The Eyes

The Eyes

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Olympic Medals for Art

In the early days of the modern Olympics, artists battled for gold, silver, and bronze medals in architecture, sculpture, paintings and graphic arts, literature, and music. Art competitions were held at the Olympic games from 1912 to 1948. Winners of the art competitions were awarded medals, similar to the winners of the athletic competitions. The events were championed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who felt that in order to recreate the events in modern times, it would be incomplete to not include some aspect of the arts.

At the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, American Walter Winans took the podium and waved proudly to the crowd. He had already won two Olympic medals—a gold for sharpshooting at the 1908 London Games and a silver for the same event in 1912. However, the gold he won at Stockholm wasn’t for sharpshooting, but instead for a small piece of bronze he cast earlier that same year, a horse pulling a small chariot. For his work, An American Trotter, Winans won the first ever Olympic gold medal for sculpture.

Over the next several years, local audiences came out in numbers to see the sports-themed artworks. At the the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, nearly 400,000 people visited the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art to see the works entered, with some recognizable names in the competitions. John Russell Pope, the architect of the Jefferson Memorial, won a silver that year for his design of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, constructed at Yale University. Italian sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, American illustrator Percy Crosby, Irish author Oliver St. John Gogarty, and Dutch painter Isaac Israƫls were other prominent entrants.

In 1940 and 1944, the Olympics were put on hold as nearly all participating countries became embroiled in World War II. Resuming in 1948, John Copley of Britain won one of the final medals awarded, a silver for his engraving, Polo Players. He was 73 years old at the time, and would be the oldest medalist in Olympic history (if his victory still counted). The 151 art medals awarded were officially stricken from the Olympic record and currently do not count toward official current medal counts.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Gertrude Stein on Comforts of the Past

In a 1934 interview, Gertrude Stein lamented that "people today like contemporary comforts, but they take their literature and art from the past. They are not interested in what the present generation is thinking or painting if it doesn't fit the enclosure of their personal comprehension. Present day geniuses can no more help doing what they are doing than you can help not understanding it, but if you think we do it for effect and to make a sensation, you're crazy. It's not our idea of fun to work for thirty or forty years on a medium of expression and have ourselves ridiculed."

Gertrude Stein (1922)
By Jo Davidson
Terra Cotta
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Peggy Guggenheim's Jackson Pollock Mural

When Jackson Pollock received the commission to create a mural for the entry to Peggy Guggenheim's new townhouse, she was eager to present in her home a symbol of support for the new American brand of art she was beginning to champion in her gallery. The choice of subject was to be his, and the size, immense—8' 1 1/4" x 19' 10", meant to cover an entire wall. At the suggestion of Guggenheim's friend and advisor Marcel Duchamp, it was painted on canvas, not the wall itself, so it would be portable. Pollock wrote of his commission that it was:
"...with no strings as to what or how I paint it. I am going to paint it in oil on canvas. They are giving me a show November 16 and I want to have the painting finished for the show. I've had to tear out the partition between the front and middle room to get the damned thing up. I have it stretched now. It looks pretty big, but exciting as all hell."
Pollock signed a gallery contract with Guggenheim in July 1943. The terms were $150 a month and a settlement at the end of the year if his paintings sold. He intended to have the mural done by the time of his show in November. However, as the time approached, the canvas for the mural was untouched. Guggenheim began to pressure him. Pollock spent weeks staring at the blank canvas, complaining to friends that he was "blocked," and seeming to become both obsessed and depressed. Finally, he painted the entire canvas in one frenetic burst of energy around New Year's Day of 1944—although the painting bears the date 1943. Pollock told a friend years afterward that he had had a vision: 
"It was a stampede...[of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across the surface." 
Pollock's "vision" may have been a memory from his childhood in the American West. While there is some suggestion of figuration within Mural, its overall impact is that of abstraction and freedom from the restrictions imposed by figures.

A special installation in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building features Pollock's Mural, on loan from the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Also on view are paintings and works on paper by Pollock from the Gallery’s collection, including Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) (1950). The installation marks the debut of Mural in Washington, DC.

Sources:  National Gallery of Art, Washington
              University of Iowa Museum of Art

Friday, August 4, 2017

American Prints of Urban Life | 1920–1950

American artists of the early twentieth century sought to interpret the beauty, power, and anxiety of the modern age in diverse ways. Some turned to abstraction borrowed from European modernism, but those represented in this exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Urban Scene: 1920–1950, took a realistic approach, manipulating light and shadow to create scenes imbued with vitality and imagination. These artists employed precise detail and descriptive clarity to characterize experience, suggest meanings, and convey a narrative. 

The representation of twentieth-century urban life provided them endless opportunities to probe the modern human condition. The urban panorama offered unprecedented vistas. Skyscrapers, bridges, and other technological marvels projected wealth and opportunity, while the city’s towering forms invoked the sublime. Simultaneously, the streets and dwellings of the metropolis hosted life’s theater. Depictions of harmonious communities and workers suggest a utopian vision, whereas scenes of crowding, poverty, and hunger point to society’s ills and failures. The same buildings glorified from one perspective could be interpreted from another as blocking light, deepening shadows, and heightening a sense of enclosure and confinement.

The artists represented here chose their subjects, arranged their compositions, and scrutinized details to convey particular aspects of urban life. They used line to capture the specific features of a face or the unique character of a building, and tone to mimic the play of light — from great shafts of morning sunshine spilling onto avenues to the poetry of the city’s riverside at night with reflections in the water. By selectively emphasizing certain elements and minimizing others, images were distilled to their atmospheric or narrative essence. The best artists balanced specificity with ambiguity, drawing our attention to the fundamental while leaving open to interpretation the implied, the hidden, and the undefined. 

During the past decade, the National Gallery of Art has added extraordinary collections of prints and drawings to its holdings, from the Reba and Dave Williams Collection to the Corcoran Collection and works donated and promised by Bob Stana and Tom Judy. This exhibition highlights some of these acquisitions and reveals how the Gallery’s American print holdings continue to develop, incorporating new artists as well as works that expand its view of printmakers already represented in the collection.

This exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Sunday, August 6.

The People Work - Evening (1937)
Benton Spruance
Lithograph | 13 5/8 in. x 19 in.

Quiet Hour (1947)
Stow Wengenroth
Lithograph | 8 3/4 in. x 15 in.

Source and Images:  National Gallery of Art, Washington

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Light of Truth | A New Museum on the National Mall

To say that the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture takes you on a journey is a masterpiece of understatement. It is one that is far overdue for all of us and best traveled alone. Although this museum encourages a national conversation, the contemplative nature of its architecture, art, exhibitions, and the incredible quotations pushing out from its stone walls makes you think about your own responsibility to the future, being on the right side of history. Stepping into this majestic space for the first time, filled with people in the soaring atrium, I did not feel dwarfed or intimidated or awkward. The vibrations of the room were like the activity in the main hall of Grand Central Station, with travelers to destinations unknown.

The winding staircase down to where the exhibition space begins is a visual extravaganza of sweeping arcs, steep angles, and ironwork patterns overhead with as much significance as the historical exhibitions even deeper below. On an enormous elevator, above the decibel of conversations within the crowd, a woman near me said, "Oh, my God. This is like a time machine." Everyone fell silent, as we looked to our right and left out the glass sides of the elevator time machine to watch the dates tick backwards on the cement walls as we descended. We came to a halt at the year 1400 and exited into an undeniable history lesson. Suffice it to say, the rest of this journey was filled with reverence.

At times, I admit I was overcome with emotion. I ascended the museum's ramp system from one exhibition to another, moving through history that was not sanitized. Images and text outlined in red came with a warning about its suitability for children. Make no mistake though, this museum is not merely a retrospective of an abhorrent past, but it excitingly celebrates brilliance in art, literature, music, science, entertainment, sports, and politics. The best part is how it shines a light on people doing extraordinary things and changing the course of history.

The shear volume of items in the collection, video installations, and narrative that leads you through will take years of return visits to consume it all. The most poignant moment came when I was at the top of the ramp and I looked behind me. I could see images being cast simultaneously on the walls from illustrations of slavery, to the civil rights movement, to President Barack Obama being sworn into office. Off to the left, high upon a wall, was a quote from early civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells, "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them." 

Photos by Cary Knox