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A bit of a deviation for me as I don’t generally write about musicians, but I wanted to share the tale of our little road trip last night, down to Callahan’s Music Hall in Pontiac, to see Ana Popovic.

I used to go to concerts all the time, back when they were affordable. I saw The Who for $8.50 and Bruce Springsteen for about 12 bucks so I can’t see paying $50 or $75 or $100 or even more to see second-rate talent. Seriously, Kid Rock, who I wouldn’t walk across the street to see for free, is getting $5o/seat for an April concert here in Saginaw. No thanks, amigo!

Everyone used to tour, and everyone used to sell tickets at a price that normal people could afford without resorting to eating oatmeal three times a day for a month. Those were very different times and I really enjoyed sitting in a darkened theater in an altered state of consciousness while bands I enjoyed cranked out some good jams on stage.  From little halls like the Orbit Room in Grand Rapids (where I saw the late Warren Zevon) to Cobo Hall to the Pontiac Silverdome, I got around some.

I was motivated, for reasons I won’t disclose, to again join the ranks of music aficionados and decided to brave the frigid weather, drive 90 miles, and see a fairly obscure  Serbian blues guitarist last night. It was a weird and surreal experience.

Ana Popovic - Callahan's Music Hall - 01/31/13 (©2013 Richard X. Moore)

Ana Popovic – Callahan’s Music Hall – 01/31/13 (©2013 Richard X. Moore)

Callahan’s is, to be charitable, tiny. I figure that no more than 150 people were crammed into what I understand was once a Ponderosa Steak House. Having been forced to buy general admission tickets after the reserved seats (all 40 of them I’ll bet) were sold out, we sat up front, stage right. When I say up front, I mean just that. I rested my feet on the edge of the stage while I set my coffee (yes, coffee – that’s how much times have changed!) on a speaker. I could have leaned forward and smacked the keyboard player across the head had I been so inclined.  We were practically deaf about 18 seconds after the music started.

While Popovic’s brand of blues is a bit more modern than the traditional blues I prefer, she was, in a word, electrifying. Her band was tight and nearly every note and transition was perfectly in place. I was sitting no more than about 10 feet from her, close enough to see every movement of her hands as she moved effortlessly up and down the fretboard of her well-worn Stratocaster. I could hear the influences of some of my favorites in her music; Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Luther Allison. Considering how little money she had to be getting for this performance, I have to believe that she was playing for the sheer love of her music. She played with energy and joy. Tammy was particularly impressed by the fact that she played for two hours in four-inch heels. I can only imagine how difficult this might be.

I shot a little video with my phone but we were so close to the action that the audio came out sounding like a handfull of ball bearings being violently shaken in an empty coffee can. I did manage to find one video online of reasonable quality (recorded in 2011). She performed this song, One Room Country Shack, early in her set last night. It’s  an old blues standard by Little Johnny Jones (1924 – 1964) that’s been recorded about a million times.

I find it very cool that  the blues, a purely American art form, can take root in the heart of a girl born in Tito’s Yugoslavia, half way around the globe. Music must be a universal language, and Ana Popovic speaks it pretty well.

 

 

 

It can be said that our perception of our history is an integral part of our identity both as a nation and, more importantly, as a culture. History can be pretty malleable as we continue to reexamine our path and alter the record to suit the moment, but Americans tend to cling pretty tightly to their own mythology even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I learned in school that Columbus was a hero, the Indians were bloodthirsty savages, and that immigrants of all nations were welcomed with open arms. Additional information has called these assumptions, and many others, into question.

History is indeed written by the winners, but in the case of the history of American Art , who are these “winners” exactly? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out?

There are times when today’s winners can become tomorrow’s afterthought, and I am reminded of this very poignantly by an ancient book on American painting that I have in hand today. The book, Three Hundred Years of American Painting, was written by Alexander Eliot (who, now in his 90s, has his own website) and produced by the editorial staff of Time Magazine. I picked the book up on a recent trip to Hoyt Library, a beautiful relic of the early 1900s in Downtown Saginaw. It was published in the year of my birth (1957),  when Eliot, not exactly a canonical figure in art historical circles, was art editor at Time Magazine when not only Time but the popular press in general featured art with great depth and frequency.

My first reaction upon reading Eliot’s book was how far publishing has advanced in my lifetime. The illustrations are dreadfully muddy and dull in color but probably well up to the standards of the day. They were prepared originally for Time, which had only begun using color images six years before. By the time my brain started recording memories of color images in magazines, color photos and ads in Life Magazine in the mid-1960s, technology had already made these pictures look dated. Today, when I can access thousands of high-quality digital images of just about anything I want in a matter of seconds,  they look a little dated.

Despite the now-substandard publication quality, the book is a fascinating survey or American art history as understood in the middle of the 20th century. Abstract Expressionism was the well along the way toward making New York the Art Capital of the World. The Great Depression and Second World War were recent memories and the baby boom was in full swing. Pop Art was just beginning to take its first wobbly steps, everyone was paranoid about being nuked by the Commies, and the Space Age was in its infancy. America was a very different place.

The long arc of American Painting is well represented in this book, but what really struck me was the inclusion of painters who have all but vanished from our consciousness. Not just a few of them, a lot of them. The chapter based loosely on the painters in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (including 20th Century heavyweights Georgia O’keeffe and John Marin,  themselves now considered passe’ by a lot of Art Hipsters) includes a group I’ve never heard of, a group who have pretty much vanished from the more contemporary literature of American art. These guys were regarded highly enough for inclusion, yet can’t even seem to merit a seat that the proverbial table today.

Take for example the case of Karl Knaths. You have to dig a little to find out much about him (this brief biography is courtesy of the Phillips Collection, which owns a number of his paintings). Knaths enjoyed some prominence as an artist and educator right up until his death in 1971. Stylistically, he transitioned from representation through cubism to abstraction,  yet the historical record on him is so sparse that I can’t even find a reproduction of the painting featured in Eliot’s book, Horse Mackerel, anywhere on line. Ah, the fleeting nature of fame.

Green Squash (Karl Knaths, 1948 - from The Phillips Collection)

Green Squash (Karl Knaths, 1948)

The same fate has befallen William Kienbusch (1914 – 1980), who was respected well enough to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 but has since been largely purged from Art’s memory banks. At his creative peak, Kienbusch was associated with the same New York School that gave us Abstract Expressionism, a artistic malaise that that I’ve discussed before; now, he’s an historical asterisk. At the Kienbusch that Eliot featured in his book (owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is available online, sadly only in black and white. Instead, I give you Early Morning Baker Island, a painting that went for the very affordable sum of $1,700 in 2005.

Early Morning Baker Island (William Kienbusch, 1957)

Early Morning Baker Island (William Kienbusch, 1957)

Of the six artists added the tail end of the chapter in question, only Milton Avery seems to have survived the murky, fog-shrouded 1950s to enjoy a measure of notoriety today. although none of the others seem to suffer the obscurity of Knaths and Kienbusch. One of them, Theodoros Stamos, actually enjoys a fairly prominent place in art history not for his art but for his role as the executor of Mark Rothko’s estate and his involvement in in a lawsuit brought by Rothko’s wherein he lost his ass.

Bird and Breaking Wave (Milton Avery, 1944)

Bird and Breaking Wave (Milton Avery, 1944)

The lesson here, I suppose, is that no matter what you think you may have accomplished in your life, history is a harsh and fickle mistress. Your life will be better served if you simply do good work for its own sake and let others worry about your legacy because you can’t control it. Fame is fleeting, art endures.

Full Moon (Theodoro Stamos, 1948)

Full Moon (Theodoro Stamos, 1948)

 

 

 

I’ve mentioned John Singer Sargent, the American painter who was born on this day in 1856, a couple of times before (here and here). Both times, I used the word “depth” in the title of the post and I think this word describes his portrait work very well. At his very best, he painted people’s essence rather than their likeness. This isn’t easy.

Largely known as a realist portrait painter, he frequently produced paintings involving numerous other subjects and styles. His landscape At Calcot, below,  clearly shows the influence of Impressionism. This isn’t surprising since he counted Claude Monet among his friends.

At Calcot (John Singer Sargent, 1888)

At Calcot (John Singer Sargent, 1888)

He was also fond of the genteel genre scenes popular during his creative prime, many of which he rendered in watercolor. The Garden Wall below is a good example.

The Garden Wall (John Singer Sargent, 1910)

The Garden Wall (John Singer Sargent, 1910)

Sargent was a prolific artist, producing nearly 3,000 paintings (mostly watercolor) and a large number of charcoal sketches before dying in 1925. His work covers a wide range of subjects and, like many artists, attracted both praise and scorn. Love his or hate him, his skill is undeniable.

Whenever a billionaire alumnus donates $28 million to his alma mater for a shiny new art museum, it has to be a good thing, right?

The wealthy alum in this case is Eli Broad and his alma mater happens to be mine as well – Michigan State University. The museum,  known simply as The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, opened in November of 2012. The College of Business at MSU also bears Broad’s name. The man is worth about $6 billion and he has been more than generous to the university over the years. God bless him.

Eli Broad is himself a fascinating story, but one that I don’t have time to discuss here at the moment. Suffice to say that he wields an enormous amount of influence in the art world as a collector and philanthropist and is no stranger to controversy. Last year, in fact, he made a large number of art world insiders very unhappy when he orchestrated the dismissal of the chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the story was prominent in the art press for quite awhile (one of the many articles on that incident can be found here). Artists resigned from the MOCA board in protest and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was bedlam, a truly ugly situation that I can’t claim to understand in the slightest except to say that two rival factions in contemporary art collided head on and one faction had money while the other didn’t. I’ll let you guess who won.

So when Broad gave all that money to MSU, beginning in 2007, I’m sure the gift carried with it an obligation to do things pretty much the way Broad wanted them to be done and the result looks to me very much like a celebration of the benefactor’s wealth and influence as much as a serious museum of art. I don’t think that’s necessarily negative. If MSU didn’t want to go along with the program, they could have turned the money down.

We visited the museum last weekend when we were taking our young neighbor Natasha on a campus tour. The building itself is spectacular. Not in a good way. It’s a shiny metallic mass of edges and angles. Sitting on the fringe of the MSU campus at Grand River Avenue and Farm Lane, it fits into the atmosphere of the university community like a gaudy hooker at Sunday morning mass. Imagine a intergalactic spacecraft designed and built by clever 8th graders and you pretty much have it. In another location, surrounded by different buildings, it might work. Here, it doesn’t.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Museum - Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.(©2013 by Richard X. Moore)

The Eli and Edythe Broad Museum – Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. (©2013 by Richard X. Moore)

Inside, on the other hand, it’s visually stunning. As angular inside as it is out, it offers open and well-lit exhibit spaces wrapped up in a fascinating and dynamic environment. It’s spacious in the way that a lot of modern museums and galleries are spacious, lots of air and towering white walls,  and some the work on exhibit seemed to get lost in this alternative architectural universe.

The work on display is an odd buffet of styles, media, and historical periods. There are three exhibitions and several independent works to be found, ranging from traditional painting and sculpture through installation art and video. Broad is a well-known collector or contemporary art and, on balance, the work leans decisively in his direction. Some of it was so utterly foreign to my sensibilities that I found it comical but there was enough variety to engage even those of us who are stuck in the solitary, cobweb-covered halls of ancient art history (e.g., the 20th Century). Some of it was downright weird, some creepy, some of it was utterly fascinating.

Boat #2 - A Sculpture by Nguyen Phuong Linh (from the artist's website)*

Boat #2 – A Sculpture by Nguyen Phuong Linh (from the artist’s website)*

We had less than an hour to spend so what we did was mainly a cursory walk-through. Still, I saw enough to keep me contemplating contemporary art for days, maybe weeks, and that’s a good thing for a museum to do. It’s a feast for the eyes. I guarantee that you’ll find something to delight you, something to captivate you, and something to loathe, all in this one full-service extravaganza of the visual arts.

I’ll have more on what we saw there at another time…..

* – this is one of at least four ‘boats” made by this Vietnamese artist from sea salt. I don’t know which one made it to the Broad Museum.

Might as well embrace it. It isn’t going anywhere.

Winter at Giverny (Claude Monet, 1885)

Winter at Giverny (Claude Monet, 1885)

Note: I’ve been away from this blog for nearly five months. The reasons behind my absence will be the subject of a future post but had nothing to do with anything sinister like illness or incarceration. Truth be told, I was utterly sick of the internet for reasons entirely political. At any rate, my sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing again. 

Today is the birthday of one on the most influential people in the history of American Art, a man who established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost photographers, helped drag a reluctant America into Modernism, and launched the careers of some of the 20th Century’s revered painters. He was a study in paradoxes. He was a nurturing tyrant. He worked tirelessly to promote “his” artists, privately relishing the role while claiming to detest it. He was of the leisure class yet feigned poverty. He enjoyed the uncritical admiration of a posse of followers while being passionately despised by his enemies. He spoke engagingly of the spiritual power of love but was a bit of a philandering pig.  His life story is a fascinating mix of privilege,  vision and dedication, situational ethics, and luck.

That man is Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who was born on New Year’s Day in Hoboken, New Jersey, the first child of German immigrant parents. His father was a successful merchant who provided his children with first-rate European educations. One of his twin brothers went on to become a chemist and educator; the other a physician. Alfred himself abandoned his scientific education (his father wanted him to study engineering) and, on the back of his generous allowance, bummed around Europe for a few years and became a world-class photographer. Between 1887 and 1907, in Europe and, after 1890, in New York, Stieglitz created a body of work that remains as one of the most groundbreaking and enduring in the field of American Art.

Stieglitz-Winter

Winter- Fifth Avenue (Alfred Stieglitz, 1893)

It was along about this time that Stieglitz began promoting photography as a “Capital A” art, along side painting and sculpture, an idea that the Art Establishment found pretty laughable at the time. Banding together with other influential photographers of the day, he founded a movement, The Photo-Secession, and a gallery similarly named, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. The gallery would soon be known by it’s address, 291 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, as simply “291.” That gallery, and the journal published there known as “Camera Work,” were noteworthy in two major respects; they established photography as a fine art in the minds of most (but certainly not all) art cognoscenti of the time and, perhaps more importantly, they served as a beachhead through which European Modernism invaded America.  Stieglitz soon began to exhibit and write about painting and sculpture in addition to photography. By the time 291 closed in 1917, it had exhibited European artists who were quite unknown in the US at the time but are now included among the most beloved artists ever. The exhibit list includes heavyweights like Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Rodin, and Duchamp.

A number of American photographers and artists gained much of their early notoriety through 291 and through Stieglitz’s two subsequent galleries The Intimate Gallery and An American Place. Photographers Edward Steichen (with whom Stieglitz founded 291) and Paul Strand can both trace their roots back to 291. In Stieglitz’s later years, An American Place featured the work of the likes of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Edward Weston.

While Stieglitz’s contributions to the development of American Photography were quite impressive, it was his transition to painting that may have left the most lasting imprint on American Art. No, Stieglitz himself did not paint, but he adopted a group of relatively obscure American painters in his 291 days and spent the rest of his life promoting their work, largely at the expense of his own photography. Among the members of the Stieglitz Circle are Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and maybe most notably Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

O’Keeffe’s relationship to Stieglitz is the stuff of legend, the fodder for several books and major portions of the many biographies of both artists. O’Keeffe was laboring as an art instructor at a tiny Texas college when she came to the attention of Stieglitz through a mutual friend on, oddly enough, January 1st, 1916. The circumstances of this discovery are immortalized in the prologue of the book O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance by Benita Eisler and repeated just about everywhere anyone has written about the pair. The mutual friend, Anita Pollitzer, a photographer known more for her role in the Stieglitz – O’Keeffe connection than for anything else, took some drawings O’Keeffe has mailed her to show Stieglitz. As mythology has it, Stieglitz immediately felt an attraction to the unseen artist, uttering the words “Finally, a woman on paper.” Summarizing the progression of events that followed, he exhibited the drawings, met O’Keeffe, fell in love with her (despite being married since 1894) and pursued her relentlessly. Within a year or two, they were living scandalously together and would remain a couple (despite frequent infidelity on both their parts) until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. It’s all there at the core of the history of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century, a fascinating story far richer and more complex than I could ever cover here.

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

I probably know more about Alfred Stieglitz than about any other figure in American Art. I’ve studied his images and read a number of biographies, watched his American Masters episode on PBS, looked at his work in several museums. It was he who led me from a rather parochial interest in photography to a much broader interest in art and an appreciation of painting. Had I not chanced upon a biography in a used book store and recognized his name, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words today. For better or worse, Stieglitz was and remains one of my inspirations.

Lake George (Georgia O'Keeffe, 1922)

Lake George (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1922)

I’ve developed this annoying habit of using New Year’s Day to look back on the many roads I’ve traveled and think about how it was I got to wherever it is that I find myself. I think the people close to me find it tedious but I find it refreshing and sometimes inspiring. I find it appropriate to celebrate the beginning of 2013 by reflecting on the role Stieglitz had on me on this, the 149th anniversary of his birth. Thank you, Alfred, for all that you have given me. You were deeply flawed, contradictory, and often insufferable. In other words, you were human.

<a href="https://addchallengedeye.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/american-impresario/alfred-stieglitz-by-ansel

Art critics only seem to make the news when they die. Yesterday, we lost Robert Hughes (1938-2012), an Australian who was, in my humble opinion, the finest critic of American Art in the last 50 years.

Hughes was the author of the very best history of American Art ever written, and by very best I mean opinionated and frequently sarcastic. American Visions was an outgrowth of the BBC-produced documentary series of the same name that aired on PBS. You can watch the entire 7 hours online here. The book is widely available. I recommend both, even to people with only a passing interest in art. If you can get past the fact the Hughes is kind of a dick, you’ll learn a lot

It was no secret that Hughes held much modern art and many artists and art collectors in complete contempt. I love his work because he put into words many of the things I’d been thinking as I explored the trajectory of American Art history, albeit in a much more entertaining fashion. He wrote and spoke about art because he loved art and held the role of the artist in high esteem. I’ll share the following Hughes quote, borrowed from John Seed’s entry in today’s Huffington Post, to make my point:

“The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world.”

Seed also shared this video, taken from American Visions, where Hughes discussed contemporary art with a wealthy collector, hardly concealing his contempt for much of the work. He had this, for example, to say about Damien Hirst; “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce.”

How can you not love that?

In an era when art critics have largely been replaced by “cultural writers” who spend most of their time hyping art rather than discussing it, Hughes will be sorely missed, at least by me.

 

This video

It’s been nearly three weeks since I last posted. I needed a break and took one and I enjoyed it.

We didn’t do much, really. I would still like a real vacation, traveling the backroads to see what we could find there.

Manhattan Diner (©2008 by Richard X. Moore)

 

Opinions vary on the legacy of the late Andrew Wyeth, the American Realist painter who was born on this day in 1917. He was among the most popular artists of the 20th Century and his painting Christina’s World, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is considered an icon of American Art.

Christina’s World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)

Despite his popularity, the “Art World” isn’t quite as enamored of his work. He hit is creative stride as Abstract Expressionism was becoming the dominant movement in American art and a number of contemporary critics consider his work overly quaint and sentimental.  I, for one, am moved by Wyeth’s work; it’s sparseness, it’s economy, the melancholy feeling it invokes. Christina’s World isn’t really one of my favorites. I much prefer the bleak landscapes and undecorated interiors that Wyeth produced throughout his career. His Master Bedroom, which I’ve shared here before, exemplifies this style but is really only the most popular of a number of master works in a similar mood.

Wind from the Sea (Andrew Wyeth, 1947)

We record the world as we see it. Some of us see sunshine and puppies, some see storm clouds on the horizon. Wyeth’s vision was somewhere in the middle. He saw beauty in simplicity and austerity. His work teaches us that often times an artist can reveal more by showing less. It’s a lesson we can all profit from.

Camden Hills, Maine (Andrew Wyeth, Undated)

 

 

When you examine the history and development of Impressionism, all roads seem to lead to Camille Pissaro (1830-1903). He was, for many painters of the Impressionist school, a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. Cezanne though of him as a father. Mary Cassatt so respected his teaching ability that she once observed that he could teach a stone to draw.

The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning (Camille Pissaro, 1897)

Pissaro’s influence can be traced from the beginnings of Impressionism all the way through the work of Post-Impressionists like van Gogh and Seurat. Although he was eclipsed by his peers and artistic descendants, he was a cornerstone in one of the most revolutionary art movements in history.  Both respected and beloved by his peers, Pisarro is an artist to be remembered.