less threatening color scheme of blues, but that the work lacked the sense of danger she values. There certainly is an alarming aspect to this piece, and to other large works in the exhibition.

    For instance, even more menacing than the hanging sculpture is untitled: pinkspree; 2018, a tilted stack of three toothed boards resembling giant hackles—spiked tools for combing flax—roughly smeared first with black and then pink paint. Barlow’s genial reference to it in conversation as “that big pink thing over there,” may have disarmed it somewhat, but only fleetingly.

    There is an irreverent side to all the works on view, as though a graffiti artist bent on mayhem had aimed her spray paint at exquisite sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Lynn Chadwick. Barlow’s sculptures, for all their bad girl messiness, retain a vestigial poise of the kind found in the works of those British artists of an earlier generation. The hanging sculpture, untitled: hung4; 2018, evokes a Barbara Hepworth after an earthquake, while she follows Chadwick’s work in the sense of balance with which she imbues numbers of them. This can be seen no more clearly than in untitled: pointer; 2018, an assemblage of four seeming offcuts of plywood daubed with glued sand and sprayed with orange and yellow paint, that balances on the apexes of two triangles on a steel cube.

    Barlow expresses a love of big city streets where builders improvise work-arounds in the course of messy and disruptive infrastructure projects. One such chute for pouring concrete, knocked together from rough planks, caught her eye on a building site, and inspired the ensemble untitled: shute 1,2,3 – wall,leaning,floor; 2018. Barlow is the master of robust abjection.

    At times, it is not the worn and encrusted artifacts themselves that fascinate her so much as the shadows they cast in urban space. She captures such a shadow in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-like projection in untitled: tilt(lintel); 2018, the work that gives its (non-) name to the exhibition. The vertical though angled steel element is like the bare, stripped frame of a doorway in a Kurt Schwitters Merzbau, while rising from its base is a construction of grey painted plywood spreading horizontally across the floor. It represents—Barlow said—the shadow; though she genially allows it to be anything else that an engaged viewer might fancy. Asked about the fall of actual shadow from the sculpted shadow, and the part that shadows play in her works, Barlow admitted that lighting is a huge challenge, and that this issue is what she termed the Achilles heel of her practice. If that is indeed so, no one has yet fatally found the mark. Phyllida Barlow’s tilt is a triumph for an artist of great acumen and experience at the height of her powers.

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

    • Responses
    • by Elizabeth Marlowe
    • May 12, 2017
  • American Museums First? A Response to Gary Vikan
  • In his essay “Why US Museums and the Antiquities Trade Should Work Together,” in the January 30, 2017, issue of Apollo, the much-admired former director of the Walters Art Museum, Gary Vikan, laments “the destruction of the system that created America’s great museums: from dealers to collectors to museums and for the benefit of the American public.” The destruction he’s talking about is the result of the recent shift in attitudes toward the collecting of antiquities and other items of cultural property. Efforts to protect source countries’ rights to their material heritage date back to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The convention enjoined states parties to prevent the illicit import and export of cultural property within their territories. In theory, after that point, the only items of cultural property that could be sold on the international market were those already (as of 1970) outside their countries of origin. In practice, however, the convention did little to curb the acquisitive zeal of foreign collectors. As long as there was no hard proof that a desirable item on the market had been looted or otherwise illegally exported, museums and private collectors showed no compunction about acquiring it.

    Archaeologists concerned about the loss of contextual data occasioned by looting joined forces with cultural property advocates and strenuously objected to this “innocent until proven guilty” standard. They claimed that perhaps as much as 85 percent of the antiquities surfacing on the market after 1970 were looted. They argued that it was the collectors’ willingness to buy objects with murky backgrounds that encouraged the looting in the first place. “Collectors are the real looters,” they cried. Museums, collectors, and their allies responded that cultural property claims are predicated on narrow, bogus, or even dangerous forms of nationalism; that the beauty of the objects can still be appreciated even if their context is lost; and anyway that, regardless of their origins, it is better to have the artworks on public view in museum cases than hidden in the ground or in someone else’s less accessible private collection far from the public gaze. With few exceptions, it was this perspective that carried the day for the first three decades following the UNESCO convention.

    Then everything changed. Over the course of the 1990s, a combination of disgruntled whistle-blowers, accidentally discovered documents and photographs, and deep investigations by police, journalists, and scholars yielded the first clear picture of the staggering scale of antiquities looting. Also exposed was the direct, knowing complicity of well-established dealers, auction houses, collectors, and museum officials. The fallout from these revelations was public and humiliating. Hundreds of artworks (and counting) from dozens of US collections were returned to Italy and Greece, including star attractions like the Metropolitan Museum’s Euphronios krater (at the time, the most expensive antiquity ever purchased, and still one of the most celebrated). A top curator at the Getty Museum was prosecuted in an Italian court. The American Association of Museum Directors responded to the crisis in 2008 with stringent new guidelines that put the onus on the collecting institutions to ensure that potential acquisitions hadn’t been illegally removed from their countries of origin. Antiquities and other items of cultural property without clear proof of a legal, pre-1970 export date are now assumed guilty until proven innocent, and very few museums in North America or Europe are willing to acquire them.

    Gary Vikan was the director of the Walters Art Museum during this tumultuous period, retiring in 2012 after twenty-seven years at the institution and eighteen at its helm. His view of the paradigm shift in museum antiquities collecting is, not surprisingly, ambiguous at best. It is not clear in his Apollo essay whether he is happy or sad that “antiquities are not coming out of war-ravaged Syria” (emphasis in the original; most experts in cultural property will disagree with his assertion). He contrasts this situation, in which “virtually nothing of any monetary or cultural significance is now on the US art market from that troubled region,” with the (good?) old days in the 1980s, when he was a young curator and “vast numbers of important pieces of Byzantine art . . . were pouring westward in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus.” He justifies his “eagerness” at the time “to buy works that we knew, on some level, were recently ripped from the fabric of the Christian Orthodox communities of northern Cyprus,” by comparing it to another activity everyone knew was wrong in the 1980s but did anyway, namely, smoking. He tells this story in fuller detail in his recent book, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, but with similarly ambiguous moral reflection.

    In his Apollo essay, Vikan acknowledges that “imped[ing] the trade in looted antiquities” is a “laudable” goal, because it will “preserve the integrity of archaeological sites and . . . maintain the authority of state ownership over national cultural assets.” But that is not his goal here. It is, rather, to figure out how to “unfreeze the pipeline” through which antiquities formerly circulated on the American market. Prior to the tightening of acquisition guidelines in 2008, most private collections eventually ended up in American public museums. The danger to be avoided now, in Vikan’s perspective, is the artworks’ departure from the United States: “Unless we find a solution, these collections [in the hands of private, American collectors] are likely to be sold and dispersed, in many cases to foreign buyers. The American public, of course, will be the loser.” It is hard not to notice the resonances between this perspective and the “America First” rhetoric of the current US political regime. Vikan appears blissfully un-self-aware—blind or indifferent to the global political and economic inequalities that underpin his worldview. Little can be done about that in this essay. Worth analyzing, on the other hand, are the particular mechanisms he proposes to “unfreeze the pipeline.” Despite his civic-minded claims, the main beneficiary of his “solution” would be not so much the general, museum-going “American public” as the private antiquities collectors, and the unscrupulous ones in particular.

    *                                  *                                  *

    Vikan proposes to “unfreeze the pipeline” by means of a “comprehensive internet database with images of all orphan works along with all information known about their history.” “Ophans,” in his definition, are works whose legal exportation from their country of origin prior to 1970 cannot be documented. The database will be “aggressively marketed to the [objects’] countries of likely origin,” allowing them to search it for their stolen cultural property and “make whatever legitimate claims they might have for restitution.” He also seems to be proposing a statute of limitations for such claims: “But inevitably, as time goes by and when no claims are made on the vast majority of posted works, there will be a marked thawing of that channel connecting collectors to museums to the public—a de facto ‘repose’ of title borne of transparency. The orphans will, in effect, be granted an amnesty.” The absence of claims, he implies, would be sufficient proof that the objects weren’t stolen, at least as far as title goes; and thus US museums—or, it should be added, any other collector, public or private, American or foreign—would be free to acquire them. Vikan uses noncommercial euphemisms to describe what would happen next: “Some pieces will be traded to other dealers and collectors, but most, I’m convinced, will eventually find their way into museums” (my emphasis). But it is clear that the primary function of this database would be to restore marketability to currently unsellable orphan antiquities.

    Let’s imagine, for a moment, that such a database is possible. Let’s assume that it really is “comprehensive” and “transparent” and includes “all orphan works,” not just the ones owners are currently looking to sell. Let’s pretend that owners will willingly divulge “all information known” about their objects’ modern histories, including potentially embarrassing or incriminating details. Vikan is excited about this database’s power to “unfreeze” the antiquities market. But let me briefly indulge a different fantasy. Consider the potential of this Platonic ideal of a database to recover some of the losses to history and knowledge caused by the illicit trafficking in antiquities. Armed with this tool, historians would worry a little less about forgeries distorting our understanding of ancient culture, since we could just look up which artworks had surfaced in the hands of dealers known to have trafficked in fakes, and stay away from all of them. We could use the database to match portrait heads with the statue bodies from which they were separated by vendors looking to make two sales instead of one. We could study the database closely and discern patterns, such as all the works of a particular type or featuring a distinctive characteristic that surfaced on the market around the same time or in the same region. From this we might be able to reconstruct dispersed assemblages—a hoard of Hellenistic gold jewelry, or a group of bronze, second-century imperial portraits—and link them to specific, looted sites. Such assemblages, tied to a particular ancient context such as a temple or a tomb, can teach us far more about the ancient world, its social practices and material culture, than a single, uncontextualized object. Vikan’s database could help reconnect the thousands of free-floating works in private collections to their ancient settings.

    But all this is idle daydreaming. For one thing, even though Vikan claims that his database would encompass “all orphan works,” it is clear that he means only the ones in private, American hands, not those already in museums or abroad. The research value of so limited a sample is, of course, badly compromised. A panopticon with a partially obstructed view is not a panopticon.

    A bigger problem with Vikan’s database is that there is no enforcement mechanism, no neutral body for oversight, and thus no way to ensure that the information provided by collectors is accurate or complete. Why would it be? Why would owners, motivated by a desire to sell their collections and/or to obtain legal “amnesty” for their stolen contents, volunteer compromising or unflattering details in a public record? Most collectors believe they are buying from reputable dealers. But if the database really were to divulge everything everyone knows about each object’s ownership history, it is likely that it would expose disreputable links in the chains: “who purchased it from the trunk of a car on Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi in Naples”; “who smuggled it out of Egypt in a shipment of vegetables”; “who purchased it from an unnamed contact of Jiri Frel’s” or “from a guy on a beach somewhere in Europe in 1978.” Even if such details didn’t trigger repatriation claims, their unsavoriness would, at the very least, reduce the market value of the objects. Good luck getting anyone involved in the trade to disclose them voluntarily.

    *                                  *                                  *

    Let’s return to Vikan’s own words about why the database would succeed in “unfreez[ing] the pipeline.” How can he be so confident that “no claims” will be made on the “vast majority of posted works,” if as much as 85 percent of the unprovenanced material that surfaces on the market may have been looted? Vikan is confident for the same reason all those museums were confident, for the first thirty years after the UNESCO convention, that they would get away with buying stolen art: because looting is nearly impossible to prove after the fact. It must be remembered that only the country from which an object was removed (in violation of that country’s national ownership laws) can file a restitution claim. Thus, it must be demonstrable not just that an object was looted, but that it was looted from within a particular nation’s borders. Most looted antiquities come from holes dug in the ground at night by tombaroli (grave robbers), who dispatch them to middlemen, and who have every incentive to keep mum about the exact findspot. Unless the looters inadvertently leave behind a broken-off piece of the object (or, in one unusual case, its entire bottom half), there is rarely any evidence left to tie the object back to the hole it came out of. Scholars can make educated guesses about a work’s regional origins based on style, facture, material, and so on, but those regions rarely coincide with any one modern nation’s territory. A high-quality marble portrait of a first-century Roman empress could have come from almost any of the more than forty modern countries that now occupy the expanse of the Roman Empire. Barring the discovery of external, documentary evidence of the portrait’s looting from a particular country (such as a photo of it in the archive of a particular trafficker), a viable restitution claim for such a work is indeed a near impossibility, as Vikan suggests.

    Vikan presents his proposal as a fair, innovative, broad-minded solution to a relatively new problem. In fact, what he offers is a system weighted even more heavily in favor of the collectors and the collecting institutions than the pre-2008 status quo. His basic maneuver is to take the onus off the purchasing institution to prove that an object wasn’t stolen and to put it back on the aggrieved source country to prove that it was. It would be, in other words, a return to “innocent until proven guilty.” He goes even further with that vaguely defined “amnesty” or “de facto ‘repose’ of title” that would kick in “inevitably, as time goes by.” This seems to suggest that source countries would have a limited window of time within which to claim an item listed in the database. If new evidence proving illicit trafficking surfaced later, beyond the statute of limitations, no claim could be made. So no more returns like that of the Euphronios krater, which occurred decades after the Metropolitan Museum acquired it, thanks to a chance discovery by the Italians of new evidence of looting.

    Indeed, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the amnesty component effectively transforms Vikan’s orphan database into a laundering operation. Input the post-1970 portrait head you bought from a guy who bought it from a guy in Switzerland, and wait eighteen months or three years (or however long Vikan intends). Out it comes, squeaky clean and ready for market. And not just ready but improved, its value bolstered by a spiffy new certificate testifying to the absence of prior claims and nullifying any future ones. Of course, we know that the absence of claims proves nothing about whether an artwork was actually stolen. A seal of good housekeeping from Vikan’s database can provide no reassurance to informed would-be buyers who don’t want to own stolen property or encourage the destruction of the historical record caused by looting. But it certainly would provide reassurance to uninformed or unscrupulous owners who care chiefly about the security of their investment. In this regard, a certificate from this database would resemble those art dealer–issued “certificates of authenticity”: zero epistemological significance, but often great financial value.

    In addition to the legal and financial laundering, the orphan database might perform a sort of moral laundering as well, allowing the objectionable act of selling possibly looted cultural property to masquerade as civic virtue. Entering that data can be spun as an act of scholarship, a contribution to knowledge and the greater good. The material rewards at the end are so much icing on the cake. But the actual harm the database could cause is, in fact, tremendous. Currently, fears of possible claims, social opprobrium, and perhaps even a genuine desire not to encourage plundering are at least giving many collectors and institutions pause. Eventually, a depressed market will reduce the incidence of looting. Enter Vikan’s database, however, and those qualms evaporate. Indeed, the protections offered by the proposed amnesty would make antiquities one of the safest niches in the art market, likely to attract all sorts of newcomers to the field. By the laws of supply and demand, this would doubtless result in a resurgence of looting. For this reason, Vikan’s proposal is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    In addition to his amnesty-granting database, Vikan offers a second solution to the problem of the frozen antiquities pipeline. Museums should cast off the stigma and red tape surrounding deaccessioning, and sell off the “storage dwellers,” those “second- and third-tier antiquities” that clutter museum basements and drain resources but that will “never be exhibited.” In other words, museums need both to empty their basements of excess antiquities and to buy new ones!

    Here’s an alternative. Rather than spending millions in pursuit of beautiful, “first-tierantiquities that look good all by themselves in spotlit vitrines, but about which we have no contextual information, and which arguably cannot by themselves teach us anything new about the ancient world, and which may have been illegally removed from their (unknown) countries of origin or which may be forgeries—rather than that, museums could redirect some portion of their acquisitions budgets toward the stewardship of the objects they already own. Even “second- and third-tier” artworks have stories to tell, and often they are stories that can reach different audiences from those reached by the standard art-museum narratives about beauty and style. Collecting histories, materials, conservation, forgery—these are all fascinating topics that have attracted increasing attention in recent years, both in the academy and in some of the more progressive museum installations, such as the “Exploring the Past” galleries on the bottom floor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the “Looking at Art” displays at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. Who knows what revelations might come from dusting off Vikan’s “storage dwellers” and reexamining them through some of these new museological lenses? What is certain is that the American public—as well as the international community, both of scholars and of cultural property advocates—would be the winner.

    Elizabeth Marlowe is associate professor of ancient and medieval art at Colgate University and the author of Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship, and the History of Roman Art (2013).


    • Exhibition Notes
    • 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 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.


    • Exhibition Notes
    • Jane Whitehead
    • December 5, 2016
  • Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections
  • 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

    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.

    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.

    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. 


    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 Synagogaflank 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 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.


    • Exhibition Notes
    • 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 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).

    • Exhibition Notes
    • 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 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).


    • Exhibition Notes
    • Ivan Gaskell
    • July 18, 2015
  • Brandbilder: Kunstwerke als Zeugen des Zweiten Weltkriegs
  • Niedersächsischen Landesmuseum Hannover
    May 8 – September 6, 2015

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

    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.

    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).

    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. 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.

    • Exhibition Notes
    • Ivan Gaskell
    • April 7, 2015
  • After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997
  • Queens Museum, New York City
    March 8 – June 28, 2015

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

    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.


    • Responses
    • 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 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 chinoiseriesugar 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.


    • Conference Notes
    • Kim Dhillon
    • February 28, 2014
  • Notes on the Marking Language Seminar at the Drawing Room in London
  • 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.

    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. 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. 2. See Liz Kotz, Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (MIT Press, 2007).
    3. 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. 4. Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton University Press, 2004), 2-4.

    • Conservation Moments
    • 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 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.

    • Conservation Moments
    • by Miriam Clavir
    • March 5, 2013
  • Preserving Value
  • 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.

    • 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, 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.

    • 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 (1580s–1619) 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/.

    • 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)

    • 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.

    • 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.


    • Conference Notes
    • Andy Hoogenboom
    • August 3, 2013
  • FILAF: Festival International Du Livre D’Art & Du Film
  • 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 is an artist (printmaker, sculptor, photographer) based in New York. He is currently vice president of the New York Society of Etchers.


    • 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.

    • 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 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.”


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


    • 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 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.

    • 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.

    • Exhibition Notes
    • Ivan Gaskell
    • August 22, 2011
  • Xu Bing, “Background Story 7”
  • This review first appeared in artUS and is posted here with permission from the publisher.

    British Museum, London
    May 12–July 10, 2011

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

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


    • 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?

    • 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?

    • Paperwork
    • Ben Kafka
    • May 18, 2011
  • Paperwork Explosion
  • Read Ben Kafka’s piece here.


    • 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?


    • 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 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

    • Exhibition Notes
    • 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 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 teaches history at Harvard University, using tangible things as historical sources.


    • 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, 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