365 Days of Art: November 30 – National Portrait Gallery Censors AIDS Film

November 30, 2010

The National Portrait Gallery removes a film from the first-ever gay portraiture exhibition, Hide/Seek, after receiving complaints from a Catholic organization and members of Congress.

The video, created by David Wojnarowicz, features footage of ants crawling on a crucifix, and is made in the heyday of the AIDS epidemic. It is a tortured response to the disease and to governmental inaction in the mid-1980s. Wojnarowicz himself dies of AIDS in 1987.

The Catholic League calls the video “hate speech”, and John Boehner’s office calls it a misuse of taxpayer money. The video is quickly removed with little debate. In response to heavy criticism that the museum has acted too hastily, or not pushed back because of the gay subject matter, the museum’s director Martin E. Sullivan says:

The decision wasn’t caving in,” said Martin E. Sullivan, the museum’s director. “We don’t want to shy away from anything that is controversial, but we want to focus on the museum’s and this show’s strengths.”

Many museums and galleries around the country screen the video in protest.

365 Days of Art: November 29 – Mona Lisa Thief Contacts Antiques Dealer

La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517
La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517

November 29, 1913

Two years after the theft of the Mona Lisa, the thief contacts an antiques dealer named Alfredo Geri. Geri has innocently placed an ad in several Italian newspapers to advertise his business as “a buyer at good prices of art objects of every sort.” The thief, who signs the letter as “Leonardo”, says that he has the stolen painting, and provides a PO box in Paris as an address.

November 28 – Bazille Killed on Battlefield

Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867
Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867

November 28, 1870

Impressionist painter Frédéric Bazille dies on the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian War. He is fighting with the Zouaves, a light infantry regiment, and has been frustrated at the lack of action. Today, in a minor battle, his officer is injured and Bazille takes command. He leads an assault on the Prussians, is struck twice while retreating, and dies in the snow. Some of his friends, such as Édouard Manet, don’t learn of his death for three months.

365 Days of Art: November 26 – Whistler v. Ruskin Libel Trial Concludes

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874

November 26, 1878

The two-day trial, filed by James Abbott McNeill Whistler against art critic John Ruskin, concludes.

In July 1877, Ruskin writes a heavy-handed and extremely critical review of Whistler’s work in a group show, that causes Whistler to sue him for libel:

For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, [the founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

Whistler, a sue-happy, litigious, defensive kind of guy, reads the review in the paper and takes Ruskin to court specifically for using the word “imposture”, suggesting that Whistler has willfully deceived the public. He asks for damages of £1,000 plus court costs.

Whistler appears as his own attorney and calls several artists to testify on his behalf, but none do; they are too afraid of damaging their careers. He talks a bit about his inspiration, the idea of creating a mood, the way a symphony or a musical nocturne creates an atmosphere with musical notes. A lover of bon mots, he frequently causes the gallery to break up laughing. When Ruskin’s attorney asks if Whistler’s price of 200 guineas (roughly a year’s salary for a mid-career office worker at the time) is for two days’ work, the amount of time Whistler has testified that it took him to finish the painting. Whistler replies:

No,I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” This is something very close to what my grad school advisor always says.

The jury returns a verdict in favor of Whistler, but awards him only a farthing (less than a penny) in damages; court costs are to be split.

This is not exactly a victory for either party, and Whistler in fact loses patrons because of the trial.

The painting in question has since taken its place in art history as a precursor to abstraction, action or drip painting, and a revolutionary use of oil paint (by thinning it to behave more like watercolor).

365 Days of Art: November 25 – Namuth Films Pollock; Pollock Spirals Downward

November 25, 1950

Photographer Hans Namuth films Jackson Pollock painting on glass, in order to capture, from below, the particular beauty of paint falling in the “action painting” or Abstract Expressionist style, and the “dance” that Pollock executes around a painting.

This day’s shooting is the culmination of a months-long project by Namuth to portray Pollock and his process; it begins as a still photo shoot, which leads to more, then a short film, then finally shooting from underneath the glass to simultaneously capture the painter and painting.

Pollock has become silently frustrated by the process, especially the many takes for the camera, which is at odd with the spontaneity he thrives on. When Namuth finishes filming, Pollock goes inside the house and pours himself a bourbon, his first drink in two years. That one is followed by several more. His wife, Lee Krasner, has set the table for dinner guests, and Pollock furiously turns the whole thing over onto the floor, with the dogs famously tearing into the meat and gravy while Krasner stoically announces that coffee will be served in the next room.

From this point, Pollock never stops drinking until he kills himself and his girlfriend’s friend in a drunk driving accident six year later.

365 Days of Art: November 23 – Andy Warhol Pays $50 for a Big Idea

Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup, 1968
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup, 1968

November 23, 1961

A big idea is born and it only costs $50!

Andy Warhol, in frustration at not having found his muse yet, begs his friend Muriel Latow for ideas. One day she visits him at his house at 1342 Lexington Ave in NYC, and he implores her to “Just tell me what to paint”. She replies that she’ll tell him for $50, but that he has to write the check before she’ll give him the idea.

Now the memories differ slightly. According to Latow, with check in hand, she tells him to imagine the most common thing in the world, like a Cambell’s soup can…in fact, why not a Campbell’s soup can? Someone else who is there says that Latow asks Andy to think about his likes and dislikes. He replies that he absolutely hates grocery shopping for his mother, who lives with him, and that he especially hates Campbell’s soup, which she makes every day for lunch. Accordingly, Latow tells him to buy one of every variety of soup, and paint them all.

And art history is born. That’s the best $50 anyone ever spent.

365 Days of Art: November 22 – Benton Writes About His Work; Bernstein Continues to Protest NEA

Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948
Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomas Hart Benton, 1948

November 22, 1967

Thomas Hart Benton writes a letter to Matthew Baigell:

…The better part of our history, cultural history, certainly was the outcome of rural pressures on the centers of cultivation and policy-making. This lasted until the turn of the century and beyond (note effects of rural members in state legislatures). Of course this is no more so. It is just the reverse that now holds. The urban centers now provide the pressures. But our basic cultural ideas, our beliefs as to what constitutes the “American character”, our mythologies, had their origins in the earlier conditions. It was these I tried to represent”.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

November 22, 1989

Leonard Bernstein composes The NEA Forever March to continue his protest of the agency cutting funding for an AIDS exhibition in New York. Earlier in the month, Bernstein declines the National Medal of Arts, selected by the NEA and awarded by President Bush, for the same reason.

365 Days of Art: November 18 – The Whitney Opens

The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1931.
The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1931.

November 18, 1931

The Whitney Museum of American Art opens on West 8th Street in New York City.

It goes through a couple of iterations before becoming a museum, beginning with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s empathy for the struggles faced by young, unknown, American artists at the turn of the century. As a sculptor herself, Whitney understands how difficult it is for artists to show or sell their work.

By 1914, she regularly presents exhibitions of lesser-known artists in a studio, and by 1929, she’s collected over 500 artworks, which she offers to the Met, along with an endowment. Incredibly, they refuse.

In response, she decides to open her own museum with a very different agenda than the Met’s. She decides that her museum will focus only on American artists.

365 Days of Art: November 17 – Duke of Milan Ships Out Leonardo’s Bronze, Gorky Writes Optimistic Note About Prolific Summer of Drawing

Leonardo, Studies of a Horse, c. 1482-1499
Leonardo, Studies of a Horse, c. 1482-1499

November 17, 1494

Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, sends all of the bronze that Leonardo has collected for casting a statue of a horse to his father-in-law, who makes it into cannon.

Arshile Gorky, Virginia Summer, 1946
Arshile Gorky, Virginia Summer, 1946

November 17, 1946

Arshile Gorky writes to his friend Vartoosh Mooradian:

This summer I completed a lot of drawings — 292 of them. Never have I been able to do so much work, and they are good too.”

This productive summer is one of the bright spots of Gorky’s year. His unlucky streak begins with a fire in his studio in January, caused by a stove he’s installed only the month before. The fire ruins almost all of his work. Two months later, he undergoes a colostomy for rectal cancer, and goes to his in-laws’ house in Virginia to recuperate. He draws the landscape in the fields during the day, and scenes by the fireplace each night.

This optimistic period of work is followed shortly by infidelity in his marriage, a serious car accident, deep depression and his eventual suicide.

365 Days of Art: November 16 – Frida Writes a Letter from US, AIDS Exhibition Opens (Under Duress) After Grant Partially Restored

Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There, 1933
Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There, 1933

November 16, 1933

Frida writes a letter to her friend Isabel Campos that she is “dreaming about my return to Mexico”:

New York is very pretty and I feel better here than in Detroit, but in spite of this I am longing for Mexico…Yesterday we had snow for the first time…there will be nothing to do but dress in woolen underwear and put up with snow. I do not feel the cold so much because of my famous long skirts but sometimes I feel a cold draft that could not even be prevented by twenty skirts. I still run around like crazy and I am getting used to these old clothes. Meanwhile some of the gringa-women are imitating me and trying to dress a la Mexicana but the poor souls only look like cabbages and to tell you the naked truth they look absolutely impossible. That doesn’t mean that I look good in them either but still I get by (don’t laugh).”

The painting above is a humorously critical painting about her time living in the US.

The scene outside Artists Space gallery, including protesters, at the opening of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, November 16, 1989.
The scene outside Artists Space gallery, including protesters, at the opening of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, November 16, 1989.

November 16, 1989

An exhibition about AIDS, organized by Nan Goldin, the grant for which was revoked by the NEA, opens in NYC with the grant partially restored.

This is not seen as a victory, however. The grant money is revoked based on content in the catalogue, and the partially restored grant specifically will not fund the catalogue. This decision, leaves artists and others, like composer Leonard Bernstein who rejects a medal from the White House over this incident, feeling that the NEA is playing dirty.

To understand a little more of the emotion and feeling of betrayal surrounding this incident, consider Goldin’s personal statement about the show, called Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing:

Over the past year four more of my most beloved friends have died of AIDS. Two were artists I had selected for this exhibit. One of the writers for this catalogue has become too sick to write. And so the tone of the exhibition has become less theoretical and more personal, from a show about AIDS to an issue to more of a collective memorial.”

The offending part of the catalogue, written by David Wojnarowicz, who himself will later die of AIDS, criticizes members of Congress and a Catholic cardinal whose stances against safe sex education are widely seen as jeopardizing more lives. The NEA’s reaction to this essay, along with their cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s entire show just six months earlier, is seen as a disturbing trend that dirties the waters of the art world with right-wing politics and specifically punishes those who speak out about the AIDS epidemic.

Wojnarowicz feels so strongly about the gallery director’s decision to accept the partial grant that he does not attend the opening, saying:

I don’t feel that civil or constitutional rights are a worthy trade for money.”

Interestingly, Wojnarowicz, who will die in less than two years of AIDS, angers certain politicians again in 2010 over a different art exhibition. A different generation of right-wing politicians, outraged over his work about AIDS, threaten to remove government money from the Smithsonian Institution and directly cause the removal of Wojnarowicz’s film from the exhibition Hide/Seek.