Saturday, September 15, 2007

Saywell named MFA's contemporary art czar

Edward Saywell has been named director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ west wing, which will give him a leading role in the institution’s contemporary art programming. He was until this promotion an assistant curator of prints and drawings at the museum.

Saywell’s promotion, which is scheduled to take effect next month, means he will be a key player at the MFA as it rethinks its approach to contemporary art during its renovation and expansion project that is scheduled to wrap up in fall 2010. The project is expected to repurpose the museum’s west wing as the institution’s home for contemporary art, as the galleria café and Gund Gallery are moved elsewhere. All told, the museum’s website explains, contemporary art will have “250 percent more space for exhibitions and storage in the west wing.”

Saywell had previously worked as a curatorial associate and intern at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. There he organized the 1998 exhibit “Behind the Line: The Materials and Techniques of Old Master Drawings” and 2003 exhibit “Christopher Wilmarth: Drawing into Sculpture.” And he co-curated “Degas at Harvard” at Harvard’s Sackler Museum in 2005.

More details to come.

Louise Nevelson

“The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend,” curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, closes Sunday at New York’s Jewish Museum. I’ve been meaning to write about the great poet of darkness for a while because of her New England childhood. (Above: Nevelson, at right, oversees work in her studio around 1965.)

Nevelson was born in the Ukraine in 1899, but immigrated with her family to Rockland, Maine in 1905. Her father worked in construction and ran a lumberyard or junkyard or something like that, depending on who’s telling the story. She dreamed of being an artist and couldn’t wait to get out of that town. (Above: she’s fourth from left in a 1913 school photo.)

“Let me tell you about Rockland, Maine,” Nevelson said in 1976 book “Dawns + Dusks.” “It’s on the east coast. Right on the water. And it’s a small town. It was 8,000 when we got there. Eight-thousand now. The ships and the boasts would come there. It was kind of little center. It still is a little center. If I was there now and I was 76-years-old, I’d be an old lady. I’d be a fat lady. I wouldn’t have my teeth. That’s they way they are.”

She escaped by marrying rich Charles Nevelson, who had come to Maine, she said, because his family ran a shipping firm, the government commandeered their ships during World War I, and with the war over, the boats were in Maine shipyards being repaired. A rabbi hitched them at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel in 1920 and they moved to New York. She seems to have quickly become frustrated with the impositions of her husband’s conventional ideas of what a wife should be. Nevelson said, “I soon recognized that within their circle you could know Beethoven, but God forbid if you were Beethoven. You were not allowed to be a creator, you were just supposed to be an audience. They thought they were terribly refined.”

She wasn't about to give up her art. The couple separated in 1931 (they wouldn’t divorce until 1941). She briefly returned to Maine with her son Mike (Myron), then about 9, regrouped, and then left her boy with her mom and lit out for Europe and studied with Hans Hoffman in Munich. By 1932, she was back in New York (without her son), and studying art.

One of the earliest pieces here is her cubist “Self-Portrait” sculpture from around 1940, a jagged black bronze woman, about a foot tall, with a tiny head, and chunky arms and legs, on an ebony base. “Moving-Static-Moving Figures” (c. 1945) is series of stacked blocks incised with abstracted faces and breasts in a style reminiscent of Miro, who, after Picasso, was perhaps the primary influence on the budding New York School then.

The guy sculptors welded metal; she chose wood as her medium. Her assemblages of the ‘40s and early ‘50s, pieces like “Ancient City” (1945) and “Night Presence VI” (1955), are built from found wood bits that retain much of their original identities as furniture legs, red-winged wood griffins, door knobs and hoops.

By the mid 1950s, the heterogeneous parts become integrated into harmonious wholes, unified by painting everything one color, usually black. And her forms feel more organic, a bit like Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures.

“Chief” (1955) is a black board with smooth curves, like a person’s back, and a jagged fringe of wood spikes. The title clearly comes from the sculpture's suggestion of a Native American headdress. “First Personage” (1956), a terrific piece, is energized by the contrast between two freestanding sections. In front is a tall smooth generally flat plank of wood, which curves out about halfway up the sides and narrows at the top, like an abstract silhouette of a person. Behind is a tower of horizontal wood spikes, which suggest both a spine and a porcupine. The contrast between the smooth and the sharp is elemental, and breathtaking.

Many of her sculptures from this era feel like daunting, uncanny looming totems. “Moon Fountain” (1957) assembles shards of wood into a square column with a sundial-like disk on top. “Black Moon” (1959) is a column, decorated with short planks, and box on top. Inside a circle of jagged wood bits become a face. (See exhibition images here.)

And then – wow – “Sky Cathedral Presence” (1951-‘64). It feels like the gates of night. It’s a wall (pictured at left) constructed of various boxes, crates, chair legs, balusters, jagged planks, and broken things with an itchy familiarity but that you can’t quite place. The boxes on the sides are relatively shallow, but they get deeper in the center. You eyes explore the recesses, which feel deep and mysterious because of their blackness and shadows. It radiates the solemness of a shrine or temple.

It’s followed by the surprise of her all white(!) installation “Dawn’s Wedding Feast” (1959), which was included in 1959’s “Sixteen Americans” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with works by the then young whippersnappers Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. She was already 60. It apparently references her failed marriage of 30 years before. The installation includes assemblage walls, standing and hanging columns, and totemic figures, that disappointingly literally represent a wedding party. The white gives the piece a sense of calm. It avoids the mysteriousness of her preceding works, mostly because the lightness allows you to see all the bits and pieces, all the way to the backs of the boxes.

After this, though, Nevelson begins to repeat herself. Part of the problem is she moves away from her improvisational compositions with idiosyncratic found forms, and adopts a more regular geometry, which mostly feels generic.

Her Holocaust memorial “Homage to the 6,000,000 I” (1964) is two walls of boxes in a uniform grid stuffed with balusters, guitar backs and who knows what. It suggests, maybe, the things the dead had carried or a storehouse of luggage, homes, memories lost. But the forms feel repetitious and dull. Instead of being drawn to explore all the nooks and crannies, it feels like if you’ve glanced around a little, you’ve seen it all.

“Mrs. N’s Palace” (1964-’77) is a square wood hut with a black mirrored floor. It feels like an old garage workshop (with rebar ferns out back) combined with a funeral vault. The ceiling and walls are dense with objects, but the room itself is mostly empty save for three totem-figures. Nevelson seems to have lost her spark. Instead of being surprising, intriguing, mysterious, the installation feels like she’s trying too hard to be different. It feels forced.

A couple gold-painted cubbyhole walls from the ‘60s just feel tacky. And her tack toward geometric repetitiousness reaches its boring nadir with two small sculptures of clear plastic or Plexiglas cubes from 1967 and ’68.

It’s around this moment that Nevelson, who lived until 1988, had her greatest fame, and most public commissions. It’s commendable that she kept pushing herself into new territory, that she tried on the spare rigid geometry of minimalism. But I’d take the solemn mysteries of her late 1950s work any day.

“The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend,” Jewish Museum, New York, May 5 to Sept. 16, 2007.

Related primary sources:
Nevelson interviewed in 1964 and again in 1972 for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
A guide to the Smithsonian’s Nevelson papers.

Pictured from top to bottom: Louise Nevelson at work with helper, circa 1965, photo by Ugo Mulas; Louise Nevelson appears fourth from the left with her classmates in 1913 image by an unidentified photographer; both these photos are from the Louise Nevelson papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Then “Sky Cathedral Presence,” (1951-64) collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, © Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Check It Out: "RISK: Race, class, geography and art"

The inspiring folks who organized the discussion on the theme of the commons on Boston Common this summer are organizing a bus and walking tour a week from Saturday that they’re calling "RISK: Race, class, geography and art.”

It is billed as a “mobile discussion” with Marie Cieri and Andi Sutton from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 22 about:
What risks do we take in seeing a place from perspectives other than our own? What risks do we take if we don't? What are the challenges for artists who address issues of race and class, or of personal identity and belonging, who use a dialogue-based public creative process to explore these issues? What are the ethics of an art practice that tackles geography and difference and how do these ethics change when applied to micro or macro-political art?
Cieri is an assistant professor of social geography and critical cartography at Ohio State University and co-author of “Activists Speak Out: Reflections on the Pursuit of Change in America” (2000, Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press). Sutton is a Boston artist and curator whose work “explores the potential of applied performance methodology and dialogue-based practice to create alternative models for community.” She is currently pursuing this stuff on her own and via the Boston-based National Bitter Melon Council.

To receive the meeting location, RSVP here. Bring bus fare and wear comfortable shoes.

The event is part of “Platform2,” a series of events designed to “facilitate dialogue about art and social engagement," which are organized by Sutton, Boston artist Jane D. Marsching and the Boston art collective iKatun.

Pictured: Documentation of crosspollennation, a performance walk series by Andi Sutton, 8/5/07.

MFA Mobile?

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts announces:
"Now you can personalize your cell phone with MFA Mobile wallpapers."

We are your gorilla art authority

We are proud to report that we are the gorilla art authority quoted in WCVB TV Channel 5’s report Tuesday on gorilla art from Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. We can think of no higher honor than being considered the local authority on gorilla art.

Update: And where do you think United Press International,, and Youth Ape Network Primate News turn for their gorilla art info?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

BC infringes Pollocks?

The Pollock-Krasner Foundation is still mulling how to respond to the decision by Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art to reproduce several authenticated Jackson Pollock paintings in the catalogue for its exhibit “Pollock Matters” despite the objections of the foundation, which holds the copyrights to Pollock works. “The Foundation is currently reviewing the catalogue and considering its legal options,” the foundation’s executive vice president Kerrie Buitrago told The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research Wednesday via email.

The Globe’s intrepid Geoff Edgers broke this story on his blog early last week. The foundation had refused BC permission to print the artworks because they didn’t want suspect “Pollocks” in the exhibition mixing with real Pollocks.

Edgers says McMullen director Nancy Netzer explained BC's move by providing him this statement:
"Following the Pollock Krasner Foundation's decision to withhold permission to reproduce works of Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock in the ‘Pollock Matters’ catalogue, Boston College worked closely with copyright counsel to produce a catalogue incorporating those images needed to publish our contributors' scholarship in conformity with fair use principles."
The Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s Ron Spenser tells Edgers that he is troubled.
"They knew our reason, and they knew of our refusal," said Spencer. "For them to go ahead like this, it's strange, I wouldn't expect it from a public institution. If they thought they had a right to publish on a fair use basis, they could have told us this six months ago."
I don’t know the caselaw, and I ain’t no lawman, but a straight reading of the law suggests Boston College, however rude its actions appear, may have a case.

Section 107, “Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Fair Use,” says the reproduction of copyrighted work for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching … scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” In particular, the law seems to give special allowance for “nonprofit educational purposes.”

It depends on how much of the copyrighted work you reproduce (BC reproduced whole works, though at a mighty small fraction of their actual size), and “The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” Could reproducing unauthenticated “Pollocks” with the real deal decrease the value of real Pollocks by potentially raising unfounded concerns about authenticity in the market for real Pollocks?

Still Boston College (and, say, blogs of art research) seem to meet a lot of the qualifications for fair use. And on the Web, where fair use is a major question, it’s an issue with broad resonance. Even if you just look locally, I suspect most of the local art blogs use images without permission of the copyright holders with some frequency. And, frankly, The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research (while crossing our fair-use fingers) on occasion does too (see bottom).

Pictured above: The galleries of Boston College's McMullen Museum. The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research did not get permission from Boston College to reproduce these photos from its website, but we worked closely with copyright counsel to produce a blog post incorporating those images needed to publish our research in conformity with fair use principles.

Yumi Kori

Here’s the opening of my review of “Jukai,” an installation at Brown University’s Bell Gallery by Yumi Kori, an artist and architect based in New York and Tokyo:
Yumi Kori’s installation “Jukai,” at Brown University’s Bell Gallery, is a magical bubbly midnight wonderland.

You walk down a dark corridor, turn a corner, and find yourself at the foot of a wood-plank dock reaching out into a sea of clear balloons, big and small, plus several that seem to hover in mid-air. Blue lanterns, resembling light sabers, hang from the ceiling, and look a bit like lightning bugs when reflected in the balloons. Here and there the walls reflect the lights and balloons, seemingly to infinity. The sounds — bird songs, crackling bugs, flowing water, wind — are both alluring and a bit disorienting. Birds don’t usually sing at night. Well, at least, not until just before dawn.

The experience feels a bit like walking into Peter Pan or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A wall text explains the title of the installation, “Jukai,” is loosely translated from Japanese as “deep forest or sea of trees.”
Read the rest here.

Yumi Kori, “Jukai,” Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, Sept. 8 to Oct. 21, 2007.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Di Suvero installed at Currier

Mark Di Suvero (above), who divides his time between New York, California and France, was in Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday to oversee installation of his 35-foot-tall sculpture “Origins” (2001-04) at the Currier Museum. I'm told the sculpture's top gently spins and rocks in the wind.

The institution is closed during expansion work that is expected to be completed in time for a reopening in April 2008. “Origins” (pictured below) is meant to be the centerpiece for the museum’s new entrance court.

There are a few other di Suveros hereabouts: “Aesop’s Fables, II” (2005), on the MIT campus outside the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, and “X-Delta” (1970) at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum in Hanover, New Hampshire.

But the one to see is his terrific “Huru” (1984), which is parked on the front lawn of UMass Boston as part of its Arts on the Point outdoor sculpture park. It resembles a giant magnet on a tripod (a bit like the base of "Origins"). It’s 30 feet tall and weighs some 30,000 pounds. It’s a behemoth. But what makes it so great is that the 6-ton horseshoe-shaped magnet thing is carefully balanced so that it teeters and slowly, amazingly gracefully pivots in the harbor breeze.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Gallerist Borghi says he made cuts on Matter “Pollock”

And others saw Matter “Pollocks” before conservator, he adds

Mark Borghi of Mark Borghi Fine Art, which has represented the estate of Mercedes Matter and been involved with the Alex Matter “Pollocks,” responds by email to posts here on the resemblance of conservator Franco Lisi’s own paintings to the Matter “Pollocks” and the Harvard report apparently contradicting Alex Matter’s account that one of the “Pollocks” was damaged by a cat.
I would like to fill you in on the "chain of custody". The first person to see the works from Alex was William O'Reilly who told Alex to show them to Joan Wasburn, who is the representative of the Jackson Pollock estate. In fact Joan had 3 of the works for at least 7 months. A call to her gallery can confirm this. This is long before myself or Franco ever laid eyes on any of the paintings. I collected the works from Joan in their original state prior to any conservation. It was only at this point that I became involved. It was I who introduced Alex to Franco in the spring of 2003. … I read your article about the "cat picture" as well. I emailed Narayan earlier today about this. After the work was destroyed by the cat, Franco "reconstructed" the painting. He was ONLY supposed to stabilize the works. He was never told to reconstruct paint loses. When I received the work in the reconstructed state I was very upset and was able to partially remove Franco's restoration with an exacto knife. This is the "scalpel" effect that Narayan is talking about. This was told to Harry Copper and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro from the Fogg in 2005 when they came to see the paintings. I also told Narayn to ignore this work as it had been completely damaged/restored.
Borghi also forwards a message that he says he emailed to Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation, who has disputed Matter’s account that a cat damaged one of the “Pollocks”
After the cat destroyed the work in question, it was given to Franco Lissi to see if he could put any of the work back together. When the painting was returned to Alex, it had been completely repainted by Lissi. I removed some of the repaint with an exacto knife to give an idea of the original condition.

This information was provided to Harry Cooper and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro when they came to NY to see the works in 2005. Based on what Cook reports you said to him, I'm guessing that they did not share this information with you. Both Harry and Carol were told that this work was totally repainted and that testing its paint would be of little value. Of course Mr. Lissi can also confirm the damage done to the painting as he cleaned it in its original state and did the “restoration” as well.
I’ve added Borghi’s comments as addendums to the original posts.

Conservator’s paintings resemble Matter “Pollocks”

A collection of paintings attributed to Franco Lisi– the art conservator reported to have first cleaned and repaired the Alex Matter “Pollocks” – that are reproduced on Lisi’s website bear remarkable resemblance to the Matter "Pollocks."

Two of Lisi's works are reproduced here. In particular, note Lisi’s preference for dots, which are prevalent throughout the Matter “Pollocks,” as well as his penchant for straight-line pours or splashes, which are seen in a series of spare Matter “Pollocks” that the organizers of Boston College’s “Pollock Matters” exhibit have suggested may be examples of how Pollock began his works. It’s hard to tell from the Lisi reproductions, but Lisi’s pours seem to have an almost cake-frosting density, much like the Matter “Pollocks.”

Lisi's website says:
Franco Lisi was born in Italy and came to the United States on an Artist Visa. That was followed by a successful exhibit that eventually led to becoming an American citizen. He studied art in Italy and worked for Artisti Associati Italiani in Naples along with other Italian masters such as Francesco Galante, Antonio D’Urso and Aldo de Amicis. His artistic passion is rooted in impressionism, but his style was influenced a few years ago by the modernist movement. That influence has led to a mix that he calls "abstract impressionism."
One of the curious things about accounts of the Matter “Pollocks” is that Lisi seems to have taken few photos of the paintings before he reportedly restored them. Matter says he found 34 “Pollocks” among his late father’s effects in 2002, but an unsigned essay on page 160 of the “Pollock Matters” catalogue notes: “It seems that Lissi [sic] did not photograph all of the works (recto and verso) prior to restoring them, but there are eleven extant photographs of unrestored rectos and twelve verso images shot by Lissi [sic] available for study.”

Also, one of the arguments that Matter and “Pollock Matters” curator Ellen Landau have made for the “Pollocks” being authentic is that scientific analysis that found materials in the paintings patented after Pollock’s death may have been tainted by additions Lisi made when he first cleaned and restored the works.

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research has sent emails seeking comment to Landau, Lisi, Boston College art museum director Nancy Netzer and Robin Zucker of Zucker Public Relations, a New York-based publicist for Landau and Matter.

Update: Mark Borghi of Mark Borghi Fine Art, which has represented the estate of Mercedes Matter and been involved with the Alex Matter “Pollocks,” responded Sunday night:
I would like to fill you in on the "chain of custody". The first person to see the works from Alex was William O'Reilly who told Alex to show them to Joan Wasburn, who is the representative of the Jackson Pollock estate. In fact Joan had 3 of the works for at least 7 months. A call to her gallery can confirm this. This is long before myself or Franco ever laid eyes on any of the paintings. I collected the works from Joan in their original state prior to any conservation. It was only at this point that I became involved. It was I who introduced Alex to Franco in the spring of 2003.
Pictured here from top to bottom: Franco Lisi paintings "Ghost World II" and "Evolution of the Soil."

Allan Rohan Crite dies

Boston painter Allan Rohan Crite, “the dean of African-American artists in New England and a revered figure in the South End for many decades,” died Thursday at age 97, according to Mark Feeney in the Globe.

Crite grew up around Boston and his works often reflected the life of the city. He had written:
As a visual artist, I am in the communication business, as are all the disciplines of the arts: the performing arts in music and drama, the written arts from poems, sagas, news items, and all the broadcast media, from talking drums to electronic networks. As a visual artist, I am part of that tradition, a storyteller of the drama of man. This is my small contribution – to tell the African American experience – in a local sense, of the neighborhood, and, in a larger sense, of its part in the total human experience.
Crite’s health had been deteriorating, the South End News reported in May, “caused in part by a major heart attack and two strokes over the past four years.”

This spring his 1945 painting “The News” was included in the Boston Athenaeum’s bicentennial exhibition “Acquired Tastes.” (The Athenaeum is one of the best places locally to see his work, besides the Allan Rohan Crite Research Institute and Museum in his former Columbus Avenue home. The MFA apparently acquired its first painting by Crite this year, though it owns 33 of his drawings.) Crite depicts four African-American men gathered on a Boston street corner, one of them in his Army dress uniform, reading newspapers. You have to look closely at the headlines to find Crite’s subject: “President Roosevelt is Dead. Truman Sworn In.” World War II isn’t quite done. The president has died. Everything is in transition. And then you notice the sadness, the quietness, the loneliness in the men’s expressions.

Feeney reports that Crite’s funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 , at Trinity Church in Copley Square.

Jackson hearts Mercedes?

The main focus of the BC exhibit “Pollock Matters” is the relationship between Jackson Pollock and the photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matters. But what about Pollock's relationship with Herbert’s wife, Mercedes?

In her catalogue essay, Ellen Landau says on page 20 that Pollock had a copy of Herbert Matter’s sexy surreal 1940 photo “Driftwood II (Mercedes Provincetown),” which remains in the flat file storage drawers at Pollock’s Long Island barn studio. It shows Mercedes, eyes closed and topless, laying on the Provincetown beach sand, underneath a tangle of driftwood. Landau’s mention of the photo hints at – but then bypasses – the attraction between Pollock and Mercedes Matter that was reported in Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s 1989 biography “Jackson Pollock: American Saga.”

Naifeh and Smith report on page 568 that Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner
was already brooding over rumors (baseless) that Jackson was having an affair with Mercedes Matter or Vita Peterson, or both, during the summer of 1948. … Both Peter Petersen and Herbert Matter were gone for much of the summer, and Lee spent at least one day every week in town visiting Dr. Hubbard. Lee also knew her old friend Mercedes’s reputation for ‘wanting to taste everything, smell everything, try everything’ [according to May Rosenberg]. Besides, says Fritz Bultman, ‘Vita and Mercedes were glorious, gorgeous young women – which you certainly couldn’t say about Lee at the time.’ Flattered by Lee’s suspicions, Jackson took a perverse pleasure in encouraging them. At a dinner party, in Lee’s view, he would grab a woman and proclaim loudly, ‘I love all women,’ May Rosenberg recalls. ‘It was like he was playing a game with Lee, only she didn’t see it was a game.’ Other times, late at night, he would stand outside neighbors’ windows – when the husbands were away – and scream sexual threats.
Naifeh and Smith write on page 637 of weekend dances held by The Club, an artists’ discussion and socializing group that Pollock began visiting in 1949:
Mercedes Matter, the only woman among the Club’s early members, was one of those who gave the dances a sharp edge of sexuality. … The teeming sexuality, the sideline bragging of other artists about “all the women they had ‘stuck,’” and the flirtatious attentions of Mercedes Matter and others only pushed him [Pollock] further into his shell.
By the mid 1950s, Pollock and Krasner’s marriage was breaking down, his health deteriorated and his drinking got worse and worse. On page 770, Naifeh and Smith say:
Frustrated in the real world, Jackson turned increasingly to fantasy. He bragged to [his biographer] B. H. Friedman that he had "fucked Rita Benton." With others, he added Mercedes Matter and Vita Peterson to the list of fictitious conquests.
Naifeh and Smith stress on page 879 that:
Vita Peterson who claims that [Jackson Pollocks] and Mercedes were "highly attracted to one another," says they never had an affair: "I asked her and she said not." Esteban Vicente, another confident of Matter, also denies any affair. Herbert Matter: "I think Jackson was quite attracted to Mercedes but there was never the slightest thing between them … that’s my feeling."