365 Days of Art: January 31 – Mike Kelley Commits Suicide

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and the Wages of Sin, 1987

January 31, 2012
Mike Kelley, described variously as “one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century and a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion” by the New York Times, and as a proponent of “clusterfuck aesthetics” by the Village Voice (which I think was a compliment), commits suicide.

His work involved found objects, drawings, assemblage, performance and video. He expanded the repertoire of artist materials by incorporating items like crocheted blankets, and especially, children’s toys into his work.

Kelley’s work is complicated, layered with meaning, and challenges the idea of What Art Is. (Because like it or not, that’s changed in recent decades, and one of the people you can credit–or blame–is Mike Kelley). He was extremely well-read and could intelligently talk about his influences and ideas. In fact, he said the reason he took to writing about art was because so many art critics got it all wrong, particularly when discussing his work.

He worked with contrasts like high and low, fine art vs. crafty/crappy materials like blankets, photocopies and room deodorizers, and other contrasts, such as a video of Superman reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. A superhero reading Plath’s melancholy classic? That’s Kelley. But that the reading was part of an elaborate, ongoing installation that involved architecture students sending him cardboard models of Superman’s home on the planet Kandor, which he scaled down, created multiple versions of, enclosed in glass bottles and installed with items like bedroom furniture and Greek columns? That’s even more Kelley.

His work, which was inspired by diverse sources including politics, philosophy, the working middle class, art history, and underground music, could be shocking, and caused a stir more than once. Many people were unsettled by his use of crocheted blankets and plush toys. He created fictional environments with these childhood symbols, which led to a psychological reading by many critics and viewers that his work was about childhood abuse (he said it wasn’t, nor was he personally abused). But no doubt, the toys caused a visceral reaction to the work, since most of us have a strong personal association with toys like these. In 1988, there was an outcry over his installation called Pay for Your Pleasure, which featured a gallery of portraits of cultural and artistic geniuses — poets, philosophers and artists included — subverted at the end by a painting created by a convicted criminal.

Complicated work that needs some time and doesn’t give an easy reading. Some of it is in fact pretty disturbing, especially involving the plush animals, but I won’t get into that here.

He was also an influential teacher. One of his students, Jennifer Steinkamp, is currently exhibiting a digital work that is in honor of Kelley. Made while he was still alive, it depicts a digital tree, projected on the wall, which grows and sheds leaves, and twists and turns according to its own natural, but sped-up and exaggerated, cycle. It’s called “Shimmering Tree” and is meant as a portrait of Kelley. You can see it at Tacoma Art Museum.

365 Days of Art: January 30 – Special Five-Day Photo Exhibition Closes to Keep Works from Fading

Autochrome of Alfred Stieglitz, by Edward Steichen

January 30, 2011
A special five-day exhibition of never-before-exhibited autochrome photographs, using low-oxygen enclosures to keep them from fading, closes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some background: what are autochromes? They’re photos made from a process that was developed in the early 20th century, transparent color images on glass that must be viewed either with a transmitted light source or by projection in a specific device. The image is made up of a silver gelatin layer, like that used in the black-and-white photography of the time, together with a color screen of minuscule potato starch grains on the glass. The potato starch grains are dyed red, green, and blue and filter the light during image capture, producing delicate color effects. The dyes used to tint the potato starch grains fade rapidly and irreversibly when exposed to light, either in the environment, or in the projection system that’s necessary to view them. This led to the Met’s policy of not exhibiting these vulnerable photographs at all.

Recent research in art conservation shows that low-oxygen environments can slow or stop deterioration of some art objects. For example, the Declaration of Independence is now displayed in a low-oxygen (anoxic) case. After experimentation with this idea, the Met displayed the photos with an anoxic case around the glass plates, for five days only.

What a treat for the art world. In this country, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz (heavy hitters in the world of photography) were enthusiastic proponents of autochromes when the process was developed in 1907. But, this enthusiasm had a short life, and by 1910, photographers were moving on to other processes that were easier to create, handle and display. I wonder how many autochromes have been lost over the years, just by being looked at.

Here’s a very readable, illustrated, and more in-depth discussion of the autochrome process.

365 Days of Art: January 28 – Michelangelo Drawing Sells at Auction for $7.4 Million

Michelangelo, Christ and the Woman of Samaria

January 28, 1998
Christ & the Woman of Samaria, a drawing by Michelangelo, sold for $7.4 million at Sotheby’s.

Christ and the Woman of Samaria was made when he was about 65. It’s drawn, not on paper, but on a poplar panel that has warped and curved over time. In order to be able to draw on the wood surface, he covered it with gesso (a plaster mix), then drew with ink. At 17 by 13 inches, it’s one of his largest drawings (except for the large cartoons that he made when painting his wall frescoes).

The drawing depicts an incident from the Bible where Christ met the Woman of Samaria drawing water at Jacob’s well. It’s believed that the piece was commissioned by an educated, religious Roman woman, who would have used it as a private devotional image in her home.

The choice of this biblical subject is unusual. The Woman of Samaria had already had five husbands and was living with another man who was not her husband. Jews did not normally talk to Samarians. It would seem that Samarians themselves did not normally talk to this woman. By singling her out for attention, Christ indicated that all of humanity was important to him, much like the story of Mary Magdalene.

A characteristic of Michelangelo’s figure style that was commented on by his contemporaries was his so-called terribilitià – a kind of awesome statuesque grandeur. It’s not beauty alone, because some artists who specialized in beauty during the Renaissance made work that isn’t arresting in the way Michelangelo’s work is. His figures’ bodies are beautiful, but solid. Gestures are significant: look at Christ’s finger pointing at the Woman, the way God points at Adam in the fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Looks exchanged between figures are meaningful. There is an action; there is a mood created.

One thing I didn’t know about auction prices: when the bidding stops (in this case at $6.8 million), the auction house’s premium is added, like a sales tax, for a total of $7.4 million here.

365 Days of Art: January 27 – The Renwick Gallery Opens in Washington DC

The Renwick Gallery

January 27, 1972
The Renwick Gallery, whose collection is devoted to American crafts, design, and decorative arts from the 19th century to the present, opens in Washington DC as a branch of the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

It’s situated very close to the White House in a National Historic Landmark building designed by James Renwick Jr. in 1859. If you’re planning a road trip, hold off for now–it’s closed to the public until 2016 for a massive renovation that will address technological, structural and cosmetic updates.

365 Days of Art: January 26 – Modigliani’s Pregnant Girlfriend Commits Suicide After His Death

Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace, by Amadeo Modigliani, 1917

January 26, 1920

Distraught over Amadeo Modigliani’s death less than two days earlier, his pregnant girlfriend Jeanne Hébuterne jumped out of a fifth floor window.

They had a very troubled history, and he abused her. Her family disapproved of the relationship, not least of all because they chose to live together instead of getting married, and because he was a Jew and an artist. Or, perhaps it had something to do with Modigliani being an alcoholic, drug addict, and womanizer with an unchecked temper? He repeatedly was arrested after blackouts and hallucinations. Once, he dragged Jeanne by her hair and proceeded to bang her head into the gates of the Luxembourg Gardens.

She was so crazily devoted to him that she refused to leave his side even to call the doctor as he lay dying of tubercular meningitis; a neighbor discovered her clinging to a feverish, hallucinating Modigliani in their bed. Modigliani died soon after this, on January 24, at age 35.

Hébuterne was twenty years old and eight months pregnant with their second child when she committed suicide before dawn on the day of Modigliani’s funeral, January 26. The funeral guests weren’t even aware of the tragedy. Her family refused her wish to be buried with Modigliani, burying her in another Paris cemetery entirely, although ten years later, they reinterred her next to his grave. Modigliani and Jeanne had a toddler daughter who was sent to live with Modigliani’s sister in Italy. She was also named Jeanne, but didn’t learn about her early childhood, her famous/infamous parents, or their deaths until she was an adult. She ended up writing a biography of her father.

What a sad story.

365 Days of Art: January 25 – Leonardo and Botticelli Are Consulted as to Location for Michelangelo’s David

David by Michelangelo, in the Accademia Gallery

January 25, 1504

Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and other citizens and artists are consulted as to the best location for Michelangelo’s David.

After two years of work by Michelangelo, Florentine authorities had to acknowledge that the more than 6-ton statue couldn’t be placed on the roof of the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore, as they originally intended.

Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli sat on the committee of citizens and artists which was consulted to solve the problem of where to place David. They entertained nine different sites. One group, including da Vinci, believed that, due to the imperfections in the marble, the sculpture should be placed under the roof of the Loggia dei Lanzi on Piazza della Signoria. Botticelli advocated for placing the sculpture on or near the cathedral. The winning vote said to situate it at the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria, the city’s town hall (now known as Palazzo Vecchio).

Today, David holds court in the Accademia Gallery.

Fun Fact: In 2010, a fiberglass replica was placed on the roof of the cathedral, for one day only, so that the sculpture could be seen as it was originally intended.

365 Days of Art: January 24 – J. Pierpont Morgan Agrees to Fund Photographic Documentation of All Native American Tribes

Sioux Chiefs, by Edward Curtis

January 24, 1906
At his office on Wall Street in New York, multi-millionaire and book collector J. Pierpont Morgan met with Seattle photographer Edward Curtis to discuss funding for Curtis’ pet project: a visual and textual documentation of all Native American tribes.

Curtis had been distressed for some time over the forced assimilation of Native Americans by the US government. At that time, the government forcibly removed Native American children from their families and put them in special boarding schools designed to wipe away all traces of their heritage. Entire Native American nations were relocated to unfamiliar climates and geographies that didn’t support their survival skills, like the Nez Perce who were moved from the Northwest to an arid reservation in what is now Oklahoma. (Most of the Nez Perce nation subsequently died of starvation, as well as malaria).

Curtis recognized that the nations were rapidly losing their customs, rituals, and way of life, and while he couldn’t do anything to stop it, he decided to document what remained in order that they wouldn’t be forgotten.

Working independently, he spent several summers visiting many tribes. He photographed them, recorded their languages and songs on a wax recorder (when he was allowed) and attempted to learn their customs, religions, and world views. Although he was an extremely successful high-society portrait photographer, even photographing President Theodore Roosevelt’s children, his attempt to fund the project alone left him perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy (not to mention divorce). He began seeking support from institutions and individuals with an interest in the subject, or the means to make a difference. J. Pierpont Morgan mostly fell into the second category, though he had also built a reputation as a collector of rare and artistic books.

In a letter the day before the meeting, Curtis wrote to Morgan:

As to the artistic merit, it must speak for itself, and no one can be a better judge of that than yourself. I feel the work is worthwhile and as a monumental thing, nothing can exceed it. I have the ability, strength, and determination to finish the undertaking, but have gone to the end of my means and must ask someone to join me in the undertaking and make it possible for all ages of Americans to see what the American Indian was like.”

At the meeting, Morgan initially declined to contribute any funding for the project, but Curtis persisted and showed him a portfolio of his evocative and technically perfect Native American photos. Morgan finally agreed to fund $75,000 over five years for fieldwork (hiring interpreters and other staff, paying for travel, etc), for the documentation of all tribes that was eventually compiled into three volumes.

It should be noted that under the arrangement, Curtis actually worked for free, like so many artists before and after him. His photography and processing of the images, his writing the text, his labor on the fact-finding trips, and his hustling of subscriptions in order to pay for the printing and binding of the books–were all unpaid.

365 Days of Art: January 23 – Peggy Guggenheim Visits Pollock’s Studio for the First Time

Peggy and Pollock

January 23, 1943
Peggy Guggenheim visits Jackson Pollock’s studio for the first time.

She was one of the most important art patrons ever, paying him a salary, giving him his first exhibition in 1950, and nurturing Abstract Expressionism (along with many other European and American artists, as well as Surrealism). Although the movie Pollock depicts them having an affair, the real-life Peggy thought Pollock drank too much and did not allow him to be one of her 1000+ conquests.

365 Days of Art: January 22 – Museum Visitor Accidentally Damages a Picasso. Oops!

Pablo Picasso, The Actor, 1904-1905

January 22, 2010
A visitor at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art accidentally fell into The Actor, a 105-year-old painting by Pablo Picasso, causing a 6-inch gash in the canvas. (It was a student doing research for a college class. Oops! As a teacher leading field trips, this was my nightmare). It has since been repaired.

The Actor is also notable for being the transition out of Picasso’s Blue Period (he’d recently found a new girlfriend, and the end of a cold winter was in sight), and into his exploration of the theatrical world of jugglers and acrobats.

365 Days of Art: January 21 – First Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective Opens at the Art Institute of Chicago

Georgia O'Keeffe, Ram's Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, 1935, collection:Brooklyn Museum

January 21, 1943
The exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings 1915-1941 opens at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is O’Keeffe’s first museum retrospective.

By the way, January 21 is a slow day in art history. Thank God for Georgia O’Keeffe at my favorite museum, or I would’ve been stuck talking about Jeff Koons today. Yecccch.

365 Days of Art: January 20 – Julia Morgan Born

Hearst Castle, courtesy of maisonboheme.blogspot.com
January 20, 1872

Julia Morgan, brilliant architect at a time when women weren’t allowed to do that, and feminist pioneer, was born on this day in San Francisco.

She always wanted to be an architect, but had to study civil engineering at UC Berkeley (my alma mater) because there was no architecture major there. She was the only female in her class. She was a student of Bernard Maybeck, who encouraged her to apply to his alma mater: the architecture program at l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She was initially denied entrance because they had a no-female policy.

She was the first female graduate there, and the first female architect ever licensed in California. Employed in John Galen Howard’s firm, she worked on several buildings on the UC Berkeley campus. Howard once told a colleague that Morgan was “an excellent draftsman whom I have to pay almost nothing, as it is a woman.”

She opened her own firm in 1904, and designed more than 700 buildings. She specialized in California buildings for institutions serving women and girls like the YWCA, Berkeley Womens City Club, and Mills College.

At Mills, Morgan’s designs included El Campanil, believed to be the first bell tower on a United States college campus. Morgan became fairly famous when the tower was not damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It also demonstrated her knowledge (which was rare then) of steel-reinforced concrete, which held up well in quakes.

She practiced in the Arts and Crafts style and is probably best known for her 30+ years of work on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. This compound is notable for being excessive and also gorgeous. It was the first zoo in the country, at a time when zoos weren’t organized yet; it was really just a private collection of exotic animals. It featured a private movie theater, before that was de rigeur. There is a movable ceiling that can be dropped down to change the look and feel of the room. It was the inspiration for the home in Citizen Kane. If you’re on California’s Central Coast, this is the best thing you can see. Make it a road trip! I absolutely love it.

We were very proud of Julia Morgan on the campus and in the city of Berkeley, although she was probably underrecognized outside of the Bay Area until recently. Not only was she an accomplished architect with an elegant eye, she was a pioneer for women. Julia Morgan is the first woman to receive the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, which she received posthumously in 2014.

365 Days of Art: January 19 – Cindy Sherman Born

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #228, 1990

January 19, 1954
Cindy Sherman, American artist, was born. She is known for playing multiple roles in the creation of her photos, such as serving as her own make-up artist, hairdresser, and model, as well as photographer. Additionally, although her portraits are of herself, they aren’t truly self-portraits, since she takes on another persona. For example, she posed as 50s-style actresses in her film stills, or painstakingly reenacted famous paintings from art history by donning prosthetics as necessary, or posing as males.

Fun Fact: Cindy Sherman is the stepmom of actress Gaby Hoffmann (the little girl from Field of Dreams and Sleepless in Seattle, the girlfriend in You Can Count on Me–probably my favorite movie, most recently seen on TV in Louie and Girls).

365 Days of Art: January 17 – Diego Rivera Begins Work on His First Mural in US

Diego Rivera, Allegory of California mural, SF Stock Exchange Tower, image via jvsquad.us

January 17, 1931
Diego Rivera, the great Mexican artist and muralist, begins work on the first of his murals in the United States. The mural Allegory of California graces the stairwell of the City Club (formerly the Pacific Stock Exchange Club). (By the way, the Club is considered the best interior in the Art Deco style in San Francisco, and among the best in California).