At the Sculpture Exhibition

I’m just starting research on a new project about public sculpture in New England. In the paper I’ll be focusing on art in Fitchburg, MA. There are some great monuments and works from the late 1800s and new works that have been installed in the past few years. I’m looking for a way to create a dialogue between the two.

"At the Sculpture Exhibition," Charles Courtney Curran, 1895

“At the Sculpture Exhibition,” Charles Courtney Curran, 1895

Probably the most famous sculptor from Fitchburg is Herbert Adams. From the age of five he was raised and educated in Fitchburg. The above painting by Charles Curran depicts the National Sculpture Society’s second exhibition in New York City in 1895. Herbert Adam’s relief (designed by August Saint-Gaudens, carved by Adams) for the Judson Memorial Church is mounted on the Ionic columns in the background.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens relief sculpture carved by Herbert Adams for the Judson Memorial Church in New York City

Augustus Saint-Gaudens relief sculpture carved by Herbert Adams for the Judson Memorial Church in New York City

About the Sculpture exhibition and this painting, from the book Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery:

The exhibition “changed the way Americans experienced sculpture.” “…The society accented the pieces on view with a lush array of plants and flowers creating a tranquil haven just ‘one step from the noise of the New York streets.'” (see “The Sculpture Society” New York Times, 7 May 1895, 5.)

The artist portrays himself on the left and all the figures seem lost in contemplation. “Curran’s figures demonstrate precisely the kind of ‘idleness full of thought,’ the leisurely breathing in of a refined environment, that was commonly prescribed in the Gilded Age as an antidote to the stress of the modern urban experience. Amid such noble statuary, visitors might forget the bustling metropolis outside.”

From the American Art Annual vol. 1, 1898 (277):

“At New York, in 1895, for the first time, sculpture was accorded her rights, being exhibited for the first time by itself, and exhibited, too, with such a background of architecture, trees, shrubbery and flowers, as sufficed to suggest what beautiful results might be won, if it were employed with artistic feeling in conjunction with the efforts of the landscape gardener and the architect.

It is an education which reaches in many directions. It has taught the sculptors that they must labor outside of their studios in order to gain the ear of the great busy inattentive public. Insistence on the claims of sculpture is one of the hard facts to be faced and met if the art is to be brought from the cold and marble distance where it lies closer and closer to the sympathies and affections and needs of the public. Again it is an education for art lovers who have taught themselves to discriminate fairly well in matters of oil painting and water colors, but have only vague ideas regarding that branch of art in which the element that is strongest is form, not color.”

Resources to look at:


Some thoughts on “Paint the Revolution!”

John Dos Passos via Wikipedia

In 1927 American author John Dos Passos published “Paint the Revolution!” in the left wing magazine New Masses.  The essay reflects on the completed murals of Diego Rivera and other artists in Mexico City, and is also a scathing critique of modern art in America.

In the piece Dos Passos articulates the major “benefits” of murals over traditional fine art paintings.  On paintings in museums he writes

“look at all the little pictures … after Cezanne, Renior, Courbet, Picasso … little modern designs of a stove-pipe and a bisected violin … a horrible picking of crumbs from rich men’s tables. Occasionally a work of real talent, but what’s the good of it? Who sees it? A lot of male and female old women chattering round an exhibition; and then, if the snobmarket has been properly manipulated, some damn fool buys it and puts it away in the attic, and it makes a brief reappearance when he dies at a sale at the Anderson Galleries.”

Museums, despite the cost of entry, impose barriers. Not everyone can visit a museum, and works of art hung only in these institutions will never have the capacity to truly be seen by the public at large. Paintings in private collections serve even less of a function.  At a basic level, Dos Passos is arguing for an active art, that art must have a use.

Dos Passos sees the mural movement of Mexico as an example of art with a function. Of the program he writes:

New Masses cover, November 1928. via Wikipedia

“It wasn’t a case of ideas, of a lot of propaganda-fed people deciding that a little revolutionary art would be a good thing, it was a case of organic necessity. The revolution no more imported from Russia than the petate hates the soldiers wore, had to be explained to the people. The people couldn’t read. So the only thing to do was to paint it up on the wall.”

Murals are educational. Much like medieval church decoration, the murals in Mexico helped to teach the population about its history. Murals are not just decoration, but also tools that can be used to enrich society.

By 1927 Vasconcelos’ program had all but fallen apart, and Mexican artist were starting to seek mural commissions out side of the country. But the effort to create a national mural program was well worth it to Dos Passos:

“But, even is nothing more is done, an enormous amount of real work has been accomplished. Even if the paintings were rotten it would have been worthwhile to prove that in our day a popular graphic art was possible. “

The quality of art doesn’t matter as much as access. Even if the art is terrible, it’s still worth more to society than masterpieces locked in an attic.  In his essay, Dos Passos praises the muralists and Vasconcelos for their efforts in spreading Communist propaganda. While Dos Passos is on the far left of the spectrum, his general thoughts on the ability of murals to better the general public was shared by artists and politicians across the board in America.  In 1934 artist George Biddle published an article espousing similar sentiments, calling for artists to take an active role in society.1

What I like about Dos Passos essay (other than his awesome take down of museums and the “snobmarket”) is that he very clearly outlines many of the essentials of muralism that a lot of other critics dance around. Murals must have a function, idealy it should be to educate. Murals are not just decoration. Museums limit access, and subsequently limit the work of arts ability to have a function. Murals should be public.

These ideas become very interesting when MoMA attempts to capitalize on muralism with its 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. The exhibition was a critical failure, I suspect because so much of the work violated what had become the public conception of a “mural”, an idea that is a whole other blog post.

1. George Biddle “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage.” Scribner’s Magazine, 1934

The Vogue for all Things Mexican

I’m in the middle of reading two books for my thesis and wanted to jot some notes down before I get distracted by something else. South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination 1914-1947 by James Oles, and The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico 1920-1935 by Helen Delpar, both address America’s “obsession” (my word) with Mexico in the early part of the 20th century. This is something I’ve thought a lot about but never explored in depth. So come on, let’s world build!

South of the Border is actually an catalog for the 1993 Yale University Art Gallery exhibition of the same name. The exhibition explores the relationship between American and Mexican artists and what drove Americans to view Mexico in a brand new light as the art center to emulate. Delpar’s book, published 1992, takes a wider look at American/Mexican relations but does devote a full chapter to the fine arts. Delpar’s book in particular has already proved to be an invaluable resource for me, filling in the gaps of political and cultural relations between the two countries sometimes taken for granted in other writings on American/Mexican art during this time period. South of the Border caught my attention right away. Constructing a Modern Mexican Art the opening essay by Karen Cordero Reiman, really hit at the heart of what I’ve trying to elaborate on for some time.

Reiman opens her essay stating

“To understand why Americans, and particularly American artists, were interested in Mexican art and in Mexico as an artistic subject between 1925 and 1950 is not necessarily to understand Mexican art of the time. Foreigners attracted to Mexican art have generally been drawn to the “exotic,” to what they consider “typically Mexican” and different from their own culture…”

In the first opening sentences Reiman introduces us to the notion that we’re not trying to understand Mexican art, but rather the conception of Mexican art that Americans had created. We’re thinking about how American artists interpreted and subsequently appropriated Mexican art. This is central  to my theory of a “Mexican Model”. The model is American made, which makes it all the more interesting when Mexican artists painting in America are criticized for being too timid in subject matter, or unoriginal in composition, and American artists are praised for being “a dyed-in-the-wool Mexican, in feeling as well as point of view and expression.” (Delpar 158).

What I’ve been able to take away from these two books (full disclosure, I have not finished reading either) is just how deep(?) America’s fascination with Mexican visual culture went and how quickly it was forgotten. The end of the Mexican Revolution and the relative safety and political stability which followed, allowed Americans to start traveling to the country again. That the Revolution was fought for “democratic ideals” struck a chord with Americans fearful of the rise of fascism in Europe. (Delpar 136) Travel begat souvenir shopping, and decorative arts and and goods flooded into America. The expanding art market in America enticed Mexican artists to begin exhibiting and seeking patronage in the states. Mexican motifs began to show up in American furnishings, interior design, and architecture.  All of this laying the groundwork for the arrival of the Mexican Muralists as the great modern alternative to European abstraction, something Americans could identify with and embrace as their own.

The Mayan Theater, Los Angeles, California. Opened 1927, the theater embraces Pre-Columbian motifs, a hallmark of the Mayan Revival Style.

It’s interesting to think about the popularity of the Mexican Muralists during this period of strange fascination with all things Mexican and that Mexican Muralists began to show in America during a period where most Americans were predisposed to like anything Mexican. That’s not to say that the muralists popularity was undeserved, just that their acceptance in America was possibly helped by wave of interest in Mexico which had started almost a decade prior.

I hope to expand on the arguments that these two books put forth. There’s a lot to think about here. I’m really interested in the ways the Mexican government promoted “Mexicanness” (Reiman’s word) to Americans as a way to foster good relations and an interest in supporting Mexican art and trade. And subsequently, how this false concept of “Mexicanness” shaped Americans expectations of what Mexican art and by extension Mexican murals should be. In regards to murals, there’s a lot of rhetoric about the Mexican muralists that is sometimes sharply at odds with the critical reception, and I’d like to explore how this created ideal of Mexican art plays into that discrepancy.

*My citations have really been a mess on these posts. I still haven’t found a way to deal with them in WordPress that I’m satisfied with and since these posts are extremely informal I may just stick with the MLA-lazy version I’ve used here. Sorry!

“Mexican Model” What the hell do I mean by that?

One phrase that repeats over and over in my work on my thesis is “Mexican Model”. What do I mean by this term that seems so convenient in the my head? While I’ve done a bit of work creating the concept of the “Mexican Model”, I really want to dig into the term, tear it apart, and make it explicit to the reader and myself what I’m talking about.

The first time I conceptually introduced the idea of the “Mexican Model” was in a paper focusing on the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and  Photographers, which I began (rivetingly):

In 1934 American artist George Biddle published an article in Scribner’s Magazine titled “An Art Renascence Under Federal Patronage.” In the piece Biddle calls for the production of a socially conscious form of art to be supported by the government in an effort to facilitate “a revival of art whereby the artist will move from the periphery to the core of national life.”1 In particular, Biddle advocates for the government sponsorship of mural commissions to be modeled on the program instituted by Mexican President Alvaro Obregón.

So our starting point is the mural program instituted by Mexican President Alvaro Obregon (henceforth referred to as Obregón). Continue reading

The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs


The introduction essay “Being Human” by Alexander McCall Smith reiterates Barthes ideas about the photograph as momento mori and the power that lies in photographs of strangers verse photographs of loved ones.

“Because we do not know the subjects we are not distracted by memories of the particular, and are drawn, instead, to what the photograph says about people and their ways, about the human condition. It is this that explains the poignancy of old anonymous photographs: they show us in all our human vulnerability. Our aspirations, our beliefs, our sense of ourselves are all revealed – but all of this is shown to be transient, impermanent ” (7).

The collector and author Robert Flynn Johnson also has an introductory essay in the book titled “Whole in One.” This essay begins by comparing the act of taking a great photograph akin to an amateur golfer achieving a hole in one; an improbable occurrence but one that happens often enough if we take enough photographs. This book collects photographs that are equivalent “hole in ones” and presents them according to theme. Chapters include Immaturity, Masculinity, Femininity, Compatibility, Celebrity, Singularity, Activity, Festivity, Adversity, and Inevitability.  One of the issues with found photographs is that they lack context. Arranging the photographs by subject provides an artificial order to the images and the chapters consist of some imaginative groupings. The names of the chapters are creative and more engaging than if they were put into more traditional categories.

After looking at this book, my main take away was the divide between the photo album and the lone image. The most interesting part of a photo album or scrapbook is the context that the whole provides. The parts that make up the whole may be unidentified photographs but contextually the group of materials offers much more information than the single image. Johnson has provided a framework for the lone photographs to exist in – to become part of his collection which can then be arranged by theme. The subjects of the photographs are similar, but the people in them will never correspond to each other in the way that a small photo album collection can. Both the lone image and the photo album collection have stories to tell, but one is much broader and relies more on visual appreciation, while the other can tell a more detailed story about a particular family or group of individuals at a particular time in history.


I’ve just started using Learnist. It seems to be a way to bookmark websites and create digital index cards and then put them in order. The order can be rearranged. I’m hoping this could be helpful with research thought organization and keeping track of ideas and websites.

The following board is titled “Behind the Scenes” and I’m using it to keep track of a thread for research on my MA thesis related to Vik Muniz’s “Verso” series which takes the back of famous works of art as its subject.

Behind the ScenesLearnist

Detroit Institute of Arts to examine rare Diego Rivera drawings that inspired ‘Detroit Industry’

The Detroit Institute of the Arts recently announced that they’ll be undertaking a survey of 13 large scale studies Rivera made for his Detroit Industry mural cycle. You can read all about their plans here. I’m surprised these studies haven’t been digitally photographed before though. They’ll make a great resource. From the images in the slideshow it looks like the studies were used for the figures of the “elements” along the top register.

Study for Detroit Industry mural

Detroit Industry Mural



Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget

This post is the first in a series associated with my paper Sources and Models of Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York.

Berenice Abbott was an American documentary photographer, probably best known for her project Changing New York. The breadth and scope of Change New York is astounding. Abbott spent 11 years (roughly from 1928-1939) photographing every aspect of New York City during the height of the Great Depression. Orginally from Ohio, Abbott first came to New York in 1921 to pursue a career in journalism. For whatever reason, she became interested in sculpture and quickly dropped journalism for a career in the arts. She soon made her way to Paris where she ended up as a studio assistant to the photographer Man Ray. Paris is also where Abbott became familiar with the work of Eugène Atget.

Atget was an eccentric figure in modern photography. By the time Abbott came into contact with him, he had been photographing Paris for decades. Atget’s photographs of empty streets and decaying storefronts would go on to inspire a variety of artists. Avant-garde artists such as Man Ray, Picasso, and Andre Derain, were drawn to Atget’s work for it’s slightly off-kilter view of modern life.

Eugène Atget, Eclipse, 1912

Abbott had a different take on Atget though. She called his photographs images of “reality unadorned”. Atget claimed his photographs were purely documentary. He did not view them as works of art, though he did sell prints to museums and artists. I think Abbott shared a similar view of his work, and that the purpose of photography was to document. The phrase “reality unadorned” is an interesting one. For all we know, Atget didn’t alter his photographs in post production. That he carefully composed his photographs is evident, but I think part of the reality Abbott admired so much was in the completeness of subject matter. Atget photographed everything. No subject received preferential treatment, and in his own way Atget attempted to present each subject as honestly as he could.

When viewed on their own, without context, Atget photos can seem like some sort of strange surrealist dream. Deserted corners, odd doorways, and headless mannequins are frequent subjects. Often the perspective in Atget’s photos seems a bit off. As individual prints, Atget’s work can seem a bit divorced from real life. But when considered as part of larger body of work, it becomes apparent what Atget was aiming at, a complete view of a city in the grips of major change.

The totality of Atget’s project and the element of time (Atget’s attempt to freeze time), were huge influences in the future work of Abbott. Not only would her interactions with Atget provide the impetus for Changing New York, but Atget’s influence would inspire Abbott to pursue serial photography as an essential component of her “realism”. Atget’s collection instilled Abbott with a belief that truth could not be represented in a single photograph, but that multiple images taken at different times and from different angles could “capture city life in totality.”[1]

1. Wolfgang Brückle, “On Documentary Style: ‘anti-graphic photography’ between the Wars.” History Of Photography 30, no. 1 (2006), p. 78.

Diego Rivera and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)


Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Diego Rivera, 1914

I’ve got two projects in the works at the moment, a conference paper on Berenice Abbott and my MA thesis on the early years of American Muralism. I’ll be blogging about both subjects frequently, and unless other things come up (and I have time to think about them) Abbott and Murals will be my main contribution. It’s kind of a lot to deal with, and I hope breaking it down into smaller posts might help me manage the work load.

One of the things I’m interested in is Diego Rivera’s relationship with America and the part the Museum of Modern Art played in it.

Continue reading

Footprints in the snow…


An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. A bit of fiction to break up lots of reading non fiction. I thought the book was a fun read. I like art. The following bits of dialogue reminded me of the reading I should be working on for a project on Vik Muniz’s Verso series, a sculptural set of works that are recreations of the backs of famous paintings and photographs. I like how one of the characters here breaks down the elements of a painting.

Dialogue from page 81:

“Momentary objects of desire.” Lacey was cornering him, in a friendly way, and she could tell he was rethinking.

“It’s true,” he continued, “that both you and paintings are layered. You, in the complex onion-peel way, dark secrets and all that. Paintings operate in the same way.” He didn’t say anything more.

“Uh. Hello? Go on,” said Lacey.

“Well, first, ephemera and notations on the back of the canvas. Labels indicate gallery shows, museum shows, footprints in the snow, so to speak. Then pencil scribbles on the stretcher, usually by the artist, usually a title or date. Next the stretcher itself. Pine or something. Wooden triangles in the corners so the picture can be tapped tighter when the canvas becomes loose. Nails in the wood securing the picture to the stretcher. Next, a canvas: linen, muslin, sometimes a panel; then the gesso–a primary coat, always white. A layer of underpaint, usually a pastel color, then, the miracle, where the secrets are: the paint itself, swished around, roughly, gently, layer on layer, thick or thin, not more than a quarter of an inch ever – God can happen in that quarter of an inch – the occasional brush hair left embedded, colors mixed over each other, tones showing through, sometimes the weave of the linen revealing itself. The signature on top of the entire goulash. Then varnish is swabbed over the whole. Finally, the frame, translucent gilt or carved wood. The whole thing is done.”