14 June 2021

New British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum

Japanese-inspired 19th-century Worcester ceramics.

New York City is re-opening and so are the museums. A week-end in May found me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewing, among other exhibits, the newly-reinstalled British Galleries. These galleries were opened on the eve of the pandemic and are still not fully accessible; whether due to a staff shortage or other issues is a mystery.

Sadly, not able to see the embroidery.

The wall texts give a much more inclusive and honest narrative of these objects, especially with regard to that quintessentially British beverage: tea. 

The Tea Gallery.

There is one entire room devoted to the storing and serving of tea and the display is as exciting as the objects. One can now see the teapots from every angle, in all their shapely glory.  Ever since the King Tut exhibit, designed by the late Stuart Silver, the Met has presented its objects and artifacts in some very imaginative formats.  The design of the British Galleries hits it out of the park.

In a gravity-defying display, ceramics and small metal objects are "floated" using all-but-invisible supports affixed to transparent paneled display cases.

Display of ceramics and small metal objects.

Finally - we're able to see all sides of these beautiful creations.

Another aspect of these galleries is that there is no distinction between "fine art" and craft  but includes paintings, sculpture, furniture and even entire rooms from stately homes.  The anonymous artisan's work is celebrated as much as the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds or Christopher Dresser.
Iron balusters, ca. 1730-80.

Chair, ca. 1755, mahogany and needlework.

The chair above is from a design by Thomas Chippendale; the needlework design in the chair back depicts the Annunication, or "Lady Day,"which falls on March 25.   England had adopted the Gregorian calendar on March 25, 1752, only a few years before this chair was made. On this feast day contracts for tenant farmers and landowners were renegotiated. 

I look forward to returning to the galleries when they are fully open.

07 June 2021

Return to the Metropolitan Museum

Flowers in the Main Entrance.
In late May, DH and I went to New York, to visit family. The Metropolitan Museum re-opened earlier in the spring, so off I went. Timed tickets were required, but as a member I was able to join the line at the lower level entrance, without a reserved time slot. 

I went to see the Alice Neel exhibit, People Come First, after waiting in another line. According to the friendly guard managing the line, there's been a wait to enter the exhibit from opening day. 

Cut Glass with Fruit, 1952.


While Neel is celebrated for her portraits, her still life paintings are very appealing, and the exhibit also includes cityscapes, as well as illustrations for periodicals.  Neel painted people famous and not; many of the portraits are of family members or neighbors in Spanish Harlem.

Hartley, 1966.


Hartley, Neel's younger son, relaxes in a chair in this portrait. His face has a neutral affect; great care is taken with the drape and folds of the t-shirt and trousers, giving the form solidity.  Elbows and knees extend the territory of the body, which is delineated with Neel's trademark blue outline (Cezanne, an influence, often outlined his figures too). 

Below, Neel's daughter-in-law slouches on a stool; her face is inscrutable, but the loose knit shirt and the red mini-skirt suggest comfort and confidence.  The angles of elbows and knees again expand the space taken up by the sitter, and create negative space through which the white wall appears. The image remains quite flat despite the suggestion of shadows and the emphasis is solely on the figure.  After seeing this image, I began to note the motif of stripes in many of the paintings; adjusting the organization of the stripes suggest folds and drape in a more abstract manner than shadows or highlights. 

Ginny in Striped Shirt, 1969.

David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock, 1970.


David Bourdon (1934-1998) was an editor at Life magazine; he sits on the right in this double portrait, comfortable in a striped chair, and striped tie. Gregory Battcock (1937-1980) was an art critic, educator and activist who had a habit of lounging and working in his underwear. The contrast between the two men is humorous, as are Battock's orange socks. The postures are animated, again, by knees and elbows.

In contrast, a portrait of the artist's mother, the elderly woman is shown almost slumped in her chair, cocooned in a plaid bathrobe with a striped belt forming a limp, loose cincture. It's the personification of resignation.

Last Sickness, 1953.


Finally, my last image is Neel's self portrait at age 80, holding a paint brush and a rag.  Is this portrait her rejoinder to the tradition of the male gaze? (The brown bit at upper top is my crummy photography capturing a bit of the frame)  Neel's body sags into a crisply upholstered striped chair, but her head is steady as she looks directly out at the viewer, with authority.

Self Portrait, 1980.

For more images and review, see this article in The New Yorker by Hilton Als.


30 May 2021

New York Re-Opens

The new Amtrak train station in Manhattan.

One week-end in May, DH and I took Amtrak to New York City, to visit older and younger generations.

Amtrak gave us assigned seats, so we didn't have to endure the usual pig-pile at the platforms. I hope Amtrak retains this policy.  Arriving at the new Moynihan Train Hall was a world away from disgorging into the old Penn Station.  There's only a Starbucks currently, but the food hall is scheduled to open in the autumn. 

This post just features some random snaps from my overnight in the city. Enjoy.

I visited the Whitney for a craft/art exhibit (kindly see previous post) but also took in the Julie Mehretu mid-career retrospective. The Whitney requires timed entry for members as well as non-members, and masks. Elevators are manned and capacity is controlled.  The Mehretu installation has received a lot of press; the exhibit was a great place to people-watch and it was just wonderful to be out and about with other folks.

Comfortable viewing.

Lots of art lovers.

Sparking conversation.

Personal space on the benches.

My walk from the hotel to the museum led by interesting sights.  Post-museum, I strolled south down Greenwich St., to Sarabeth's, where we met for dinner.

Along the West Side Expressway.

Bride and attendants on Greenwich St.  - I love the shoes.

Ghost of painted signage on 413 Greenwich St.
Eating out, literally, in the age of Covid.

29 May 2021

Making Knowing: Craft in Art 1950 - 2019

Ann Wilson, Moby Dick, 1955, detail.

New York City is open for business and enjoyment,  and I made my first out-of-state trip in over a year, visiting family in the Big Apple, and traipsing to the Whitney Museum to see this exhibit.

The exhibit includes work in many media, but I'll focus on fiber works, or creations made using fiber techniques, in this post.

From the wall text:

This exhibition foregrounds how visual artists have explored the materials, methods, and strategies of craft over the past seven decades. Drawn primarily from the Whitney's collection, it features the work of more than sixty artists who emphasize the tactility of the objects they make.  Some have expanded techniques with long histories - such as weaving, sewing, or throwing pots - while others have experimented with unexpected applications of textiles, clay, and bead, among other mediums.  Traces of the artists' hands-on engagement with their materials in many works invite viewers to imagine how it might have felt to make them.

While artists' reasons for taking up craft vary widely, many have aimed to subvert prevailing standards for judging so-called fine art, often in direct response to the politics of their time.  By reclaiming visual languages that are often coded as feminine, domestic, or vernacular, these artists seek to undo the marginalizaton of certain modes of artistic production.  The works on view provide new perspectives on subjects that have been centrally important to artists, including abstraction, popular culture, feminist and queer aesthetics, and the recent examination of identity and its relationship to place.  Together they demonstrate that craft-informed techniques of making carry their own kind of knowledge, one that is indispensable to a more complete understanding of the history and potential of art.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled, 1955.

One highlight of the exhibit is the excellent audio guide, which you can access on a smartphone. The selections include part of an interview with Asawa.  The shadows cast by the crocheted wire are an integral part of the presentation.

Untitled, detail.


Lenore Tawney, Spirit River, 1966

Lenore Tawney (1907-2007) was an influential figure in the modern fiber arts movement; while conceptually innovative, the realization of her pieces involved repetitive, laborious processes she regarded as akin to meditation. By fusing abstract ideas with  weaving, and other traditional techniques, she elevated fiber as a sculptural medium. Spirit River, below, is made of linen and steel rods; its openness is characteristic of her early work.

Spirit River, detail.

Tawney's later work became less pervious, with the woven surface becoming more dominant and revealing only glimpses, made by discontinuities in the weave, of the wall behind.

Lenore Tawney, Four Petaled Flower II, 1974.

Four Petaled Flower II, detail, linen and steel rods.

Annie Albers (1899-1994) is represented by two pieces - but, surprisingly, these are lithographs. Everyone knows Albers' weaving, but I learned that:

...Albers turned to printmaking in 1963; "In lithography, " she explained, "The image of the threads could project a freedom  I had never suspected."  By the end of the 1960s Albers had stopped hand-weaving altogether and instead focused on printmaking for the rest of her career.

Annie Albers, Line Involvement IV, 1964.

This same gallery featured an artist with whom I was unfamiliar - Ann Wilson (b. 1931).  The work below (and at the top of this post) is the first of her "quilt paintings," made after she found a discarded quilt in a seaside dump. From the curator's text:

For Wilson, quilts were reminders of her upbringing in Western Pennsylvania and the handiwork of her female relatives.  Using the salvaged quilt as a canvas, instead of a functional object, Wilson partially overpainted grids along the fabric's seams, revealing the form's underlying geometry. At the time, Wilson was working in Coenties Slip among a community of artists who kept studios in vacant buildings near Manhattan's southern harbor that had been abandoned by the declining shipping industry.  The work's title evokes the area's maritime history - Coenties Slip is mentioned in the opening chapter of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale (1859). Rather than exalting this epic American narrative, the methods Wilson usese to make Moby Dick emphasize the complicated layers that create history - like a patchwork of tradition, subject to decay and regeneration.
Of course, this work was made before the landmark 1971 exhibit of Amish quilts at the Whitney, when quilts began to be accorded "art" status in their own right, without amendation or alteration, or becoming a kind of palimpsest for another artist's work.  If not valued intrinsically, textile objects easily become fragile and vulnerable. Wilson's work can be seen as adding value through over-painting, transforming  a cast-off into something entirely new and gallery-worthy.

In a sign of the times, when I now look at log cabin quilts, the seams remind me of the folds of a face mask.  

Moby Dick, Ann Wilson, 1955.

Another gallery featured quilts, or quilt-like objects, by Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006)  and Faith Ringgold (b.1930).
Rosie Lee Tompkins, Three Sixes, 1986.

Faith Ringgold, Feminist Series: Of My Two Handicaps, #10 of 20, 1972/1993.

From the curators:

This painting from Faith Ringgold's Feminist Series includes a quote from Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first Black congresswoman. The text, which reads, "Of my two handicaps, being female put more obstacles in my path than being Black," helped Ringgold articulate her frustrations with gender and racial inequity.
Ringgold's chosen materials and format also refer to her growing investment in the woman's movement. "Of My Two Handicaps" is made in the form of a thangka, a type of painted Tibetan hanging scroll. When Ringgold first encountered thangkas in 1972, she had been painting on stretched canvas, often at a large scale, and she found this ancient format full of possibility.  She had grown up around fabric and sewing - her mother, Willi Posey, worked as a fashion designer in Harlem - and was determined that she needed to "stop denying the part of me that love making things with cloth."


Of My Two Handicaps, detail, acrylic on canvas, framed in cloth.

Miriam Schapiro (1923-2015) is another artist for whom the personal is political. In an interview used in the audio guide, she states that she felt women had democratized art, by bringing making things for the home and (I think) because many designers of mass-produced apparel and furnishing fabrics were unsung women graduates of art schools.

Miriam Schapiro, The Beauty of Summer, 1973-74.

The Beauty of Summer, detail, acrylic and fabric on canvas.

Again, from the wall text:

In 1972, Miriam Schapiro began to incorporate textiles onto painted canvas surfaces. The materials she chose - including patterned fabric, lace, crocheted doilies, embroidered handkerchiefs, and aprons, among others - were associated with woman's work in the home.  She called the method "Femmage," combining the feminine associations of her chosen materials with her collage-based method.  Works like The Beauty of Summer demonstrate her pointed rejection of the hard-edge abstract mode in which she had worked in the 1960s. This stylistic change coincided with a profound ideological one. Schapiro embraced feminism and realized that she no longer subscribed to the belief that art could be separated from social reality.  Instead she endeavored to celebrate "the decorative," a term that had long been pejoratively linked to femininity.

The exhibit also included men working with fiber, including Jordan Nasser, who works in the traditional medium of Palestinian embroidery called tatreez. (Learn more about tatreez here and see a tutorial here)

Jordan Nassar, A Lost Key, 2019.

A Lost Key, detail, hand embroidery on cotton and wood frame.

Nassar works collaboratively with women in Palestine, who stitch the borders, leaving the center blank for Nassar to complete.  The landscape-like imagery and title evoke displacement and yearning, and elicit interpretations of homeland across generations.

Tatreez is a form of cross-stitch and Elaine Reichek (b. 1943) also works in precise cross-stitch; two of her modern samplers are featured. Reichek updates the tradition of schoolgirl samplers: present are the unchanging alphanumeric characters identical to those sewn by 19th-century children,  but the aphorisms have changed.  I've rotated some of the text in the sampler border, for easier readability.  
In Sampler (The Ultimate), Reichek quotes some of the men associated with the Bauhaus, the industrial design and architecture school founded by Walter Gropius in 1919.  The school was progressive in its design outlook, not so much in terms of gender equality, as the quotes from contemporaries show.

Elaine Reichek, Sampler (The Ultimate), 1996.

Sampler, detail, hand embroidery on linen.

Sampler, detail, quote from Adolf Loos.

Elaine Reichek, Sampler (Kruger/Holzer), 1998.

Sampler, detail, hand embroidery on linen.


Sampler, detail.

Liza Lou, Kitchen, 1991-1996, wood, papier mache, found objects, beads.
Finally, I include a crowd-pleasing work which is the apotheosis of laborious handwork. Every. Surface. In. This. Kitchen. Is. Beaded. Even the cookbook pages. The artist used wood and papier mache to create the objects and then encrusted the objects and surfaces in shiny beads. It glitters but, oh, the drudgery reflected in placing and gluing each individual bead in place.  
Hours and hours, in the kitchen...

29 April 2021

Stitched souvenir of London

London Routemaster bus, image from Wikimedia.   

In 1998, we enjoyed a week-long family vacation in London.  We mostly rode the Tube, rather than buses, as it was just easier to figure out the routes. 
After drooling over the Tana lawn at Liberty I also purchased this small souvenir - a cross-stitch kit from Textile Heritage. Well, twenty years later, I finished it!

Small kit by Textile Heritage.


The kit came with a small square of 18-count Ada cloth, embroidery thread, a needle, a stitching diagram and brief instructions. As suggested, I cut small lengths of each color and taped these next to the color key, to clarify which color went in which stitch. I also drew the center axes of the design in red pen, to center the design on the small square of cloth. As I stitched each section, I colored it in with a yellow marker. The fine mesh of the 18-count was challenging, and I don't think I'll tackle it again, although I do appreciate the detail.

Progress image.

Finished -  ready to mount and frame.