The Eyes

The Eyes

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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The President's Neighborhood Exhibition

Yesterday, I visited a small exhibition at the Decatur House about the buildings and statues surrounding the White House and Lafayette Square—The President's Neighborhood.

Since the White House was first occupied by President John Adams in 1800, influential people and organizations—or those who hoped to have influence—have bought property and built homes and offices along the streets surrounding the White House. In front of the White House, across Pennsylvania Avenue, is Lafayette Square and its park, the centerpiece of many of Washington’s and the nation’s most historic sites.

That these structures have survived today is owed to a first lady and the modern preservation movement. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy intervened to block a congressional plan that would have replaced the historic structures with modernist government office buildings. This effort, among many, led to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. 

The key sites within Lafayette Square featured in this exhibition include Blair House, Dolley Madison House, Decatur House, Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Hay-Adams Hotel, St. John’s Church, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Treasury Department. Note the beautifully illustrated cut-outs of these various structures lining the exhibition space, images created by a local artist, then blown up large scale by the White House Historical Association.

The exhibition runs through September 27, 2016.

Source:  The White House Historical Association

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Beach Umbrellas at Blue Point

William Glackens's buoyant view of well-to-do vacationers at the beach at Blue Point on Long Island's south shore, recalls the work of the French impressionists, especially Renoir.  The cheerful white and orange striped umbrellas punctuate the sun-washed sand fronting an elegant resort hotel.  Feathery brushwork contributes to the festive quality of the scene as we observe it from out on the water.  The joyous color and light describe a world far removed from the realities of World War I, then raging in Europe, or even from New York's alleys and elevated railways, which Glackens illustrated early in his career.

The sense of immediacy that animates this summer spectacle stems from the artist's familiarity with his subject.  He and his family summered in nearby Bellport, then becoming an artists' and writers' colony.  Their presence signaled the burgeoning pursuit of leisure on the part of America's growing middle class.  The 1880s had witnessed a boom in tourism; by 1915, the beaches were already crowded.

Beach Umbrellas at Blue Point | 1915
William Glackens
Oil on Canvas | 66.1 cm x 81.3 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Source:  "Scenes of American Life: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum"

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Art and Controversy of Paul Cadmus

Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) is recognized as one of the first contemporary artists to chronicle gay life. Pushing the envelope with his depictions of naked and muscled male physiques, museums consistently rejected his work because of its gay themes. 

In the 1930s, Cadmus worked for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of the federal art programs conceived as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. He created paintings for a planned PWAP exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. One of these works, The Fleet’s In, is a provocative depiction of U.S. Navy personnel carousing with women dressed like prostitutes. It includes a subtle homoerotic image of a sailor flirting with a civilian man offering him a cigarette, while another sailor lies draped across them. The painting generated controversy, causing the Navy to remove it from the exhibition. The scandal brought the artist national attention.

At the Smithsonian's American Art Museum hangs the striking Night in Bologna, a dark comedy of sexual tensions played out on a stage of shadowy arcades. In the foreground, a soldier on leave throws off a visible heat that suffuses the air around him with a red glow. He casts an appraising look at a worldly woman nearby, who gauges the interest of a man seated at a café table. The gawky tourist is unaware of her attentions, and looks longingly at the man in uniform. Cadmus left the outcome unclear because he was more interested in the tangle of human instincts than in tidy resolutions.

In a lengthy oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Cadmus said that after 50 years as a painter, he was happy with the trajectory of his career, though he had never achieved lasting fame or a consensus of critical appreciation. He quoted a line from one of his favorite painters, the French neoclassicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. "'People say my paintings are not right for the times' or something like that," Cadmus recalled. "But then he says, 'Can I help it if the times are wrong? If I'm the only one that's right, it's all right.'"

Sources:  Smithsonian American Art Museum and Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Carnegie Library of Washington

At lunchtime today, I took an opportunity to tour Washington, D.C.'s Carnegie Library. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. currently occupies what was the central public library for the City of Washington for nearly 70 years. It's location at Mount Vernon Square was part of Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the District of Columbia, which included more than a dozen open spaces for parks or memorials throughout the city. Mount Vernon Square sits on a plot where seven different streets converge in the northwest quadrant of Washington. The square is located where Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, K Street, and 8th Street would intersect, and further bounded by 7th Street, 9th Street, and Mount Vernon Place.

In 1899, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was visiting the White House when he heard about the need for a library building in Washington. His contribution to Washington totaled $375,000, making it one of the largest of the Carnegie libraries built. In the end, Carnegie funded the building of 1,679 libraries around the United States.

The building was designed by Albert Randolph Ross of the New York architectural firm Ackerman and Ross, who had studied at the influential École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Ross designed it in the Beaux-Art style that became popular at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and its "White City." The lead architect of the World's Fair was Daniel Burnham, designer of another Washington Beaux-Art building, Union Station, completed in 1908. 

Dedicated on January 7, 1903, the ceremony was attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. During that time, Washington was a heavily segregated town, except for the federal government. One of Carnegie's requirements for his donation included that the building could not be segregated. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson and his Administration, resegregated federal workers. With oversight of the Carnegie Library falling to the hands of the federal government, the library staff were segregated, but the citizens of Washington who used it were not. That policy remained in effect until Wilson left office in 1917.  Heavily used and short on space, the central public library was moved to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in 1970.

The Historical Society leads 45-minute free tours of the beautiful Carnegie Library on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:00 p.m. Visit to register and for more information.

Photos by Cary Knox

Friday, April 15, 2016

Kindred Spirits | The Poet and the Artist

Ten days after his 47th birthday, Thomas Cole—America’s first important landscape painter—died of pneumonia on February 11, 1848. At the time of his death, he was the acknowledged leader of the loosely knit group of American landscape painters that would become known as the Hudson River School.

In New York, he was honored with a memorial exhibition of his works and a service highlighted by a
eulogy delivered by William Cullen Bryant, one of Cole's closest friends and a successful American nature poet. Among the tributes Bryant offered, one was especially prescient: “I say within myself, this man will be reverenced in future years as a great master in art.” 

In appreciation of Bryant’s role in celebrating Cole’s memory and in recognition of the friendship between the poet and the painter, the New York collector Jonathan Sturges commissioned Asher B. Durand to paint a work that would depict Cole and Bryant as “kindred spirits.” Durand, several years older than Cole and a successful engraver, had been inspired by Cole in the 1830s to take up landscape painting and was soon a leading practitioner in his own right. 

Sturges’ request that the two men be shown as kindred spirits was inspired by the words of English poet John Keats, whose Sonnet to Solitude celebrates the ameliorative aspects of nature and concludes:
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and sure it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
Durand’s Kindred Spirits was completed in 1849 and delivered as a gift to Bryant. It shows the poet and Cole standing on a ledge in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where both had been inspired to create some of their finest works. Although executed in the detailed and realistic style that Durand championed for American landscape painting, its composition brings together several sites—including the Clove of the Catskills and Kaaterskill Falls—that could not be seen from a single vantage point. As such, it was intended as an idealized tribute to American nature and to the two men whose art had extolled its special beauties.

Kindred Spirits | 1849
Asher B. Durand
Oil on Canvas | 44 in. x 36 in.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Source:  National Gallery of Art, Washington

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Poet, His Muse, and the Artist

Jeanne Duval, a Haitian-born actress and dancer of mixed French and black African ancestry, was the undeniable muse of French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire. Duval met Baudelaire in 1842, after he saw her in a cabaret show in Paris and became obsessed with her. They maintained a turbulent and passionate relationship for the next two decades. Duval is said to have been the woman whom Baudelaire loved most, in his life, after his mother. 

Baudelaire paid homage to Duval in numerous poems, naming her the "mistress of mistresses" and calling her his Vénus Noire (Black Venus). Duval invoked in him feelings of pity, despair, lust, and betrayal—the commanding themes of his masterwork of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal. That slim volume of 140 poems, which was seized and destroyed on the grounds of obscenity when first published in 1857, is now recognized as the finest poetry in the French language and the first modern poetry in any language.

In every other respect Duval was the poet’s ruination. They quarreled constantly. She continually begged for money and sold his possessions when he failed to provide. She took lovers, including many of his friends. Baudelaire suspected that sometimes she sold herself on the streets to raise money.

Artist Édouard Manet, a friend of Baudelaire, depicted Duval in his 1862 painting Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining.  By this time, Duval was going blind and dying from syphilis.  Five years later, Baudelaire would be dead from the same affliction.

Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining | 1862
Édouard Manet
Oil on Canvas | 35.43 in. x 44.49 in.
Szepmuveszeti Museum | Budapest, Hungary

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Picasso, Apollinaire, and the Saltimbanques

The theme of the circus and the circus performer has a long tradition in art and in literature, especially prominent in French art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A more immediate inspiration for Pablo Picasso came from performances of the Cirque Médrano, a circus that the artist attended frequently near his residence and studio in Montmartre.

Circus performers were regarded as social outsiders. They provided a telling symbol for the alienation of the avant-garde artists and poets of their time. Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques (1905) is perhaps an autobiographical statement, a group portrait of him and his circle. The red clown figure is said to be modeled after his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire similarly wrote a poem titled, Saltimbanque in 1913, an English translation is below.

In a funny twist to their friendship, Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down, came under suspicion, was arrested, and imprisoned for the 1911 theft of the famous Mona Lisa. Apollinaire implicated his friend Picasso, who was then brought in for questioning. The event created somewhat of a media circus, but both men were later exonerated.

(The "Traveling Entertainers" or "Acrobats")

The strollers in the plain
walk the length of gardens
before the doors of grey inns
through villages without churches

And the children gone before
The others follow dreaming
Each fruit tree resigns itself
When they signal from afar

They have burdens round or square
drums and golden tambourines
Apes and bears wise animals
gather coins as they progress

Family of Saltimbanques | 1905
Pablo Picasso
Oil on Canvas | 83 3/4 in. x 90 3/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Lana Turner Has Collapsed! By Frank O'Hara

Lana Turner Has Collapsed! is one of Frank O’Hara’s funniest and best-loved poems. With its campy treatment of a tabloid headline in February 1962 about a glamorous celebrity facing adversity, it’s often cited as an example of O’Hara’s embrace of pop culture and his affection for the cinema and its stars. O'Hara would use his lunch hour to compose poetry, often dropping into the Olivetti typewriter showroom to tap them out.  This is one of my favorites.

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

From Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara
© 1964
City Lights Books

There is a wonderful audio recording of O'Hara reading this poem in late 1964 on the website linked here. While O'Hara's poetry is generally autobiographical, they read more like a diary, and tend to be based on his observations of New York life rather than exploring his past. In his introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, Donald Allen says "that Frank O’Hara tended to think of his poems as a record of his life is apparent in much of his work.”

In the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, O'Hara was struck by a jeep on a Fire Island beach, after the beach taxi in which he had been riding with a group of friends broke down in the dark. He died the next day of a ruptured liver. O'Hara was only 40 years old.

Portrait and Poem Painting | 1961
Larry Rivers and Frank O'Hara
Oil on Canvas | 36 in. x 36 in.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

National Gallery of Art's 300 Years of American Prints

A new international traveling exhibition will explore major events and movements in American art through some 150 outstanding prints from the Colonial era to the present. Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art is the first major museum survey of American prints in more than 30 years.

Timed to coincide with the National Gallery of Art's 75th anniversary, the exhibition is drawn from the Gallery's renowned holdings of works on paper, and features more than 100 artists such as Paul Revere, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, George Bellows, John Marin, Jackson Pollock, Louise Nevelson, Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Chuck Close, Jenny Holzer, and Kara Walker.

Organized chronologically and thematically through nine galleries, Three Centuries of American Prints reveals the breadth and excellence of the Gallery's collection, while showcasing some of the standouts: exquisite, rare impressions of James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne (1879/1880), captivating prints by Mary Cassatt, a singularly stunning impression of John Marin's Woolworth Building, No. 1 (1913), and Robert Rauschenberg's pioneering Booster (1967).

Since its opening in 1941, the National Gallery of Art has assiduously collected American prints with the help of many generous donors. The Gallery's American print collection has grown from nearly 1,900 prints in 1950 to some 22,500 prints in 2015. The collection was transformed in recent years by the acquisitions, including the personal print archive of Jasper Johns, some 2,300 American prints from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, among other gifts to the Gallery.

On view in Washington, DC from April 3 through July 24, 2016, the exhibition will travel to the National Gallery in Prague from October 4, 2016 through January 5, 2017, followed by Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City from February 7 through April 30, 2017.

A Midnight Race on the Mississippi | 1860
Frances Flora Palmer
Color lithograph with hand-coloring
18 1/8 in. x 28 in.
Woolworth Building, No.1 | 1913
John Marin
 Etching with monotype inking on Japanese paper plate
11 7/8 in. x 9 15/16 in.

Source:  National Gallery of Art, Washington

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Persian Jacket by Grace Hartigan

Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred Barr visited the Tibor de Nagy Gallery on the last day of Grace Hartigan’s show in 1953. Barr lavished praise on Hartigan’s work titled, The Persian Jacket, and brought the painting back to MoMA on approval. Hartigan’s friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, was watching from his perch at the front desk at MoMA. O'Hara called Hartigan and gave her a blow-by-blow account of the awkward entrance of the massive canvas through the front door.

The next day, Barr called to say that there was a problem with the upper left-hand corner of the painting—Grace had failed to maintain the flatness of the surface. At his suggestion, she came to the museum the following Monday with her paints and spent about 30 minutes fixing the blend of colors in that spot.

Hartigan said in her journal:  
"I went up there this afternoon. Persian Jacket looked good, more full and arrogant than I remembered. I agreed about the area—it always was a difficult one to solve, partly because it is the most open area, and the one which in traditional painting would be the background.  The area bends in, so it doesn't sit right—and I'm going up on Monday with my paints to work on it a little. This was at Barr's suggestion—I thought it a bit unconventional, but we both remembered the incident of Delacroix touching up the Massacre of Scio two days before it was shown."
It took two months for the sale to go through—Barr secured a patron to buy the painting for $400 and donate it to the museum. The recognition was a great triumph for Hartigan.

The Persian Jacket | 1952
Oil on Canvas | 57 1/2 in. x 48 in.
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter by Cathy Curtis
The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955

Friday, March 25, 2016

Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion

Many of Marc Chagall’s paintings could be described as lively, romantic, humorous, imaginative, and filled with brilliant colors, but his White Crucifixion (seen below) is largely drained of color. Chagall painted it in 1938 while living in Paris, in response to the horrifying events of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” an anti-Jewish pogrom of official decree by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany (including Austria and Sudetenland) from the 9th until the 10th of November 1938.

This painting represents a critical turning point for Chagall: it was the first of an important series of compositions that feature the image of Christ as a Jewish martyr and dramatically call attention to the persecution and suffering of European Jews in the 1930s.

In White Crucifixion, his first and largest work on the subject, Chagall stressed the Jewish identity of Jesus in several ways: he replaced his traditional loincloth with a prayer shawl, his crown of thorns with a headcloth, and the mourning angels that customarily surround him with three biblical patriarchs and a matriarch, clad in traditional Jewish garments.

At either side of the cross, Chagall illustrated the devastation of an officially encouraged organized persecution: On the left, a village is pillaged and burned, forcing refugees to flee by boat and the three bearded figures below them—one of whom clutches the Torah—to escape on foot. On the right, a synagogue and its Torah ark go up in flames, while below a mother comforts her child. By linking the martyred Jesus with the persecuted Jews and the Crucifixion with contemporary events, Chagall’s painting passionately identifies the Nazis with Christ’s tormentors and warns of the moral implications of their actions.

White Crucifixion | 1938
Oil on Canvas | 60 7/8 in. x 55 1/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Source:  The Art Institute of Chicago

Friday, February 12, 2016

For the Love of Knox Martin

Celebrating today, the birth of master artist, poet, art historian, teacher, mentor, World War II veteran, Knox Martin.  From the Fischbach Gallery papers (1963-1977) at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

More blog posts about Knox Martin here:
Knox Martin Tells Me a Story About Robert Rauschenberg