Brooklyn History Still Speaking to Us

Exhibition Title Image, Brooklyn Historical Society

When you’re next at The Brooklyn Historical Society, be sure to visit their exhibit Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy  on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson.  While he’s best known for desegregating this sport, throughout his life Robinson was thrust into the turmoil around racial integration.  Born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919, the following year his family moved to a white neighborhood in Pasadena, California where Robinson learned to stand up for himself.  While attending the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), this multi-talented athlete played on their basketball, football, track & field, as well as their baseball team, winning letters in all four of these sports.  In 1945, he played one season for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. 

In the U.S., attitudes towards racial segregation had been changing, and Branch Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers understood that integrating baseball could be good, and signed Jackie Robinson to the team.  

Opening day at Ebbets Field, April 15, 1947, was historic – 26,600 fans, of which 14,000 were African Americans, turned out to see Robinson create history – until then, baseball had been segregated.  However, even though he could now play with white team mates, when they traveled in the South, Robinson couldn’t share facilities, hotels, or restaurants with them.

Wheaties ad featuring Jackie Robinson

But Robinson’s talent couldn’t be denied: in 1947 he won the Rookie of the Year Award, in 1949 he became the first black player to receive the National League Most Valuable Player Award, and he later earned other accolades, including six All Star awards. Like other sports stars, his image was used to sell various products, including Wheaties.

Display with magazine covers featuring Jackie Robinson

Testament to Robinson’s star power can also be found in the display which features several of magazine covers he graced, including such major publications as Time and Life.

Throughout his career, Jackie Robinson faced threats and insults, especially as he became more involved in the civil rights movement, touring the country with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and supporting black businesses. But he never stopped.

His retirement from sports in 1957 led Jackie Robinson to business, where his achievements including becoming the first black Vice President of a major American company, Chock full O’Nuts, as well as helping to establish Freedom National Bank. 

Jackie Robinson passed away in 1972.  Despite all he achieved, there’s clearly more work to be done to fully honor his legacy.  A good place to start is with this exhibit, Until Everyone Has It Made: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy, which  will be up until June, 2018.

Circular Yacht in Prospect Park, Harper’s Weekly, July 27, 1878, Terrence J. Allen Prospect Park Collection, Brooklyn Public Library

While you’re at the BHS, stop by  The Means of a Ready Escape: Brooklyn’s Prospect Park  which celebrates the park’s 150th Anniversary.

Created by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Manhattan’s Central Park, Prospect Park is often described as the park they wanted to build. 

Indian Villages, Paths, Ponds and Places in Kings County, 1946, C. W. Nenning and James A. Kelly, Brooklyn Historical Society

The exhibit begins by pointing out that Brooklyn was the home of various Native American tribes, especially the Lenape Indians, for over 9,000 years before the Europeans arrived in the 1600’s.  Be sure to take a look at this great map created in 1946 by then Brooklyn Borough Historian James A. Kelly.

First the Dutch, then the British began establishing farms and towns in the area.  The local inhabitants were caught up in the historic events of the Revolutionary War when, in 1776, the land that is now Prospect Park was the site of a major battle between the Continental Army and the British (including the Hessians who fought for them).

It wasn’t until 1861 that the first plan for what is now Prospect Park was created – however, the Civil War deterred it’s implementation.  After the war ended, in 1865 Olmstead and Vaux were invited to submit their design, which they created with the intent of giving park-goers the illusion that they were no longer in a city. 

Lawn Tennis in Prospect Park, Harper’s Weekly, July 11, 1885, Bob Lenine Collection

The exhibit highlights the ways in which use of this 585 acre tract has changed over the years.  The park now includes active uses such as an ice skating rink, a bandshell, baseball fields, as well as a zoo.

It also makes clear that you can’t separate the park from it’s urban surroundings, detailing how the park suffered during the NYC fiscal crisis in the 1970‘s and subsequent reductions in government funding. However, in 1980, Tupper Thomas was appointed the first administrator of the park, which led to its turnaround.  She also helmed the Prospect Park Alliance, created in 1987, which raises funds and other support for the park’s upkeep.  (This exhibit is presented in partnership with the Alliance)

The Means of a Ready Escape: Brooklyn’s Prospect Park will be at the Brooklyn Historical Society  through July 13, 2018. 

Every month, the BHS has a FREE Friday evening program.  They also offer – at a very low cost – some wonderful lectures, author talks and films on the history of Brooklyn, as well as current issues that affect us all, no matter where we live. I’ve been to several – in addition to learning something new, I’ve always enjoyed them.   Be sure to bookmark their Calendar  

The BHS is located at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights.  (Go for a stroll along the Promenade or at Brooklyn Bridge Park when you’re done!)

Golden Venture Paper Sculptures Tell a Story for Today

Statue of Liberty, 1994, Papier-mâché, cardboard and colored markers, MOCA Collection

Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America tells the story of some of the passengers on board the Golden Venture when it ran aground near Rockaway Beach Queens at 2:00am on June 6, 1993.  I remember the confusion in the initial TV, radio and newspaper reports – how many passengers (often referred to as “aliens” or “illegal aliens”), where they came from (“Asia”, “China”) what happened, why they were on the boat, how many died…   

Perhaps the best place to start your tour is in the smaller gallery across from the main exhibition space in which you’ll find the below sculpture and an eye-opening video edited by David Tan & Ya Yun Teng, that provides context for the exhibit and also ties it into today’s debates around immigration.  Made in 2017, the video features lawyers and residents of York, Pennsylvania, talking about not only their efforts to obtain justice for the Golden Venture passengers who were detained in the York County prison, but also about the actions taken over the last 20-odd years to restrict immigration to the U.S.   

Statue of Liberty atop the U.S. Capitol dome within Chinese city walls, 1994

In many ways, the story of the Golden Venture begins in 1989/90, when President George H. W. Bush, angry about the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, issued directives and an Executive Order, which had the net effect of allowing Chinese nationals – even those here illegally – to stay in the US while their applications for permanent residency wended their way through the system. However, that opened the floodgates for smugglers (a/k/a snakeheads). 

Freestanding eagle looking straight ahead, 1994, Folded paper, papier-mâché, glue and colored marker, MOCA Collection

When the Golden Venture crashed, there were 286 migrants on board, mostly from Fujian Province, who had embarked on a 6-month ocean voyage that took them to Thailand, then to Kenya, then around  the Cape of Good Hope, and on to the U.S. Each passenger (and/or their families) had paid the equivalent of US$5,000 to smugglers, and agreed to work off the balance (US$30,000) mainly by laboring in restaurants and sweatshops. 

The Golden Venture  posed a problem for the U.S.: ten passengers died when they jumped off the ship in the Rockaways and tried to swim to shore.   There was a lot of media attention, and it gave the impression that the authorities did not have things under control.  The World Trade Center had been bombed a few months earlier. Anti-immigrant sentiment was starting to grow, and in the previous two years, a number of ships with passengers smuggled in from China had been apprehended in US waters.

Previously, foreigners in the US illegally were not imprisoned – they were required to report to US Immigration periodically, but were effectively at liberty until their cases were adjudicated.  In order to deter other smugglers, the Clinton administration took a hard line, detaining the Golden Venture passengers in various prisons across the country.  Speedy deportation hearings were held; about half the passengers were returned to China, and another 50 were sent to other countries.  A group of men were held in the York County Prison in Pennsylvania, where most of them stayed for 3 years and 8 months. The exhibit is about their experiences, as well as about the art they created.

Golden Venture bird cage, ca. 1994, Rolled paper, papier-mâché, cardboard, glue and colored marker, MOCA Collection

A grass roots group, People of the Golden Vision comprised of residents of York County and pro bono lawyers formed to help the detainees obtain better conditions and asylum; they organized letter writing campaigns, held vigils and fundraisers for over three years, keeping the plight of the detainees before the public.

In 1996, a small group of exceptionally artistically talented detainees were released and given a special visa for “aliens of extraordinary ability.”  In 1996, President Clinton paroled the remaining detainees. Today, 15 former detainees are in the US and still have no clear path to permanent legal residence, even though they work, pay taxes, and even own businesses. 

Large vessel with lid, ca. 1994, folded paper, papier-mâché, glue and colored marker, Courtesy of Jeff and Cindy Lobach

The exhibit features some 40 objects made collectively from papier-mâché (which the detainees fashioned from toilet paper, glue and water)  and from folded and rolled paper (mostly magazines and legal pads).  Over the course of their detention, the detainees made these works as gifts to the people who helped them, or to be sold at fundraisers to pay for their defense.

Many of the sculptures in the exhibit are quite elaborate, and certain images dominate:  eagles, peacocks, boats and bird cages.  Many, such as the pagodas, are also very large.

detail, Pagoda Tower with Eagles and Pineapple, 1994, Rolled, cut and folded paper, papier-mâché, cardboard, blue and colored marker, courtesy of Jeff and Cindy Lobach

While the sculptures are amazing, be sure to watch the videos in this room: one of the male detainees singing Amazing Grace in Chinese and thanking their supporters; another featuring the paper sculptures made by the detainees, who we don’t see (many didn’t want to appear on screen), but we hear them talking about their quest for freedom, the boredom of prison, learning to fold paper, and their yearning for a better life.

Lantern, 1994, Folded paper, thread, plastic beads, glue, colored marker

 

I also encourage you to visit MOCA’s core exhibit With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which details the history of Chinese immigrants in America, beginning in 1784 when the Empress of China left New York City for Canton, to trade tradition Appalachian ginseng, furs, and Mexican silver for Chinese  luxury goods such as porcelains, teas and silks.

Soup Plate, custom-made in China for NYS Governor Dewitt Clinton, ca. 1805, courtesy of the NY Historical Society)

Through photos, paintings and political cartoons, you’ll learn about the Chinese Americans who contributed to the American economy and culture: the anonymous workers who built ships and constructed the railroads; the entertainers who worked on the “Chop Suey Circuit” (Anna May Wong being the most famous); and current icons such as YoYo Ma and Vera Wang.  Renowned Chinese American architect Maya Lin designed the Museum.  There are also, sadly, artifacts detailing the devastating effects of the Chinese Exclusionary Laws, and also the ways in which Chinese Americans were caricatured and discriminated against.

The Museum provides a relevant and much needed lens on the history of immigration in the U.S., reminding us how easy it is for government and citizens to demonize “the other,” and how harsh measures to restrict immigration damage not only the targeted groups, but all of us.

Fold: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures will be at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) until March 25th, 2018.  But get there much sooner. 

MOCA is located at 215 Centre Street. 

The Visual Arts and World War 1

World War 1 and the Visual Arts, the excellent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commemorates the centenary of the U.S.‘s entry into that conflict.  Consisting of pen & ink drawings, photographs, posters and  lithographs, primarily by European artists – French, British and Russian, the exhibit also contains work by German artists, which I haven’t seen in the other shows on this subject. The 136 objects, drawn mainly from the Met’s collection, highlight how artists were conflicted by the war: some eagerly used their talents to create pro-war propaganda, while others sought to convey the horrors of the conflict through their art.  Several served as war correspondents, medics and even soldiers; some who started out in favor of war came to reverse their positions.

5-1/2% War Loan, Russian, Color Lithograph, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the hall leading up to the exhibit there are 10 posters from France, Belgium and Russia, whose bright colors and bold graphics exhort viewers to support the war – in this case, urging them to buy Russian war bonds.

Banking at 4,000 Feet, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 1917, Lithograph, Purchase, Reba and Dave Williams Gift, 1998

Christopher Richard Wynne (CRW) Nevinson (1889-1946) was appointed an official war artist  by the British government in 1917, after having volunteered briefly in France and then with the Royal Army Medical Corps.  This lithograph is based on an airplane trip he took over the English countryside.  Notice how the artist inserted his own hand, gripping the side of the plane – I’m sure it was a “white knuckle” experience! Nevinson’s work is prominently featured in this show, with ten pieces.

Recruits, John Copley, 1915 Lithograph, Johanna and Leslie Garfield

John Copley (1875-1950) was a prolific British printmaker. This image of recruits lining up to enroll – and standing very straight – illustrates how the war affected all strata of British society.  The wall label informs us that “By fall 1914, so many lives had been lost that the criteria for enlisting was changed:  the minimum height for male volunteers shifted from 5’8” in August 1914 to 5’5” in October and 5’3” by November.” 

In the Somme, Village in Ruins, Pierre Bonnard, 1916, colored chalks and watercolor, private collection

When I saw the above work, I was surprised to discover it was created by  the French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), as his name always brings to mind interiors.  It turns out that there is only one known war painting by him:  A Village in Ruins near Ham.  This chalk and watercolor was made in preparation for that 1917 work.

The Exodus, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, 1915, Lithograph, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sadly, The Exodus -1915 by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) has an all too familiar feel. Even though it depicts people fleeing Belgium after a German invasion, this image echoes (or should I say, presages) ones on the front pages of today’s newspapers.  Much of Steinlen’s art during the war focused the plight of refugees.

Doomed City, Natalia Goncharova, 1914, Lithograph, Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was a Russian avant-garde artist and writer.  She also designed sets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, where she was living with her future husband Mikhail Larionov, when war broke out.  They returned to Russia for Larionov to do his military service, then went back to Paris in 1917.

Mothers, Käthe Kollowitz, 1919, Lithograph, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928

I have long admired German artist Käthe Kolowitz (1867-1945) whose work centers on the lives of the working class and women.  The above lithograph is from her series Krieg (War). She appears as the central figure in this work, embracing her two sons; the younger one Peter was killed in combat when he was 18. 

from The War, Otto Dix, 1923-24, Etching, aquatint and drypoint, The Richard Harris Collection

Initially welcoming the start of World War 1, Otto Dix (1891-1969) served as a machine-gun operator in France and Belgium, where he was seriously wounded.  His war experiences turned him into a pacifist, known for his imagery of a corrupt, brutal and decaying post-war German society.  Der Krieg (The War) is a series of 51 prints, based on Dix’ memories of battles, as well as contemporaneous photographs, and is modeled on Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The disasters of war).

In the section The Intersection of Of Arts and Arms, you’ll find a set of helmets that were designed by Met curator Bashford Dean.  Thirty-three Met staff members served in the armed forces in World War 1 – in the Great Hall is a commemorative plaque for the two who lost their lives.

The Human U.S Shield, Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas, 1918, Gelatin silver print, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987

You’ll also find a work by American photographers Arthur S. Mole (1889-1983) and John D. Thomas (died 1947), who were commissioned by the US military to create photographs to lift war-time moral.  Using thousands of soldiers, they made a series of “living photographs” of icons of American history, including  the Statue of Liberty, Woodrow Wilson, and the Liberty Bell.  The U.S. Human Shield, above, was staged at Camp Custer in Michigan, using 30,000 men, and shot from an 80 ft. high viewing tower. 

Study for “The Coming of the Americans,” John Singer Sargent, 1921-22, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on off-white laid paper, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known as a society painter of the Gilded Age (especially for Madame X), but he also documented the horrors of the first world war (the monumental Gassed of 1918 is probably his best-known work of that era).  This study is for a painting, The Coming of the Americans, commissioned by Harvard University to commemorate alumni who died in the war. There are four other works by him in this show.

This is just a small sampling of the works you’ll find in this thought-provoking exhibit.

World War 1 and the Visual Arts   is on through January 7th at the Met, 1000 Fifth Avenue (83rd Street). Put it on your “to see” list!

War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics – A Splendid Exhibit

detail, Regimental Bed Rug, Sgt. Malcolm Macleod (Dates Unknown), India, c. 1865, wool, mostly from military uniforms with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-embroidered. The Annette Gero Collection.

War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics, the current exhibit at the Museum of Folk Art is a must see!  Especially if you like quilts, but even if you don’t. Drawn primarily from the unparalleled collection of internationally acclaimed quilt authority Dr. Annette Gero, all the quilts were made by men in uniform: soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors.  This was not an accident of history, but rather the result of the English government’s attempt to boost the morale of its troops far away from home, whether in India, the Crimea or fighting the Napoleonic Wars.   Being a soldier could involve a fair amount of tedium, especially when stationed in areas that were remote, or where going into town was not sanctioned or not an  option.  In order to keep the troops from relieving their boredom by drinking and gambling, the English government promoted quiltmaking as a masculine activity, both at home (to future soldiers) and to the conscripted.

Because the soldiers used milled wool and broadcloth made for British uniforms, the color palette is pretty much red, greens, blue/black, gold, beige and white, with the occasional purple – however, that seems to have been a spur to the complexity of many of the patterns.  For me, the mix and arrangement of varying sizes of rectangles, stars, diamonds and squares into geometric patterns with concentric frames gives several of the quilts an op-art feel.  While many of the textiles have no batting or are not backed, the exhibit uses the word “quilt” as “a term of convenience.”  No matter what you call them, they are all stunning.  They are also very big, anywhere from 5 feet to 9 feet high.

Captain Webb’s Hut, 4th Dragoon Guards, Roger Fenton

In the entryway to the exhibit, you’ll find Roger Fenton’s photos of the Crimean War (1854-56) projected on one wall.  Because of the difficulty of taking and developing photographs in the mid-19th century, many of Fenton’s pictures are posed ones of key military leaders and enlisted men, or stills of their surroundings.  Against another wall you’ll find the words to “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as well as a wax recording of Alfred Lord Tennyson reading his poem (it’s faint, but give it a listen).

Off to the left, the gallery features 6 quilts mostly made in India.  Since soldiers were often stationed there for years at a time, the British government held quiltmaking workshops and sponsored competitions to keep them engaged.  It’s not clear if all the quilts on display were made by soldiers, or were the work of professional tailors, as they weren’t signed or otherwise attributed to a particular person, which also makes it difficult to determine where they were made and whether it was during or after service abroad (some are thought to have been made by soldiers convalescing in military hospitals).

detail, Beaded Soldier’s Quilt, artist unidentified, India, c. 1860-70; wool with beads; inlaid, hand-appliquéd and hand-applied beadwork. The Annette Gero Collection

You’ll notice that many of the seams are covered in chain stitch or rick-rack, and there’s often beading or other embellishments.  India has an ancient tradition of beadmaking, and quilts like this one were often made by a colonel’s orderly, who was more likely Indian than British.

Soldier’s Mosaic Stars Quilt, artist unidentified found in Germantown, PA, late 19th cent., wool, International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This piece from the late 19th century is a bit of an outlier – it was found in Germantown, Pennsylvania, artist and origin unknown, but it is similar to ones made by Jewett Washington Curtis, the only American soldier known to have made quilts in the British style. 

detail, Soldier’s Quilt, artist unidentified, Crimea, India or UK, 1850-75, wool, probably from military uniforms; inlaid; hand-appliquéd with buttonhole fabric discs. Denver Art Museum Neusteter Textile Collection. Gift of Vicki and Kent Logan, purchased in honor of Alice Zrebiec with funds from Nancy Lake Benson, 2015

This quilt, with compass stars, pinwheels and game boards, bears the colors of the Coldstream Guards, one of the regiments that comprise the personal troops of Her Majesty the Queen, and that is still in service today.

The main gallery area features 12 quilts made using the intarsia technique (pieces are placed next to each other and whipstitched together, so the front is often identical to the back), which was widely used in Central Europe.  As many of these quilts relate to the “Turkish Wars” of 1719  (Austria vs. Ottoman Empire) or the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800’s, you’ll find several of them have images of soldiers, or the double-headed eagle, or other references to the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire.  The room is dominated by a very large (approx. 9ft x 9ft) quilt stretched out parallel to the floor which features architectural images of the HRE, such as the Maison Carrée of Nîmes and the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

detail, Hungarian Soldier’s Intarsia Quilt, artist unidentified, Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1820-30, wool with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered. Museum of Military History, Vienna

The central panel in this Hungarian Soldier’s quilt, made in the early 1800’s, includes hussar officers, a staff officer and a Hungarian magnate, framed by ten starry cartouches, each with a soldier in uniform styles that were popular in the 1820’s-30’s, and an outer border of pinwheels.

Military or Tailor’s Inlaid Quilt with Thistles, artist unidentified, Crimea or Scotland, ca. 1850-60, Suiting woolens, wool from military uniforms, embroidery thread, inlaid; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered. The Annette Gero Collection

The wall label conjectures that this quilt was made by an professional military tailor.  The thistles in the central panel indicate that its maker may have been with one of the Scottish regiments that  fought in the Crimean War. 

The last gallery contains 9 textiles…

detail, Regimental Bed Rug, Sgt. Malcolm Macleod (Dates Unknown), India, c. 1865, wool, mostly from military uniforms with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-embroidered. The Annette Gero Collection

including this regimental “bed rug”, one of the rare pieces whose maker, Sgt. Malcolm Macleod, was identified.  As noted several times on this quilt, he served with the 72nd Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, a highly-decorated Scottish regiment – you’ll find references on this coverlet to the many places they served. The photo at the top of this article is of another panel from this quilt.

detail, Soldier’s Quilt with Incredible Border, artist unidentified, India, ca. 1855-75, wool from military uniforms, with beads; hand-applied beadwork and layer-appliquéd border. The Annette Gero Collection.

You’ll also find a quilt made in India whose outer border is exceptionally intricate – the three-dimensional effect is created by multiple layers of crimped cloth which were probably bits of fabric that were punched out when buttonholes were created. This piece bears the regimental colors of the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot, stationed in India from 1846 to 1875.

detail, Colonial Soldier’s Intricately Pieced Quilt, artist unidentified, India, ca. 1890, wool from military uniforms, with metallic thread and sequins; hand-embroidered and hand-embellished. Laura Fisher’s Fisher Heritage, New York City

The complexity of this quilt suggests it was made by a professional tailor, who assembled some 25,000 tiny diamonds, hexagons and squares, with embroidered seams.  This photo is of the inner frame, whose corners are festooned with crowns, cannons and flags.

detail, Soldier’s Hexagon Quilt, artist unidentified, Crimea or UK, late 19th cent., wool from military uniforms. The Annette Gero Collection.

This late 19th century quilt is one of the most unusual in the show, and the only one to feature hexagons, the usual motifs being  squares, stars and diamonds.  Since its construction is very simple, this quilt might have been made by a soldier convalescing in a military hospital.

Solider’s Quilt: Square within a Square, artist unidentified, Crimea, India or UK, ca. 1850-90, wool, probably from military uniforms. American Folk Art Museum, Gift of General Foods, 1986

This quilt might also have been made by a convalescing soldier.  While the top right and left squares are identical, each of the others are slightly different.  Even though it dates from the mid to late 1800’s, this piece feels very op-art to me.

This is a very small sampling of the wonderful pieces in this show. 

There’s also a detailed  240 page catalogue that accompanies this exhibit.  The museum is offering lectures and workshops around this exhibit – you can find the full schedule here. 

War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics was co-curated by Dr. Annette Gero, international quilt historian, author, and collector, and Stacy C. Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum, and  organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, in collaboration with the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Lincoln–Nebraska. 

The exhibit will be at the American Folk Art Museum until January 7, 2018.  However, get there now, as I’m sure you’ll want to go back.  More than once.  I did.

 

Editor’s note:  This post was edited on October 4th to correct the title of the exhibit; to include information on how the exhibit was organized and curated; and, in the photo credits, to add information on the ownership of the quilts.

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.