Friday, 14 January 2011

EYE 95: The Interstate as Access to Visual Delight

Newark: What I really resent about Manhattan media hype is the way it eclipses luminous off-the-beaten track museums like the one in Newark. Perhaps the most innovative pioneer in American museology when American Culture was hungering for imperial status, John Cotton Dana founded the Newark in 1909 as an extension of the Public Library where he was also director. He had the populist instincts of a Progressive era librarian, a type which regarded an unread book as a wasted resource. He chided the robber baron flatterers who ran the Met by defiantly asserting that quality in art had nothing to do with age, price, or genre: he was staging museum exhibitions of well designed objects under $1 out of the local dime store a full decade before the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors let alone its Architecture and Design Departments.
He tried to get the Gotham clerisy to co-sponsor such shows, but they shuddered in distaste at his demotic illusions and went right on sucking up to the wealthy collectors of gee gaws. In 1924, the Bamberger retail family put up the money for the current building of Washington Square, having been beguiled by Dana like the rest of their business peers into accepting his assumption that no world-class city could exist without a world-class museum. Carrying on in this innovative tradition, the current director, Sam C. Miller, is hard at work raising the money for a Michael Graves’ designed rehabbing and extension.
“Winding down” towards the construction phase, the Newark is currently doing “throwaway” shows from its rich holdings, perhaps strongest of all in early twentieth century American art. “Avant-Garde American Painting, 1911-1946” neatly sidesteps a controversy over realism vs. abstraction by subsuming its treasures under the rubric “avant-garde,” and thereby simultaneously cocking a snoot at those ahistorical types who have prevailed in their fantasy of the past two decades that avant-guard was coterminous with abstract, as in expressionism.
Thus the show begins (with the to me dull) canvas of PAFA grad Arthur B. Carles’ “Still Life with Compote” (1911) because it reveals two years before the Armory Show, that tidal wave of Modernism, how one traditional American painter had been touched by the Fauves, the Cubists, and by the granddaddy of them all, Paul Cezanne: it could in fact be mistaken by a careless looker as a mediocre Cezanne.
But the prize of my eyes is the “dark Precisionist.” George C. Ault (1891-1948), Cleveland’s claim to immaculate fame. “From Brooklyn Heights 1925” takes a sweetly stylized look at Lower Manhattan from the other side of the East River, the far landscape a fog-muted cubist collage, the middle of the canvas surging with the energy of a tug headed upstream, the foreground a precisionist maze of transportation lines—rail, truck, foot.
MOMA would keep such a canvas in its vaults, too minor to interrupt its facile program of overpraising gallery-generated gurus. So with Joseph Stella’s “Factories at Night—New Jersey 1929.” Now it’s chic to mock Jersey grittiness, mostly by those whose swollen affluence stems from the industrial investments they sneer at. Not Futurist fellow traveler Stella: “The red reflection of the Vulcan fire operating in the Jersey Meadows are keeping awake in our souls our faith in the future rejoicing of Freedom.” Not to miss: Dove’s “Tug Boat 1927,” a pretty paean to the river’s plug ugly workhorses. And the Charles Shaw trompe l’oeil’s as protoAbstracts are the kind of surprises Newark bestows on its fans. There’s a handy map on the back page of its bimonthly members newsletter (1-201-596-6607 / or P.O. Box 540 / Newark 07101.
Manor Junior College: Ever since seeing the Finnish-derived wooden folk churches in Kishi, U.S.S.R., I have hungered to see more of these provincial executions in a “lesser material” of the onion-domed churches of the metropoles. Imagine my glee when pitstopping at the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center at Manor Junior College, off Fox Chase Road, Jenkintown (884-2218) to see that they have a detailed photoessay on that genre of folk architecture from the region of the Ukraine closest to Czechoslovakia.
The delectable thing about Ukrainian folk culture is its remarkable diversity. They have a pysanky map of the huge region of 51 million population showing how differently each area decorates its Easter eggs. The lively two year college of 500+ students has its own art gallery, a specialized library for Ukrainians and a great fall hoedown of things Ukrainian; but my heart is attracted to the richness of its folk heritage.
Abington Art Center: One of the more beguiling things about the AAC, 515 Meetinghouse Road, Jenkintown (887-4882) is that you hear pro’s and am’s kibitzing about their work on the mezzanine as you scrutinize what they’re displaying below, on my last visit the 41st running of the American Color Print Society Exhibition. Both AAC and ACPS have been at it for 47 years, and AAC notes with pride that it has recently installed the latest safety equipment protecting color printmakers against hazardous acids, solvents and sprays used in its processes. It’s weird to have ACPS president Naomi Limont recall that it was founded because color prints were ineligible among the monochromes. I especially relished Doylestown’s Maggie Preston whose “Caucus II” is a collagraph where the biomorphic shapes recall Miro and the colors suggest Matisse but the net effect of which is wholly Prestonian.
St. Joseph’s University: Just a palette’s throw from the Barnes Foundation is St. Joe’s art gallery in a recycled stately manse. “Jesuit Spirit in the Arts 1986” moved me to make my first visit there because an ex-Jebbie student (U. of Detroit, philosophy major, 1949), I’m always ambivalent about the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation. Having lost their faith, I suspect I rely all the more on their ideals of intellectual excellence they instilled in my refractory soul.
What a marvelous way to celebrate the installation of a new president (Nicholas Rashford, S.J.) and how doubly serendipitous that he’s an altogether creditable photographer, displaying a demurely smiling old County Wexford Very Hibernian leading lady, shrewdly positioned in the extreme right of the frame so that her milieu (a marbleized door frame and brick wall brightly mortared) shines through as well as she does. And Father Rashford is a business major! How Jebbie-ish.
I palavered with fortyish Dennis McNally, S.J., on the upstairs landing until he begged to be released (“got to earn my salary”) to teach an intro course. The co-director of the Gallery explained hat the blue collar U had no art majors, but 6 courses (enough for a minor) and three full-time teachers—so that 200 of the upwardly mobiles (out of 5000) can take a humanizing look each semester at our visual heritage. His contribution in a show culled from the faculties (not all of them art department types) from Jesuit U’s across the country is “Ceramic Study of the Madonna Paradigm” described in the handsome catalog as “a result of side-by-side learning with his Ceramics students … allowing the clay to dictate the outcome of play with a single theme.” What a far cry from the kitschy-kitschy-koo holy card “art” of my culturally deprived youth in Michigan!
Arthur Ross Gallery, Furness Building Gallery, Penn: What a delight the Furness Library at Penn is. When I taught there 25 years ago it was the Main Library, and the wrecking ball bauhausers were on the brink of leveling her. Now it’s an art and architecture library, and the first visit I paid to its gallery was altogether beguiling. The Germans and Austrians have been grousing softly but nonetheless insistently of late that the Anglo-Franco bias of our architectural history (never mind what Mies and his minions have done to our built environment! another and entirely depressing story, even in the waning months of the van der Rohe centennial year) has kept us from understanding Teutonic contributions to our common visual fund.
The fall show on the official architect of the Grand Duchy of Baden and its capital of Karlsruhe is an eloquent piece of persuasion that we have been missing too much in our Corbu-dominated consciousness. Friedrich Weinbrenner (1766-1826) is a titan to my eye. He espoused classicism, as did most of Europe after the excavations at Troy, but he did not accept the ideal proportions theory. Rather he stressed manipulating materials and construction to emphasize the character of a structure, especially timber framing which he learned apprenticing in his father’s woodworking office.
His 1813 farm in Ritterheeck, an island in the Rhine, is a marvel of functioning wood. And the plans for the cemetery hall is delectably muscular in the bold deployment of structural beams. But the most delight for me is #59, a Turkish Bath for Baden Baden, a blend of mosque and hamman (bath) architectural traditions, with a minaret for a chimney. He had the great opportunity of having an enlightened patron, Grand Duke Karl Friedrich, and a need for a whole new range of building types. The drawings area a gift from a family of architects who studied under him, and one of whom migrated here to Philly. Exemplary. Good catalog by David Brownlee.
Philadelphia Art Alliance: The American Institute for Graphic Arts / Philadelphia chapter show is full of a few hits and a lot of misses. Joe Scorsone’s poster for Temple’s Art Program in Rome is a bell-ringer: the many-dugged wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus is on a leash, the holder of which you only see the bright red high heels of. Bingo! The pair of legs are stylized doubles of the lower part of Italy which we refer to as the “boot.” Memorable. Clear. Effective.
I wish I could say the same for most of the other graphics. What you have here is an epidemic of graphikers hungering to be “fine” artists, and losing their proper audiences in the process of becoming too swell. I watched a class from the Art Institute taking an assigned stroll through the show, and I thought to myself, they’re busy picking up the microbe of make-graphics-look-fine-it is, a disease notably absent from the stationery section, where you’re cancelled right off if you presume to put your own muse above your client’s needs.
And don’t neglect to notice how abstract sculptor Isamu Noguchi can be his own transcending self in “Bolt of Lightning” without forgetting that the memorial is to honor Ben Franklin not the sculptor. He of course honors himself by doing his assigned job of honoring someone else superbly. And the Ken Hiebert poster is worthy in its clarity of both Isamu and Ben.
While you’re at the PAA, don’t miss Linda Lee Ominsky’s Wall Hangings (through December 6). Her hangings of Noah et al. hanging in there on the 41st day (her dispersing clouds are enough to send you into your own statocumulous of joy and pleasure) is superb. Ominsky has devised a quirky way of rendering many of her 2-D surfaces to the brink of 3-D. I just go ga-ga at her talent. “False” na├»ve,
Reprinted from Art Matters, Dec./Jan. ‘86/’87

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