Category Archives: museums

Vitra

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I went to Philadelphia to see Paul Strand but I couldn’t help but be excited by their Vitra Exhibition too. For the same reason I would always hit the design rooms at SFMOMA, I never ignore a design exhibition at a museum I’m visiting. It’s not just because of my background, I enjoy seeing items which make me think about the things I use, how I use them, and how they’re made.

The Vitra show offered exactly that in addition to reminding me of SFMOMA’s chair obsession. While it’s interesting to see all the information about how Vitra works and designs things, it’s being able to see the objects—in particularly the chairs—that’s really fun.

Most of the objects on display are furniture. Most of the furniture is seating. Which is great since seating is one of those universal things that we all understand. I used to side-eye SFMOMA’s seating infatuation but I get it now. This isn’t like looking at a DWR showroom.* Instead, there are designs which push the concept of usability. Maybe they’re not comfortable. Maybe they’re not practical. But they’re playful and expand the concept of what a chair could be.

*I’m beginning to be convinced that the Ikea Nesting Instinct is really the affordable DWR Nesting Instinct.

And that’s kind of the point, Vitra doesn’t play it safe. Yes, there’s a heavy emphasis on usability. But you can’t be truly innovative without playing and being willing to put something crazy together. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of wood laminate. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of sheet steel. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of corrugated cardboard. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of iron mesh. Some of those work. Other’s don’t. You learn from what doesn’t and enjoy the result as an object anyway.

Paul Strand

Paul Strand. Wall Street, New York.

The Paul Strand show turned out to be the motivation I needed to finally make the trip to Philadelphia. I’m glad I went. Strand—like Weston was for a long time—is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed but never really looked at in a specific, comprehensive way before. Sure, some of the images are extremely well-known, but many of the rest I’ve never seen before yet have sensibilities which feel just as familiar to me.

Needless to say, I really like his work—especially his precise framing and composition. He’s able to find the order within the type of scenes that often catch my eye but which challenge me when it comes to finding the photograph in them—door hardware, a clump of plants, items which I can’t abstract to pure texture or sculpture because they contain both an interesting structure as well as their real-world function.

Strand’s work is also very interesting because he was right there at the beginning of photography as an art form. From his early work consisting of “fuzzy” pictorial contact prints to portraits and street photography to urban abstractions and still lifes to contrasty enlargements to finally combining photos and text together in book form, his journey as an artist parallels a lot of the medium’s journey as he learns to embrace what the medium does well and address things it doesn’t. The result of this is that many of his photos remind me of other photographers’ work. Not in a rip off way, just that looking at Strand’s work made me realize how much of an influence he had on other photographers. He’s not someone to ape. He’s someone to study and learn from and take what he learned and apply it to whatever I’m interested in.

What most struck me was realizing that while Strand’s most-famous images—those that you’re supposed to know and recognize—came from his early work, this doesn’t mean that that work is better. Instead it reflects on how his sensibilities shifted and he went from producing individually great photos to collections and books that, while consisting of great photos, are more about the way the photos work together to describe a place.

Paul Strand. The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis)

It’s his later work which has stuck with me after seeing this show. Strand would spend a long time in a location, photographing details, buildings, people, etc. all of which together form a portrait of the area. His images though don’t try and explain the area to us but rather provide a sense of how it was when Strand was there. They’re documentary without feeling anthropological or journalistic. They’re positive and empathic without being propaganda, Looking at them is like looking through an exceptionally high-quality photo album and offers a lot of food for thought as I think about making my own photo albums and books.

The exhibition itself is also noteworthy for having a lot of technical detail about the different printing methods Strand used. It does a great job at demonstrating how they differ—both on the production side and in the final product—but especially the final product. There are examples of copy negatives and interpositives and information about how they were modified before contact printing. There are also displays of the same images, or similar images from the same shoot, reproduced as platinum, silver gelatin, and photogravure prints set up so we can compare the differences in detail and contrast each method allows for. Mixed with these comparisons are discussions about how his cameras impacted his working methods and different printing methods impacted distribution.

It was nice to see an exhibition which realized and explained how much the tools of photographic capture and print production impact the art. It’s even nicer to see an exhibition discuss issues of distribution and display. While his prints are great, that Strand eventually settled on books as the ideal form for his photography puts a very different frame regarding the intended audience of the artwork. Most things we see in museums are elite objects for elite people. Strand’s work is more populist. It’s only fitting that I’ll be aware of his influence everywhere I look now.

Washington DC

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Between Christmas and New Year’s we spent a few days in Virginia where we spent Thanksgiving. We decided to go into DC for one of those days and take the boys to the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History. No reviews or anything from this trip. Just fun to see the boys get excited about airplanes and skeletons and dinosaurs and rockets and the subway.

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Camden Aquarium

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As the weather’s gotten colder, we’ve followed the advice we’ve received and checked out the Adventure Aquarium. It’s a great aquarium for kids. Lots of sharks and touch pools and exotic colorful fish to see. Plus hippos and crocodiles and other charismatic megafauna. And it’s mostly indoors so it is indeed a great place to spend a cold winter day.

I’m less impressed with it as an adult—I appear to be a weirdo who would have liked the original aquarium that no one visited because it featured only native fish—since it’s all exotic non-native fish and reminds me of why I find zoos to be so frustrating. It’s a collection of animals that look interesting, not a great education space. And while it offers good experiences to kids who want to learn the basics and see things in real life, I’m already wondering when my kids will outgrow it.

I don’t think about this with Monterey, or even the Academy of Sciences. But then I haven’t outgrown either of those myself.

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They did however have Santa in one of the tanks though. That was indeed very cool and a big hit with the kids.

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Lingerie, Dance, Silhouette, and Movement

My sister works in costuming and is big into fashion. After visiting MoMA, we wandered over to FIT since it’s the museum in New York which is most in-line with her interests. As a design/use junkie, I also enjoy fashion and clothing exhibitions since clothing is one of those universal things. Even if it’s fashion, it’s meant to be worn and reveals a lot about how society views the human body. The two exhibitions on display when we visited—Lingerie and Dance—both explicitly discussed issues about how much of clothing’s intent is to either emphasize or alter the body’s shape and movement.

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The lingerie exhibition was more interesting to me—especially as a social history. The main takeaway for me was confirming that demonization of underwear in the late 1960s was indeed misplaced. Underwear gives structure to the silhouette—something which changes with the fashions of the time. Looking at this structure allows us to extrapolate a lot of other things about the fashions of the time, but it also reminds us that the way people look in clothes often has very little to do with how they look out of clothes.

For most of history, structured undergarments allow for clothes to fit “correctly.” And it was understood that the undergarments were doing most of the heavy lifting*—In other words, it wasn’t “cheating” to wear a corset or bustle or crinoline. Comparing this to today where wearing a padded bra or Spanx seems to feel dishonest** because women are supposed to be able to exercise or diet to be able to achieve the desired silhouette in a “natural” fashion and I can’t help but conclude that focusing on the undergarments as “instruments of female torture” may have misdiagnosed the target that should have been protested.

*Or squeezing or padding or tucking.

**Shit, getting surgery to minimize or maximize certain body parts feels dishonest.

It’s not the underwear which is the problem. The problem is the desire to have a specific silhouette—and the fact that what is desirable changes every decade. At least you can change your underwear easier than you can change your body.

That said, looking at the history of lingerie also makes it clear that even before those protests started, underwear—and the clothing being worn over it—was getting less and less complicated and revealing more and more skin anyway. I found it somewhat ironic that the late 1960s through the 1970s in fact had the least restrictive and softest-structured undergarments in the entire show. We’ve swung since then to more structured bras and increased padding and even corsets again. Though a lot of that has become outerwear as well.

The other interesting thing in looking at lingerie was seeing how the technology and materials changed and the number of different ways we’ve tried to accomplish the same sorts of goals. The exhibition goes from whalebone corsets to padded underwire bras and touches on many other kinds of ways to shape the body. It’s amazing to see how much lighter and more efficient everything has become. This is extremely intimate technology intended to be worn for long periods of time up against the skin. It’s kind of a shame that it’s relegated to fashion museums since not only does it concern half of humanity, it’s also just a fascinating design challenge.

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The dance show felt a bit forced to me. It’s a great concept but there were too many pieces which felt shoehorned in as possibly dance related. Which is too bad since I was liking the comparison between the dance costumes and the lingerie exhibit—in particular how these costumes were explicit about how they were intended to impact the body’s movement in the same way that lingerie impacts the body’s silhouette. These are two sides of the same coin and both need to be kept in mind when thinking about clothing and how it works.

Dance appears to have two distinct ideas about how fashion and costume should be. One is that nothing should get in the way of the human form and how it moves. The other is that by altering the form and restricting its movement through costume, other interesting things can be revealed. Both views are valid though the second view results in the costumes I find more interesting.

The costumes that stay out of the way end up being more decorative—some fabulously so—but mostly things that we can get a sense of when seeing them on mannequins. The costumes that rely on restricting or hiding movement though need videos so we can see them in action.* I could kind of picture some of them with basic movement. But dance isn’t basic and that intellectual leap was more than I could muster.

*Although, really, more video in general would be nice since this is, after all, a dance exhibition.

Christopher Williams

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The third big exhibition at MoMA was the Christopher Williams show. This one was a mixed bag in terms of how I responded to it. On one hand, it was a bit of a fuck you to the audience since a lot of it felt like an in-joke that most people won’t get.* At the same time for me it felt like an exhibition which worked really well with Gober. Many of the photos were a little bit surreal or odd. And the whole show played with converting non-art objects to art objects.

*Not the biggest fuck you I’ve received in a Museum exhibition. That honor is still held by Santiago Sierra who, while I get what he was doing, still produced an exhibition that blew off anyone who attended it in favor of the statement that he was making.

In Williams’s case, he’s playing with the concepts behind stock and “professional” photography—bringing photographic muzak into the museum by suggesting alternate readings of the image and revealing some of the artifice in how it was produced. The alternate readings are obscure and stretched and, to my mind, not even that important. I’ve worked in printing, production, and design long enough to understand how everyone includes in-jokes in the process—the more obscure the joke the better so as no one else will notice. That we know he’s winking or enjoying a self-satisfied giggle here is enough for me even though I can totally understand how other people would be upset by this.

Revealing the artifice behind the stock photos is more interesting to me anyway. That so many of them feel a little off makes us question our expectations and points out how much of this photographic language we’ve absorbed even though this kind of photography is universally unmemorable.* Getting into and figuring out why they feel off though is almost impossible. They’re not off in a bad or incompetent way, they’re just somehow less commercial than we expect even while looking completely professional. Some of this is definitely because they’re in a museum rather than a magazine ad. But a lot of it is based on our collective snap judgements against a standard of professionalism that we can’t even articulate.

*It’s interesting to compare Williams to what people are currently calling Hipster Photography. Hipster photography appears to ape the unmemorable product consumption images only without being about the product. Williams makes the product more explicit but tweaks the delivery so it isn’t as unmemorable.

This isn’t “that’s not art” kind of art because it’s giant or made from expensive materials or being trangressive and saying “yes this is art.” Instead Williams directly triggers our “that’s not art” reflex only to have us immediately realize that we may jumped to that conclusion too quickly. I love this kind of category blurring.

I also love all his photos which intentionally include production elements in the frame. I’m a backstager by heart who tends to sympathize with all the unseen stuff that goes into making anything. It’s very easy to forget or be ignorant about all that process so any artist who tweaks the ideas of what belongs offstage* is okay by me.

*For example, Baz Luhrmann’s stage direction.

Matisse Cutouts

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The big exhibition at MoMA was the Matisse show. Unlike Gober, Matisse was packed full of people who like his artwork—and who were visiting the museum to indulge in how much they liked it. It is indeed superficially easy to like: Bright colors. Fun shapes. A famous name. Some iconic pieces.

I liked it too, but the main appeal to me was that it was, in many ways, an exhibition of process documents instead of final products. Many of the pieces on display were actually about designing for a different medium. Maquettes for murals,* printed books,** ceramics,*** and stained glass. Cutouts eventually realized as silkscreens. Even the pieces which remained as cutouts went through multiple iterations before ending up in their final arrangements.

*The Barnes Mural

**Jazz

***La Gerbe

The exhibition does a great job at showing how the cutouts evolved and interacted with each other as Matisse worked on them. There are photos showing different arrangements and the displays go out of their way to emphasize the pinholes and other ways that the pieces were held together and rearranged. This is distinct from other process documents where multiple iterations are created and can be preserved. The fluidity of composition in the cutouts is fascinating to see and think about and there’s something wonderfully tactile and evocative with cut shapes stuck on a surface where we can see the possibilities of playing with everything.

Which made it especially interesting to see how despite the ephemeral nature of the cut outs, they were all also presented as being finished and final. The maquettes might be final proofs but they’re not the final piece. Some of the cutouts were indeed intended to be final pieces but many of them were living on Matisse’s walls and there’s a huge difference between being in the state Matisse’s death left them in and having it be finished complete works of art.* I can appreciate them as being finished enough, but declaring them as complete—and seeing people view them as complete—got me thinking some more about how we conceive of art and the role that presentation plays in how we react.

*It’s worth mentioning an exhibition on sketches I saw at Princeton here for some additional thoughts about process documents and unfinished pieces in the museum.

It’s an exhibition of Matisse Cutouts, not an exhibition of maquettes for Matisse Prints or Matisse Ceramics. So cutout as final form is the expectation going in.

And that’s fine too. Many of the pieces are a joy to look at and the form itself is fun. Squiggles where you can see both parts and try and match up the original paper pieces across multiple compositions. Vaguely botanical shapes that remind me of Hawaiian quilts. Some remarkably effortless and graceful forms such as the parakeet which show how much a single confident line can convey.*

*And other equally effortful forms, especially his human figures, which show that this medium is a lot harder than it looks.

There is so much here which I want to show my sons as basic art education. How to explore colors and positive and negative spaces. Being able to move compositions around before committing to their placement. The willingness to just try a line or shape and see what happens with it. The fact that this is just cut pieces of colored paper means it’s simple and cheap to try.