Anyone up for a trip to Newark?
Curious: the Craft of Microscopy is a new exhibition at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London. It traces the history of microscopy and scientific discovery through a range of fascinating slides, some dating back to the 18th century
The center, a mad work of architectural megalomania and historical recovery, is one of the strangest but most memorable museum buildings to open in ages. Imagine an Art Deco version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon stretching nearly the height of the Empire State Building, its decorations coded with Armenian symbolism.
The plan calls for redeveloping Pennsylvania Avenue’s historic Sphinx Club and adjacent properties with a sports-themed museum, entertainment and dining complex designed to draw tourists and help rejuvenate the corridor.
Pennsylvania Ave., Baltimore (Baltimore City Paper 2005)
And Super Suggested: Google Books, African American Entertainment in Baltimore (lots of photos)
I first met Josiah Tell in the Spring of 1999, when he tapped me to ghost write his autobiography Josiah Tells All!: Notes from America’s Answer to Theodore Roosevelt. His erratic behavior—and his frequent absences due to the many arraignments he was required to attend over the years—made progress slow. The book was finally published on Tell’s GeoCities site last month, three days before Yahoo shut down the web hosting service permanently. Tell, who has claimed that backing up data is “for girls,” was left with nothing.
Tell has been known as the bad boy of the art historical world since 1985, when he provoked a fist fight at Pomona College’s annual Renaissance Art Symposium. (He repeatedly interrupted the keynote speaker by shouting from his seat in the audience that Leonardo da Vinci “was a big old Scientologist,” a claim that he stands by.) Since then, he’s traveled from museum to museum, shoplifting from gift stores and subsisting mostly on the free cru d’été served at exhibition openings.
In short, Josiah Tell is an abrasive outcast who only stays relevant by occasionally producing groundbreaking research. ArtForum calls his mode of scholarship the Stopped Clock method: unlike his peers, Tell doesn’t mind having his theories proved completely wrong. And because he’s never shy about sharing his libelous and paranoid theories, the law of averages states that eventually, a few of them will be correct—and fewer still, brilliant.
When he arrived at the Swedish Consulate General in New York, (where he’d demanded we hold this interview, since “The Swedes have never—and I do mean never—successfully prosecuted a submarine robbery”) Tell reeked of gasoline. “It’s Friday,” he shrugged, by way of explanation (It was a Tuesday). Tell grabbed the elbow of a passer-by and ordered “a piping-hot mug of crème de menthe.” Miraculously, the man, who I later learned was a senior diplomat, returned a few short minutes later with a steaming cup of liqueur, and nervously apologized for the wait. Call it the Tell Effect.
Tell wanted to speak about his recent visit to the Arms and Armor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but, being intensely suspicious of journalists, he refused to answer anything I asked. Instead, he conducted the entire interview himself, posing his own questions and pausing thoughtfully before responding.
Q: Are Arms awesome?
A: They are.
Q: How about Armor?
A: You bet!
Q: I was told you were a liberal elitist, and a socialist besides. Shouldn’t you hate guns?
A: Well, look: you can’t spell “Red State” without “Red.” So there’s something to think about. Plus, these weapons are all from Olden Times, before we had nations to protect us from Visigoths and bears and whatnot. Not to mention the constant threat of defenestration, which my research suggests killed more Europeans in the Premodern period than any other cause except witchcraft. So, sure, if I were living in Olden Times, you can bet I would have had as many muskets as I could fit in my castle. I would have worn a suit of armor, codpiece and all, in my sleep. Would have been crazy not to.
Q: That’s a really good point.
A: Thank you.
Q: Speaking of codpieces, if Prince were alive back in Arms and Armor days, what kind of codpiece would he wear?
A: You wouldn’t believe how often I get asked that question. He’d wear this one:
A: I know, right?
Q: It assumes the wearer has an erection at all times!
A: Yeah, it’s pretty hilarious. I had to be escorted from the gallery the first time I went because I was laughing so hard.
Q: So what was your favorite piece there?
A: Definitely the seven-foot-tall suit of German fluted armor (below left). Look at it—the center suit’s a full head taller than the other two! Think how big the guy who wore that must have been. And this was back when everyone else was all atrophied and hunchbacked from gout and a diet of hardtack and dirt, so this two-metre Teuton would have been huge.
Q: Well, the Days of Yore were some rough times, but I’m pretty sure people weren’t literally eating dirt.
A: Lots of people assume that. I actually was joking when I first said it, but apparently it’s a real thing called geophagy.
A: Totally weird! Eating dirt! But so anyway, you can imagine how terrifying this brute must have seemed in 1500, what with everyone else so malnourished and withered from eating rocks. If this ogre had started lumbering towards you in battle—
Q: Jesus Christ, I’d have pissed myself!
A: Precisely, you’d have pissed yourself. And suit of armor, remember, is impermeable, so it’s not like it would eventually have evaporated like that time you wet yourself after drinking a pint of ethanol that you stole from the the Rutgers Chem lab that caused you to pass out in a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, and when you woke up your cargo shorts smelled like frat bathroom but at least they were dry.
Q: I beg your pardon—I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to. And it was a tollbooth.
A: Yes, that’s right. You know, I haven’t been able to listen to Prairie Home Companion since that night. Who would have guessed that Garrison Keeler was such an adept cage fighter?
Q: He literally bent that guy’s arm backwards! Like with the elbow all going the wrong way! That’s a nice segue, actually, let’s move on to Arms. Were any of the handguns displayed in such a way that they appeared to be floating?
A: Yes. This revolver, manufactured by Samuel Colt, was displayed in exactly that manner:
Q: Super cool! That’s some nice curatorial work.
A: It is.
Q: Well, this has been a wonderful. Thanks for your time.
A: The pleasure was mine.
At this point, Tell lurched out of his seat and asked to use the phone at the receptionist’s desk. He dialed 411, and after politely requesting the operator’s name and social security number, made his query. “New York City, The Internet. Yes. I need the number for The Internet. You can just put me through directly (pause). It’s some kind of a computer thing, I’m pretty sure it’s like Sega. Have you played Sega? (pause) Well look, I need Paypal to wire some money over to the Swedish embassy. I’ve just now realized I’m short on cash and unable to pay my bar tab, so I need money moved from my Party Poker account in Mauritius to the— (pause) Hello?” Tell’s face fell, and he slowly returned the receiver to the desk attendant. “My deepest regrets, Your Grace. Evidently my bank refuses to do business with Scandinavians. On account of the War—you understand.”
And with that, Josiah Tell bowed deeply from the waist and sprinted out the door, into the night.
Sergio Holl is an arts writer based in New York City.
My housemate’s point-and-shoot digital camera, which I borrow to take photos for this blog, has a default setting called face detect. Face detect frames your subjects’ heads in little white boxes that show up in the the camera’s LCD viewfinder, presumably to help you take technically excellent pictures of Brock and Jimbo and Boner and the rest of the bros pounding mad shots of Jäger (Canon describes the setting as a “technology that detects up to nine faces in a frame and automatically optimizes the focus and exposure for great people shots.”)
But when I was taking pictures of the Met’s Beneson gallery today, I noticed that face detect doesn’t work on African art. I took ten pictures of figurative statues and masks, and in only one of them did the unnervingly Orwellian feature kick in. So 90 percent of these portraits of men and women, executed in stone and wood and metal by different artists in different countries, weren’t face-y enough for the camera to recognize them as faces.
I wouldn’t have thought twice about the failure of this unnecessary “feature”, except that on the way out of the Museum, I took a few pictures of some 18th century Italian marble and wood statues. And wouldn’t you know it? The camera recognized the European faces as faces about 3/4 of the time. That creepy little box perfectly framed the head of St. Bartholomew, and worse, in a statue of Perseus holding the disembodied head of Medusa, it even picked up on old hair-snakes. That’s right: this technology recognizes grimacing decapitated mythological monsters, but not idealized portraits of black Africans.
In fairness, this wasn’t a scientific experiment, and it’s possible that low light, or the glare off of the glass display cases, threw the camera for a loop. And I doubt it’d recognize the faces in a Picasso or de Kooning. It’s obviously looking for live human faces, and most of the art in the Beneson Gallery is abstracted–bodies are elongated, features broadened, etc. So is the PowerShot really a bigot? Probably not (although I’m still weirded out by that one time it got really drunk and started talking about how Tom Tancredo’s stance on immigration was “right on”).
But the face detect thing does show one of the biggest stumbling blocks that non-Africans have with understanding African art. Euros and Americans put this premium on art that looks like “the real world.” People go nuts for Vermeer because the way he uses light and color and perspective make his paintings look like photographs. But–sweeping, semi-informed generalizations to follow–African art has never really been about art-for-art’s sake, it’s meant to be used. These masks and staffs and pipes and statues only make sense in context–if you see a video of Yoruba dancers wearing headdresses, you can ‘get’ African art much more easily than you can if you just see isolated objects in hermetically sealed glass cases. Obviously, a devotional statue of the Virgin Mary was meant to be “used”, too, but since most Americans are more familiar with Christianity than with the Dogon religion, Americans’ knee-jerk reaction is to prefer a European statue of the Madonna over an African sculpture of a fertility goddess.
The Beneson Gallery does have lots of helpful text explaining the objects’ intended use, and that’s something. But unfortunately, the work isn’t really given a chance to breathe the way it wants to. Like most of the stuff in the Met, it’s decontextualized, but for those of us who aren’t already familiar with African art, these statues are at best less interesting, and at worst, less beautiful or compelling than their European counterparts. It’s a shame. Part of the problem is organizational–the Art of Africa, Oceania, and Central and South America are all part of the same department (AAOA), while American Art gets its own goddamn wing of the Museum. I’m not arguing that each country should get should get as much floorspace as American art, but it would be nice if there were more than a couple modest galleries representing the entire continent of Africa.
In a speech given before the Museum opened in 1869, the Met’s first president said that it’s not enough to have a world-class collection–you need to make the material accessible to visitors. So come on, Museum. Help us understand. Give African art its due–give us more more and better-lit galleries of African Art, more exhibitions of contemporary African artists, and more interactive displays showing the work in context.
And while we love-love the renovated Greek and Roman wing, next time you’ve got $900 million to spare, how about throwing a little of it in the direction of the Beneson Gallery for African art?
Nothing gets us going like a blockbuster museum exhibition. The Picasso and Braque show a few years back had us carrying around a stack of books for three months to hide the perpetual boner we’d get thinking about those lovely gray-brown forays into cubism. And don’t even get us started about Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery.
So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that the good folks at the Rijksmuseum in Merry Old Amsterdam had lent the Met The Milkmaid (1658ish), Vermeer’s best known work with the possible exception of The Girl With the Pearl Earring (and that’s only because of ScarJo).
There are a total of 30 known Vermeers, and six of those are currently on view in a little warren of rooms tucked just off the Greek and Roman Galleries. The show is excellent and the Milkmaid is fucking ridiculously good, and appears to have been recently cleaned (look at this image search for the painting—half the returns are yellowed with muck and varnish that’s since been removed). The blue and gold of the maid’s dress are lush and vital. It’s a simple mimetic scene—a young woman pours milk near a window. But then you step right up to the thing and you see that the loaf of bread on the table is rendered as minuscule dots, which makes it glow and radiate. It’s an ethereal trick, but the painting is grounded by the nicks and divots on the wall behind the maid. The whitewash is almost translucent, the blueblack of masonry or underpainting just barely shows through. And the . . . the fucking quality of light and shadow is fantastic, so vivid that you can tell it’s overcast outside, even though you can only see a fraction of a windowpane at an angle.
The show’s well curated, too—also on view are period Delft tiles, nearly identical to the ones seen in the painting, and a tightly edited group of works by Vermeer’s contemporaries. Among our favorites were a pair of canvasses by Van Vilets and De Witte. Each painter shows an the interior of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (old church). By 1600, wall text informs, the Netherlands had gone almost totally Protestant, and they converted their Gothic (Catholic) churches into more Romanesque (Protestant) buildings by stripping the “‘popish’ appointments and whitewashing their columns and walls.” Anyway, the paintings show the Oude Kerk as a weird, wonderful palimpsest—the vaulted arches and stone tracery show the church’s gothic pedigree. It’s in the building’s bones, and no whitewash can cover it.
In de Witte’s view, a dog, visually emphasized by a square of daylight, lifts its leg to piss on one of the church’s columns.
Show’s up through November. Get over there.
Highlight: The textures in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662ish). You can see the “needlework” on the tablecloth and the creases in the woman’s headdress. Remarkable.
Memorable quote: “For at least two centuries before Vermeer’s time, milkmaids and kitchen maids had (or were assigned) a reputation for amorous predispositions.”
Next week: African art, for real this time. We were distracted by Vermeer.
Thank god the Museum of Animal Perspectives exists to post videos of what it looks like to walk through the woods from the top of a wolf’s head. But actually, this one is pretty good: Laughing Kookaburras
It was left out of the weirdest museums of the world, but I guess they did alright with the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum of Florida: “The Museum: You may know him only as the star of Smokey and the Bandit, but residents of Jupiter, Florida, also know him as a generous contributor, establishing a number of theater-centric programs since purchasing a ranch here some 30 years ago. Volunteers run this not-for-profit museum, dedicated to preserving the legacy of “the Bandit.”
The Exhibits: Sure, there are keys to the 10 plus cities he’s received, notes from A-listers like Jack Lemmon and Elizabeth Taylor, and an impressive collection of sports memorabilia, but the pièce de résistance is the sleek black Firebird Trans Am the beer-smuggling Reynolds, a.k.a. Bo “Bandit” Darville, drove in the classic 1977 film, Smokey and the Bandit.”
The Poggi Palace in Bologna, Italy, stands out to me as one of the weirdest museum experiences in my life. I tragically lost my own photos of the place in a hard drive crash, but the memory of a recreated 18th century gynecologist office, with all of its tools, surrounded by models of the fetus through development, is vivid enough to sustain that loss.
The Palazzo Poggi was given to the Universita di Bologna in 1805 and became a sort of experimental laboratory of human development. Research and experiments using technology reinvented the organization of the University’s curriculum. These activities have been absorbed into the palace’s 15th century architecture, and as their website says, not just metaphorically, the building’s cultural activities in the 19th and 20th centuries created an irreversible ambiance. It’s true, the eerie quality of the building contributes to the absurdity of its collection.
Unfortunately, I missed this exhibit of dancing fetuses, perhaps it is a new addition since Spring 2007.
This is old news, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the hubub caused last week when a (live! nude! girl!) model posed for photographer Zach Hyman in the Met’s Arms and Armor gallery. Model Kathleen Neill was stopped by museum guards some 30 seconds after disrobing, and was arrested shortly thereafter.
On one hand, the photographer seems like publicity hound, and by posting this we’re playing right along with his plans. The lawyer’s statement: “There are nude sculptures and paintings all over the museum. It’s the height of stupidity accusing a live model of showing the same thing in a house of art” is spot on, except that Hyman has also posed his nude models in subways, so the “but there’s naked ladies EVERYwhere in a museum!” defense loses some credibility.
But look: fuck em if they can’t take a joke.
It’s a truism, but we’ll say it anyway. The history of art includes a long line of radicals challenging conservative tastes, often using sex and bodies. See: Lolita, Last Tango in Paris, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Manet’s Olympia, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and Sargent’s Madame X, which was considered so prurient in its day that the artist painted over an earlier version in which the model’s dress strap dangled from her shoulder. Oh, and Madame X hangs in–you guessed it–the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The fact that Neill is facing charges of public lewdness is disappointing. Will she have to register as a sex offender because of this? Come on, Met. You can do better than this.
In related news, the Gorilla/Guerrilla Girls’ take on female nudity at the Met:
“In 1995, a “weenie count” done by the Guerrilla Girls at the Metropolitan Museum showed that 85 percent of the pieces that depicted nudes depicted naked women while only five percent of the displayed artworks were created by women. This statistic prompted one of the Guerrilla Girls’ critiques, a poster asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
So the question is, do women have to be naked images to get into the Met?
The Met’s Sculpture and Decorative Arts 1850-1900 gallery shows European art at an exciting crossroads. Conservative Neoclassicism in the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrated that Western visual arts were due for a change. The idea behind neoclassicism was that Greek, Roman, and Italian Renaissance art were empirically superior to anything that came before or since, and so contemporary artists should copy their themes and forms. (To our eye, the Baroque and Rococo styles that preceded neoclassicism look a lot like ancient Greco-Roman art anyway, so a reactionary movement like neoclassicism seems redundant, but what do we know?)
About half of the work in this little room in the Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Galleries gave us the sense that sculptors and designers in 19th century Europe were just itching to get out from the crushing burden of classicism. How many urns depicting Homeric myth does it take before everyone gets bored of business as usual and just wants to try something new?
To wit: the Cantor Galleries contain a bronze statue of Perseus (1890), a vase (1911) with the same decorative motifs you see in the objects in the Hellenistic Galleries, and commemorative medals with sitters in profile (1880s) that are almost indistinguishable from those that had depicted Caesar or Alexander. It’s crazy. These artists were living in the age of the railroad and phonograph and telephone and automobile, but they kept emulating the art that Athenians and Romans were making before the birth of Christ.
And then something weird happened (in the flow of history, not in the Cantor Gallery). In 1854, under pressure from Commodore Matthew Perry, Japan opened its borders to the West for the first time in more than 200 years. The concisely named “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine” in Philadelphia in 1876 was America’s first world fair, where pavilions from thirty-odd countries—including Japan—exposed 9 million westerners to the wonders of the “Orient.” European avant-gardes like Toulouse-Latrec and Van Gogh began combining the clarity of line and flatness of picture plane from Japanese woodcuts with European techniques like oil painting.
The resulting biracial baby was named Japonisme, and it was awesome. No surprise there: when previously isolated cultures cross paths, cultural upheaval and fertility results (The Met’s own website has a concise entry explaining how a similar phenomenon had unfolded due to the silk and spice trade nearly two thousand years before). The Cantor gallery shows objects in both the conservative neoclassical and the radical japoniste modes.
Other great pieces in the gallery: a Russian cigarette case (1896-1903) designed for Fabregé, a creepy ceramic Infanta, and a terracotta Négresse, which stylistically could have come from quattrocento Florence, but whose inscription (Porquoi! Natre esclave!, or Why born a slave?) and year of commission (1867) make it a piece of political commentary. A bit late, but still, at least it’s not another bust of Ceres or Bacchus.
And finally: How often have you found yourself in the unenviable position of having toasted six pieces of bread, but you lack a receptacle to hold them? Regularly? Good news, because Christopher Dresser’s 1881 toast rack solves that exact problem.
The Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Galleries: European Sculpture and Decorative Arts 1850-1900
Highlights: Toast holder, duh.
Mom: We’re not going to the store.
Kid: (calm but incredulous) What?
Mom: We’re at the museum to learn and to enjoy each other’s company.
Kid: (visibly agitated) WHAT?
Next week: African art. All of it.