Category Archives: museums

Easter

A couple weeks ago we drove down to Virginia for Easter weekend. Pretty much just hung out but we did go out one day to visit the Udvar-Hazy Center again. The boys are old enough to do the scavenger hunt and pay more attention to the engineering but it’s still very much a run around and see big things place.

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Tolkien

On our big New York day trip, the stop I was most looking forward to was visiting the Morgan Library to see the Tolkien exhibition. As a long-time Tolkien fan* being able to see the actual artwork that I grew up with on the covers** was super exciting.

*Lord of the Rings is on the short list of books my wife had to read when when we got together and I’m in the process of reading them now with my eldest.

**Specifically the Ballantine editions that published in the 1970s.

I don’t have much to say about the book illustrations aside from how great it is to see them in person. It’s always nice to see how he envisioned Middle Earth and being able to see the actual brush strokes is especially wonderful.

The best part of the exhibition though is all the ephemera related to how he developed the books. His working maps with multiple layers of revised geography. His lettering sketches where he’s working out how the fire writing or other illustrations will look. Notes about units and how Hobbits will measure distance or volume. Timelines so he can keep the multiple storylines synchronized.

Much of this information didn’t make it into the Lord of the Rings Appendices. Instead I’ve seen people reassemble and compile it after the fact. It’s fantastic to see that he considered it all during development.

Related to this, I love the production notes and how his desires for the artwork printing was more than the printer was able to do at the time. From the red sun and dragon on the classic Hobbit cover to the silver on black desire for printing the Doors of Durin* it’s nice to imagine what things could have looked like. I can’t help but wonder why no one’s printed a copy of Lord of the Rings which follows Tolkien’s desired artwork reproduction.

*So as to mimic the look of Mithril on rock.

Finally, there were a lot of items that didn’t relate to Middle Earth but which demonstrated Tolkien’s development as a graphic artist. I kind of loved these too. His sketches and doodles are wonderful. You get a sense of his esthetics and his love of lettering and it was great of to see these with my kids so they could see how doodling is a way of practicing skills.

There’s also an amazing letter from his mom—who has the same hand lettering that he uses throughout his books. I’d always thought that his lettering was something he practiced and created himself. It turns out that he owes much of it to his mom. And that’s pretty cool.

New York City

Took the boys on a nice trip to New York during Spring Break. They’re old enough now that navigating Penn Station isn’t a concern and they have the stamina to walk a couple miles before running out of gas.

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The first place we went was the John T. Brush Stairway and Polo Grounds location. Ever since I visited a couple years ago they’ve been asking for me to take them. I even warned them there wasn’t much to see but they insisted.

Turns out they were plenty happy just walking down the stairs and seeing the plaque. Seeing Yankee Stadium across the river and learning about Coogan’s Bluff was enough. They asked me to describe where the rest of the stadium was and they were predictably interested in where centerfield would’ve been. I was surprised and pleased at how much they enjoyed this.

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We then headed to Central Park for lunch. We had to take the subway and change trains at Yankee Stadium. I totally forgot about Opening Day and so we could have easily run into crowds had I scheduled this trip a day later. The boys though enjoyed seeing the stadium as well as the Polo Grounds location from the station.

They played on a playground by The Met before running through central park for a bit. It’s great. Walking on city streets is a recipe for complaining but give them the same distance in windy paths and rocks to climb on? They will happily run the entire distance.

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They ran all the way to the Museum of the City of New York. There was a nice Jackie Robinson show there that I thought they’d enjoy. It was indeed a nice little exhibit. Lots of photos of him hanging out in the Ebbets Field dugout and in action on the field. The more interesting part was all the magazines—Look and Ebony mostly— with articles featuring him even before he’d actually played in the Majors. I suppose I’d realized that him signing a contract was a big deal too but I didn’t realize the degree the national spotlight was on him even before 1947. The kids liked the photos and videos—especially the one og him playing with his own family.

There was also a nice room of Corduroy drawings where the kids sat and read books for a bit. I never read these books as a kid but it’s clear that mine have. And we went through the New York history rooms to get a quick primer on the history of the city. They’re not ready to go through slowly and read everything* but they’ll absorb what they can from even small exposures.

*Since I’ve already gone through these rooms I wasn’t too upset about going fast this time.

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Then we walked back to the subway and really got into tourist stuff. We got off at Grand Central and I made sure they looked up at. They were impressed. Then I took them outside and made them look up at the Chrysler Building. They were impressed again.

We then made a visit to the Morgan Library (post coming later) to see an exhibition on Tolkien before I refueled them with a sandwich and we made our way to out final stop of the day.

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When I previously visited the New York Public Library I had stuck my nose into the children’s room and texted them a photo of Winnie the Pooh. so I figured they’d like to see the real thing. The eldest acted all cool about it* but the youngest was enchanted. Lots of fun to see his face light up as soon as he recognized what he was looking at.

*Yes it’s kicking in already.

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Then we wandered back to Penn Station. The boys got to see the Empire State Building as well as Macy’s for a last couple of highlights. And we took the train back home. All told, a ten and half our day of mostly walking and train riding. they were very tired that night but also had more than a day’s worth of memories they enjoyed recounting.

Philadelphia Zoo

It’s been a while but spring break means it’s time to visit the Philadelphia Zoo again. Many of the animals are still on winter mode and hiding where it’s warm but there’s always something good to see.

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We Shot the War

An unidentified soldier examines his C ration meal on May 3, 1969. Photo: OW Staffer, Hoover Library & Archive

An unidentified soldier examines his C ration meal on May 3, 1969.
Photo: OW Staffer, Hoover Library & Archive

I was in California for a week and a half last month. It wasn’t vacation but I did make it to the Hoover Institution to see a small exhibition of photographs of the Vietnam War that were shot for and published by the Overseas Weekly.

It’s an interesting show. Vietnam is kind of seared into photography’s memory as a war which defined what photojournalism is supposed to be. Up-close action. Iconic images. I’ve seen way too many lists of “most-iconic” photos that end up being mostly photos of the 1960 and 70s—at least half of them of the war or related events overseas.

The photos at the Hoover are kind of the complete opposite in that they show a more personal side of the soldiers and capture a lot of the downtime of the war effort. So we see how the soldiers spent their spare time and interacted with the Vietnamese locals. Plus we’ve got interviews with the troops asking them what they think about the war, how race relations are in the military are, and other man-on-street type of questions.

The show also includes bios and information about the photographers and publishers of the Overseas Weekly. The Weekly is notable for being published by women and also featuring a number of women correspondents. It’s kind of fascinating to read about their approach to covering the war and I’m impressed at how the show avoids making a big deal about this.

Spc. 5th Class Jimmy L. Arnold with a village child on Christmas Day, 1965. Photo: Ann Bryan, Hoover Library & Archive

Spc. 5th Class Jimmy L. Arnold with a village child on Christmas Day, 1965.
Photo: Ann Bryan, Hoover Library & Archive

It kind of amazes me that these photos and publications were so controversial at the time. To my eyes they’re the kind of thing that the military would want to be circulated. They show soldiers helping children and families. For a time when many in the anti-war public made the mistake of demonizing the soldiers for not avoiding the draft it seems like anything that humanized them could’ve helped prevent some of the backlash.

In many ways the photos felt so much like propaganda for making the soldiers and mission sympathetic that I couldn’t help but find myself be skeptical of the entire thing. For all the Army’s skepticism of Overseas Weekly it’s clearly intended to be for the troops—both news and comfort food. It’s an inside job which avoids anything that would seriously damage the war effort.

I very much appreciate the additional nuance of seeing who the soldiers are and being reminded that being anti-war is as profound a statement of support for the troops as anything.* But yes when one of the chief atrocities of the Vietnam War is also marked by the photographer admitting that he destroyed any negatives which explicitly implicated US troops I can’t look at any Vietnam War photographs without asking myself what’s not shown.

*Yes I know I’ve previously mentioned that valuing US lives over civilians is how we end up with endless drone warfare.

To the Hoover’s credit, many contact sheets are present and their actual archives only show the contact sheets online. So if I were so interested I could look through everything and see what didn’t make it into the show. Though this still wouldn’t show what never made it onto the contact sheets or what the photographers weren’t allowed to access and yeah, I know more than to just accept these at face value.

Notes

The prints on display are all modern—often on metal—and many appear to be be enlarged scans of the contact sheets based on how frequently the wax pencil markings appear on the image. This suggests that negatives may now longer exists of many of the images. It also treats the images as being about the image itself rather than any artistic statement.

Images on metal don’t feel like prints in a museum but instead like signage. It’s weird. They look fine, I just react to them differently even with the wall texts.

Anna Atkins

After I went to MoMA I wandered downtown making my way overland to Penn Station. My route took me past the New York Public Library so I decided to duck inside and see Winnie the Pooh (and send a photo to my kids). I had no idea what the special exhibition was and was pleased to see it was photography-related.

Also, it was awesome.

I had not heard of Anna Atkins before so I was just interested in seeing a bunch of old cyanotypes. There’s something wonderful about the old photographic processes and the way the images emerge from the exposed, colored paper. So unlike anything we’re used to seeing today while also being simple and tactile.

My son made a cyanotype photogram in school this year and I love it. Just seeing the flowers and the shadows they leave on the paper captures so much of the wonder of photography and the way that real things are transformed by how they interact with light.

Anna Atkins is a master. The exhibition was a small gallery filled with prints and bound books of cyanotypes. All kinds of plants delicately arranged on the paper and printed so you can see both their shadows and translucency. They evoke pressed flowers but also have an elegance in how they abstract things to the simple single-color tonal range.

They’re wonderful to look at and see as scientific observations and recording where you can compare the plants and their structures. They’re also flat-out beautiful prints* which are perfect for something like seaweed which floats in water and plays with filtered light.

*Lots of good examples over at Hyperallergic.

One of my favorite exhibits in the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the one which shows the kelp forest and places the kelp between me and the sunlight so I can get a sense of how magical the light in the forests must be. It’s a difficult thing to capture well with a camera and many of these cyanotypes put my attempts to shame.

It’s not just the plant prints that are great though. Atkins used the cyanotype process as a way to print entire books. Text and title pages are all printed as blue prints. It’s a wonderful way to home-brew your own printing just in general and creates a book where everything feels incredibly consistent.

Yes, book. Many of these prints are bound into large volumes of prints. There’s a book of British seaweed. Another of British flowers. I found myself inspecting the bindings to try and figure out how the heck they were assembled since they can’t be bound signatures.

Some of the books are clearly assembled sheets with the edges sewn together. No edge or face trim has left them looking pretty ragged since the pages aren’t exactly the same size or aligned perfectly. Others though look like proper books with gilt edges and I really can’t see how the pages were assembled. It’s an impressive binding job that the exhibit doesn’t even call attention to.

The other exhibition space in the library is dedicated to contemporary works which are riffing on what Atkins did. So more photograms and cyanotypes and experiments in how the photo paper itself reacts to light. They’re fun to see but none of them match the originals.*

*Collector Daily has a decent write up.

I did however especially enjoy Alison Rossier’s exposed expired photo paper both in the simplicity of the work and how it shows the numerous different responses that paper can have to light.

Also at MoMA

As usual, while I went to MoMA to see the Yugoslav Architecture exhibition, I wandered around the rest of the building to see what else was on display.

Charles White

There was a nice exhibit of Charles White’s work which demonstrates his versatility as an artist. All kinds of mediums—charcoal sketches, woodcuts, prints, paintings, photographs*—with a wide range of styles as continued to produce work from the 1930s through the 1970s.

*Admittedly the photographs weren’t presented as “art” but were still a nice personal set of portraits of White’s milieu.

The change in styles is kind of wonderful to see as it offers a way of learning about American art from the nostalgia-focused 1930s art to the social activism of the 1960s and 70s. Many of the pieces weren’t my kind of thing although I could still appreciate how all throughout White depicts facets of life that aren’t the “standard” image because he’s centering non-white subjects.

I however loved his sketches and woodcuts and also really liked his journey to Mexico with Elizabeth Catlett where he worked with worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular.* White’s linework is fantastic and working in a print shop allowed him to embrace how prints and distribution are the true disruptive vector in artwork.

*Which while I didn’t mention by name in my Mexican Modernism post is definitely a huge portion of Mexico’s artistic and anti-fascist identity.

Bruce Nauman

The “big” show at MoMa was their Bruce Nauman retrospective. I did not venture to the PS1 location so I only saw part of the show. I walked through but didn’t take a lot of note. I very much enjoy Nauman’s tweaking of the “is that art” question that I can hear my kids asking me. I just didn’t feel drawn to spend a lot of time looking at or thinking about the pieces.

I did enjoy how so many of them operate as selfie-bait. This kind of thing has become the scourge of museums as every exhibition seems to need some sort of social media tie-in now. Many of Nauman’s pieces though create art by intentionally removing people from the piece.* When people insert themselves back in to take their photos, the result is an image which pretty much ruins the point of the artwork.

*The video cameras which show your movement but only if you’re in a location that can’t see the monitor are probably the best example here.

So many selfies inserting themselves back into the artwork. I couldn’t help but smile a little.

Permanent Collection

David Hammons. Out of Bounds. 1995–96.

I always take the time to at least walk through the permanent collection. This time there was a small exhibition focusing on artwork made by artists as they aged. So rather than focusing on a greatest hit, this show organized each gallery around one artists work as a way of showing how their work has progressed.

It’s a fun way to see the art and there were a lot of artists featured who I’ve liked for a long time—Agnes Martin, Helen Levitt, Ellsworth Kelly—and artists I don’t—Philip Guston, Joseph Beuys—but all of whom make up a decent canon of artists you’re supposed to know and recognize. It’s always a good thing to learn more than just the greatest hits of these guys.

My favorite section was David Hammons’s work since I was less familiar with it than I should’ve been.

Then I went to the next floor and hit the greatest hits galleries. They were packed even though this was a Wednesday visit during early January. I walked through quickly but said hi to all the cliches and grabbed a quick photo showing how crowded it was.

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The cliches are good to see and remind myself of what they look like in the flesh. How large—or not— they are. Details I always overlook in reproductions such as unpainted portions of the canvas. The out-of-gamut colors that can never be translated into standard process inks.

It’s good to see them and I found myself being jealous of the school groups who could just come to MoMA and learn about art. My kids are getting close to the right age and pretty sone I’ll be taking them here with a whole different set of eyes and a whole lot of patience.