365 Days of Art: May 31 – Art of This Century Closes After Five Influential Years

Peggy and Pollock

May 31, 1947

Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century, closes its doors. Peggy wanted to return to Europe, and confided that the gallery business had completely tired her out. Although it was only open for five years, I’d have to say it became one of the most influential art institutions ever by bringing modern art into the mainstream (Jackson Pollock, probably her most famous protege, landed on the cover of Life Magazine).

365 Days of Art: May 30 – Three Exhibitions Close at MoMA

The Goldfish, Paul Klee, 1925

May 30, 1937

Three exhibitions close at MoMA: Twelve Modern Paintings, featuring Paul Klee, Joan Miro, and Jean Arp, Prehistoric Rock Pictures, and a Cezanne show. Director Alfred Barr made comparisons between all three and saw the Modern and Prehistoric shows as companion pieces, sharing elements like primitive figures, scratched surfaces, and distorted scale and space.

365 Days of Art: May 29 – Mona Hatoum Exhibition Closes

Mona Hatoum, Interior Landscape, 2008: furniture, human hair, pillow, map, wire hanger

May 29, 2005

A retrospective exhibition by Mona Hatoum closes at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Her work is intimate and broadly political at the same time. Here’s a description of her work that I like (you can read more here):

In Interior Landscape (2008)…Hatoum worked with a local blacksmith to transform the wire support of a bed into a grid of barbed wire. Set in an alcove, the bed, without its mattress and with its chipped paint, resembles a prison bed. A symbol of comfort and repose becomes a nightmarish object. In stark contrast to the bed’s barbed wire base, Hatoum placed a soft pillow onto which she has sown a map of historic Palestine with strands of her own hair. Stray hairs that naturally fall out on beddings and pillows are considered unclean and repulsive, usually brushed off in disgust. Here, however, the strands of hair coalesce into the map of Palestine, as if responding to a persistent dream.

This map of Palestine is repeated on the wall next to the barbed-wire bed. Fashioned from a pink wire clothing hanger, the map hangs like a lifeless silhouette. Next to it, a basket-like paper bag cut out from a printed map of Palestine is suspended, its body slotted like a chain-link wire fence. A small three- legged coffee table wobbles against the wall, unsteady in its support of a light-weight paper plate on which the artist has drawn map-like shapes by simply tracing the outline of oil stains. The bedroom we normally associate with peace and tranquility is turned into discordant space filled with tension and uncertainty. None of the objects are functional a bed without a mattress; a broken table; a cut out map; a useless hanger. Together, the objects create a disconcerting surrealist landscape. In this piece, as in others, Hatoum creates a domestic space that “offers neither rest nor respite.” In this way, the installation serves as a metaphor for the state of being for Palestinian refugees living the longest ongoing conflict in modern history.”

I saw her speak in Abu Dhabi; hearing her talk about her work related to the body, gender, and politics was mesmerizing.

365 Days of Art: May 26 – Aaron Douglas is Born

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction, mural at Fisk University, 1934

May 26, 1899

Aaron Douglas is born.

Douglas is the leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, a circle that is known also for jazz and writing. His engagement with African and Egyptian design brings him to the attention of W. E. B. Du Bois and Dr. Locke, who were pressing for young African American artists to express their African heritage and African American folk culture in their art.

He illustrates for the two most important African-American magazines of the period, paints canvases and murals, and after leaving NYC, founds the art department at Fisk University in Nashville.

365 Days of Art: May 25 – Henry Ossawa Tanner Describes Racism

Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1907

May 25, 1914

Henry Ossawa Tanner, a successful black painter, writes a letter to a friend, Eunice Tietjens, and relays his anger and disappointment at racism he had encountered:

As a winner of the purchase prize and medal of the Third Class from France, Tanner was in company with past winners such as Sargent and Whistler. Tanner tells her about an article that ran in a Baltimore newspaper about himself and his winning painting, Raising of Lazarus. He tells her that the article ran with a photo of a black dockworker, which was captioned as him; the paper didn’t have an image of Tanner and thought that any back portrait would do. Tanner was particularly hurt and dismayed because he had thought that his artistic achievements would nullify this kind of prejudice.

for Raising of Lazarus

365 Days of Art: May 23 – David Smith Dies

David Smith with his sculpture Australia, 1951

May 23, 1965

David Smith dies in a car accident in Vermont.

Throughout his career, he expands what it means to sculpt in metal. His experience in industrial welding, from a summer job in a car factory, to welding locomotives and tanks during World War II, brings his perspective outside of the box. Instead of the tradition of bronze casting, Smith creates pieces by welding metal parts together. For this reason, he always feels and says that he “belongs with the painters” because his technique is more like creating a painting, putting lines and shapes together with a torch instead of a brush, and each sculpture is one-of-a-kind, like a painting (and unlike a bronze cast, which can be poured more than once and editioned).

That being said, his very first sculpture is made from coral, interestingly enough.

His industrial experience also causes him to run his studio like a factory, stocking it with large amounts of raw material.

Working and thinking like a painter, Smith makes sculptures of subjects that had never before been created sculpturally: landscapes, still lives, and even a page of writing.

My favorite fact about Smith, besides the coral, is that he once created 27 pieces in 30 days while working in Italy. This is incredible by any measure, but especially so considering that most of Smith’s work was large-scale.

365 Days of Art: May 21 – Man Attacks Michelangelo’s Pietà

May 21, 1972

Laszlo Toth, an unemployed geologist, climbs onto Michelangelo’s Pietà, grabs a hammer from underneath his coat, and smashes away at the sculpture 15 times. A fireman and several undercover guards pull him away, while several civic-minded bystanders grab fragments of the statue that have fallen to the floor and run (to his or her credit, one guilty American mails back a stolen fragment several months later). When Toth is asked for his explanation, he gives a lot of mumbo-jumbo not worth repeating here, about it being his birthday, that he is Christ and Michelangelo and going to heaven.

Mary’s arm, left hand, and nose are broken off completely. It takes conservators five months to identify the 100 fragments (some as tiny as a fingernail). Due to the severity of the damage, as well as the beloved nature of the work, and its lifelike qualities, this is one of the most complex conservation projects ever undertaken. After debate about whether to leave the sculpture deliberately unrepaired, or to differentiate the conservation work from the original, it’s decided to conserve it in a way that’s invisible to the naked eye. Conservators build their lab around the statue in St. Peter’s, so they don’t have to move it.

Ten months and one bulletproof barrier later, the Pietà is returned to view. As for Toth, he vanishes while awaiting trial for the crime. He is allegedly seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and after that, it is reported that he is arrested by the Yugoslavian government for photographing (e.g., spying on) a sugar refinery, for which he receives seven years of prison time.

365 Days of Art: May 20 – NY World Publishes Article About Augusta Savage’s Rejection Due to Racial Bias

Augusta Savage, circa 1938, with some of her sculptures.
May 20, 1923

The New York World publishes an article on Augusta Savage, the artist whose application to a summer art program in France is denied because she is black.

The backstory: A summer art school in France offers grants for 100 American women to study for free in the program. Augusta applies, and the committee writes back and requests letters of reference. Before she can supply them however, her application fee of $35 is returned, and she’s told that she’s been rejected “with regret”.

When questioned, the artist heading the selection committee explains that Augusta didn’t supply the required references (remember, she wasn’t given the chance) but “frankly” felt this avoided a difficult and “embarrassing” situation for the “southern” girls (never mind that Augusta lives in New York City) since they would have to travel, live, eat and work with all the program’s students.

This shocking development (more shocking because black artists like Josephine Baker specifically found France to be more open-minded than America about issues of race in the 1920s) makes the front page of newspapers in New York. Publicly and privately, the committee is asked to reconsider its decision (it does not).

Augusta’s own words in The New York World article:

I don’t care much for myself because I will get along all right here, but other and better colored students might wish to apply sometime. This is the first year the school is open and I am the first colored girl to apply. I don’t like to see them establish a precedent…Democracy is a strange thing. My brother was good enough to be accepted in one of the regiments that saw service in France during the war, but it seems his sister is not good enough to be a guest of the country for which he fought…How am I to compete with other American artists if I am not to be given the same opportunity?

365 Days of Art: May 18 – Egon Schiele Calls Himself “Shattered” Over Trial

Egon Schiele Liebesakt Studie, 1915

May 18, 1912

Egon Schiele writes to his friend Arthur Roessler, who had been away from Vienna during Schiele’s arrest and trial on charges of child molestation, abduction, and pornography, which comes to be known as the Neulengbach affair:

… I am still completely shattered. — During the trial one of my pieces which had been hanging in my studio, was burned [by the judge].

He also writes that Gustav Klimt is outraged on his behalf and wants to “do something” about it.

365 Days of Art: May 17 – The Guerrilla Girls Are Born!

May 17, 1984

The Guerrilla Girls are born!

The backstory:

An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture opens on this day at the Museum of Modern Art. Curator Kynaston McShine writes that any artist not included in the show should rethink “his” career.

The exhibit features 169 artists. All are white. All are from the United States or Europe. Only 13 are women. As a direct response, the Guerrilla Girls form. They are an anonymous group of female artists who wear gorilla masks and use the pseudonyms of dead female artists when they appear in public. They use humor and a sense of mystery to call attention to sexism and racism in the art world, and in the culture at large. Their favored tools are theatrical performances, posters, billboards, and gorilla masks.

I saw one of the two founding members of the Guerrilla Girls speak last week at Tacoma Art Museum. Kathe Kollwitz particularly mentioned that this week was their 30th anniversary. She said she thought they’d just make two posters, but thirty years later, there’s still so much to say. That’s good for us, because the Guerrilla Girls aren’t going anywhere, but bad for us, because that means sexism and racism are still in play.

I love to write about artists who are female, gay, of color, or otherwise outside of the recognized mainstream. When I find an event of note that involves these groups, I always include it. Although this blog has featured mostly white, male artists, it’s because it’s so difficult to find concrete information on other demographics. So many events go unheralded and therefore undocumented.