I have moved my art blogging activities to my new blog, Art Matters. This page will no longer be updated, and the best of it will be reposted to Art Matters as I see fit. I hope you’ll come and visit me there!




The Interview (no, not that one)

"I just have a few questions..."

With so many art museum Directorships coming open (see my previous post, plus add the Detroit Institute of Arts, where Graham Beal will be retiring after a varied but in the end successful run) I thought it might be good to look at the process of selecting a Director. Let’s pretend you want to apply and, more important, that you have the necessary qualifications to be interviewed. The list below covers many issues that either you or the Selection Committee should address. Some of these things will only be touched on, to be delved into in detail should you be hired, but it’s best to reach the beginnings of an agenda for your Directorship before you get hired. Some of these points are touchy, and cover topics that ought to be addressed, even though people are reluctant to do so. There is a difference between telling Boards and candidates what they need to hear as opposed to what they want to hear. That gap can cause problems later on.

Anyway, onward:

AAM/AAMD – how does the museum stand with AAM (American Association of Museums) and AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors)? Is accreditation up-to-date? Any concerns voiced by either institution concerning the museum?

Clarify the Director’s job. Many museum Directors are also CEO, but this is not universal.  This is tied into…

Museum by-laws. Candidates should be given a copy before they are interviewed. If there’s something in the by-laws that is confidential, that’s a problem. Transparency is important, especially at the most basic levels of museum governance.

Board composition – how are Trustees/Governors chosen? How willing is the Board to consider candidates who are not local/regional figures, but (say) major art collectors?

Does the Board have a code of ethics and/or ethics committee? Remember that in dealing with Boards, you are often working with people who have little experience in the operating of a museum.

Current roster of major donors, and list of former donors who might be re-engaged. Also list of those considered lost causes. Donors who were personally close to a director or curator but are now distant because that person left. Much of this will come after hiring, but, again, be upfront and make sure both sides know that this will be discussed. Are personal issues set aside for the greater good of the museum?

Recent loan history – are loans made to support the educational mandate of the museum, or have pieces been rented for money? This connects with the AAM/AAMD relationship.

Board willingness to change institutional structure. Does some other museum function better behind the scenes? If so, why?

Institutional history – issues and discussions in the past aren’t much use if nobody remembers them. Are there any long-time employees who have facts at hand?

Current exhibition schedule and past history. Notable exhibits of the past.

Current financials with past 10 years documented, perhaps more if any major issues appeared in the last decade.

Community outreach – a constant in museum operations. This will likely be considered in depth after a Director is hired, but starting the discussion (and seeing what Board members think/feel about it) cannot come too soon. Included in this is the relationship(s) with local schools. Are kids getting to college without ever hearing of your museum? That should be unacceptable.

Relationships with other institutions, art museums or otherwise. Any local/regional relationships of special note? Then move to national/international. Again, relationships that have dwindled due to the departure of staff/board members must be considered.

Relationships with city/state gov’ts. Does the museum employ a lobbyist? Gov’t representatives on the Board?

Relationships with the press. Social media is not a substitute for good coverage in local newspapers/TV, or with the art world press. A museum communicates on multiple levels.

Physical plant issues/plans – this is an obvious one. A good museum will show its candidates through the basement, the offices, the whole deal, and be upfront about ongoing issues.


Change in the air

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

It’s an interesting time for art museums in New England, particularly in my home state of Connecticut. Two of the state’s art museums – the Wadsworth Atheneum and the New Britain Museum of American Art – are entering into the complex process of searching for new Directors. New Britain Museum Director Douglas Hyland announced his retirement a while back; Atheneum Director Susan Talbott just announced hers. Up in Boston, Malcolm Rogers is retiring from the Directorship of the Museum of Fine Arts.

(Before we go further, disclosure: I worked at the Atheneum in a secretarial position in the Director’s office during the previous interregnum, from the end of Willard Holmes’ tenure to the start of Susan Talbott’s. It was a fascinating and deeply educational experience in how a museum does and does not function.)

Changing Directors can seem like a dramatic course change to museum staff. The chain of command becomes hazy; many decisions are deferred, as museum planning is slow, and it’s not much use starting a project only to have a new Director come in and reshuffle the deck. Sometimes the staff changes as museum priorities change. I see that the Atheneum’s Director of Development position, arguably the most thankless job in any museum, is open again. Should they wait for the next Director before filling that post? I would think so.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Changing Directors is a time when a museum should take a long look at itself. Every museum should do this, regardless of how successful the outgoing Director has been. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston! Malcolm Rogers has been very popular with the community, but many critics have been scathing about some of his decisions, with good reason.) I know that the Atheneum engaged in such soul-searching before Ms. Talbott was hired, and David Dangremond, President of the Board of Trustees, has announced that they will be doing so again. This is not necessarily a sign of dysfunction; rather, it speaks to an institution that wants to be on the best footing possible in the years ahead.

I have written this before, but it bears repeating: although Trustees do not run a museum except in dire times, they are the final authority in the hierarchy. Because they hire the Director, and spearhead the process of recruiting donors and new Trustees, the health of the museum lies with them. The Director runs the museum, but bad Trustees can sink a good Directorship and hire poor Directors. In effect, the buck stops in two places.

New Britain Museum of American Art

Both Connecticut museums have seen change under their current Directors. In 2006, the New Britain museum opened a new wing, with 10 new galleries, making it one of New England’s largest museums. The Atheneum has been in a long process of restoration, fixing years-old problems with its existing facilities, and will soon reopen the last of its renovated galleries. The 5-year, 33 million dollar renovation has been going on throughout Ms. Talbott’s entire tenure, having been in the planning stages when she assumed the position. The MFA Boston opened its Art of the Americas wing in 2010, and the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in 2011. Growth and change are good signs, not only in bricks and mortar but in the museum’s self-awareness and growing mission(s). I wish the best to all three institutions as they move forward.


The Expressionist City

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Elisabeth-Ufer (Berlin), 1912. Woodcut

I’ve recently finished watching Kino Lorber’s release of the newly restored The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). First of all, the film is so classic I need hardly go into that. Second, the restoration, under the auspices of the F. W. Murnau Stiftung, is terrific. All but the first reel of the original camera negative has survived, and the restoration draws from that; the rest being drawn from the best available prints.

There are many ways I could write about this film, but I have chosen to look at the city and other Expressionist cities. The Kirchner woodcut at top is a good example of the spatial distortion used by German Expressionist artists. The whole world seems wracked by some painful emotion – reflective of the angst that festered in German society, and erupted after the First World War into the turmoil of Weimar Germany. Dr. Caligari was made in the Weimar years, perhaps the only period in modern history when such a thing was possible. The grandiose gestures of silent movie acting (Werner Krauss as Caligari goes from one facial expression to another with the care of a 1930s cartoon character), the benefits of silent film (more is left to the imagination) and a distinctive visual style come together to make everything work.

Notice that I said a distinctive style, not a unique one. Director Robert Weine tried in his next film, Genuine, or the tale of a vampire (1920) to continue his Expressionism. Visually, he succeeded; though the exteriors are more mundane, the interior sets (in part by artist Cesar Klein, who would end up tagged as “degenerate” by the Nazis) are delightfully Caligari-esque. (An example below) But Genuine is too confused in its plotting, a rehash of idea of the vamp – not a blood-sucker, but a woman who drives men to their destruction through their desires.

from Genuine (1920)

However, I am writing about cities. Caligari succeeds in that it is all stylized, the buildings bent and sagging, as though the world were dissolving back into primordial chaos. As a result, every set is evocative on its own, and creates an overall mood that even the more ordinary scenes in the film benefit from. A man lights a lamp at twilight:

Now compare that with the Kirchner at top. German Expressionism continued on in cinema for some time, and benefitted the first wave of Hollywood sound horror films in the 1930s. Look at this still from Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), which shares several elements with Caligari (my apologies for the small image):

The most completely Expressionist film since Caligari does not come until 1986, in the animated film Krysar (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). Director Jiri Barta had the sets and figures built of wood, which allowed for a visual style that could completely fill the frame. Another rather small example here:

I highly recommend The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its newly restored glory – in fact I recommend all these films, if for no other reason than to look at their visual design. Genuine is probably the least of them, though I have not seen the film in its entirety; no complete print is currently in circulation, though it survives in the archive of the Berlin City Film Museum. Murders in the rue Morgue is stilted and hammy at times, and gives film buffs a sigh of relief that director Robert Florey was given this instead of his original assignment – Frankenstein. Krysar is unique – a dark remake of a children’s story that stands apart from the modern-day dark remake cliche – though be warned, this is probably the only version of The Pied Piper that has a rape scene.

German Expressionist cinema is being celebrated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in their exhibit “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s,” on view until April 26, 2015.


I see what my eye sees

This is a photograph of one of my paintings. It’s a small work – 16 by 20 inches – and photographed under incandescent light a few years ago. As you might be able to tell, the image has a yellowish cast from the electric light. It’s not a very good photo at all, and has not been seen by the public before. The painting has no title as yet. I painted it a while back, and am not certain if it’s finished yet. That’s the way I work – like wine, paintings need to sit until I feel no more need to work on them.

First off, I’m always interested in seeing my work in different ways, so the yellow cast actually adds something, even though it presents a false impression of what the thing really looks like. I like to see my paintings hung upside down, or in dim light, or caught in the beam of a flashlight. I read that Andrew Wyeth did similar things, even curious as to what a photographic negative of his works looked like. This is one of the ways that artists draw inspiration from their own work, not only in that it leads to understanding that particular piece better, but also that it can inspire new works.

But this has long been a challenge for the outside world. Color printing has come a long way – you need only look at books and magazines from the 1940s and 50s to see that. I love seeing an ad in a magazine, ostensibly showing a sumptuous dinner, and marveling how anyone could find that dull brown steak and unnaturally red tomato appetizing. Art books suffer especially, failing completely to bring the vibrancy of artist’s colors to life.

This still happens, but in somewhat different ways. There are people who buy art, often at very high prices, who have never seen the work in person. Paying tens of thousands of dollars for something you have only seen as a jpeg is madness, fit only for people who see art as an investment, people who love money more than art. In a work, yuck.

This is another photo of the same painting, taken in sunlight this morning. Look at the differences. Which do you like better, and why? What would you think if you bought the painting based on one image, only to find it resembled the other?


All-star cast

Marina Abramovic

As you might have read, famous/notorious performance artist Marina Abramovic has asked equally famous/notorious movie director Lars Von Trier to collaborate with her on a project. This blog post by Anneliese and Ashton Cooper on Artinfo not only summarizes Abramovic’s request, but also supplies suggestions for stories. However, with apologies to the Coopers, I think they didn’t work this out sufficiently.

My inspiration draws from von Trier’s many perceived issues with women (is he misogynist? Or isn’t he?), and Abramovic’s perceived egocentrism. Throw in an oppressive religious structure, perhaps a song or two, and a climax that comes from the source material yet fits both artistes exactly.

In other words, Joan of Arc.

There would, of course, be some changes made. Ms. Abramovic is too old to play Joan without a little judicious rewriting, but the Maid of Orleans’ fiery end would fit her to a T. And von Trier has the ability to be oppressive in many ways, yet step back when necessary. Symbolism is almost a requirement, perhaps even Expressionism.

Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc

This inspiration might be due to my recently having seen Carl Theodor Dreyer’s brilliant film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for the first time. It was long overdue, and the film lived up to the praise heaped on it over the decades. To properly capture Joan’s story, or perhaps I should say to capture a distinctive vision of Joan’s story, you need a director very different from Dreyer. Other directors have tried, but I would choose von Trier as the one to do it. Could he:

Perhaps invert the story, with Joan played by a man and her inquisitors by women? Marina Abramovic would then be the chief prosecutor.

Move the story to a modern-day or futuristic setting

Echo Dreyer by having the film be silent, with a music score or songs overlaid

Change the ending so that Joan (perhaps hallucinating during her own death) imagines burning the inquisitors at the stake.

The possibilities are nearly endless.


Is Jeff Koons Influential?

That’s a question I asked on Facebook and Twitter a while back, spurred by the media flurry around Koons’ Whitney Museum retrospective, plus my thoughts on Koons that are part of this Big Red & Shiny essay. The responses I got could be summarized as “yes, but only a little, and the artists who are Koonsian tend to be mediocre.” That’s the impression I got as well.

It seems odd that an artist could be omnipresent yet without any discernible legacy. Is he unique, unrepeatable? That seems unlikely, as so much of Koons’ art is drawn from other artists or groups of artists – Rauschenberg, Warhol, Sevres porcelain, Hollywood.

His giant balloon animals, puppies, the sort of pieces made to sit on the lawn outside a museum and serve as the backdrop for photos of the family, are a conundrum. Koons didn’t invent the idea; public parks and small arts institutions often have something eye-catching out front. It can hardly be said that Koons does it significantly better than his lesser-known colleagues, though he has the cash to make them larger and flashier. The key to the mystery is that “lesser-known” in the last sentence. This sort of decorative lawn art is usually produced by second- or third-rate artists, whose claim to fame might be the cute cat sculpture in the park that the kids can climb on, something like that. A Koons sculpture lacks the straight-faced qualities of a Claes Oldenburg, who must be one of Koons’ inspirations in that regard. Koons had the sense to build a reputation before trying this trivial sidelight. It has brought him a great deal of attention, without being the sort of thing that will have any lasting impact on the art world.

Even his series with his ex-wife “la Ciccolina” (Ilona Staller), though ostensibly pornographic, are tame yet creepy. They disturb far less than one thinks they ought to. There are many more visceral yet less explicit, depictions of sex. As porn goes, this is as close as you can come to “family friendly” – which is creepy in a whole lot of ways.

Koons has a very good eye for surfaces. He chooses excellent associates and companies to manufacture his objects, and he is careful about quality control. If you were building a cathedral or princely palace, he might be a good man to oversee the operation. His designs are modern, unsuited to the solemnity of “old money,” but flashy enough for the wealthy and shallow enough not to dominate the scene – he uses scale, not content, to stand out.

In the end, Koons is a Hollywood blockbuster of an artist. Money shows everywhere, but too often so much of the money is spent in surface and gloss. The story doesn’t last as long as it takes to eat the popcorn. (Wandering through a Koons exhibit with a bag of popcorn sounds like a great protest; in tune with the art, yet dismissive.) Everyone says I should like Koons more, or like his work more than I do. In the end it just feels like my time has been wasted, and I paid too much to get in.


Gustave Dore

Illustration for Inferno, by Dante, 1861

I hope you will enjoy this book review I wrote for Cartoon Brew
Dore is a fascinating artist, whose career was much broader than you might think. I highly recommend the catalog.


Production design

I have to wonder sometimes how a production designer’s mind works. For example, during the first season of Farscape, in the episode “Rhapsody in Blue” we get to see a kind of temple used by the Delvians (below).

Look behind her

Somewhere along the way, the designer said, “What these blue aliens from a distant galaxy need is a nice Maxfield Parrish in their temple.” So he gave them one, specifically “Old Glen Mill,” which Parrish painted for a calendar in 1950 or so. You can see it in the background of the first image.

The original.


Know myself

The turning point in my own art came about when I realized one thing: that I was better suited to the imprecise than the precise. Although I admire the clarity of line of a Frank Stella or Henri Rousseau (shown below), my own skills fit better with a more expressive line – like some of Kandinsky’s work. With Kandinsky I get both, as his work became more precise as time went on.

Henri Rousseau, War, c. 1894 Collection of the Musee d"Orsay

I continue to be in awe of precision – technical facility always dazzles me, and allows for some enjoyment even of the most banal subjects – like the endless shore scenes painted by local artists where I live. Some of them are quite good at capturing the grass on the dunes, and the quality of ocean light.

I began painting abstractions with small, Seurat-like dots, which give a dryness to the finished work that I couldn’t warm up to. In time I switched to larger, more impulsive spots of color, as close to impasto as I have ever gotten. The base coat of one of my paintings is very loose, a thin layer applied with limited care. Then the surface is built up with spots of color to make the final coats. In a way I paint in two styles on each painting.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911, Private Collection

Finishing a painting is a tricky process. A painting might sit for months or even years before I decide the colors are complete and balanced. A few early pointillist works I have reworked in larger dots, which almost always improves them vastly. I don’t have the skill for fine line – and a  tremor in my right hand complicates matters – but the loose brushwork of my style not only suits me, it satisfies me. For now, that is: growth is a constant if you want to be any good as an artist, so I’m always aware that this too shall pass.