Tag Archives: Filson Historical Society

Arts

A Little Room to Breathe

Installation is the presentation of works of art. The following is a look at museum installations in New York, London, Edinburgh and Louisville that all work well in different ways.  In great installations the sequence and juxtaposition of art objects presents a silent argument, making a case for the richness or provocative value of the works laid out in a gallery.  Great installations give maximum value to the artworks and exploit, to that end, lighting, wall color, spacing, explanatory labels and the placement of pedestals and gallery furniture. Great installations also require that the selection of works be judicious and sustain attention and engagement. Too often exhibitions are weakened by the inclusion of mediocre work: better the A work by the C- artist than the C- work by the artist with an A reputation. Failure to consider ways of breaking open the canon of received opinion and the inability to make surprise a component of gallery arrangements are also common shortcomings.  So what works?

‘Action Painting I’, Gallery 403, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photograph: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Installation view of Action Painting I (gallery 403), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

The Museum of Modern Art, newly re-opened in October after a major expansion, sidesteps the common pitfalls.  There is an increase in the white space between works; the re-hang gives precedence to artists neglected earlier, especially women, artists of color, and artists from parts of the world other than Europe and North America.  The Haitian artist Hervé Telemaque adds to the understanding of Pop Art as an international phenomenon, and the Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen expands the definition of Minimalism.  In the first gallery devoted to Abstract Expressionism, the viewer is greeted by Pollock, deKooning, and David Smith – but also by Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Pat Pasloff, Lee Krasner, Isamu Noguchi and Beauford Delaney: four women, a Japanese-American, and an African-American.  The matrix of art history is loosened, media are no longer separated (photography or film almost omnipresent), and masterpieces are de-emphasized in favor of a more searching exposition of the human imagination and the range of expressive solutions. The lock-step march of isms has been replaced by a meandering and discursive path.  Ironically, in many instances, it is also an arrangement that fosters a situation of clear visibility – that is, a hang that makes the masterwork heroes more heroic, enhancing their aesthetic impact, while giving the supporting cast members larger roles.  Picasso’s 1907 Demoiselles D’Avignon is juxtaposed with Faith Ringgold’s image of racial conflict, American People Series #20, executed in 1968. Ringgold’s image references Picasso’s Guernica, and the label asserts that the comparison intensifies “the questions Demoiselles raises about representations of women, power and cultural difference.”  Success!  Demoiselles acquires added complexity and the Ringgold competes very well indeed next to the early Cubist breakthrough painting. 

Best of all, one-third of the MOMA galleries will be re-hung or shifted around every six months, which means a complete re-hang every 18 months.

Another model installation is the new Islamic Gallery at the British Museum, opened in the fall of 2018, which celebrates the way in which Islamic artifacts of all kinds match form to decoration. Even humble clay water filters feature elaborate geometric piercings. The uses of calligraphy, the arabesque interweaving of plant and animal forms, the multiple elaborations of geometric patterns – all are presented with a clarity that surpasses the earlier, rival Islamic art installations at the Louvre and the Met in New York. The lowest levels of the cases have ancient Persian animal figures to engage children, and there are a variety of please-touch items supervised by a museum educator at a low table. And, to add to the pleasure of the Gallery, when I visited there was an adjacent halal café with grilled figs and a spectacular lavender honey tart.

The smartest installations are often the ones in which curatorial responsibility is turned over to the artists. At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh some ancient Pict and Celt artifacts are installed against backgrounds devised by the artist Andy Goldsworthy – mud, pieces of slate and, most effectively, wooden sticks to set off the 600 B.C.E. Ballachulish figure, an Iron Age fertility figure or goddess. 

Which brings us back to Louisville and Southern Indiana.  Three recently opened galleries have ambitious programs and intriguing spaces which lend well to very satisfactory viewing spaces. Quappi Projects at 517 East Market Street in Louisville has high ceilings, excellent lighting and elegant proportions.  The Moremen Gallery, on the second floor at 517 East Market Street, makes excellent use of the former glass walled offices and conference rooms for modestly scaled one-person shows. The Kleinhelter Gallery at 701 East 8th Street, New Albany (Indiana), is housed in a 19th Century brick building that offers the option of hanging on plain or brick walls. The loser in the newer gallery sweepstakes is the collection-rich Filson Historical Society (Louisville), which did not allow for adequate exhibit space in its recent expansion. The primary galleries are cramped, awkwardly lit, and require a staff member to accompany visitors who wish to visit the exhibitions.

Installation View, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950. (1590)

More intriguing in terms of installation is the contrast between the current exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum and KMAC (Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft). At the Speed, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 has a whopping 162 works on view, at least 140 of which depict the equine stars of the race course and breeding industry.  The majority are extracted from Kentucky  collections.  From a museum-strategy point of view, the subject gave the Speed an excuse for access to Bluegrass holdings that would otherwise remain behind closed doors. 

Documentary but also laden with a romanticizing self-regard, the carefully delineated champions’ confirmations are emblems of the horse owners’ prestige:  the nobility of the animals imply by extension their owners’ lofty status.  Artists were partners in the thoroughbred and saddlebred businesses, and the story is told with panache in Tales from the Turf.  In addition to paintings there are prints, silver trophies, artists’ tools, a map of the Bluegrass, a circular pedigree diagram, an example of the actual purse that was presented to a winner in the 19th Century, and a bronze masterpiece of a jockey and rider by the art moderne sculptor Wilhelm Hunt Diederich, who employed a simplifying cubist geometrification.

The introduction to the show includes three paintings by the greatest 20th Century equestrian painter, Sir Alfred Munnings.   In Going Out at Epsom from 1929-1930, Munnings’s alla prima brushwork, especially in the clouds that surmount the scene, complements the energy, excitement and nervousness before a race.  The three Munnings paintings are real zingers, and placement opposite the entrance to the show provides an upbeat introduction.  The gallery-goer is then carried along by six different wall colors, from pale to dark blue, and a sequence of mauve-eggplant hues.  Wall texts, wall text illustrations, varied rhythms of spacing of pictures on the wall, and the piped in sound of clopping horses’ hooves – all keep attention at a high level despite the show’s repetitiveness.  There are also some great curatorial mysteries to be solved, for example, the detection of an American horse altered to appear to be English. In Edmund Troye, the show has a major master whose place in the pantheon of great American painters needs to be more widely acknowledged. The show concludes with three newsreels of Kentucky Derby races from the 1940s. 

A complete contrast is the KMAC installation of “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville.” It is remarkably understated. The walls are off-white, the pictures are lined up with little variation, and labels are remote, printed out on plasticized sheets. The show consists of three galleries, a timeline, a video about the founder of the Musée Picasso in Antibes, France, and photographs of Picasso at work by Michel Sima.  The first gallery has a reproduction of Picasso’s 1946 Joy of Life, a painting which shows Picasso in a playful, relaxed mood after the horrors of the war years.  The rest of the gallery is devoted to preliminary studies for the Joy of Life, and still lifes from the same year. In this period Picasso was visiting Matisse every two weeks, and the interchange with the older master is apparent.  Picasso, as he had done repeatedly throughout his career, took on the mantle of classicism: the spare graphite studies are of a centaur and several fauns, many playing the regional duale double barreled flute. They are accompanied in the studies by extraordinarily zaftig nymphs with ballooning breasts.  But these mythological fantasy drawings are not easily dismissed on sexist grounds:  Picasso’s lyrical line and the taut compression of his contours imply acrobatic vitality and a division of space that activates every sheet.  

Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum

A second gallery has a selection from Picasso’s Vollard Suite, installed in a flat-footed manner, eight vertical prints followed by eight horizontals. Turn the corner and there is Picasso’s portrait of the maestro art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned the suite that preoccupied the Spaniard from 1931 to 1937. Picasso makes his viewers complicit in his male gaze: we are voyeurs witnessing the gaze of the middle-aged males in the prints.  The linear contours of the female nudes in these prints have their clearest precedents in Greek vase painting. Sexuality, death, aggression, evil and innocence are some of Picasso’s themes: in effect, Picasso addresses the tissue of human relations, love and antagonism, with classicizing men and women, horses and Minotaurs.  Blind Minotaur Guided through a Starry Night by Marie-Thérèse with a Pigeon, aquatint, drypoint, and engraving, executed in 1934-1935, encompasses the emotional extremes Picasso invested in the Minotaur, symbolizing lasciviousness but also guilt; violence but also despair.  

Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum

The last gallery is reached from a corridor with a very informal Picasso timeline, a nice contrast to the buttoned-up installation of the rest of the show.  A selection of prints done between 1952 and 1956 demonstrate Picasso’s experimental approach to printmaking and include lithographs, silkscreen and aquatint.

So ultimately does installation matter? In the case of the Picasso show at KMAC, the underplayed arrangement is a plus, allowing black and white drawings and prints to command center stage.  The curatorial problem remains: how do you make the work of art mean more? How do you make the work of art more present and more accessible?  How do you sustain attention?  Each exhibition and each exhibition space demand different solutions.

Tales from the Turf: the Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 , Speed Art Museum, 2035 South Third St., Louisville, KY, 40208.  Closes March 1st.

Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville, KMAC Museum, 715 West Main St., Louisville, KY, 40202.  Closes March 22nd.

Arts

Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life

“Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” had its origins in the spring of 2018 with an email from Bill and Flo Caddell, guardians of the reputation and ideals of Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988), artist, writer and environmentalist. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Hubbard attempted to live a life as close to nature as possible, and he and his wife Anna subsisted mostly on what they were able to raise, catch or barter. They lived at Payne Hollow, on the banks of the Ohio River, a mile away from the nearest road, in a home without electricity or other modern conveniences.

Hubbard left his artistic legacy to the Caddells, who possess the largest collection of Hubbard’s oils, watercolors and woodblock prints. They asked if I would like to write a foreword to a book on Hubbard watercolors, scheduled for publication in 2020 by the University Press of Kentucky. The Caddells, with Hubbard scholar Jessica Whitehead, were to be the principal authors.

They had originally asked Charles Venable, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to write the foreword; he declined but suggested me as a substitute. I told the Caddells that I would like to visit, and asked permission to bring John Begley with me. John had been director of Louisville Visual Art (LVA) and I had been director of the Speed Art Museum; after leaving our executive positions, we both taught in the Critical & Curatorial Master of Arts Degree program at the University of Louisville, often as a two-person team.

John thought he was simply going along to look at some pictures, and I went to make up my mind as to whether I liked the work well enough to want to write about it. We were both strongly smitten with Hubbard’s fresh, improvisatory and spontaneous watercolors, the visual equivalents of the lively, brief descriptions of the natural world in his journals.

Fortuitously, while doing research at the Filson Historical Society, I had overheard that it was planning a show based on Mark Wetherington’s studies of the shantyboat community that had thrived at “The Point” on the banks of the Ohio in Louisville in the 19th and 20th centuries, until mostly wiped out in the 1937 flood. Hubbard is best known for his book Shantyboat: A River Way of Life (1954) chronicling his trip down the Ohio and Mississippi with his wife Anna, so the Filson show would be relevant to Hubbard manifestations elsewhere.

I then went to the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Louisville, which has the largest holding of Hubbard’s manuscripts. Would they consider doing a Hubbard show simultaneously with the Filson’s? The librarians agreed.

Angie Reed Garner, “Shantyboat #7”, oil on canvas, 2018

Shortly thereafter I saw a painting by Angie Reed Garner depicting a shantyboat. She had developed an iconography of shantyboats, Asian carp, mules and other imagery inspired by Hubbard to call attention to recent efforts to destroy the camps of homeless people living outside of the flood wall in the Butchertown neighborhood, close to where shantyboaters had lived a marginal existence in their homemade houseboats at The Point.

With three committed Ohio River/Hubbard-centric collaborators, we held an initial meeting on board the Belle of Louisville in August, 2018, drawing an enthusiastic group of staff from a variety of museums, volunteers, enviromentalists, gallerists and others. From there, the project mushroomed: the Caddells graciously agreed to lend their watercolors to the Frazier for a show that John Begley and I would co-curate.

The Swanson Contemporary Art Gallery agreed to mount “Currents: Contemporary Art on the Banks of the Ohio”, a brilliant show of 14 artists contending with the river, or with the Hubbards as muses. The Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society signed on to provide professors to lecture about Ohio River history and culture. We were under way!

We now have nearly 20 academic organizations, galleries, history museums, art museums, outdoors and environmental groups united in focusing on the Ohio River in 2019 and we will continue to add partners throughout the year. We refer to ourselves as a consortium, or a collaboration, but have studiously avoided creating a 501(c3) or having a board. Donations are processed through the Community Foundation of Louisville to ensure deductibility. Our model is deliberately open-ended and fluid.

Over time, a larger purpose emerged:  to call attention, as our elevator speech puts it, to the Ohio River, its beauty, its needs, and its unmet potential.  This new consortium has the ambition of providing a platform for environmental groups in renewing and recasting attention to the Ohio River, and creating dialogue among sectors that do not often come together.

– The Ohio River’s beauty: Hubbard wrote frequently of his prolonged contemplation of the river, and decried those who would ignore the beauty of the everyday.

– Its needs: there are 25 active coal-fired power plants on the Ohio, a source of toxic mercury, and new revelations suggest the precipitous danger of coal ash impoundments and landfills.

– Its unmet potential:  the closure of the Jeffboat shipyard on the banks of the Ohio in Jeffersonville, Indiana, will open a mile of shoreline for development or, ideally, park lands. The Ohio River Recreational Trail proposes a Blue Trailfrom Portsmouth, Ohio to Louisville.  The trail would be a means of promoting ecotourism and increasing opportunities for fishing, boating, paddling and cycling, as well as retail, lodging and food sales.

What are possible impacts? First, Kentucky is second only to Alaska in the number of miles of navigable waterways. Our consortium could be replicated elsewhere in the Commonwealth or “Afloat” could extend its reach.

The second issue has to do with artistic practice. Subjects in art have been viewed with suspicion for at least 75 years.  I grew up in an age in which the best works of art were often titled, “Untitled” or simply numbered, in an attempt to let the work speak directly to the viewer and permit a universality of expression and meaning, leaving the art unbesmirched with words. Implicit in this attitude is ‘art for art’s sake”, a 19th Century notion rejecting art’s utility. In their provocative book, Art as Therapy (2013) Alain de Botton and John Armstrong argue:

The saying ‘art for art’s sake’ specifically rejects the idea that art might be for the sake of anything in particular, and therefore leaves the high status of art mysterious – and vulnerable. Despite the esteem art enjoys, its importance is too often assumed rather than explained. Its value is a matter of common sense. This is highly regrettable, as much for the viewers of art as for its guardians. What if art had a purpose that can be defined and discussed in plain terms? Art can be a tool, and we need to focus more on what kind of tool it is  – and what good it can do for us.

Our multiple exhibitions, events and lectures are not going to soon lead to steps that will increase oxygen levels in the Ohio.  But it may test whether cultural manifestations can influence the collective narrative and spur thought leaders to confront the fraught issue of the water those of us living on the banks of the river drink. Rallying around a single subject does not have to be about a specific meaning in order to be meaningful. Meaning is provided by the context of all of the manifestations of attention to the Ohio River in the “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” consortium.  In  the interim, openings and lectures in the early months of this year have been met with record audiences.

Harlan Hubbard believed in the eventual impact of his fierce determination to live in harmony with nature and in opposition to commercial and industrial forces. In 1942 he wrote:

Against what I thought wrong and false, I have long been conducting a one-man revolution, faint and under cover but growing stronger, and sooner or later it will be revealed. It may as well be now. My case should be presented and stood for, even if by such a small minority. It is a strain of Americanism almost lost. It is the hope of the future.

For more about “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” visit https://afloatontheohio.com/.

TOPMOST IMAGE: Ray Kleinhelter, “Above Grassy Flats”, Oil on Linen, 2019, 40×30″