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.