Saturday, April 2, 2022

Charles Giuliano's 150 years celebration and survey of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Charles Giuliano

 This document of the 150 year history of the Museum of Fine Arts is mostly cobbled together from interviews by Charles Giuliano of the actors who shaped that history. One of the first is a 1976 interview of a Globe writer who was part of a team that wrote an expose to take down (or so it appeared ) the newly appointed MFA director Merrill Rueppel. It sets the theme of interviews that expose the machinations of behind the scenes struggle between the old guard board and efforts of others to bring new blood into the Museum. Charles has been connected to the Museum soon after graduating from Brandeis when he was employed in the Egyptian department. He stayed close to the museum via these interviews in his role of journalist for multiple Boston newspapers. He clearly has garnered the respect of his interviewees. Considering that he rarely lobs softball questions one might think that it would have been wiser for them to avoid him, but almost fifty years later he brings the reader, without skipping a director, up to the present with an interview of the current director Matthew Teitelbaum. Maybe the numerous directors all felt that they have to post the “Charlie card” on their resume in order to be truly enthroned as director of the MFA. 


Getting a conceptual handle on these interviews and the scrutiny they provide in the context of the history that came before, is a bit of a struggle. I fell back for help on the template of a recent book by art critic Jed Perl: Authenticity and Freedom. Authenticity can be seen as meaning tradition and often in Perl’s hand as something numinous and quasi-religious.  A case in point is his use of an anecdote about the musical career of Aretha Franklin. She had her start as a singer in her father’s church choir. She was imbued in the gospel tradition of singing that had a long history in black American culture. When she made the break (freedom) into popular music that tradition was always there to shape her new music. The music had roots. The origin of the MFA as a recipient of invaluable Japanese art at its beginning was similar and had a purity that nothing in the later history of the MFA could match. Its collection of Japanese art was given by bluebloods Morse, Bigelow and Fenellosa who lived in Japan as practicing Buddhists and in their collecting of the Japanese artifacts had eventually received the imprimatur and permission of Japanese collectors and scholars such as Okakura Kakuzo, who in turn became the first curator of the Boston collection. Moreover, Okakura was a world-renowned scholar of Zen Buddhism whose “Book of Tea” is purported to have influenced Martin Heidegger’s understanding of Japanese thought when Okakura studied under him in Germany. The Japanese who were initially shocked by the export of national treasures such as the “Burning of the Sanjo Palace” put a stop to any further expatriation. They eventually accepted it as a way of sharing the Japanese cultural heritage with the world. However, this is to be contrasted with the unseemly attempt to transfer a Raphael from Italy to Boston by Perry Rathbone toward the end of his tenure that necessitated a whole book by his daughter to rehabilitate his reputation. Jan Fontein, director and curator of the Asian collection said that these exchanges with the Japanese were a generation ahead of the ”repatriation movement” .

Money and lack thereof becomes another leitmotif of the book. Bigelow was well off. The Japanese collection was well endowed. Moreover, its cultural value was never questioned. These were cultural treasures by deceased artists. A hilarious anecdote that sheds light on the topic of money in one interview relates the reaction of a French curator of Textiles at the MFA, who lashed out at Alan Shestak in a meeting of curators that he was tired of hearing about money, and that in Lyon, where he worked in the museum, to talk about money was beneath them. He refused to shut up about his opinions and eventually was fired. He refused to leave his office and had to be chased out by the police in keystone cop style. Of course, in France everything is paid for through taxes up front and one never knows the real cost of things. The Metropolitan in New York receives millions from the state of New York. Boston nothing. The National Gallery gets all its money from the government. Expenses always seem to exceed income even during the halcyon days of Malcolm Rogers who somehow increased the endowment but increased the debt at the same time. 

Later in the book a recurring theme is who among contemporary artists should be collected. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the curator of the collection of Indian art (1933-1947) felt that no living  artist should be collected. Problem solved. But the MFA was expected to collect Boston artists, first the Brahmin Boston Impressionists and then the Jewish Boston Expressionists (Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine and Karl Zerbe). A thorough collecting of the latter was obviated due to rampant anti-Semitism. Every curator had their faves. One director liked Hyman Bloom up to a point and another only looked at Color Field but could not tolerate Hans Hoffman. Merrill Reuppel turned down the purchase of Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” which at the time was reasonably priced and was soon acquired by the National Gallery. The turning down of this masterpiece is another recurring theme of lost opportunities, along with the dearth of “modern classics” by Picasso and other cubists. Somehow the MFA never heard of the Armory Show. They would eventually get a Picasso but it was not one of his best. When I taught at UNC-Greensboro they had in their collection one of De Kooning’s women. The story behind its purchase is that it was bought for $5000 dollars and the director was fired for spending too much on it. Unfortunately, such a serendipitous mistake was not made at the MFA. 

What could have been:"Lavender Mist"


As a born and bred Bostonian, Charles does a great job of following the vagaries of the city’s economy to which the success of a director and the MFA seemed inextricably tied. The period of the establishment of the Ancient Egyptian, Classical Greek and Roman, Japanese and Indian collections corresponded to the building of Back Bay. The sluggish economy of the 1970s when townhouses in the Back Bay were going for $70,000 weighed heavily on the Museum’s ability to raise money. 


To stick with the conceptual structure of Authority and Freedom that Perl provides: i.e. freedom would be  the letting go of the authority of the early collections of Asian art works  with which early curators established their authority at the inception of the MFA.. The freedom might be more related to the necessity of responding to the multiplicity of art forms and styles that in fact the museum has a hard time keeping on top of and on dealing with the issues of racial equity that must be addressed if the Museum is to garner the respect of and truly represent the community. Racial tension has always been a reality in the Boston community that the Museum has mostly tried to ignore and struggled to address. But that is far from the days when housing and displaying the artifacts of ancient cultures were the only worry.  The business side that so upset the French curator did not reduce everything unnecessarily to the big buck but, according to Barry Gaither, adjunct curator of African American Art, the arrival of Seybolt, a so-called uncouth Midwesterner from the business world of Underwood Devilled Ham to the board of trustees, was appalling to some but to him a breath of fresh air. Gaither a black saw himself as another outsider like Seybolt. And when someone mentioned that Rathbone was not a Bostonian, Gaither answered that he was trained at The Fogg. Seybolt a protégé of former MIT president Howard Johnson had strong Washington connections that would become crucial in getting financial contributions from DC to support travelling shows. 

The mostly Brahmin board probably lived in the glow of the MFA’s early days when they were able to keep the museum self-sustaining but not expanding. Keeping the museum up to date, after the market crashed in the late ‘60s, probably required the intervention of the Seybolt/Rueppel regime. The expansion of the US government in the days of the Great Society required that the Museum establish Washington connections belying the vision of the centrality of Boston as the Athens of America. Already left economically behind by New York City it could not blithely ignore Washington DC as a source of money.


How will it deal with the virtual museum? The NTP? Just as the advent of Zoom in the age of Covid unexpectedly opened up the possibility of working from home so the virtual museum of the metaverse might do the same to the museum goer. How does the Museum continue to take in revenues in a wide open world of art without walls? And how does racial equity differ from racial equality in its impact on the functioning of the museum within the community? The goal of the MFA should be to exert its freedom by staying ahead of the game and not play "catchup". 


What these interviews succeed in doing is conveying the increasing multidimensionality of the Museum over the years from simple roles of storing, curating and exhibiting art, to the never ending need to raise money and the imperative of community outreach. Although at times the directors seem hapless and self-absorbed, they all in their own way add to the success and survivability of the MFA. Charles Giuliano who is one of the few Boston Critics to observe the Boston Art Scene holistically has included in his quiver of accomplishments a global understanding of the MFA. 

Link to buying the book on amazon




Saturday, February 5, 2022

"Authority and Freedom" by Jed Perl


In his latest book “Authority and Freedom”, Perl establishes a paradigm that spells out a healthy antidote to the purpose for which art is currently practiced in our culture. He sees it as a paradigm that has always existed even as far back as the work of Egyptian artisans millennia ago where the hand of the craftsman can set itself off from the strict story telling of the hieroglyphs. In the Middle Ages artisans told stories in paint, glass and sculpture from the Bible but let come into play their own fantasies of what took place in the biblical story book. Hence: Authority and Freedom.  The church embodies on the one hand the notion of authority, the traditionalist base that dictates how one should proceed as artists according to the parabolic story line of the Bible. On the other hand fears of sacrilege did not hinder the freedom to play of the artisan who pushes against the limits of the authorization. According to Perl priests would take notice of these deviations from the tradition but I suppose once something is written in stone as it were it is hard to excise. They live on untouched to this day. The choice of the word authority seemed awkward to me at first glance as cognates such as authoritarian come to mind and must be explained away as not being what Perl intends. The meaning of authority Perl wishes to work for him is borrowed from his readings of the writings of the philosopher Hanna Arendt in particular  ”What is Authority” for whom the word has more in common with the latin word augere meaning augment. Authenticity is another cognate that unlike authoritarian is closer to Perl’s intent. 

The book is built out of many examples from the history of art, music and poetry among other artistic domains to elucidate the dynamic between authority and freedom. If you look up the usage of authority in the dictionary it tends toward imposition of dogma to be accepted due to its, legal validity, gravity and authenticity.  In a religious realm it is a passage of scripture that settles argument. In the hands of an individual, it represents the power to reinforce or convince people through a command. In fact, many of the examples of authority that Perl provides for the most part seem to grow out of the spiritual realm. His description of a memorable rendition of "Wholy Holy" by Aretha Franklin points to the roots of her popular music in the heart of the black Southern Baptist Church. Gospel becomes the authority for the breakaway of her career into the realm of pop. But this breakout can at times be a breakdown as in the poetry of T.S. Eliot’s the “Waste Land” where the spirituality of the past is seen to dissolve and fragment no longer providing the pillars of wisdom that so forcefully shaped Western Culture. 

The dichotomy of Authority and Freedom can take place historically from one cultural artifact to the next but can take place within the work of the individual artist’s career. Perl points out that the classicism of Michelangelo’s early work becomes blatantly Baroque later in life as it breaks down the classical canons that other Renaissance artists followed. It can be seen as well as a harbinger of the Baroque that followed the Renaissance. 

Authority has a numinous almost prophetic aspect to it in the hands of Perl. It is a source of clarity and insight that tries to organize the world harmoniously. It devolves into the secular but out of that movement art happens. The individual is the agent of this evolution. The aforementioned Medieval craftsmen sneak their opinions and play it into their sculpture and painting but in the case of Mozart and Beethoven there is a battle between them and the aristocracy that in the day owned their musicians. Both wanted to be respected as creative forces in their own right. I recall an anecdote of Beethoven and Goethe taking a walk in the countryside around Vienna when they encounter an important Hapsburg to whom out of deference Goethe instinctively bowed. Beethoven according to the story trudged right past him and said: “He should be bowing to me.” Mozart also tried to establish himself as a commercial success beyond the patronage of the aristocracy. He wanted to be his own authority in breaking away from societal authority where they were in many ways no more important than valets The notion of genius cannot be ignored as the center of gravity that establishes these shifts in authority from the aristocratic overlords to the creative individual.   The world would then submit to an authority built out of force of genius. What an exciting dynamically charged interaction! It is the birth of modernity.  

These transfers of power,not to diminish the validity of the event in the work itself where this battle takes place are societal events. The most recent societal shift is the ongoing dissolution of the Beethovian individual that thrust itself into richer and deeper and more powerful notions of self-hood, by the Marxist-Leninist belief that the individual only has an identity by being part of the societal whole. The battle of Beethoven to assert his individuality in the context of aristocratic sponsors participates in the larger societal struggle against the kings and queens that had shaped the world through the 19thc with one violent revolution after another culminating in the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the 20thc.  Power was handed down from one generation of royalty to the next and over time the European aristocracy intermarried to create a superstructure that exists in part to this day. Beethoven was a radical, who looked to Napoleon to break down the established order, freeing the individual to create their own story. This is an incredibly dynamic storybook. But what happens when you are told that the state, which represents the newly liberated masses, cannot be criticized or that the individual’s life has no private meaning only a political one. 

Any attempt to see the individual as separate from the state and other than as a manifestation of liberation of the masses is suspect and treasonous. To ignore this is referred to as “false consciousness”. That is: your very being is suspect if you don’t see how oppression is built into the capitalist system of which you are a part. In the Soviet Union gulags were set up to cure individuals of this false consciousness and a paltry yet courageous few such as Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were able to reach out to the West with stories of the how horrible the oppression was in the USSR. Shostakovich’s music embodies the anxiety of existing in this authoritarian world where one’s loyalty to the cause of the worker is always under scrutiny. 

Perl ends his book with a a story about W.H. Auden’s famous eulogy to W.B. Yeats. It embodies the essence of the Authority/ Freedom interplay. There appeared around the same time several essays by Auden about Yeats who in the 30’s showed sympathy for the European fascists. In the eulogy Auden charitably saw this as a sort of silliness and a sentimentality for the old aristocracy that Yeats admired and from whom he received patronage. In the end Yeats’s poems are well wrought and to this day resonate with the general public and therefore can be seen as democratic. He exercised his freedom to be a maker of poems even if when it came to his “doing” in the world of politics he failed miserably with his allegiances. (Perl distinguishes the making of the poem over which the poet has absolute control with the doing of politics where mistakes can be made in a world that is often beyond our control.) What seems to be missing in this description of Yeats is his theosophical interests. They seem to be the authority by which he gives gravity to his language. He will apply it, so it seems, through magical incantations. Although I can find no proof the lines “The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun” taken from the  “The Song of Wandering Aengus” seems to have some source in a magical symbolic incantation .They to this day have a feel of the mysterious in them. Ray Bradbury named a collection of his short stories “Golden Apples of the Sun” and said his wife had introduced him to Yeats and these words had the same effect on him as they do on me. Could this be the authority hidden in Yeats’s work? The  spiritual authority he attributes to Aretha Franklin from her Southern Baptist gospel roots. In lesser hands of a not  great maker of poems, the influence of theosophy could be stultifying as Flannery O’Connor commented about a very catholic novel she was told to read and admire by a catholic priest, whose dogma was correct but whose story was badly told.

I had a face to face interaction with Auden in 1970 that is strangely pertinent to this essay. He came to dinner with the Scholars of the House at Yale, a group I was part of whose members were allowed to work on independent projects during their senior year. I was an admirer of Yeats and must have known at the time about the Eulogy he wrote for him. I asked him after dinner what he thought of Yeats. He responded very adamantly that he was a fascist. And left it at that. How did Ed Mendelson his biographer who accompanied him to the dinner react? Auden passed away the following year. Did he no longer have the same tolerance for Yeats’s politics? Did it finally seem to matter that he supported fascists? A classmate Joe Knight who studied English Literature at Yale and Harvard said there is evidence that Auden was extremely jealous of Yeats’s talents. At the end of his life did the wrong politics gave Auden the possibility of cancelling Yeats’s greatness as a poet. It suggests that behind the concern for art being politically correct is the illness that Nietzsche said awaited our culture as a whole: "the waste land grows": Resentment or “Ressentiment” as he used it is the deeply sour well out from which we channel art into predetermined realms of activity. Perl's new book is its diagnosis.


Saturday, December 18, 2021

The painting of Don Shambroom

 Don Shambroom and his work looms large in my blogging that started in 2012. Mostly his opinions that have been shared with me either at visits to his studio on the Millers River in Massachusetts, via email or comments left on my blog posts. Just a presence that added up over time. What he had to say on culture and art were most often very prescient. He has a knack for thinking deeply about any subject that he decides to focus on. Most recently an interest in the life and work of Marcel Duchamp resulted in the publication of a monograph on Duchamp’s last day published by the David Zwirner gallery. In order to write the book he had to enter and hold his own in the world of Duchamp scholars and chroniclers which was no mean task.   When we first met at Yale and then again when our paths crossed in Boston exchanges were face to face. Since the advent of the internet these exchanges have been hijacked by the web and have become part of the very subject matter of his painting.  

Cow Bird

The imagery of the art world in the 20th c to my eye is torn between a Hegelian systematization and the Kantian sublime. Newman, Rothko, de Kooning define the sublime. Of course, Rothko and Newman deal with the numinous presence of the self and de Kooning with the terror (an aspect of the sublime) of being torn apart but somehow surviving to be reconstituted in the real. For these painters the artist still wields power to move the viewer. These artists represent the part that resists being overwhelmed by the whole. The Hegelian trope can be seen in the part being subsumed in the whole. Here the part can either resist strongly or acquiesce subserviently. I noticed this subservient stand in the work of Dana Schutz. She applies a cubistic language that in the end is not a structure into which parts are grounded in the real but a system that obliterates a meaningful use of the parts. It embodies the postmodern dream of the death of man. We are uploaded to the mediaverse  starting in the 50’s with the tv understood by Marshall McLuhan as messaging through it mediatic structure and coopting our whole physical reality finally on FB or at last dreamed of in the metaverse qua Oculus.  

The artists who no longer resist this effacing of the human presence can be seen in the artistic phenomena of zombie formalism that I was one of the first to talk about. It seems to have grown out of the branch of modernism that does not ground itself in the human body a case in point being Frank Stella whose early graphic design-based work is already one degree removed from embodied perception. 

String Theory 

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe a painter and critic who stumbled across my writing emailed me in direct response to something I had written about the characters in Zombie Formalism. I found it applied to the work of Dana Schutz. His words addressed the struggle of the part and the whole in any Hegelian inspired work of art where the part provides “no bodily surprise” (to quote Gilbert-Rolfe). Nothing that can break out of the whole.  He sent me a link to his writing on the Sublime. The art of Shambroom like any smart artist who wants to find his or herself engaged in understanding the human condition of late modernity has to sort out this Hegelian/ Kantian struggle of the system v.s. the Sublime. Unlike the submission to the systemic like Schutz whose visual world seems to grow out of Saturday morning cartoons or the Zombie formalists who bleed any life out of abstraction, he creates a hybrid of both the intensity of seeing by the artist one on one with things of the world and a systematic world derived from Rauschenbergian space. On the one hand the face, the individual is lifted up into a societal miasma on the other hand things of the world are granted a kind of beauty in their isolation, a stance that exalts their magic of having appeared in time and space. Like a Janus face he looks backward into the 19thc on to the Renaissance and Baroque where the artists were capable of holding up the moment and the thing in its beauteous moment of revelation and on the other absorbing the language of modernism where the human presence is swept up into a higher structure. By straddling the two worlds he is casting doubt on any attempt to see the imagery of mass culture as a superior sort of transcendence as in Warhol, a Hegelian “aufbehung” which ambiguously means both a cancelling and a lifting up. 

Symbolic Drift

This strategy of maintaining both realities side by side without sublimating one into the other, resembles the task that Ernst Junger set for himself. In his writing. He is famous for his WW1 account of trench warfare  ”Storm of Steel” that I recently learned that Don read while attempting in his own scholarly manner  to understand warfare as manifested in WW1 .For Junger WW1  represented a dramatic change in the role of the individual to technology. It is technology that drove the battle not individual acts of heroism. The book had a big influence on Heidegger’s understanding of the growing nihilistic role of technology in 20thc life that he called “enframement” and more particularly ”machination” (that continues to this day in more and more insidious fashion on the internet.)  In my own blogging I have called this transformation the “Humpty Dumpty” effect where the integration of the image of the individual into the whole as we knew it and as it is represented in the art of the west say in the work of Piero or Michelangelo is irretrievably lost as we move into the 20thc. All the king’s horses and all the kings men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again. 

John Singer Sargent's "Gassed"

 In the interim between the wars Junger pondered in his writing how the life of the individual might function outside of the political and technological system. achieving in “The Adventurous Heart” an  almost mesmerizing descriptions of the objects of the day to day reality that he encounters sometimes enhanced by drugs. His goal was to describe the surface of the real with such intensity so as to reveal something of a hidden reality. It also represents a shift of weight from the individual subsumed in the political to its own private inner magic. In many ways it parallels the power of many individual artist such as Picasso who functions as free agents outside the system. Or the proliferation of shamanic types in the 20thc century such as Alistair ‘Crowley, Krishnamurti  or Rudolph Steiner who attempt to integrate divinity in a post Christian  era. Another short book written by Junger between the wars “Forest Passage”  posits the strengthening of the individual in connection with the natural world as it steps outside the leviathan. I was taken aback by the first image described in “Adventurous Heart” in overwhelming detail of a tiger lily, which in turn brought to mind a painting by Don Shambroom of a daylily represented in almost stereoscopic detail. There is no postmodern cynicism in this painting. This is not the world of Yuskavage or Currin that keeps pushing the envelope to further dimensions of perversity.  The realm of Blakean innocence finds its place in Don’s openness to the opening of a flower. 

"Circle of the Lustful" William Blake

Shambroom’s art embraces a hybrid notion of the societal whole and the individual as its own kind of whole. He leans on the structure of a visual language derived from Rauschenberg  to insert images of faces known from mass media side by side with those of people in his immediate family. Sometimes there is text given the same weight as the faces and bodies. Interpenetration of the 19thc world of portraiture and that of billboards or flashing internet imagery. Everything is on the verge of overwhelming the individual. A child on a swing is impinged on by graffiti/slogans. What one must remember in observing these paintings is that everything is hand painted. There is the 20thc lingua franca of collage but the 19th c love of paint to represent the here and now. Again we are helped by a seeing Shambroom as hermeneutically orchestrating a sort of clash/crash between two periods of time and two notions of the universe, that seem to have bifurcated irretrievably to which his work  says adamantly No. The dreamscape of people carried along in a sort of cosmic stream seems to remove a purely societal critique and opens up the possibility of a Blakean insertion into a higher spiritual realm. Shambroom’s work can only make sense if seen as issuing from a shamanic magic incantation. An attempt to merge the media images of mass culture with the domestic play of children

Day Lily

Friday, December 3, 2021

Miles Hall who previously interviewed me on my painting has written a sympathetic appraisal of my book on drawing and painting

  Drawing and Painting: Perceptual theory as a basis for learning how to draw, by Martin G. Mugar  

 While Mugar never mentions the construction of cathedrals in Drawing and Painting, his approach got me thinking about what that might mean in one’s own art and teaching.    

  Humans are tremendously fickle creatures, and sometimes when things go out of style, we have a hard time seeing them for what they are.

   In April of 2019, while the world held its breath and Notre Dame burned, I couldn’t help but think of certain ironies concerning the near universal esteem – or even veneration - being expressed for that cathedral at the prospect of its loss. This in contrast with the ubiquitous scorn the structure was viewed with only two-and-a-half centuries before. In fact, the rise, fall, and rise again in the fortunes of its reputation – from the late Medieval period to the Enlightenment and through to the Romantic era - could be seen as a classic case study of the vagaries of stylistic perception over time.

    The Gothic style’s plunge into disrepute got me thinking about current trends in our perception of Modernism, whose once powerful cache has seen a significant drop in our lifetime. We tend to forget that Modernism wasn’t a monolithic movement or aesthetic, and neither was the Gothic. Rather, the modern period was a century of varying forms where a whole spate of conflicting definitions of art’s essential nature were proposed. Because of its general ideological fervor, our Postmodern eyes tend to see Modernism in hindsight as a highly controlled set of styles, ideas, and institutions. The paradoxical thing is that this race to delineate and limit the parameters of art came out of a desire for freedom from traditional, academic forms and constraints. The early Modernist’s initial impulse was the ambition to build something new from the ground up, not as groups or a collective society (that happened later,) but as individuals. 

     Martin Mugar’s book, Drawing and Painting, grows out of much of the same soil early Modernism did, i.e. the desire to build painting anew, one artist at a time, with individual human eyes. This book places the act of visual perception squarely at the center of both drawing and painting. It encourages the student to cultivate their own cognitive awareness in the act of seeing. Its underlying premise is that vision isn’t just an open window for plundering stylistic preferences or narrative material. It’s not merely a tool in the shaping of our aesthetic or conceptual inclinations, but a deeply significant, ongoing, experiential act, never ancillary. The “eye is always in the process of stabilizing the world” according to Mugar, and the very essence of drawing is grounded in “this ordering of perception.” 

     As I read this book, I was struck by the notion of someone still believing, in very strong and certain terms, that artists can truly innovate through persistent looking, analyzing and feeling. One senses there is still something of the same naive sophistication bouncing around in the author’s head that was present when painters like Monet, Matisse, Braque and Marquet first stepped out into the French countryside to re-discover painting via the observation of nature, or “nature seen through a temperament,” as Zola put it, though I’m guessing Martin might be prone to replace Zola’s use of the subjective term “temperament” with language more firmly grounded in visual function. This is because 150 years later, Mugar’s book is backed up with more cognitive and art historical data, which he mines to make a logical argument for his premise. 

     Martin’s theory emerges out of decades of experience, from both his studio work and his teaching practice. It is informed by his extensive knowledge of Art History and an intense personal interest in philosophy. Alongside this there are specific investigations into cognitive science as it relates directly to certain visual issues. Most all the details of this  knowledge stay in the background however, as Mugar offers up a series of practical exercises. These are laid out as something like arenas for the exploration of vision itself. We are given points of focus, each designed to tap into certain aspects of visual processing. Discoveries are left for the student to unearth through a visual, Socratic question and answer process. Formal issues are dealt with experientially and through looking rather than by describing a particular design concept: Drawing, cutting, collaging, finding negative shapes, using the imagination and redrawing. On the painting side, certain lighting and color parameters are established. There is a strong emphasis on starting out each exercise within its given boundaries, but there is also a feeling that the thoughtful game of chess, once established by those original limitations, could land the student just about anywhere. The destination is not restricted. There are unlimited possibilities in starting from inside those borders. 

      I would be hesitant to strictly call these exercises or assignments, and I doubt they are something to which one could firmly attach a grading rubric of the check-list variety (thankfully.) This doesn’t mean they lack objectivity, as Mugar is a stickler for really making you look at what’s going on in front of you. Caravaggio, Seurat, Cezanne and Braque figure prominently in this book, not for any emphasis on their stylistic flourishings, but because Martin relates certain perceptual functions to what each of these artists did on the picture plane, and how each one saw in new and innovative ways. He orders these exercises according to a different logic of sequence than most teachers I have encountered, starting with those visual processes that happen deeper down in the brain: A nod not only to cognitive science, but to simple intuitive experience as well.

     While Martin doesn’t explicitly stray into the depths of philosophy proper in Drawing and Painting, we get hints of how his knowledge in that field enriches this book. One can see his interest in the thought of Heidegger - or perhaps other flavors of phenomenology and existentialism – permeating the mental atmosphere of its pages. Martin’s approach is also philosophical in this way: he does not offer up recipes or a set of instructions. Even with specific projects given, one must attempt to penetrate the meaning of each working situation he sets up through action and reflection. Though simple and straight forward in some ways, all is left open enough to be somewhat opaque and elliptical in terms of end points. Single sentences can be mined and reflected on for manifold implications. This book will utterly elude and exasperate the student who is looking to memorize technically rehearsed answers for surety and peace of mind. It is not a how-to manual. 

     Drawing and Painting calls us to ask questions, frame inferences, and create something of our own conclusions while being given a partial tour of the territory. The whole map is not handed to us, a priori. Instead, we are initiated into a knowledge of how to navigate the wilderness. What we discover in that wilderness is left up to us. 

 With its compact, elliptical prose this book is somewhat short, and I found myself wanting more. While he dips into certain aspects of perceptual science – the striate cortex was one that was new for me – there are many others that he leaves alone. I went away feeling like other, unmentioned aspects of vision, like depth of field, the fovea, and center surround, could each have had their own set of exercises tailored for them – along with many others. Or did the author decide that in the case of this book, less really was more? This would leave open the possibility that Mugar treats teachers like he does his students, and those things are left for us to figure out in our own curricula. 

     In any event, this is an important and timely book. Much of its significance is its tendency to go against the grain of our present-day reasoning. The algorithm, the template, the prefab architectural plan, these are the spirit of our current artistic age. We are offered an array of various templates which give the illusion of freedom. If followed, no thinking or feeling of your own is required. Sharpen your pencil, measure this, measure that, rinse, wash repeat. 

 Part of the beauty of Gothic cathedrals, and much of the reason we admire them today, is that they were constructed with no architectural plans. Their engineering specs were worked out during the construction process. The builders of  Notre Dame defied gravity by experiment, by an intuitive understanding of their materials and the laws of physics. Drawing and Painting is a call to something similar. It is a call to build painting from the ground up, but in this case through an intimate, experiential knowledge of the laws of visual perception. To some that may seem old fashion. To others, it may be the only new way through.

- Miles Hall, December 3, 2021

Martin Mugar currently resides in New Hampshire. His writing appeared on Painter’s Table. 

Book is available at:

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Forge at Betty Cuningham and Dave Row in Rockland Maine



There has been a good deal of enthusiasm for the work of the late Andrew Forge recently shown at Betty Cuningham in NYC. The subtitle for the show” The Limits of Sight” seemed mistaken. My first reaction is: Whoever titled this show as such is making the grand claim that Forge in his work is establishing the limits of vision once and for all by working in the domain of the optical world of cones where color is activated in the retina, beyond which there is nothing.  I am sure that he did not make that claim himself. Impressionism used this organizational strategy, which was most refined in the work of Seurat, where it took on the rubric of Pointillism. Reality reduced to cone generated dots that is known in the world of cognitive psychology as a lower order event. Structurally it can be considered a ground for and or a description of the visual world of things which in cogntive theory is a higher cognitive event. Seurat was not an abstract painter but used an abstract cognitive language of seeing as his underpinning of a representational world. Another contemporary practitioner of dots as support for representation is Chuck Close. Forge can be seen as someone who jettisons the representational end point using the pointillist ground to create these lower-order cognitive events. If you look at him in contrast to dot-meisters Richter, Hirst or Kusayama , they are more self-consciously abstract and the marks show no residue of brush marks.  The gesture of Forge is one of the traditional hand-application of the brush to canvas. A dot in Hirst or Richter is derived from the world of graphic design. I should add that I did not see the show. I was able to zoom in on several of the paintings so as to see the quality of the brush stroke which were decidedly rather thinly applied brush stroke.   


This more traditional application of paint opens up his work to a gestalt of open-ended exploration; an almost religious feel of anticipation. Moreover, the choice of colors is not color-pack derived as in Hirst or Richter. The mood is one of “where the painting is going to take the viewer” rather than where the painting “is” which is in the modernist ethos of Stella or the later work of Al Held hammered down. All dominated by the harsh connection of part and whole that controls the outcome ahead of time.

On the one hand he abandons the representational goal of Seurat and Close but on the other hand does not revert to a hard modernist ethos. 

This notion of a painting existing in time took on more meaning when I saw the work of David Row currently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art which is more about space. It is probably one of the more perfect installations I have ever seen. The symbiosis of the museum space and the works of art is well that symbiotic. The work is modernist as is the space. The scale is large enough to activate the space or another way of putting it the space does not overwhelm the works. The paintings push out into the space. Some of the imagery is of abstract shapes that are fissured as though having submitted to a seismic shift so that the museum space moves into the opening provided by the painting. The only doubt I have is does this seamless interaction of space and work point out an over dependence of the painting on the space. Maybe it is not a valid question as if one were to think that Michaeleangelo’s nudes were too dependent on the space of the Sistine Chapel. But there is no doubt the paintings are a sort of spatial installation. Row’s work that is also on exhibit at the Cove gallery in Portland along with other Maine connected artists. The work is smaller and there is no attempt to make the work interact with the exhibition space. Although the work is strong it does hint at its need for a monumental space to achieve its true visual impact. 


In a review by Peter Plagens of one of Row’s New York shows, Plagens takes issue with what he refers to as “fussed over surface” which figure in the work at the Maine contemporary art space. I had an inspiration of a body of work where the scratched or roughed up surface was replaced by Forges’ probing pointillist marks. It would be a sort of hypertext that dug into the space of the canvas and at the same time reached out into the gallery space. 

But that is probably more than one person could achieve in a lifetime.


                                                      Center for Maine Contemporary Art                                                                                                                                                      


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Is there a Connection between Materiality and Painting from the French Deconstructionists to Ha Chong Yuan

Almost a year after I wrote my essay in 2013 on Zombie Abstraction I got an email from Mark Stone at that I had received confirmation of my role in coining the term Zombie Formalism from “Art in America” critic Raphael Rubinstein in an article he wrote in that magazine on French postmodernist thinking and French abstraction:"Theory and Matter" My son who has a Phd in internet studies said getting that reference in hard copy was the Mt Rushmore of writing in the digital realm. Not long after that thumbs-up I attended a lecture by the artist Sharon Butler, at the Maine College of Art. She is the founder of the ezine “Two Coats of Paint” and the term “casualist painting” that competes with Rubinstein’s “provisionalist” painting that defined much of the painting in the “Forever Now” show at MoMA. In the Q&A after the lecture Butler who had read, I suspect, my blogpost that written in response to John Yau’s article in Hyperallergic , introduced me as the coiner of Zombie Formalism. Walter Robinson of course for most people is the fountainhead of the ZF moniker even though he wrote of it several months later and Jerry Saltz placed him squarely in the  lineage (but no mention of my work), wrote an essay in the New York magazine that made it a current term of the art world. 

Ha Chonghyun (Ha Chong Yuan)

For some reason I never read the whole article by Rubinstein. A recent article again by Yau in Hyperallergic on Korean abstraction referred to as Dansaekhwa and the specific concern for a member Ha Chong Yuan. Support and surface issues are central in his painting  and made me recall the article by Rubinstein, which draws a direct link from French postmodernist theorists such as Derrida, Lacan and other Maoist thinkers such as Badiou and a bevy of young artists in the 70’s who took their words  seriously enough to deconstruct the pristine metaphysical structure of the flat surface. Hence: Theory and Matter . There is no attempt by Yua to connect Ha Chong Yuan with this movement but I am sure it exists. And as he missed on the zombie label he seems to miss out on the history of support and surface. It would be fruitful in creating an east/west link.  Unlike the French artists who in the style of Hantai take apart the ground completely verging on sculpture Hua reconstructs his surfaces to emulate Rymanesque monochromism and in its reliance on thin parallel horizontal lines the work of Agnes Martin.  But these two American artists retain a painterly visuality whereas Ha adds another dimension in the laborious way the pictures are constructed out of slats of wood through which a limited palette of paint is squeezed through from behind and then adumbrated with wire diagonally applied. In reproduction the work does look like either Martin and Ryman, but once one understands the way they are built a whole new level of meaning is attained through a notion of materiality and labor. Schwabsky in Art Forum points out the title of Ha’s painting is called “Conjunctions” referring to paint and support merging. This emphasis of the painting acknowledging and giving primacy to support has to have come out of the French connection. Or maybe it was the France based Hungarian Hantai who influenced them. 

"Theory and Matter" Pierre Buraglio

What I missed in not reading thoroughly the Rubinstein piece is his discussion of the know-nothing attitude of zombie formalism. And Schjeldahl’s dismissal of the art that issued from French theoretics. American Art could stand on its own.  It has an innate swagger that Bataille noticed in the American soldiers arriving in Paris after WW11. I talk about it here  Of course, it is well-known that none of the zombie formalists espouse that label or see it as definitive of their work. Rubinstein said that its freedom from theory maybe makes it susceptible to the kind of mercenary flipping that Robinson described in his essay. The joke about the stock market being just cans of sardines comes to mind: “These sardines are not for eating. They are for buying and selling” said a business friend of my father when I inquired years ago about a current stock market boom. The French artists build their art on the shoulders of Maoist and Marxist revolutionaries that want to change the world for the better. Zombies are neo-liberal merchants who reduce art to merchandise. I remember in highschool staying at the Ritz Carlton at a room rented by this friend of my father who merchandised toothbrushes. There was a supermarket toothbrush display set up in the room. I vaguely recall the name of the salesman. Nev Levinson? I learned later from my dad that the salesman ended up in prison for fraud or some other corrupt activity. In my mind he is conflated with Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. Bleakly pushing goods around for a cut of the action. It was a side to my father that he did not want to dwell on but I do recall on several occasions where he talked about other business acquaintances who wondered about what it all meant. A story of a successful lawyer friend who would turn the lights out in his office and touch in the dark all the accoutrements of his trade including awards et alia. My artist friend Addison Parks, who had something of the priest about him would periodically find defects in my character, once blamed my father for having some nefarious nihilistic influence on me. At the time I dismissed his attempt to subject me to deep analysis as way off base especially in so far as my father created an image of himself that I accepted as a decent man who cared about the welfare of those around him. There must have been some fear on the part of Addison that my art was not all hunky dory and not just the child’s garden to play in that he described in the invitation of my first solo show at Crieger-Dane in Boston. What he must have sensed, that scared him as it does many other people, was a rather nihilistic notion that maybe the secret garden to play in is enshrouded in a kind of void. That the primal thrust is not to creating harmony but rather a raw Nietzschean will to power and its attendant destruction of what is.

Joan Miro

I recently received a link to a blog post by the abovementioned Mark Stone about the late work of Miro. My gosh it is a grim exploration of the canvas as battleground. Gone is the playful child’s garden that so influenced Calder.   Had Calder who clearly saw child’s play in the work of Miro been aware of a nihilistic streak in his work? My attempt to create a good guy/bad guy dichotomy in my Calder/Warhol essay been misguided. Are they both bad guys? Had Calder’s (Woventale's version of my blog) playmate in the playground always been an enemy of painting. Schjeldahl quotes him from early on: 

“I want to assassinate painting,” Joan Miró is reported to have said, in 1927. Four years later, the Catalan modern master elaborated, in an interview: “I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have utter contempt for painting.” 

This grimness seems to be the other side of the Dada coin. Maybe the jump into the surreal has more to the do with an embrace of the void rather than the child’s garden.  Stone seems to see that this is no longer  a critique of capitalism and commodification as Miro attempts but rather the status quo of art and the world we currently live in.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Outside the Walls, a meditation on the contemporary scene

 One thing I miss is the time when America had big dreams about the future. Now it seems like nobody has big hopes for the future. We all seem to think that it’s going to be just like it is now, only worse.

Andy Warhol, America

It’s sort of my philosophy—looking for the nothingness. The nothingness is taking over the planet.

—The Andy Warhol Diaries

 Art outside the Walls

These quotes followed the byline of Gary Indiana’s hit job on Blake Gopnik’s “Warhol” in Harper’s. I was directed to the article by Jed Perl after I sent him my blogpost on his “Calder” that compared their two mega tomes that were published this year. In that blogpost I pointed out that Calder uploaded his metaphysics of form into the popular culture and Warhol took “pop” culture and downloaded it his work. I thought that was rather clever of me! 

 Judging from the above quotes I thought that the Harper’s article might deal with the subject of nothingness in the work of Andy. The second quote seems to be a paraphrase of Nietzsche’s famous quote about how the wasteland grows. In an earlier essay I referred to Warhol as an acolyte of the church of contemporary nothingness. 15 minutes of fame was all the transcendence we would know in life. In a brief exchange with Gopnik on twitter when Gopnik’s book first came out I got gopnik to read the above-mentioned essay, which he found interesting but wrong. He went on to praise Koons as the successor to Warhol. He used the term aesthetic agnosia as Koon’s contribution the world of art. Aesthetic agnosia is a sort of brain damage that disallows as it were the recognition of an object. Does Koon’s cause brain damage or is the use of the term meant to describe Koon’s rendering of his objects inaccessible to normal aesthetics. Is not nihilism just an expansion of our notion of what is aesthetic. There seemed to be a resistance on Gopnik’s part to my attempt to see Warhol as a priest of the religion of nothingness. Based on the above quotes Warhol was no philosophical neophyte. 

The Indiana piece surprisingly did not deal with nihilism despite the quotes but was a rather straightforward essay on a book that seems to be a rehash at  best and badly written at the worst.

Over the years artists have left comments on my blog insisting that the so-called nihilistic tendencies of Zombie Formalism provided just another tool in the artist’s toolbox to make interesting art. These comments were framed in a sort of resentment that the use of the term nihilism that has such mean connotations should be applied to the postmodern phenomena of neo-abstraction. I never said that such art was off limits but rather that is had consequences. And made it difficult for an artist to engage the work of the visual powerhouses of Pollock, Gorky, Rothko and de Kooning in a sort of visual battle in the way they had engaged Picasso, Miro and Kandinsky in their work. Raphael Rubinstein named it ‘provisional painting’ and Sarah Butler named it casualist painting, both monikers implying a rather open-ended attitude toward painting, on the one hand not aggressively reductive and on the other not reaching for a Hegelian self-overcoming. I once lauded her strategy of putting that kind of painting in a negative dialectic with modernism. A handle for art critics to grab on to. Addison Parks in Boston put together a show called “the severed ear” that seemed to say abstraction is a visual language that need not be only a noisy gigantomachia but should be spoken as it were to describe day to day experiences. He included the witty deconstruction of Richard Tuttle and the private narrative of a life lived in the art of Tim Nichols. In the case of Parks, he just liked that kind of painting as it seemed to allow for more autobiography. In the case of Rubinstein it seemed to be a sort of weak Hegelianism influenced indirectly by the philosopher Vattimo’s notion of “weak being.”  Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe references one of the adherents of the provisionalist school Charlene von Heyl in an article he wrote called Teaching What Can’t be Taught” whose work was included in the “Forever Now” show at MoMA. Whereas the show was premised on the end of dialectics and history where in the lingo of Fukuyama the same ideas just get recycled, Jeremy puts her in a world of just good painting, where quoting Herbie Hancock on playing with Miles Davis: They just got it right as the music was playing itself. 

For me I cannot shake the creative explosion of the Impressionists and its seminal effect on Modernism. It seemed based on a deeper cognitive notion of how our eye/mind shapes the world and I probably rather naively thought that more and deeper insights could be drawn from that period in time. Reading the work of cognitive scientist David Marr in the late 80’s it even seemed possible to come up with an abstraction that went deeper or somewhere else. Svetlana Alpers who was introduced to my book on drawing and painting had read his work but had not predicted the same radical conclusions. Serendipitously I learned that a colleague of Alpers at UC-Berkeley Whitney Davis had such hopes and expresses his disappointment in an interview from “Farewell to Visual Studies” edited by James Elkins et alia.  But the postmodern equivocation of cultural and scientific insights made it impossible to construe anything world changing of the visual in his work. Scientific culture has been problematized as purely a Western phenomenon on par with the world views of other cultures. As well as our popular “pop” culture.  In the mean-time social issues so dominant in the thirties and forties of the last century have overtaken temporarily the commercial world of art. Interestingly enough the book which is collection of discussions on the role of Visual Studies at the University level there are scant references to contemporary artists. 

I have been led to repeat some territory already covered in earlier blogposts and in my book as a prelude to writing about a show of a former student she put together in Black Mountain NC. Such a portentous place where Albers taught painting and Charles Olson taught poetry. I said I could not promise that it would be sympathetic and mentioned my review of a show by Lorraine Shemesh, who I was a student with at Tanglewood with Philip Pearlstein as the artist in residence. Just had this flash that she does underwater Pearlstein’s. In any case I used it a pretext for the impossibility of what could have been very romantic paintings but placed a barrier between the seer and the seen. And talked about the romanticism of Edwin Dickinson that was so 19thc with its Shakespearean notion of the seer.

The art world is so beholden to the historical and its Hegelian version that it is absolutely impossible to get recognition if you are outside the zeitgeist or in some way either evolving with it the dialectics or consciously rejecting them. A former student talked about an interesting exchange with Roberta Smith and her husband Jerry Saltz on the relationship of his art to the contemporary scene. Although Saltz came across as the mensch he plays on twitter, he peremptorily dismissed this student’s involvement in painting the figure in the landscape as overdone in the art world and not worth talking about. This is without seeing the student’s work. I have found the notion of a personal journey in art that might conjure up some necessary interactions with art of the past crucial to being an artist. IN the 90’s I was soaking up and applying so much AbEx only to be told by an art historian at UNH that it has already been done. The harsh constraints imposed by the academicians on the individual artists.

Despite attempts to contemporize the show with its title “The feminine gaze” and have it carried along by notions of the diversity of a women’s gaze like all art the medium is the message. Moreover, the strength of the work lies in the success with which each artist uses their respective mediums. Fortuitously Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in the above quoted essay cites Paul Valery who felt that ceramics was the highest form of art as it involves the possibility of the piece blowing up in the kiln. This possibility haunts Melisa Cadel’s work reinforcing a notion of the fragility of the human ego and the human body. The ego seems strengthened in the ceramic of the bald head empowered by the wreath of bloodied hands. The reference to a native American headdress works in that the role of feathers is to empower the wearer with the power of the bird from whence they came. Or are  they “scalps”  of past conquests. People get bloodied in her work; there is a man presumably killed by a victorious woman. No matter how adversarial the images seems in the end  the bald headed woman surrounded by her conquests seems to speak to vulnerability. Is the work about fragility of our human conquests? The hoody that is flat on the floor  might be a reference to wife killer Carl Andre whose work was often placed in the same manner on the floor? I have lately been reading about Cormac McCarthy and his classic "Blood Meridian" that someone described as a mix of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" and Melville's "Moby Dick". Is this ceramic head that of Judge Holden the scalper?

Cunningham and Bessac

Angela Cunningham has learned marvelously the techniques of verisimilitude. Realism’s evolution from the Early to the High Renaissance results in an increase in the recognition of individual personality in portraiture. Angela understands the connection between oil painting technique and the uniqueness of each person’s face. In the Mannerists that precision becomes “mannered” and less precise. Angela stops before that stage. The technique of chiaroscuro perfected by Caravaggio leaps beyond the mannerists and is where Angela chooses not to go. She feels at home in the seamless connection of body and face that playing around with black and white might undermine. So different from John Currin an artist who used classical techniques only to mock their ability to describe a self.

                                                      Cadel and Cunningham

Anne Bessac makes that leap using charcoal within the language of chiaroscuro. Functioning on the borderline of using black and white both as abstraction/flatness and the voluminous allows her to achieve an energy that is reminiscent on the one hand of Richard Serra’s abstract charcoal drawings and Jim Dines figurative drawings. This juggling of the two directions that the use of value can take the viewer gives her work a great deal of visual sophistication.  The faces are suppressed in favor of the bodily presence. Like those two artists she “values” the white of the page incising the marks made by the line into its whiteness. The woman’s monumentality reference the earth mothers of prehistoric times. 

                                                                  Cadel and Bessac

Although the works in this show are a vehicle for the contemporary political agon of feminism they show a reverence for both the material used and the historicity of the visual languages. They are hermeneutical. They reach back into the past to see how those languages can be used as platforms for contemporary narratives.

                                                                     The above work can be seen at the: 
                                                                     Flood Gallery, Black Mountain, NC
                                                                  “Diverse, The Contemporary Female Gaze”
                                                                      November 15, 2020-January 31, 2021

                                                                   A critique more focused on the artists

followed by a thoughtful comment by Anne Bessac 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Divagations on Jed Perl's second volume of "Calder"

As I began to think about finishing my reading and reviewing Jed Perl’s monumental second volume of the life of Calder, the art world was inundated by the responses to the publication of Blake Gopnik’s thousand page book on Warhol. I gathered from a few exchanges with Gopnik online that he sees the media saturated work of Warhol and Koons as the incontrovertible art of the present and in that sense world changing. The edge between mass culture and the individual has broken down and this duo with their philosophically hip intersubjectivity are defining the present and are the wave of the future. I came away with this encounter with Gopnik and the reading of Perl with what seemed to be a vision of two worlds diametrically opposed. On the one hand you have Calder who has uploaded the modernistic visual language of Miro into his own mobile work and in so doing added to its self-understanding as a transcendent language in defining the modern experience. He then heroically shepherds it from the world of kinetics down to earth into stabile sculpture where it takes its place in the public spaces created by the new urban landscape. On the other hand you have Warhol downloading the images of mass culture into his consciousness and calling them or at least being called by the art world high art. To make that claim requires that we acknowledge the overwhelming reality of mass visual media(television and movies) as dominant of the world we live in. It is a passive acknowledgment of the way the media colonizes our consciousness. It is in a sense reactionary as it is based on a parallel understanding between the flat screen of painting and the flat screen of the cinema and television. Nothing can be more antipodal to Calder who explodes the flat images of Miro into mobile 3D imagery. It is a continuation of the modernist vision of transforming our science-based notion of space and time started by the cubists. The history of Western art experiences this sort of upheaval periodically as in the perspective of the Renaissance or the chiaroscuro of the Baroque. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro affected a change on painting that lasted three hundred years until its decadent manifestation in the Salon painters. Even the epigone of “everybody can be an artist” Jerry Saltz has come out with an article in New York magazine acknowledging his world changing genius.(did he plagiarize that as he did my exercise on abstract patterns from my book on drawing and painting where I made the above point about Caravaggio? )

In the context of Gopnik’s attempt to supplant the centrality of the modernism of Picasso and Miro with the media critique/pastiche of Warhol, Perl’s book could not be more timely. It reminds us of the uniquely inventive transformations that individuals bring to the greater culture. If Gopnik’s Warhol gives credence to the importance of the mediated world we live in by downloading its banality into his imagery, Calder uploads the individual creations of Miro into sculpture with a new notion of time and space. Reading Perl’s description of Calder’s life midst the movers and shakers of modernism creates a lucid image of the negotiations and strategies these artists pursued as they take their place on both sides of the Atlantic in the creative storm of modern art. Those events take place in the context of the political turmoil of the 20thc that could have easily swallowed them up. Interestingly, we see that the intellectual evolution of Calder’s work seems to parallel the architectural transformation of the urban scene so as to create a kind of urban space starting in the 1950’s perfectly adapted to Calder’s work. At the very beginning of the second volume, Perl describes the events leading up to the installation of the stabile “Grande Vitesse” in Grand Rapids Michigan. There was a newfound pride in the city that created sufficient wealth to replace the antiquated landscape of 19thc America with a sleek new modernism. Although the industrialists were for the most part pedestrian in their artistic tastes, in the case of Grand Rapids one town father was married to an artistic sophisticate Nancy Mulnix who had been aware of Calder’s work early in her life and was an aficionado of modernism at a time when a taste for its subversive ideas was not shared by the general public. Perl reminds us that the world out of which Calder’s work came was defined by the writings of Joyce, the art of Picasso, the music of Stravinsky and the dance of Balanchine. At mid-century this was still the avantgarde. As the old 19thc Grand Rapids succumbed to urban renewal and the 19thc city hall despite protests from a public ,who as in so many cases such as Boston, came to appreciate the old just as it was being destroyed, a new city hall was being designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill. (Ironically some of the modern buildings that replaced 19thc Boston are slated for demolition). The building that might have looked impressive if it was on the scale of a New York City skyscraper it comes across as a rather squat low budget expression of the modernist spirit. Doing some research on the Vandenberg plaza now commonly called the Calder Plaza, it appears that to this day few citizens are pleased with the outcome of the urban renewal of a half century ago. Much nostalgia is expressed toward the destroyed city hall. However, the disappointment over the antiseptic urban space does not extend to the Calder which is for the most part admired and appreciated on its artistic merit. The high tide of modernism left its mark with numerous Calder’s throughout the Urban landscape. 

Calder Plaza Grand Rapids MI

What intrigues me is the lifespan of artistic ideas from their inception and to their waning.  Perl does a marvelous and painstaking job doing contact tracing of the ideas of Calder and the avant garde of the time. He was the avantgarde and Man Ray is the only other American I can think of who played as successfully in the transatlantic stage of modernism as did Calder. One gets a sense of its transcendent nature of ideas being exchanged from mountain peak to mountain peak although the image that often comes to mind is a rather mundane one of a ball being tossed sideways or downfield in a match of rugby on its way to its destination. Or maybe a better one would be the Monty Python soccer match of philosophers shouting out their oracular insights to the world without going anywhere. Although Calder was not a theorist and kept his ideas to himself, Calder’s world seemed to function on the belief that ideas matter and that his work was destined to be the vehicle for a new expression of time and space. The ball that is being passed around on its way to the stabiles started out with Miro. One sees its effect on Gorky. So dominant and salient is his influence Perl at one point in the book wonders if Calder who was a neighbor of Gorky in Connecticut had influenced Gorky’s late work. Maybe so, but a case could be made for the parallel influence and evolution of Miro on both their oeuvres. 

The ideas embodied in Calder’s work are embedded in our day to day life. The most salient  example are the mobiles as the conceptual basis for crib toys. It is easy to ignore the fact that their prevalence has to do with the depth of their scientific understanding of time and space. Mondrian and de Stijl had an influence on architecture and fashion but to have transformed the experience of a child’s first years of life is quite astounding. Moreover, they are so seamlessly inserted into that realm that it is hard to imagine crib life without them. 

But this is the way that new concepts work. They shake things up reshaping the world we live in. And then because of their ubiquitousness like electricity their conceptual depth is forgotten. 

Reading “Calder” required an adjustment of my habitual expectations of the reading of Perl’s writing. I always enjoy his incisive critique and deflation of the art “powers that be”. I have spoken with many artists who are part of his fandom. We all seem to suffer in silence from the exclusivity of the art world with Perl our sole public voice. I wonder if they found it difficult to read a book by Perl that is unequivocally enthusiastic about its subject. Calder’s life is nothing short of a never-ending story of successfully achieving venues for his work and the best critical response. The successes come from the start: being born to a family of artists who provided important career connections, a perfect marriage, meeting up with the French avantgarde at the right time,  joining the transatlantic artistic aristocracy and then toward the end of his life achieving a near total conquest of the world of public sculpture in the USA and Europe. The only way to read this biography is to go along for the ride. Perl has provided not only the large arcs of that life but the infinitesimal detail.  

Warhol version of a Calder Mobile

The strange disconnect of this glorious life and work and its seamless embodiment of a positivistic scientific understanding of time and space seems distant from our postmodern times. A large majority of what is exhibited manifests the societal critique of the self, caught in the web of a societal construct whether it is shaped by a notion of Marxist false consciousness or the pandemic of social media.  This is Warhol’s era. Cynically Ironic. Power hungry. No wonder that Warhol and Trump were both mentored by Joe McCarthy’s lawyer Roy Cohn. 

 this essay has been picked up by Woventale Press with some edits that accentuate the difference between Warhol and Galder