In Memoriam

It was the night of Santa Con and Greenwich Village was ablaze with red faux velvet, an undulating lopsided ocean of woolly-white artificial beards. The chill in the air was bone-cracking, the wind unforgiving, and it was unlikely that my parents and I had braved the narrow streets of Manhattan’s lower westside to participate in this costumed pub-crawl. Our mission was more deliberate and more solemn. We were bound for the famed Bitter End, in part to do what all Bitter Enders do, to listen to a band play a set, but mostly we were there to say good-bye to a young man lost too early.

On November 3, 2009, Andrew Williamson-Noble, a 20-year old Junior at NYU, committed suicide by jumping from the 10th floor of his university’s Bobst Library. He was lonely, reports said. You might have read about it; you might have noticed the name; you might have seen his picture in the paper; but you probably forgot about Andrew and grouped him in with that flulrry of NYU jumpers that had been lost before — tragic, you probably said and left it at that. We refuse to leave it at that.

My parents and I met Andrew when he was high school student at Irvington. He had been instrumental in getting a fencing team started there and my mother had been its first coach. At the time, she and I were also coaching at Ardsley, and how she managed to survive the two-practice nights I still wonder. I know Andrew’s support made it easier. He had that take-charge attitude that made him a reliable leader, a wicked sense of humour that made him fun to be around, and a passion to win that made him a dangerous competitor. Of the many kids that have come through the fencing teams, Andrew remains one of our favorites.

That night at the Bitter End, as we listened to Ippazzi sing for Andrew, my mother and I , in a teary moment of inspiration, decided to establish an award in his memory — an award that would remind kids that as long as they’re a fencer, as long as they’re an athlete, they’re never alone. For the last few weeks we’ve been immersed in organizing the Andrew Williamson-Noble Spirit Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship — a scholarship that will be bestowed on 2 students from each of the 5 high school teams that make up the New York State Section I Varsity Fencing League. Tomorrow (Sat. Jan 30), at the League championship tournament, we’ll present a total of approximately $3,000 to 11 very deserving athletes.

In the letter to the recipients we say: “The Award remembers his spirit and leadership and recognizes those fencers who, like Andrew, contribute to the sense of community and camaraderie on their team. The best leaders don’t just contribute wins – they are team players who promote unity and inspire excellence…Fencing is a community, a place to belong regardless of background, age, ability, or aspirations.” And it’s true.

I remember walking onto the Columbia campus as a freshman and being terrified about, well, everything. Would my public school education match up to that of my peers? Would I make any friends? These are fears we all have when we start college, but there was one advantage I had most freshman don’t: when I walked through the gates at 116th, I already had 20 friends in my teammates —  I’d known most of them since I started fencing as a high schooler. Sure the sport has been the cause of some strife in my life — I can’t say I’ve smiled the whole way through the “athletic journey.” But it always provided me with a safety net to fall back on. It was always a stabilizing force that kept me focused, taught me to recover and to move forward. It taught me how to be the “master of my fate,” “the captain of my soul.”

After high school, Andrew moved onto Drexel before transferring to NYU. In that time, he moved away from fencing — an activity, his mother said, that always brought him joy. We can’t look back on the last few years and say, well if Andrew had been fencing… “What ifs” are entirely inappropriate. We can only look forward with the hope that tomorrow’s award presentation and Andrew’s story touches those it needs to, so that The Andrew Williamson-Noble Spirit Award will remain the only of its kind.

Artwork of the Week for January 25, 2010

Erica Lord

Artifact Piece, Revisited

Performed April 3-5, 2008, at the George Gustav Heye Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York, NY

The original Artifact Piece was performed in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man. The work had been called “groundbreaking,” “elegant,” “powerful,” and “harsh,” and its artist, James Luna, had been called “the most dangerous Indian alive.”

Like its model, Erica Lord’s Artifact Piece Revisited attempts to recall a suppressed memory of Native-as-Spectacle in American institutions of display. Yet Revisited is more than a reiteration of Luna’s initial critique of museums as architects of Native identity. In personalizing Luna’s work, Lord calls into question ideal femininity as well as accepted notions of “Nativeness.” Furthermore, with the introduction of text referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act she confronts the ethics of museum collecting practices and brings to light a part of institutional history that curators and trustees would prefer to keep in the shadows.

Positioned at either end of her sandy display case bed are two poster-size panels densely packed with typeset text and maps. Near her head stands one panel comprised of text that summarizes and historicizes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). For decades, Natives waged a war with the US Government demanding the recognition of their right to possess their cultural property. NAGPRA was the result of their dogged persistence. The law did not exist in 1987 when Luna donned his loincloth; it only came into being in 1990 and did not see real implementation for several years. Lord’s inclusion of the law is one of her many innovations that allows Artifact Piece to remain current and relevant. Yet the NAGPRA Panel not only updates Artifact Piece to reflect changes in US Policy towards Native rights and museum collections. It also questions the notion of the museum as steward of Native culture, and even steward of Native remains.

In replacing Luna’s masculine body with Erica Lord’s feminine figure, Revisited ups the anti. The history of women as objects of the male gaze automatically enters the work with this change of body. But there is an additional history of Native American women as fetishized objects of male desire that Lord invokes in her performance. The market for images of Native Americans created a secondary market for “prairie pinups” – photographs of nude Indian women “in the familiar poses of a Playboy centerfold.”

Staged within the walls of an institution that hopes to offer an alternative American history, Artifact Piece Revisited is a work that forcibly shakes its audience out of a socially-induced amnesia while proposing the possibility of an alternative contemporary Native American. It does not allow us to remain satisfied with NAGPRA, a few repatriations, and the creation of the NMAI. It keeps the Native demand for recognition as a sovereign, vital, and active community on the table. It forces us to take note and ask, where should we go from here?

~~

For anyone interested in a lengthier discussion of Luna’s original “artifact piece,” Lord’s re-envisioning, or Lord’s work more broadly, shoot me an email and I’ll shoot you a 20-page paper or 2.


Artwork of the week for January 18, 2010

Robert Henri, American, 1865 – 1929

O in Black with Scarf (Marjorie Organ Henri), 1910
oil on canvas

de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA

At the 1884 Paris Salon, John Singer Sargent showed a portrait of a woman in a black dress. It was supposed to be his greatest achievement, a testament to an American beauty in Paris and a showcase for his talents as a portrait painter. But rather than make him famous, Sargent’s portrait forced him into exile — “Madame x (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” remains one of the most scandalous portraits in the history of western art. Sargent claims he intended to capture M. Gautreau’s renowned (if not infamous) beauty. Instead, the image portrayed Gautreau as a constructed character — it is a painting of an American play-acting a parisienne, consuming culture as if it were a little black dress. Ultimately, “Madam X” is a tableau about spectacle and consumption, pantomime and assumed sophistication.

Surely, when American painter Robert Henri posed his wife in the studio, with her black dress and white skin, “Madame X” and her history loomed before his eyes. The similarities between the two portraits and their sitters are obvious — the size of the canvases, the muted pallets of black, brown, pink and white,  the subjects’ rouged features (lips, cheeks, and ears) contrasted against chalky skin, their left hands clutching their respective accessories. Interestingly, Marjorie Organ Henri and Virginie Gautreau were both ex-pats, a shared characteristic that makes a comparison between the two portraits all the more fascinating. Is Marjorie, the Irish immigrant married to one of the most celebrated painters of the day, performing the part of a socialite? If she is, she’s doing so in a more demure manner than Gautreau.

There are so many comparisons to be made between the two paintings — from the sitter’s gaze or her jeweled embellishments to the artist’s handling of light — so many that I just can’t do it all in the space of a blog. But even without going into further detail, it should be pretty clear “O in Black with Scarf” is Henri’s re-envisioning of “Madame X,” controversial shoulder strap not included.

For you uber-nerds: if you think a comparison like this is super fun, look at Cecilia Beaux’s 1893 “Sita and Sarita” (the Corcoran has attributed the wrong date). Not only is it one of my most favorite paintings, it’s Beaux’s Americanization of Manet’s “Olympia.”

Okay, I admit it, I have a bit of a book problem

particularly when it comes to art books, and especially when it comes to museum catalogs. Between October 2009 and January 2010, I acquired 10 exhibition catalogs and a handful of critical/survey texts. They’re beautiful books with lush illustrations and scholarly writings — not your typical coffee-table art books you find at B&N.

1. American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915 (The Met)

2. Drawings & Prints: Masterpieces from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

3. MoMA Highlights (MoMA)

4. Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity: 1919-1933 (MoMA)

5. Playing with Pictures: The Art of the Victorian Photocollage (The Arts Institute of Chicago)

6. Tim Burton (MoMA)

7. James Ensor (MoMA)

8. Kirchner and the Berlin Street (MoMA)

9. Claude Monet: Waterlilies (MoMA)

10. Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art

11. A Century of American Printmaking: 1880-1980 by James Watroux

12. Modern Art in Common Culture by Thomas Crow

13. Bauhaus by Magdalena Droste

This might explain why 1. I’m broke, and 2. I had to order another bookshelf.

Artwork of the Week for January 11, 2010

Alfred Stevens (Belgian, 1823-1906)

In the Studio, 1888, oil on canvas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

In keeping with this month’s theme of the Art of Art History (artworks that draw on or deal with the canon of Western Art), a painting about the art of painting.

What is it about the studio that makes it such an appealing subject for artists to depict? By the end of the nineteenth century, the constructed image of the down-trodden bohemian was no longer en vogue among artists. While this romanticized artistic type continued to intrigue writers and poets, artists themselves wished to portray a different sort of persona. Reliant on patrons and sales for their livelihood, artists were just as much businessmen as real-estate agents or steel-barons. “By the 1850s,” explains Neil Harris, “the artistic life was no longer merely a foil to materialism and economic selfishness; it had been captured to exemplify the virtues of industry and material success which dominated the business community.” It was the nineteenth-century reality that art making and selling was just another venture in capital.  Therefore, when it came to images of self-representation, artists were caught between maintaining an artistic persona of a sophisticated outsider and expressing a sense of corporate professionalism. Enter the artist’s studio.

Self-portraits by artists allowed for them to assert a sort of gentlemanly character, but images of their studio were perhaps more emphatic declarations of an artist’s potential value. His cultural sensitivity and material success along with his process and skill could be captured in a single image of the artist’s workspace. Here, Stevens’ uses the subject of the studio to assert his familiarity with both the great paintings of the past and the trendiest artworks of the present.

Stevens’ “In the Studio” is something of a “greatest hits” collage. Velazquez, Whistler, and Monet are all appropriately referenced. The mirror in the background, which shows a hint of the artist at work, along with a miniature portrait to its right are citations of Velazquez’s famous “Las Meninas” (1656), the most famous painting about painting. Also scattered across the wall in the background are references to contemporary trends in visual tastes: Japanese fans, umbrella, and scrolls — it was the age of Japonisme — and an assortment of painted portraits.

Most captivating are the women in the foreground, all of whom are characters from contemporary 19th century paintings. Whistler gets several nods in the foreground, including the fur carpet which is stolen from his“Symphony in White No. 1” of 1861. Often discussions of “In the Studio” call it an image of interrupted portrait-painting session, with the woman standing to the right as the artist at pause. I beg to differ. The standing woman is placed in front of a golden wall adorned with cherry blossoms. Her region not only further emphasizes a consumer taste for Japanese-inspired adornments, it quotes Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland” (1871-74). She is all the more interesting because in one hand she holds an artist’s palette and a brush as she leans gingerly on a partially painted canvas. Ah! But her hands are not the hands of an artist, they are too idle. They are the hands of a muse. The three women are not engaged with each other — their gazes are internal to the painting, but are detached from any particular object or person. Their only relationship is that they are all inspiration for the artist that paints them, and that artist is Stevens.

Stevens quotes himself in his painting. Seated on the lush red sofa is a woman in oriental garb. In her lap is a golden platter and a curved sword. She is Salome exactly as Stevens depicted her in another painting (which was inspired by Henri Regnault’s more famous “Salome”).

Put all these pieces together, and “In the Studio” becomes a play on the relationship between the real world and the painted world, a game all the more intensified by Stevens’ highly realist style.

It is a great painting — the kind of painting that stops you in your tracks, the kind of painting old men love to explain to younger women, and the kind of painting art historians love to gush over to anyone willing to listen.


Artwork of the Week for January 4, 2010

Loyal Readers,

I write bearing good news: Artwork of the Week is back! I’ve decided to reformat the column slightly. That is, I will impose a theme on each month, and each selected work will somehow respond to that theme. I like to think of this as an online exercise in curating? Proposed themes for the next few months:

January — The Art of Art History

February — Profane and Sacred Love

March — In like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

April — Showers

… suggestions welcome for Feb on.

And so, how shall I kick off January’s “The Art of Art History” (easily my favorite theme)? Perhaps with some Jeff Wall, who is just so darn good at referencing the canon….

Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946)

Restoration, 1993
Transparency in lightbox 1190 x 4895 mm
Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Cinematographic photograph

Perhaps there is no modern photographer more engaged with the art historical past, or more aware of its influence on contemporary art, as Jeff Wall. In Thomas Crow’s essay on Wall’s work, the IFA Professor writes “[Wall] situated himself within the processes by which art history as a changing field of knowledge becomes available to artists in the first place.” Wall’s large-scale, back-lit photographs cite and comment on the canon of Western painting, specifically 19th century French painting. His best known citation of the beginning of Modernism is his 1979 “Picture for Women,” a photograph that quotes, modernizes, and dissects Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergere.”

“Restoration” pictures the conservation of a Panorama in Switzerland, one of the few remaining fully-installed works of this once popular medium. The panorama is a format often credited for  “modernizing”  painting and is considered a precursor to cinema (reality effect!). It is not insignificant that Wall used a 360-panorama camera to capture the conservators at work, yet selected to only picture half of the panorama. On the one hand, this is an image about the limitations of sight — he does not show the space behind the camera and the conservator at rest stares out beyond the confines of the photo’s frame. On the other, it acts as a sort of artist’s statement — Wall is, in effect, restoring 19th century works of art, readying them for a contemporary viewer.

The Best Sports Movies

Sports movies are supposed to motivate us. Most of them are about the underdog beating the No. 1 selection. They aim to tell us that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. And they get a little redundant with their inspiration.  Most of my favorite sports movies are not inspirational (with the exception of Invictus), because the truth is the best sports movies are the ones that get at all the ugly realities of  “this sporting life”…

Invictus (2009)

Invictus is not actually about rugby. There is actually very little rugby on screen — and what is on screen isn’t stupendous (the 1995 World Cup final was not the most exciting game in World Cup history). Invictus is about Nelson Mandela and his attempts to unite a country. It just so happens that rugby, a sport that represented the prejudices that crippled South Africa, was at the heart of his campaign for unity.  Appropriately, Invictus is not a movie about a sport’s team’s triumph. It is a movie about a nation’s triumph. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon deliver Oscar-worthy performances as Mandela and South African Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, respectively. Director Clint Eastwood has done a stupendous job of presenting the racial conflicts and the challenges Mandela faced when he came to power without making them theatrical — the history of apartheid and a nation in its wake is too important for theatrical story-telling; it has to feel real.  Ultimately, Invictus testifies to the power of international sport to galvanize a country behind a common goal. If you can get 42 million people to cheer for one rugby team, when more than half of  those 42 million used to cheer against it, what can’t you motivate 42 million people to achieve?

This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris, yes, Dumbledore Richard Harris, was a stud. This is not a movie well-known to American audiences, but is should be.  It is about a rugby player, but no, that doesn’t make it like “Invictus.” Rather, it’s a hybrid of “Downhill Racer” (see below) and “On the Waterfront.” Frank Machin (Harris) is a talented rugby player who finally gets his big break to go professional. But his new-found glory is nothing but poison. He soon learns that while the spotlight is his, and while he can buy all the trappings of wealth, he can never buy love or “class.” He is a sportsman, and to the real elite he will only ever be a rugby player, never an equal. The rugby scenes are great. The acting superb. The moral — an eloquent reminder that the pursuit of greatness is a lonely one if all you’re after is personal glory.

Downhill Racer (1969)

One of Robert Redford’s first starring roles, and easily one of his best. For anyone that’s ever been an athlete in an individual sport, this one should really hit home. Redford plays an American skier, vying for Olympic gold at a time when Americans were the underdogs on the international skiing circuit. A talent who climbed his way from the foggy unknown, he is a self-centered egoist out to hog the spotlight from his US teammates. There is no I in team, but there is a me. Over the course of the film, Redford’s character learns that success is as a dependent on luck as it is on skill — a terrifying reality for any athlete. It’s a great movie with understated performances that ring true and incredible shots of the downhill skiing (imagine this was shot in ’69, before today’s modern steadicam and digital capabilities). Bode Miller needs to see this one…

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Besides an epic theme song, “Chariots of Fire” boasts a great directing and stellar performances. Much like the other movies, the punch line of this one is that those who seek ever ephemeral glory need a helping hand from Lady Luck.  Of course, that theme is encased in a well-told story of class struggles and religious prejudices. Actually, has anyone noticed that this movie is really about religion?

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