365 Days of Art: September 9 – Director John Waters Discusses Art Collecting

Art collector John Waters (photo courtesy of Walker Art Center)
Art collector John Waters (photo courtesy of Walker Art Center)

September 9, 2003

Director, photographer, writer and art collector John Waters declares on the television series “ART:21”:

I love collecting art because it makes other people insane”.

He buys his first piece of art (a reproduction by Miró from a museum gift shop) at eight years old, and realizes the power of art when his friends can’t see in it what he sees. He finds this reaction repeated throughout the years, especially related to contemporary art.

365 Days of Art: September 8 – Ana Mendieta Falls to Her Death; Husband Carl Andre Arrested for Murder

Ana Mendieta, Untitled from the Silueta Series, 1976
Ana Mendieta, Untitled from the Silueta Series, 1976

September 8, 1985

Ana Mendieta dies at age 32, after falling from her 34th floor apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village; her husband, sculptor Carl Andre is charged with her murder. Though there are no eyewitnesses, the doorman and neighbors overhear a violent, drunken argument between the newlyweds, as well as a woman repeatedly screaming “No” just prior to Mendieta’s fall.

In Andre’s emergency call, he says Mendieta has “somehow gone out the window” of their Greenwich Village high-rise. Andre’s statements to police differ from this emergency call, and he has scratches on his face and arms, so he’s arrested. He claims he has no memory of the evening.

The incident is a divisive one in the art world, with people taking one side or the other.

Friends of Andre can’t believe that he’s guilty.

Mendieta’s friends, male and female, don’t believe Andre’s defense that there may have been an unremembered accident, or that Ana has committed suicide. They remember her as “up”, ambitiously looking forward to a new body of work, and talking about giving up drinking and smoking so that she could live long enough to reap some rewards from a long art career. They resent Andre’s lawyers for attempting to use her artwork to support what they feel is a ridiculous notion of suicide. They don’t believe an accident theory, either, saying she never would have gone near the windows, let alone in her underwear, as she suffers from an intense fear of heights. The general consensus among her friends is that Andre, her husband of eight months, has pushed or thrown her out of the window during an argument.

Andre requests a trial by judge, rather than jury, avoiding cross-examination; he is acquitted of murder three years after Mendieta’s death.

Mendieta’s work, which she describes as “earth-body” art, usually puts her in the same school as environmental artist Robert Smithson, but she deals with issues of gender as well as land. Some of her best-known work includes silhouettes of her body created with natural elements like mud, rocks, flowers, and leaves. She also works with her own blood, suggesting magical, feminist, sexual, as well as violent properties, in keeping with the feminist tradition of the 1970s. Many of her materials suggest her background in Cuba and Mexico, an earthy connection to land, and a desire to ground herself to it.

365 Days of Art: September 7 – Apollinaire is Arrested for Theft of Mona Lisa

Guillaume Apollinaire in his friend Picasso's studio, 1910.
Guillaume Apollinaire in his friend Picasso’s studio, 1910.

September 7, 1911

Seventeen days after the Mona Lisa is stolen without anyone noticing, police arrest the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. As a critic and surrealist, he’s suggested in the past that the Louvre should be burned down, and he rooms with someone who’s been stealing antiquities. He’s held for five days, during which time he implicates his friend Picasso, and returns some of his roommate’s stolen artifacts. Based on lack of evidence that he had any knowledge of the crime, he is released.

I wonder to what extent he enjoys this, even sees it as a surealist performance piece. If he were kidding (which I think he is), I bet Picasso laughs his head off.

365 Days of Art: September 6 – Elizabeth Murray is Born

Elizabeth Murray, Bop, 2002-2003

September 6, 1940

Painter Elizabeth Murray is born. She’s known for pioneering shaped canvases which ask the question: am I a painting or an object? They’re fun, abstract paintings that are made of cartoon-like shapes and symbols, and she died too soon.

365 Days of Art: September 5 – Monet Paints Wife on Deathbed, Oldenburg Protests Police Brutality

Claude Monet, Camille on her Deathbed, 1879

September 5, 1879

Monet’s wife Camille dies of cancer at age 32, and he paints a portrait of her on her deathbed.

While Monet’s portrait and correspondence seem to show real feeling over her death, he doesn’t treat Camille very well while she’s alive. She gives birth to their first child alone and penniless, with just a medical student friend to assist, while Monet visits his family.

But wait, there’s more.

In September 1870, soon after the birth of the baby, France surrenders in the Franco-Prussian War, and there is general panic as many French citizens try to flee across the Channel to England. Sometime between September 2 and early December (when there is evidence of him entering a painting contest in London), Monet deserts his wife and child when he boards a ship to London. He leaves them with no money, in a hotel with the bill unpaid. Camille is pretty resourceful and finds a way to London later (he must have cursed his bad luck at that one).

The striking thing about all this is how Monet has gotten a free pass all these years. Most accounts of this desertion (not only of his family but also of his military duty) don’t mention that Monet and Camille find their way to London separately. Those who do acknowledge this fact are full of apologies and explanations on Monet’s behalf, like Jean-Paul Crespelle, who writes in Monet: The Masterworks:

Caught up in the confusion, Monet must have lost his head. On an impulse he boarded ship and left.”

Oh, how confused he must have been, the poor guy!

But wait, there’s more.

Monet also carries on a long-term affair with the wife of an art dealer, going so far as to move the woman and her husband into the Monet family home. In a final insult, his mistress, Alice Hoschedé, is responsible for nursing Camille through her cancer and death. I can’t even imagine.

Why has Monet been given a free pass all this time? He’s not a nice guy. This has been one of the surprises of my research for this project.

Claes Oldenburg, Shuttlecocks

September 5, 1968

Chicago native Claes Oldenburg protests police brutality in his hometown by sending a letter to canceling his show at Feigen Gallery there. On the same day, 50 prominent artists announce an art boycott of Chicago until 1970, when Mayor Daley’s term ends. This follows in the footsteps of Barnett Newman, who has recently removed his painting from an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in protest of the city’s actions.

Oldenburg writes to the gallery director:

…in Chicago, I, like so many others, ran head-on into the model American police state. I was tossed to the ground by 6 swearing troopers who kicked me and choked me and called me a Communist…a gentle one-man show about pleasure seems a bit obscene in the present context”.

365 Days of Art: September 4 – Thieves Steal 13 Paintings in Montreal

Rembrandt van Rijn, Landscape with Cottages, 1654

September 4, 1972

Thieves steal 18 paintings from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It is the largest art theft in North America until the Boston Museum of Fine Arts robbery almost 20 years later.

They enter through the skylight, tie up the guards and steal a rare Rembrandt landscape (he usually paints portraits), two works from Breughel the Elder, two Corots, two Millets, a Courbet, a Daumier, a Delacroix, a Gainsborough, some lesser-known paintings, and some jewelry and decorative arts. The thieves are forced to abandon another cache of works, including a Picasso, Tintoretto and El Greco, when they set off an alarm.

A few days later, the thieves engage in ransom negotiations with the Museum Director, calling him on the phone and demanding 25% of the worth of the stolen art. (Side note: why did they ask so little? In another call, they ask for even less–half of that) To prove they have the artwork in their possession, they mail him snapshots of it, and phone one of the guards in the guard booth. They instruct him to pick up a cigarette carton on the ground outside, and in the carton is a piece of the stolen jewelry. As part of another negotiation, they leave one of the Breughels in a locker in Central Station for police to find. However, the negotiations always break down or are called off (one attempt is aborted when a police car is spotted nearby).

The mystery has never been solved, and all of the works, save the pendant and the Breughel, are still missing.

365 Days of Art: September 3 – Barnett Newman Protests Police Brutality

Barnett Newman, Gea, 1944-45

September 3, 1968

Protesting police brutality in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, painter Barnett Newman demands that his painting be removed from an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

America is stunned in front of their televisions, watching cops in riot gear executing “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago”, as Senator Abraham Ribicoff describes it. They see officers rough up protesters, as well as others like journalists Mike Wallace and Dan Rather. Legislators and convention attendees describe the convention hall itself as a “military installation with barbed wire, checkpoints, the whole bit”.

In response to this scene, which has been going on for at least five days, Newman writes to CC Cunningham, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago:

Dear Mr. Cunningham:

Please remove my painting Gea from your forthcoming exhibition “Dada and Surrealism”. I do not wish to be represented in this exhibition in protest against the uncalled-for police brutality of Mayor Daley, which fills me with disgust. I cannot in good conscience do otherwise. The day this exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art the street in front of the Museum was full of hippies and police, but no one called for the cracking of heads. Please give me your assurance that my wishes in this matter will be respected. Thank you for your invitation, but under the circumstances I cannot accept.

Respectfully yours,

Barnet Newman

Ironically, 22 years later, this painting is donated to the Art Institute’s permanent collection. The mayor at the time is Daley’s son.

365 Days of Art: September 2 – Romare Bearden is Born

Romare Bearden, Train Whistle Blues II, 1964

September 2, 1911

Romare Bearden is born. He’s one of my favorite artists for the way he creates collages with rearranged cutouts from magazine photos. He begins his art career as an abstract painter but finds that his storytelling peters out in this medium. He casts around for a new way of communicating and hits upon images from glossy magazine photos, which he cuts out, dismantles into parts, rearranges, and glues down with thick layers of adhesive.

This new approach and turn to the figure coincide roughly with the Civil Rights Movement, and his main subject is everyday life in Harlem. In his photomontages, African Americans walk down the street, offer and accept cigarettes, care for children, talk to the neighbors on the next stoop, and play guitar. It’s a vibrant world, full of activity and larger-than-life characters. These characters are made from multiple sources: an original magazine photo might become three or more people in one of Bearden’s collages, with the original donating a hat to one character, a nose to another, and one eye each to two more folks.

His life is stuffed as full as his collages: he’s a minor league baseball player, a social worker, an artist, a poet, a civil rights activist, and a musician.

365 Days of Art: September 1 – Amy Cutler Show Opens in Sweden

Fermentation, Amy Cutler, 2011

September 1, 2011

A solo show of new works by Amy Cutler, one of my favorite artists, opens at Galleri Magnus Karlsson in Stockholm. Her very mysterious, yet funny, paintings often feature groups of women engaged in group activities that simultaneously bring them together, yet show the rifts and competition in their dynamic. There is a sort of fairy-tale jousting metaphor that plays out more than once, whether it’s women riding ponies and fighting with umbrellas or going at it on top of dining room tables, with dining chairs strapped to their heads, antler-style.

There’s a sort of anachronistic timelessness that reminds me of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and also the film Dogville by Lars von Trier, both of which have the same undercurrent of ruthlessness and group-think. Strange, powerful stuff. Something feels universal but very off in her work, like suddenly realizing in middle school that not everyone is going to be friends anymore, and that things just got a little dangerous.

I met the artist at an opening in Providence, and she herself is a delight.