January 25, 2011
Tucked away in a small, intimate second floor gallery at the American Indian Museum is an exhibition of the early works of Navajo artist R.C. Gorman. The show features 28 drawings and lithographs by an artist that the New York Times has called, “The Picasso of American Indian Art.”
Best known for his prints of monumental, Madonna-like Navajo women, R.C. Gorman (1931–2005) grew up in the southwest, and took inspiration from the works of Mexican social realists, like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. The show includes a variety of subject matter subsequently abandoned when Gorman became more commercially successful in the late 1970s and 1980s. A series of nude academic drawings accompanies early examples of lithographic prints, featuring both figures and rare graphic Navajo designs.
Last Friday the show’s curator, Kathleen Ash-Milby met me in the gallery to share some insight on the life and career of the internationally celebrated artist.
Gorman, she says, was “really struck by the boldness of [the social realists'] approach to the figure, specifically [their] monumental figures and this uninhibited approach to the nude. He was really inspired by that and wanted to bring that to the Native subject.”
There is a bold experimentation to many of the pieces on display, which differ greatly from much of Gorman’s subsequent pieces. “A lot of the works that you see here,” says Ash-Milby, “are not [what] people would typically think of as Gorman’s work.”
“His earlier work is so vibrant and energetic. . . it’s lyrical in a way that you kind of lose [in later works].”
“His subject matter,” she adds, “became much more narrow. He really switched over almost exclusively to printmaking and later you miss the nuance that you see in his early work, in terms of shading and detail. . . You really see his hand in the work a lot more clearly.”
“He’s really experimenting more,” explains Ash-Milby. “He hasn’t really focused his body of work on any particular subject. I think a lot of that was related to his commercial success with the pictures of native women. He liked the idea of this heroic Navajo mother. You see a lot of the Madonna type figures. Actually one of the earliest prints he did, which is here in the exhibition, is of a mother and child.”
Gorman’s admiration of women can be traced back to his Navajo culture. Ash-Milby explains that the Navajo are a matriarchal society. “The leadership is from the women and it’s matrilineal,” she says, “which means that you trace your relationship through your clan based on who your mother was. So everything was really about the woman. Not just as life giver and supporter of the family. But also how the culture was passed on and how people related to one another. So I think there was that resonance for him—depicting native women and making them the subject of his work.”
When asked about her favorite artwork in the collection, Ash-Milby points to the charcoal drawing Navajo Woman Drying her Hair (detail pictured above). The drawing, she says, is very sensuous. “He’s got that same approach to the nude that you see in a lot of [drawings and paintings by] Degas.” Ash-Milby likens this piece to Degas’ series of bathing women, who pose unaware of the viewer and are comfortable in their natural state.
“In a lot of ways it is this depiction of women, this affection he has [that fascinates viewers]. He doesn’t glamorize native women, they’re very real. They feel very solid and I think that a lot of people can relate to that.”
Many people are familiar with the artist’s imagery, says Ash-Milby; but of the museum’s collection of the artist’s earlier work, “It’s really a treat.”
December 2, 2010
While the the holiday season at our throats again; ATM readers are on notice that a whole bunch of fascinating Smithsonian exhibitions are coming to a close. So pull out your planners and figure out when you can swing by to see these shows.
“Cosmos in Miniature: The Remarkable Star Map of Simeon De Witt” | American History Museum
“Losing Paradise: Endangered Plants Here and Around the World” | Natural History Museum
“Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg” | American Art Museum
“Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture” | American Indian Museum
“Ted Muehling Selects: Lobmeyr Glass from the Permanent Collection” | Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York
“Colorforms” | Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
“The Healing Power of Art: Works of art by Haitian children after the earthquake” | Ripley Center, International Gallery
“National Design Triennial: Why Design Now?” | Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York City
Cornucopia: Ceramics from Southern Japan | Freer Gallery
“Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall” | Sackler Gallery
“Hide: Skin as Material and Metaphor: Part II” | American Indian Museum Gustav-Heye Center, New York City
“Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008″ | Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
“John Gossage: The Pond” | American Art Museum
“Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer” | Portrait Gallery
“Southern Identity: Contemporary Argentine Art (Identidad del Sur: Arte Argentino Contemporaneo)” | Ripley Center, International Gallery
“Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia” | Sackler Gallery
“A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection” | Renwick Gallery
“The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946” | Renwick Gallery
November 30, 2010
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, was born in Florida, Missouri, o175 years ago today. Author of such literary classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain‘s famous wit makes him just as relevant today as he was a century ago.
“I remember reading The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County as a 7th grader,” says curator Frank Goodyear of the National Portrait Gallery. Though many may have been introduced to Twain through their school’s curriculum, his works persist because of their strong voice and whimsical sense of story. Twain is “pioneering because he brought dialects into literature,” Goodyear continued. He had a “keen interest in human foibles” and was able to “see through to the real shortcomings, anxieties and hypocrisy” that make his characters so believable.
This intimacy created with his readers might explain the runaway success of his newly released and unexpurgated autobiography (versions of which have been published before in 1924, 1940 and 1959), but this one was released in its entirety 100 years after his death, as Twain requested.
Twain himself spoke in great detail about death:
“I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead–and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead, and they would be honest so much earlier.” – As quoted in Mark Twain in Eruption by Bernard DeVoto
And of his own death:
“It has been reported that I was seriously ill—it was another man; dying—it was another man; dead—the other man again. . . As far as I can see, nothing remains to be reported, except that I have become a foreigner. When you hear it, don’t you believe it. And don’t take the trouble to deny it. Merely just raise the American flag on our house in Hartford and let it talk.” – Letter to Frank E. Bliss, 11/4/1897
Perhaps with this autobiography, new facets of the seemingly transparent, yet very complex writer can come to light. “He’s human and his characters are human,” says Goodyear. “He’s genuine and authentic. . . everyone loves Mark Twain.”
September 2, 2010
Don’t miss out on these world-class exhibits, closing soon at the Smithsonian museums:
Closing 9/06 – “Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2009,” National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery presents 49 of the finalists’ works that were selected from the second triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Dave Woody, winner of the competition, received the grand prize of $25,000 and an opportunity to create a portrait for the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. The competition invited artists working in the figurative arts to submit portraits of people close to them. Submissions were accepted in all visual arts media, including film, video, and digital animation. Through January 18, 2010, the public can vote online or on-site for the artwork to receive the People’s Choice Award.
Closing 9/12 – “Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers,” Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
The first American retrospective in nearly 30 years of this highly influential French artist’s career examines his life and work from the mid-1950s to his untimely death in 1962. Artist, composer, judo master, Rosicrucian, proto-conceptualist, and performance artist, Klein was a multifaceted talent who believed in the transformative power of art. In his series, including the Monochromes, Anthropometries, Cosmogonies, Air Architecture, Fire Paintings, Sponge Reliefs, and Actions, Klein sought to place the immaterial at the heart of his work.
Closing 9/26 – “Christo and Jean-Claude: Remembering the ‘Running Fence’,” American Art Museum
On view are nearly 50 preparatory drawings and collages, along with photographs, film, and components, that document the creation and installation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s epic project the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, a white fabric and steel-pole fence, 24 1/2 miles long and 18 feet high, that ran across the properties of 59 ranchers in Sonoma and Marin Counties north of San Francisco. The project attracted far wider public involvement than any previous work of art, including 18 public hearings, three sessions in the Superior Court of California, and the first environmental impact report ever done for a work of art. Paid for entirely by the artists, the Running Fence existed for only two weeks and survives today as a memory and through the artwork and documentation of the artists.
Closing 9/26 – “From FDR to Obama: Presidents on TIME,” National Portrait Gallery
Regardless of how newsworthy a person may be, there is no magic formula for getting one’s picture on the cover of Time magazine, with one exception: the president of the United States. Founded in 1923, Time has put on its cover all incumbent presidents from Warren Harding to Barack Obama, with the exception of Herbert Hoover. Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, this exhibition explores the modern presidency through the covers of America’s oldest and most recognized weekly news magazine. The show includes approximately 30 works of presidential cover art, representing a variety of mediums, from traditional oil paintings to a pop-art sculpture bust of Richard Nixon made from strips of newspaper headlines.
*Private Collection. © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo by Shunk-Kender, © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, courtesy Yves Klein Archives
August 17, 2010
Kim Schmahmann’s Bureau of Bureaucracy is a dizzying array of surreal puzzles and hidden compartments all contained within an unassuming piece of furniture.
This modern-day cabinet of curiosities begs for further examination. Tomorrow at 12 p.m. at the American Art Museums’s Renwick Gallery, hear curator Nicholas Bell and exhibits specialist James Baxter delve further into the beautiful Bureau on display.
Schmahmann, a South African-born conceptual artist, completed Bureau of Bureaucracy in six years (from 1993–1999) at the MIT Hobby Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The work explores the artist’s observations that the notable and important treasures today’s society wishes to keep safe are documents that result from “interactions with the many bureaucracies that… register our existence, certify our competence, authorize our activities, describe our health and wealth, permit our movement, and sanction our union.”
For the uninitiated, the top of the Bureau‘s curvilinear front opens up to reveal the first bureaucratic layer, a model of the reading room of the Library of Congress. To the left of that is a marquetry of four books, alluding to how bureaucracy itself is a force to be reckoned with: “Power,” “Humanity,” “Rationality” and a fourth book with no name (representing the unknown forces within bureaucracy). Behind the book marquetry are a set of “symbolic drawers” which resemble a library card catalog. Among these boxes are false drawers, a bottomless drawer, a drawer with a glass ceiling, a half drawer, a reflective drawer, a drawer that is also an iron cage (representative of Weber’s Iron Cage), a drawer of measures, a drawer within a drawer, several hidden drawers and a drawer that is perpetually locked.
The outer-most layer of the Bureau‘s lower case opens to twenty document drawers that store various milestone documents from Schmahmann’s life. The bottom slot holds his birth certificate and, someday, the top slot will contain his death certificate.
If you cannot make the curator talk tomorrow, you can examine the Bureau on the 2nd floor of the Renwick. But no touching, please, since we at the Smithsonian have a bureaucracy of our own.