November 29, 2011
What’s the best new work of art in the world? Good question. The most interesting and mind-bending new artwork that I’ve encountered is a remarkable garden in Paris titled Who to Believe?, recently designed and assembled by Francois Abelanet. We’re accustomed to the idea that paint can form an illusion. But it’s a bit startling to find this effect created with grass and trees. Yet this is the conceit of Abelanet’s work, made from 3,500 square feet of turf and many truckloads of dirt and straw and assembled with the help of about 90 carefully supervised gardeners. Here’s a pretty good video of it:
When you stare down at it from the steps of the City Hall in Paris, Abelanet’s carefully designed garden resembles a terrestrial globe. It’s a nearly perfect sphere, with neat lines marking latitude and longitude and two trees growing out of the top. It looks like one of those planets sketched by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince.
But move a little and its appearance changes. From any other angle, it’s an irregular crazy-quilt of shapes—a weirdly configured, Alice-In-Wonderland world. Abelanet has brought together two seemingly divergent artistic traditions—the French garden and Anamorphosis.
Gardens are one of the most notable accomplishments of French culture and reached their height in the work of André Le Notre (1613-1700), chief gardener for King Louis XIV (1638-1715), most notably at the Palace of Versailles. The distinguishing trait of French gardens is their geometric logic and mastery of vistas. From a vantage point at the center of the great terrace at Versailles, the eye is directed down grand avenues in which lines of trees, and strategically placed lakes, fountains and statues, lead the eye seemingly to infinity. Happiest when working on a grand scale, Le Notre sometimes moved entire villages to create the strictly regulated vistas that he wanted.
Notably, Le Notre was also interested in the dramatic impact of surprising effects which can be discerned from only one place. There’s an effect of this sort at the garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte, for example, created just before Versailles for the Minister of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet. Stand before the statue of the Gallic Hercules, which marks the end of the Grand Avenue, and look back at the Chateau: The reflection of the distant building floats, seemingly miraculously, on the surface of a body of water that’s very close to you. Visually, it seems impossible, although in fact it’s simply a careful application of an optical principle that had recently been enunciated by Descartes—“the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In other words, if we carefully choose the right vantage point, we can see the world in a way possible nowhere else.
This concept of a unique, privileged vantage point provides the basis for Abelanet’s garden. But unlike Le Notre’s work, it discloses a world which is not predictable and logical, or under our control, but topsy-turvy and unpredictable. In essence, he has combined the techniques of Le Notre with an approach to representation normally found only in painting.
Anamorphosis. The word, which is Greek, refers to an image that needs to be seen from a special angle to be seen without distortion. It’s a kind of zany extrapolation of the principles of perspective, and it developed early in the Renaissance, very soon after vanishing-point perspective was developed. The masterpiece of the genre is arguably a large and imposing painting by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors.
An ingenious visual puzzle, executed around 1533, The Ambassadors shows two nearly life-size figures who have been identified as Jean de Dintevile, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and George de Sleve, Bishop of Lavaur. Behind them are a two-tiered table on which are piled a selection of books, globes (one terrestrial, one celestial) and scientific instruments, including a quadrant, an astrolabe and a sundial. There’s also a lute with a broken string, next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s translation. Scholars have long argued about what these objects signify. Presumably the instruments are saying something about the world of knowledge, or about the celestial and terrestrial world. The hymnbook and lute seem to allude to strife between scholar’s and clergy.
But the oddest thing in The Ambassadors is a strangely distorted shape in the lower center, which when viewed from the painting’s right (or the viewer’s left) takes the form of a skull. Surely this alludes to the fact that death is always present, but we only see it if we look at reality from a particular angle.
Holbein’s painting alerts us to the fact that Anamorphosis is a device that can not only amuse us with its strange visual distortions, but can provide a metaphor. Part of the wit of Abelanet’s marvelous garden is that it functions in a way that carries metaphorical and metaphysical punch. Probably no form on government on earth is so famously centralized and bureaucratic as that of France. Decisions made at the top are carried out rigorously to the lowest level. It’s been said that if you enter any schoolroom in France you’ll find that the students are studying the same page in the same book as in every other schoolroom in the realm. But how do the people at the top make their decisions? What do they see from their vantage point?
Abelanet’s garden reminds us that the view from City Hall can be quite different from everywhere else—that, in fact, the seeming logic of its view of things can be nonsensical. To fully grasp reality we need to see how it looks from more than one place (politicians, take note). Like much of the world’s best art, Abelanet’s creation is at once silly and profound.
Is this the world’s best new work of art? I’d welcome other suggestions.
November 17, 2011
It’s enough to make you want to start doing the Charleston: A masterpiece of earthenware, a Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost, has been newly acquired and newly displayed at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. In my view, the Jazz Bowl —several dozen of which were produced—has emerged in the last decade as not only the single finest example of American Art Deco, but as an icon of a new mode of American cultural identity.
Viktor was just 25 years old when he made the first piece at the Cowan Pottery Studio in Rocky River, Ohio, in 1930. One day at the studio’s office when he didn’t have an assignment, as the story goes, he pulled a letter out of a hopper. A woman in New York wanted a punch bowl with a New York theme.
Viktor started by making a plaster mold of the shape—a bold parabolic form. The next challenge was to decorate it. A few months before, he had spent Christmas Eve in New York City, where he was impressed by the skyscrapers, went to Radio City where an organ rose up out of the floor, and took in the music of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He sketched all these images in a jazzy style. One of the last things he put in was a drum head with the word “Jazz,” which ended up providing a name for the piece.
To achieve his desired effect he developed a novel technique. First he covered the bowl with black engobe—watery clay mixed with glaze. He then scratched out the design, in a pattern of black and white; fired it; then covered the whole bowl with a glaze of “Egyptian Blue”—a sort of radiant turquoise, similar to that of some beads found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. He then fired it again. The result was richly decorative, since the irregular scratching of the design created a kind of glow, almost like stained glass. And the Egyptian Blue evoked a feeling he was trying to capture—his recollection of the strange blue light of New York at night.
When it was done, Guy Cowan sent the piece to New York—and promptly heard back that the woman who had commissioned it wanted two more. Only then did Viktor learn that the woman was Eleanor Roosevelt.
After Viktor produced the Jazz Bowls for Roosevelt, Cowan Pottery put it into production. But the company folded in 1931, done in by the Depression. It’s not known exactly how many Jazz Bowls were made, but probably about 50 large ones similar to the original and perhaps as many as 25 of a different design that was less expensive to make, sometimes known as “The Poor Man’s Bowl.” Since the decoration was scratched out by hand the large bowls all differ a good deal in execution. It’s not known what happened to the bowls that were made for Eleanor, although her role in providing the commission is documented in newspaper articles from the 1930s, so I believe that the story is true.
The son of a potter, Viktor Schreckengost was born in Sebring, Ohio, and died in 2008 at the age of 101. (Two of his brothers, Don and Paul, were also major figures in ceramic design.) Viktor was one of the founding figures of modern industrial design in the United States. His credits include the first modern mass-produced American dinnerware, the first cab-over-engine truck, the first inexpensive children’s pedal cars and the first bicycle welded in a single step in an electric brazing chamber—an innovation that cut production cost by 50 percent and was used in some 50 million bicylces. He also designed costumes, stage sets, lighting fixtures and lawn furniture; produced watercolors and oil paintings, many of which won prizes in museum exhibitions, and monumental sculpture, for the Cleveland Zoo and the high school in Lakewood, Ohio; and founded the industrial design program of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught for over 50 years. Among Viktor’s students were the designer of the Ford Mustang. (A museum dedicated to Viktor’s work was scheduled to open in Cleveland this past June, but the debut has been delayed.)
Artworks derive meaning not only from the thought and feeling that the artist put into them, but from where they are placed. There’s poignancy to having a Jazz Bowl in Birmingham, which as everyone knows was the site of one of the most ghastly atrocities of the Civil Rights era, when the Klu Klux Klan placed a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four young African-American girls. But Birmingham is also a city that has gone to great lengths to atone. The art museum has built up an important collection of works by African-American artists, and it’s not far from the Birmingham Civil Rights District, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame are located.
In this context, Viktor’s Jazz Bowl has a special resonance. Viktor’s central goal in creating Jazz Bowl was to find a visual analogue to black jazz music. Indeed, he himself was something of a musician (he played the clarinet) and a personal friend of such jazz greats as Art Tatum. Let’s not pretend that this sort of cross-over can be achieved in an absolutely perfect way, based on perfect understanding, or entirely liberated from the cultural norms of a period. Nonetheless, Jazz Bowl marks a significant turning point in American culture, when a white artist could look to black jazz music as a paradigm of great artistic achievement—as something to ardently celebrate, a model for what he hoped to achieve in the visual arts.
In short, Jazz Bowl marks step toward a new kind of cultural conversation—one that needs to be continued further. What’s more, it’s stunningly beautiful. It’s something not to be missed.
November 7, 2011
I felt a tinge of sorrow when I learned that the collection of books and prints owned by the late Creekmore Fath would be going up for sale at the auctioneer Doyle New York on November 8. But the sale provides an occasion to write a brief tribute to a truly memorable American character, and one of the most important collectors of the great American artist Thomas Hart Benton.
I first met Creekmore in Kansas City back in the mid 80s, when I had just started doing research on Benton. He was a distinguished, courtly man whom I never saw without a bow tie; he was also the product of rural Texas, who spent much of his life in the rough-and-tumble of state politics. Though fascinated by gentility and eager to join the ranks of the elite, he was also the champion of the poor and dispossessed and an early, ardent champion of civil rights. Like America itself, his personality was the synthesis of different constituencies, some of them in harmony, others discretely at odds with each other.
The bewilderingly different sides of Creekmore’s personality were expressed by the house’s long tunnel of a library, filled with books that mirrored his various enthusiasms, including American political history, the Bloomsbury group and its offshoots (he had a notable collection of letters from D. H. Lawrence), and American literature (he had innumerable first editions, many of them signed, by writers ranging from Sinclair Lewis to Henry Miller).
Surely the highlight was the collection of Benton prints—the most complete in private hands. Benton was the unapologetic artist of the American heartland, a figure who, like Creekmore himself, bridged traditional boundaries. Creekmore’s collection will be dispersed, but his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints remains one of the most remarkable books in the American field.
Born in Oklahoma, Creekmore Fath grew up in Cisco and Fort Worth, Texas, and in 1931 his family moved to Austin, so he could attend the university there. After getting a law degree, Creekmore practiced law in Austin for about a year, then went to Washington as acting counsel to a congressional subcommittee investigating the plight of migrant farm workers. He went on to serve in a variety of legal posts in Washington, including a stint with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, and he returned to Texas in 1947 after marrying Adele Hay, the granddaughter of McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay.
Creekmore ran for Congress, campaigning in a car with a canoe on top, which carried the slogan: “He paddles his own canoe.” As an FDR liberal democrat in a conservative state, he was paddling upstream, and was soundly defeated. He helped Lyndon Johnson win the 1948 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate by defeating former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, by 87 votes. During McGovern’s failed presidential run in 1972, Creekmore became friendly with an eager young organizer in his twenties, Bill Clinton; and years later, on the occasion of Creekmore’s 80th birthday, he was rewarded with a sleepover in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. He died in 2009 at age 93.
For some reason, Creekmore was a born collector. Book and art collecting were part of his being. As he once wrote: “The desire to collect, and the pleasure derived from each acquisition, are as exciting and compelling as passionate love.” He got started early. As he once recalled:
My first venture at collecting art took place at the age of twelve, as the result of an advertisement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For the sum of one dollar I acquired ‘genuine reproductions’ of three of Rembrandt’s greatest etchings: Dr. Faustus, The Three Trees, and The Mill. I still have them.
His Benton collection got its start in 1935 when he clipped a New York Times advertisement for Associated American Artists (AAA), which was offering prints by living American artists for five dollars each. Four years later, he ordered a print from AAA—Benton’s I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain—purchasing it with part of the fee that he received from the first law case that he tried.
The collection grew, particularly during the 1960s, when he was working as counsel to a Senate Committee chaired by Ralph Yarborough, whom he had helped elect. During this period he was often in New York and had many opportunities to purchase prints from the Weyhe bookstore, the Sylvan Cole Gallery and other sources. When he wrote to the New Britain Museum in New Britain, Connecticut, which was said to have a complete collection, he found that he had several which they did not know about. Before long he realized that he was compiling a catalogue raisonne—a complete listing of Benton’s prints. And this led him into correspondence with the artist himself.
Creekmore had a bit of bluster and definite sense of his own importance. But what’s remarkable about his catalogue raisonne of Benton’s prints is its modesty. Much art history is about the art historian rather than the art—almost as if the art historian were standing in front of the work of art, blocking the spectator’s view. Creekmore had the genius to step aside and let the artist speak for himself. His vision of the shape the book could take flashed into his mind during his very first exchange of letters with Benton, in January of 1965, when the artist wrote:
P. S. I assume you are a Texan. It might interest you to know that I am half Texan myself. My mother came from Waxahachie and I knew the country thereabouts quite well as a boy. My grandfather had a cotton farm a few miles from town. The lithograph Fire in the Barnyard represents an incident which occurred on an adjoining farm when I was around ten or eleven years old.
It occurred to Creekmore that Benton’s comments about his prints might be valuable. Indeed, the final catalogue has a brief listing of each print, its date, how many impressions were printed and perhaps a few additional comments, followed by a space in which he provided Benton’s remarks about each subject—in Benton’s handwriting. (Benton’s letters to Creekmore will be included in the Doyle sale.) Since Benton made prints that record the compositions of most of his major paintings, the result is one of the best records anywhere of Benton’s achievement. When I wrote a biography of Benton back in the 1980s I referred to it constantly; along with Benton’s autobiography, An Artist in America, it was my single most valuable printed source.
Creekmore’s collection of Benton was missing only four early prints, which exist in just one or two proofs. When I last spoke to Creekmore, he indicated that he was planning to donate his collection to the University of Texas at Austin. but for whatever reason this never occurred. It’s a shame in a way since there are surprisingly few large gatherings of Benton prints in public collections: those at New Britain, and those at the State Historical Society in Columbia, Missouri are the only two I can think of that come close to being comprehensive. But perhaps it’s also fitting that a passionate collector should disperse his holdings so that they can be acquired by other devoted art-lovers like himself.