Medieval Treasury

In Medieval and Renaissance art, there are a few stock scenes after Christ’s death which are repeatedly, obsessively depicted. They are: deposition, where Jesus’ body is brought down from the cross; pietá, where the Maries (Mother and Magdalene), apostles, and maybe an angel or two mourn for him; entombment, or burial; and finally assumption, where JC is resurrected and flies up to Heaven.

medieval-treasuryThese scenes (and others, like the stations of the cross) are fascinating precisely because their content is so regimented. The Gospel says that Christ was nailed to a cross, so he has to have stigmata. He was stabbed with a lance, so he has to have a slit in his ribcage. His mother was there, so she has to be seen reacting to her dead son. Etcetera.

pleurantsBut since artists weren’t free to deviate from scripture, we’re fascinated by the differences between each rendition of these tropes. It’s sort of like our love affair with the 12-bar blues in E. We know that the song goes E-A E-A B-E, but we’re interested in hearing how it goes. So, whatever, Robert Johnson throws his voice, and Muddy Waters lays on the double entendre: they’re both singing the 12-bar blues in E, but each iteration is singular and interesting on its own terms.

Likewise, a deposition painted in Flanders in the 15th century is totally different from one done in Florence in the 16th.  The Northern Renaissance had an altogether darker outlook (think Brueghel and Bosch). The Christ being lowered from the cross in Dutch paintings tended to look more emaciated and injured than the Jesuses being deposed in the South, who appeared more saintly and placid).

This is all by way of saying the Medieval Treasury, just to the North of the big Medieval hall at the heart of the Met (you know, the one with the giant choir screen) has some great artifacts that were created within rigidly defined parameters. None of our camerafone pix do justice so, apologies. You’ll just have to go in person. Pobrecitos.

The gallery has very low lighting, which is appropriate given the content, and seems to have existed in more or less its current configuration for a while (there are several generations of wall text accompanying the statuary—typographophiles take note). We liked the colorfully illuminated Spanish copy of City of God, and the highly articulated micro-sculptures that fit into a walnut shell.

The French pietá (ca. 1515) stopped us in our tracks. The scene is more or less life-sized, and the two figures bookending Mary and Christ are the donors who commissioned the piece (see this post for our reserved and profanity-free thoughts on money and art). There’s all this stuff going on in the scene (killer drapery!), but the only thing that really matters is the grief in Mary’s eyes. She looks like she’s about to vomit, which is about what you’d expect if you’d just seen your son tortured to death. I swear, no matter how many times I see sculptures like this, I still feel the urge to grab strangers in the gallery and shout, in my most professorial Art Historian voice, “These fucking things are made of STONE, isn’t that crazy? How does it look so much like people?”

The Medieval Treasury

Highlights: Bourbonnais Pietá, a crazy statuette of Saint Anne Holding the Virgin Holding Christ (seriously, is St. Anne supposed to be huge or is the virgin supposed to be tiny?)

Memorable Quote:
French, Berry, from the Tomb of John, Duke of Berry, Choir of Sainte-Chapelle, Bourges (until 1757).

Next Week: ‘Pressionism

A 15th century German take on the Entombment. In walnut.
A 15th century German pietá in walnut.

Galileo in Philadelphia


“Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy” opened on April Philadelphia’s  Franklin Institute on Saturday 2. The exhibition, which runs through September 7,  shows a cache of the astronomer’s instruments, including “ornately decorated quadrants of enameled brass, metal calipers, arcane charts, minutely inscribed maps, spheres within spheres like compass roses from other worlds, codexes and manuscripts, cylinders, dials, rings, rods and boxes.” That’s what Edward Rothstein says, anyway.

A Reuters article says that the focus of the show is Galileo’s telescope, which has never been outside of Italy. According to Paolo Galluzi, who runs the Instituto e Museo Nationale di Storia della Scienza (the institution loaning the telescope) “There will not be a second time in the States.”

The website for the show could be more convincing and adult tickets run more than $20, but hell. Shiny scientific gear of historical import. Worth it. We will be going to Philadelphia thank you very much.

The Jan Mitchell Treasury


feet-smJust as the Jan Mitchell Treasury attempts to cover the breadth of pre-Columbian South American art in a single moderately sized gallery, we intend to review the Mitchell Treasury in the scant few minutes we have before we leave for California (by way of Eero Saarinen’s optimistic ode to Modernism, the freshly-restored TWA terminal at JFK! Cantilevered hyperboloids hell yes!)

The Mitchell Treasury is a winner. The wall text concisely explains the rise and fall of city-states, and many of the galley’s objects either A. Are made from Incan gold, or B. Depict skulls and bugs.

We have a confession to make. We visited the Mitchell treasury just after reading Andy’s post, “talk to strangers.” And we meant to speak with the lady snapping pictures of the artifacts with her digital SLR, we really did. Our borrowed point-and-shoot was running out of batteries (we’d taken too many shots of a fertility statue prominently featuring an erect penis). So we thought we’d introduce ourselves as a writer for the world-famous Suggested Donation, give her our email address, and politely request JPEGs of a few of her pictures for inclusion in this column.

Well. We failed. As we approached her, we were overtaken by the memory of the first time we’d ever asked a girl to slow dance in sixth grade. K— M——- (who we still have a crush on and would marry if the chance arose) rolled her eyes, sighed loudly and said, “fine” in the same tone of voice usually reserved for words like “treason” or “staff infection.”
So, no progress on that front. Sorry, Andy. But it’s like we always say: “During the first half of the first millennium B.C., the ceramics of the southern Peruvian Coast were strongly influenced by those of Chavin, the expansionist religious cult of the central Peruvian highlands.”

The Jan Mitchell Treasury

Highlights: Foot jars; anything made of solid gold

Memorable Quote: See above

Next Week: The Dark Ages–just how dark were they?

No More Pencils, No More Books

delacroix_etal_bookcoverfragnoardSmARThistory is the work of Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, two professors of art history who were “dissatisfied with the large college textbooks [which] were difficult for many students, contained too many images, and just were not particularly engaging.” Their solution is a shotgun approach to learning—they write concise articles and podcasts about major themes in art history and post them to their growing website,

Each movement is illustrated by a scant few images. Rococo, for instance, is explained via an exploration of a single painting—Fragonard’s The Swing—that, of course, is the quintessential Rococo masterpiece. Since so many of the era’s artistic trends are illustrated in the airy scene he depicts, the website’s writers figure something like, “well, if someone reads the few paragraphs we’ve written on this image, she’ll have a pretty good idea of what painting was like in Europe right before the French Revolution.” So the site is not comprehensive, but it’s plenty broad, covering art in Classical Antiquity through the present.

There are more than 150 podcasts that, again, focus on a single work as explained by the professors. We like that it’s free and growing, and that there’s a Contribute section. Pedantry changes and we’re not married to the old textbook model of learning—we know that we never bought a copy of our Intro to Art History course’s textbook, and we did just fine, thank you (thing cost $80, and we had beer and quesadillas to buy).

Which brings us to another nice point in smARThistory’s favor—it’s free and ad-free. SmARThistory is searchable and can be organized by time, style, artist, and theme. Hoo-ray!

Pretty Art Robots

In recognition of International Kinetic Art day,* we bring you this wonderful project by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. Jansen has created the Strandbeests, a series of mobile sculptures that wander along the Dutch coast, apparently under their own volition (wind power, stored in recycled lemonade bottles, actually propels them; a “binary step counter,” functions as a ”simple brain”). They’re beautiful.


Jansen explains his project thoroughly in a TED Talk, but it still seems magic. For our money that’s a mark of a good invention—you understand it but you’re still wowed by it (We’re looking at you, flying buttresses).

We’re impressed by the simplicity of Jansen’s work—there is no CPU controlling these things. They don’t even use electricity. Our inner geek loves the new Japanese model robot HRP-4C as much as the next guy, but we prefer lo-fi abstraction to a tour of the Uncanny Valley.

Jansen, who comes off as a mad scientist with a hint of a god complex, has been developing (“evolving”) these things for almost twenty years, and his labor is evident in the creatures’ graceful movement. Most are made from PVC, but one particularly striking Strandbeest is made from 3.2 tons of what looks to be Corten steel. It’s so perfectly engineered that a single person can push it around, its many lumbering metal legs attached to an axis that somehow lets a person move forty times his body weight (check it in the TED video, the second link).


It’s like . . . Calatrava plus Skynet. This is very, very hard to describe and this post is nowhere near as entertaining as watching these things putter around the beach. Please go watch some of this footage and delight in the beauty and craft until the Strandbeests achieve full cognition and enslave us all.

(Thanks to another mad scientist artist, Julia Vallera, who brought this to our attention).

*Since writing this post we have been informed that it’s not technically “International Kinetic Art Day” just because Andy and I both wrote posts about sculptures that move. Please note that banks and the Post Office will be open, and you should have gone to work today. Suggesteddonation regrets the error.

The End of Capitalism; Damien Hirst is some Bullshit

The L Magazine, aka The Village Voice for people with small hands, has just released an arts-themed issue. A pull quote from the feature article reads, “Art as an exciting stock risk for a venture capitalist who cares little about the work itself will go away. This is a good thing.” We tend to agree.


We are students of history; we’re aware that Pope Julius II della Rovere was the great patron of Michelangelo and Raphael, and that the ecclesiast was single-handedly responsible for the commission of some of the great, enduring works of art of all time— work that even we can’t be cynical of. And we know that our beloved Met was, and is, financed by mega-capitalists. Don’t think we haven’t noticed just how many pieces in the permanent collection are gifts of John Pierpont Morgan.

sybilBut you know what? Fuck it, is what. We draw a distinction between crazy rich people funding the visual arts and I-banking speculators who see art as another commodity to make a killing on. We are made sick by the creeping influence of capital in art. In “art.” Frankly, the phrase “The Art Market” makes our little socialist stomachs churn.

Contrary to the claims in Adam Bonislaski’s article in The L, we don’t fetishize the mythical starving, suffering artist—we know that artists need to be compensated for their craft, and that when the economy booms, more artists are able to ply their trade. Great.murakami

But Damien Hirst and Murakami need an ass kicking. Conflating consumerism with high art was funny when Warhol did it, guys. But 50 years have passed, and Warhol’s been inducted into the canon. So that just makes you greedy, derivative profiteers. Hirst, for example, sold his diamond encrusted one-liner for $100 million, then sued a 16-year-old who was making bootleg collages of his work. Because, you know, it’s a self-conscious meta-criticism. damien-hirst-skull-1

“But at least we’re talking about art,” apologists will cry. “Isn’t that the point?” No, no it’s not. We’re also talking about AIG’s request for $165 million of government funds to give bonuses to the assholes that wrecked the economy. That doesn’t make it an art project. Shock does not confer value.

Pick up the latest edition of the L Magazine in those orange boxes before the college kids take em all. BTW this issue also has a handy Spring Arts Preview. We’re psyched about the upcoming Frank Lloyd Wright show at the Guggenheim.

Are we full of it? Almost certainly. Drop some knowledge in the comments below. Let us know just how cynical or naive we are about the state of The Art Market (pukes in mouth). Tell us what  idiots we are. Talk dirty to us.

Little Boxes on the Hillside


This will come as a shock to regular readers of this column, but I have done some ill-advised things in my time. I have bathed in plaster, shaved Charlie Brown’s zig-zag shirt pattern into my hair, and let two crack dealers named—I am not making this up, Pimplenose and Trouble—make a series of calls from my cell phone one long night in Birmingham.

I have eaten more than one insect on purpose, and worn more than one pair of pleather pants. I played rhythm guitar in a band called “The Alarm Cock.” I have also purchased, and it pains me to write these words, no fewer than three ICP albums. Purchased, not pirated.

Among my biggest blockheaded boners was participating in a little ritual we dreamed up in college called the Trifecta. The Trifecta was designed to get you as far from sobriety in as little time as possible, using only–get this–tobacco. In retrospect, I don’t know why we didn’t just huff gasoline or something, because the Trifecta was viiiiile. To do this properly, one needs to pack a “double horseshoe” of chewing tobacco, stuffing the upper and lower lips with about a handful of Peach-Flavored Skoal for each cavity. As the juices begin to flow and you feel like you’re about to pass out, the discerning Trifecta-er will take a massive drag of an unfiltered mentholated cigarette and hold it. The final component is a hefty line of snuff—powdered tobacco. After releasing the smoke, the trifecta has been acheived, and the resulting buzz is more or less guaranteed to make you vomit, or at the very least tilt lazily from verticality and start frowning at the earth, which will have suddenly betrayed you by roiling violently.

Snuff. Like Steve McQueen said, it seemed to be a good idea at the time. My snuff came in a blue plastic box covered with German writing that probably said something to the effect of, “Do not do snuff. It is terrible and will make your snot brown. The inside of your head will burn and taste like cigarettes. Seriously, cocaine is better for you. Throw this away and go smoke varnish or something.”
I bring this up because the Met has a small gallery in the European wing consisting mostly of snuffboxes from pre-revolution France (that’s called a segue, kids). The gallery itself is as far as I can tell nameless, and it’s really nothing more than an eight-foot wide alcove filled with precious boxes. Needless to say, I thought it was awesome. Only a museum with a collection like the Met’s can take what would otherwise have been an overlooked span of wall facing the bathrooms, and turn that into a delightful little revelation.

The snuffboxes are no more than a few inches on a side, usually gilt, and often covered with porcelain or inlaid mother of pearl. The vitrine also has other kinds of objets de luxe, including étuis, which the wall text defines as “any small portable container, case, or box that conforms to the shape of its contents” which could include “ear spoons” and “tongue scrapers.” Um.

There’s something appealing about a box that conforms to the shape of what’s in it, rather than just idly sitting box-shaped, regardless of what someone wants to put in there. One-use boxes made of precious metals. Ah, France. And you wondered why a mob of malnourished malcontents stormed the Bastille!


Also, another discovery: “souvenir” denotes not only a chintzy replica of the Empire State Building, but also a tiny notepad in an ornamented case (souvenir=to remember; writing=an act of memory; me= a linguist). They were usually decorated with portraits or little allegorical scenes and contained little baby pencils. Adorable.

The Snuffbox Gallery

Highlights: Blinged-out boxes for ear spoons (seriously, what are ear spoons? A prize to the SD reader who can answer).

Memorable Quote: “In France, snuff was praised for its power to bring on a healthy and hearty sneeze, but it was not until the last quarter of the seventeenth century that it became socially fashionable—despite King Louis XIV’s disdain for the habit.” From the wall text, Definition of Terms.

Next Week: We travel to South America and see a skull-shaped jug.

Punch Card from the Public Liberry


Our office has a scanner, and we have a library book titled The Causes of the American Civil War (slavery! And nothing else. I did not read the book). Sounds like a winning formula for an SD post to me.

The book, which we found on the stoop of a brownstone in Brooklyn, is three days and 28 years overdue. At 1981 rates—ten cents per day—the person who checked it out owes the Library $1022.30  in fines (and in 2006, that dime went up to 25 cents a day).

According to NYPL’s FAQ website, “If you owe the library fines or fees over $15.00 . . . or have any fines or overdues more than one month old, your borrowing privileges may be suspended.”

We wonder if whoever (whomever?) checked this volume out in the first Reagan administration won’t face more serious consequences than a revoked library card.

Unfortunately, the punch card’s declaration, “THIS CARD WILL BE PROCESSED BY COMPUTER,” is misleading.  I stabbed that little bastard into a DVD drive a bunch of times and all that happened is that my iMac started making whining noises.
Ah, punch cards. We barely knew ye.

Yesterday was a Stumble in the Rain

On Sunday, our gang came across Black & White Project Space, a new non-profit gallery on Driggs Avenue in Brooklyn (n.b. we are an actual gang with matching leather jackets). The space opened on March 7, and its inaugural exhibition, a collection of photos, videos, and objects taken from Brighton Beach, will evolve over a 3-month run.

Out back, a monumental Astroturf portrait of a woman demands your attention–you can see her from the street (camerafone pic by Ryan Muir).

We went down to the brand-new pier jutting out towards Manhattan from the Northside Piers development, apparently designed by the same morons who thought Battery Park City was a good idea (this is not necessarily “factually true,” but Northside has the same soulless, cookie-cutter mediocrity as BPC). I wanted to hate the pier for what it stood for, and I did, kind of. But at the same time it was fun being that far out from shore. It was overcast and New York looked as sexy as she ever does. On the boardwalk itself, some wrought-metal armature forms neat benches and an overhang. It looked like a catwalk gone wrong, sprouting from the wood planks.


A conversation with an NYC Parks officer on the site revealed the Pier is allegedly public—part of a concession that Northside’s developers undoubtedly made to the City to repay for the outsize monstrosities lurking where once rusty but inoffensive warehouses sat. But he was skeptical of how easy the boardwalk will be to access for people who don’t live in one of the new condos that straddle its entrance. Stay tuned.

It’s been a little while since I’ve walked around in Williamsburg, but wow. Residential buildings are popping up there like mushrooms after a rain. Or, they were, before capitalism broke and the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) dropped to its lowest level since they began measuring it.  My uneducated guess it that we’ll see a lot of projects stall and want for tenants in the next few years.

Half-completed glass and steel luxury condos or extant dilapidated brick warehouses? The choice is yours, Williamsburg. Just kidding! There’s no fucking way BK’s industrial heritage will be allowed to remain intact. We hope you like brushed aluminum!

So. While gentrification: Stage Two is coming, it may take a bit longer than initially planned.


China is Like a Hundred Years Old

Were you aware that non-Europeans have made art? I was not, until my recent visit to the Charlotte C. Weber Galleries of The Arts of Ancient China (insider tip for elite museum-goers only: when visiting the Met, enter through the door labeled “Groups and Tours” to the south of the main entrance. It’s much less crowded than its more impressive counterpart at the façade’s center).

The Weber galleries impress in their breadth and scope. The artifacts are from Neolithic and Bronze Age China, and they range from ornamented wine vessels from the Shang Dynasty to clay figurines crafted by nomads living North of the Great Wall.
To the rube (me), the wow factor here comes from the sheer age of these objects—some of the carved jade ornaments predate the Roman Empire by two thousand years. Walking through this place, I think of the flawed but attractive idea of the telescoping nature of technological progress. For obvious reasons, it’s limiting to think of “progress” as directional. But if we’re forced to graph it, we can imagine technological innovation like a hockey stick, its handle flush with the ground and the blade shooting up at the graph’s very end. So it took however many thousands of years to get from horse riding to the internal-combustion engine, but it only took a few decades to get from the engine to space-travel. You know the drill.
Anyway, I think about all that deterministic poppycock because you have on display in the Weber galleries some two thousand years of Chinese art, and to my (rube) eye, it all looks of a piece, like the passage of time had no effect inside the Great Wall (this was probably desirable in a culture that prioritized harmony as an intrinsic good). There’s clearly some innovation there—the decoration on the bronze vessels, in particular, gets more ornate over time—but basically, it all looks like Old Pretty Things to me.


I guess what I’m trying to say here is: I don’t know anything about Chinese art. Or  history (on review: is my argument really that China made no technological advances for three thousand years? I guess it is. If only I could edit this “blog-posting,” but everyone knows that the Internet is a permanent and unalterable record. Woe!) Also, I’m ignorant about determinism. And I’m not totally sure that the end part of a hockey stick is called a blade (foot?)

But contained in the Weber galleries is a beautiful collection of belt buckles and daggers, tiny figurines, rhythmically engraved stone, and cast metal. Wall text sheds some light on the mysteries for the patient. For the rest of us, the aesthetic impact of five thousand year-old axes is enough.


The Charlotte C. Weber Galleries

Highlights: Ceremonial bronze wine vessel with its lid cast in the form of a slug/giraffe creature; really old axes that still look dangerous as shit.

Memorable quote: “Another common type of weapon from the steppe was the ax with a tubular socket first conceived of in the West and later introduced to North China through Central Asia.” From the wall text.

Next week: Arms AND armor.

SD Columnist Accurately Predicts the Future!

It was two weeks ago that Suggesteddonation’s Andy Van Slyke wrote, “we secretly hope a Poster Boy out there makes a remix” of MoMA’s Atlantic Pacific installation. (New York Magazine’s obscurantist bio brings the uninitiated up to speed on Poster Boy’s antics).

Well, it seems that the weight of Van Slyke’s Internet missive has spurred the masked man into action. On Saturday, Poster Boy assaulted the high-art reproductions, defacing, among other things, a Warhol Marylin. A print of a print of a print–sullied by a common hooligan! Scandal!

Somewhere, an art historian who spells authenticity with a capital A just ejaculated and keeled over dead.

We kid, we kid. Fuck those posters up, Poster Boy, but only if you’re going to improve them. When it comes to street art, we favor détournement and murals over, say, scratchitti and other vandalism-for-its-own-sake lameness. If you’re going to subvert this offering from MoMA, we request that you delight us.

And a related correction: in our February 11 post on the Atlantic Pacific installation we wrote, Those hip motherfuckers over at The Happy Corp beat us to the punch reporting the news that MoMA has finished installing a project in the Atlantic/Pacific subway station. That’s true, but incomplete.
The Happy Corp Global, the inscrutable advertising/creative media/promotional/design company, was actually MoMA’s partner in the installation—not just a vector in the blogosphere reacting to the event. regrets the error, and regrets that our spellchecker doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the idiotic neologism “blogosphere.”

We Will Destroy the Museums

On February 20, 1909, a manic Italian theorist named F. T. Marinetti published The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism in the French newspaper Le Figaro. It began:

We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits, shining like them with the prisoned radiance of electric hearts.

Marinetti and his impish cohorts shrugged off the weight of history. They  embraced intertia in dynamic sculpture and tumbling, energetic prose, and in their affection for the automobile. The Futurists celebrated novelty, revolt, brashness, and above all, the machine, the Machine. It was Nietzsche gone wild, violent and nationalistic, fervidly misogynistic. It was an art movement whose adherents rejected museums, a mode of thought that presaged Buck Rogers and the atomic bomb and the The Factory and the transistor radio and the plastic century. Among the Futurist Manifesto’s calls to arms are this one:

We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

For Marinetti & Co., technology was an intrinsic good. But their movement, which put such a premium on energy and youth, aged quickly and wilted by the beginning of the First World War. The prominent futurist artist Umberto Boccioni was killed in 1916; Marienetti formed a Futurist political party that later merged with Mussolini’s. Marinetti, who had written that war was “the world’s only heigyne” volunteered–and was summarily rejected for–active duty in the Fascist army when he was in his sixties.

In honor of this misguided movement’s centenary, we bring a you a photograph of Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture that typifies Futurism’s visual aesthetic.

Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” 1913.

The Lila Acheson Wallace Wing: Room One

Highlights: Picasso and Braque squaring off with Cubist still lifes; Boccioni being a maniac.

Memorable quote:

Museum-goer lectures his Girlfriend on the importance of Picasso’s bronze 1909 sculpture, Woman’s Head:

“I love the muscularity of it. It’s like a woman’s trapped in there. Like there’s stuff just slathered on her head.”

Museum-goer motions slathering stuff on the sculpture; A Guard watches nervously; Girlfriend is nonplussed.

“Know what I mean?”

Girlfriend walks off.

Next Week: Neolithic China

Boccioni's "Self Portrait," 1905
Boccioni's "Self Portrait," 1905

Just slathered on there.
Just slathered on there.