Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bill Viola

Silent Mountain
2001, Diptych: video on plasma flat panel displays
Bill Viola
American, born 1951

A cursory glance of Bill Viola’s Silent Mountain may resemble two photographic portraits, side by side. But the characters in Viola’s video are not static. Very subtly, on their respective screens, a woman (on the left) and a man (on the right) experience a kind of catharsis. Watching the monitors from the beginning, a clear transformation is evident. Against a black backdrop, the two comparably dressed figures stand in the immediate foreground before a still camera. They are lit from above in such a way that each nuance in their countenances can be observed and scrutinized. As time progresses, each movement evolves in almost excruciating detail. Restrained at first, the pair descends into hysteria. The woman holds her shoulders, while the man grasps at his head. The two let out inaudible screams, while they fling their arms about. It is only at the end of the presentation that the frenzy subsides.

The action is simultaneously violent and slow. Of course, this is an authorial choice of Viola’s: Through the use of slow motion, Viola stretches less than sixty seconds of raw footage into a video lasting more than eight minutes. But beside speed manipulation, the video does not rely on technological tricks: There is neither fancy editing nor special effects, and Viola dispatches sound altogether. The complexities of modern cinema and television – Hollywood’s gimmicks that might obfuscate Viola’s interest in clarity and immediacy – are discarded.

But while the execution of Silent Mountain – part of a series called The Passions – might seem relatively straightforward, the conception of the piece followed nuanced study during Viola’s fellowship at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. There, Viola carefully observed religious artwork of previous artistic epochs. Indeed the two screens placed right next to each other recall a devotional diptych – a popular convention to emphasize singular religious dedication in the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Of course, Viola’s interest in painting is not surprising when one considers that the artist studied fine arts at Syracuse University before he became interested in video art. By his own admission, Viola was neither an accomplished, nor particularly skilled painter, and in when the video camera became more commercially available in the 1970s, the artist found his medium. Still, Viola never lost his appreciation for earlier artistic traditions. In fact, Viola’s 1995 submission to the 46th Venice Biennale was an installation based on the painting of the seminal Italian Mannerist, Jacopo da Pontormo.

Because Viola incorporates time as a central element of Silent Mountain, it is undeniably contemporary; at the same time, however, its spirit and impact are rooted in images that are centuries old. The simplicity and understated reference in its iconography, combined with 20th century technology, are at the heart of its power. So while the work seemingly belies rigid categorization, it does embody certain postmodern concepts. The ‘actors’ in this work are not recognizable; their setting and clothing are nondescript. Their anonymity serves an important purpose: essentially, it makes them more accessible. Viola suggests that the basic emotions of mankind are not specific to culture or time, nor are they unique to the individual.

Friday, April 17, 2009


1917, Porcelain Urinal
Marcel Duchamp
American, born France (1887-1968)

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a uniquely confounding piece. On the one hand, placed in the context of a gallery, Fountain is validated as a work of art; still the piece does not conform to canonical expectations of how a sculpture should look. The work is ostensibly a porcelain urinal – albeit nonfunctioning – turned ninety degrees on its side. The lone conventionally artistic thing the viewer can discern is the artist’s ‘signature.’ In black paint, Duchamp sloppily scrawled R. Mutt, 1917, effectively completing his visual polemic.

The viewer is further perplexed when he or she learns that Duchamp had no hand whatsoever in the physical manufacture of the urinal itself. One afternoon, following a meeting with Walter Arensberg, Duchamp’s friend and patron, and Joseph Stella, a fellow artist, Duchamp went to the J.L. Mott Ironworks factory in Manhattan where he selected the piece from the factory’s inventory. Fountain fits into a cadre of equally esoteric, seminal works dubbed by the artist as ‘readymades.’

Duchamp proved his credentials as provocateur well before leaving France for the United States in 1915. In 1912, Duchamp had submitted a painting entitled Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, to the Salon des Independants. The Salon was an un-juried annual exhibition created by artists in response to the conservatism of the French Academy. Needless to say, the work was ill-understood, and energetically derided. A jurist for the show even asked Duchamp’s brothers to suggest to the artist that he voluntarily remove his work. Indignant, Duchamp nonetheless acquiesced, vowing never to paint again. From that point forward, most of Duchamp’s major works were sculptures and installations.

Duchamp is most often associated with the Dada movement in art – a group of artists who condemned the carnage of World War I by producing mostly illogical works of art. Humor was certainly part of the Dada lexicon, and Duchamp was a master of the pun, the absurd and the sardonic. But Duchamp was far more than the jester that he was often seen to be. Instead, the readymades – so called ‘non-art’ – suggest that he was in fact a keen observer of artistic heritage. With this singular work, Duchamp effectively split western art down its axis, heralding the conceptual, while dispatching the retinal. In his art – a fundamentally visual discipline – Duchamp took the radical and revolutionary step of actually discouraging an aesthetic analysis of his work.

Where Duchamp’s original work ended up is a mystery; the ‘sculpture’ on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one in a series of replicas, authorized by the artist in the 1950s. One spectator was so offended by the reproduction that he even urinated into the piece. Before the guards could restrain him, the iconoclast smashed the copy with a hammer. For Pierre Pinoncelli, the vandal, Duchamp was an idol, and when Duchamp sanctioned the reproduction of his sculpture, he was, according to Pinoncelli, essentially merchandising his work of art. Pinoncelli believed that Duchamp had undermined and diluted his essential point: that Fountain was neither beautiful, nor precious. Instead, the piece argued for a novel understanding of the basic tenets of art. Duchamp’s appreciation of the conceptual over the visual had major implications for the rest of modern art. Fountain – and Duchamp’s other readymades – has since enabled the great works of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and more contemporaneously, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, just to name a few.

Spotlight on...

I was recently given the opportunity to lead two 'Spotlight Talks' in the galleries. The intention of the discussion is to literally place the spotlight on one work of art. As opposed to a cursory glance, the idea is to spend close to forty-five minutes with a piece. For the first talk, I chose to spotlight a work that I researched last semester: Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. For the second talk, I chose Bill Viola's Silent Mountain. I thought they would be particularly interesting because they are both -- to various degrees -- provocative. Still, the interest of this post is not to consider the aforementioned works of art (I will post the handout that accompanied each of my talks in ensuing posts). My interest is in considering who actually attended these presentations.

For the Spotlights, there is a definite entourage. While they're very pleasant, very intelligent people, I could help but identify a characteristic the majority of them shared: that is, they were almost all senior citizens. Of course, this is not surprising. Who else could come to the Museum at 11:00am on a weekday? Neither students, nor people with jobs. Indeed, the elderly generally constitute the majority of museum visitors. While I think this is unfortunate for all the younger people who are missing out, I must say that find it endearing. It is nice to think that retirees -- now that they've presumably worked, maybe raised a family -- like to spend new found free-time looking at art and improving their visual literacy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cezanne and Beyond, and Beyond

This past Friday was an opportunity for the press to come and see Cezanne and Beyond as a group. They were led by one of the show's curators, Joe Rishel, who offered interesting anecdotes about the artists and also offered some insight on his decisions. Perhaps prompted by the presence of all the critics at exhibition, I thought I'd contribute my own 'review.'

Let me say, without hesitation, that the show is fabulous. There are many, many gorgeous works of art; while most in the Education office raved about Picasso's large, colorful painting of a seated woman entitled The Dream, I was particularly enchanted by the very simple, pure, linear and geometric sketches of Ellsworth Kelly, and the beautiful still-lifes of Giorgio Morandi. The exhibition, in total, features close to 150 works of art by eighteen-or-so artists, including such heavyweights as Matisse, Mondrian, Marsden Hartley, Jeff Wall, Alberto Giacometti and Brice Marden.

But the virtue of this exhibition is not who is featured, but rather how things are featured. The idea -- or better, the thesis -- of the show is to demonstrate Cezanne's far reach. Picasso described the Frenchman as 'the father of us all.' Indeed, Cezanne's ability to nurture and teach becomes clearly evident. Ultimately, the show is most successfully understood in the context of conversation. More than Cezanne, the show provides a forum for dialogue by different artists, at different times.

Importantly, this is not simply art for art's sake, or worse, art as currency. The object is stripped of both its preciousness and its object-hood; what remains is a statement, or even an historical document. This is not connoisseurship, but instead, the perfect synthesis of two worlds in the museum, too often seen as distinct: the curatorial world and the educational world. Like with Dr. Albert Barnes before them, the curatorial team that hung Cezanne and Beyond was interested was in crafting a learning experience for the visitor out of placement and juxtaposition. By placing one painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire next to a map of the United States by Jasper Johns, it becomes apparent to the viewer that the particular lesson learned by Johns was the way we interact with omnipresent and ubiquitous images; by placing a Cezanne next to a Braque or Picasso, the lesson is clearly one of geometrical analysis; by placing Cezanne next to Mondrian, the lesson is one of the flatness and purity of the picture plane.

As much as the exhibition instructs, it also asks questions of the viewer, but it assumes no prior knowledge. The curators are actively engaging their audience, insisting that a connection exists among the great works. Ultimately, this is understood as the greatest dialogue.

In sum, I am aware of no other exhibit which is as interactive as this one.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

6 February 2009

I would submit that it can be especially difficult for many of us to see past the trappings of any art museum. As much as there are canonical works that populate them, there are canonical notions of the institutions themselves that we are all subject to.

While it is the most obvious point of interaction between great art and the public, the museum is not without its problems. It is, after all, often perceived as an institution for the privileged. Admission fees are too high, the median age must be somewhere over 65, the grand architecture, the respectful silence and the preciousness of the work on the walls denote something inaccessible. So the idea that the institution would reach beyond its austere facade and invade something as new and hip as the internet is almost radical.

Social Tagging is an important -- and democratic -- means of expanding the search capabilities of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s website. By labeling or categorizing works of art, it grants users the ability to have greater access to the Museum’s Permanent Collection. Social Tagging is a completely open-ended utility: in other words, anyone can add to, or edit preexisting tags.

In order to utilize Social Tagging, click here. Users should browse the collections for a particular work—perhaps one they know well or one that strikes their eye. On any given webpage, for any given work of art, the user can scroll down to the Social Tagging function. By simply clicking on “Add Your Own Tags,” the user can help to make important information available to anyone interested. For example, on Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, I tagged R. Mutt and Armory Show as being relevant.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

30 January 2009

Hopefully I've convinced you, or, at the very least, opened your mind to the notion that a museum is a pedagogical tool. As I asserted in the previous post, the institution should be conceived of as a means to an end. Needless to say, the hard part is determining exactly how to employ the various devices at the museum's disposal in order to instruct.

Let us consider, for the moment, audio-tours, as that is my task at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Whether they are made available by cell phone, WiFi or with a traditional headset and player, there's one important principle that determines their format, which can be nicely summed up by the push/pull means of delivering information.

Museum visitors, in spite of the caricatures we are all prone to, are not a monolith. They comprise different age groups, socio-economic statuses and levels of education. The museum cannot and should not assume prior knowledge of art or art history. Indeed, most have had the wisdom and foresight not to become art history majors. So the question arises: what kind of experience is each individual looking for?

On the one hand, the visitor could be looking for nothing in particular. If there happens to be a Renoir or a Cezanne that the visitor finds aesthetically pleasing -- or similarly, aesthetically detestable -- he or she has the option of selecting that painting and hearing a short synopsis of its meaning, its content or the societal conditions which facilitated its conception and execution. This means of touring the museum falls under the category of
pull. That is, the system is considered 'random access'; whatever the person is keen to hear about, he or she is able.

Is this a particularly effective means of teaching? I would suspect not. The reason being that the uninitiated art-viewer -- if he or she has only looked at Impressionist paintings only for their aesthetic value, for example -- has no frame of reference by which to analyze other works. It's as if each work of art is reduced simply to an object and is judged purely on its visual merit. He or she doesn't see the continuum of art, or its development over time. The notion that art is simply a filter for history is lost.

But if you as the museum educator or curator 
push a narrative unto a visitor, he or she has a more holistic understanding of visual language. It suddenly makes sense that Cezanne followed Manet, and Picasso followed Cezanne.

Still, this system (
push) is not without its drawbacks. While certainly some do prefer to be led, others prefer to be more intrepid, and make their own way. It seems unfair -- undemocratic, perhaps -- to mediate their experience. Logistically, the museum may also be too big. Imagine trying to understand the development of Western art at the Louvre, or the Met, for example. It would be exhausting.

My intent here is not to provide an answer -- after all, I've only been an intern for a couple of weeks. But the question of how exactly any given collection should be presented is a question that every art institution faces. Ideally, each visitor would subject his or herself to a curator's presentation. But still, that doesn't account for human agency, and is indeed restricting and, most of all, unrealistic.