365 Days of Art: Leap Year Bonus, February 29 – Augusta Savage Born

August Savage, circa 1938, with some of her sculptures.

February 29, 1892

Augusta Savage (born as Augusta Fells) was born, as she said, “at the dark of the moon”.

She was an African-American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was influential as a sculptor, teacher, and advocate for equal rights, though, to her great disappointment, her political activism came to overshadow her artistic career.

Augusta made clay figures as a child, but her father would beat her when he found her sculptures. Persevering and winning over her dad, she became a star student and prize winner, even winning a scholarship for room and board at Cooper Union in NYC (tuition was already free for all students).

In 1923 Savage applied for a summer art program sponsored by the French government, but was rejected due to her race. This incident received international attention (and will be featured in this blog later in the year). It set the tone for seeing her as a political advocate first, and an artist second, though she continued to make work.

Savage worked in Manhattan steam laundries to support herself and her family, while sculpting, including a commission for a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library.

She continued to win awards, and in 1934 was the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She opened her Harlem studio as a community classroom for the arts; her students included the future nationally known artists Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight. Her school evolved into the Harlem Community Art Center, and 1500 people participated in her workshops. Unfortunately, Savage struggled with WPA (Works Progress Administration) officials who objected to her having a leadership role in this publicly-funded school. Whether that was due to her gender or her race, I don’t know.

Savage received a commission from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, creating a 16-foot tall plaster sculpture that was the fair’s most popular and most-photographed work. Small metal souvenir copies as well as postcard reproductions were sold. Unfortunately, Savage couldn’t afford to cast it in bronze, or to move and store it, so it was destroyed at the close of the fair along with the other temporary installations.

She participated in other fairs, but often her work wasn’t returned to her. It’s thought this resulted from a combination of her lack of funds–not having the money for bronze, she chose less sturdy materials which didn’t ship well; and she often couldn’t afford to pay for return shipping at all, meaning some works were abandoned–as well as a lack of care on the part of the organizers.

Savage opened a Harlem gallery which quickly closed due to finances. Deeply depressed by her financial and political struggles, Augusta moved to a rural farm in upstate New York, which has since been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Augusta Savage House and Studio. She worked on a farm, and made little or no effort to talk about or create art for the rest of her life.

One of her works, a bust titled Gamin, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Fun Fact: Another of Augusta’s students was Kenneth B. Clark, whose later sociological research contributed to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled school segregation unconstitutional.

365 Days of Art: February 28 – Picasso Painting Vandalized in Vietnam War Protest

February 28, 1974

Tony Shafrazi spray-painted Picasso’s painting Guernica, which hung in the Museum of Modern Art, with the words “KILL LIES ALL”. Luckily, the paint was easily removed due to heavy varnish on the painting’s surface.

Shafrazi was protesting the announcement, the day before, of the release on bail of U.S. Lieutenant William Calley, who was convicted in 1971 for his part in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Calley had initially been sentenced to life imprisonment, then house arrest, and received a limited pardon from Richard Nixon.

Shafrazi was a member of the Art Workers’ Coalition, which in 1970 had staged a protest at MoMA by unfurling a My Lai protest poster in front of Guernica. Picasso’s work was painted in response to the bombing of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and is about the suffering of innocent civilians–a perfect choice, really, to protest the massacre in Vietnam.

Shafrazi was sentenced to just six months probation. MoMA initially wanted to keep the vandalism secret so as not to encourage future acts of vandalism, but given the public nature of the act, as well as the presence of visitors such as a high school field trip from Scarsdale, that was wishful thinking.

Shafrazi gave the following statement to Art in America in 1980:

I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life. Maybe that’s why the Guernica action remains so difficult to deal with…I wanted to… encourage the individual viewer to challenge it…see it in its dynamic raw state…not as a piece of history.

Picasso once painted over a Modigliani, and I wonder where he’d stand on this (he had recently died by the time his painting was vandalized). But, he did say:

Ultimately, what is important about a picture is the legend it has created, not whether it is preserved or not.

and

Everything I have done has been for the present, in the hope that it will forever remain in the present.

I’d never approve of vandalizing art, but Picasso and Shafrazi actually don’t sound too far apart on this, theoretically speaking.

By the way, Shafrazi went on to become an art dealer to the rich and famous (go figure). His client list began with the Shah of Iran and he currently represents high-end artists like Francis Bacon. An opening reception recently included a cake that was frosted as a replica of Guernica with icing “defacing” it. Hm. I could almost begin to buy the idea (not the act) as a political statement, but turning it into a gimmick for rich folks’ entertainment doesn’t work for me.

365 Days of Art: February 27 – Italy Requests Aid for Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

February 27, 1964

The government of Italy requested aid in preventing the Tower of Pisa from falling over, as the slant of the famously leaning tower had continued to grow over the years. It was considered important to stop subsequent leaning while retaining the current tilt; it wouldn’t do for this tourist attraction to suddenly stand straight up and down.

365 Days of Art: February 26 – Joseph Cornell Feeds the Birds, and Writes a Letter

Cockatoo with Watch Faces, by Joseph Cornell, 1949

February 26, 1963

Joseph Cornell, a birdwatcher and well-known lover of nature, writes a letter to his dealer Robert Schoelkopf in which he details some of his activities on this winter day:

Some extra peanuts were thrown to the bluejays–a more generous scattering of sunflower seeds for the squirrels, a coagulated hunk of dark brown sugar for the starlings…

365 Days of Art: February 25 – Paper Reports Donation of Toulouse-Lautrec Collection

Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, lithograph

February 25, 2011

The Globe and Mail (Toronto) reported the donation of a collection of lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The collection was one of the largest in the world that was privately held, and belonged to a New Yorker by the name of Ross Scott. He’d died two years previously, willing the collection of 35 lithos, as well as 20 pieces of “ephemera” (such as cover designs and illustrations for books, magazines, theater programs, and menus) to the Art Gallery of Ontario upon his death from cancer.

Scott singled out the AGO because he and his life partner, Don Muller, “really liked the feel of Toronto,” finding it “a very friendly place … welcoming to gay couples”. Another point in Toronto’s favor was that, unlike New York, none of its museums and galleries had substantial Lautrec holdings; the AGO owned only one faded print prior to Scott’s donation.

365 Days of Art: February 23 – Italian Priest Recommends Rubens for a Job

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1608

February 23, 1608

P. Flamminio Ricci, Padre Superiore of the Roman Congregation, writes to the Oratorium Congregation in Fermo to recommend Peter Paul Rubens for a painting job. He writes:

E flammingho ma da putto allevato in Roma.
(He is Flemish but as a boy was raised in Rome).

The canvas (not an altarpiece, which would have been even more prestigious) above was completed in three months for the church.

365 Days of Art: February 21 – Connecticut Detectives Solve Case of 9 Slashed Paintings

President Timothy Dwight (of Yale) the Elder, by John Trumbull

February 21, 1945

The New Haven, CT police department announced that the case of nine slashed paintings at the Yale Art Gallery and Peabody Museum in Cambridge, MA was solved.

Edward Morse was taken into custody and voluntarily committed himself to Middletown State Hospital after confessing to the vandalism. Morse had slashed the portraits with a glass cutter because, according to the Captain of Dectectives, the faces of the subjects “resembled persons who had come to his home when he was a young boy and threatened to harm his mother”. The Director of the Yale Art Gallery suspected Morse almost immediately, telling campus police that Morse came to him with a glass cutter, saying that he had taken it from two boys who were wandering the galleries.

Among the mutilated works were:

Luca di Tomme’s Assumption of the Virgin
John Trumbull’s President Timothy Dwight (of Yale) the Elder
Gilbert Stuart’s Col. William Stevens Smith
John Copley’s Mrs. McWhorten
A masterpiece on Chinese silk

365 Days of Art: February 19 – Pope Julius II Commissions Tomb from Michelangelo

Moses

February 19, 1513

In one of his last acts, Pope Julius II issues a Papal Bull declaring that Michelangelo will carve his tomb. Michelangelo had actually begun the project seven years earlier, but was interrupted by Julius’s commission of the Sistine Chapel ceiling–to Michelangelo’s mind, a frustrating and far less interesting proposition, but the only way to get to carve the tomb.

Julius decreed that he was setting aside 10,000 ducats for payment, and died two days later. Michelangelo carved the tomb, although it was scaled back by subsequent Vatican directives and delayed by Julius’ descendants, so that by the time it was finally completed in 1545, it was much smaller than he and Julius had originally envisioned. Julius’s declaration that the tomb be installed in the Sistine Chapel wasn’t carried out either (the wishes of the once-feared Julius didn’t mean much after death). His tomb can be seen in Rome at the chapel of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains).

Fun Fact: Although Michelangelo was deeply disappointed with the scaling-back of the overall project, he considered his statue of Moses to be his best work. (That’s saying something. I love the Sistine ceiling, and for his sculptures, my favorite is Mary holding Jesus in St. Peter’s). Rumor has it that, just after completing the statue, Michelangelo banged Moses’ knee with his hammer and commanded him to speak. There is supposedly a mark on the statue’s right knee to attest to this.

365 Days of Art: February 18 – Art Collector Buys Six Odilon Redon Works

Odilon Redon, Red Sphiinx, Oil on canvas, c. 1912, approx 20 x 24 inches

February 18, 1909

Six works by Odilon Redon were sold to art collector Lillie Bliss at the Armory Show in New York. The works (Silence, Roger and Angelica, Le Petit Prelat, Druidesse, Pegasus and Le Jour) are mostly black and white prints or charcoal drawings from his early period. The painting above is more typical of his palette and imaginative, Symbolist subject matter.

The purchase totaled $1,437. What a steal!

365 Days of Art: February 17 – King Tut’s Burial Chamber is Opened

February 17, 1923

King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber is opened by archaeologist Howard Carter.

The brouhaha of the traveling Tut exhibition in the late 70s (which was revived with a less newsworthy sequel just a couple of years ago) was a big part of my childhood. I desperately, desperately wanted to see it at the Field Museum in Chicago. I remember making a life-size papier-mache, gold-colored, Egyptian sarcophagus with my class in second grade. Mia designed my engagement ring with this in mind, choosing carnelian (a favorite gem of ancient Egypt) and a deep yellow-gold.

If Egypt ever settles down again, please go, and make sure to visit the Valley of the Kings, the Egyptian Museum, and the Islamic Museum (though it was recently damaged in rioting. I don’t know what will become of it, or its collections. It’s one of my favorite museums ever. Very sad). But go. You’ll never see anything else like it.

365 Days of Art: February 16 – Edward Hopper Poses for Raphael Soyer, Disses Abstract Art

February 16, 1963

Edward Hopper poses for the second time for Raphael Soyer, who is painting his portrait. Soyer noted the occasion, as well as their conversation in his diary:

A professor, head of an art department, recently asked him to participate in an art symposium with the nonrepresentationalist Motherwell and others. “I said nix. Painting has become a matter of words to such a great extent,” he said sadly.

365 Days of Art: February 15 – Whitney Biennial Features Agnes Martin (Who? Read On; She’s Great)

Agnes Martin, The Tree, 6 feet by 6 feet

February 15, 1977

The Whitney Biennial opens; at least one of Agnes Martin’s grid paintings is featured.

Did I hear you wondering, Who is Agnes Martin? She worked at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists (in fact, had a much longer, more productive career than most of them), in New York City in the 50s which was the height of that movement, in a similar large format (6 feet by 6 feet, until old age forced her to scale it back to 5 feet by 5 feet) in a muted palette of mostly black/white/gray, and in the visual language of abstraction. That all sounds like the definition of Abstract Expressionism. So why isn’t she as well known as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, heck, even a Franz Kline or an Ad Reinhardt (who was a close friend and mentor)?

I didn’t know much about her until she died, and even that was possibly because I happened to be in grad school, in a painting program, at the time of her death.

Martin is the opposite of flashy, and that’s the short answer; who could compete with the partying and testosterone and noise of all those Ab Ex boys? Both her own personal appearance and her artworks’ are free of adornment. Her work needs time spent in front of it, to get to know it. It’s way too nuanced to reproduce well on a computer screen–sorry! But I think the time spent is well worth it.

There are a couple of readings of Martin’s work that speak to me. One is a meditative one, encompassing the idea of a mantra. She was known to practice meditation, and the experience of standing in front of her paintings, swallowed by the large scale with one’s eyes tracing repetitive rectangles is similarly calming but proactive. The small rectangles that make up the larger square grid are precise, but without the machine-made quality of something mass-produced. Martin cultivated the evidence of the man-made; she really did pencil each line by hand (after carefully calculating her measurements of course) and turned the paintings to control the dripping of the paint by encouraging them to fall in certain directions. She painted in this style for about 40 years. Yes, 40 years. What is that, if not meditation on a mantra?

The other reading of her work is intriguing and personally fascinating to me. It’s thought that Martin was a closeted lesbian and the ways that influenced her work and even the way she presented herself to the world make for an interesting read of her grids. She always presented herself (especially in her later years) in a practical, masculine, almost ascetic, way, free from any feminine embellishment like accessories or styled hair. Her clothing consisted almost exclusively of a shirt without a collar, pants, and canvas shoes–nothing more than the bare minimum. She took pride in her construction skills, and after she left New York for New Mexico, built her own studio, and performed all the “hard labor” that needs to be done on a painting before you can paint on it. And for large canvases, the prep work is extensive. In an interview filmed when she was in her late 70s at least, she can be seen hoisting a large canvas, and gessoing it herself, insisting that she could hire someone if she wanted to, she just didn’t want to. She’s pretty bad-ass. The asceticism extended beyond her appearance, to a solitary life, for a while even living without water and electricity.

Some of her interviews suggest at either a hidden love affair, or an unrequited love as the possible reason for her move out of New York and into the untamed southwest. She said that “passion” and “lust” were “exhaustible” and “not real” emotions, and “Real love is when you’re not making love but you still love each other. Innocent love is what I paint about.” She reportedly said that searching for love “is a great mistake” and described how she had wasted some time doing that but had moved beyond it, to a point where it wasn’t a part of her life. She never married, and there are no known love affairs. This too, was rather unheard of in the NYC art world of the 1950s, when the men as well as the women had multiple and often public love interests.

A quick look at the social climate of the 1950s: it was a long way from the Stonewall Rebellion and start of the gay rights movement. Being gay was clandestine and secretive. Underground gay bars, like the Stonewall in NYC, were raided regularly by police. People who were arrested in such raids were fired from their jobs. Various laws prohibited gays from everyday activities like drinking alcohol in bars. If you can imagine that. Our illustrious Senator McCarthy was holding hearings trying to find out who was gay and who wasn’t. Those who were gay, or suspected of it, weren’t considered worthy to serve our country in the FBI or any number of government jobs and were rooted out amid a culture of suspicion and fear. Living quietly underground–unless you were extremely rich and could afford to have this eccentricity–was the only viable way to live as a gay man or lesbian at this time.

In this context, thinking about Martin’s solitude, quiet paintings, even her self-denying existence without basic amenities, makes a certain sense. It’s also been noted that her insistence on the handmade, within the rigid overall grid structure, seems almost rebellious. Even now that viewpoint is still held with regard to gays “choosing that lifestyle” that flies in the face of morality and American values. But Martin’s handmade rebellion, if it can be considered that, was executed by her the way she did everything else–in a quiet way that won’t cause a fuss. This quiet rebellion that she perpetrated day after day in her studio for over 40 years was almost like hiding in plain sight. And the thought that one can look through the grids like a screen–but can’t see anything on the other side, can’t get to know her or the painting any better other than continuing to retrace the surface–also makes sense psychologically. She did not want to be known; she used the grid to hide. Best of all, Martin always said that her very first grid painting came to her as she was thinking of a way to paint “innocence”. In the context of the McCarthy hearings, this meditation, over and over, on innocence seems profound.

A really great article on these ideas can be read here. An exhibition of Martin’s work called Agnes Martin: Beyond the Grid is on view at Tacoma Art Museum now. There are several grid paintings and prints, as well as early work, including the nude female portrait that was included in the Hide/Seek exhibition at TAM a couple of years ago. The current exhibition doesn’t talk about her sexuality at all, but is wonderful.