Friday, October 16, 2009

Our new "official" blog

Hear ye, hear ye...

On Archiving Schapiro has a new web address, please make a note of it:

We have now become an official Columbia University Library blog, so keep posted on updates with the above address and subscribe to our feed!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Americans, Robert Frank, and Meyer Schapiro

In anticipation of this weeks exhibition opening of "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I thought it a good moment to shed light on Meyer Schapiro's role in helping Robert Frank with that particular photographic project, "The Americans."

In the mid-1950s, Frank would travel throughout the United States to document the everyday life of Americans and would later publish those images as a publication: first in France in 1958 and then in the United States in 1959. The publication first premiered in France due to its raw and unflinching portrayal of an America that was a ethnically, socially, and economically diverse. It was as visually stunning as it was sociologically revealing, a combination that made The Americans an unrivaled artistic phenomenon. Jack Kerouac, then in his prime as a contemporary writer, wrote the introduction to the book and further cemented the publication as cutting edge.

For the publication's 50th anniversary, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. organized the exhibit that will premiere at the Metropolitan this week. It later traveled to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. I viewed the exhibit in D.C. and was stunned by Frank's project as a whole and the process involved in getting it published. At that time, I wasn't aware of Schapiro's role in Frank's project, as the exhibition didn't mention his name directly (although the exhibition's publication certainly does).

In 1955, Frank applied for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship to "photograph freely throughout the United States" and "make a broad voluminous picture record of things American."

For the application, Frank asked photographers Walker Evans and Edward Steichen to write a recommendation. He also turned to Meyer Schapiro, albeit in a hasty manner.

In a letter from October 24, 1954, Frank would write to Schapiro: "A few days ago I have sent in an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have given your name as a reference. I have meant to call you and ask your permission. I am sorry that I have not done that and I only hope that I am not too optimistic when I ask for permission of a 'fait accompli.'"

Two years later, Frank's fellowship was renewed by the Guggenheim to continue his work on what would become The Americans and he would write Schapiro an appreciative letter: "I am very happy to write to you that I have been given a renewal of my Guggenheim Fellowship. This will permit me to conclude my project. Upon my return to New York I will be pleased to show you the results."

Meyer Schapiro would show up in Frank's oeuvre under the title "New York Photographs." The picture, to your left, was taken in 1954, the same year as Frank's application to the Guggenheim Fellowship, and was exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City in 1979 alongside "The Americans."

For a nice overview of Frank's journey in publishing The Americans, visit this site created by the National Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition "Looking In."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Archival transfers and the resonance of ephemera

Archivists are very familiar with the transfer of archival material: from filing cabinet to box; box to truck; truck to repository; repository to archivist; archivist to process; process to description; and, finally, description to access. Electronic records follow the same general transfer, but, instead of a physical "filing cabinet," there is the "file structure" of electronic files on a desktop, server, or hard drive whose final user access is most likely mitigated via a digital repository.

This project has certainly had its share of transferring archival material. Initially, the manuscript portion of the collection was housed in their original filing cabinets as seen to your right. (Those boxes stacked above the cabinets are Meyer Schapiro's art works which have been described to the individual item and rehoused).

As seen on your left, each individual file drawer included material that encompassed a broad range of Schapiro's professional life, such as course outlines, lecture notes, research files, and correspondence.

All these files were transferred to record carton boxes to facilitate the processing of the material and to aid in the process of creating a records arrangement that would intellectually describe the contents of the archival material.

This image to the right shows boxed material of exhibition announcements that were transferred from the Visual Resources Center housed at Columbia University's Art History and Archeology department. These exhibition announcements span from the 1920s to the 2000s and were collected by Schapiro and his wife Lillian Miligram Schapiro. They were systematically filed and organized chronologically by artist's last name.

This portion of the archive, or "series" in archival parlance, is a phenomenal example of how collected ephemeral material can gain historical resonance. All these exhibition announcements and invitations give a micro-history of New York City through the lens of the art gallery. It shows who owned galleries, where their spaces were located, which artists were exhibited across time, and what art works were shown. Many research avenues can come through this: provenance research on individual works of art; a history of the art establishment in New York City; and the rise of certain artists and art genres.

Ultimately, and most importantly, they give a sense of what Meyer Schapiro might have seen and give a sense of how active he was as an art historian.

In the future, I'll share a few exhibition announcements on this blog. Keep posted.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On "records," papers," and "collection": a DACS case in point

As the project keeps progressing, one thing has become abundantly clear: the Meyer Schapiro archive encompasses much more than a traditional manuscript collection. While a significant potion of the archive is indeed Schapiro's "papers," it also houses other material such as audio-visual documents and a major collection of his own drawings, paintings, and sculptures. These components were given to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at different times and, as a whole, form an aggregate that is best described as a "collection."

This is so for several reasons and let me unravel the thread a little to explain why.

As always, definitions are helpful and can be used to provide clarity to the prospect of titling this particular "archival unit."

Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), is a Society of American Archivists approved descriptive standard for the archival community that "guides archivists and catalogers in creating robust descriptive systems and descriptive records."

According to rule 2.3.18 in DACS, there are three predominant terms that can be used to signify the nature of an "archival unit" within a title. (These are examples from the DACS manual: "Coalition to Stop Trident Records," "Mortimer Jerome Adler papers," and "Semans family papers").

They are as follows:

1) Records--where the materials being described consist of three or more forms of documents created, assembled, accumulated, and/or maintained and used by a government agency or private organization such as a business or club;

2) Papers--where the materials being described consist of three or more forms of documents created, assembled, accumulated, and/or maintained and used by a person or family;

3) Collection--when describing an intentionally assembled collection.

DACS rule 2.3.18 is applied to the highest level of the archival unit and each of the above terms include materials across media. In other words, regardless if the entire unit contains diverse mediums (traditional papers, electronic records, audio records, art works, etc.), these three terms should be used to describe an entire unit.

When the project began, the archival unit was known as the "Meyer Schapiro papers," which would have been sufficient, but not entirely accurate.

This is because the different units of the archive were not all part and parcel of the unit itself.

Diverse components have been unified to form what is now the "Meyer Schapiro collection" housed at Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library. This includes art works (nearly 3,000 individual items) given at a separate time from the bulk of the manuscript collection. There is also archival material housed at the Art History & Archeology Department that is now part of the "collection" itself.

Because these various units have become "intentionally assembled" into an aggregate to be housed in one repository, the term "collection" is better suited than "papers" as outlined in DACS. While the creator is Meyer Schapiro himself, these different units, each with unique custodial histories, form a broader whole that have now been drawn together as the "Meyer Schapiro collection."

Thanks to DACS, the archival community now has a standard for making questions such as these easier to navigate and give these broad terms sharper focus. Now, the next step is creating a detailed description of the collection's components and also providing contextual information on Schapiro to buttress the finding aid using Encoded Archival Description (EAD).

In this respect, my work is just beginning...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Technological advances and Stuart Davis's postcards

Artist Stuart Davis used color and form to wise effect, forcing upon the canvas a vibrancy that at times jumps a painting's support.

Davis was a painter influenced by the burgeoning jazz scene, and he sought to portray the canvas as a field of forms that mirrored the syncopation of jazz rhythm while also reflecting on the urban environment from which the musical genre sprang in New York City.

Davis's artistic career began early (he was the youngest artist to be represented in the infamous Armory Show of 1913) and changed as it reflected his growing maturation.

He began working under the artist Robert Henri and was influenced by the Ashcan painter's use of realism. As the times began to roll and as history began to play itself out, Davis would abandon such realism in favor of abstraction to evoke the sociological and technological changes around the world.

Davis's fascination with technology is evident in two postcards he sent to Meyer Schapiro.

One fashions the Empire State Building as a beacon of industrial life in a metropolitan city. To the left shines the mascot of human ingenuity, a skyscraper of steel. While, to the right, the city dweller's life is compartmentalized to illustrate the sender's emotion, feelings, and daily activities. Life, in this instance, is as ready-made as an assembly line.

The other postcard, a TWA "Constellation" carrier in flight, can be seen as a skyscraper in the skies: a feat of human innovation aided by technological advances.

But Davis, in all his admiration for technology, was also aware of the individual living in it. As Davis writes to Schapiro in 1952 about the latter's work on the middle ages: "I [received] new information [regarding] the existence of the human individual in what had been an historical abstraction of monolithic sanctity, that is, the middle ages." One can also argue that this is true of post-war America, where the individual became subsumed in an ever increasing world of mass production.

Davis and Schapiro were friends who worked together in the group American Artists' Congress that was founded in 1936 to "organize artists against war and fascism and to defend the economic and social interests of artists."

Davis would later abandon the Congress because of the organizations silence on the rise of totalitarian regimes in the late 1930s. Davis would write: "The American Artists' Congress has done much in the past to give a backbone to progressive sentiments among American artists, and I was most reluctant to resign from it, and did not do so until I felt sure that the centrifugal motion of its original policy had become unalterably centripetal, with a constant loss of influence in the environment."

Davis's insistence on understanding the local environment is as evident in his politics as it is in his aesthetics: it is the inspiration and understanding that the local gives to the global.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Meyer Schapiro Portraits by Alice Neel

Artist Alice Neel painted portraits of Meyer Schapiro twice in his life, once in 1947 and the other in 1983. Known for her expressionistic renderings of her subjects, Neel's portraits sustain a deep gravitas towards the subject depicted. The portraits can be viewed on Alice Neel's website.

Neel's 1983 portrait of Schapiro is part of The Jewish Museum collection in New York City. More information on that portrait can be found here.

Schapiro was an adviser and trustee of The Jewish Museum for 50 years, and, according to their website, "Schapiro encouraged the museum to present cuffing-edge contemporary art. To expose the reciprocal relationship of old and new, to recognize in ancient ceremonial art the dynamic force of spiritual expressionism, and to read in the avant-garde new utterances of traditional values and ideas: this was the gauntlet that Schapiro threw down in the late 1940s. In its collections and programs, The Jewish Museum continues to embrace the challenge of Meyer Schapiro's dynamic dialectical approach."

Incidentally, the Schapiro Collection includes a treasure trove of art works by Meyer Schapiro, including many self-portraits created while he was a student. Schapiro was a practicing artist his whole life. A publication, Meyer Schapiro: His Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture, chronicles his artistic output. This image from the archive is a self-portrait Meyer created in the 1920s.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Preserving lipstick (and its traces)

I recently wrote about a note in the archive from Frida Kahlo to Meyer Schapiro that includes traces of Kahlo's lipstick. As an archivist, this naturally brought me to think about the preservation of the medium itself.

I turned to Elizabeth Homberger, Assistant Conservator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles and Carl Patterson, Director of Conservation, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, for some sage advice on the stability of lipstick and what I should do to preserve this piece of history.

Homberger and Patterson presented Kiss and Tell: The Conservation of Lipstick-Coated Art by Rachel Lachowicz at this years American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) session for the Objects Specialty Group.

While Lachowicz uses lipstick and make-up on large scale sculptural pieces that, by comparison, dwarf the note from Kahlo in the archive, Homberger was kind enough to share with me several important and not widely known facts on lipstick's long term preservation.

In their research, Homberger and Patterson found that when lipstick was applied directly from the tube and in thin layers, lipstick would remain quite stable. "Condition issues," Homberger elaborates, " such as sweating (the migration of soluble oily components), softening, handling marks, cracking, etc. - observed in the Lachowicz works were likely the result of manipulation of the medium by the artist, including reheating of the lipstick and the addition of waxes."

Given their findings, the team reports that lipstick is a stable medium but "sweating" may occur over time and that environmental conditions will inhibit this effect. Homberger reiterates: "Lipstick is predominately an oil and wax mixture, so assuming the selected waxes and oils are compatible and the object is kept in a cool, stable environment, lipstick is generally quite stable. Recommendations for storing lipstick-based work are: a cool, stable environment with temperatures below 68°F and RH at 50%."

Another important issue is the dye used in lipstick. Much like pastels, overexposure to light can be harmful to works that include lipstick. Homberger explains that "many of the dyes commonly used in lipsticks are very light sensitive, so limited light exposure, low light levels when exhibited, and the exclusion of UV radiation are imperative."

Knowing all these helpful preservation tips will assure that Kahlo's lipstick traces are well taken care. Perhaps these tips will also be of use to any lipstick treasures you might have.