Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
Archive for March, 2009
Continued from this morning with National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Greenough and photographer Robert Frank…
And so curator and artist discussed the journeys that led to The Americans.
Greenough explained to the audience how police in
Arkansas arrested Frank, mostly for being non-Southern. “I was alone
and it was very difficult,” Frank said. I was lucky and I just
continued my trip. [The arrest] encouraged me to take a sharp look at
these people and how they leaned against a wall or how they looked at
you or at women. It made me a reporter.”
Frank explained how
sometimes in an effort to alleviate the loneliness he felt, especially in the
South, he’d pick up hitchhikers. The blacks he would pick up would invariably insist
on sitting in the backseat, and Frank said he had trouble adjusting to
that. Greenough noted that, in fact, many of Frank’s finest
pictures were of minorities, and that perhaps that was because he
himself is Jewish.
Frank nodded. “I also think that these people are
more photogenic than white people.” Greenough quickly jumped in: “OK,
we won’t go there.”
But why not? Clearly there was something in
‘outsiderness’ to which Frank related, and it comes out time and time
again in his work. Greenough eventually found a way to sorta go there,
by showing Frank’s photograph of a couple reclining on a hill in San
“This is my favorite photograph of all,” Frank
said. “It is an invasion of people in their private lives and they were
just looking at the view. So was I. It was a really good moment to
get.” Frank explained that as the couple turned around to confront him, he continued to snap away, pretending he was shooting a 360-degree
panorama. Greenough complimented Frank on his ability to catch moments
“Often photography is an accident,” he said. “But if an accident happens three times it is not an accident any more. “
didn’t just play for laughs. A recurring theme in his remarks was how
much he admired how Jack Kerouac and many other people he encountered on his trips loved America. He spoke repeatedly about the importance of
spontaneity, how he wielded it as a strategy in Peru, in Europe and in
the United States. He spoke tenderly about how he never quite found
another ‘Americans’ in his film work, that’s why he returned to
photography: “Maybe the films didn’t give or get me the recognition
that I thought they should.”
Greenough asked Frank about his
comfort with his post-Americans fame. “I see it more as some shadow
that’s kind of following me,” Frank said. “I have to find out how I
feel about that shadow. I’m just happy to have reached the age I’ve
reached. I’m lucky that way. I keep working and maybe I can put
Near the end of the conversation, Greenough showed my favorite
Frank: a picture Frank took at his then-home in Mabou, Nova Scotia, with Mabou
Harbour or the Northumberland Strait off in the distance. Thinking of
what Frank said about fame, Greenough asked him if hanging his own work
on a clothesline was a way of looking back at an important time in his
life. Frank peered at the image and smiled.
“That was a lovely house we had there,” he said. “But, you see, you have to create the foreground yourself.”
[Images: Top: Robert Frank, San Francisco, 1956. Private collection. Bottom: Robert Frank, Mabou, Nova Scotia, 1977. Collection of the National Gallery of Art.]
Photographer Robert Frank makes few public appearances. So when he did on Thursday — at the National Gallery of Art in conjunction with the NGA’s 50th anniversary exhibition of The Americans — the line was over an hour long. A surprisingly large number of attendees were college-age students whose parents had barely been born when ‘The Americans,’ Frank’s iconic detailing of America in the 1950s, was first published. When Frank entered the auditorium, necks craned and a certain irony became evident: Few of the assembled knew if the comfortably rumpled man in a taupe sweater, a tan shirt, and chocolate-colored trousers was the man they’d come to see. They’d never seen a photograph of him. [Image.]
Frank was joined by exhibition curator Sarah Greenough, who was prepared with notes, slides and a path that she wanted to follow: Frank’s upbringing in Switzerland, his love of hiking and traveling through the Alps, his beginnings as a photographer, his emigration to the United States in 1947, his encounters with Walker Evans and Edward Steichen, his Guggenheim fellowship, ‘The Americans’ and a few things since. As curators are wont to do, she addressed the work from the point-of-view of Milestone, and she seemed to expect Frank to talk about the work as Cultural Touchstone.
Frank, 84, had other ideas. With Greenough’s first questions about Frank’s work I could almost hear Frank thinking: The work is
the work. Don’t fuss. It’s what I did. It took Greenough a few minutes to adjust to Frank’s Me, my work? and for Frank to adjust to Greenough’s Me, I historicize.
But then things picked up, in the early 1950s, when Greenough asked Frank what he hoped he could gain professionally from seeking out and meeting Edward Steichen.
“What I could gain from Steichen,” Frank said and paused, apparently trying to decide exactly how he wanted to answer the question. “…was his name that he could put on a letter. He could help me get a Guggenheim fellowship!” The crowd laughed. Frank had found the room.
Greenough played along. She read from the application Frank submitted to try to earn a Guggenheim fellowship that would enable what would become ‘The Americans.’ Greenough told Frank that she’d received many letters from him over the years. The Guggenheim application sounded like none of them. Frank blinked back at her.
“I’ve got my name at the bottom of it!” he replied, incredulously. He paused again — and let loose a sly grin. “But in fact Walker Evans wrote most of it.” More laughter. Frank and Greenough were off…
Part two: Stories from The Americans, the years after, and a favorite mid-career picture. [Image: Robert Frank, Political Rally, Chicago -- 1956.]
For most of the last month, the Hirshhorn has been forced to close substantial sections of the museum because of a security staff shortage. According to a Smithsonian spokesperson, the Hirshhorn is the only Smithsonian museum that has had to close museum spaces because of understaffing. [Image: Ron Mueck, Untitled (Big Man), 2000. Hirshhorn collection.]
“We haven’t had what we feel is enough security to secure all the galleries,” Hirshhorn spokesperson Gabriel Riera said. “We’ve had to have rolling close-outs of galleries to make sure we are able to keep Louise Bourgeois [guarded].”
Like other Smithsonian Institution museums, the Hirshhorn’s guards are
employed and assigned by the Smithsonian. According to Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas, the museum’s allotment of security staff is four
guards higher than it was last year, and that the museum’s gallery
closures are unrelated to any Smithsonian-wide financial pressures.
a museum decides to close a gallery because the museum doesn’t have
adequate security to protect what’s on view, that’s up to them,” St.
In the last two years the Smithsonian has dramatically cut the number of guards available to the Hirshhorn. According to a 2007 General Accounting Office report that used data provided by the Smithsonian, the Hirshhorn received 49 guards from the Smithsonian in 2003 and 47 in 2007. Riera said that only 38 guards are now assigned to the Hirshhorn, a 19 percent drop from two years ago.
According to the most recent data from The Art Newspaper’s annual museum
attendance survey, the Hirshhorn is America’s second-most-visited
modern and contemporary art museum, behind only the Museum of Modern
Art in New York.
Riera said that the security decline was due to “budget cutbacks” and that the Smithsonian could not hire new guards until Congress passed and hte president signed the FY 2009 federal budget, a process which was completed on March 11. St. Thomas said that the Smithsonian would be hiring 20 new guards in FY 2009. Those guards will be divvied up among all of the Smithsonian’s Washington museums, so it’s unclear if the Hirshhorn will receive a staff infusion that would allow the Hirshhorn to resume normal operations. [Image: A museum visitor examines a Gillian Wearing
in the Hirshhorn's collection on loan from Heather and Tony Podesta.]
According to the most recent data from The Art Newspaper’s museum attendance survey, the Hirshhorn is America’s second-most-visited modern and contemporary art museum, behind only the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“We regularly communicate with The Castle about about what our needs are,” Riera said, using SI shorthand for the Smithsonian administration. “We indicate to them that we need more guards.”
The closures, which have roughly coincided with the opening of the museum’s Louise Bourgeois retrospective on Feb. 26, have frustrated museum staff and visitors for weeks. There have been occasional days during March when all of the museum’s galleries have been open, but those days have been exceptional enough that Riera expressly mentioned all the museum’s galleries were open for several days last week. The closings have entirely excluded the museum’s second floor, where the Bourgeois retrospective is installed.
The recent difficulty in keeping the museum’s galleries open figures to be one of the first challenges facing the Hirshhorn’s new director, Richard Koshalek, when he takes over in two weeks. The Hirshhorn has effectively been without a director since September 11, 2007, when Olga Viso announced she would become the director of the Walker Art Center.
- LATer David Ng reports that Andy Warhol’s Polaroids have touched down at USC’s Fisher Gallery.
- In the Houston Chronicle, Douglas Britt examines why the MFA Houston has so many borrowed paintings in its galleries.
- Lawrence Rinder became the director of the Berkeley Art Museum and spent time in the museum’s collection storage checking out what ‘he’ had. Result: A collection hanging, of which Kenneth Baker approves.
- Richard Lacayo has the latest on the Rose Art Museum.
- Christopher Knight writes that the MFA Boston has brought to life the Venice of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.
I need a day off. Something to look forward to, at least for me: On
Monday Tuesday I’ll tell you about Robert Frank’s Friday visit to the National Gallery. If you missed it this week: Lest ye doubt, I followed entrails through the Philly Museum and back into art history (we’re having fun with entrails on Twitter today too), basked in a bizzare, fabulous Titian (note: it’s been 47 years since the last Titian biography was published, alas), wrote up some acquisitions, and more.
The Corcoran is the latest arts institution to cut back. In response to queries from MAN, the Corcoran issued a statement from director and president Paul Greenhalgh:
Like many non-profit organizations around the country, we are facing difficult decisions at this time. We at the Corcoran, began a process eighteen months ago of looking at our mission and our plans for long term sustainability, however the current economic situation is driving a more urgent focus on our cost structure. As a result, we did need to reorganize and eliminate some positions. We will continue to focus on ways to increase needed revenue and manage to more efficiently deliver a world class experience to our community in the face of changing realities. We value all of our employees and do not take these actions lightly.
Despite requests, the Corcoran has not detailed the depth of the staff/budget cuts. However, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, Steve Taylor, has left and chief financial officer Christopher M. Leahy is no longer listed on the Corcoran’s website. Associate curator for contemporary art Sarah Newman also is not listed.
(The Corcoran may be down to three curators.)
Update, Friday 10am: The Corc says that the information on the ‘press’ section of its website was incomplete and that Newman is still with the gallery. As of this update, Newman is still not listed with the gallery’s other curators on the press section of the Corcoran’s website.
Is it just me, or is the Philadelphia Museum of Art the place to see a rather astonishing number of grotesque open wounds?
The detail at left is from Peter Paul Rubens‘ Prometheus Bound. (Rubens had help: Frans Snyders painted the eagle.) At eight-feet-by-six-feet, Prometheus is the rare monsterpiece that manages to effect a remarkable amount of torsional tension. Philly has installed it in a comparatively small space, so it looms over the viewer with all the menace of an irate Zeus. The scale, the composition: It all makes clear that there’s no doubting the hell through Prometheus is enduring.
Funny: It’s not the kind of painting to which I typically respond — especially because I’m not a big Rubens ‘fan.’ Baroque melodrama usually makes me wince in disbelief. Not here. The Philadelphia painting is terrifically stomach-churning. Eight days later, I’m still fascinated by it.
Downstairs — and for now you’ve really got to work to get to it because the museum’s doors to the American galleries are shut and the Ce$anne show has made it a little complicated to find and to reach the American galleries — is Thomas Eakins’ famous The Gross Clinic.
It’s almost exactly the same size as the Rubens/Snyders. It’s not as intense a painting. In the Eakins there are two foci: The wound in the cadaver into which several medicos are thrusting their fingers, and a spotlit Dr. Samuel D. Gross, who has the wisdom to be looking away from the wound even as he apparently encourages his students to key in on it.
In person, at full-scale, it’s a much greater painting than JPEGs would indicate. Remember: It was painted in 1875, a decade after medicine didn’t exactly cover itself with glory during the Civil War. In some ways it’s not just a painted tribute to a learned professor, it’s a statement of belief in medicine, a painting partially meant to encourage doubters to believe in advancement of the discipline.
Finally, in the museum’s contemporary galleries, you can find a Jeff Wall lightbox that isn’t in the PMA’s collection, but that is often here on loan: Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986). Consider it Wall’s raucously twisted commentary on wounds-(and-war)-in-art.
Dead Troops looks like a fantastically bizarre, post-Boschian trompe l’oeil battle-scene. The closer you get to it, the more the un-real details reveal themselves. As you can see in this example, Dead Troops is full of faux-macabre wounds that the ghostly soldiers are poking, perhaps to see if they’re real and perhaps to show ‘em off. The soldiers are also exhibiting their own entrails, as if to say, ‘How about it! I’m thrusting my hand into my side so that you will believe!!‘
In fact, you might say that Wall’s soldiers are proving the ‘reality’ of their wounds to the doubting Thomases among them (and among us).
Related: The Tate has a nice page on the Wall, complete with plenty of image-details from the lightbox, here.
Update/correx: Uh, apparently the body/patient in The Gross Clinic is alive. This had never even occurred to me. I’m kind of wishing it hadn’t.