Now that the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., has reopened, visitors can once again enjoy an extraordinary exhibition–ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE UNITED STATES: ART, NATURE, AND CULTURE. You are forgiven for raising your eyebrows and asking, “Who?”
The answer is fascinating. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), right, was recognized as the most important naturalist of the 19th century. Born in Prussia, he pioneered the idea that the planet was connected by a “unity of nature” that wove the globe into a living world-wide web. Throughout the 19th century, this idea evolved into a formative concept that natural history shaped national destiny. Humboldt’s ideas about nature were a prelude to environmentalism today– the impact of climate change on the environment is clear in the devastating wildfires, hurricanes, and rising sea levels that are transforming everyday life.
Above, right: Friedrich Georg Weitsch, Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), 1806, oil on canvas, 49 5/8 x 36 3/8”. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany / Klaus Goeken / Art Resource, NY.
The 1920s were corset-free. Victorian remnants were thrown aside as modernism celebrated ‘the new.’ Cole Porter got it right when he wrote, “In olden days,/ a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking./ But now, God knows, anything goes!” The ratification of Suffrage in 1920 launched the new decade with an exclamation point. Times had changed, and women embraced freedom from a past that was as belittling as their garments had been. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald tagged the decade “the Jazz Age,” and women flung themselves into an exhilarating and untraveled future of possibilities.
Hemmed in by Covid19 strictures that keep us apart,
creative people have discovered imaginative new ways to connect. Drive-in movies (remember those, Boomers?)
are enjoying new popularity, providing safe social distancing along with the
community experience movie fans crave.
The Metropolitan Opera’s recent “Gala” featured its major
artists—singers, orchestra, chorus—in Zoom performances that gave opera lovers
fascinating glimpses into the talents and personalities of favorite performers.
Dance wizard Mark Morris has been conducting Zoom rehearsals with his troupe,
and a piece he originally choreographed for this summer’s Tanglewood Festival
has now been reimagined as a video entitled “Lonely Waltz” that streams on his
Artists have also joined the virtual fray. In partnership with the Art Production Fund, artist Nancy Baker Cahill launched an “Augmented Reality” animation entitled Liberty Bell on July 4th. The Fund’s Executive Director, Casey Fremont, explained that the idea was to give viewers “the opportunity to reflect upon their personal experiences of liberty, injustice, and inequality” by displaying this prime symbol of American Independence.
The work is accessible by Baker’s free “4th
Wall” app, and a viewer simply aims a cell phone at the intended site for the
bell to appear. There are six Liberty
Bell sites: in Boston where the Tea Party occurred, at Fort Tilden in
Queens, Fort Sumter in Charleston, the “Rocky Steps” leading to the
Philadelphia Museum of Art,” the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and the Lincoln
Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in the nation’s capital. In Washington, the bell
animation takes up 37,000 square feet and is composed of red, white, and blue
ribbons that seem to be unraveling. A soundtrack accompanying the AR features a
bell ringing from a lulling sound to something much more urgent. (https://nancybakercahill.com/4th-wall-ar-app)
The appearance of Liberty Bell on the National Mall made me think about how the Mall
serves as a platform for all kinds of expression—for national celebrations, for
protests, and as a canvas for art.
When George Washington instructed Pierre L’Enfant to
design the Federal City in 1791, L’Enfant envisioned a “grand avenue” lined by
gardens and stretching from the proposed Capitol to an equestrian statue of
George Washington that would be placed south of the President’s House. In 1802, a map described the grand avenue as
“the Mall”—a tip-of-the-hat to London’s Mall, where people promenaded
fashionably near Buckingham Palace.
America’s Mall had a haphazard look until the 1902 “McMillan Plan” (left). Inspired by the “city beautiful movement” of the late nineteenth century, McMillan extended L’Enfant’s Mall further west and removed a conglomeration of unrelated structures—including greenhouses, a railroad station, and a Central Market—and replaced the clutter with an open expanse of grass lined by four rows of American elm trees. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Mall has been festooned by Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, and a growing armada of memorials commemorating iconic national figures (Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Martin Luther King), and wars (Korea, Vietnam, World War II).
The Mall is the site for celebrations like
presidential inaugurations, Fourth of July fireworks, and the National Cherry
Blossom Festival. It has also served as the rallying platform for such major
national events as Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert, Dr. King’s March on
Washington in 1963, and a major anti-Vietnam protest in 1972.
But the National Mall has also emerged as a stage for creative expression. There are permanent art installations in both the Hirshhorn Museum and National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Gardens, but there have also been several temporary artworks showcased. In 1987, the AIDS Memorial Quilt (left. Photo: Richard Latoff), was displayed in a massive showcase of 2,000 panels created by family and friends of those who had died of AIDS.
In 2012, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
commissioned Doug Aitken to create a video work that illuminated the entire
façade of the building, transforming it into “liquid architecture” by using
eleven high-definition video projectors that splayed across the museum’s curved
exterior. Entitled “SONG 1,” the video
was accompanied by an “urban soundscape” that featured the 1934 Harry Warren-Al
Dubin song “I Only Have Eyes for You,” originally composed for the Warner Bros.
film Dames. The Aitken projection was visible on the Mall
from sunset to midnight, March 22 to May 20, 2012.
In October 2014, the National Portrait Gallery contributed the next major work of Mall art. Nik Apostolides, then Associate Director of the Gallery, persuaded Cuban American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada to create one his enormous “facescapes” on the Mall (right). Rodriguez-Gerada photographed 30 anonymous young men of all races and blended them into an enormous composite portrait that stretched over six acres at the base of the Washington Monument. Calling his portrait “Out of Many, One,” the artist required 2,500 tons of sand and 800 tons of topsoil to create a vast face that was viewed from the top of the Washington Monument. He explained, “My art aims to create a dialogue about the concept of identity, and it questions the role models who are chosen to represent us in the public sphere. These works have no negative environmental impact and are created to poetically blend back into the land.”
In July 2019, the National Air & Space Museum celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission by projecting a 363-foot image of the Saturn V rocket onto the Washington Monument (left). On two nights, a 17-minute projection called “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon” recreated the launch of the Apollo 11 mission that took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon.
Sponsored by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, Nancy Baker Cahill’s Liberty Bell (below, with hands of the artist pictured), continues the idea of using the National Mall as a canvas for artistic expression. Unbound by a museum’s four walls, her AR animation evokes freedom in its identity as ‘virtual.’ Yet the artist has described her intention as conveying the essence of American identity. “What I’m trying to do with this piece,” she has said, “is asking people to consider, ‘What is liberty?’”
It’s a potent question for our times. Will the pandemic affect our ideas about liberty and freedom? A recent New Yorker article by Lawrence Wright (2020 article illustration, below, left) describes how earlier pandemics—notably, the plague that ravaged Fourteenth Century Italy—pointed people to new directions that remarkably led to the Renaissance.
Wright wonders, as we all do, if our “new normal” will lead us to reimagine the old and create something wonderful–or will the worst and most irrational ways of thinking produce cesspools of unreason? He writes, “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places….the racial inequities, the poisonous partisanship, the governmental incompetence, the disrespect for science, the fraying of community bonds.” Wright ends on a hopeful note—“when people confront their failures, they have the opportunity to mend them.” (Lawrence Wright, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc—And Open Minds,” THE NEW YORKER, July 20, 2020.)
The question is, will we? Are we still “one,” or
have we become intractably “many”?
Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
Bell will be accessible on all six city sites through
July 4, 2021.
Most painting in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the mask. ~Robert Motherwell
In 1984 John Caldwell, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art who organized two Carnegie Internationals, introduced me to Jak Katalan. I was impressed with the quality of his ingenuous art, with its roots in Cubism, Constructivism and Minimalism. Upon seeing his work, it was obvious he is an artist who understands the complex language of abstraction. He maintains an interest in creating non-representation in which the illusion of nature is completely eliminated. Abstract art uses visual language of shape, form, color and line to produce a composition that may exist with a degree of independence from actual world visual references. The end purpose of Katalan’s work was in its organization, experimentation and expressive potential.
When a friend raved about Google Arts & Culture, I nodded evasively. The awful truth was I only vaguely knew about this platform—I had heard of it, but had never used it. I wasn’t alone. As I began to explore, I came across a recent piece by Washington POST chief art critic Philip Kennicott where he admitted, “Before the pandemic shut down, I almost never visited the vast trove compiled by Google’s Art & Culture platform. I wrote about it when … it was announced in 2011 and then never paid it a second thought. Today, I find myself slinking back and enjoying parts of it thoroughly.” (Kennicott, WashPOST, 5/29/2020)
Artists for decades have been interested in exploring the
sculptural and reflective properties of light and how it affects an object within
the space it occupies. Larry Bell, one
of the artists associated with the West Coast group, “Light and Space,” best known for his glass boxes and
large-scaled illusionistic sculptures, created a wide range of work based on
the theme of light and reflection beginning in the 1960s. Throughout his oeuvre
Bell used the language of minimalism
and geometric abstraction to construct his illusionist fabrications where the
existing space became part of sculptures. The exhibition “Transparent, Translucent, Reflective, Refractive” at Yun Gee
Park Gallery, in Tucson, Arizona, displays the work by Collen Quigley, Zak Timan and
Moira M. Geoffrion who continue along this path of investigation.
Left: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Roman Widow (1874)
It’s the silly season again in American politics. Wide-ranging intolerable rants, invectives and urgent pleas are being aimed at the most vulnerable members of our community, marginalizing and vilifying many for simply for not being “one of us,” while seemingly animating others to demand accountability for the actions of the “one-percent.” This Age of Exclusion seems to strike a chord with alarmingly large numbers of people on both sides of the aisle—those fed up with the system, with died-in-the-wool politicians and with a feeling of powerlessness—who then, historically, act on a sense of disempowerment and disenfranchisement to take notice, rise up and agitate for change. This particular essay is not a call for some ill-defined new world order, or even for an upending of our historically-stable republican (small-‘r’) system. Yet, this current state of affairs is all too reminiscent of a passage by William Butler Yeats, who fretted in his 1919 post-apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer / Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”
Entering the back room of the 2nd floor at
MOCA from the brightly lit exhibition of Carlos Bunga’s A Sudden Beginning
with its network of boxes, the darkness envelops us, a darkness that blinds. Is
what we see real or just a mirage that gives the illusion of an installation?
The eye and the mind both have to adjust to the magic world of Sarah Sze’s
work, a universe in itself.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily “updates” have become must-see TV these days. Cuomo gives factual descriptions of coronavirus developments in his state with straight-forward clarity. Like a favorite teacher, he reminds us often that the pandemic brings out both the best and the worst in us. Our best are the medical, rescue, grocery, and delivery people—they are our heroes. The worst are those spewing rage-Tweets and flinging responsibility to others. Witnessing angry tantrums on the national stage made me think of famous mad scenes I’ve seen over the years. Donald Trump can’t hold a candle to Maria Callas!
monumental exhibition, Southwest
Rising: Contemporary Art and the Legacy of Elaine Horwitch,
is organized by the Tucson Museum of Art and curated by its Chief Curator, Dr.
Julie Sasse. This captivating display not
only provides viewers with an intriguing overview of diverse Southwestern art
but also is a compelling presentation about a visionary gallery dealer who
altered the perception about fine art of this area of the United States.
"Thank you for calling my attention to ARTES. As I mentioned in my comments at Yale, the Internet needs more on-line publications that address the field of art with a comprehensive, in-depth treatment of the subject. ARTES fills that void. I will continue to read the magazine and wish you well in your efforts to bring this much needed resource to a broader audience."
~Holland Cotter, Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, 'The New York Times'