Carl Van Vechten: Harlem Heroes
August 25, 2016
When author and social commentator Carl Van Vechten focused his camera on the African American community of writers, artists, singers, athletes, and politicians in Harlem beginning in the 1930s, it was an eye-opening experience. Not only did he manage to capture key figures of the Harlem Renaissance often early in their careers, his portraits also provided a lens into the black community revealing a vibrant culture that was nearly invisible to the mainstream art world. Included in SAAM's exhibition, Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten, are his images of James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Langston Hughes, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Bessie Smith. Of special interest to SAAM, the exhibition includes Van Vechten's portraits of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Horace Pippin.
"I think it was my original intention to photograph everybody and everything in the world!" Van Vechten said about his work. In 1980, sixteen years after his death, the fragile 35mm nitrate negatives were transformed into handmade gravure prints by photographer Richard Benson and the Eakins Press Foundation. The painstaking and detailed process resulted in the album titled, 'O, Write My Name': American Portraits, Harlem Heroes, completed in 1983. Many of the photographs have not been on view since SAAM acquired them at the time.
In 1942, in an article for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's journal, The Crisis, Van Vechten wrote, "I have made myself during the past ten years, perhaps the largest group of photographs of notable Negro personalities ever made by one man." He would continue to document the lives of African Americans until his death in 1964.
Harlem Heroes is presented in honor of the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture next month.
Luce Artist Talk with Jackie Hoysted
August 23, 2016
Each month, the Luce Foundation Center partners with neighboring Flashpoint Gallery to bring local artists to speak about their own work and the inspiration they take from SAAM's collection. We'll round out our summer talk series on Saturday, August 27 with Jackie Hoysted, multimedia artist and visual arts curator at Solas Nua, a DC-based arts organization dedicated to contemporary Irish arts. The Artist Talks series is presented in collaboration with CulturalDC.
"What makes someone an American? How do you decide what is 'American art'?" These are two of the most common questions visitors ask us at the Luce Center information desk. In her work as a curator, Irish-born, Bethesda-based artist Jackie Hoysted asks the same questions, but in exploration of the Irish identity. Hoysted adopts the view of Irish nationalist Thomas Davis, who said, "It is not blood that makes you Irish but a willingness to be part of the Irish Nation." Similarly, SAAM has the works of many foreign-born artists who have become part of our American nation.
Hoysted was born in Dublin, Ireland, and earned a computer science degree from Trinity College. She then worked for the transportation industry in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, where she's lived for about 20 years. Feeling professionally unsatisfied, she went back to school and earned a fine arts degree from the Corcoran College of Art & Design. She identifies a "need to create order in a world that is confusing at times" as her primary reason for making art. Hoysted's work highlights inconsistencies and conflicting ideas about issues that interest her, like identity, feminism, religion, and health. Many of her pieces also include a participatory element, like having viewers take a lollipop of the wall or asking people who are quitting smoking to mail her their last cigarette.
On Saturday, Hoysted will talk about the work and influences of Alice Neel and Irish artist Sean Scully. There is also a compelling connection between her work and that of Romaine Brooks, as well. In her Ne Pas Sourire (Don't Smile) series, she paints her friends and acquaintances, who exhibit the qualities she admires in friends: mental strength, toughness, and character. Like Brooks' portraits, she used a limited color palette and there is often little background imagery, which keeps the viewer's focus on the subject.
We're looking forward to having Jackie Hoysted speak with us about her ideas and how she views herself as an Irish-American artist. Given that she didn't start making art until after she moved to the United States, we're espeically curious to learn how living and working in America has shaped her art and identity. Please join us at 1:30pm on Saturday for Jackie's presentation and a short Q & A afterward.
Bearing Witness: Martin Puryear's Monumental Public Art
August 17, 2016
SAAM's Curator of Sculpture, Karen Lemmey, recently joined forces with the GSA Art in Architecture Program's fine arts specialist Bill Caine to lead a "walk and talk" discussion about the importance of public art. Since 1972, the Art in Architecture program has reserved a small piece of the construction budget for new federal buildings around the country for public works of art. In nearly forty-five years, the program has commissioned five-hundred artworks, including Martin Puryear's Bearing Witness, the focus of this hour-plus program.
The maquette for Bearing Witness is currently on view in SAAM's monographic exhibition Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions. The real thing, the forty-foot tall and 20,000 pound monumental work of overlapping patinated bronze sheets was erected in the courtyard of the Ronald Reagan Building (a short walk from the museum) in 1997 and holds the space with its larger-than-life presence that feels both modern and primitive at the same time.
Inside the exhibition space at SAAM, Lemmey offered a brief overview of Puryear's work and what the artist refers to as the "spiraling" of images that recur in his work across media as well as forwards and backwards in time. Multiple Dimensions is the first exhibition of the artist's oeuvre to feature works on paper in context with sculptures to give us insights into Puryear's methods and transformative process. It's a bit like a hall of mirrors (albeit without any mirrors) where an image bounces back and forth between the various works in the gallery, changing shape slightly, but always remaining recognizable. Puryear's drawings become a paper trail where he expressed ideas that would eventually become realized in his larger, outdoor works. The human head is a recurring motif and head-like shapes can be found in both two- and three-dimensional works throughout the gallery. This includes the maquette for Bearing Witness (1994) which evokes the back of a head and was possibly inspired by elongated African Fang masks.
One of the things that defines public sculpture is scale, and Puryear often works on a monumental scale, in both his indoor and outdoor works. "For so long public sculpture was about the body, portraiture, often statesmen on horses, but here it is abstracted," Lemmey told us, adding, "You really can get right up to this piece. It invites you to relate to it...there's no pedestal. It's elevated and takes you right up with it."
A piece like Bearing Witness or Puryear's newest public sculpture, Big Bling (currently on view in New York's Madison Square Park through January, and whose maquette is in the SAAM exhibition), is often built with fabricators. "For Bearing Witness," Caine told us, "Puryear worked with a shipbuilding company in Rhode Island and the sculpture was made very much like a boat."
When we got to the Reagan building we looked at the sculpture in terms of its environment and how it references the architecture of the surrounding buildings, including what was once a post office in the 1930s. We learned that Puryear picked the site of the installation within the perimeter of the project, and wanted it to face out. Outdoor sculpture also invites us to get up close with it, even touch it. This, of course, means the sculpture has an ongoing maintenance plan, mostly to apply a new layer of heated wax to protect its surface. But what does the sculpture mean? For that, we'll have to refer to Puryear's enigmatic remarks at the recent opening of Big Bling, "I trust my public's imagination," he told the assembled crowd, "I trust their eyes to find meaning."
Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions remains on view through September 5, 2016.
Art Museum Tours For Visitors Who Are Blind
August 9, 2016
The best in-person encounters with artwork can engage us with compelling stories, challenge us with thought-provoking ideas, and inspire creativity. By looking deeply, visitors connect with art through what they see. But how does someone who is blind experience art in a museum? At SAAM, a team of volunteer docents have been specially trained to bring artwork to life for visitors who are blind.
America InSight tours offer a guided art museum experience for people who are blind or have low-vision. Currently offered twice each month, these tours combine verbal description techniques and sensory description with opportunities for touch, using tactile aids as well as selected sculptural objects.
David Weisz, a SAAM docent trained in these techniques, explained how he structures an America InSight tour. He starts in the museum's Kogod Courtyard, asking visitors to think about the sounds and smells of that space while describing its visual elements and sharing information about the building's history. He might then lead his group into the galleries, spending the rest of the hour-long tour with three or four artworks that he helps visitors access through a detailed verbal description, and one or two sculptural objects they can safely touch, wearing gloves.
Artworks are described in detail, painting as rich a picture as possible for visitors. Verbal description requires docents to use sensory and descriptive language to convey what visitors cannot see. Weisz explained how docents also describe the physical spaces of the museum in detail while moving through them, giving a visitor a sense of place. He also showed me an example of a tactile aid he often uses to help blind or partially-sighted visitors better understand a painter's stylistic choices: a small canvas sample with various paint textures they can feel.
Weisz emphasized the importance of offering choice to the visitors who attend his America InSight tours. When sighted people visit an art museum, he explained, they get to decide whether they want to read the label text before or after looking at an artwork, for instance. Something as simple as asking about an individual's preference for how and when to receive this kind of information can go a long way towards supporting choice and independence in the galleries. In addition, Weisz constantly checks in with his visitors, getting feedback so that he can adjust his style and presentation to meet their needs. The level of description can be adapted based on the level of sight a person has, their prior experience in museums, and their general knowledge of art.
So what's it like for a blind person to experience art? Recently SAAM docents conducted a tour for Kathy Nimmer, a national teacher of the year from Indiana, who is blind. "It was the first time that I felt connected with art in a similar way as my sighted colleagues," Nimmer said. "It was deeply moving."
In addition to the regularly scheduled America InSight tours, SAAM's Education staff can arrange visits for blind or low-vision groups or schools. The museum also offers Art Signs, a series of tours presented in American Sign Language (ASL) led by deaf gallery guides.
In This Case is a series of periodic posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,000 pieces in fifty-seven cases.
Harold Weston once told Magazine of Art, "theories and explanations about paintings are... usually unsatisfactory." However, as an artist, I find artists' experiences inform and enrich the artworks they create. The time and place in which a work of art comes to be influences what it is and what it means. An explanation of why Weston decided to paint his Building the United Nations series—two paintings of which are on display in the Luce Foundation Center—is an important part of experiencing the work. The paintings' meticulous realism only tells half the story.
Harold Weston was born to a wealthy family with progressive ideas. As a young man, he traveled to the Middle East with the Young Men's Christian Association. There, he witnessed and painted scenes of hardship and famine in Persia and India that would stay with him throughout his life. Weston took up residence in a one-room cabin in the Adirondack mountains when he returned to the U.S. He lived alone in the woods, hiking, sketching, and painting, until his marriage to Faith Borton in 1923. Faith became the subject of paintings that blurred the line between portraiture and landscape.
Weston's style shifted dramatically during the Great Depression, when government-funded initiatives provided opportunities for artists. He had been living in Europe and in New York in the years leading up to the Depression, painting soft, impressionistic scenes of fruit, nature, and human figures. Now, Weston was painting detailed, tightly rendered depictions of American industry for the Treasury's Relief Art Project.
World War II renewed Weston's interest in humanitarian relief efforts. In 1942, he quit painting and founded Food for Freedom, Inc. an organization that provided food for millions of refugees displaced by the war. When Weston returned to art seven years later, his dedication to global politics led him to embark on a series of paintings that chronicled the construction of the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The new headquarters provided the visual and conceptual inspiration Weston needed to return to his artist practice after the long hiatus. The New York harbor and the bold, transparent design of the building created an exciting vista to capture. Weston's deep belief in the United Nations was another enticement. He felt the organization was the "greatest hope for a better world" and watching their new headquarters take shape brought him great joy. Painting the series united his need to create with his desire to work for the common good. Understanding Weston's background adds a layer of meaning to his Building the United Nations series. The idealism and the dedication of the artist have become essential components of the work.