Category Archives: museums

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.

Concrete Utopia

Brutalism is one of those architecture styles that’s easy to hate on. All that concrete tends to just look so different that what we’re used to in the US and the way we let it decay and age in this country doesn’t do it any favors either.

I’ve been finding myself increasingly drawn to it. As a photographer I especially like the subtle textures and ways it interacts with light and shadow. There’s also something I enjoy about the building itself being sculptural while remaining solid. All of which meant I was very interested in MoMA’s Toward a Concrete Utopia exhibition.*

*Yes it’s been closed for a month. It took me a while to write about this show.

The exhibition started off very much like I expected by focusing on individual buildings. Often these are public spaces like fairgrounds* or stadiums** but they cover the gamut. Brutal headquarters, municipal buildings, churches, apartments, hotels, etc.

*Like the Belgrade Fair with the largest concrete dome in the world before the Astrodome was built.

**Such as Split’s brutal but also light and graceful soccer stadium.

Despite the differences in scale, concrete is an extremely democratic building material. For something so ancient and basic—literally just sand held together with cement—it’s transformable into all kinds of wonderful forms and shapes which can evoke modern or futuristic feelings all the while maintaining that sense of connection to the earth.

Brutalism is great in that it lets the concrete be concrete without trying to mimic any other architectural style or hide what it is. The buildings on display often feel massive and weighty yet they simultaneously soar. Some things—crazy cantilevers and thin load-bearing pillars—can only be done with reinforced concrete and the resulting structures appear surprisingly and disturbingly light and graceful.

Milan Mihelič’s work in particular caught my eye here. It still looks space age despite being decades old. His buildings somehow turn concrete into a crystalline entity predisposed to self-sorting into stable geometric or fractal forms rather than an amorphous solid which gets poured into molds. Even as they age they maintain that aspect of otherworldliness.

Compared to Mihelič, the Hotel Podgorica in Radević is a completely different feel. Instead of feeling space age it taps into a sense of ur-wall and connects an ancient sensibility to a modern construction. It’s still a wonderful building but it bridges how modernism and brutalism can exist in harmony with older traditions.

I also liked the National Library of Kosovo in how it combines Muslim and Orthodox Christian motifs. It’s very much its own thing but for a building which is supposed to be a cultural caretaker in a region which has had more than its fair share of religiously-fueled violence it’s wonderful to see how it tries to be inclusive.

This exhibition surprised me in how it transitioned from being about buildings to instead focusing on cities and spaces and how brutalism is not limited to just individual buildings but instead applies to an entire community or metropolis.

Tatjana Neidhardt makes the observation that whitewashed-earth, cubic vernacular buildings are already modern and it’s pretty neat to see brutalism reframed this way. I love the way Zadar was redeveloped with modern buildings that still meander the way medieval city centers used to. As with the Hotel Podgorica it’s fantastic to see things that bridge modern and ancient and show how similar and compatible they actually are.

The big gallery focusing on Skopje’s post-earthquake rebuilding though is sort of the keystone of the exhibition for me. Kenzō Tange’s designs plus the blank slate of earthquake rebuilding created the opportunity to design an entire city rather than just a building at a time.

The buildings are still very interesting but it’s the spaces between them and how everything interacts that show how brutalism really works. Having so many models of groups of buildings in the gallery* is a great way to get a sense of the place and how it could feel like something new and different with the concrete buildings shaping the outside spaces as much as they shape the inside ones.

*The exhibition used models throughout as a way of illustrating the buildings.

In this case the architecture is clearly not drawing on the past in terms of the building forms but is drawing on it in terms of the public spaces being created between them. The idea that the buildings get used for their purposes of living or working but the open space is for everyone reminds me of the ways that parks and plazas are supposed to work in cities and how in older cities the paths and streets guide you to these public spaces.

Where in the US brutalism often feels imposed and forced into environments, the nature of how it shapes the space outside buildings explains how it works so much differently on college campuses.

Other thoughts

I found myself thinking of Lebbeus Woods as I walked through this exhibition because so much of the brutalism feels like it has one foot in the science fiction esthetic as it is and there’s something organic about concrete and how it ages that makes so many of these buildings feel right up his alley. That there was a small display highlighting Woods’s visit to Yugoslavia after the 1990s war was absolutely perfect.

I love his approach to dealing with the damaged buildings by respecting the damage and then designing around it. It takes the concept of ruin value and transforms it from the classic view of it as an actual ruin and makes it into something spectacularly modern.

The other neat thing about this show is that it shows photographs right next to the architectural renderings. The photographs are particularly interesting to me since they almost feel like digital renderings where people are absent and things have been aged with grungy textures, graffiti, and after-market air conditioning units.* I believe they’re real but given how multiple wars have torn through this area I wasn’t completely certain.

*It’s noteworthy how much these AC units add to the look of the place instead of detracting from it.

Compared to the photographs it’s amazing how poorly the architectural drawings describe how these buildings work. Without any shadows you have to imagine the depth and think about how it will be transformed by light. This aspect of brutalism is definitely one of the things I like best about it as a photographer. Rather than waiting for a shadowless overcast day, so many of these buildings look best when the shadows are harsh.

The freehand renderings and sketches do a much better job at describing the way the buildings will actually feel. Which is awesome since those are frequently imprecise and gestural while the buildings are so rigidly geometric.

Baseball Americana

We spent Thanksgiving break down in Virginia so that Friday I took the boys into DC to see the Baseball Americana show at the Library of Congress. They’re both into the sport enough that they were excited to go when I showed them the website and they managed to make it through the subway ride and exhibition just fine before they ran out of gas and needed lunch.

To be clear, by “making it through” I mean they put up with me doing the exhibition at my speed instead of theirs. So I got to read the wall text and item descriptions and would call them back to look at things they may have skipped over as they skipped through the gallery. Thankfully te exhibition is a good one for kids. There’s lots of things to touch and video screens that kids can use to kill time while their parents catch up.*

*I usually don’t like video-based exhibits because I prefer to go on my own pace than be limited to what the screen shows but with kids they’re wonderful.

Plus, by being baseball, there’s a lot of things that the kids just recognize and get excited about. I’ve been good about exposing them to the history of the game and they’ve been wonderful about wanting to learn that stuff. My eldest has already surpassed much of my baseball trivia knowledge and his younger brother will catch up any day now.

What this exhibition does best is constantly pair old items with their modern equivalents and invite us to compare the two. This is super accessible to kids and drives home the point at how constant the game has been.

Bats look like bats. Cleats look like cleats. Caps look like caps. Gloves…well those have changed a bit. But we’ve had baseball cards and scorecards and ticket stubs and programs for well over a century and they’re recognizable. It’s not just that the game’s been around for that long, it’s that my 4th grader can look at a scorecard from decades ago and recreate the game in his head and that my 1st grader can see a 100-year-old baseball card and know not only what it is but how it was used and maybe even who the player or team depicted is.

While the equipment is fun to see, because this is the Library of Congress, most of what’s on display is ephemera. Many of these items are programs, posters,* promotional items and all kinds of the accoutrement that accompanies being a fan. These are very fun to see—both from a design point of view and a “how the game is marketing itself point of view—but they’re also almost too familiar.

*Of special note are early promotional posters such as the baseball and chess doubleheader that served as the first collegiate game.

I found myself really enjoying the documents that weren’t just old but offered a perspective on the game that I’m less aware of. So many wonderful items from the players and other people in the game. Photos, letters, scouting reports. I love the scouting reports and how they’ve changed as the game trended toward more data-based in its analysis. But the letters* are great and the contracts provide insights into aspects of the game that fans don’t usually see.

*Jackie Robinson to Branch Rickey.

Contracts are typically private. We’ll be made aware of certain details but it’s not like teams just release the full text as a press release. And I’m okay with this since I certainly wouldn’t want the terms of my employment to be published publicly either. So being able to read Ty Cobbs’s contract is great. As is being able to read the full text of the reserve clause since its legacy on the game is so strong. I appreciate the Curt Flood shoutout since the business of contracts and trades and player movement is such a sore subject even today.

The player-focused documents also allow the exhibition to make the claim that Baseball Americana is the national pastime not just for fans but for participants. It highlights how non-white players played the game long before 1947. How women have played it long before the AAGPBL; and how they’ve continued to play it to the presentHow Americans played it while overseas and introduced it to other countries. How internees played it while being treated as if they were not American.

One of the big points that the show makes is how the traditional narrative of the game’s history excludes the majority of the actual ballplayers. Major League Baseball is the tip of the iceberg and while it’s The Show, it’s also excluded many players and the game is better as a common game for everyone.

I enjoyed this show it immensely. As did my kids and I’m glad we all got to see it together. Do they have the stamina for a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame? Maybe they do. Maybe they do.

Oh, and there’s a part 2 of this review looking specifically at baseball cards that I’ve posted over on the SABR Baseball Cards blog.

Note

The catalog for this exhibition is also fantastic. It has a lot more information than the exhibition does—especially in the formative years—and was definitely worth picking up. I suspect that it will get read through a lot by at least three members of the household. The only criticism I have of it is that it stops in the 1960s and doesn’t take things to the present day.

Philadelphia Zoo

A long Veterans Day Weekend trip to the Philly Zoo. Getting cold so a lot of the animals are no longer out and about. But the big cats do have their long winter coats on.

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Philadelphia Zoo

It’s been about a year since we last visited the Philly Zoo. Spring was crazy and the boys had kind of gotten a bit exhausted. We all enjoyed being back this time though it was sad to see that the Polar Bear had died since our last visit.

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