Monuments of printing

This weekend I went to Stanford to see the Monuments of Printing exhibition at Green Library.* I’m a bit of a printing nut as well as a type nut so exhibitions of book design and typesetting are always up my alley.

*It’s been almost a dozen years since I spent any time in there. Heck, I’m still getting used to the Bing Wing. It’s also interesting to visit as a guest and be asked things like “Is this your first time visiting Green?” In many ways, enough has changed that, even though I used it as an undergrad, I really haven’t visited this incarnation of it.

The exhibition is pretty good—as long as you already know a lot about the history and craft of type. If you don’t know what ligatures, counters, etc. mean, you’re in for some trouble. Similarly, the term “gothic” is never fully explained even though, unlike “roman” or “italic” (which are explained), gothic no longer means what it used to.*

*Gothic once described Germanic letter forms. Then it became known as blackletter and survived to the 20th century as fraktur long after most of the rest of Europe converted to roman type. In the mid-19th century, gothic started to be used as a synonym for sans-serif type and survives today in fonts like Franklin Gothic which have nothing to do with the gothic font used in the Gutenberg Bible.

I did enjoy the descriptions of where roman and italic came from and I was pleased to learn about civilité. That alternative, local variants to the too-italian italics were considered (but eventually discarded) is both extremely interesting and a nice reminder of how art and technology evolve. Too often we just see the successful developments and not the failed experiments. That civilité failed due to an abundance of ligatures and alternate characters means that, if done correctly, P22 Civilite should be a lot of fun to play with.

What I would have liked to see more of was a discussion of craft. It wasn’t clear to me if we were looking at the craft of the book, layout, or just the type. Discussions of book formats (octavo vs. quarto etc.) and intents were barely present. And discussions about typesetting were practically absent. Many of the books showed the evolution of reading aids through typesetting* but you had to really pay attention to see them.

*From a solid block of text with pilcrows inline to separate the paragraphs to more-modern extra leading between paragraphs.

All that said, I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the second installation featuring the book-arts revival next year.

Sequence

Sequence

This post is a film-based time capsule. In the same trip to the Cantor Center at Stanford when I took in the Art of the Book exhibition, I also had a chance to explore Richard Serra’s Sequence. While the soon-to-be-closing book exhibition was my main motivation for going, I also wanted to explore the sculpture on a sunny summer day. Sometimes harsh light, strong shadows, and cloudless skies are exactly what you want.

Sequence

I can’t imagine encountering this sculpture indoors. In addition to the obvious appeal of the piece in sunlight, the acoustics are also really interesting. A live room would kill that aspect of walking through it. If you’re in the Bay Area, you should check it out. The Cantor Center is the best deal in town anyway.

Now I need to go back in different weather/light to see how it transforms.

Recommended reading: Photos and an article about how one transports and installs something this huge and heavy.

The Art of the Book

It’s always fun to go to an exhibition and feel the I want that urge manifest itself. I’m not used to that particular emotional response—even with photography. I generally approach art from a much more detached space where, while I am willing to respond emotionally, the pieces I’m responding to expect a more academic approach.

Not so this weekend. I managed to get a quick visit to the Stanford Museum this weekend to see the Art of the Book exhibition before it ends in a week. Very cool.

Books are meant to be held, handled, and read. Repeatedly. The books in the exhibition were no exception to this. As beautiful as the craft of binding, printing, typesetting, and writing were to look at, all the books present were demanding to be opened and used.

I have a hard enough time not accumulating mass-market trade paperbacks. Put me in front of finely-crafted books? I’m in for some trouble. These are things to own and use and share.

And yes, as much as having a darkroom would be cool, if I could throw myself into any craft, I’d be messing about with a letterpress and making my own books.

We’re goin’ to the zoo, zoo, zoo

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We took a trip to the San Francisco Zoo this weekend. Zoos are always a nice family-friendly day out and they reward anyone who wants to carry camera gear around. Zoo photography is very similar to bird photography, documentary shots are somewhat easy to come by, interesting shots are much harder. Since this wasn’t primarily a photography trip, getting the shot of the Flamingo above counts as a great haul.

It had been a long time (over a dozen years) since I’ve been to any zoo and I can’t help approaching them now with the same kind of approach that I use with museums. I’ve come to realize that zoos are really weird.

Unlike most other cultural/educational enterprises, zoos are almost inherently non-local. There’s always an African section, a tropical South American section, and an Australian section. And you have the big predators (cats and bears) and the monkeys in their own groups. Visiting a zoo is about seeing how the same animals are presented by each zoo.

There’s very little, if any, local wildlife. Which sucks for kids since it would be nice to be able to see animals up close which they may only see (alive or dead) from the car. Or they have to go to one of the small, local wildlife museums which doesn’t have the proper space to show things like deer or mountain lions in the same way that a good zoo could.

I can’t help comparing zoos to aquariums in this department. I love visiting aquariums wherever I go because they’re always focused on the local waterlife. Zoos? They’re starting to feel like a quaint throwback to an older, simpler, time.
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R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis


The San Jose Museum of Art is quietly becoming one of my favorites. I can’t really describe what its focus is except to say that it truly knows what kinds of shows will appeal to the locals. It totally has my number.

The current exhibition is R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis. It’s exactly what you’d expect. And exactly not what you’d expect. It’s funny and irreverent. It’s also honest, literal, and serious*—an illustrated Bible for adults where the stories are not glossed over the way they are in kids versions.

*Because I’m obligated to defend my use of “serious,” in this case, I mean that the intent is to play it straight. No jokes. No dumbing down. Nothing sacrilegious. 

I’d like to spend more time really reading each page and going through the drawings. It’s hard to read the complete text of Genesis in one thorough museum trip. It’s also exhausting to read a graphic novel in the same amount of time.

The Steins Collect

It’s very interesting to see a museum try and reinvent itself. After the Anniversary Show, I got the definite sense that SFMoMA was trying to finally distinguish itself as a museum worth seeing for its permanent collection rather than being one of those museums which you only visit when a special exhibition looks interesting. The current exhibition of works collected by the Stein family is further evidence of this new path.

In particular, the Matisse’s Femme au chapeau, appears to be SFMoMA’s designated icon. It was prominently featured in the Anniversary show and it’s the centerpiece of this show as well. The Stein show is positioning the piece as the key component of the new modern art. While the entire exhibition is pretty good and includes a lot of interesting works which play off of each other (Picasso and Matisse being inspired by Cezanne, each other, etc.) the larger point is that the Steins supported much of what we consider to be modern art, that Femme au chapeau was a seminal piece in that modern art, and that Femme au chapeau just happens to be part of the permanent collection at SFMoMA.

I am, in general, in favor of this positioning. Bay Area art museums have tended to not promote their permanent collection well. I started to change my mind on SFMoMA after the anniversary show. And I think the museum is continuing on a good path in this department.

Regarding the Stein show, it’s pretty good. It’s kind of inconsistent, but that’s to be expected from any personal collection which includes as much as possible of everything that they ever purchased. What’s fun is the sense you have of this artwork being new and fresh rather than almost cliché. Being able to see the interplay between artists as they saw and reacted to the new work really emphasizes how fresh everything was at the time.

At the same time, it’s always weird to see an exhibition where the curation and selection of the artwork is being done by an amateur with a checkbook rather than an educated curator. It’s neat to see the personal taste and relationships with the artists develop. And it’s interesting to see minor works (sketches and postcards) which don’t normally make it into museums. But there’s always a disconnect when you see an event in a museum which has non-museum roots.

Muybridge, Muggeridge, and Helios

This Friday, I made it up to the City for the Muybridge exhibition at SFMoMA. My interest in animation, that I straddle the two worlds of art and technology, and my local pride (both Bay Area and Stanford in this case) have all made me a Muybridge fan for a while.

As a fan, I had already read River of Shadows and One City, Two Visions well before I even knew about this exhibition. As a result, I was relatively prepared for what I was to find—namely a very detail-oriented experience. Unlike most photography exhibitions where you see numerous large prints and often end up defaulting to the immediate wow factor of those prints, Muybridge demands more time and attention.

There are rooms of stereographs. These take lots of time to look through since you have to use the supplied stereoglasses to look at them.* And it’s worth doing so since quite a few of the images only work in 3D and were obviously shot with that intent in mind. Is neat to see images which doesn’t make sense until the 3D effect pops into place. I’m glad SFMoMA displayed them the way they did. All too often, that these are supposed to be viewed in 3D is lost in how they’re displayed.

*Too many museum patrons didn’t understand the concept and treated them like magnifying glasses. If people don’t get 3D photography, I fail to understand the optimism for 3D television or movies.

There are also rooms and rooms of motion studies. Again, attention to detail is rewarded here. Certain frames of a given study are fascinating (e.g. the upswing of a flying bird’s wings or the bounce in the fabric of a jumping woman’s dress) but you have to find those frames out of the dozens on display. Also, it’s very informative to see photos of his setup and how the cameras work. The exhibition also makes the point that the next logical step after making the motion studies is to reanimate them

The rest of the exhibition consists mainly of his mammoth-plate work and a trip to Central America. Mammoth-plate shots are interesting in that they feature more-modern compositions but are still low-contrast albumen prints. And I really liked his Central America shots. Smaller-format images (~5″x~9″ prints/negs) which felt a lot more dynamic than anything else on display.

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Also at the museum is an exhibition on Paradesign. Some of the work is clever, some if it is too clever, the rest isn’t clever enough. Like most new art, we still haven’t figured out which 5% is any good.

I did enjoy the works by Constantin Boym and Laurene Leon Boym called Buildings of Disaster. It had the right mix of cleverness, irreverence, and subtlety to appeal to me. I studied these for a long time and just shook my head at the number of people who looked but didn’t see.

I also enjoyed the works by Tobias Wong for much the same reasons.

Mapplethorpe Portraits

This weekend, I went to the San José Museum of Art for the exhibition on Robert Mapplethorpe portraits. Over the past couple years, I’ve enjoyed exhibitions of portraits from Richard Avedon (at Stanford and at SFMoMA) and Annie Leibovitz (at the Legion of Honor). The Mapplethorpe exhibit provided an interesting comparison.

Portrait exhibitions are always a little weird and tend to tread a fine line between being subject-dominated or creator-dominated. Leibovitz and Avedon are possibly the best examples of each case.

Leibovitz excels at taking pictures of famous people and channeling their charisma through her lens. I’m not convinced she’d be able to coax a good photo out of someone non-charismatic. Public reaction during her exhibition is also all about who the photo is of.

Avedon meanwhile is so distinctive that, whether his work is printed in a magazine or occupies an entire wall, it’s both instantly identifiable as his work and suggests that you should recognize the subject. At Avedon exhibitions, you can feel people relax when they come across a recognizable subject since the iconic (in a Roman Catholic way) nature of the photo becomes acceptable.

Mapplethorpe fits nicely between those two extremes. He definitely has a certain look in terms of his lighting and direction.  At the same time, he also does a very good job at making each portrait seem very personal and is able to get some remarkable results out of his sitters (e.g. Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois). Most of his subjects are famous, but not recognizably so (usually other artists) and so while you may recognize names, the subjects aren’t inherently charismatic.

In terms of curation, there’s a lot of extra information provided on each portrait. Some of it is background on the subject. This is nice and helps us in situations where the subject isn’t recognizable to a general audience. Most of the rest of the information concerns details from the contact sheet and how those reveal the process of the photoshoot. While I wish I could see the contact sheets, it’s still good to see them referenced.

One other interesting aspect of the curation is that there was also quite a bit of lighting information provided for each portrait. It’s fascinating to see how his lighting setups got more sophisticated. Between the lighting information and the create your own portrait activity room where you can play with different lighting setups and backgrounds, there’s an obvious attempt to educate people how much more is involved in making a professional portrait. It’s always good to see a museum try and educate people that photography is more than just a camera.

SFMoMA

75 years

Sort of a catch-all, baseline post about SFMoMA. My previous post about the New Oakland Museum got me thinking about the way my thinking about SFMoMA has changed during 2010.

Between the Anniversary Show and the Fisher Collection, I’ve come to appreciate a museum whose permanent collection I never really considered before. The Anniversary Show fixes what’s been a major blind spot in the curation—a lack of emphasis on the local art scene (especially in regard to both Mexican Art and Photography) where those pieces are treated as distinct from the permanent collection rather than being cornerstones of it.* It’s a whole new museum to me now.

*And don’t get me started on the tendency for the most-important pieces to be loaned out more often than they are displayed locally.

This isn’t to say that I’ve all of a sudden become an SFMoMA member who constantly visits the museum just to see the permanent collection. I’m just much more likely now to bring a visitor there even if there’s no special exhibition present. This is also all subject to change if the collection reverts to what it was.

SFMoMA to me is still mainly the place I go to see photography exhibitions. The traveling shows are generally very good and I’ve been pleased by the additional curation that is added from the permanent collection. 2010 brought a number of good exhibitions across my path (The View From Here, New Topographics, Cartier-Bresson, and Exposed) and I’m looking forward to seeing Muybridge this year.

Pixar and the new Oakland Museum

We finally got around to visiting the new Oakland Museum this weekend. The Pixar exhibition gave us the excuse but what I was most interested in was seeing the remodeled exhibition spaces.

We were not disappointed. First, Pixar was very cool. I’m always interested in the backstage aspects of any artform and seeing the models, development sketches, storyboards, and color scripts only enhances my appreciation of the films. That these correspond to a set of movies which have been as consistently high-quality as Pixar’s offerings have been makes them that much more interesting and impressive.

All that being said, the most impressive piece on display is completely unrelated to the production of any of the movies. The Toy Story Zoetrope is just a stunt piece but it steals the entire show. Rather than being a two-dimensional zoetrope which you view through slits in a rotating barrel, this one is three-dimensional and uses strobe lights to create the impression of movement. I don’t think it’s possible to spend too much time watching the result.

As for the main collection, I was expecting good things and still ended up being pleasantly surprised. Rather than displaying pieces by art movement, chronology, or media, the art collection is curated in a way which focuses the collection toward the museum’s mission of being a museum of California. Pieces are grouped by subject matter and as a result, you notice new things about both the subject and the artwork.

The art collection also has an interesting section challenging museum-goers to think about whether or not an object is Art. In general, the discussion is good and should be in all museums—even if museumgoers insist on missing the point. The group we encountered treated the section as a quiz rather than a discussion starter and then proceeded to critique everything else in the gallery as if they had never been to a museum before. The specific discussion in the Oakland Museum though is a bit too limited and starts way too late (1960s) in art history. At the very least you have to start with Duchamp here.

The history collection is also much-improved. Hands-on activities for kids, lots of reading for the sign-readers among us, and does a good job at the multicultural/multiple-language thing. It’s no longer the dusty garage it used to be.

I’m very pleased though to have first seen the new permanent collection during the Marvelous Museum exhibition. Since I’m already critiquing and comparing the curation, having an exhibition which provides some backstage mindset while also tweaking the new curatorial choices was like touring the museum with another companion.