A Thanksgiving Gift from Artist Harry Cimino
November 23, 2016
Happy Thanksgiving from SAAM! To celebrate this year's holiday we wanted to share a woodcut by Harry Cimino. Cimino was a 20th century illustrator and wood engraver. This beautiful turkey is the November woodcut he did for one of Marchbanks Press' early 20th century calendars. SAAM has in its collection eleven of the twelve monthly illustrations Cimino did for that calendar.
Have a great holiday!
Director's Choice: Who Made the Cut?
November 21, 2016
In honor of Elizabeth "Betsy" Broun's nearly thirty years at the helm of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and her imminent retirement, Broun spoke to a full house last month at the McEvoy Auditorium, revealing insights and personal observations about her favorite works of art in SAAM's collection. And since she's the director, her Top Ten contains eighteen artworks. Today, I will talk about five of Broun's favorites. In the upcoming weeks, I will post about some of her other likes.
Broun opened the talk with an image of Jonah by Albert Pinkham Ryder, an artist close to her heart, and the subject of a book she published in 1989. "I worry that he's in danger of being forgotten," she told us as she shared her thoughts about his work, his era, and his influence on artists including Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock, who considered Ryder the greatest artist of his generation. According to Broun, the difficult later years of Ryder's life—depression, ill health, loneliness—can be seen in the canvas, as Jonah struggles in the churning sea for dear life. A giant beast descends while at the top of the painting, the artist fashioned a god of light spreading his wings, a higher power, exhibiting what Broun called "a spiritual tenaciousness."
The tour de Broun continued with Thomas Hart Benton's Wheat, another work of art that tells what might appear to be a simple story, but on deeper looking, speaks to the artist's life as well. "You know I'm from Kansas City and you get injected with the Benton juice in the hospital when you're born," Broun told us. Born in Missouri, Benton was an accomplished painter as well as musician (the first person to develop notation for harmonica music). Late in life, after a heart attack and he was no longer actively painting, a friend, "an old drinking buddy" commissioned this work to get him back in the studio. "...I think this is Benton's artistic testament...He deeply loved Walt Whitman, and I think this is his mid-Western translation of Leaves of Grass...In the front you see a couple of rows have been mowed down and harvested...And right behind is a stalk which is broken but not harvested yet."
Next up were artists who came to this country as immigrants. These include Yasuo Kuniyoshi who emigrated from Japan in 1906, followed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, David Hockney, and Nam June Paik, each of whom came to the United States in 1964 for vastly different reasons. Having fled Bulgaria, Christo had no country or passport for seventeen years. When he arrived in New York, he was officially stateless. According to Broun, "Christo and Jeanne-Claude believed that true freedom was art." Their early project was the twenty-four-and-a-half mile Running Fence, (of which SAAM acquired the archive). "I believe he is the great artist of the Cold War; every one of his projects is related to the standoff between east and west," Broun told us. When she mentioned this theory to Christo, he replied, "Please do not make me into a political artist. I left politics in order to become a free man in art."
David Hockney, whose Savings and Loan Building, is both an homage to Southern California as well as a subtle commentary on minimalism, where everything had to be flat and on a grid. The addition of palm trees is very Hockney. As a gay man, he felt constrained in his native U.K., and left for California, where he celebrated the "swimming pool culture" of Los Angeles and the openness of the people and the landscape. Nam June Paik came to the U.S. in order to be on the forefront of technology. "He is the first artist to have the inspired idea that you could make art from television. He's called the father of video art." His Electronic Superhighway, a version of America seen through monitors and screens, holds pride of place in SAAM's Lincoln Gallery. "I'm quite fond of things that get labeled as eye candy," Broun told us, "But to me this is brain candy too, It's a tribute he did to his adopted country thirty years after he arrived. I think it's the best portrait I've ever seen of the sheer chaotic crazy regionalism of this country."
I could go on but you get the idea. Listen for yourself as Broun tells you things that will make you want to take another look at these works of art. And, if you listen carefully to all the stories you hear, you just may be the person that everyone wants to sit next to at an upcoming dinner party. You owe it to the person on either side of you to watch the entire webcast.
Stay tuned for part II of Director's Choice
Stepping Up to Gene Davis
November 18, 2016
Color Field artist Gene Davis once said "I became convinced that the way to make really good art was to do the outrageous, the unexpected—to be a renegade." To celebrate his philosophy and boldly declare that our new exhibition of his signature stripe paintings is now open, we have striped the museum's entrances. The stripes were made from a high resolution image of Davis' Hot Beat so you can see his brushstrokes. They are made of a non-skid vinyl and will not affect the historic nature of the building. Below are a few images of the stripes on our steps. Use #atSAAM to share your stair stripe photos
Gene Davis: Hot Beat is on view through April 2, 2017.
Conversation Piece: Mark Bradford's Amendment #8
November 15, 2016
Each month, visitors to SAAM are invited to participate in a discussion-based program called Conversation Pieces. Spending an hour with a single work of contemporary art, participants engage in an open-ended experience of guided looking and discussion facilitated by Joanna Marsh, Senior Curator of Contemporary Interpretation. Marsh wrote about the theory behind the program in a previous blog post. Here's a taste of October's conversation.
"Restless." "Chaotic." "Visceral." These were some of the first descriptive words voiced by the dozen or so adults who gathered in SAAM's Lincoln Gallery to discuss Mark Bradford's Amendment #8 on the evening of October 5th. Perched on small blue stools, the group leaned in intently to look closer at the artwork.
Though the piece is abstract, some saw references to landscape or the human body in Bradford's artwork. Others focused on the artist's use of color, seeing the suggestion of violence in his generous use of red. Participants noticed quickly that there were words embedded on the canvas, and with the help of the label, were able to identify it as the text to the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A lively discussion ensued about what Bradford might have been trying to say about this amendment, which protects Americans from "excessive bail" and "cruel and unusual punishment."
Marsh shared information about the artist's process —building up layer upon layer of paper and sanding each down to unearth the surfaces below— and some were surprised to learn the piece was constructed from paper rather than paint. Others wondered about possible art historical references to Abstract Expressionist painting, while one was curious about the relationship between Bradford's choice of material and his personal biography. Several people noted connections between the artist's process and his subject matter, and thought Bradford's manipulation and blurring of his canvas might be intended to parallel the way our interpretation of the Amendments has been the subject of argument and debate, evolving over time.
Before we knew it, a security officer was kindly reminding us the museum was closing. A participant joked that he hadn't been sure they could spend an hour with such an abstract piece, but as the conversation continued into the elevator, it was clear there was still more to unpack. While artworks like Amendment #8 can seem intimidating at first, our discussion was a reminder of what can be discovered when we slow down and start a conversation.
The next Conversation Pieces discussion will be held on Wednesday, November 16th at 6 p.m. No advanced registration is required for this free program.
Best of Both Worlds: Isamu Noguchi
November 11, 2016
Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern opens today, a celebration of the renowned sculptor who often found inspiration in ancient art and architecture, including Egyptian pyramids and Buddhist temples, Zen gardens and American Indian burial mounds. The nearly seventy-five objects in the show span the artist's six-decade career and show his love of material, whether it's natural or manmade, stone or even light, as evidenced in his ethereal Akari light sculptures.
Noguchi saw himself as an inventor as well as an artist. His Radio Nurse, both Cycladic and contemporary in appearance, is considered to be the first baby monitor. A man of this world and possibly a world beyond this one, he was not only interested in landscape and social spaces, but the atomic age and outer space as well. His Model for Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars (1946) was made in sand and no longer exists, but a wall mural in the exhibition captures the image of one world reaching out to another.