New York City and the Selling of World War 1

2017 is the 100th anniversary of the U.S.‘s entry into World War I. To commemorate this event, the Museum of the City of New York has organized Posters and Patriotism: Selling WW1 to New Yorkan exhibit of posters, flyers, magazine art, sheet music covers, and other mass-produced images made in war-time New York.

Help the Red Cross, Herman Roeg, ca. 1918

When war broke out in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson had declared that the U.S. should remain “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” But the tide began to turn, especially after the Lusitania was sunk, claiming the lives of 128 Americans, and the U.S. joined the war on April 6, 1917.

While the exhibit focuses on posters, it also shows how every available means – print, music, film, lectures, and performance—were used to publicize, popularize, and gain support for  the U.S.’s entry into the conflict, and how dissenting voices also employed these media.

Women’s Peace Parade on 5th Avenue, August 29, 1914, Library of Congress photo

In the early 20th century, there was a strong pacifist movement  in the U.S.  New York City mirrored the dissent and divisions in the American population, which can be seen in a display in the center of the room with black and white photos of various anti-war rallies, including the 1914 Women’s Peace Parade on 5th Avenue. 

Mother Earth, Man Ray, artist; published by Emma Goldman, September 1914

There are also displays with socialist and anarchist publications like The Masses, and Bull, as well as Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth – all three publications were banned from the U.S. mail, and their editors were tried under the Espionage Act. The exhibit clearly shows  the whiplash in the American public’s sentiments towards the war, and the favorable turn in opinion was aided by anti-sedition laws which helped enforce patriotic loyalty.   During the war years, over 1,000 people in the U.S. were convicted of anti-draft activity.

Sheet Music for “Wake Up America” artist unknown; George Graff, Jr. & Jack Glogau, composers. Uncle Sam is kneeling in between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

You’ll also find illustrated sheet music published for people with pianos at home – they were still fairly common in American households – showing how music reflected the shifting  American opinions towards the war, from neutrality to patriotic involvement,  and capturing the conflicted feelings of parents whose children went overseas, in songs such as I Didn’t Raise My Son to be a Soldier Boy.  As U.S. troops headed overseas, Tin Pan Alley composers  led the charge  with gusto – George M. Cohan’s Over There is from this era .  Other songs, such as To Hell with Germany by Noble Sissle were widely disseminated, and many of Irving Berlin’s songs echoed that sentiment. 

Once the U.S. entered the conflict, dissenting voices were shut out, as censorship was enforced during the war.  Because New York City was the center of advertising and media, the U.S. Department of War housed its Division of Pictorial Publicity (DPP) here to sell the wary  American public on supporting the US War effort.  Many artists eagerly jumped on board: the DPP was headed by none other than Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the “Gibson Girls;” he and James Montgomery Flagg (creator of Uncle Sam) helped found ‘the Vigilantes,” a group of artists and writers using their talents to promote patriotism, and exhorting Americans to serve in combat, buy bonds to finance the war, and conserve food, clothing and energy so these resources could be sent overseas.  

The posters in this exhibit clearly reflect their creators training, revealing their backgrounds as either fine artists or the graphic artists found in the commercial (advertising) art world.

Poster, August Wiliam Hutaf, 1917

Recruitment posters aimed their message at men: by enlisting in the armed forces, they would demonstrate their patriotism and their “manly” outrage at German war crimes; other posters appealed to potential enlistees’ sense of adventure, while others played on their guilt.   Their efforts were wildly successful – the Army swelled from 200,000 recruits to 4,000,000!

Poster by Charles Dana Gibson, 1917

The war was sold as defending France and Belgium – apparently Americans didn’t harbor favorable feelings towards the British, even though the Revolutionary War had ended 140 years earlier, but they remembered the assistance Lafayette and his compatriots gave the fledgling republic.  Anti-German sentiment ran high, with posters, pamphlets and children’s books exhorting Americans to take up the fight against “The Hun”. 

Americans were asked to make sacrifices, even being encouraged to grow their own food, so more could be sent overseas, and in 1918, Daylight Savings Time was introduced as a fuel conservation measure. The Museum’s blog post on the Civilian war effort in the two world wars gives you a very good idea of how ordinary men and women contributed to the effort. 

Poster, Edward Penfield, artist, 1918

Because men were fighting in Europe, women went to work in large numbers outside the house: not only in factories and firms in the US, but also  as ambulance drivers and nurses on the front, fueling their demands for equal rights.  However, it wasn’t until 1920 that American women were granted the right to vote.

Poster, produced by Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Company, 1918

The war effort was financed by the sale of Liberty Bonds – by the end of the war, Americans had loaned over $17 billion to their government.  Buying bonds was seen as a sign of loyalty, and refusal was met with suspicion. 

Still from “The Bond” 1918 Charlie Chaplin

Immigrants were exhorted to simultaneously demonstrate their pride in their origins and in their new country by enlisting in the war effort.  Nowhere was this effort more successful than in Hollywood – many in the industry were immigrants who showed their patriotism by creating films that fueled the public’s hatred of Germany and pumped up their patriotic fervor.   At the end of the exhibit there’s a screen showing selections from The Bond, a 1918 film featuring Charlie Chaplin. 

James Reese Europe performing with his band in France, ca. 1918, Library of Congress photo

Jazz also became popular, personified in the bandleader James Reese Europe, who led the marching band of the Harlem Hell Fighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African-American unit (Noble Sissle was also a member) bringing jazz to troops in France and England.  The Harlem Hell Fighters  emerged from the war with one of the most stellar combat records of any Army unit.  However, when they returned home, they found that the same old racism prevailed. 1919 brought the Red Summer, when cities all across the U.S., particularly in the Jim Crow South, erupted, with whites attacking and killing blacks over employment and housing.

And when the war was over …  

Advertisement for Scot Tissue Towels from Time, October 19, 1931

Many of the wartime poster artists went on to become successful commercial and journalistic illustrators.  New York City became America’s financial and cultural hub in the Roaring 20’s.  The US began to return to its isolationist stance; however, the government continued to look for spies, especially among the foreign-born in New York.  The exhibit has a map depicting NYC’s immigrant neighborhoods, prepared by US Army Officer John B. Trevor for the Lusk Committee’s investigation of “subversives.”  The Cold War was beginning.

Nonetheless, the idea of globalization started to take hold, as people from all over the world met each other serving on the front.  As the song goes, “How ‘ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree).”   The League of Nations was founded after the war, and even though it folded after several years, its successor,  the United Nations continues to this day. 

Many of the issues the country had grappled with at the turn of the century – freedom of speech, immigration, espionage, race relations – continue to dominate public discourse today, making this exhibit exceptionally relevant.

On August 24th the Museum is hosting an  event associated with this exhibit, Hot Jazz Moonlight Social  with the Gotham Kings and jazz historian Ricky Riccardi at 6:00.

The exhibit continues until October 9th.  But don’t wait until then to see it.

The Museum of the City of New York  is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street

Whitney Biennial

Last week, along with other alumni of my graduate school, I got to visit the Whitney Biennial and hear from three of the artists.  This survey of American art takes place every two years (there’s a 3 year gap since the last one due to the Whitney’s move).  This year’s show featured the work of  63 artists and collectives, covering a wide variety of media from painting to video.  Many of the works reflected on current issues – the environment, migration, economics, race, gender – often with a political tone. Like all shows of this nature, it was uneven – some very good works, some good works, and some others.  Here are my highlights.

Untitled photos, Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias, and Cairn, Beatriz Cortez

On the first floor, off to the right you’ll find Rafa Esparza’s round room, an adobe structure fashioned of approximately 3,100 bricks he made in Los Angeles (he learned brick laying from his father).  Called Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field it is meant to upend the white square gallery space that art is often forced to inhabit.  Esparza then invited other artists to show their work in his space.  Along one part of the wall were 5 large color photographic portraits of young men by Dorian Ulises Lopez Macias, from his  series, Mexicano.   In the center of the the room was Beatriz Cortez’ Cairn, made form igneous volcanic rock.

Infinite Regress XX, Eamon Ore-Giron, vinyl paint on adobe

Opposite was Eamon Ore-Giron’s Infinite Regress XX, vinyl paint on adobe.

Exodus, John Kessler, multi-media, figurines, wood, steamer trunk, i-phone, monitor, motor

On the 5th floor, John Kessler had two pieces, which both addressed climate change.  Exodus specifically looks at the issue of refugees who will be forced to leave their homelands because of rising seas levels (already happening in Bangladesh and parts of Asia-Pacific).  A white steamer trunk serves as a pedestal for  a rotating platform populated by figurines of (weary) travelers the artist sourced on E-bay.  A live i-phone camera facing a monitor, causes a video feedback, creating the impression of a Sisyphean parade of refugees. 

La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, Aliza Nisenbaum, oil on linen

Brooklyn-based artist Aliza Nisenbaum is the daughter of Russian refugees who settled in Mexico.  She started the paintings that were in the Biennial five years ago while working at Tania B’s  space in Corona, Queens (artist helping immigrants without papers), where she taught English through Art History. Over time Nisenbaum got to know her students and their families, many of whom are undocumented, and began painting them.  For Nisenbaum, this is an embodiment of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who said that ethics comes from face-to-face encounters; for Nisenbaum, sitting with someone is a mutual witnessing.  In her portraits she inserts an image (tiles, the Virgin Mary) from the sitter’s home country. 

Noah Fischer is part of the collective Occupy Museums, which grew out of a manifesto he wrote at the beginning of  Occupy Wall Street, connecting Wall Street and art.  He saw the same problems in both worlds, especially that of conflicts of interest in the boards of directors, and the issue of debt. Fisher pointed out that art school is now very expensive ($60K/yr at Columbia) meaning that fewer and fewer people can afford to take classes, and many have a hard time paying off their debt.   For Occupy Museum‘s installation Debtfair, artists were invited  to participate, but only if they agreed to talk about their relationship to debt – certainly not something comfortable for most people – nonetheless, about 500 artists answered the call to talk about their financial situation (which is not always dire).  The total amount of debt in the Debtfair is $55,552,069.84.

detail from DebtFair, Occupy Museums

One part of Debtfair  is inside a wall, where the works of 30 artists are embedded in a graph organized into 3 specific conditions:  artists connected to Puerto Rico and hence to Puerto Rico’s debt, which is related to colonialism; artists who owe $75K or more to Navient (Sallie Mae’s successor); and artists in default on their Chase credit cards (often because they have to pay for the installation of their own gallery shows). 

The graph is a vivid illustration of the link between artists’ debts, and the profits they generate for many members of museum boards:  one line shows the growth of the increasing trade in debts, and the other plots the growth of the ultra luxury asset market for contemporary art …..

This was a group show, with most of the works either projected against one wall or being shown on a computer.  It’s a very impressive work, and raises some important questions.

Handler, John Riepenhoff with Untitled, Michelle Grabner, papier-mache, fiberglass, wood, wire, fabric and shoes

John Riepenhoff is an artist and gallerist in Milwaukee, whose series Handler is an homage to many of the unseen workers who make the art world possible.  Each work is mounted on a papier-mâché sculpture of a pair of legs, modeled on his own, supporting the work of another artist.

Ivan F. Svenonius’ “Censorship Now” (spread 2 of 8) for the Whitney Biennial, Frances Stark, oil, gold leaf, ink and gesso on canvas

Frances Stark has hand-painted pages from the title essay by punk musician, cult figure, and author Ian F. Svenonius’ 2015 book Censorship Now!! While the text is strident, by recreating it on such a large scale (2 pages on a canvas about 6ft X 9ft) and underscoring certain portions of it, Stark highlights the relevant questions: when everything is art, what is art? can it have power? is it now irrelevant?  Give it a read.

Abandoned Painting E, John Divola, inkjet print

John Divola’s series Abandoned Paintings was inspired by the artist’s discovery of discarded student paintings in a dumpster near the University of California, Riverside, where he teaches. Divola hung these paintings, often unfinished, on the walls of abandoned buildings, which he then photographed to create ambivalent settings, some of which are very haunting.

Glimmer Glass, Carrie Moyer, acrylic with glitter on canvas

Carrie Moyer’s large scale paintings of poured acrylic and collage, glitter and flat paint, and the resulting bold, layered, colorful shapes often have an architectural feel, but are nonetheless joyous.  Her use of “pedestrian” and “feminine” materials are a great push-back against the masculine history of abstract painting.

Rug (gato chico), Ulrike Muller, wool

Tucked away in a corridor you’ll find this tapestry by Ulrike Müller, one of the rare pieces of fiber art in this show.

detail from stained glass windows, Raul de Nieves, paper, wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets

Raúl de Nieves had one of the largest installations, a site-specific “stained glass” floor to ceiling window of 18 panels made of paper, wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets.  You’ll notice that many of the windows have a fly, which for the artist symbolizes death and waste.  However, for de Nieves, death is metaphor for the possibility of spectacular transformation and rebirth.  I liked his use of color, and his play on ancient iconic images.

The longer I slip into a crack the shorter my nose becomes, Raul De Nieves, Yarn, dress, glue, beads, cardboard, found apple, taxidermic bird and mannequin.

In front of this “window” you’ll find several beaded sculptures, as well as elaborately crafted costumes which the artist has worn in his performances.

This is a very small selection of the works on view, and I encourage you to get to the Whitney to see the Biennial before it closes on June 11th.

Constructions of Cultural Identity at the Bronx Museum

Love Thy Neighbor, the last of the 3-part installation The Neighbors is on view at the Bronx Museum.  The exhibit, curated by Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy, explores “the stranger” versus “the neighbor”; by reinserting them into contexts that are familiar but unknown, the artists explore the roles that  “the other” plays in a community.  The three featured artists have created new works for the exhibition.

Image from Antisocial, 2017 by Ignacio González-Lang

Ignacio González-Lang has been working on his series Antisocial for 10 years.  He creates collages using police sketches of either missing persons or people who have committed crimes, then overlays them on photos of people who match those images, which he’s found on Instagram at #NYC.  With his I-phone he photographs these combined images and laser prints them on ceramics. 

Image from Antisocial, 2017 by Ignacio González-Lang

Mr. González-Lang told me that by recontextualizing these images, he’s asking, “How do you know who you’re looking for?” His project calls the notion of identity into question in a very powerful way. You may notice that the 135 photos are displayed at a lower height than normal; this was done so they can be accessible to the school children who take classes in this gallery.

From the series Requiem for a border crossing of my undocumented father, 2016, Irvin Morazan

Irvin Morazan’s work revolves around movement and agency, evoking his own immigration as a child, alone, to the U.S. from El Salvador.  Many of his works reproduce maps from the Historia Toteca Chichimeca (a 16th century manuscript diagramming Spain’s territories in what is now northern Mexico), on which he then superimposes imaginary immigration routes as well as sketches made by undocumented immigrants.  In several of these drawings you’ll find characters from the cartoon series “The Flintstones,”  which his father drew as a young man.

Border Crossing Headdress, Irvin Morazan

A recurrent theme is that of El Coyote, the agents who help people cross the border.  When I attended the Museum’s Open House, Mr. Morazan performed “Volver, Volver”  (Return, Return) employing this Border Crossing Headdress, which is also in the exhibition.

Firelei Báez has two pieces in completely different styles, but that both investigate identity, especially Caribbean identity.

Untitled, Firelei Báez, acrylic on paper

Her large scale acrylic on paper started with two figures that are in  a struggle or an embrace; once she decided on the shape, then she chose the colors.  For the artist, the  struggle or embrace is beyond those two individuals – it involves society as a whole.  Ms. Báez told me that the idea for this piece  came from a wilding video on the Internet, in which girls are being encouraged to fight by  a parental figure (who, according to usual societal strictures should be discouraging them).  She then took apart the idea of having those two girls in the midst of an embrace/struggle, to see what comes out of it.  The wall label also notes that in her new paintings, Ms. Báez reinterprets the old fable of pollination between a wasp and an orchid, on which French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari based their theories of identity.

Untitled (Daccessioned Book Pages), Firelei Báez, acrylic, ink and chine collé on found paper

This piece was created on a page from a deaccessioned book.  The woman wears a headdress that Ms. Báez based on masks of the Dogon people of Mali, with their intricate patterning and complex cosmology creating  a way of seeing yourself as being beyond your physical self. 

When Ms. Báez was a student at Cooper Union she learned that libraries all over the country deaccession books.  She sees this as not just a physical but also a conceptual clean up – observing that the figures she gathers on the Internet would have been excluded from the histories embodied by the books.  Ms. Báez also learned medieval bookbinding at the Center for Book Arts.  She noted how in miniature Persian books, the artists could put what they wanted to in the margins,  but not in the central figures because of history and cultural restrictions.  She observed that “Bringing the marginalia of current society to the forefront is reforming how we think of ourselves and what we consider proper.   What’s going on now could be a sensory overload or it could be a treasure trove”.

You’ll want to see Love Thy Neighbor before it closes on June 11th.  The Bronx Museum is at 1040 Grand Concourse (165th Street) in the Bronx.

Judith Leiber – Master of Craft, Glamour – and Grit

Judith Leiber at the Museum of Arts & Design, April 5, 2017

When you hear the name Judith Leiber, you immediately think of glamour, of red carpets, of those fantastic sparkling little handbags…  But you don’t necessarily think about her life before she became renowned for her minaudières – and what a life it was, as revealed in the new exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design, Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story.

Born in 1921 into a wealthy family in Budapest, Judith Peto was sent at age 17 to England for her college studies, since Jews were not allowed to study in Hungarian universities.  But when WWII broke out, she returned to Hungary and went to work in a handbag manufacturer. Her father was sent to a labor camp;  some months later Judith was able to get a  Swiss pass that secured his release, and allowed Judith, her sister and her parents move into a Swiss controlled apartment – with over 20 other people. They were later forced to move to a Jewish ghetto, and then to the basement of their original apartment building, where they lived with 60 other people.   Judith began making handbags, and selling them to Americans. 

In 1945 Judith met Gerson “Gus” Leiber, an American GI; they married in 1946 and came to New York City.  Judith had a succession of jobs at different handbag companies, but they had an assembly-line approach to manufacturing, whereas Judith had learned to create a bag from start to finish – as if it were fine jewelry. 

Judith’s craftsmanship and creativity set her apart. Her first brush with fame came in 1953, when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower carried a handbag that Leiber had made (for the Nettie Rosenstein label) to the Presidential inauguration.  It wasn’t until 1966, however, that Judith Leiber opened her eponymous firm, with Gus.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Against one wall is a timeline of seminal events, both in the designer’s life and in the world, providing a context for a career that pushed against some outstanding odds:  not only the war, but also the difficulty for immigrants and women to be taken seriously, whether as designers or businesswomen.  Judith Leiber’s story is exceptionally relevant for our times.  You’ll find cases along the walls with photos and documents from her years in Hungary.

Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova-inspired rhinestone-encrusted minaudière, Judith Leiber, 1990

Judith Leiber drew inspiration from myriad sources:  Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese iconography, the work of geometric abstractionists including Sonia Delaunay and Piet Mondrian… and her husband Gus’ paintings.  Even fruits and vegetables were transformed into rhinestone marvels in her hands. As you go through the exhibit, you also realize what a pioneer Leiber was in her use of materials, working not only with leather but also exotic skins, seashells, Japanese obis and fabrics from Iran and Africa.  While her bags are highly decorated, there is no excess in her designs, rather they are an incredible balance of form and color.  Below are some of her creations on display (it was really, really hard to narrow down the selection):

Sonia Delaunay-inspired multi-skin envelope, Judith Leiber, 2000

Leiber’s love of art has found its way into many of her designs, such as this multi-skin envelope inspired by the work of Sonia Delaunay.

Embroidered camel karung envelope, Judith Leiber, 1980

In addition to using leather, Leiber also employed exotic skins such as python, alligator, karung, ostrich and even mink!

Original chatelaine bag with crystal rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1967

Lieber’s fame grew with the creation of the minaudière – a small, crystal-decorated bag, usually carried in the hand – that became a staple of red-carpet events.  Above is the first minaudière that she created, and it is a testament to her resourcefulness; the factory had shipped damaged gold-plated brass frames, and rather than discard them, she covered the discolored areas with crystal rhinestones.

Fish minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 1978

Leiber also drew inspiration from nature:  the show contains wonderful examples of the bags she fashioned in the shapes of birds, flowers, fruits and vegetables.  This fish is one of my favorites (but there are so many!!)  All of the bags rest on mirrored surfaces, which allows you to see their undersides, too.

Rhinestone-encrusted minaudière after Faith Ringgold’s “Street Story Quilt,” Judith Leiber, 1987

Leiber collaborated with Faith Ringgold to create a collection of bags inspired by the artist’s quilts – the one above was inspired by Ringgold’s Street Story Quilt  (the exhibition contains Ringgold’s The Purple Quilt and a bag it inspired).

Wax model for lion minaudière by Lawrence Kallenberg 1974

Manufacturing minaudières is a complex process, involving several people.  For many years the New York based artist Lawrence Kallenberg created the wax models that were used to make the molds and then the cast-metal shells for Leiber’s sparkling clutches.

Peacock minaudière with rhinestones, Judith Leiber, 2004

In 2004, having designed 3,500 bags over 65 years, Judith Leiber retired – the peacock bag above is the last one she created.  Not only has she left a legacy of unparalleled artistry, beauty and craftsmanship, but at age 96, she can look back on a life that is testament to grit, resourcefulness in the pursuit of passion.  (The picture at the top was taken at the opening of the exhibit earlier this month).

You can find more of Judith Leiber’s handbags, as well as her husband Gus’ paintings in their museum in the Hamptons.

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) is running panel discussions and workshops around this exhibit.

Be sure to get to MAD before the show closes on August 6th – you’ll want to go back more than once!

Zinelli and Gabritschevsky: War, Science and Personal Narrative in Art

detail, Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, July 30, 1965, gouache on paper

I’ve always liked the American Folk Art Museum, as I’m constantly discovering new things when I go there, and their exhibits often make me look at art in a different way, or get me to look again at art that is not always easy to grasp.  They’ve just installed a new exhibit focusing on two self-taught artists who are not that well-known here: Carlo Zinelli and Eugen Garbritschevsky.  While both these artists, who are of similar generations, produced the vast majority of their works while living in psychiatric facilities, and were promoted by Jean Dubuffet, there’s not much else that binds them in either their biographies or their work.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see them together.  We’re also lucky to have their paintings – In general hospitals did not keep their patients’ work (especially that done by women).

Carlo Zinelli’s (1916-1974) story is one of loss.  Born in San Giovanni Lupatto, Italy, he was the youngest of 7 children.  His mother died when he was two; at the age of 9, he was sent to live on a farm.  There he not only learned to care for the animals, but also to dance and sing with his fellow workers.  This love of rhythm, repetition and movement stayed with him, and permeates his art, as do images of dogs, birds, goats, cows and other farm animals.  At 18, Zinelli was drafted into the military, serving as a member of the Alpini.  He later was a stretcher-bearer in the Spanish Civil War; after two months, he returned to Italy, shell-shocked.  At the age of 31, he was committed to the San Giacomo psychiatric hospital in Verona, where he participated in an art workshop funded by Scottish sculptor Michael Noble.  It’s clear that Zinelli’s life influenced his work, and you’ll find yourself reflecting on his biography as you go through the show.

The exhibit is divided into four parts, which roughly correspond to the changes in Zinelli’s style. He used the materials the hospital supplied, which is why he worked almost exclusively in gouache on paper, and his works are all of “standard” paper sizes.   In all of his phases, Zinelli used strong colors, block figures, animals, and sweeping sense of movement underlies it all.   His pictures are untitled.  Many of them are double sided, and are hung from the ceiling so that you can see both sides!

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1957 gouache on cardboard

Phase 1 (1957-60) for me has a very naif feeling, with its use of bright reds, pinks, yellow and greens, and the way the people, dogs, trees and buildings are all jumbled together.  Here we get a glimpse of motifs that recur throughout Zinelli’s oeuvre:  lots of animals – especially birds and dogs – as well as people – all facing the same way. Sometimes a hand or a bird will dominate the center of the painting.   

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, no date, gouache on paper

There’s also a strong rhythmic movement, not surprising given that he liked to dance. The “little priest” figures are also introduced, and they will become increasingly prominent in his work.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1963, gouache on paper

In Phase Two (1960-65) Zinelli starts to paint his backgrounds.  The images get bigger and thicker, and while some of the colors are a bit murkier, the reds become really bright.  This is also the phase where he places people, animals and objects in group of 4 (his “quaternity.”)    You’ll also notice that many of the people, animals and objects now have perforations in their bodies.  However, you can see the background of the painting through these holes.  The imagery is often evocative of war:  boats, wheeled transportation and planes start to appear, as do people with crosses.  Birds also feature prominently in this phase (the above picture made me think of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, The Birds)

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 1962 collage, gouache on paper

You’ll also find this example of the collage work Zinelli did briefly around 1962 (a heavy smoker, those are the bottoms of cigarette packages he’s attached to the painting), that still has the groupings of 4, the wheeled transport, and everyone facing left (although I’m not sure about that smudgy figure in the lower left). 

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 7/9/68, gouache on paper, (Side 1 of 2)

The work in Phase 3 (1965-67) is primarily black and white, with occasional flashes of color, especially red.   During this period Zinelli incorporates words, letters and numbers into his work, more as graphic elements, since they seemingly have no meaning or coherence, and they make you wonder what he was trying to communicate.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, September 13, 1968, gouache on paper

The figures are larger, often a man wearing an Alpini helmet (self portrait?) or a man with wings, their bodies often perforated with holes, crosses and now four-pointed stars.  

In this part of the exhibit you can listen to a recording made by Zinelli while reading the English translation on a video monitor, which gives you a fuller feeling for his inability to process language using standard grammar and vocabulary.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, 9/28/1972, gouache and colored pencil on paper (side 1 of 2)

Phase 4 (1968-1974) begins the year the hospital moved from Verona, which had a marked effect on Zinelli’s style.  In many ways his output is now very close to his early work, in that there are smaller images with repeated elements, all on the paper in a chaotic fashion.  Some of the images of men and women are combined into one being, and sometimes the people and animals will have other beings inside them.  In this phase Zinelli does more sketching with colored pencils.

Untitled, Carlo Zinelli, December 16, 1972, ink and gouache on paper

He still uses writing as a graphic element, but now it is reduced to almost dots. 

In addition to Zinelli’s art, you’ll also find photos taken by the photojournalist John Philips (Life magazine) in 1959 at the hospital in Verona where Zinelli was confined.  Phillips was given free rein, and shot the patients as they went about their everyday lives.  There are also a number of photographs he took of the patients who participated in the art studio. Philips respected the dignity of his subjects; far from being voyeuristic, his photos rather give us a deeper understanding of the environment in which Zinelli produced his art.

Eugen Gabritschevsky’s life took a different trajectory. Hailing from a very wealthy family in Moscow, as a child he exhibited a precocious interest in insects and mutations, as well as a love of drawing. After his studies at the University of Moscow, in 1925 Gabritschevsky continued his research at Columbia University, focusing on color changes and the transformation of forms in insects. He then moved to Paris, where his career flourished.  However, he had a mental breakdown in 1931 and was admitted to Eglfing-Haar Psychiatric facility in Germany, where he remained for five decades, during which he created over 3,000 gouaches, drawings and watercolors on paper, x-rays, administrative papers – anything he could find.  In addition to painting with brushes, he also employed sponges, as well as scratching and rubbing techniques, and worked with folded paper.

Untitled (Annotation on back: Columbia University Laboratory, N. Y./Dr. T. H. Morgan & D. C. Bridges, December 4, 1926, N. Y. C.) New York City 1927 Charcoal on paper 16 9/16 x 23 3/4″ Private collection, New York Photo by Adam Reich © American Folk Art Museum © Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky EG_3_NYF

Gabritschevky’s early work is easy to appreciate, and the show has some fine examples of charcoals he created in the late 1920’s, like the one above.  The pictures from that era have a strong architectural component, which carries on through much of his later work.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, ca 1938-39, pencil and watercolor on paper

Even though his interest was primarily directed to insects, it’s clear from this piece that Gabritschevsky had keen observational powers when it came to other species, capturing their personalities.

Untitled, Eugen Grabitschevsky, 1936, gouache and pencil on paper

There’s also a certain whimsy in his work, and the feeling that he’s letting you in on a secret.

Gabritschevsky’s art goes in many directions – he was always experimenting, so it’s hard to pin him down stylistically. 

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, no date, gouache on tracing paper

Against one wall is a lovely series of birds which he created using gouache on tracing paper.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, 1957, gouache and watercolor on paper

The scientific and fantastic often combine, as in this evolution of microorganisms depicted like men.

Untitled, Eugen Gabritschevsky, ca 1947-48, gouache on paper

I confess I struggled with Gabritschevsky’s later work, especially paintings with spectral figures who seemed to resemble some cellular disorder.  But he often takes pains to stage them, sometimes in dreamlike opera settings, like the one above. 

Untitled (Dream NII-Glass Floor), November 1945, Gouache on paper

I like his use of color, and his sense of composition. You often have the feeling that you’re looking at organisms as they swirl under a microscope or in a petri dish, in their own private  carnival.  Sometimes you have the sensation of chaos trying to cohere into some kind of order…

detail, Untitled (The Last Judgement #84), Eugen Gabritschevsky, no date, gouache on paper, mounted on cardboard

It seems as if Gabritschevsky’s scientific training influenced everything he did – the above painting seems to be looking at the judgement day on a cellular level…

I found that I needed to spend a fair amount of time with both these artists, as it wasn’t immediately clear to me what they’re trying to say.  So I took a tour with Valery Rousseau, the show’s curator, which I found very helpful in understanding the work of these two artists.  I can also recommend taking a  free drop-in tours led by museum guides, which are held on Thursdays, from 1:00 to 2:00.  There’s  also one on Saturday, April 29th

On April 25th, the Museum will be hosting Dialogue + Studio: Science Illustration, a workshop led by professional illustrator Patricia Wynne, in which participants will learn the fundamentals of science illustration and how to draw from bones.

The American Folk Art Museum is located at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue.  I recommend you see the show before it closes on August 20th.  In addition to great exhibits, the Museum is free!

Step Right Up: The Sideshow as the Main Event

Models (Poseuses), Georges Seurat, 1887-88, oil on canvas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art   has a wonderful new exhibit of works by one of my favorite artists: Georges Seurat.  Centered on his masterpiece, Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque),  it features more than 100 paintings, drawings, posters and prints by artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries on this theme.

Seurat, who lived only to age 31, is probably best known as the inventor of pointillism, but he left a body of work that continues to inspire, and not only in the visual arts – think Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George.  Seurat’s outdoor subjects were painted in daylight; Circus Sideshow is his only painting of the outdoors under artificial illumination, in this case, gas light, which allowed Parisians to more safely enjoy evening entertainments such as café concerts, opera, dining out, and the evening stroll.  Circuses and traveling fairs, popular forms of urban entertainment, were the subject of many illustrations and art works in the 19th century.  The sideshow was especially important, as this free performance lured in paying customers to the larger spectacle – making it akin to the modern day movie trailer.

Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), Georges Seurat, 1887-88

In the center of the exhibit is Circus Sideshow, depicting the fairground scene of the Corvi Circus troupe at the Gingerbread Fair in Paris.  The painting’s pale purplish hues convey that in-between feeling of dusk, and its formalized, geometric composition provides a certain gravity to what was assuredly a raucous affair. As a viewer, you feel like you’re at the back of the crowd, watching as the spectators line up to buy tickets while five musicians, a clown and the ringmaster entertain them, illuminated by twinkling gaslights across the top of the painting. The hats of the crowd provide a rhythmic touch, while also clearly showing how the circus cut across class lines (even if they sit on separate sides of the show).  Exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1888, Circus Sideshow has bedazzled and bewildered viewers ever since.

The exhibit also includes 17 related conté crayon drawings by Seurat, including preparatory studies and some of the café-concert sketches of the music halls in Montmartre that were exhibited alongside the painting in 1888.

At the Divan Japonais, Georges Seurat, cas 1887-88, conte crayon on paper

Despite the strong diagonal of the dancer’s leg that mimics the neck of the double bass, this drawing nonetheless remains balanced.

The Saltimbanques, Georges Seurat, ca. 1886, conte crayon on paper

The head in the front below a line of standing figures is an element that Seurat used again in his painting.

Alto ophicleide in E-flat, nine keys, Charles Joseph Sax, ca 1845

You’ll also find two cases of brass and woodwind period instruments, that would have been used in Seurat’s painting, including this ophicleide in E-flat with 9 keys, a low brass instrument that was a predecessor of the tuba.  This instrument was made by Charles Sax, father of Adolphe Sax, who invented the saxophone.

La Parade (The Sideshow), Honoré Dauier, ca 1865, charcoal, pen & ink, gray wash, watercolor, gouache, and conte crayon on paper

 Works by other artists of the era abound in this show, as the circus was a popular theme.  This work by Henri Daumier illustrates some of the crueler aspects of the circus – what became known as the freak show – when people with bodies outside the mainstream were routinely put on display as objects of curiosity (and a certain amount of derision). 

Place de Clichy, Paul Signac, 1887, oil on wood

Paul Signac, another pointilist of the era, offers us this bright rendering of a traveling fair near his studio by the Place de Clichy, caught in the calm of mid-day, before the evening excitement begins.

Fair at the Tuileries: F. Corvi’s Minature Theatre-Circus, Affiches Américaines, ca 1882-88, color lithograph

While the sideshow was an important draw for the circus, posters were widely used to attract crowds.  This one for Corvi’s Miniature Theatre-Circus, promises amazing feats by goats, horses, mules, apes and dogs.  Notice the similarity in Corvi’s tailcoat, and the one worn by the ringmaster in Seurat’s painting.

detail of Grimaces and Misery-The Saltimbanques, Fernand Pelez, oil on canvas, 1888

Occupying its own wall is Grimaces and Misery – The Saltimbanques by Fernand Pelez, that was shown at the official Salon of 1888, right before the closing of the Salon des Indépenents, where Seurat showed.  Twenty feet wide, this painting’s life-size depiction of sideshow performers (saltimbanques) are arranged in a tripartite structure, starting from the left, with four young performers, who already look like they know how bleak their futures will be; the middle panel with the quizzical dwarf and two clowns; and the final panel of three aged, exhausted  musicians.  While not everyone liked this realistic portrayal of circus performers, Pelez’s painting received the Silver Medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.  Although different in style, compositionally this painting and Seurat’s have much in common.

Ladies and Gentlemen:  There is much, much more to see: paintings, lithographs, drawings and ephemera!

Works by Hayet, Bonnard, Pissarro, and even a Picasso!

So step right up to the Met and see Seurat’s Circus Sideshow  before it closes on May 29th.

Native Fashion – Cross Cultural Boundary Shattering

The Messenger (The Owl), Margaret Roach Wheeler (Chicksaw) cape and headpiece, silk-wool year, metal, silver, glass beads and peacock feathers.

February and March bring us reports of fashion shows from New York, Paris, Milan, London… all of which have bragging rights, but they may meet their match in some of the garments and accessories on display at the Museum of the American Indian, in the fabulous new show, Native Fashion Now .  Divided into four parts (Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, Provacateurs) the exhibit features over 60 pieces of contemporary clothing, jewelry and footwear designed by Native Americans. While many reference traditional sources and design, they are adapted to today’s materials and sensibilities. The pieces are all about the creation that happens when cultures collide, bringing forth something new but that still has heritage at its foundation.  The craftsmanship is exquisite.  As an embroiderer, I was immediately drawn to the beaded pieces, of which there are many splendid ones.

The first gallery – Pathbreakers  features the work several trailblazers, such as Frankie Welch (Cherokee), who dressed First Lady Betty Ford, and Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), who you may recognize from the 2013 season of Project Runway.  You’ll also find dresses by Cherokee designer Lloyd “Kiva” New, whose custom clothing and accessories in the 1940‘s and ’50’s were part of mainstream (as opposed to “ethnic”) fashion, combining Native imagery with modern silhouettes and palettes. New housed his studio in an artisan-run boutique complex in Scottsdale Arizona, and sold his fashions in high-end boutiques and through Neiman Marcus.  He was the first Native designer to show in international fashion exhibition in the 1950’s.  This dress is his variation on Dior’s “New Look.”

1950’s dress, Lloyd “Kiva” New, (Cherokee) screen-printed cotton


Maria Samora (Taos  Pueblo) created this stunning Lily Pad bracelet of 18 carat gold, palladium white gold and diamonds, in a design that is a total break with the turquoise and silver that defined “Native” design for so long.

Lily Pad bracelet, Maria Samora (Taos Pueblo) gold, palladium white gold, and diamonds


In the Revisitors section you’ll find hats, parasols, dresses by designers who incorporate and reinterpret Native symbols in their work, or use new materials while maintaining a traditional aesthetic.  Be sure to visit the room to the right of this section, where you’ll find lots of fabulous bead work like the belt by Niio Perkins below.

Belt from Emma Ensemble, Niio Perkins (Akwesasne Mohawk) cotton, velvet, glass beads, metal pins


Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) transformed a pair of Christian Louboutin boots, completely covering them in a design of swallows and flowers reminiscent of her childhood, using beads from the 1880’s which she hand stitched over the course of hundreds of hours.

Boots, designed by Christian Louboutin, France, beadwork Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock)


This Old Time Floral Elk Tooth Dress, by Bethany Yellowtail, (Apsaalooke (Crow)/ Northern Cheyenne) is a knock-out, combining elements of heritage – elk teeth are the epitome of Apsaalooke wealth, while the leather appliqués hearken back to Crow and Nez Perce floral motifs – with the thoroughly “fashion” underdress and lace overlay.

Old Time Floral Elk Tooth Dress, Bethany Yellowtail, (Apsaalooke (Crow)/Northern Cheyenne)


The Activators section features younger artists, many of whom use fashion to express their political views or to raise awareness of issues affecting Native communities.

One of my favorites is the tee-shirt by Dustin Martin (Diné [Navajo]) with it’s image of a Colt .45 revolver below which is the inscription:  “Ceci n’est pas un conciliateur”  a play on Renee Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – but the kicker is in the explanation on the bottom near the hem:

This is Not a Peacemaker, Dustin Martin, (Diné [Navajo])

THIS IS NOT A PEACEMAKER”  The “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” was adopted as the standard military service revolver from 1873-1892.  Nicknamed “The Peacemaker”, Samuel Colt’s revolutionary side arm was used by Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry during the Great Sioux War of 1876.  On June 25th, Custer and 267 of his men were killed when they engaged a combined force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors desperate to protect their families camped alongside the Little Bighorn River.  Let by the likes of Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, these sovereign original land owners understood that the implement on Custer’s hip meant anything but peace.  RESIST THE HYPE.

Provacateurs contains one-of-a kind items, that push tradition into the realm of experimental, and are sometimes used to provoke thinking on charged subjects such as colonialism and sexism, or the influence of technology.

Sho Sho Esquiro (Kasha Dene/Cree) has created an elegant evening gown of surprising materials:  rooster feathers, seal, beaver tail and carp, as well as silk and beads, displaying a very skillfully tailored garment.  Hailing from Canada’s Yukon region, Esquiro knows the importance of clothing that is well sewn and constructed.  This garment is from her “Day of the Dead” series, meant to be worn by her departed loved ones at an imagined reunion.  The clothing in this series also takes inspiration from the Mexican holiday of the same name.  I really like the animal skull and tulle fascinator by Dominique Hanke (British).

Wlle, Wile, Wile dress, Day of the Dead Collection, Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree) seal, beaver tail, carp, beads, sik, rayon, rooster feathers; skull and tulle fascinator by Dominique Hanke (British)


Brothers David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Diné [Navajo]/Picuris Pueblo) have created a new take on that glamour standard bearer, the feather boa, crafting an accessory for the 21st century (from stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint and feathers) that captures all the attitude of its more malleable predecessor.  Try wearing this on the subway – even jaded New Yorkers would look twice! The  Gunmetal Pleat dress by  Consuelo Pascual (Diné [Navajo]/Maya) fashioned from organza recalls the aesthetics of Paco Rabanne and Courrèges, but takes them to a new level.

Postmodern Boa, David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin; Gunmetal Pleat dress, Consuelo Pascual


There’s a lot more to see in Native Fashion Now  (more photos are on my Instagram feed) so get over to the Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green before it closes on September 4th.   The catalogue (written for the exhibit when it originated at the Essex Peabody Museum) that accompanies the show is fabulous!

The Museum is hosting two events in conjunction with the exhibit:

On Thursday, April 20th, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm, The Power of Native Design an evening of fashion and music, and you can hear the personal stories of designers Dorothy Grant (Haida), Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone Bannock), Bethany Yellowtail (Apsaalooke/Northern Cheyenne) and others.  Admission is free!

On Saturday, April 22nd, an all-day symposium, Native/American Fashion: Inspiration, Appropriation and Cultural Identity, will bring together Native and non-Native historians, fashion designers and artists working in the fields of fashion, law and indigenous studies, addressing  fashion as a creative endeavor and an expression of cultural identity, issues of problematic cultural appropriation, and offering examples of creative collaborations and best practices between Native designers and fashion brands. The symposium is co-sponsored with the Fashion Institute of Technology. Admission is free!

The Fantastical Landscapes of Hercules Segers

River Valley With Four Trees, Hercules Segers, ca 1625-30, line etching, first state of two

I first heard of the 17th-century printmaker Hercules Segers this spring at the TEFAF, where the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam showed a short film about his work, in advance of the recently-opened show at the Metropolitan Museum.  This is the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to the artist.  The Rijksmuseum has lent its entire holdings (74 prints, two oil sketches, and one painting) to the exhibition, and you’ll find work from other European institutions, such as the British Museum and the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. The Met exhibit, while highlighting Segers’ artistry, also showcases his innovations in printmaking.

Not much is known about Segers – he was born around 1590 to a family of moneyed Flemish merchants in Haarlem, which was an important printmaking town.  He later moved to Amsterdam, and then, in 1631 to the Hague, due to financial difficulties.    

In the show are two small display cases with the brushes, inks, papers, and etching needles Segers would have used.   Among his innovations were the use of Asian papers (later employed by Rembrandt), and colored papers, as well as printing on cloth, and using sugar to create texture. Rather than creating multiple identical prints of an image, Segers sought to make each impression a unique work, a departure from the practice of the day.

Segers seems to have traveled no farther than Brussels. Yet he created fantastical landscapes that combined aspects of Dutch cities with those of more Alpine landscapes, which he would have seen in the etchings of artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The show – which has most of Seger’s 53 known prints in varying impressions plus six of his paintings and two studies – begins with a very short video on Segers (which I recommend watching).  It then proceeds chronologically, giving you the full flavor of Seger’s ouevre – you’ll quickly understand why Rembrandt owned several of his works (including a plate he reworked).  Because the various states of Seger’s prints are grouped together, you get a more complete understanding of his innovations, and how his technical mastery and daring allowed him to create very different impressions of a given scene.  On it’s website, the Met does a wonderful job of explaining this with an interactive feature that lets you move between different states of a print.  Here are some of my favorite paintings and prints in the exhibit:

Houses Near Steep Cliffs, Hercules Segers, ca 1619-23, oil on canvas

Houses Near Steep Cliffs, an oil painting from around 1619, faithfully renders buildings that Segers would have seen from his window in Amsterdam – but the artist has chosen to set them in an imaginary landscape with cliffs and a lake, like you might find in the lower Alps.

View Through the Window of Segers’ House Towards the Noorderkerk, Hercules Segers, ca 1625-30, line etching, unique impression

A few years later, he created a line etching, View Through the Window of Seger’s House Toward the Nooderkerk , again faithfully showing the buildings – now with the newly completed North Church – Segers would have seen from his window (even including the shutters and window frame); however, the trees in the distance are a fanciful element, replacing actual buildings.

River Landscape with Figures, Hercules Segers, ca 1625-30, oil on panel

We can gain some insight into Segers’ methods by looking at River Landscape with Figures, an oil he completed sometime around 1625-30.  We see buildings that would not have been out of place in a Dutch city in that era, now set in a landscape that is clearly not in the Lowlands.

About a year later, he created an etching, Valley With a River and a Town with Four Towers,  which seems to have been derived from the River Landscape painting, as their compositions are almost identical.  Even though the buildings in the etchings are more Gothic, and there are other details, such as the vegetation, which are different, there’s a clear relationship to the painting.  While the etchings are all the same, you see from the three states below how Segers’ use of colored backgrounds and wash convey completely different atmospheres.

Valley With a River and A Town with 4 Towers, Hercules Segers, 1625-27, etching and drypoint printed in black ink

This is a drypoint etching in black ink.

Valley With a River and A Town with 4 Towers, Hercules Segers, 1625-27, etching and drypoint printed in green ink on cream-tinted ground, pen in gray ink with gray wash

Segers printed this line point etching in dark green on a cream-tinted back ground, over which he used a pen with grey ink, and a grey wash.

Valley With a River and A Town with 4 Towers, Hercules Segers, 1625-27, etching and drypoint printed in blue ink pm cream-tinted background, colored with brush

This version was printed in blue on cream-tined ground, then colored with a brush.  The streaks that seem to point upward suggest that the print was hung upside-down to dry.

Tobias and the Angel, Hercules Segers, ca 1630-33

I started off this article by mentioning that Rembrandt van Rijn was among Segers’ admirers, owning several of his works, including the plate that Segers used around 1630 to create this etching of Tobias and the Angel.  Sometime later,  Rembrandt reworked the plate, taking  out the figures of Tobias and the Angel…

The Flight into Egypt, Rembrandt van Rijn, ca 1652

… then sketching directly onto the plate with a drypoint needle, he changed the subject into The Flight into Egypt.  Hubirs or homage?

Even though he’s not that well-known today, in his lifetime Segers was widely admired and influenced his contemporaries.  There’s much more to this exhibit, so get to the Met to see The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers before it closes on May 21st.

Black History in US Currency

Loreen Williamson, Co-founder, Museum of UnCut Funk making remarks at the opening of the exhibit “For the Love of Money”

Coins and bills may seem to be just a way we pay for things, but they have a psychic and symbolic weight that belies their physical heft.  Just think about the debates around imagery when the Euro was created, or the more recent dust-up over changes to the U.S. $20 bill. 

It was against this backdrop that the Museum of American Finance opened its newest exhibit For The Love of Money:  Blacks on US Currency, featuring coins, medals and medallions bearing images of Black icons, historical events, and institutions central to American history. 

The exhibit comes from the Museum of UnCut Funk, a virtual museum dedicated to 1970’s Black Culture and Funk.  Loreen Williamson, co-curator of the Museum of UnCut Funk, opened her remarks noting that announced changes to US Currency will include images of prominent African Americans: Harriet Tubman will be featured on the front of the new $20 bill; the reverse of the new $10 bill will feature several women’s rights activists, including Sojourner Truth; and the reverse of the new $5 bill will honor prominent individuals including Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr. (You can find the full US Treasury announcement here) As she said, quoting the O’Jay’s song that gives this exhibit its title, such a “small piece of paper carries a lot of weight.”

When Ms. Williamson and Pamela Thomas started the Museum, they collected objects they loved, centered on 1970’s Black culture and Funk.  They didn’t know that there were black people on U.S. currency – they found their first coin some 15 years ago at a memorabilia show.  Ms. Williamson noted that the 41 objects in this exhibit are tangible, permanent, accessible objects for people to learn from – many of the coins have images of historical first events and people who carried the hopes and dreams of their race  on their shoulders.  For her this exhibit also brings history full circle, as enslaved people were bought and sold on Wall Street, steps away from this exhibit. 

The exhibit covers a lot of history, and is divided into 5 parts by type of object: anti-slavery tokens used in the US and England; commemorative coins – they are made in small batches and their sales are used to build museums, maintain historic sites and support Olympic programs;  Congressional Gold Medals – one of the highest civilian awards bestowed by the US government to honor particular individuals or events; replica bronze medals – these are replicas of the Congressional Gold medals and can be sold; and commemorative gold medallions – in1978 legislation authorized the creation of commemorative American Arts Medallions, to provide a way for U.S. citizens to invest in gold bullion-type coins. 

Commemorative coins and medals  require an Act of Congress, signed by the US President, to be created, which makes the images that adorn them even more significant.

And who makes our money?  US Currency is made by the Department of the Treasury:  bills by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving  and coins by the U.S. Mint.

Throughout the show you’ll find coins bearing the likenesses of many famous figures or commemorating well-known historic events, such as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, the desegregation of Little Rock schools, as well as objects with images of less famous people like Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman aviator in the world.  In the displays you’ll be rewarded with the fruits of Ms. Williamson’s research: biographies and descriptions of the people, events and institutions depicted, as well as explanations of how these coins and medals are created. Below are a few of the objects you’ll see:

Copper American anti-slavery token “Am I not a woman & a sister” 1838

The sale of Anti-Slavery tokens supported by American abolitionist movement; the design of the American tokens was inspired by British ceramic medallions projected by Josiah Wedgwood, and commissioned by Benjamin Franklin. American copper hard-times tokens were privately minted and used by merchants to make change.

Louis Armstrong commemorative gold medallion

The great jazz artist Louis Armstrong was the first Black man to be honored on a gold commemorative medallion.  He was also the first Black man to get feature billing in a major motion picture, Pennies from Heaven.  For over 10 years, Armstrong refused to play in his hometown of New Orleans, because they didn’t allow integrated bands. You can also visit his home in Corona, Queens. 

Civil Rights Act of 1964, silver dollar created in 2014

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was commemorated on a Silver Dollar in 2014. 

bronze replica of gold Congressional Medal presented to the American Fighter Aces

This medal is a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal presented to the American Fighter Aces in recognition of their heroic military service.  American Fighter Aces are military pilots credited with destroying five or more confirmed enemy aircraft in aerial combat during a war or conflict.  This medal includes the likeness of Lt. Col. Lee Archer, the first and only Black Fighter Ace, who fought in both World War 2 (with the Tuskegee Airmen)  and the Korean War.  He flew 196 missions and shot down four enemy aircraft; with another pilot he downed a fifth enemy plane. 

George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington silver half dollar 1951

This 1951 silver half dollar was designed by Isaac Scott Hathaway, the first Black artist whose work was produced by the US Mint. It depicts George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery and became a famous agricultural scientist and inventor; and Booker T. Washington, a former slave who served as an advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, now known as Tuskegee University.

Dorothy Height Bronze Medal Front. Photo by Museum of UnCut Funk, courtesy of Museum of American Finance

Dorothy I. Height was President of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for 40 years.  She was also the only female member of the Council for United Civil Rights leadership and was one of the organizers of the March on Washington.  The NCNW national headquarters building is named after her.

This exhibit is both highly educational and fascinating.  Be sure to get to see it before it closes next January!  The Museum of American Finance is at 48 Wall Street;  the Museum of UnCut Funk is on-line.