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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Schapiro Wing, the Brooklyn Museum, and the clandestine facade

I recently made my monthly trip to the fantastic and inspiring Brooklyn Museum. (Their first free Saturdays are packed with great live performances, music, and other special events.)

I've walked the galleries frequently before, but did not really catch on to the fact that there is a Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing. Needless to say, it is the Meyer Schapiro.

The wing was dedicated in 1993 and was part of the museum's Master Plan designed by the team Arata Isozaki & Associates and James Stewart Polshek. The wing was endowed by Meyer's brother, the banker and financier Morris Schapiro. The brothers grew up in the Brownsville and Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn where their father worked as a paper and cordage wholesaler.

The history of the Brooklyn Museum's building is extraordinary and well detailed on their website. It was designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White and the museum's archive has a suite of photographs available for view on-line.

I have always been a bit surprised by the bizarre entrance to the museum and their website gives a tantalizing gloss about it.
There was also growing interest in the 1930s in creating a more direct and “democratic” entrance into the Museum. In April 1934, while principals of McKim, Mead & White were out of the country, the Municipal Art Commission quickly approved the demolition of the monumental front staircase, greatly altering the architectural character of the Museum’s main facade.
Sounds clandestine to be sure.

Mckim, Mead & White were exponents of the Beaux-Arts architectural style so popular during that time. They also connect the Brooklyn Museum with Columbia University: Mckim, Mead & White also designed Columbia's Morningside campus and individual buildings such as Low Memorial Library, Philosophy Hall, John Jay Hall, and Hamilton Hall on Columbia's campus.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A portrait of Sam

The Watts Towers exemplify how the vision of an artist can transform the built environment while creating a world of its own. The art environment was created by the Italian Sabato (Simon / "Sam") Rodia at his home in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and includes the iconic two towers, a gazebo, walkways, and fountains. The structures were built using steel and mortar and decorated with discarded glass bottles, pottery shards, and other found material Rodia collected.

The entire site was built by Rodia himself (which, incidentally, he liked to call "Nuestro Pueblo") without the aid or help of others. Guggenheim curator James Johnson Sweeney once called Rodia a "born construction genius." Rodia worked on the environment for 33 years, making it a truly visionary creation and a surreal architectural image in the ever changing urban landscape of Los Angeles.

Because of his endeavors and the environment's grandeur, Rodia became a well known figure but would abandon his creation in 1954 to live the rest of his life in Martinez, California. The environment was nonetheless loved by many and through the perseverance of admirers, the entire site is still preserved in its original location.

One such admirer was Kate Steinitz who took a photograph of Rodia and sent it to Meyer Schapiro. Steinitz was also an artist in her own right, she began her artistic endeavors in Hanover, Germany working with the likes of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Steinitz is more famously known as the world renowned Leonardo Da Vinci scholar who worked at the Elmer Belt Library of Vinciana located at UCLA.

Given her background in the Dada and Surrealist art movements, Steinitz may have felt an affinity with Rodia's art environment. She was, in fact, the archivist of the Watts Towers Committee.

She would write two articles specifically on Rodia in the then new magazine Artforum-- "Fantastic Architecture" in 1962 and "A Visit With Sam Rodia" in 1963. In the latter, Steinitz recounts her 1961 visit with Rodia in Martinez, California. Judging from the portrait published in that article, this photograph comes from that very same visit.

Steinitz wrote, "Sam, though opposed to machines, tolerates the camera, but he does not pay much attention to it. Anytime I step back to get at least a distance of 3 feet, Sam follows me, apparently concerned to not lose a listener."

Steinitz was also friends with another Rodia admirer and photographer, Seymour Rosen, who actively documented the environment and championed for its preservation.

Steinitz corresponded with Schapiro quite regularly and also had mutual acquaintances such as Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art's Founding Director. In fact, Steinitz worked with Alfred's wife Margaret to aid Schwitters in receiving an emergency visa to flee Europe during World War Two. The incisive essay "Kurt Schwitters and the Museum of Modern Art in New York" by Adrian Sudhalter gives a nice overview of this history.

Barr, who visited the towers, wrote: "Would it be too far-fetched to compare Simon Rodia's account of his lonely ordeal with the final testament of another idealistic Italian immigrant, Bartolomeo Vanzetti? Both great-hearted men, a poor tile-setter and a poor-fish peddler, wrote with simplicity and noble passion. Their agony was their triumph, the one in death, the other in his Towers, his marvelous evidence of things unseen."

On the verso of this photograph, Steinitz would write to Schapiro:

"Sam Rodia says: Why did Meyer Schapiro avoid Los Angeles? The towers are waiting."

It remains to be seen if Schapiro did visit the Towers, although, as of yet, I can't find evidence of that.

However, Schapiro wrote on "naive painting," a term that has origins in what is now known as "self-taught art" (of which Rodia is identified with). I'll save those musings for another entry.

In the meantime, the Watts towers are still waiting and can be viewed in person.

For those of you who can't make it, this documentary created in the 1950s shows the neighborhood as it was back then and includes Rodia working on his creation.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a two hour town hall meeting took place on July 16, 2009 and included spokespersons from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission and the Cultural Heritage Commission addressing the conservation and preservation needs of the Watts Towers. According to the Times, both entities "voted unanimously to send a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, asking him to help recruit donors and activists for a private, nonprofit support group akin to ones that help fund the Los Angeles Zoo and Griffith Park Observatory."

Conservation advocates have been at odds with the financial and conservation support the the City of Los Angeles is giving to the site. This came to a head in April 2009, at a conference in Genoa, Italy titled “Art and Immigration: Sabato (Simon) Rodia and the Watts Towers of Los Angeles." Reports from Virginia Kazor, historic site curator for L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts represented conflicting reports. Kazor's report “Triage: the Challenge of Conserving the Watts Towers" underlined the financial shortage while the Committee's report “Damage in Process” highlighted the lack of ethical conservation methods employed in the environment's upkeep.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Frida Kahlo: Lipstick Traces

Frida Kahlo's imagery is as mythic as her life and, without question, she remains a haunting figure in the art historical canon. Kahlo's personal relationship with the artist Diego Rivera and the turmoil she experienced with physical and medical issues all compound to make her life story a truly evocative one.

In all her posthumous fame and glory, we tend to forget that Kahlo was also a working artist. Even though Kahlo gained prominent and international recognition during her life, she, like most working artists, also relied on grants and fellowships for her artistic career.

Because Kahlo sustains a storied aura, it comes as hard to believe that she did apply to the Inter-American Competition awarded by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1940. (The award is now known as "The Latin American & Caribbean Competition.")

In order to complete her application, letters of recommendation were in order and Kahlo turned to Meyer Schapiro just for that reason.

Schapiro recommended Kahlo fervently and wrote how important her work was in relation to other Mexican traditions and artists:
She is an excellent painter, of real originality, one of the most interesting Mexican artists I know. Her work looks well beside the best pictures of [José Clemente] Orozco and Rivera; in some ways it is more natively Mexican then theirs. If she hasn't their heroic and tragic sentiment she is nearer to common Mexican tradition and feeling for decorative forms.
While the note pictured above sent to Schapiro by Kahlo bears the trace of a kiss and comes from the same year as his recommendation, I can't determine if this is a thank you note for that very purpose. However, it does demonstrate Schapiro's commitment to fostering the work of artists. This stems from his own practice of the arts. Alongside his art historical work, Schapiro was also a prolific artist and the collection houses more than 4,000 of his prints, drawings, and paintings.

But while Kahlo and Schapiro were friends, there's one thing Frida got wrong: Schapiro's first name is spelled with an "e" not an "a."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Grant Wood's last laugh

Perhaps one of the most parodied and iconic American images is that of Grant Wood's American Gothic. The work was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago after it was unveiled there to the public in 1930 to much scrutiny. Ever since, the painting has captured a certain resonance with the American public, but its historical reception has had somewhat of a turbulent ride.

As chronicled in the book American Gothic: a life of America's most famous painting by Steven Biel, the painting has been redefined over the years ever since its initial unveiling in Chicago.

The painting began to gain traction as a viable American icon during the Depression, when the spirit of the times nurtured an environment of regional patriotism that dovetailed with the eras work ethic that rallied around the economic crisis. Alongside Thomas Hart Benton, another artist steeped in the artistic movement of Regionalism, Wood wholeheartedly embraced the ideal of capturing the American spirit through the arts. For the Regionalists, this was done by depicting everyday Americans stringently working for their country to better themselves and the nation.

But all was not so well on the home front for Mr. Wood.

According to a letter in the archive dated November 22, 1940, Lester Longman, head of the Department of Art at the State University of Iowa, wrote Meyer Schapiro the following:
The Art Department at the University of Iowa considers Grant Wood a very mediocre painter. Since certain members of the administration can't understand how a professional judgment could differ from popular acclaim, I am having to get the opinions of a few authorities to present to the administration. I would appreciate it very much if you would write me a fairly complete statement of your views as one of the outstanding art historians and critics in the country.
Schapiro would respond to Longman:
I should be very glad to write a letter to the administration to state my opinion about Grant Wood as a painter, if the administration requested it. Of his competence as a teacher, of course I would have nothing to say.
Judging from these letters, one never really knows how history will write itself.

Wood's pristine and detailed painting is stunning in its clarity and preciseness and, as an artist, his technique is quite extraordinary. Which begs the question: why would Iowa faculty members consider Wood a mediocre painter? One possibility is the backlash of the Regionalist movement that was fomenting at that time. As Abstract Expressionism slowly rose in prominence and international importance, Regionalism began to be eclipsed as a movement. The letter by Longman to Schapiro, however, came a little earlier in the decade. Nonetheless, it certainly gives a sense that a chapter was turning in American arts.

In a simple twist of fate, Jackson Pollack, Abstract Expressionist extraordinaire, was also a former student of Benton, the master of American regionalism.What's interesting is that, in the end, the images of Wood and Benton are certainly as well known as a Jackson Pollack in capturing the look of a period: one from before the war and the other after.

In the end, Wood really did get the last laugh: his painting stands next to masterpieces like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch's Scream as truly recognizable and iconic across the world.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Support the arts

Looking at this postcard sent by John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Meyer Schapiro, I can't help but think of supporting the arts. In processing his correspondence, a portrait of Schapiro surfaces as a man who made every attempt to aid academics, artists, writers, and cultural workers.

For example, during the ensuing years of World War II, Schapiro worked emphatically to help Jewish German academics leave the rising intolerance of Germany. Intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno and Siegfried Kracauer would write to Schapiro knowing of his unconditional support in this matter.

Other artists, such as Maya Deren with the Creative Film Foundation, would also personally seek Schapiro's assistance knowing of his uncompromised support of the arts. In another instance, Allan Kaprow would write to Schapiro seeking advice on art theory.

Indeed, Schapiro's broad interests and knowledge of the arts made him a magnet of sorts in New York City's cultural and artistic worlds. He also lived in a period that bridged Modernism with that of the Post-Modern and he never flinched when the tides turned.

Supporting the arts and artists is especially poignant in these dire economic times. Many cultural institutions are facing major cutbacks due to the sting of the economic meltdown. Artists themselves are also experiencing a harrowing loss in patronage, as collectors are tightening their purse strings.

Support comes in many forms that are not only financial (even though the ease of liquidity surely helps). It is showing support in visiting galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions that you mean to but never have time to or attending screenings at film organizations and viewing art works that support the work of emerging artists.

You can also volunteer at arts organizations too. In conjunction with President Barack Obama's "United We Serve" campaign, Americans for the Arts is highlighting the work of volunteers at arts organizations.

Participatory action in the arts is not just confined to relational aesthetics, it is making a concerted effort to support cultural organizations that make the arts thrive for the current generation and those to come.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Save the Cooper Union Museum : a case study in deaccesioning

Two New York state bills are causing quite the controversy in the museum, library, and archival world. The two bills, AO6959 and SO4584, attempt to regulate the practice of removing materials from a collection, otherwise known as deaccesioning, for monetary gain.

The Association of American Museum's "Code of Ethics for Museums" includes language that allows for this process as long as the deaccessioning is in line with the institution's mission. Furthermore, it directly states that all monies retrieved from the process should "be used consistent with the established standards of the museum's discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

These two bills effectively give a legal and binding mandate to collecting institutions to do exactly that: collect, list, and report items that fall strictly under the purview of their mission, that any deaccesioning that does occur should be publicly made, and that all proceeds go back to acquisitions or preservation of collections--not to covering operating expenses.

The New York Times reports that many cultural institutions are attempting to stop these two bills from moving forward. According to the article, Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim, wrote to the sponsoring senator that the bill would stifle “intellectual freedom and differences of taste and opinion."

The bill was a reaction to major deaccessions that were proposed or occured in the past year, including Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum.

In another New York Times article "Why University Museums Matter," Holland Cotter urges the Rose Art Museum to cease and desist their plans on selling their art works to raise funds in this gloomy economy. Notes Cotter:
If it helps, consider your museum and its collection in purely materialistic terms, as a big chunk of capital, slowly and fortuitously accumulated. Once spent, it is irrecoverable. Your university can never be that rich in that way again. Or view the art in your care as something that doesn’t belong to you. Like any legacy it belongs to the future.
A case study in the importance of a university museum collection is found in the plight to save the Cooper Union Museum in 1963. Meyer Schapiro was an adamant supporter to save the museum and his archive houses records detailing these rescue efforts.

Founded in 1897 by the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, the Cooper Union Museum was to promote the industrial arts and based on models by leading French museums at the time. The New York Times heralded the opening of the museum as important and significant. The article would also add:
As will be remembered, this opening came almost as a surprise, not only to New York society, but to the art world of the city, for it had not been generally known that the Misses Hewitt, the daughters of ex-Mayor Hewitt and the granddaughters of Peter Cooper, had been industriously laboring for three years to give to New York a practical museum of the very best models of decorative work known to and in the civilized world.
The museum was effectively part of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, now better known with the shortened name, The Cooper Union.

In 1963, the Trustees of the Cooper Union began discussions to abolish the museum, which, at that time, housed 100,000 objects that covered textiles, drawings, decorative arts, and prints. In 1963, Dr. Richard F. Humphrey, then President of the college, declared that the museum's use by the college was "insignificant" and that the funds used for the upkeep of the museum could be used elsewhere.

Public outcry soon followed and The Committee to Save the Cooper Union Museum was formed.

Pledging the save the Cooper Union Museum, the committee, lead by Harry F. du Pont as Chairman, led a systematic publicity campaign to alert fellow New Yorkers of the museum's potential demise. The Committee also submitted several alternative proposals for the museum's continued operations, including having the museum become a "spin off" as a separate entity.

In support of the Cooper Museum, Meyer Schapiro wrote:
The collection at Cooper Union has an important function as a small museum in one of the culturally most active communities in the United States. With the growing tendency towards bigness and centralization which has created acute social and cultural problems, the maintenance of the local museum and the fuller use of its riches have become all the more necessary. The small museum is an ideal goal today, like the small school of institute of research. Even the Louvre, with its old tradition of royal and national greatness, has several branch museums in separate buildings at some distance from the center. Should the Cooper Union Museum become part of a larger museum for financial reasons, it is essential that it retain its integrity as a collection and remain in its present neighborhood close to the school. A city as big as New York...cannot be properly served by a few giant museums in one part of the town. The small museum, like the local or specialized library, is indispensable for the quality of life in a neighborhood..."

In November of 1963, the trustees of The Cooper Union accepted an offer by the American Association of Museums to appoint a committee of independent advisers to aid in the study of the future of the Cooper Union Museum.

In 1967, it became a branch of the Smithsonian Institution and is known today as the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Cotter's stress that the legacy of a university's collection will further its mission and provide unequivocal access of primary source material to students is worth underlining. The Cooper Museum's fate, and its successful transition as a new institution with the Smithsonian, is a case in point in the importance of maintaining custody of collections. The ultimate question is: What if the trustees allowed for the deaccession of the Cooper Union Museum, effectively making it disappear as a unified collection and having its holdings disperse ?

Included in the archive is a letter from art historian Erwin Panofksy to Schapiro about saving The Cooper Union Museum. Panofsky would relate that "quite apart from the vitality and usefulness which this unique collection still has and will continue to have for students of art and art historians, it would be unforgivable to transplant or possibly to disperse one of the oldest collections of this kind which this country possesses. As we all know, the sense of history is a living force which sustains and strengthens the life of a nation and of a city as well as that of individuals. And every historical entity willfully destroyed does irremediable damage to the cultural well-being of all of us."

Food for thought in these economic times.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


To bridge this blog with the project's microblog on Twitter (@SchapiroArchive), I have started a new follow with the hashtag #ObscureArtHistorian.

This follow is dedicated to those art historians that are not as famously known as others. The follow is also an homage to one of the most useful on-line art historical reference resources, The Dictionary of Art Historians.

Maintained by Duke University and managed by Lee Sorensen, the Dictionary is a phenomenal listing of art historians that have shaped the discipline. Each entry not only includes standard birth place and date ranges, but a well written biography.
According to their website:
The Dictionary of Art Historians began in the fall of 1986 by indexing the historians cited in Eugene Kleinbauer's Research Guide to the History of Western Art (1982) and his Modern Perspectives in Western Art History (1971), neither of which possessed an extensive index. Heinrich Dilly's Kunstgeschichte als Institution (1979) and some of Kultermann's Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte (1966), [the latter then only available in German] were added. The project remained dormant for a few years in card file format. In the interim, a myriad of art historiographies appeared or were reprinted. In 1996, a student input the card project into an electronic form.
As I come across art historians Meyer Schapiro was acquainted with, I'll post a follow with a link to that historians biography from the Dictionary of Art Historians. In doing so, I hope to shed light on individual art historians that have worked towards cultivating new thoughts and ideas on art history.

For those who may be perplexed by all this Twitter-talk, hashtag' s are a "community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets." You can follow hashtags at websites like #hashtags.

So follow me on Twitter as I delve into the world of art history and encounter art historians who have forged the discipline's path.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Philip Guston

Looking back at the art history of the 20th century, one tends to schematize artists within certain boundaries. Abstract Expressionists here, Pop artists there, and Minimalism yonder. But certain artists defy these categories. Retrospectively looking back at an artist's corpus, categorizations can sometimes be evasive and lack definition. Such is the case with the artist Philip Guston.

From letters in Meyer Schapiro's archive, it turns out that Guston and Schapiro were friends and corresponded frequently with one another.

Guston's career traversed many periods and art movements, from Social Realism, to Abstract Expressionism, and to his final haunting late period that brought back figuration into his work. As the art historian Donald Kuspit once wrote about Guston's unique artistic trajectory :
Guston had the guts to change, to make it genuinely new. Refusing to toe the current art party line, his fresh maverick imagery -- "fresh" in every sense of the word -- made him an outcast, but also brought him notoriety. He had the credibility of those who break set: he showed that it was still possible to perform the defamiliarization miracle -- restore the unfamiliarity and inexplicability that life and art have before they are legitimated and sanctioned by explication and explanation -- that gave the avant-garde art its credibility in the first place.

One can see this shift from his Abstract Expressionist phase to his later period. This untitled painting to the left, from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is from 1958 and highlights Guston's meticulous adherence to the movements underlying aesthetic principles.

However, in 20 years time, Guston would shift gears and bring back imagery to his paintings.

In a letter found in Schapiro's archive dated September 18, 1973, Philip Guston writes:
I have stayed close to the studio this year and a group of large pictures are the result. They stimulate me and lead me on and on. It is as if there is a plot, both in subject and plastic structure, unknown to me, but revealed as I go from painting to painting.
The painting to the right, Maverick Sun, dates from 1972 and has dimensions of 50 by 91 inches. Its barren landscape accentuates the objects in the background, giving them a sense of groundedness. While lacking any sense of context, the image still seems to evoke a narrative from the objects themselves.

The painting to the left, Painter in bed, is from 1973 with dimensions of 59 by 104 inches. It too gives the subject and the objects represented a narrative structure, but one that defies any sort of narrative syntax or context.

While both paintings may not be the ones Guston was referring to in his letter, they were done at the same period and attest to what Guston wrote to Schapiro about--an unknown narrative that is revealed from painting to painting.

Both paintings also characterize Guston's beguiling and puzzling last stage, one which defied explanation but was as fresh as it was inventive.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Postcard from the edge

Without a doubt, Salvador Dalí's visual landscapes are as wild as they are hypnotic. The image on this postcard sent by Dalí to Meyer Schapiro is of Cadaqués, a fishing village in Catalonia, Spain that Dalí visited regularly throughout his life. Not unlike the artist's own work, the postcard image has a distilled quality reminiscent of Dalí's surreal landscapes.

The postcard was sent by Dalí to Schapiro in 1935, a year after the artist was introduced to American art circles by the dealer Julian Levy and where Schapiro may have met the artist. Dalí's debut exhibition in New York included the now famous and iconic painting The Persistence of Memory, which the Museum of Modern Art in New York holds in its permanent collection.

Trying my best at deciphering his script, it seems Dalí wrote to Schapiro about his forthcoming trip to Paris and the possibility that the two might be able to meet when Dalí arrives in the city of lights. Schapiro did in fact travel to Europe in the 1930s, but it was later in the decade in 1939 right before World War II began. On that trip, Schapiro met another intriguing fellow, a man who believed in the power of popular culture, Walter Benjamin.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Codename: Agent Japonica & Ventriloquist

One of the joys of working in an archive is deciphering clues and ascertaining that certain identities are really who they are.

For example, Who is Agent Japonica & Ventriloquist and is there a connection with Meyer Schapiro?

As many of Schapiro's friends, colleagues, and scholars know, he was an adamant supporter of the resistance and the left during the 1930s to the 1950s. For instance, he corresponded with Mark Chirik, a communist revolutionary. There are records that Schapiro was to support Chirik in New York, although the archives never house records that say he in fact did. Several individuals, such as Whittaker Chambers, who defected and later renounced the Communist party, were also friends of Schapiro. Chambers is famously known for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee and exposing the likes of Alger Hiss.

Schapiro also had many European friends and colleagues during the wartime, and there are records that indicate he might have known a certain Agent Japonica. Although a certain Blanche Charlet corresponded with Schapiro, none of the letters in the archive directly state she is THE Blanche Charlet who worked with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. Charlet was known as Agent Japonica and Ventriloquist and succedded Virginia Hall in France to spy for the allies against the Germans in Nazi invaded France.

While the political angle may be how Schapiro knew Charlet, it was actually through the art world. Before the war, Blanche Charlet was also a gallery owner and one of the first to represent the surrealist artist Magritte. I couldn't confirm that this Charlet of the art world was also the Charlet of the espionage world until I came across a clue. In a 1978 letter to art critic David Sylvestre regarding Magritte, Charlet writes: "I left Belgium definitely in 1932 for France. During the beginning of the War I discovered I was British becauseg I was born in London. Mobilized in 1941, was trained as a courrier [sic], went back to France, arrested, escaped, came back in 1944, etc..."

Charlet was arrested 1942 by the German occupiers of France and later staged a prison outbreak with other French resistance fighters. Not much is known of Charlet and no definite biography has been written (although Wikipedia cites the publication A Quiet Courage: Women Agents int he French Resistance as a citation for their entry on Charlet). That Wikipedia entry makes no mention of Charlet's role in the artistic commun
ity, nor is there any substantial source material about her ( a quick search on Google, World Cat, and a subject heading search on Columbia's library catalog yields nothing substansive if anything at all).

Clues like these all add up to what I call archival archeology: a set of clues laid out within a collection of primary source material that all come together through an amalgamation of archival processing, research, and the hunch that something is more than meets the eye.

All these clues were found in the archives, but did not add to anything until they were pieced together.

Espionage, surrealist art , prison break-outs...all in a days work of an archivist...

Cézanne and Beyond

The well reviewed exhibition Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art closes this weekend. Throughout his life, Meyer Schapiro would write about Cézanne as a man who exemplified the artistic struggle--a struggle that defined the inner pathos of man and his quest to represent that personal journey itself. In a 1959 essay "Cézanne," Schapiro writes:

Cézanne's masterliness includes, besides the control of the canvas in its complexity and novelty, the ordering of his own life an an artist. His art has a unique quality of ripeness and continuous growth. While concentrating on his own problems-problems he had set himself and not taken from a school or leader-he was capable of an astonishing variety. This variety rests on the openness of his sensitive spirit. He admitted to the canvas a great span of perception and mood, greater than that of his Impressionist friends.

Another artist close to Schapiro's reading on Cézanne is Vincent van Gogh. Schapiro's well known rebuttal to Martin Heidegger about van Gogh's boots strikes a similar tone in juxtaposing the artist and his art work with his very own lived experience.

For more information on the Philadelphia exhibit, click here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tweezers and shovels : on the use of MPLP

Working on an archival project such as the Meyer Schapiro Papers definitely yields fascinating finds.

In the foreword to the publication Meyer Schapiro Abroad, art historian Thomas Crow notes:

The published writings of Meyer Schapiro, as a contribution to the history of art and human cultural endeavor, would suffice for far more than one distinguished career. But those readers who have found profound inspiration in his texts have invariably been left wishing that he had written at even greater length.

What processing the archive thus far has shown is that Schapiro was in fact a prolific writer, and one with an astounding range of interests in art historical periods, theories, and artists. Many works in the archive feature unpublished essays (or sometimes they are extended research notes that can serve as veritable manuscripts for publication).

Schapiro wrote about naïve art, modern architecture, the Eiffel Tower, geometrical design, man and machine, and countless artists that span from primitive, anonymous artists to the then current abstract expressionists. In all, Schapiro took painstaking notes, wrote extensively, and retained correspondence with famous artists and philosophers that, if not for almost-item level processing, would not have been highlighted and made visible.

This leads me to question several assertions made about the archival method known as More Product, Less Process.

Within the archival community, the methodology known as More Product, Less Process (MPLP) has emerged as a sine qua non to answering the perplexing challenge of making archival collections available for research, study, and dissemination. Indeed, MPLP is now working its way across the archival field, allowing archival managers and processing archivists the professional green light to rethink how archive collections are represented to the public and how that very public interfaces with the archival collections themselves.

While this methodology has certainly gained traction as a viable means to grapple with the amount of backlogged collections that need attention, the methodology nonetheless has, as I suggest, eclipsed the symbolic resonance of collections. What I specifically refer to as the symbolic resonance of archival collections is their unique character as particular collections that form part of a larger institutional or organizational whole.

As plotted out in the 2005 article "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing" by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner in the journal American Archivist, the authors employed a detailed research study to determine how archivists process their collections. They did so in order to determine which actions are slowing down the archival enterprise that shows the public face of the archival profession: namely, accessibility by users to both physical and intellectual components that form an archival collection.

The MPLP approach (occasionally referred to as the Greene-Meissner approach) rethinks, or "revamps" as the authors suggest, traditional methods of archival processing. Before the article was published, traditional convention had it that an archival collection was once made public after a finding aid or collections guide was drafted, physical contents of the archive were arranged to mirror that very description, and that the condition of all materials housed in that particular collection were sound both in terms of their conservation and preservation needs.

This archival convention is the lure of the archive: that each individual item carries with it direct historical, cultural, or evidential significance. As Greene and Meissner succinctly point out, item level processing has undoubtedly caused a major back log at institutions that hold archival collections.

The existing archival culture seems deeply rooted in an implicit belief that every item in twentieth-century collections is so precious that each must be scrutinized for paper clips that might damage a word. Similarly, the culture seems to guard against appraisal decisions that might cast out one interesting document in a twenty-box series of junk.

Through their research study, Greene and Meissner focused on the following five areas: Arrangement, Description, Preservation, Policies and Metrics.

A year after the article was published, two case studies from the University of Montana and Yale University featured in the American Archivist provided a hands-on view of how MPLP can be utilized in archival settings to maximize archival collections that have collected dust over the past years.

Indeed, Greene and Meissner provide working archivists with measured, proficient, and efficient methods by which to control the volume of collections that need to be given due access by potential researchers. But there are several key assumptions that the authors make that should also be given due consideration and be challenged.

Outlining their recommendations for descriptive standards, Greene and Meissner posit the following: “The most important guideline [for levels of description] is always to prefer the acceptable minimum—within and across collections—and make each new situation argue for any additional investment of time and effort.”

The conundrum in the authors' argument is well reflected in the above sentence and one which should be questioned: if MPLP is a methodology used for alleviating backlogged collections, how can the method itself be used across collections within a given institution and when does this vector of using MPLP begin or end?

If the heart of an archival institution is their collections, how can a blanket assertion that using only one type of methodology be plausible, given that collections can be used to leverage support from the community, stakeholders, and funding agencies?

Indeed, given our economic times, promoting the use of archival collections is as important as highlighting the individual treasures that they also house. Rather than diving directly into using MPLP as the only approach to managing archival collections, archivists should be stepping back and strategically scrutinizing all collections and identifying which ones can yield public attention and funding.

This is the case with the Schapiro project, a collection that has already elicited interest by researchers and scholars for shedding light on Schapiro’s role in defining a particular type of art historical scholarship.

Greene and Meissner are quick to point out that archival repositories have “become so comfortable with arguing our uniqueness as a program and a repository that we have utterly failed to come to grips with a critical administrative reality [archival processing], a reality that eats 90 percent of our direct program expenditures.”

Backlog is an epidemic in many archival institutions, but MPLP as a methodology should be one tool in an archivist’s larger toolkit. Processing should follow a tiered approach that confronts backlog with a much more nuanced look into which collections can resonate and promote scholarship. Collection surveys to clarify, define, and enumerate on the strengths of archival repository holdings should be initiated prior to adopting MPLP across all collections.

The authors' argument that item level processing and description is a fossil of an archival past is complicated by their own admonition of the failure in forgetting about item level processing and description. The MPLP approach can become an acute problem for those dealing with digital files that are by their nature individual files themselves.

Speaking on the use of MPLP within collections that are either digital or would like to be converted from analog to digital, the authors argue the following:

If arrangement and description of the analog material depend on an initial assessment of the value (or intellectual quality) of the collection in the first place, then finely processed collections will by definition be good candidates for digitization and require less additional descriptive work.
A few sentences later, they also posit: "Retrospectively, the decision to digitize all or part of a collection by definition makes the collection a candidate for improved analog processing."

Throughout the article, the authors are quick to claim that MPLP is the methodology by which to measure how collections should be processed, granting only limited reflection on the cases of those collections that need special care.

As they state:

We are not arguing that some exceptional collections do not deserve more meticulous—even item-level—processing. Nor are we suggesting that it is inappropriate for external granting agencies to fund such intensive and costly work. But we do expect that any project that seeks funding for that sort of work must justify that need against the recommendations made in this study and, perhaps more importantly, that the grantor and the applicant must have a basis on which to calculate the real cost differentials imposed by that more intensive level of work.

But if MPLP should be the bar none of archival processing methodology by which all processing should be justified against, how are collections going to be understood as a whole for a particular institution and what are the conditions under which they will be used to attract the public?

While it can be argued that using MPLP will provide data to further identify which collections to finely process, we should question what all that data will yield if the archival compass points to MPLP as the ultimate destination: in terms of physical as well as intellectual output.

If the representation of archival collections is guided through MPLP, the next step would naturally lead to the question of what is next. And, indeed, continued work on MPLP without reflection on cultivating other collections at finer level leads to an interesting question of why MPLP and finer processing can’t work in tandem.

When the authors assert that “good processing is done with a shovel, not with tweezers,” one should ask: why not at the same time?

The cultural resonance of archival holdings is their diverse texture in underlining the importance of primary source material that an institution holds. We can't snub content for the sake of metrics.

Proper planning by conducting collections surveys, assessing institutional missions, and understanding user expectations can lead to leveraging collections to their fullest in order to promote an archival repository.

These actions celebrate content as much as metrics, a distinction we archivists should remember.