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December 27, 2008

The Highest of Arts

Last Sunday was the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. There were 8 hours and 46 minutes of sun. It was the first official day of winter, but here in the upper Midwest winter has already made itself known. I’ve shoveled the snow off my sidewalk 3 times in the past 36 hours and its 6 degrees below zero as I write.

Its midnight, the house is silent, and I’m thinking about that weightless place between joy and melancholy. The holidays always do this to me.

I’ll admit I cried three times in the last 24 hours. Once for close friends who are struggling; once for my mom, who died 27 years ago and who I still miss every day; and once at the Pantages Theater during the musical play, All is Calm, about the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.

All is Calm chronicles an event which took place on the battlefield in Germany on Christmas Eve, 1914. In the dark of night, under a star-filled sky, a German soldier laid down his arms, walked out of his trench and sang Silent Night in the so-called No Man’s Land between the British and German encampments. Following his soulful lead soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons for the night, sang together, exchanged modest gifts and helped to bury each other’s dead. It was this last that brought on the tears. I instantly thought of the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though their in-country experience bears little resemblance to the trench warfare of the past, they still suffer the sight of wounded comrades and mourn their dead. Their sacrifice is enormous.

War Redacted Single Casket CROPPED.jpg
Untitled, 2007, from the series, War, Redacted, by Camille J. Gage

Loss occurs every day and everywhere, not just on the battlefield. Over the past year I’ve watched friends and family struggle to cope with life’s challenges: serious health problems, a child’s debilitating drug addiction, financial insecurity, job loss, and the death of partners and aging parents – of heart disease, cancer and suicide.

Why do we so often feel stranded in our sorrow and alone in our grief? The presence of loss and experience of pain, while intensely personal, is also extraordinarily common. It’s the tie that binds us but is often buried beneath a silent and soul-stifling stoicism.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 brought to mind a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden. Thoreau wrote, “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look…To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.?

This holiday I will aim to channel the artistry of that German soldier, who walked on to the battlefield and sang Silent Night – who was willing to be shot at, to die – to bear witness to our shared humanity and yearning for connection.

For everyone who has lost a loved one – and that is most of us – the holidays are a bittersweet time. May we find the strength to abandon our trenches and sing together to the stars.

For Juliet

December 12, 2008

Art Mob Fueled by Fire at Fred's Glass

A bitter cold evening became downright balmy for the forty-odd members who attended the December 11 Art Mob at Fred’s Glass in Downtown St. Paul. Guests were treated to an evening of glassmaking and more as they became immersed in the work of glass artist Fred Kaemmer.


Once a small fire station, Fred’s Glass is a work of art in itself. Art Mobbers arrived and began the evening with wine, hors d’oeuvres, and conversation while strolling through the expansive second-floor gallery and living quarters.


After introducing his work, Kaemmer led guests downstairs to his hand-built glass studio, where he demonstrated the glassmaking process step-by-step.


For many Art Mob members, this was their first chance to observe glassmaking in person. In a field where one usually only sees the finished product, it was also a rare opportunity for all of us to observe art being made before our eyes.

December 11, 2008

From the Collection: Robert Motherwell's Mural Fragment

This regular series offers a glimpse into the Weisman's permanent collection. Each post will feature an object currently on view in the galleries.

Controversy, rejection, love, hate, and confusion—all words that describe the history and reception of Robert Motherwell’s Mural Fragment. The painting, an early example of abstract expressionism, has generated much debate about its artistic merit over the years, particularly within the university environment.

Motherwell - Mural Fragment.png

For many, the painting poses a challenge to preconceived notions of art: there is no obvious realist depiction, no overt message. Instead, the work focuses on the interplay of color and shape, the choice of each brushstroke. Motherwell urges the viewer to consider the work for itself, to contemplate how the painting’s aesthetic qualities influence viewers’ own perceptions of their surroundings. The Weisman’s Mural Fragment is an important example of abstract expressionism and a revealing illustration of Motherwell’s early artistic development.

Robert Motherwell was the youngest of the American abstract expressionists, a group that included artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem De Kooning. The abstract expressionists aimed to contest the existing order in art, particularly the American social realist movement of the 1930s and 40s. The abstract expressionists broke away from formalism to express a more fundamental truth about art and the artist: they wanted to create a personal visual language that conveyed emotion, particularly as manifested through the artist’s unconscious. In so doing, they emphasized the artist’s direct relationship with the surface of the canvas, stressing the importance of each mark and brushstroke. Many, including Motherwell, achieved this through the development of automatism, where the hand and the mind are freed, allowing for an unpremeditated expression to manifest itself on the surface – in essence, doodling. It is a direct, immediate, and intuitive process, one through which Motherwell created many of his works.

Motherwell received his Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy at Stanford. He decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the subject, but after one year transferred to Columbia to study art history under influential art historian Meyer Shapiro. Motherwell developed an affinity for writing and over his career wrote numerous articles both on his own work and on art theory. He was a constant promoter of abstract expressionism. Of the movement he said, “Its painting is not interested in giving information, propaganda, description, or anything that might be called (to use words loosely) of practical use.? Instead he insisted that “the emergence of abstract art is one sign that there are still men able to assert feeling in the world. Men who know how to respect and follow their inner feelings, no matter how irrational or absurd they may first appear…The need is for felt experience—intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.? For Motherwell, the goal of the abstract expressionists was not to convey a social, allegorical, or realist message but instead to promote the individual artistic self with the hope of connecting the viewer to the artist and his process.

Motherwell painted Mural Fragment in 1950. Initially the work was meant to be a large mural spanning sixty-six feet. The Samuel M. Kootz Gallery in New York commissioned it, intending to place it within an Architects Collaborative project. At the time, Kootz was very interested in merging modern architecture and art to create new aesthetic environments. In 1950, Kootz devised a project in which five groups of architects would pair up with five artists to create public spaces in which the architecture worked in conjunction with large-scale murals. Kootz said the project was intended “to encourage the use of modern artists by architects and builders.? Kootz believed that creative architecture demanded modern art and sculpture in order to fully realize the new vision and purpose of modern buildings.

Motherwell was paired with the Architects Collaborative, directed by Walter Gropius. Gropius designed a school but ran over budget when the building was constructed. To save money, Gropius decided not to include Motherwell’s mural. Instead, Katherine Ordway, a tireless collector of modern art and heiress to the 3M Corporation, purchased the completed Mural Fragment. She donated Mural Fragment to the University of Minnesota in 1951.

Mural Fragment consists of three panels, each eight feet by four feet. Motherwell chose to use a limited palette of black, ochre, green, yellow, and cream. In the work, he painted black vertical strips that visibly mark the three separate panels, yet at the same time bind the panels together through their uniformity. The spaces between the black strips are filled with geometric blocks of color, creating a feeling of underlying horizontality. Motherwell wove color through the work, with cream sections overlapping ochre sections and yellow patches barely showing through. In contrast to these hard shapes are curvilinear, free forms; Motherwell painted uneven, soft-lined circles and half-circles which seem to float within the color blocks. A figure with six rounded projections, almost like a flower, takes over the left side of the painting. Motherwell stabilized these automatist shapes within the painting by their color – they repeat the black, ochre and cream already found within the work.

Mural Fragment displays early signs of what would later become Motherwell’s signature visual language. The automatist marks in Mural Fragment are motifs he would further develop. Throughout the painting, the artist’s brushstroke remains clearly visible; the viewer can even discern how wide his brushes were. Motherwell allowed paint to mix together and to show through other layers. For example, the demi-circles on the right side of the painting show streaks of black coming through the yellow. Up close, parts of the painting seem rough and unfinished: the left side reveals bits of composition board not covered by paint. These techniques demonstrate Motherwell’s processes and decisions instead of hiding them.

The painting is an important work in Motherwell’s oeuvre, but early on the work was met with much criticism at the University of Minnesota. In 1956, Mural Fragment was loaned to University of Minnesota–Duluth to be displayed in the new student center. Upon its arrival, students and faculty circulated a petition to have the painting removed, stating that “it is a poor example of modern art…We feel a better example of modern art could have been selected, rather than this crude daub that looks like a deformed octopus alongside of two decayed dinosaur eggs.? The protestors felt that a total of three hundred signatures should be enough to convince the gallery director, Fred Triplett, to remove the painting. Triplett addressed the issue in a letter to a colleague: “The controversy over the Motherwell continues to rage with unabated fury. Two of our more enlightened and informed professors, who suddenly find themselves to be authorities on abstract expressionism, are currently circling a petition to have Mural Fragment removed…I haven’t had so much fun in years, and even the absurdity of the situation seems, somehow, to be humorous.? Ultimately, Triplett and the school provost refused to have the painting removed on the grounds that to do so based on “emotionalism? of the students would invite “all sorts of book burning.?

Feelings about the piece have shifted today, as the Motherwell holds a position of honor in the Weisman’s permanent collection gallery. A recent jazz compilation CD highlighting the music of Duke Ellington displayed Mural Fragment on its front cover. The use of Motherwell’s painting on the cover of a jazz CD brings up a set of connections between the aesthetics of abstract expressionism and the lyricism of jazz music. Jazz embodies many of the philosophical idioms of abstract expressionism, but applied to a performance movement. The role of improvisation in jazz can be likened to that of automatism in art: the musician plays what he feels, creating a specific moment of shared experience between the audience and musician, much as the artist creates that moment between the viewer and self when he freely puts down a mark on the canvas. Both movements stress the importance of the “individual voice? – a reminder that the work is distinctly that of the artist, encompassing his experiences and emotions. Motherwell created a beautiful portrait of this in an interview from 1983. He said:

"A few years ago, I was standing next to one of my huge black and white pictures in a museum gallery, and a middle-aged man approached me and asked what the picture was about, what it ‘meant’…I realized that that picture had been painted over several times and radically changed, in shape, balances, and weights…I realized there were about ten thousand brush strokes in it, and that each brush stroke is a decision. It is not only a decision of aesthetics—will this look more beautiful?—but a decision that concerns one’s inner I...It has to do with one’s sense of life…It has to do with one’s own inner sense of weights: I happen to be a heavy, clumsy, awkward man, and if something gets too airy, even though I might admire it very much, it doesn’t feel like my self, my I."

Jazz music, much like abstract expressionist painting, is an uninhibited expression of the artistic self. It reflects qualities of that person – individual preferences, tastes, and decisions. For the producers of Ellington’s CD, Motherwell’s Mural Fragment visually symbolizes the qualities found in jazz.

Motherwell’s Mural Fragment encountered growing pains as its vision and ownership changed hands rapidly. The painting devolved from a sixty-six foot behemoth to a more modest twelve-foot mural. As it found its home at the University, the public met it with criticism and rejection, much like many paintings of its type at the time. As understanding of abstract expressionism has evolved and the movement has gained wider appreciation, Mural Fragment has come to be a cherished addition to the Weisman collection. And today it still serves its original purpose, inspiring students and the general public to allow a work of art to speak to them in a private, personal way.

—Katie Johnson

December 7, 2008

Hindsight From 2020

It has been just over four weeks since the election, and like many people I have been paying close attention to the news, analyses, and commentaries as President-elect Obama assembles his cabinet and begins to elaborate his vision for governing the country. Political scientists are typically concerned with trying to understand and analyze contemporary events and issues, but Luke DuBois’s work in Hindsight is Always 20/20 has me thinking about retrospective analyses and evaluations, in particular about what “hindsight? from the year 2020 will illuminate about Barack Obama's administration and about American politics more generally.

We already know some of the many criteria upon which history will judge Barack Obama’s performance as President twelve years from now: Were his policies and programmes able to curtail the recession and credit crisis, or at least alleviate their effects? Was he able to end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan? Was he able to achieve sustainable national security, and to do so without compromising rights and liberties at home and abroad? What were the implications of his Presidency for racial inequality and race relations in the United States? The list will undoubtedly include these and many other important questions.

As a scholar of interest groups, social movements, and of the politics of race, class, and gender, I’d like to suggest three of the issues and questions to which I will be paying attention and upon which I will likely base my retrospective evaluations of and “hindsight? about the meaning of the 2008 election from and along the way to the year 2020:

1. Did Barack Obama’s victory reflect, or perhaps portend, waning racism on the part of white voters and/or a more progressive polity more generally?
2. Did the Obama campaign lay the foundations for a durable and broadly-based progressive social movement?
3. How “intersectional? were the effects of the Obama presidency? That is, did the benefits of his victory and administration benefit and empower less-advantaged and multiply marginalized members of disadvantaged groups?

I’ll begin my next post with some thoughts about the first question.

December 5, 2008

From the Collection: Yasumasa Morimura

This regular series offers a glimpse into the Weisman's permanent collection. Each post will feature an object currently on view in the galleries.

morimura A_sm.gif

It’s the holiday season and gifts and packages come flying at your door. In your excitement you scoop them up and bring them into the house. But one package in particular catches your eye—one marked Peter Norton Family Christmas Project. Immediately you realize that you are one of 3,000 or so lucky art enthusiasts who is about to receive a gift of art commissioned by Peter Norton, the American software publisher turned philanthropist and art connoisseur.

The tradition started in the early 1990s and has continued every holiday season since. Each year, Norton commissions an artist (sometimes two or three) to make small, unique art works that can be reproduced by the artists’ workshops. For Norton, the gifts are a way to make contemporary art accessible. His gifts allow friends, coworkers, and colleagues to learn from and enjoy an art object in an intimate setting, as opposed to a museum or gallery.

In 1995, Norton chose a particularly compelling artist to design his gift: Yasumasa Morimura. Morimura has made a career out of inserting himself into famous portraits and paintings. For Norton’s Christmas project, Morimura created Ambiguous Beauty. The gift, a traditional Japanese fan tucked safely into a wooden box, came with a typical holiday greeting card from the Norton family, but the standard message is not a fair indicator of the eyebrow-raising object inside. Weisman director Lyndel King received the gift and later donated the piece to the museum.

Unfurling the fan reveals an iconic image of Marilyn Monroe lying nude on the floor in a sensuous position. But this Marilyn Monroe is not the iconic Marilyn Monroe we're used to seeing. Instead it is Morimura, dressed (or undressed) to resemble the American sex symbol of the 1950s. The artist explores themes of East/West and male/female as he adopts and resituates the classic image. He is an Eastern artist who inserts himself into a Western dialogue while subverting traditional gender roles. This unusual twist makes for a unique gift indeed!

You better be good this holiday season, because with a gift as coveted as Peter Norton’s, he will definitely be checking that list twice.

-Katie Johnson

December 1, 2008

The Gift of Gratitude

Over Thanksgiving weekend I ruminated on gratitude, how it's a powerful state of mind and a touchstone in our lives, both individual and collective. How it appears to be inextricably linked to happiness.

Last week I read about a professor who is researching the healing power of thankfulness. In his study veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder are keeping gratitude journals, a list of the everyday things they are thankful for. So far the veterans report this exercise has allowed them to experience a greater sense of overall wellbeing.* It’s amazing such a modest act can help to antidote the nightmares of war.

I’ve kept such a journal for about five years. It’s a habit I adopted after learning of an earlier study wherein people who regularly recorded the things they were thankful for slept longer, exercised more frequently, and had fewer health complaints**. What a payoff! The study’s subjects were both healthier and happier for simply taking a few moments each week to be consciously grateful.

These little piggies made my gratitude journal this year.

Modest as my efforts are – usually just a few lines each week – I do believe it makes a difference. My micro-journaling creates a reflective moment, a meditation if you will, on the positive aspects of my life. Powerful stuff in a world where we tend toward the restless and acquisitive; toward a sense of never having enough; to wanting more, more, more.

Ironic, isn’t it, and painfully so, that the biggest shopping day of the year follows Thanksgiving.

As the winter holidays approach and 2008 winds to an end I plan to reflect and record thanks in my journal – and to spend some serious face time with the wonderful people who inhabit its pages and enliven my life.

* Research being conducted by Todd Kashdan, associate professor of psychology at George Mason University in Virginia. Information taken from the article, Give Thanks, in the December 2008 issue of Yoga Journal.

**Study conducted in 2003 by psychiatry professor Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis.


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