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.