Teach Yourself Modern and Contemporary Art Bibliography, Part 1: Modern Art in the second half of the 19th century

This post was inspired by family members and friends who have told me they want a better understanding of Modern and Contemporary Art, but don’t know where to start. The list below is a work in progress and primarily covers the second half of the 19th century in Europe, starting with the Pre-Raphaelites in England and Courbet in France, and concluding with the fin de siècle (a bibliography for the 20th century will be forthcoming). It is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a list of possible readings that I have personally found interesting and believe others would find useful and enjoyable.

Starred entries are texts that are particularly good for casual readers looking for a solid and enjoyable introduction to a subject.

Because the Internet needs more cats. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz.

Survey textbooks
I am generally not a fan of broad survey books, but these do a good job of giving contextual information while providing a linking narrative. They also cover most of the major movements and figures I have left out in the other sections.

Chu, Petra ten-Doesschate. Nineteenth-Century European Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Arnason, H. H. and Elizabeth Mansfield. History of Modern Art (6th edition). Prentice Hall, 2009.

Gamwell, Lynn. Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual. Princeton: Princeton University, 2002.
This book begins in the mid-19th century and concludes in the early 20th century.  It is a great alternative to a regular survey book for those who are particularly interested in the role of science in Modern art.

Overviews by country and movement

Garb, Tamar. Bodies of Modernity: Figure and Flesh in Fin-de-Siécle France. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Nochlin, Linda. The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity. Walter Neurath Lecture. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. New York: Penguin, 1971.

Bullen, J. B. The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate, 2000.
Great for images.

Cowling, Mary. Victorian Figurative Painting: Domestic Life and the Contemporary Social Scene. London: Andreas Papadakis, 2000.

Tate Britain has the best collection of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian paintings in the world, including important works by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddall, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, John William Waterhouse, and Richard Dadd. Their collection is available online, and many objects are accompanied by useful texts.

Individual Artists

Nochlin, Linda.  “Bonnard’s Bathers,” Art in America. Vol. 86, No. 7 (July 1998). 63-67, + endpages.

*Rubin, James. Courbet. London: Phaidon, 1997.
This is a clear, well-written and well-organized text about a defining figure of Modernism.  Highly recommended for every reader.

Leja, Michael. “Eakins and Icons,” Art Bulletin. Vol. 83, No. 3 (September 2001), 479-497.
One of my favorite articles. A good, brief, and engaging analysis of the work and analytic methods of American painter Thomas Eakins. [Available online via JSTOR.]

Becks-Malorny, Ulrike. Ensor. Köln: Taschen, 1999.
This slim and inexpensive volume is a good introduction to Ensor, his work, and his context. Images are mostly in color and many are large-scale.

Swinbourne, Anna, et al. James Ensor. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009.
Although there is no substitute for seeing Ensor’s highly textured paintings and prints in person, MoMA’s catalogue is about as close as one can get through reproductions.  Particularly useful essays include Swinbourne’s “Meeting James Ensor” and Susan Canning’s “James Ensor: Carnival of the Modern.”

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Going Native,” Art in America (July 1989), 118-29.
This article addresses Gauguin’s self-created myth of primitivism and the social desires which continue to perpetuate this fantasy. Assumes some basic familiarity with Gauguin’s work, but is still broadly accessible.

Clark, T. J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Princeton: Princeton, 1984.

Levine, Steven. “Monet, Lumiere and Cinematic Time,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (Summer 1978), 441-447.

*Higonnet, Anne. Berthe Morisot. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
This is an enjoyable read that centers on the life of an important Impressionist who is usually only dealt with in a very cursory way. It provides a personal glimpse into the world of the Impressionists and the Parisian art scene in and around the 1870s. Recommended for every reader.

Nochlin, Linda. “Morisot’s Wet Nurse: The Construction of Work and Leisure in Impressionist Painting,” in Women, Art, Power and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Stevens, Mary Anne. “The Urban Impressionist: Pissaro’s Cityscapes, Series and Serialism,” Apollo 11 (1992), 278-283.

Butler, Ruth E., ed. Rodin in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980.
The text, especially the introduction, is very useful in introducing Rodin and his reception. The images, however, are few and are better for context than for appreciating his sculpture.

Simpson, Marc. Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent. New Haven: Yale, 1997.

Broude, N. Seurat in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1978.
See especially the introduction. This text is very good for explaining Seurat’s work and context, but the images are small and in black and white.

Crary, J. “Seurat’s Modernity,” in Seurat at Gravelines: The Last Landscapes. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990.

Nochlin, Linda. “Seurat’s Grande Jatte: An Anti-Utopian Allegory,” in The Politics of Vision. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

Paul Signac, 1863-1935. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Sidlauskas, S. “Contesting Femininity: Vuillard’s Family Pictures,” Art Bulletin 79, 1 (March 1997), 85-111.

Essay collections

Clark, TJ. Farewell to an Idea. New Haven: Yale, 1999.
See especially “Freud’s Cezanne,”even though it deals with the last paintings of Cezanne’s career which he made in the first years of the 20th century.This is a dense but rewarding group of essays. A must for serious students, but casual readers may find it too demanding for their needs.

Krauss, Rosalind E. Passages in Modern Sculpture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1977.
Another classic and influential collection. Most of the essays deal with the 20th century, but there is a good piece on Rodin at the beginning.

Contextual primary sources: contemporary novels, criticism, and influential texts

Baudelaire, Charles. “On the Heroism of Modern Life” (1846) and “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) in Frascina, Francis and Charles Harrison, eds. Modern art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.

Benjamin, Walter. “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century” and “On the Mimetic Faculty,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. New York: Schocken, 2007. 146-153, 333-336.

Gauguin, Paul. Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal.
Gauguin’s semi-fictional account of his first trip to Tahiti.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature (A Rebours). London: Penguin, 2003.
Originally written in 1903, this essentially plotless novel captures the essence of fin de siècle “decadence.” In art, the Decadents included Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, and Huysmans dedicates Chapter 5 of the book to a description of their work.

Zola, Emile. “Edouard Manet,” in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology.  New York: Harper and Row, 1982. 29-38.

Non-Western Modernism in the 19th-century: examples from Japan and Native America
There are a number of problems in attempting to create a “global” bibliography of Modernism. Modernism, after all, meant different things in different cultures, and the changes that took place came about in different ways, for different reasons, at different times, with different implications. Not having a background in the history of each—or having a much stronger background in one—tends to mean the privileging of one culture over the others and inevitably skews our understanding of Modernism as a global phenomenon. The difference in timelines (and academic traditions) also brings up very practical problems of where to start and cut-off bibliographies. All of that being said, I tend to think the results are worse when we treat Modernism only from the perspective of Europe and the European-derived cultures of the Americas.

My own background is in Western/non-Western trans-cultural art, meaning that the circumstances with which I am most familiar are either Europeans or Euro-Americans utilizing or attempting to understand traditions from other parts of the world (mostly Japan, Native America, and Africa), or artists from Japan, Native America, and Africa dealing with, confronting, and using traditions from Western cultures. Therefore, the absence of a country or culture from this list should be understood as a result of the limits of my own background.

Native American/First Nations

Berlo, Janet and Ruth Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University, 1998.
This is a chronologically, geographically, and culturally broad survey book about Native American art, covering the material culture of Native peoples before and after colonization, through the 20th century. There is a lot of information packed into each section, particularly if you are not already familiar with Native names and terminology.

Brown, Steven. Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Century. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1998.
Along with clear essays and images, this catalogue includes a map outlining the territories of individual NWC culture groups, in some cases providing both their current and outdated (but still common) names.

Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Seattle: University of Washington, 1965.
Holm was the first person to systematically analyze and explain in writing the vocabulary and grammar of Northwest Coast design. His Analysis of Form is still the primary guide to understanding the elements of NWC style. I include it here because the objects he studied are mostly from the 19th century.

Seattle Art Museum. The Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1995.
This is a catalogue of objects from the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition to excellent images with individual descriptions, the longer essays provide important historical, cultural, and formal (stylistic) information. Robin Wright’s text on Haida argillite carvings is particularly illuminating in the context of the 19th century.

The birth of Modernism in Japan is somewhat contested. One popular date is 1868, the start of the Meiji period. Another is 1854, when Japan was forced to sign a trade agreement with the United States, thereby marking the end of Japanese seclusion. In addition to making it possible for Japanese prints and goods to travel to Europe where they had a significant impact on artistic styles, the treaty also opened Japan to Western influence, including European-style Industrialization (a process that in Japan was particularly rapid and brutal). Other historians place the beginnings of Modernism even further back in the Edo period (1603-1868), due to the rise of a merchant class and the period’s thriving economy, increased urbanism, and artistic development.

Addiss, Stephen. Japanese Ghosts and Demons. New York: George Braziller, 1985.
Produced in conjunction with the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, this is a great book for those interested in mythology and folklore. It covers a broad timeframe, but the largest group of objects are from the 19th century.

Bouquillard and Christophe Marquet. Hokusai: First Manga Master. Liz Nash, ed. New York: Abrams, 2007.
Hokusai is best known for prints, particularly his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (1835) series. In contrast, this book focuses on his manga (drawings). The pictures are arranged by theme (such as “Plates of Animals” or “Variations in Climate and Vegetation”).

Clark, Timothy. Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009.
This large volume is the catalogue from an impressive exhibition of prints by one of the Edo period’s great print artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Like the exhibition, the catalogue is arranged by themes (Warriors, Beautiful Women, Landscapes, Theater, and Humor), and each image is well reproduced. However, the text can be a bit dry.

Clark, Timothy. Demon of Painting: The Art of Kawanabe Kyōsai. London: British Museum, 1993.
Another monographic exhibition catalogue, this time for the painter and woodblock artist, Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-89).

Conant, Ellen. Nihonga: Transcending the Past. St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum, 1995.
Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) was a post-isolation movement and style that self-consciously rejected overtly Western traditions in favor of “traditional” Japanese materials and techniques. This exhibition catalogue covers works produced in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Earle, Joe. Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture. Boston: MFA, 2001.
Netsuke are a fairly marginalized subject in academic studies of Japanese art, and are primarily within the purview of collectors. This publication is a rare scholarly introduction to the topic, dealing mostly with objects from the Edo and Meiji periods.

Figal, Gerald. Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. Durham: Duke, 1999.
As a book about folklore in modern Japan, Civilization and Monsters provides a useful link between the content of much of the work in the catalogues featured in this section and the concept of modernity as it applies to Japan in the 19th century.

Blurring Fact and Fiction: An untitled vitrine by Joseph Beuys in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The following is an edited-down version of a research paper I wrote in 2009. I did not obtain permission to post the original images of the overall vitrine and its components, so they do not appear here.

Joseph Beuys, 1976. Photo from the Free International University World Art Collection: http://www.fiuwac.com/html/fiuwac_statement.html

Like all objects in museum collections, the work of Joseph Beuys requires conservators and curators to concern themselves with two related, overarching issues: the preservation of the object’s materiality and the preservation of its intellectual content. However, the intentionally mythic nature which underscores much of Beuys’s oeuvre complicates these typical conservation matters in unique and challenging ways. By calling into question the role of the museum and its responsibilities to the artist as well as the public, works by Beuys raise issues that are as basic and as broad as what it means to preserve and present objects “truthfully.”

Over the course of his career, Beuys developed a reputation as an artist, teacher, political activist, philosopher, mystic, and shaman who sought to heal society and the psychic wounds of post-WWII Germany by merging art with science, politics, and life. Prolific and controversial, he is still generally accepted as the most influential artistic personality of post-War Germany. Although traditionally trained in sculpture at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf—to which he later returned to teach—Beuys’s preoccupation with personal symbolism and the metaphoric potential of materials led to his use of hitherto unusual media, including fat, felt, butter, and taxidermied hares. Indeed, it is this metaphoric relationship to media that has most clearly been integrated into the production of younger generations of artists.

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare - Joseph Beuys
Still from performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965. Image from: http://www.wikiart.org/en/joseph-beuys/how-to-explain-pictures-to-a-dead-hare-1965-1

Beuys rooted his artistic philosophy in a now infamous story based on his experience during World War II. In 1944, less than a year after informing his family of his plans to become an artist, Beuys’s plane was shot down on the Crimean Front. His pilot was killed and Beuys was badly injured. According to the story, a band of Tartars found him and, without regard to his role as a fighting member of the Luftwaffe, nursed him back to health by covering him in fat and wrapping him in felt. Although unconscious during his twelve days in their care, Beuys recalled hearing the word for water, “Voda,” and breathing in the thick smells of cheese, milk, and fat which somehow managed to penetrate his sleeping consciousness. Beuys credited the Tartars, along with the warm, healing potential of fat and felt, with saving his life. As a result, fat, felt, and milk products highlight prominently in his work as generative, primordial materials, while the Tartars became a model for the mythical Eurasian people which figure throughout the artist’s oeuvre.[i]

This story has been so often repeated and is so clearly intrinsic to Beuys’s artistic and social philosophies that it was not seriously questioned until Benjamin Buchloh’s damning ArtForum article in 1980, more than 35 years after the supposed event. Although he was badly injured in a plane crash during a military operation, Beuys was found the next day by a German search commando and recovered in a military hospital.[ii] Tartars, fat, felt, cheese, and milk were never involved. Yet despite evidence of the fictive nature of the original story, Beuys’s version still stands as a peculiarly sensitive and under-examined topic.

Mark Rosenthal has written perceptively on the mythical nature of Beuys’s work, concisely stating that “to understand Beuys’s approach and to characterize his aesthetic legacy, it is crucial to recognize that he approached both his life and his art as one endeavor, and constantly staged both aspects.”[iii] In other words, Beuys was an artist with a clear understanding of the power of myth, which he also recognized must be accepted as truth in order to achieve its full generative potential. In his fictive encounter with the Tartars, Beuys created for himself a story of rebirth and forgiveness which allowed him to leave the shame of his time as a decorated Nazi pilot behind him and re-emerge from the ruins of his broken body as a holy man for the 20th century, ready to heal the shattered psyche of Europe as he himself had been healed.[iv]

Acknowledging the consciously fictive aspect of Beuys’s production clearly alters the understanding of his oeuvre in important and productive ways. Yet doing so also undermines the artist’s intentions, effectively destroying an aspect of his work, and it is probably for this reason that his supporters are sometimes reticent to discuss the mythic underpinnings of his production or simply dismiss them as unimportant. Perhaps it is also for this reason that the discovery of his story’s fiction has not led to greater questioning of other aspects of his production.

Indeed, although the death of the artist represents a tragic loss of potential knowledge, the distance created by Beuys’s passing in 1986 has also aided in understanding his work. During most of his lifetime, even critics who remained unconvinced of his objects’ artistic or intellectual value seem to have taken the artist at his word as to their material content. Only now, a generation after his death, has the necessary historical distance formed to allow a re-evaluation of even the most fundamental points of the artist’s creations, including the very media in which he infused such profound symbolic significance.

The specific subject of this study is an untitled work often referred to as the “vitrine containing ‘Action Apron.’” It is one of four vitrines assembled in 1983 and purchased in 1991 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from the London-based Anthony d’Offay Gallery. Created to house remnants of his past performances, Beuys’s vitrines have their closest parallels in reliquaries and the display cases of traditional natural history museums. Thus, all of the objects within the case are both independent art works and components of a later, collective whole. When assembled, the remnants constitute a kind of self-portrait of the artist, a point reinforced by the metaphoric design of the case which Beuys claimed resembled the spindly legs and thick body of a stag, the animal with which he most related.[v] Given this element of self-portraiture and the fact that the artist clearly intended selected objects to be shown together, the vitrines should above all be understood as singular objects with multiple components rather than simply containers for the “real” sculpture.

Untitled Vitrine with Sled and Fat Filter. Like the vitrine with “Action Apron,” this is one of four works composed in 1983 and now in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

The vitrine considered here contains remnants of four separate performances by the artist. According to the label supplied by Anthony d’Offay Gallery and probably written by the artist, these individual elements include: “Action Apron,” a white cotton apron worn during one of the artist’s actions in 1964; “Angel,” made from beef drippings with Irish unsalted butter and two coffee spoons in 1983; “Untitled,” a plastic tube containing what the artist claimed to be hare’s blood and color, from around 1977; and another “Untitled” work from 1966 consisting of a tin can containing thyme dipped in wax, a wax coated string, and blutwurst remnants.[vi]

However, according to analyses by Guggenheim conservators Carol Stringari and Nathan Otterson, “Angel” and the two untitled elements have questionable media which do not clearly match the descriptions given by the artist. The “beef drippings” supposedly present in “Angel” are not readily apparent, and, even more striking, the “Irish butter” appears instead to be a wax-based mixture with a small amount of butter mixed-in. Although the exact mixture is not identifiable without chemical testing, the relative absence of butter can usually be determined through observations of sight and smell. Not only would we expect butter to have softened and probably melted, deteriorating animal fat—such as that found in butter and beef—produces an unpleasant rancid odor. The fact that the whitish substance has preserved its shape and hardness while emitting only a mild buttery scent seems to indicate that the white block is neither mostly butter nor animal-fat. Similarly, although the artist presented his 1977 piece as consisting primarily of hare’s blood, the fluid and sediment now appear to be separated components of red ink. Finally, while the tin can does contain remnants of a thin, translucent substance along its inner wall which appears to be an organic product such as animal glue, there is little about this material that suggests the presence of blood sausage.

One rare precedent for questioning the artist’s materials comes from his widow, Eva Beuys. According to the contents of a 1998 e-mail in the Guggenheim’s files, Eva had doubts about whether blood existed in the tube, whether blood sausage could be found in the tin can, and whether there was any butter in the vitrine. Perhaps most importantly, the e-mail states that, according to Eva, no butter was originally present. This last point is crucial because it represents the only evidence I found that confirms it was the artist’s choice to use a substitute for butter rather than a decision made later by the gallery. Of course, it does not exclude the possibility that the label was a fiction created by the gallery. However, the specificity of the type of butter (“Irish unsalted”), as well as the fact that the artist was not only alive when the gallery first displayed the vitrine but that he actually composed the work for d’Offay’s exhibition, makes this latter scenario unlikely and strongly suggests that the labeling is the product of the artist.

In addition to the concerns raised by Eva Beuys, the Guggenheim conservators have found issues with objects in other vitrines from the same series that seem to reinforce the idea that Beuys substituted materials. Most suggestively, in the Sled with Filter vitrine (see above image), the “fat” in the “Fat Filter” component appears to be wax.[vii] Such irregularity in his production is consistent with the observation made by Stedelijk Museum conservator Kees Herman Aben that Beuys rarely gave accurate or specific descriptions of the type of fat he used.[viii] The artist himself stated casually that he just used “any sort of fat,” although he was fond of margarine, which he found to be particularly banal and therefore shocking.[ix] He was also known to use lard, butter, wax, stearin, paraffin, mutton fat, beef suet, pork fat, wool fat, and tallow, all of which seem to be included under his broad, loose category of “fat.”[x] If Beuys conceptualized these diverse substances as being essentially the same—and therefore interchangeable—then it is possible he truly saw no significant problem in using wax in place of butter when making “Angel,” even if the idea of a specific kind of butter was important for the piece.

One of the reasons relatively little analysis has been done on Beuys’s materials is that, under normal museum storage conditions, they are fairly stable.[xi] However, when put on view, objects containing fat and wax can suffer from the heat produced by gallery lights. One such instance occurred at the Stedelijk Museum during the artist’s lifetime, in 1977. When faced with the deterioration of their work from 1963, Fat Corner in Cardboard Box (Fettecke in Kartonschachtel), the museum undertook a potentially controversial reconstruction of the object.

a) Fettecke in Kartonschachtel (Fat Corner in Cardboard Box), 1963. Condition in 1972.
b) Before reconstruction, 1977.
c) After reconstruction, 1977. Images from Aben 109.

Although the piece had apparently been fine while in storage, it began to suffer once put on display. Exposure to heat, damp, micro-organisms, alkaloids and metals accelerate putrefaction of animal products, and in this case the heat created by the gallery lights caused the fat to melt.[xii] Not only did the corner lose its shape, but the cardboard and felt became dark and greasy.[xiii] When removed from its Plexiglas case, the work gave off the strong, rancid smell expected of deteriorating, fourteen year old fat. Without consulting the artist, the museum decided to reconstitute the piece using a mixture of 80% stearin, 17% linseed oil, and 3% beeswax.[xiv]

Aben, who wrote about the reconstruction in 1995, lamented the decision had been made without consulting the artist, who he suspected would have preferred to allow the object to deteriorate.[xv] However, if Beuys felt that the idea of the substance and what it signifies can be embodied in another, similar medium, then it seems probable that the artist would have accepted reconstructions of his objects to stand in for the originals. Indeed, if the Guggenheim conservators are correct, just a few years later the artist himself substituted a wax mixture in “Angel” for the more unstable substance of butter. Such action would suggest that, at least towards the end of his career, he would not have minded the Stedelijk Museum’s switch.

Yet the idea that media which act as differently as paraffin wax and butter are interchangeable seems troubling in the context of an artist for whom the behavior of materials was paramount. According to Beuys’s Theory of Sculpture, which the artist developed in the 1960s, everything passes through a continuum of structure which ranges from chaotic to ordered, with the ideal state resting between these two poles. The chaotic pole is associated with warmth, raw materials, and raw will, while the ordered, crystalline state is represented by cold, processed materials, and the intellect. As Caroline Tisdall has pointed out, fat can embody both extremes, from a warm and flowing raw material to a cold and ordered solid, a quality the artist famously exploited in works like Fett mit Stuhl (1964, below), in which the potential softness of the fat is juxtaposed against the geometrical right angle of the chair.[xvi] Again, though, “fat” is an incredibly broad category, and some types of fatty materials are naturally closer to one end of the Theory’s spectrum than the other. Beuys’s apparent choice, made twenty years after the development of his theory, to use a hard wax to represent butter may very well suggest an even further shift in the artist’s thinking away from literal referentiality towards near-complete metaphysicality.

Stuhl mit Fett, 1963, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt. Image from db artmag: http://db-artmag.com/archiv/2005/e/2/1/319.html

Beuys’s interest in the transformation of materials extended to his process-oriented sculpture. As a result, it can be argued that his objects should be allowed to run their natural course, even to the point of deterioration. Indeed, long-time Beuys conservator Otto Hubacek recalled that Beuys would not repair damaged works, although in one instance he allowed a work to be exhibited that the then-young conservator had repaired for a museum (unknowingly against the artist’s wishes).

However, deterioration and flux are not necessarily the same, and there is nothing to suggest that Beuys actually wanted his sculpture to destroy itself over time. Instead, the artist’s behavior towards his objects suggests that he felt a piece was simply over once it was badly damaged. Supporting this interpretation of his feelings is the fact that Eva Beuys’s has come out strongly against deteriorated works being presented as functioning objects at all. Yet, in order to preserve the works for any length of time, the museum must keep them in their ordered state, which in Beuys’s continuum is analogous to death. On the other hand, the only way to activate the original fatty materials is to heat them, which would cause the physical death of the object.

One way to work around this apparent impasse between the temporary nature of the sculptures and the desire for longevity would be to treat the process-oriented works as both objects to be conserved and performances that could be re-performed. In this way, the original object could be traditionally preserved, but the idea behind it could be re-actualized through the creation of similar, temporary sculpture as exhibition copies. Intended only to be experienced, these performative pieces would not need to be kept and stored, but should be destroyed at the end of the exhibition for which they were created.

As catalogues of the artist’s previous actions, however, the vitrines are the most conceptually resistant to substitutions. Their aspect of self-portraiture—in fact, the basis of any meaning they might possess—is dependent on the components’ status as objects physically made or selected by Beuys at a specific time in his life. More clearly than his other works, they invite emphasis on temporal originality, preservation, and stasis. At the same time, part of the artist’s interest in grouping elements from disparate time periods might have been to juxtapose objects at differing states of deterioration, the physical status for which would be based on both their materials and ages. All of this suggests that in the case of the vitrines, even if the estate would allow it, substitutions should be avoided in all but the direst cases of deterioration, such as when the status of an object endangers the stability of the overall vitrine.

Ironically, while Beuys’s own material substitutions make his objects more stable, they also complicate, on a very practical level, the Museum’s ability to show the work. Before the Guggenheim can put the vitrine on view or make it available online, it must decide on how to present at least the basic tombstone information. Aside from the philosophical and ethical issues tied up in changing an artist’s label, part of the problem with altering the media line is that the precise materials of each component are still not clear. For instance, although the liquid in the 1977 tube is clearly separated ink, one would have to open the tube in order to determine with certainty whether or not any blood is also present, an action which would damage the piece. In addition, the original medium is written ambiguously enough (“hare’s blood with color”) that recognizing the liquid and sediment are mostly from ink still does not entirely disprove the artist’s assertion. Similarly, although no clear evidence exists for the presence of “beef drippings” supposedly in “Angel,” it seems possible that their lack of presence is due to the passage of the more than 25 years since they were supposedly dripped over the sculpture. Likewise, even if we believe that the whitish-yellow substance is mostly wax rather than butter or even lard, the exact mixture has yet to be determined. Therefore, although the contents may not be exactly as Beuys described them, we cannot formally change the authoritative tombstone information without having equally precise facts with which to replace it. Wall and object label text is a potential site for a slightly more elaborate explanation of the media, but this option is also problematic in that it would detract from the objects’ intentionally mythic aura and thereby further disrupt viewers’ understanding of the artist’s work.

At this point many important questions remain regarding the “Action Apron” vitrine and, by extension, the artist’s practice as a whole. Among the most pressing of these is the still unresolved issue of what materials were used in “Angel” and the “Untitled” tube. Given the current divergent interpretations of the objects’ materiality, the components of at least “Angel” need to be tested and their media definitively understood before conceptual analysis can move forward.

Even with these unanswered questions, I must disagree with the assertion frequently made by the conservators I interviewed that the exact composition of materials does not matter in preserving the intellectual content of the work. When an artist merges materiality with meaning as explicitly as Beuys has done, the question of how he chose to use his media directly affects our understanding of the artist and his practice. For conservation, the possibility that the artist staged his compositions with more stable compounds would seem to make reconstructions of degraded objects—like that undertaken by the Stedelijk Museum—more ethically feasible than if the artist was inflexibly tied to literal, rather than metaphysical, materiality. In addition, if museums were able to substitute “performative” works for display purposes, viewers would more likely be able to experience the pieces as Beuys intended.

The very fact that questions are being raised about Beuys’s media is new and potentially crucial in gaining a better understanding of his production. I suspect that further analysis of materials used throughout the artist’s oeuvre, and especially in his late work, will reveal an artist for whom conventional concerns with theatricality and sculptural longevity were more important than he chose to project. How museums and scholars choose to interpret this information and present it to the public remains to be seen.

Aben, Kees Herman. 1995. “Conservation of Modern Sculpture at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam,” in From Marble to Chocolate: The Conservation of Modern Sculpture. London: Archetype. 104–09.

Barker, Rachel and Alison Bracker. “Beuys is Dead: Long Live Beuys! Characterising Volition, Longevity, and Decision-Making in the Work of Joseph Beuys,” Tate Papers (Autumn 2005), unpaginated: www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/05autumn/barker.htm

Beuys, Joseph. 2004. “Joseph Beuys: Life Course/Work Course,” in Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments. Houston: Menil Collection. 159.

Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol,” Artforum, Vol. 5, No. 18 (January 1980), 35–43.

The Museum of Modern Art. 2008. “Focus: Joseph Beuys,” (gallery label text). Available online at: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=118971<

Rainbird, Sean. 2004. “At the End of the Twentieth Century: Installing After the Act,” in Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments. Houston: Menil Collection. 136–49.

Rosenthal, Mark. 2004. “Joseph Beuys: Staging Sculpture,” in Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments. Houston: Menil Collection. 10–135.

Schmuckli, Claudia. 2004. “Chronology and Selected Exhibition History,” in Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments. Houston: Menil Collection. 150–201.

Spector, Nancy, Mark C. Taylor, Christian Scheidemann, and Nat Trotman. 2006. Barney/Beuys: All In the Present Must Be Transformed. New York: Guggenheim.

Theewen, Gerhard. 1993. Joseph Beuys: Die Vitrinen, ein Verzeichnis. Köln: Walther König.

Tisdall, Caroline. 1982. Joseph Beuys: dernier espace avec introspecteur, 1964–1982. London: Anthony d’Offay.

Tisdall, Caroline. 1979. “Fat Chair,” in Joseph Beuys. New York: Guggenheim. 72-76.

[i] Rosenthal, Mark, “Joseph Beuys: Staging Sculpture,” in Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments (Houston: Menil Collection, 2004), 10.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Rosenthal offers a similar interpretation of Beuys’s creation story. Ibed.

[v] MoMA, “Focus: Joseph Beuys,” (gallery label text, 2008). Available online at: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=118971

[vi] Blutwurst is the German name for what in the United States is known as blood sausage and in England as black pudding.

[vii] I did not observe this piece in person.

[viii] Aben, Kees Herman, “Conservation of Modern Sculpture at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam,” in From Marble to Chocolate: The Conservation of Modern Sculpture (London: Archetype, 1995), 107.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] All of the conservators I contacted store their objects in regular museum storage rather than refrigerated conditions. Lynda Zycherman explained that the MoMA had considered refrigeration for their organic objects, but decided that the tactic was too risky and untested for mixed media, as cold conditions can actually be detrimental to some materials.

[xii] Aben 107–08.

[xiii] Aben 108.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Aben 109.

[xvi] Tisdall, Caroline, “Fat Chair,” in Joseph Beuys (New York: Guggenheim, 1979), 72.

Why women’s colleges matter (it’s probably not what you think)

I thought I would take a momentary break from art in order to ruminate a bit about the value of women’s colleges.

A few weeks ago there was a flurry of opinion by news pundits (mostly people who have no personal or professional experience in the subject) about the viability of the very idea of women’s colleges. The issue was spurred on by a recent study indicating that graduates from single-sex institutions are not ultimately more successful than their co-ed counterparts. As I’ve observed it in the media, the argument for women’s schools tends to go back to points about the continued inequality between the genders in the work place, in political office, in pay, and the opportunity that an all-women’s education affords young women to step into leadership roles that might otherwise be denied to them. The argument against consistently boils down to the idea that the world is co-ed and therefore the best way to prepare for it is in a co-ed environment. Both of these arguments are probably at least partially true, as far as they represent the needs and perspectives of different individuals. Certainly some women will fare better in life if they are allowed an all-female college experience, just as others will benefit more from a co-ed environment. However, to say that the only way to prepare for the “real world” is through a co-ed university is to deeply misunderstand the benefit of a single-sex education. More importantly, it actually represents the kind of narrow concept of society and our roles within it that an experience in a women’s college serves to buttress against.

I should perhaps backtrack a moment and describe my own decision to attend Smith College as an undergraduate. Coming out of a co-ed public high school, I initially fought the idea of even looking at the women’s colleges—as my mother pushed me to do—and wanted instead to focus on places like Grinnell, Amherst, and Swarthmore. However, in the midst of creating my list of perspective schools, I happened to see a documentary on Hillary Clinton’s graduating class from Wellesley. I was impressed, not just by the accomplishments of the featured individuals, but by the people themselves. They were women I wanted to know and could see myself growing into. So I reluctantly added Wellesley to my list.

Of course, once I allowed myself to look at one single-sex school, there was no reason not to look at them all. When I did, what I found was a group of colleges that catered to my interests better than the choices on my original list. By the time I actually applied, only my back-up school was co-ed. There were many reasons for me to attend the colleges I applied to—high academic standards, incredible facilities, strong programs in my areas of interest, entrance into an honor’s program, gorgeous campuses, far-reaching alumni networks—but what ultimately won me over was a quality that is far more difficult to quantify or describe.

Because they are in the same area, I visited Amherst and Smith on the same day. What disturbed me most about Amherst, which at the time ranked either first or second in the country, was the sense that it offered a social experience not so different from high school. The young woman who took us on our campus tour was well-dressed and in make-up, professional but self-conscious, as were the other female students we passed. Despite their different races and ethnicities, there was nonetheless a strong sense of sameness about the women there, and in retrospect I now see it as a shared willingness to be what they sensed others expected them to be. What was worse was that I saw myself doing the same, and I became uncomfortably aware of my own interest in the young men in my tour group and on campus. In contrast, when we got to Smith the atmosphere was decidedly more relaxed, even free. Our guide was clean-faced and casual, while the other students we passed could not be easily categorized into any one type. Paradoxically, it was only in the single-sex institutions that I saw women who clearly thought of themselves as people, rather than female, first.

And so I went to Smith. Not all of my initial hopes and perceptions turned out to be true. I was not able to avoid the distractions of personal relationships, but I did learn that friendships can be nearly as intimate and painful as any romantic entanglement. The alumni network, combined with Smith’s reputation, has helped me navigate the competitive waters of my career. Yet they have not served as a bulwark against the current financial crisis which has forced me into a cross-roads I had hoped never to reach. I have often wondered how my life would be different if I had gone to one of the schools from my original list, but I have never regretted choosing Smith. The reason is simply this: even as a natural skeptic, being in a single-sex environment offered me the opportunity to see the world in a way I never could have from the standard co-ed vantage point.

That is the real reason why women’s colleges are and will continue to be necessary in our society. They offer a three-to-four year experiment in living, after which those social and psychological norms often taken as natural in the “real world” reveal themselves to be mere constructions, and often harmful ones at that. The experience is not for everyone; I certainly knew people who did not want to be there, should not have been there, and, in some cases, made the lives of the people around them a little worse because they were there. However, if you come with curiosity about the human condition and are flexible enough to ask questions you may not like the answers to, there simply is no substitute for the difficult, troubling, incredible, and singular experience of a single-sex education. To lose women’s colleges would be to lose questions that we otherwise would not know to ask, and therefore to lose knowledge we could not otherwise gain.

Okay, enough of my ramblings. I will return to art for the next post.

Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz.

The science of art in “Exposure,” “Talo/House,” and “Lunar” at the Art Institute of Chicago

Lunar (2011) by Spencer Finch on the Bluhm Family Terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, the cliché that art and science necessarily represent contradictory or even opposite approaches to the world continues to thrive. The survival of this fallacious perception is most puzzling because contemporary art, more than any previous moment or movement, persistently reveals a close, if complex, relationship between the two broad disciplines. Indeed, one of the significant shifts between modern and contemporary art has been the increased tendency for artists to integrate the methods of science—such as research, interviews, and experiment—into their productions, albeit with a continued preoccupation with the experiential. This change is in part due to the ever-increasing availability and use of intrinsically documentary media, such as photography and film, as well as a social shift towards personal documentation and data-gathering tied to social media networks, concern over governmental surveillance, and portable devices that offer a variety of ways to collect and track personal information. The extent of this shift is exemplified in three current contemporary art exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago: Exposure, Talo/House, and Lunar.

Exposure: Matt Keegan, Katie Paterson, and Heather Rasmussen (on view through March 4, 2012) is the fourth installment of a series of exhibitions hosted by the AIC’s Department of Photography. Although problematically structured around the idea of exploring “diverse approaches to photography,” each featured photographer successfully delivers a coherent and intriguing body of work that raises an array of questions.[i] Given the nature of photography, it is not surprising that many of these issues revolve around concepts of documentation. For instance, although Heather Rasmussen initially seems to present Minimalist images of randomly distributed blocks of color, her series of photographs in fact records model reconstructions of catastrophic freight accidents, which she hand-makes out of cardstock and arranges to resemble found journalistic images from the web. What at first engages the viewer through abstract design slowly reveals itself to be a complex reference to the impact of modern standardization practices in shipping on industry and economics, of which large-scale and far-reaching disasters are a significant unintended consequence. Meanwhile, on two other sides of the room, Matt Keegan’s multi-part installation utilizes several forms of reference, documentation, and presentation—such as artist’s books presenting historical photographs of New York with brief texts related to Chicago’s contemporaneous industrial and social development—to evoke relationships between the two cities. Keegan’s strategic use of juxtaposition directs the viewer without dictating any conclusions, and thereby encourages both intuitive and logical engagement. Clearly, both Keegan and Rasmussen freely borrow from or make reference to strategies of production and evidence-gathering derived from scientific fields. However, neither do so as concisely as Katie Paterson.

In capturing mute expansions of nothingness, Paterson’s slides and photographs of black, empty space are reminiscent of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s visions of the sea and theater, while her meticulous labeling and concern with the mundane suggest the rigorous documentation strategies of performance and conceptual artists like Tehching Hsieh. Yet the interest of her work, History of Darkness (ongoing), does not lie in its relationship to its artistic predecessors, but rather in her adoption of scientific documentation and subsequent disruption of the intended consequences of such documentation. Taken in Hawaii with the aid of “one of the most powerful telescopes in the world,” the images capture points in space that are completely devoid of “celestial illumination.”[ii] Although essentially identical in appearance, they each represent different locations in both space and time, and are labeled according to their distance from earth in light years. In highlighting the negative space of outer space, Paterson draws attention to areas that not only typically go undocumented, but which, as photographs, represent an apparent paradox. By recording literal nothingness, these photographs become information about a lack of information, reversing the very purpose of such documentation and the expensive tools used to produce it. As an additional touch, Paterson continues the light humor of her project and its preoccupation with the untenable by numbering her prints as editions of infinity, a move which similarly makes the numbering of editions meaningless (in the conventional sense of establishing value based on scarcity) while neatly tying back to the underlying concept of the series.

Visitors exiting Exposure can step directly across a narrow hallway to enter the exhibition space of Talo/House (2002; on view until November 27, 2011), a three-channel, semi-immersive video installation by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. As the portrayal of a woman whose concept of time and space is collapsing due to her perceptual inability to filter, place, and logically organize sounds, House represents an updated, more sympathetic, continuation of Surrealism. Like the early 20th century movement, Ahtila is concerned here with the portrayal and experience of people diagnosed with psychotic disorders, and similarly attempts to recreate the sensations associated with these alternative states for her audience. Also like the primarily male members of the earlier group, she has chosen to relate this experience through the eyes of a woman. However, far from the mental freedom Surrealists associated with such conditions, Ahtila portrays her subject as increasingly isolated. Over the course of the film, the character tries to block-out the outside world from her home and head as a means of gaining some sense of quiet sanity.

More important for the topic at hand is the way in which the artist gathered her material. While the Surrealists were intrigued with the ideas of Freud and tended to form romantic relationships with women who operated as their muses (some of whom later spent time in mental institutions), Ahtila composed her story based on research and interviews. Although more clinical than her predecessors, Ahtila’s method and subsequent product is perhaps more sympathetic and grounded in reality, resulting in work that seems to give her subjects a voice beyond that of mere muses.

Viewers who also had the opportunity to see the 2008 exhibition, Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland, at PS1 in New York will be reminded of the contemporaneous videos by Ahtila’s compatriot, Veli Granö, whose work in that show consisted of the recreation of scenes or moments described as real by his subjects, but are more likely understood as signs of mental illness or delusion by the general public. Perhaps to an even greater degree than House, Granö’s productions suggest sympathy with his socially alienated subjects by withholding critical comment and allowing them a neutral space in which to relate their singular visions of the world. Ironically, the neutrality also suggests a similar level of clinical detachment, suggesting—as a scientist would—that it is only through such disinterestedness that the subjects’ experience may be fairly expressed and understood.

Finally, the multi-media, sculptural installation, Lunar (2011), by Spencer Finch represents yet another attempt to merge aspects of science with art. However, in this case the final product tends to both mine and mimic technology and design rooted in the forward-thinking sciences of the 20th century. As a kind of earth-bound lunar module, the sculpture utilizes solar-power to reproduce the moon’s luminosity, which the artist has measured using a colorimeter. At night, the collected energy shines as light from a large buckyball, a form that automatically references environmental experiments in geodesic domes, as well as the shape’s visionary namesake: Buckminster Fuller. Although visually engaging, Lunar is ultimately less rigorous and satisfying than works like House or History of Darkness, because its engagement with science is more cosmetic than conceptual and its apparent goals—to create a different way of depicting moonlight and suggest a fanciful narrative of a space module landing on the museum—is more novel than probing. Nonetheless, the very idea that simple references to the “hard” sciences can spark the imagination of viewers and therefore enhance an artist’s work is itself an indication that scientific thinking and its markers are not only acceptable within contemporary art, but are actively sought by current artists.

Lunar will remain on the Bluhm Family Terrace until April 8, 2012.

Additional readings and useful links:
Exposure: Matt Keegan, Katie Paterson, and Heather Rasmussen

Katie Paterson

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Talo/House

Veli Granö

Arctic Hysteria
Exhibition website: http://www.momaps1.org/exhibitions/view/164

Catalogue: Framework: The Finnish Art Review (Artic Hysteria Special Issue), No. 9 (June 2008) [ISSN 1459-6288]

Lunar by Spencer Finch


[i] http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/exhibition/exposure4

[ii] Exhibition wall text.