Best of 2012

My top-ten list of best/favorite exhibitions I saw this year. These are shows which got me thinking and which I recommended, without reservation, to anyone (and everyone) I knew.

10. Looking at the Land

Looking at the Land by Flak Photo shows suburbia all grown up. The suburbia I know. The photos feel right to me. Also, this is the best example of our new world which recognizes curation as a creative act. The promise of more of these online exhibitions is very exciting.

9. The 1968 Exhibit

The 1968 Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California reminded me of how far we’ve come and provided me with context and information which helped me understand my parents’ generation better. This was a very ambitions show which came very close to achieving everything it set out to do.

8. Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra at SFMOMA was a textbook example of a show which was more than the sum of its parts. And how art isn’t always supposed to be nice to look at. This was art which is hard to look at, but worth seeing. Very powerful. Very raw. Very true.

7. South Africa in Apartheid and After

South Africa in Apartheid and After at SFMOMA was beautifully timed to open right after election day. This show was a gentle, but powerful, reminder of how what looks respectable and desirable can mask enormous injustice. And how mistreating a population of workers to achieve that society leaves long-lasting wounds.

6. Walker Evans

Walker Evans at the Cantor Arts Center showed all of Evans’s work and not just his FSA depression-era photos. It was great to see and a nice reminder of how talented Evans was. As a design major, Evans’s consistent search for the functional in his photography excites me. As a photographer, his crisp composition and eye still stand out.

5. Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford at SFMOMA was a bit of a surprise for me. I didn’t know what to expect and was very please to find fantastic work which revealed new things no matter how close or far away I stood. Individually they’re all great. Together, they’re even better. So many layers of history and personal reinvention in them.

4. Monuments of Printing 2

Monuments of Printing at the Stanford University Library showed all kinds of rare/fine books. Catnip to this typography nut. A Kelmscott Chaucer? A Doves Bible? Excuse me while I geek out.

3. Less and More:
The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams

Dieter Rams at SFMOMA meanwhile was catnip for this design nut. While his products are starting to lose relevance, Rams’s design principles have not. It’s always great to see the actual objects when talking about good design.

2. Richard Misrach:
Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, 1991

Richard Misrach at the Oakland Museum of California presented photos which are powerful, beautiful, and personal. Ruin porn without being voyeuristic. That it was local images presented locally means everyone in the exhibition was probably affected somehow too.

1. Mexicanismo

Mexicanismo at the San José Museum of Art was my favorite of the year by far. Cool and obvious while also being smart and subtle. Extremely insider-friendly while also being accessible and descriptive of the culture to outsiders. I only wish there had been a catalog available so I could show it to other people.

Other notable artwork this year

Dora García’s Instant Narrative in SFMOMA’s Descriptive Acts exhibition was probably my favorite single piece I saw. I also gained a newfound appreciation for ceramic art through David Gilhooly’s work in San José’s Renegade Humor show and SFMOMA’s acquisition of Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George.

Sequence, again.

Sequence1

Every time I go to the Cantor Center,* I make sure to take photos of Sequence. It’s just nice to see how it works in different weather and at different times of day.** This time I decided to take the view from the second floor balcony. I’ve already enjoyed the harsh shadows from inside so it’s nice to take it in as an object rather than an experience.

*This time to see Walker Evans.

**Visit one. Visit two.

sequence-SP

And it’s nice to watch other people interact with it. When I’m exploring it, I’m really just aware of what I’m doing but I don’t see what other people are up to.

Monuments of Printing II

My trip to Stanford to see Walker Evans was also timed so that I could catch the second part of the Monuments of Printing exhibition at Green Library. The first part was very good. It was more of an exhibition of the evolution of type and printing rather than design and I enjoyed it from a technology point of view. Part two picked up the final bit of type design but quickly got into the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Which is the portion I was really interested in. The older books are interesting—if not beautiful—to look at but they also all contain flaws since they’re still finding their way through the technology. While Stanford calls it the Book Arts Revival, this exhibition shows that it’s really a distillation of everything good from historic book design.

In the same way that I found myself wanting to handle the books on display in the Art of the Book Exhibition, I would love to leaf through the Kelmscott Chaucer or the Doves Bible. We don’t make books like that anymore and these books cry out to be both read and treasured. It’s fantastic to be able to see them in person and really see the craft which went into them. It’s also clear that these books are meant to be more than just for reading. These are books* as devotional objects.

*And by extension, their contents.

Which is a point of view that I’m okay with. It’s obvious in the exhibition is that there is a threshold of importance which must be reached for a text to be considered worthy of publication—Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Milton are featured a lot. The books I covet from the Folio Society are all classics like these too.

This makes sense considering how expensive traditional publishing has been. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as publishing dies and books stop being commodities.

Walker Evans

Last weekend I made it out to the Cantor Center in order to see their Walker Evans exhibition. It’s very good—to the point where it also almost feels like a history exhibition rather than an art exhibition. So much of his work is tied up into the greater context of American History that it’s possible to come out of the exhibition just thinking about the time period his photos come from.

What I find interesting is that I don’t get any real sense of empathy in his photographs of people. The photos are flattering in their formality* but they also come across as somewhat intrusive and confrontational. This results in an interesting comparison between his photos in America and his photos abroad where, for once, there isn’t much difference.** I get the sense that even in his travels, he was always a bit of an outsider.

*Reminding me actually of Avedon’s work—specifically his American West.

**Unlike what I see so often where an American photographer travels abroad and takes photos of the 3rd-world natives as if they were specimens to be cataloged.

Evans’s keen formal eye though makes his architecture photographs very interesting. And his series of re-croppings from older negatives shows how he would re-envision a scene and formalize it over and over again.

I can’t help but wonder if the sense of intrusiveness is what prompted his subway photos. Shooting with a hidden camera obviously makes things a lot more unguarded though it doesn’t really address the intrusiveness issue. That the photos work is a testament to the respect with which he treats his subjects—even if they’re unaware.

A lot of people would use a hidden camera* to take photos of people in a way which would mock them. Evans avoids this trap and presents his subjects with a certain dignity. I’m reminded of the way I peoplewatch while riding public transportation—avoid the weirdos and don’t gawk at embarrassing things, instead just watch what’s in front of me and avoid eye contact with everyone else as they do the same.

*Heck, any camera.

The photos I like best are his signage photos—whether it’s his old depression era photos, his 1970s polaroid shots,* or the numerous other signs which exist in the background of many of his prints.** Maybe it’s because I’m a type junkie. But there’s something to the layered crafts and the way that the message changes as signs age, are layered together,*** or have pieces cropped off. I can admire the lettering, signmaking, and photography all together as each component is graphically considered but someone different yet all the pieces come together in the final image.

*These polaroid shots are 40 years ahead of their time and are what kids with instagram are attempting to achieve now.

**I so craved a Coke after looking at this exhibition

***Speaking of which. Would his Broadway print (above) even count as a photograph today?

One last thought/rant. A number of Fortune Magazine spreads are displayed since they contain all the color photography that Evans published. No prints. The wall text says that this is because Evans didn’t print anything while he was alive and so the published magazines represent the only true prints he did. This is a shame and makes no sense to me.

  1.  The color photographs are on Kodachrome. Which means that we’re pretty certain what they’re supposed to look like.
  2. The published portfolios already tell us which images he selected for publication.
  3. Printing from the slides (if available) will look way better than faded CMYK offset printing at 133LPI on yellowing paper.
  4. Who says that the photographer has to be the editor? It’s not a problem for Vivian Maier or NASA.

Also at the Cantor

There is a selection of Weston photographs hidden in the Early-modern Europe Gallery. This is also worth seeing. It’s a couple dozen prints roughly organized by texture. Which means that nudes are next to peppers. As they should be.

I’m familiar with Weston’s work more by osmosis than through any conscious study. I suspect that many photographers are the same. Some artists you lean by name and associate with specific things. Others have influence which just creeps into you. Weston is one of those sneaky ones who I’ve absorbed without realizing it. So it’s good to be reminded of this and to consciously see his work.

Sequence revisted

sequence-wet-4

Photos from when I visited the Cantor Center back in November. A rainy day which made revisiting Sequence worthwhile. Very different light on a much lower-contrast day. The wet ground provides a reflective surface for some additional interest and also reveals places inside the sculpture where the rain could not reach.

I was able to explore with other people this time. Besides the added interest when photographing the structure, it adds to the sense of discovery as you come across (and then lose them) doing the exploration.

sequence-wet-3
sequence-wet-2

Rodin and America

Since I was on campus to see the Monuments of Printing exhibition, I figured that  it was worth a quick visit to the Cantor Center to see Sequence again. And, once I was in the Cantor Center, I decided that I may as well take in the special exhibition on Rodin and America too.

This was one of those weird exhibitions which felt like an academic project rather than a real museum exhibition. In this case, the exhibition felt like a response to the prompt “demonstrate how <famous artist> influenced <other famous artists> in <region/period>” where the three variables are all sort of arbitrarily determined.

The result ends up including some pieces which don’t seem to fit* and excluding a lot of other work which would seem relevant.** Also, by focusing so much on the influenced-by pieces, it became easy to miss the source of the inspiration.

*I didn’t think the Muybridge pieces were relevant and question the Man Ray pieces too.

**No examples of Michelangelo’s “unfinished” slaves for reference as well as no non-American or current artists. It’s not like Rodin was only popular and influential here.

Is Rodin’s influence worth demonstrating? Absolutely. It’s easy to forget how much we owe him for the beginnings of modern art. But it’s probably better to do it as part of a Rodin exhibition where you can show his inspiration as well as what he influenced. By keeping the emphasis on Rodin, it’s very easy for the viewer to stay focused and see the connections to the actual Rodin rather than trying to envision a common ancestor for all the newer works.

At least the Cantor Center has a fantastic collection of Rodins nearby. The best way to view the special exhibition is probably to view the Rodins first, then the special exhibition, then the Rodins again, and then special exhibition again.

Which means that I should follow my own advice and view the special exhibition again too.

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.

Serra

http://twitter.com/#!/SFMOMA/status/124677076098875392

Part of the buildup to SFMoMA’s Richard Serra exhibition has involved interviews and booksignings by Richard Serra at the museum. Highlights from these events are then tweeted out to all of us art junkies who follow @SFMOMA. I was very pleased to see this tweet come across my timeline so soon after I posted about experiencing Sequence at the Cantor Center in Stanford.

I definitely approached Sequence as something to be walked through while I carried a camera, looked for things worth seeing, and listened to how the world changed while I was  inside. The idea that someone would approach it as just an exploration of steel never crossed my mind.

Serra’s work provides for a lot of the rare instances when you can engage with a museum piece. All too often, museumgoing involves looking at things on walls and pedestals. Please don’t touch. And avoid leaning in and looking closely too.

That he’s sculpting because he’s interested in “walking and looking” is good to see. That we can partake in the same experience is even better.

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.

Art, Craft, and Function

The introduction of totemism as a third term may also disrupt the binary model of art history that opposes an “age of images” to an “era of art,” or (even worse) opposes “Western” art to “the rest.’

—W. J. T. Mitchell. What Do Pictures Want?

Non-functional items from the third world are assigned pseudo-functional descriptions such as “fetish figure” when the same kind of item from the west will be given a name and creator.

—My post Serious Art

In the practice of art conservation we are used to thinking about what all the different agents of art – the artist, the curator, the public, etc. – would want for the object’s material condition.  Very rarely – if ever – do  we  consider that the object itself might want something.

Does Art Want to be Conserved? at Cantor Science

To-date, I’ve thought that the distinction between fine art and craft is one of presentation only. Fine Art is presented as being intellectual and having an equally-important creator. Craft is functional and the use is often more important than the creator. I haven’t thought of it as function of agency for the actual piece in question.

The Cantor Science blog turned me onto W. J. T. Mitchell’s book What Do Pictures Want. It has taken me a while to get through the book* and, while I can’t recommend it as a book,** there is a lot of stuff worth thinking about in there for people, like me, who consider themselves art appreciators.

*It’s interesting how, once having left school, book reports become something worth doing again.

**Good god, I’m glad to see that my skimming skills from college are still useful. I can no longer deal with 20 pages of throat-clearing followed by 2 pages of interesting stuff.

In particular, I’ve had to completely reconsider my position that the fine arts vs craft distinction in how we title western art versus third world craft somehow shortchanges the third world as being less important. The opposite is true. Unless we can articulate what fine art is supposed to be used for, it’s almost inherently less important. That so much western art is curated as being important because it’s by someone or part of a movement is a large reason why so many people don’t get art.

And they’re often right to not get it. Much of western/fine art has become an exercise in collecting specimens. The object, and all its uses, is no longer important. What matters is the artist.

The problem with this is that specimen-based curating requires museumgoers to understand the context for the art. Some museums try to explain this but most don’t. So the museum becomes an intimidating place for people who haven’t been taught any art history—no one likes to feel stupid.  And the art is shortchanged since it’s forced to exist in a vacuum.*

*I never liked Chuck Close until I saw a bunch of his work displayed together and could see what he was actually doing. I’ve had to explain Cindy Sherman’s work to numerous people. My favorite experience in an art museum is still hearing a kid point at the pile of Brillo Boxes and proclaim, “That’s not art!”—but there was no information in the museum to explain why it was.

This also explains why, in addition to my preference for design exhibitions, I find myself enjoying pre-renaissance art. The closer the artwork is to being useful, the more I find myself drawn to it.

Specimen-based curating is only acceptable in a retrospective where the artistic path of one person or movement is on display and anyone can see how the pieces fit together. Retrospectives are biographies and are committed to telling a story. The context for the pieces becomes obvious to any museumgoer.

What we need are more art exhibitions which work as both art and as craft. The art objects need to be treated as being important in their own right and not just as specimens without context. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition at the DeYoung Museum was a great example of this.* In addition to being an exhibition of functional objects, there was information about the different artists as well as background information on the quilting traditions. Yet, at the same time, this was very much an art exhibition, not a natural history exhibition.

*The Pixar exhibition in Oakland is another example which comes to mind—very much a craft-based exhibition, but it was also clearly about art.

Which brings us to the question of agency. It’s not really about what pictures want but more the understanding that we all relate to functional items at a much deeper level than we relate to a specimen. Specimens are purely intellectual. Functional items, whether a jewelry, furniture, totem, etc., engage us more and we relate to them better. With regard to display and conservation, we need to take this into account and treat art, if at all possible, in a way which allows people to appreciate its use and purpose. Usage, after all, is why most things are made to begin with.