Impressions from the House on the Rock


Whether you’re into automata; infinity rooms; female grotesques; pan-Asian decorative arts; antique guns; circuses; scrimshaw; sea monsters; stained glass; heavily carpeted surfaces; discordant music; winged, semi-nude mannequins; pseudo-Victorian street scenes; or carousels of dolls riding bug-eyed ponies, the House on the Rock has something for you. Dark, convoluted, and often flat-out creepy, the three-part complex located in the forests of southwestern Wisconsin is a call to imagination, a celebration of fakery, and a product of the extreme “eccentricity” of its designer, Alex Jordan, Jr. (1914–1989). Making one’s way past the indiscriminate jumbles of stuff that fill the multitude of tiny nooks and massive, elaborately constructed vignettes can feel like a journey through the mind of a mad man, but one that is as fascinating and surprising as it is exhausting and disturbing.

Jordan opened the original house in 1959 and built the more carnivalesque second and third sections over the next three decades before selling the complex in the late 1980s. The newer owners have continued to expand on the original site, adding an aviation exhibit and, in 2008, opening a welcome center and museum dedicated to Jordan’s life.

I owe particular thanks to Joshua Albers for this post, whose camera and low-light photography skills did laps around mine. Whenever possible, I’ve used his photos from our visit and supplemented the group with my own. All videos are his.

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Bonus Videos:

Great Rivers Biennial at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Brandon Anschultz, Suddenly Last Summer, 2014 (detail).

Throughout the long modern period, from the Renaissance to Jasper Johns, the visual arts have perpetually defined themselves against each other, even while endeavoring to simultaneously transgress their self-imposed boundaries. The advent of photography in the 19th century brought new urgency to these conceptual games, when for the first time painting, long held as art’s regent medium, had to prove its worth against a new technology that threatened to replace it. Of course, rather than rendering painting obsolete, photography ultimately freed the older medium from an obsession with mimesis and helped to usher in the styles of modernity that have come to define art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Impressionism, Expressionism, and even Cubism.

Now, the advent of digital arts—that newest of new media—has created a fresh challenge to more traditional materials. In its seeming immateriality, digital art possesses a fluid, transmittable bodylessness that is not only of the present (and future) moment, but that promises to be an accessible and democratic art form capable of circumventing the current insanity and inherent classism of the art market. As a result, the question facing contemporary painters and sculptors is no longer, “Why does my particular media matter?” but rather, “Why does art in any traditional media matter?”

The current Great Rivers Biennial at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis faces this challenge head-on by featuring three St. Louis-based artists who are deeply invested in materiality. They are, in fact, most clearly linked by their shared and unapologetic determination that matter matters. And each, in her or his own way, makes a strong case for the continued singularity of experiencing the physicality of objects.

Cayce Zavaglia, Recto/Verso

Cayce Zavaglia, Rocco, 2014 (detail). Cotton, silk, and wool on linen with acrylic.

In the aptly titled Recto/Verso, Cayce Zavaglia presents a series of embroidered portraits of friends and family alongside large-scale paintings depicting the backs of these textiles. While the embroidered pictures exquisitely and affectionately render their subjects in detailed, delicate realism, the paintings physically and psychologically dominate the gallery with their frenetic, abstracted surfaces. Although the paintings are in fact one step further removed from the people who inspired the original images, they seem to offer a more incisive and complex reading of their human subjects.

Cayce Zavaglia, Abbi, 2013. Cotton, silk, and wool on linen with acrylic.
Cayce Zavaglia. Background: Abbi (Verso), 2014. Acrylic on linen. Foreground: Rebecca, 2012. Crewel embroidery wool on cotton fabric with acrylic.

In both media, Zavaglia’s works also deal with a second, more subtle theme: that of the relationship between embroidery and painting. While the paintings are clearly based on her textiles, the textiles are equally indebted to the appearance of paintings. Portraiture is traditionally under the purview of painting, and Zavaglia has played with this expectation in her embroidery by creating stitching that closely resembles the marks of a paint brush. The textiles and paintings therefore resonate against each other through both their shared subjects and the interrelatedness of their media.

Cayce Zavaglia, Rebecca (Verso), 2012. Crewel embroidery wool on cotton fabric with acrylic.

Carlie Trosclair, Exfoliation

Carlie Trosclair, Exfoliation, 2014 (detail).

For Exfoliation, Carlie Trosclair filled CAMStL’s central gallery with an open structure of flayed walls. Ragged-edged gaps in drywall frame vintage wallpapers and salvaged beams like an open wound pulled back to reveal another, even more damaged layer of skin hiding beneath the bone. Completing the immersive installation, Trosclair partially wallpapered the opposite wall and then proceeded to redefine the paper’s repeating pattern by carefully excising portions of the design, removing some areas completely and allowing others to curl towards the floor like mossy tendrils. Her unbuilt-constructions, broadly reminiscent of both geological fissures and abandoned hotels, play with notions of interior and exterior, nature and architecture, creation and decay, permanence and impermanence. And although her work is an almost pure meditation on materiality, it also circumvents the marketplace by being explicitly temporary, without a life (as art) after the show ends.

Brandon Anschultz, Suddenly Last Summer

Brandon Anschultz, Suddenly Last Summer, 2014 (detail).

Inspired in part by Tennessee Williams’s play, Suddenly Last Summer, Brandon Anschultz’s installation of the same name consists of multiple, semi-architectural structures supporting biomorphic objects made from layers of paint built up over studio detritus, like sponge and pieces of wood. This is smart work smartly exhibited, with Anschultz’s deceptively playful shapes and hues drawing the viewer into a world filled with darker dramatic tensions. Within each vignette, the colorful, zig-zagging scaffolding and mirrored surfaces frame the paint-objects, multiplying and restricting the visitor’s views in a way that is both generous and withholding, while the luscious tactile quality of the objects similarly taunts the onlooker who is unable—due either to physical hindrances or in deference to accepted museum behavior—to touch them. The installation thus cultivates a sensation of repressed longing that resonates with the tenor of Williams’s mediation on sexuality from the late 1950s.

With their surrealist nod to the erotic potential of abstract but suggestive objects, Brancusian play between support and sculpture, and concern with controlled but multiple viewpoints, Anschultz’s installations are clearly indebted to the history and concerns of sculpture, even as they represent a particular fascination with the physical qualities of paint. More than yet another reinvention of painting, however, his works—like those of his co-exhibitors—both celebrate and reaffirm the importance of materiality in art at a time when such affirmation is as welcome as it is necessary.

The Great Rivers Biennial opened on May 9 and will run until August 10, 2014 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz.

Swoon: Submerged Motherlands at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Fusing the aesthetics of an art-school education with the environmental immediacy of street art, Swoon has come to fame in the last few years for her large, intricate, wheat-pasted prints, urban interventions, and community-based projects. Submerged Motherlands brings her practice indoors in order to create a new, immersive environment within the Brooklyn Museum’s 5th floor rotunda gallery. Look up, look down, stand back, plunge in—the installation encourages a thorough investigation of its many nooks and crannies, and rewards the viewer at every angle.

Swoon: Submerged Motherlands will be on view until August 24, 2014. For more information, visit the Brooklyn Museum’s website.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 4, 2014.

Suicide, in life and in art

Stained glass dome in the Chicago Cultural Center

Suicide is like a lump in the throat of those left behind. It indicates the presence of issues that need to be discussed, but also creates a barrier to that discussion. I therefore beg your patience with the awkwardness of this post.

Last week began under the pall of suicide when a performance artist in my husband’s graduate program killed hirself by jumping out of a 5th floor studio window. Out of deference to hir own investment in gender ambiguity and in an attempt to maintain some of hir family’s privacy, I will refer to this student as “M” with the pronouns s/he, hir, and hirself.

I only met M once, but I liked hir and hir work immediately. As a performance artist who integrated hir life and production, s/he came across as outgoing, open, and bold. Performance art is perhaps the most difficult area to make a living in, yet to my eye M had real potential to make a name for hirself in the field.

So even as someone who barely knew hir, learning of M’s apparent suicide was a shock, and the days following have been underscored by sadness and unease at the realization of hir sudden and final absence. As with any unexpected death, one of the first questions after how, where, and when is why. But when we ask that question—especially when no answer is definitively left behind—the most alarming realization is the discovery of how easy it is to come up with reasons why someone in our current environment would choose to die. This is particularly true for an artist who was not only about to graduate into a terrible economy, but who was also openly part of the LGBT population in a society that is almost schizophrenic in its treatment of queer identity.

But the thought that most disturbs me, and that is the most difficult to even mention, is that hir suicide may also have been hir final work. It seems dangerous—even potentially disrespectful—to mention this possibility, and yet it is not as far-fetched as it might first sound. Again, M already self-consciously made work that was synonymous with hir life experience. It also would not be the first time an artist either orchestrated his own death as a final magnum opus or died as a result of a particularly dangerous project. Ray Johnson (whose life and bizarre death are the subject of the documentary, How to Draw a Bunny) and Bas Jan Ader  (who disappeared at sea in 1975 while trying to cross the ocean alone in a tiny vessel for his work In Search of the Miraculous) are perhaps the most obvious examples. Finally, and most horrifyingly, at the time that s/he jumped to hir death, M was preparing for a group thesis exhibition which s/he had helped to title Splatter Platter.

Coincidentally, I ended my week at Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection, an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center dedicated to depictions of death. As exemplified by this show, death as the result of political atrocities or as an abstract subject made visible through memento mori or codified in religious paraphernalia is a relatively common, even comfortable, subject in art and art history. What is much more difficult to breach is the idea of death as art.  Even for a field in which self-mutilation and deprivation have become recognized practices for performance artists, this final taboo is one which we dare not broadly acknowledge.

Undoubtedly our collective squeamishness around this subject exists in no small part because public consideration of suicide as a form of practice can too easily fall into encouraging suicide, which, of course, no one wants to do. Yet this most extreme fusion of life and practice appears to be a real phenomenon whether we acknowledge it or not, and one that raises a number of important issues and questions that go to the heart of what it means to direct and shape one’s own life.

I think we are on the brink of having to deal with the subject of suicide in art as something broader than an individual or peculiar occurrence. How we deal with this morally, ethically, legally, emotionally, and practically difficult topic, though, is a complex challenge only the most daring individuals and (eventually) institutions will be willing to take on.

Whatever the circumstances of M’s death, hir abrupt loss represents an all-too-common tragedy, particularly for the friends and family s/he left behind. Right now, perhaps that’s all there really is to say.

Tiffany dome in the Chicago Cultural Center

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz.

Crystal Bridges Museum Review, Part 2: Culture’s Invitation to Nature

In Part 1 of this review, I focused on the contentious origins of the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the problematic concept of provincialism that quietly plagues any small or medium-sized cultural center in this country.

Built with the purpose of redefining a predominantly rural community as a new cultural destination, the greatest challenge for the CBMAA is to create a space and collection capable of meeting the established standards for world-class museums while also representing solidarity with its specific location.

Although the work on the grounds and building has yet to be completed, the museum has already proven itself to be generally successful in striking this delicate balance. In some instances, however, its achievement comes hand-in-hand with a curatorial timidity that has kept the CBMAA from being as intellectually daring as it could be.

Be that as it may, there is much to celebrate in the new Crystal Bridges Museum. One of its most refreshing aspects is the self-evident intention of all involved to create an innovative space that responds to the natural and cultural environment of the institution’s surroundings without sacrificing the larger story of American art.

Both in- and outside of the building itself, the curving lines and sloping shapes of Moshe Safdie’s architectural design clearly draw on the forms of organic bodies, while the many walls of glass invite as much contemplation of the world outside as the art within.

Not only does his design harmonize well with its natural setting, but it is in easy dialogue with another nearby structure of architectural note: the glass and steel Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, designed by Fay Jones and Maurice Jennings and dedicated in 1988.

If museums are the secular cathedrals of modernity, then the parallel designs of these two spiritual houses seem particularly telling. Both museum and chapel were designed to allow the natural world to visually penetrate the interior and define the visitor’s experience of the space. Taken together, the buildings’ shared concern with transparency and the inclusion of the natural environment suggest the development of a noteworthy local trope in contemporary architecture and the potential for the cultivation of a related style.

Similarly, landscape architect Scott Eccleston modified the CBM’s grounds, which constitute a lightly forested area with trails, streams, and—eventually—a lake that abuts the rear of the building, but did not drastically alter their character. The outdoor sculpture and installations, too, were chosen for their responsiveness to the natural environment, although the sensitivity or sophistication of this responsiveness varies. Highlights include James Turrell’s site-specific installation The Way of Color (2009), which incorporates native rock into his signature investigation of natural light effects; Roxy Paine’s stainless steel tree, Yield (2011), located at the museum’s entrance; and Mark di Suvero’s Lowell’s Ocean (2005–2008), visible both in- and outside of the building.

A preoccupation with nature continues throughout the collection, along with a few other areas of focus. The CBMAA’s own literature describes these themes as “artists’ encounters with and responses to nature; strong women, both as subjects and makers of art; the ongoing dialogue between American artists and other world cultures; and the continuing role of the artist as innovator.”

For a nature-loving, feminist, cross-cultural art historian like myself, that is a very exciting declaration of intent.

A wander around the museum revealed the list to have been arranged in decreasing order of success or urgency, although each concept was indeed present. A fifth motif, not mentioned in the literature but clearly woven throughout the collection, was the subject of conflict. However, this is perhaps the inevitable but unintended consequence of focusing on works that deal with issues of nature, gender, innovation, and cross-cultural interaction.

I was pleased with the quality and selection of much of the work on display throughout the collection, a sample of which can be found in the images at the end of this post. I also liked that between the chronologically divided sections were areas where people could sit and peruse any of a large collection of books. While tables supporting a few exhibition catalogues directly related to the show at hand have become commonplace in temporary exhibits, the selections provided by the CBM are far more comprehensive—and the sitting areas far more welcoming—than found elsewhere.

My greatest criticism of the museum is that it tends to be a little too safe, as was particularly evident in the temporary exhibition of contemporary work titled, Wonder World: Nature and Perception in Contemporary American Art. Excluded from the title but endemic to the works featured in Wonder World was a clear preference for contemporary artists drawing on historical modes of making. Each of these topics—nature, perception, and traditional practices in contemporary art—is a welcome basis for an exhibition, and there is quite a bit of good work in the show. Yet, when viewed together, the pieces felt a little one-note and lacking in radically innovative contributions.

Stagnation is particularly a problem for a museum that takes “artist as innovator” as one of its driving concepts. And with a subject as broad as wonder, nature, and perception, the narrowness of artistic approach seems doubly strange. For instance, why not include people who take the systems of nature as their starting point? Or who play with the nature of nature via an investigation of physics or biology or even taxonomy? While there is nothing wrong with utilizing the convention of representation in contemporary art, there are so many contemporary artists working in non-representational modes, or whose relationships to nature and perception are both subtle and complex, that to lean so heavily on visually and conceptually straightforward works does a disservice to the exhibition’s topic and its visitors.

My other point of concern lies in the apparent definition of American art, which tends towards the mainstream or canonical (albeit expanded for both gender and, in the more recent sections, race). For example, although the collection includes depictions of Native Americans, I do not recall any historical objects by Native Americans in the main galleries.* I suspect this is due partly to lines drawn by citizenship and partly to pre-existing art historical categories put in place to make collections and the narratives they tell manageable and coherent.

In other words, the presence of these somewhat arbitrary collection standards and definitions is not only understandable, but in accordance with typical museum practice. However, should the CBM choose to complicate the concept of “American” in the future by incorporating works which do not stem mainly from European traditions, the story they could tell would be fuller and, in my opinion, more interesting. Such a shift would also represent a challenging and innovative curatorial decision that is already overdue in most museological practice.

Finally, the café is worth mentioning, as it represents a fusion of a high-end sensibility that is typical of museum eateries and the low prices that are a hallmark of both Wal-Mart and Midwestern towns. Even here, the museum exhibits a savvy awareness of the expectations of its varied audience that, if continued, will be the institution’s greatest strength.

Indeed, perhaps what the Crystal Bridges Museum does best, and what it needs to do most, is break down the centuries-long fallacy that nature and culture represent binary opposites. During a period of wide-spread concern for the environment, increased use of urban gardens and suburban farms, and the decentralization of ideas and information away from large cosmopolitan cities, a new museum that takes the fusion of nature and culture as its basis is truly an institution that embodies the concerns of its time.

For further exhibition and visiting information, go to the Crystal Bridges Museum website:

*The CBM does have a dedicated section of cases that presents samples from the collections of other local museums. In addition to representing a uniquely neighborly practice, the cases also suggest the kinds of materials that may be related to, but are not otherwise present in, the CBM’s own collection. Among these is a display for the Museum of Native American History (formerly the Museum of Native American Artifacts).

Jenny Holzer, Venice Installation: Gallery D (Second Antechamber), 1990, seen through Frederick Eversley’s Big Red Lens, 1985
Jim Hodges, When We Stay, 1997
Devorah Sperber, After The Last Supper, 2005
Alison Elizabeth Taylor, Room, 2007-08
Walton Ford, The Island, 2009
Nick Cave, Soundsuits, 2010
Roxy Paine, Bad Lawn, 1998
Andrew Wyeth, Airborne, 1996
Jamie Wyeth, Orca Bates, 1990
Richard Estes, Antarctica, 2007
Evan Penny, Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be. Variation #2, 2010
Max Ferguson, Time, 2006
John Singleton Copley, Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth) [detail], 1765
George Winter, Ten Potawatomi Chiefs, 1837
Richard Caton Woodville, War News from Mexico, 1848
Gilbert Stuart, William Smith, ca. 1801–02
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, Marquis, de Lafayette, 1825
Martin Johnson Heade, Cattleya Orchid, Two Hummingbirds and a Beetle, ca. 1875–90
Dennis Miller Bunker, Anne Page, 1887
Mary Cassatt, The Reader, 1877
Thomas Eakins, Professor Benjamin Howard Rand, 1874
William Holbrook Beard, School Rules, 1887
Maria Oakey Dewing, Rose Garden, 1901
John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife [detail], 1885
Thomas Eakins, The Model, ca. 1908
Maxfield Parrish, The Lantern Bearers, 1908
Isamu Noguchi, Lunar Landscape, 1943
Arshile Gorky, Composition (Still Life), 1936–37
Will Barnet, Woman Reading, 1965
Jasper Johns, Bread, High School Days, and Light Bulb, 1969
Oscar Bluemner, Self-Portrait, 1933
Wayne Thiebaud, Supine Woman, 1963
Kara Walker, A Warm Summer Evening in 1863, 2008
Louise Nevelson, Night Zag Wall, 1969–74
Kerry James Marshall, Our Town, 1995
Lynda Benglis, Eat Meat, 1969/1975
James Turrell, The Way of Color, 2009

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz

Crystal Bridges Museum Review, Part 1: A Meditation on New York, Northwest Arkansas, and the Meaning of Provincialism in the 21st century

Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849. Image from Wikipedia:

Back in 2005, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton reportedly purchased Asher B. Durand’s 1849 painting, Kindred Spirits, for $35 million. While the practice of incredibly wealthy people paying incredibly high prices for paintings would normally receive little more than a shrug or eye roll by most jaded capitalists, Ms. Walton’s case drew a bit more attention because to acquire the painting she outbid a joint attempt by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art to purchase it. Doing so also served as a national public announcement of her intention to build a new museum of American art in her hometown of Bentonville in northwest Arkansas.Although the deal warranted coverage in the New York Times, I only learned of the semi-scandalous venture a few years later via my husband’s grandparents during a visit to their home in Bella Vista, a small suburban town neighboring Bentonville. Good hosts and frequent champions of the Waltons, they relayed the tale both with the intention of entertaining us as well as a sincere pride in the impressiveness of Ms. Walton’s victory over such major institutions.

My own reaction was more ambivalent.

I sympathized with the desire to create a public institution that served a community which otherwise did not have much in-person access to major works of art. I also believe that there is something to be said for spreading culturally significant objects around to different locations (as a security measure against disaster, at least). And although all museums want to build the strongest and most cohesive collections possible, it is difficult to argue that the Met or National Gallery “need” another painting. Indeed, although much can be said about the historical significance of Kindred Spirits, the overall collections of museums like the Met are so vast that even major works of art can be easily overlooked by the casual visitor. If you want to highlight the importance of an individual piece, smaller venues tend to be best.

On the other hand, when it comes down to the numbers, it is impossible to suppose that as many people will see objects housed in a small town in Northwest Arkansas as would in either New York or Washington DC.

Ethically, too, the purchase rankled. Although everyone in the field knows that the art economy and its related institutions are dependent on the generosity of a handful of wealthy patrons, it is nonetheless unsettling to have a single individual tank the combined efforts of two large and distinguished cultural institutions. The fact that this money came from the Wal-Mart empire, one of the most divisive and problematic businesses of recent decades, only shone a brighter light on the morally ambiguous nature of the discipline.

Furthermore, it was—and is—difficult to read Ms. Walton’s purchase as occurring outside of this country’s supposed “culture wars,” in which progressiveness, urbanity, and both coasts seem to be grouped together and set against conservatism, ruralism, and the rest of the country. Although I grew up in St. Louis, I have spent most of my adult life in coastal cities or abroad. There are reasons for this that go beyond the simple necessities of education and employment, and yet I am still attached enough to my hometown to refer to my visits there as “going home.” At the time of our trip to Bella Vista, we had recently moved to New York so that I could pursue my PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and my ambivalence about Ms. Walton’s purchase and intentions for a museum were really only the other side of my already existing discomfort about my new place of residence.

New York is, after all, an undisputed center for art and culture in the United States. In terms of resources and historical importance, there is no better place to study art, especially the development of modern and contemporary art, in this country.

However, there were two things that I noticed early on that never stopped bothering me during my time in NYC. The first was an unshakable sense that the city had reached a point in which the creative forces that had made it great were being strangled by its own history. Work in galleries tended to be more safe than interesting. The differences between these and the “provincial” galleries of other cities were primarily twofold: 1) the New York galleries had a higher asking price for their objects and 2) even works from other parts of the globe were in easy dialogue with the New York-based movements of the mid-20th century.

The second trend I noticed is closely related to the first: the frequent recurrence of the term “provincial” (especially in academic settings) as a shorthand means of dismissing an idea, argument, place, work, or person. Beyond being obviously condescending and shabby scholarship, such use of the term is particularly absurd in a place like New York which is not only infamously obsessed with itself to the exclusion of most other places, but which had the same term frequently thrown at it less than a century ago when the entirety of the United States was understood to represent the cultural backwater of Europe. Of course, it is probably this very history that has fostered the current enthusiasm for applying the term elsewhere.

As a native of “fly over country”—and as someone who has seen places like St. Louis grow into increasingly complex but perpetually undervalued cultural centers—I am admittedly sensitive to these little jabs from my colleagues and peers. But there are advantages to being made aware of one’s own otherness, and in this case it has caused me to seriously question the very nature of provincialism in the 21st century.

After all, the idea of provincialism is based on a socio-cultural model in which ideas and goods converged and circulated primarily through a handful of urban centers (usually political or economic capitals), leaving everywhere else relatively isolated and therefore culturally inbred.

But the advent of the Internet, not to mention the increased ease of travel, has made this model nearly obsolete as it applies to smaller urban centers. Not that Internet access or travel guarantees increased creativity or a more cosmopolitan outlook. Certainly anyone wanting to deepen her own ignorance can do that as well as someone hoping to broaden her horizons. What the Internet does is decentralize information, making one’s knowledge-set an individual choice rather than an environmental inevitability.

Of course, this is only true for those who actually have access to the Internet. Poverty or lack of infrastructure—a serious issue in many rural districts—still prevent too many people from taking part in an increasingly global culture. Even these cases, however, represent a changeable and changing situation that differentiates them from the classic model of provincialism.

For those of us fortunate enough to participate in the global stream of ideas, the world is wide open. Indeed, as countless authors have already noted, the greater problem now seems to be in knowing what to pay attention to and what to believe. One of the results of this new circumstance is that the role of major cultural institutions, including colleges and museums, has become to narrow and direct our focus rather than broaden our horizons.

I believe it is that embattled privilege—the privilege of determining the narrative of culture—that has produced a certain intellectual rigidness in some of our finest academic institutions and lies at the heart of our so-called “culture wars.”

This is the context into which the Crystal Bridges Museum has been conceived and brought to life. Stay tuned for the second part of my review, which will deal with the museum itself.

“The Language of Less: Then and Now,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Dan Flavin (American, 1933–96), Untitled (for you, Leo, in long respect and affection) 3, 1978

Collection-based shows are always problematic because, to an even greater extent than in other exhibitions, the story they tell is limited and skewed by the parameters of a single institution’s holdings. However, every exhibition narrative is necessarily biased, and the particular kind of limitation intrinsic to the collection show is at least upfront and obvious.

In some instances, these limits can in fact create a useful lens through which to disrupt more familiar stories of an idea or time period. In the case of The Language of Less: Then and Now, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the all-too-pat historical understanding of “Minimalism” as a masculine, New York-based movement is troubled by the exhibition’s more global and gender-balanced approach.At the same time, both the objects on display and the labels or wall texts accompanying them provide a clear introduction to the ideas behind the push towards simplified forms in the 1960s and beyond that is still broadly referred to as Minimalism. The exhibition (which is split into larger and smaller halves of historical and recent art) therefore offers fertile ground for the thoughts of those already familiar with the history of contemporary art as well as anyone looking for a means of developing an appreciation of Minimalist objects.

Robert Smithson (American, 1938–73), Mirror Stratum, 1966

Smithson―who is perhaps still best remembered for his earthwork project in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty (1970)―is featured prominently in the exhibit with two rarely seen works, Mirror Stratum (above) and an untitled aluminum wall sculpture from the Stenn Family collection. Both pieces exemplify the artist’s interest in the repeated forms which comprise the basis of both natural structures and ancient architecture.

Mirror Stratum, a corner piece consisting of a series of square mirrors stacked in order of decreasing size, is particularly evocative of both the Mayan pyramids and crystalline formations that frequently loomed large in Smithson’s thinking and production. As such, the work exemplifies a kind of Minimalist production based on simple arrangements of repeated, industrially produced objects that manage to poetically suggest a far-reaching range of subject matter.In addition, just as Flavin’s light sculptures (above) command not only the space physically occupied by fluorescent tubing but all of the area filled by their light, Smithson’s stacked mirrors produce a reflected pattern on the wall that extends far above the objects themselves. While this is consistent with a common Minimalist concern with an object’s ability to activate and define the space around it, the effect is also specifically related to what the wall text describes as Smithson’s interest in mirrors as a material that was both “physically present and immaterial, a quality that puts the viewer on heightened alert.”

Foreground: Alan Sonfist (American, b. 1946), Earth Monument to Chicago, 1965–77 [core samples from beneath the city of Chicago ordered according to color and material]. Background, center: Charlotte Posenenske (German, 1930–85), Series DW Vierkantrohre (Square Tubes), 1967.
Posenenske’s cardboard sculpture is actually composed of interchangeable components. The single work can therefore appear in various but limited arrangements depending on the choices made by whoever displays it. The assembled versions represent a collaboration between the artist—who was responsible for the character and number of the individual components—and the past, present, and future installers who determine its overall form.While American Minimalists like Donald Judd also created sculptural compositions based on the arrangement of individual units, these units are typically either identical or mathematically related in size and require installers to follow very particular directions dictated by the artist. They therefore lack the variability and interactivity encouraged by Posenenske’s production.

On wall: Richard Tuttle (American, b. 1941), Purple Octagonal, 1967. On floor: Franz Erhard Walther (German, b. 1939), Netz (Net), 1963.

Walther’s fishing net shares the grid aesthetic of classic Minimalism. However, as a found and interactive object dependent on its placement within a gallery space for its status as art, it also possesses a heightened gestural quality that clearly bridges Conceptualism.

Tuttle also sought an open quality that is lacking in the contemporary production of many of his compatriots working within the Minimalist paradigm. Here, his dyed canvas lacks a clear top or bottom (and front or back) and can be installed anywhere in a room.

Michelle Stuart (American, b. 1938), Turtle Pond, 1974

One commonality shared by many Minimalist artists is a concern with systems, often represented by the repeated forms of the grid. As noted by the exhibition’s curators, Stuart maintains this interest in “vast systems,” but turns instead to concrete models present in nature rather than the rigid, abstracted form of the grid. The complex, varied surface of Turtle Pond is actually a rubbing of soil, yet it suggests any number of subjects, from the pond of its title to the expanse of the universe.

Daniel Buren (French, b. 1938), Zu Unterstreichen (To Underline), 1989

Although To Underline was made in 1989, its origins lie in the 1960s when Buren began making paintings on striped awning. The found structure imposed by the pre-made stripes (a technique initially explored in the late 1950s by Frank Stella in his Black Paintings) helped to create a unity between individual paintings while drawing attention to the dimensions of each canvas.

Foreground: Richard Serra (American, b. 1939), Prop, 1968 [lead antimony]. Background: Bruce Nauman (American, b. 1941), Untitled, 1965 [fiberglass and polyester resin].
 Like many works in the exhibition, both Serra’s and Nauman’s objects traverse the floor and wall, suggesting a merging of painting and sculpture. In juxtaposition with one another, these deceptively simple works also offer evidence of diverging and surprisingly complex personas: Serra’s daring, stiff, austere, carefully calculated, and potentially dangerous installation seems almost aggressively (or perhaps stereotypically) masculine beside Nauman’s colorful and humorous, but also pathetically flaccid and delicate, sculpture.

Carol Bove (American, b. Switzerland, 1971), Polka Dots, 2011 [bronze, steel, concrete, and shells] in front of Harlequin, 2011 [Plexiglas and expanded sheet metal]
Carol Bove (American, b. Switzerland, 1971), Untitled, 2011 [peacock feathers on linen]
Filling the first gallery of the “Now” section of the exhibit, Bove’s objects clearly reflect Minimalism’s fondness for the repeated form of the grid as well as industrial materials and a consciousness of the surrounding space. However, unlike her predecessors, she also often incorporates delicate, natural materials—such as feathers and shells—into her works.

Oscar Tuazon (American, b. 1975; lives and works in France), I gave my name to it, 2010 [steel plate and fluorescent lamps]
Tuazon’s use of fluorescent lights is clearly reminiscent of Flavin’s light sculptures. However, in I gave my name to it, the fluorescents’ placement under a steel plate on the floor both muffles the light produced by the fixtures and creates a tension between the delicacy of the lamps and the weight of the metal. More generally, Tuazon’s production tends to relinquish Minimalism’s concern with pristine form based on industrial production in favor of a rougher, more do-it-yourself aesthetic.

Additionally, The Language of Less compliments the content of the monographic exhibitions currently on view in the museum’s other galleries, including the smaller “MCA DNA” shows dedicated to Gordon Matta-Clark and Dieter Roth, both of whose works from the 1970s are indebted to ideas which had started to percolate the decade before.The introduction to Minimalism outlined in The Language of Less provides a particularly helpful background for the exhibit dedicated to Canada’s Iain Baxter& (b. Iain Baxter, United Kingdom, 1936), whose often humorous objects and installations are clearly rooted in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, many of his works poke fun at the production of his contemporaries or recent predecessors, and so make little sense without a background in other artists of that period.

IT (collaborative name of Baxter, Elaine Hieber, and John Friel), Extended Noland, 1966 [velvet ribbon on fabric]
IT, Pneumatic Judd, 1965 [inflated vinyl]
Iain Baxter&, Television Works, 1999–2006 [Acrylic paint on reclaimed televisions; reclaimed pedestals and reclaimed metal wall brackets]
Baxter&’s oeuvre likewise suggests comparisons with the conceptual production of his compatriot, Ron Terada, whose show Being There is also up until January 15. The integrated nature of the MCA’s exhibitions creates an unusual and somewhat meandering narrative of the last 50 years that nonetheless reaffirms the importance of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and their descendants in North America and Europe. The Language of Less is on view through April 15, 2012 (Then) and March 15, 2012 (Now).

Go to for a list of the MCA’s current exhibitions and links to their descriptions.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:<

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:

[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:

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

Lunar by Spencer Finch



[ii] Exhibition wall text.