July 2009

NOTES & COMMENTS

We're Back!
After a too-long hiatus we resume publication, determined more than ever to expand our staff, attract new writers, and publish on a monthly basis. During the past year, Michelle Kamhi has been hard at work on a new book, which she characterizes as a "commonsense guide to the visual arts" for general readers that should be of interest to scholars and specialists as well, including K-12 art teachers. Louis Torres--in addition to continuing work on that article (we dare not name it again) and other research projects--has been a frequent contributor to online discussions about the arts (see "Aristos Co-Editor on the Commentsphere" below), while planning and implementing a strategy to achieve the goals cited above. For the first concrete step in that direction, see the next note.

We Grow by One
We welcome Megan Sleeper to Aristos this month as our first intern. A graduate of Muhlenberg College (2003) with a double major in Art History and studio art, Meg went on to earn a post-graduate diploma (M.A. without the thesis) in Fine & Decorative Art at Sotheby's Institute of Art (2005), and an M.A. in Art History at Richmond, the American International University (2008)--both in London. Her special interest has been Victorian art. She will assist the editors in a variety of tasks related to the publication and growth of Aristos, as well as contribute to its pages.

Aristos Sponsorship
Since its inception in 1986, the Aristos Foundation has solicited contributions only from individuals. This year we are embarking on a parallel fundraising effort by seeking support from sponsors. We will solicit and accept support from a variety of sources with an online presence--ranging from small businesses, professional services, periodicals, and weblogs to art academies, nonprofit organizations, and individual artists. You may have already noted the first two sponsors on our home page.

Sponsorship is for a period of one year. Currently, support is acknowledged by a brief annotation (including a direct link to your website) on the home page of Aristos or on a special Sponsors' Page, on a rotating basis.

Why should you consider becoming an Aristos Sponsor? We offer you something truly unique--a knowledgeable perspective on the arts that reflects your tastes and champions your values, as well as an opportunity to introduce your product, service, or organization to discerning like-minded readers. Each new issue of Aristos attracts new readers, and our increasingly rich Archives pulls in a steady stream of serious readers throughout the year.

Aristos is published by the Aristos Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. For further information on sponsorship, contact the editors. Please enter "Sponsor" in the subject line of your e-mail inquiry. Your sponsorship will help ensure the success of the next phase of Aristos's growth--which means more staff, new writers, and monthly publication. Write today!

Aristos Co-Editor on the Commentsphere
Early this year, Louis Torres added his two cents to the Comments section of a few arts weblogs and periodical websites. He has kept at it (it proved addictive), so we decided to gather his remarks into an ongoing annotated catalogue with the working title "WebCommentary." Each post injects our unique perspective into the arts commentsphere, reaching a nationwide audience of high-interest individuals, who can access Aristos with just a click of the mouse.

Non-Art at the White House
Like all previous first families, the Obamas are putting their personal stamp on what hangs on the walls of the White House. Their stated preference is for works of "modern art" by African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and female artists. Judging from the works selected thus far, their emphasis is on avant-garde work (much of it by white males), not on anything we would call art, however.

In marked contrast with the traditional works that adorn the public rooms (which must be vetted by the White House curator), the Obamas have chosen for their private residence such "bold, abstract" pieces as Sky Light and Watusi (Hard Edge), by Alma Thomas (an African-American woman), and Richard Diebenkorn's Berkeley No. 52. Other works on loan to them from the National Gallery of Art include Jasper Johns's relief sculpture Numerals, 0 through 9 and Edward Ruscha's I think maybe I'll . Under consideration from the Hirshhorn Collection is Glenn Ligon's Black Like Me, a "conceptual" piece consisting of the endlessly repeated, gradually blurred sentence "All traces of the griffin I had been were wiped from existence." While the Obamas have every right to be surrounded by works to their own taste, their choices can not only influence public opinion regarding what qualifies as "art" but are likely to affect the art market as well. We therefore wish that a president "known for lengthy bouts of contemplation" (to quote the Wall Street Journal) would have selected works of genuine art that might offer greater substance for contemplation than these trivial if trendy pieces.

According to a White House spokesperson, the Obamas enjoy all types of art but want to "round out the permanent collection" by giving "new voices" to modern American artists of all races and backgrounds." According to the decorator hired by them to redo their private quarters (who is advising them on the work to be hung there): "The pieces of art selected for loan act as a bridge between th[e] historic legacy [of 18th- and 19th-century classical works in the White House's permanent collection] and the diverse voices of artists from the 20th and 21st century."

Regrettably, it seems that neither his nor the Obamas' vision of esthetic diversity extends to include work by contemporary artists in the realist tradition. See further observations by Louis Torres in "WebCommentary" 6/5 and 5/24)--which include suggestions regarding classically trained black artists of the present (as well as traditional white artists who have depicted black subjects) whose work the Obamas would do well to consider displaying at the White House.

Artworld Chic
"I love art that doesn't make sense or that I don't understand."--Massimiliano Gioni, Director of Special Exhibitions, New Museum, New York City [*]; "What I like about it [making 'sculpture'] is I don't know what I'm doing."--Jessica Stockholder, Director, Graduate Sculpture Dept., Yale University [*]; "What I immediately loved about them is that I couldn't figure them [Stockholder's 'sculptures'] out."--Adam D. Weinberg, Director, Whitney Museum [*]. If you believe this claptrap, I've got a bridge I can sell you. Gioni, Stockholder, and Weinberg are typical of the fakes who inhabit the upper echelons of today's artworld. They pretend not to know--because appearing stupid is so chic these days--that real art makes sense, that real artists know what they are doing, and that even a child can "figure out" real art on some level. --L.T.

For the Love of Music
Few writers have done as much as neurologist Oliver Sacks to illuminate the special power of the arts in human life. In books ranging from Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to an An Anthropologist on Mars and The Island of the Colorblind, Sacks has touched upon the healing role played by the arts in the lives of patients suffering from a variety of neurological disorders, often severe. In his most recent book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Sacks focuses on the art form for which he--like many individuals--feels the most intense personal affinity. Published in 2007 in hardcover, the book was reissued in a revised and much-expanded paperback edition last year, incorporating many of the extraordinary personal experiences related to him by readers of the first edition.

In a talk at the Cooper Union in New York last fall, Sacks introduced himself as "the least musical member of a highly musical family," and went on to tell an avid audience of others who, like himself, have little musical ability, or are even tone deaf, and yet feel a deep love for music. At the other extreme are the profoundly talented individuals whose musicality is "sharply evidenced" by the very structure of their brains. "You can have a colorblind painter," Sacks observed, "but you can't have a tone-deaf musician." Yet for all individuals (except those rare unfortunate few who suffer from a neurological deficit termed amusia and experience all music as sheer cacophony), as he noted, music registers at the very deepest levels of mind and brain, powerfully connected to the neural pathways for both movement and emotion. Asked if it has a genetic, evolutionary basis, Sacks replied that, like language, it is probably a cultural adaptation, not centered in any one part of the brain but instead drawing upon many different areas--a cultural adaptation, he emphasized, that has been profoundly beneficial for mankind. Thus it would appear that he does not wholly subscribe to now-fashionable notions of "the music instinct," although he was a featured expert in a recent PBS program on that very subject. Readers who would like the considerable pleasure of hearing Sacks discourse on music can view video clips on the Musicophilia website. --M.M.K.

EXHIBITION: Medieval Draftsmen
Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages (Metropolitan Museum of Art, through August 23, 2009). To risk an obvious pun, this is a truly illuminating exhibition, well worth seeing even by those who may think they don't care for medieval art. Drawing, it convincingly argues, was employed and appreciated as an art form in its own right long before the Renaissance pushed it to new heights. Culling rarely seen manuscripts from monastic and academic libraries across Europe, the exhibition clearly reflects the enthusiasm and scholarship of its guiding force--Melanie Holcomb, Associate Curator of Medieval Art at the Met. It not only affords insight into the role of drawing as an often rich medium of expression but also indicates the extent to which monastic scriptoria served to keep learning alive during the long millennium between classical antiquity and the Renaissance. Visit if you can, and take the time to look closely. You will be amply rewarded. Don't miss the head of Christ Crucified [more ] from the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris or the poignantly expressive figures flanking the Crucifixion by a little-known eccentric named Opicinus de Canistris. See also the wealth of online materials about the show, including a lively ongoing weblog. For those who want to learn more, we recommend Holcomb's astute introductory essay in the exhibition catalogue.

EXHIBITION: Whistler at the Frick
Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in the Frick Collection (Frick Collection, New York City, through August 23, 2009). An intimate exhibition that gathers together the twenty works by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) collected by Henry Clay Frick between 1914 and 1919: four full-length portraits, a seascape, twelve etchings, and three pastels. (See illustrated exhibition essay; also the Wikimedia Commons page on Whistler, which includes images of 76 works, among them works in this exhibition. [click on thumbnail, then on next image, to view full-resolution image].)

EXHIBITION: Good Things Come in Small Packages
Michelangelo's First Painting (Metropolitan Museum of Art, through September 7, 2009). Wouldn't you love to see what one of the greatest artists of all time was doing at the age of 12 or 13? In this fascinating little exhibition, the Met's estimable Curator of European Paintings Keith Christiansen makes a good case that you can do just that. As he informs us, Michelangelo's contemporary biographers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi both reported that the Florentine master's first work--apart from some drawings--was a painted depiction of Saint Anthony tormented by demons, copied (with some variations) from a then-famous engraving by the fifteenth-century German artist Martin Schongauer. Based on fairly persuasive technical and documentary evidence, Christiansen concludes that a small painting recently acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and cleaned by one of the Met's expert conservators is that early work. Exhibited at the Met alongside a facsimile of Schongauer's engraving, the Kimbell's Torment of Saint Anthony [more ] is obviously not a slavish copy. Among other differences, it has a simpler, tighter figural composition, the addition of an atmospheric landscape, and such naturalistic details as fish scales on one of the monsters (according to Vasari, the young Michelangelo made a trip to the Florentine fish markets to research this item); most striking is the saint's expression, transformed from one of strained torment to stoic serenity. Also displayed in the tiny gallery devoted to this exhibition are other works of the period, including a marvelous portrait [more ] of the aged Michelangelo by his devoted follower Daniele da Volterra, an exquisite head of Saint John the Baptist by Mino da Fiesole, and an extraordinarily expressive Madonna and Child by an unknown sculptor.

EXHIBITION: A Sculptor for the Ages
Augustus Saint-Gaudens in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (through November 15, 2009). We have often lamented the all-too-frequent neglect of American artists who perpetuated the Renaissance tradition of classically inspired figurative art. This exhibition tracing the career of one of America's greatest sculptors is a welcome corrective to that neglect. Happily, too, the Met's long history of collecting and exhibiting his work began during his lifetime, as this impressive show serves to document. Do not miss it.

Beginning with Saint-Gaudens's earliest efforts as a precocious carver of cameos, the exhibition traces his artistic evolution through a period of study in Rome copying from the antique, to works of brilliant portraiture and commissions for major public monuments. His exalted position in the history of American sculpture is made clear, as is his role in advancing American art abroad. Among the exhibition highlights are a splendid portrait bust, William Maxwell Evarts (22-5/8 x 12-3/4 x 9-1/4 in.; a work of the sculptor's early twenties; significantly, he requested that Evarts sit for this portrait); Homer Schiff Saint-Gaudens, the delicate bas-relief of his only child, at seventeen months (1882; this carving, 1906-07; 20-1/4 x 10-5/8 in.; Saint-Gaudens was particularly adept at rendering children); and these estimable works: Richard Watson Gilder, Helena de Kay Gilder, and Rodman de Kay Gilder (1879; this cast, ca. 1883-84; 8-5/8 x 16 5/8 in.); The Puritan (1883-86; this cast, 1899 or after; 30-1/2 x 18-1/2 x 13 in.); Head of Lincoln (1887; this cast, after 1907); and Victory [more] (1892-1903; this cast, 1914 or after, by 1916).

Augustus Saint-Gaudens in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a reprint of the Met's stunning 80-page Spring 2009 Bulletin serves as the exhibition catalogue. An informative text combined with color photographs of Saint-Gaudens's work and black & white photographs of the sculptor and others make this a must-have volume.

EXHIBITION: You May Want to Miss This One
Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective (Metropolitan Museum of Art, through August 16, 2009). Definitely not recommended unless you have a very strong stomach and want to explore a disturbingly graphic manifestation of modern-day psychopathology. For unlike some famous artists who transcended their personal traumas and psychological turmoil through their art, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) gave vivid embodiment to his, as this centenary retrospective all too well documents. Bacon, by the way, is regarded by today's artworld as one of the twentieth-century's most important painters, and has been "immensely influential." That latter fact was cited by Met curator Gary Tinterow as a major impetus for the present show. But we beg to differ with the notion that what Bacon represented was the "true nature of human life." True for Bacon (surely one of the century's most decadent exemplars), no doubt, but not for everyone. Funding for the exhibition--previously shown in London and Madrid--was provided in part by Bank of America (which makes us wonder just what those federal bailout funds may go to). For a more detailed review, see Jed Perl, "Slaughterhouse," The New Republic, June 17, 2009.

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Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on items published in this or past issues (see this issue and Archives for examples). Letters may be edited for clarity or length, but the writer will always be consulted prior to publication.