Cantor Center

Last week I took my annual visit to the Cantor Center. No specific exhibits I was looking forward to but I always enjoy walking through and seeing what’s there.

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The special exhibition this time is an installation of Josiah McElheny’s sculptures. These were pretty cool in a mid-century way. All the multiverse drawings are neat to see and the sculptures themselves are a lot of fun to take a good slow look at.

The main interest to me in this gallery though turned out to be seeing the latest evolution of how museums have to deal with photography. I’ve seen “no flash” turn into “no photo” turn into “please photo and hashtag.” This show is the first I’ve been to with designated photo spots.

This isn’t a complaint (even though my favorite view of the room was not from one of the two designated photo sites), just an observation about how something that’s clearly selfie-bait (complete with signs around the museum encouraging posting to social media) is also too dangerous to let people photograph freely. Too easy to blunder into a sculpture either by getting too close or backing up and not being aware of what’s behind you and despite their size these are clearly pretty fragile.

There’s an awesome point where you can see both one sculpture and the entire room reflected in that sculpture. I spent a while there taking everything in and getting the full multiverse experience.

The other big exhibition is a hang of modern art under the theme The Medium Is the Message. I love the idea. Much of the art itself didn’t move me* but it’s a great concept for an academic museum to have since it digs right into the concepts of how the medium itself informs abstract art and how much of modern art is explicitly provoking how the medium itself behaves. This was one of Matt Kahn’s design prompts and it’s great to see that legacy still at Stanford.

*It is however always nice to see Ruth Asawa.

Two of the sections cover abstraction and the idea of artwork being more than the sum of its parts—often literally when considering assemblage. I viewed these two sections as being very similar since the artwork was always about what it was made of and the disconnect between our expectations of that medium and the way it actually behaves in the piece.

I especially liked the third section though which focused on portraits. While the portraits are all paintings, recognizing portraiture as a medium of its own and then interrogating the concept of what a portrait actually is is great to see. In this specific case the museum calls out who is traditionally depicted in portraiture and the disconnect that results when non-traditional subjects enter the frame.

I found myself thinking of how audience comfort works in to this equation as well since very often what people count as a “good” portrait is one which looks comfortably like a traditional rich white person’s portrait. I also found myself thinking about the way photography’s extension of portraiture to almost anyone is as similarly disruptive to our concept of what a formal portrait should look like.

Much of the other galleries were the same and I’ve covered them in previous posts.* However there are a few standouts. The corner of Yinka Shonibare prints was a lot of fun. I like combining his prints with the paintings of St. Michael. I always like seeing Vlisco turn up although I wish there was more of an explanation given for the fabric since it features prominently in each of the prints.

*Specifically the non-white galleries.

I also liked the small gallery dedicated to providing context to their new Jeffrey Gibson acquisition in that it included samples of items from Sol LeWitt to artisan beading to explain the myriad influences and references that the piece was making.

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And I was happy to get a chance to walk through Sequence again. I much much prefer it outside with strong shadows and the clear blue skies which photograph so white in black and white. It’s great to walk through and let my camera’s restrictions guide what I see. This time I let my iphone direct my eye.

Cantor Visit

A couple weeks ago I got to spend an hour or so at the Cantor Center. There weren’t any specific exhibitions I wanted to see but I always enjoy my visits as I’ve come to appreciate how the museum incorporates its teaching mission into the wall text and displays.

Ink Worlds

Li Huayi, Dragons Hidden in Mountain Ridge, 2008.
Li Huayi. Dragons Hidden in Mountain Ridge, 2008.

The main exhibition this time is about Contemporary Chinese painting. It’s one of those exhibitions that starts off rubbing me the wrong way since I’ve been developing an allergy to any museum show which over emphasizes the collector. It thankfully sidesteps the biggest pitfalls by being a collection which is distinct and focused.* Plus part of the point of this show is to showcase student curation so the result doesn’t feel like an attempt to increase the prestige of the collector.

*All too often it seems like these exhibitions are intended to glorify the collector and showcase the same group of big-name white western male artists.

It’s great to see these presented in a way which emphasizes their contemporariness and how they’re in conversation with modern art in general while also riffing on the specific history and legacy of different forms of Chinese art. The massive change in China’s role in the world over the past couple decades and how all the artists presented have lived that experience—whether in China or as part of the Chinese diaspora that’s had to rethink its relationship with its home country.

Where other museums lump this kind of artwork into the basement as ancient craft, the works on display are clearly something new and relevant. Many of them work on multiple levels that depend on your familiarity with all the context in play and I love that that so much of that context is provided in the curation as a few older, more traditional works are on hand to provide a comparison and reference.

I especially like the pieces that play with how calligraphy and line interact with illustration and pictographs. The investigation is especially interesting and I also enjoy the fact that it feels like I’m trying to understand a joke but just don’t have the knowledge (in this case being able to read Chinese) to fully understand it. Yes there’s an explanation. Yes, like with a joke, the explanation is never the same as getting it.

In some ways I feel like the joke’s actually on me—and other westerners—who can’t tell the difference between a fake character and a real one. But rather than finding this a problem I love that the Cantor is confident enough to roll with it. I don’t need to get it and I’m glad the museum isn’t catering everything to people like me.

Do Ho Suh

Do Ho Suh. Who Am We? (Multi) (2000).
Do Ho Suh. Who Am We? (Multi), 2000.

There was also a small gallery with three Do Ho Suh works in it. I particularly like the Who Am We? wallpaper and how it’s so subtly done that a fair number of museumgoers just missed that it was even an artwork.

The other two works—Cause and Effect and Screen—are much more obvious in a  social-media-bait kind of way. I find it fascinating that they predate peak social media since they photograph so well. Suh though has been playing with the concept of scale and using little people to construct or support a large concept for decades now. It just so happens that Suh’s metaphors for how culture works are also metaphors for how social media itself works.

All those little people coming together to create content which is distinctly different. All those little people coming together to create content for the easy consumption of other people.

Also The Cantor displayed Do Ho Suh in the Asian wing. In the adjoining gallery they had on display a statue of the Vairocana Buddha. Having just seen all of Do Ho Suh’s work, I looked at the thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas which form the Vairocana Buddha’s seat with very different eye. I’m not sure this comparison was even intentional but I appreciated it anyway.

Alphabété

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Une banana jaunie offrant une divine peinture, ici, “l’épée” joue le role d’un prince sacré favorable à une douce union, 2006.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Une banana jaunie offrant une divine peinture, ici, “l’épée” joue le role d’un prince sacré favorable à une douce union, 2006.

The small room of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was wonderful. The small cards were inventive and joyous and reminded me of Lotería in the way that they appropriate terms from a colonizer’s language by illustrating them in local style and accompanying them with rhymes and verse.

As with the Ink Worlds display, much of these feels like an inside joke that I don’t/can’t get and, more importantly, don’t need to get in order to properly appreciate these. What I understand is fun and funny enough and I appreciate again that things aren’t catering to my western-based cultural background.

Stanford needs to digitize more of these since right now its website is disappointingly image-free when you search for the collection.

Dancing Sowei

In another small room was a small exhibition about a Sowei Mask. No image for this section since the most striking part of this room for me is that it included video of the mask in use and recognized that without that information there’s no way to possibly appreciate it correctly.

I love that Cantor recognizes use as an important part of the object. And not just handwaving at “ritual mask” or some kind of comment that often suggests that non-Western art is craft and Western art is part of a more-pure use-free tradition.* The video is great.** As is the explanation about how it represents gender and beauty for its culture.

*The Cantor’s African Gallery calls this out wonderfully as well although I wish the same disclaimer existed in the pre-19th Century European galleries.

**Though did make me wonder why no such treatment was given to the Nick Cave Soundsuit on display.

Humanity in the Age of Frankenstein

Beth Van Hoesen. Stanford (Arnautoff Class), 1945.
Beth Van Hoesen. Stanford (Arnautoff Class), 1945.

The other “big” exhibition is inspired by Frankenstein and the 200 anniversary of its publication. It’s a very interesting concept for an exhibition and a wonderful focus for mining the collection and finding works that investigate our knowledge of how the body works and interrogate the distinctions between man and machine (or computer).

Unfortunately I didn’t quite buy the reach in terms of the works on display and the story they were trying to tell. The show felt like it was going too shallowly in too many different directions. Some of it felt like a history of our understanding of the body. Other parts of it cast modern art featuring Tech and technology in Frankenstein’s monster terms.

I really like the second focus—especially at a place like Stanford whose involvement with Tech often precludes any self-reflection about the ethics of what they’re doing. But it doesn’t go nearly deep enough and leaves things at a facile surface comparison of “how scientific investigation has evolved” rather than making us think about what monsters we’ve unleashed on the world.

Also at the Cantor

After looking at Corporate Design I wandered through the rest of the Cantor. They’ve changed it a lot from the last time I visited. It’s now very clearly and unabashedly a teaching museum. I think this is great. Most of the museum is tied in with a class now. Most of which are semi-survey courses. Not all of which are specifically Art or Art History however as the introductory texts are from professors in multiple departments.

The content of the galleries hasn’t actually changed much, it’s just presented and framed in a completely different way. Rather than being the authoritarian curator’s voice which tells us what everything is, each gallery is introduced with more of a syllabus and greensheet describing the purpose of the room and posing questions or providing context for the artwork in the same way that a student would be introduced to readings. These aren’t things you’ll need to memorize for the exam, they’re readings for section.

It’s fantastic to see that Stanford is both using the museum this way and that it has invited the public to take part in the educational mission of the school. It’s an opportunity to take the education mission of the museum into new places and the resulting “novices welcome” sensibility creates a much less intimidating place to enter.

Trevor Paglen

Eadweard Muybridge. Flying Vulture.
Eadweard Muybridge. Flying Vulture.
Trevor Paglen. Time Study (Predator; Indian Springs, NV).
Trevor Paglen. Time Study (Predator; Indian Springs, NV).

There’s a small gallery dedicated to Trevor Paglen. I’m a bit of a fanboy so I especially enjoyed seeing him here. There’s only one of his pieces on display but it’s a wonderful little room which makes a great comparison between Muybridge’s work and Paglen’s and how both of them have only one foot in the art world and are just as occupied by technical challenges and photographing things people can’t see.

Paglen’s work in particular is nice in how it consists of small gold-toned albumen prints and is a wonderful mix of old processes with new technology. Sometimes this kind of thing bugs me but it works here. The albumen process works really well with the atmospheric haze and shake caused by the extreme telephoto photography.

The rest of the images—Brett Weston cloudscapes, a Steichen aerial photo, a particularly excellent Gohlke photo—also work really well together. Like I said, it’s a nice little room.

Photography and Ecology after 1970

There was a second small room of photography elsewhere in the museum. This time it was environmental photos but using a more expansive definition of “environmental.” Rather than being photos which were explicitly about the environment, it connected New Topographics to Documerica and treated the whole 1970s landscape photography world as inherently ecology and environmental.

This is a good framing. While the gallery doesn’t include people like Eliot Porter who were being intentionally environmental, the idea that all landscape photography can—and should—be viewed from an environmental angle is important. It’s impossible to separate human activity from the environment and photography allows us to both document our activity and to see what it’s affecting. When we look at a landscape now, even if it’s “pristine” we have to ask ourselves what we’re doing to it. We’re always doing something to it.

Creativity on the Line

Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. George Washington.

One of the Cantor Center’s big shows this summer is about Mid-century Corporate Design. It’s good and tracks the rise of corporate design after World War 2 when the emergent consumer culture* meant that products had to distinguish themselves in ways beyond function and value.

*Note, there was a ton of government investment in infrastructure which had to happen in order to enable this culture and while that’s all outside of this write up I viewed the entire exhibition with this in mind.

So of course we start with Bauhaus in order to get a baseline of both product design and corporate design. But it quickly gets into Walter Paepcke and the Container Corporation of America and the International Design Conference in Aspen. This is the highlight of the show and there’s lots of very interesting stuff here both in terms of the relationships between corporations and designers and the implication that exporting American products is exporting American design—and by extension, American principles.

I was reminded of the Covert Operations show—in particular Taryn Simon’s work—and how much of America’s image abroad during this time could be tied to American art and design. And by extension how corporate design, more than any other media is a reflection of both who we are and what what we value.

Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. Teddy Roosevelt. Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. Thomas Paine. Container Corporation of America. Great Ideas of Western Man. Jean Jaques Rousseau.

This is especially apparent in the Container Corporation of America’s advertisements. I can’t imagine the controversy which would occur if they were printed today. I can’t imagine a company having the guts to print these today. Yet, they represent exactly what America™ claims to be while also serving as examples of how modern design—especially in the advertising space—is now broken.

As much as the Aspen conference subject matter is concerned with “accepted” taste, it’s also aware of how design has to pick a position and can’t be left to corporate defaults. Nowadays it feels like few, if any companies care about picking any positions. Even supposed design leaders like Apple are mysteries when it comes to their politics and the way their products ship with glaringly obvious design flaws with regard to who it was designed for is dismaying.

If one of the tenets of good design is that everything has been considered, what does it mean if our best design now is so constantly distinguished by a lack of consideration?

That so much of this show focuses on things—companies and events—that Paepcke touched has me wondering if design itself has regressed or if the designs on display have always stood as exceptions to the rule. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both where not everything was as excellent as what’s been selected but corporations have also devalued design because “anyone” can be a “creative.”

This regression is especially apparent in the realm of corporate identity and logo design. There are many mid-century corporate logos and identities on display here—many of which are now sadly extinct. Of these logos, while some are indeed dated, most of them display a level of clean clear graphic design which I just don’t see much anymore.

Sure, I see new corporate identities and style guides all the time. But nothing like the way they all convened at the 1964 World’s Fair and all too often biased toward digital technology and reproduction. And for sure, the world has changed from the age where the only concern was print and spot colors were cheap and plentiful. I totally understand reworking logos so that they are more consistent across printing and display technologies* but too many modern logos contain elements which just don’t work outside of a full-color environment.

*the absence of any print/display notes on how the old logos were intended to be reproduced is something the exhibition was missing.

Seeing logos which can work in 2-color instead of 4-color printing is great. Maybe spot inks aren’t needed anymore for print but they’re still useful for silkscreening tshirts or embroidering bags or even neon signs. Seeing logos which work as just black a and white—let alone logos which can be truly reversed to knock out a background color—is turning into an increasingly rare occurrence. All the mid-century logos do this and it’s what makes their designs so strong.

Also of note

On the topic of logos, There’s a great sequence of Bauhaus designs of the AEG logo which were made with paper cutouts. I enjoy seeing the cut-out paper since it’s both a more tactile way to create a design and it results in a much stronger color presentation and reproduction.

The Olivetti designs in their red dot school purity are always fantastic to see in person. Similarly, a lot of the Henry Dreyfuss designs are great to see in person. Although in all these cases, as with the Dieter Rams show, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the younger generations had any idea what these products did now.

I do love seeming any drafting and industrial design sketches. Especially the ones on medium grey paper which use white pencil for highlights along with various darker colors.

Also at the Cantor

A few quick reactions to other things which I saw at the Cantor Center after I finished looking at The Art of Water.

Lewis Hine (and Jason Francisco)

Lewis Hine, Fall River, Massachusetts, June, 1916
Lewis Hine, Fall River, Massachusetts, June, 1916
Jason Francisco, Fall River, Massachusetts, March 2015
Jason Francisco, Fall River, Massachusetts, March 2015

There was a Lewis Hine show consisting of small prints of his child laborer photographs. It was nice and focused and played with the idea of childhood as depicted in the photographs. The kids are working, but unbowed still. So in addition to being a time capsule of a moment in American history, these photos also capture a fleeting moment in our development where we’re reminded of what childhood itself means. The catalog by Alexander Nemerov looks interesting to read too.

These photos were paired with modern photos by Jason Francisco which, while not exactly rephotographs, complement to sense of fleetingness in the Hine photographs in how we not only have child labor anymore, we don’t have any labor anymore. Francisco’s photos aren’t exactly my cup of tea (too much tilt-shift for my taste) but they work well enough when paired with Hine’s.

Art++

I really liked the Art++ experiment. As with the previous Rodin’s Hands exhibit, this exhibit brought iPads into the room and set them up with augmented reality so, when you point the camera at one of the articles on display, a whole bunch of digital overlays become available for you to explore. In addition to providing additional context, these overlays also explained how the artifacts have been constructed, retouched, reconstructed, etc.

I’m excited to see where they go next with this idea.

Blood in the Sugar Bowl

Henry Corbould. Fashionable Women Pouring Tea, c. 1805.
Henry Corbould. Fashionable Women Pouring Tea, c. 1805.
William Blake. A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, 1792.
William Blake. A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, 1792.

This was wonderful. But then I’m a sucker for when an exhibition brings a whole bunch of different media together and puts them in conversation in an unexpected way.

In this case, the objects were all about the theme of sugar and slavery. So we had portraits of plantation owners and prints from the plantation estates. Books about the atrocities committed on those plantations. Sugar bowls and decorative objects and how those were used culturally. And the wall text pulled no punches and got its politics absolutely correct.

The Basement

Lucy Lewis. Owl, 1966.
Lucy Lewis. Owl, 1966.

I’m kidding. While the Cantor Center is laid out by region and segregates Asian from Native American from African art from everything else, those are not relegated to the basement or any other remote corners of the museum. So it’s relatively straightforward to walk through these galleries just to see if they’re doing anything interesting—or anything that’ll piss me off.

The African galleries are still very much like how they were a couple years ago in focusing a lot on contemporary African art and treating it all from a post-colonial point of view. It’s a point of view which still works for me.

I was very pleased to find that the Native American rooms were also focusing on contemporary artists. In this case though the theme was contemporary artists working within native traditions.* Highlights include Kent Monkman, Calvin Hunt, and Art Thompson. I also particularly liked Lucy Lewis’s work. One of my pet peeves is recent art displayed in ancient rooms as ancient craft, so I took great joy in finding a room which highlights how these traditions are art which is still being practiced and taught today.

*This isn’t Cantor-related but this SFMOMA blogpost by Linda Yamane is worth looking into for more information on this kind of thing.

The Asian gallery meanwhile took a completely different approach by focusing on ceramics and grouping everything by technique. Thankfully they clearly labeled contemporary stuff as “artist, country, year” instead of forcing the  “country, dynasty/period (years)” label on everything.

 

California: The Art of Water

Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.
Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.
William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.
William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.
Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, Cal., ca. 1871.
Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, 1871.
Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.
Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.
Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.
Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.
Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.
Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.
Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.
Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.
Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California
Robert Dawson. Private Property, 1988.
Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1California, USA, 2009.
Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1. 2009.
David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.
David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.

The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.

Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.

As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.

*As with war photography, it’s always worth remembering that perspective is a disease of the eye

This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.

It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.

*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.

In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.

Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.

What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.

Before and After

So this didn’t fit in my general new SFMOMA comments but while I was there I found myself comparing the installations of some of the sculptures with their previous installations. In particular, I ended up comparing Richard Serra’s Sequence and Barnett Newman’s Zim Zum I.

Richard Serra—Sequence

Before the expansion Sequence was installed at the Stanford Art Museum. I visited it many times there. I also much much much prefer it there. Outside it does much more interesting things with light, weather, and sound. In bright sun it casts wonderful shadows. On overcast days you get a real sense of the texture of the steel. Late in the afternoon the color glows as the sun sets. On rainy days there will be dry spots where the sculpture has protected itself, or the floor, from the drops. And because there’s no enclosing space, the sounds of talking or footsteps change as you walk through. You truly feel inside and enclosed when you’re in it.

Inside, you’re always conscious that you’re in a museum. There’s noise from the ticketing lobby that echoes in. You’re on a tiled floor instead of poured concrete. There’s tracklighting above you. The light is flat but not strong enough to see details. The shadows are weak and multi-directional. It’s still an interesting piece to walk around in and explore but yeah…it’s not what it used to be either.

2011 at Stanford

Sequence
sequence-wet-4
Sequence

2016 at SFMOMA

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Barnett Newman—Zim Zum I

Zim Zum I used to be in the fifth floor sculpture garden where it received full sun and framed both the Pacific Telephone Building and the sky when you were inside it. Now it’s in the new third floor garden, protected by an overhang and framing the living wall. I liked it where it was but the way it interacts with the wall is nice.

2012

Inside Zim Zum I

2016

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The Anderson Collection

Anderson Collection

During my trip to the Bay Area I was also able to visit the new Anderson Collection at Stanford. I’ve been watching the building go up for a while* and I’ve been looking forward to an expanded modern art selection at the Cantor Center. I’m very glad I went. I’m…not sure I need to go again.

*You can see where they broke ground in the background here.

The new Anderson building is wonderful. Open, airy, and well-lit with plenty of space for each piece to breathe, it’s a great place to look at art. The art isn’t bad either. The collection is a great primer on the modern art canon and does especially well emphasizing local, Bay Area movements* which often don’t get as much focus locally as they should.

*Specifically: California Light and SpaceBay Area FigurationBay Area Abstraction, and Funk.

At the same time, it’s a primer. It will clearly be a fantastic teaching resource for introducing students to art. It just doesn’t feel like there’s anything more going on than an introduction. I’m not seeing things in a new way. I don’t get the sense that this collection will mix or interact with other pieces in the Cantor. Nor does it look like there’s a lot of potential for changing the way the existing pieces are displayed.

I think that what I’m reacting to is the absence of curatorial voice. I’ve seen more than enough personal collection shows* to realize now that a collection of art that a rich person liked—or was instructed to purchase—isn’t enough to hold my interest without additional information about who the collector is or how the collection is in conversation with art in general. Just giving me a collection without comment or context isn’t enough unless the idea is for me to look through and see the few pieces that really stand out to me.

*Previously on this blog: the Logan Collection, the Emily Fisher Landau Collection, and Shared Vision.

What I did really like though was Leo Holub’s Artist Portrait Project. The Andersons commissioned Holub to take portraits of the artists* whose work they owned. Besides being nice black and white portraits, the resulting series personalizes the collection by acknowledging that the art is about the artist as much as the piece on the wall.** I’m not sure why seeing an image of the human responsible for making a product matters so much. But it does.

*These portraits also make it very easy to do the quick headcounting/confirmation of the number of white men present versus anyone else.

**I regret not looking to see if Holub included a self-portrait in the series.

Rodin’s Hands

So this was awesome. While I was at the Cantor to see Watkins, I poked around and stuck my nose into the Rodin’s hands exhibition as well. I’m very glad I did. It’s a perfect exhibit for Stanford in how it melds art and science and technology and education.

Lots of times technology in museums seems to be done in a “we’ve got to use TECHNOLOGY” way which doesn’t have anything to do with the art. In this case it’s a perfect fit. The technology enhances our understanding of century-old art. It’s not just “this is neat,” we learn about the art, and medicine, and how our understanding of the body and anatomy has intersected with art over centuries.

And it’s seamless. The technology layer manages to stay out of the way when you want to just look at the art itself.

I’ve never seen an exhibit like this. I hope more museums get inspired by it.

I’ve always liked Rodin’s hand sculptures. I like them even more now.

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

Carleton Watkins. Sugar Loaf Islands and Seal Rocks, Farallons, 1868–69.

I’ve been gradually moving toward an appreciation of the older landscape photographers. This doesn’t mean I suddenly dislike the contrasty, technically-perfect Ansel Adams school of landscape photography.* But I’m finding myself liking photography which contains elements of embracing the inherent limitations of the medium—while pushing as hard against them as possible—rather than photography which tends to treat those limitations as flaws.

*Quite the opposite. Heck I still use a red-filter way too often when shooting black and white film.

Also, now that I’m living on the East Coast, I’ve gotten a lot more possessive about the West and find that media, of all sorts,* has a tendency to trigger stronger feelings of home than it used to. Watkins, and much of the early landscape photography in general, is all about the American West and its myths. It’s what I grew up with and absorbed as part of my visual culture.

*As per the introduction to my post about the Huntington’s Edison Archive photos.

Which is why Carleton Watkins at Stanford was the exhibition I was most looking forward to seeing in California this summer. It did not disappoint.

The photos themselves are great. Albumen prints from mammoth plates show a lot of detail but in a hazy low-contrast way that’s quite different than what we’re used to seeing from “good” photography. In particular, there’s a lack of distance detail (blue-sensitive emulsions are sensitive to atmospheric haze) as well as often an uncertain black point (more like the D-max isn’t as dark as a modern D-max would be).

Water also behaves a lot differently between the long exposures and lack of highlight detail. Waves get flattened into haze and waterfalls turn into lightsources. It feels different than modern long-exposure water shots since Watkins’s photos don’t actually feel like long-exposures to me.

Carleton Watkins. The Yosemite Valley from the "Best General View" 1866.

There’s something very evocative about all this. I find myself mentally adjusting the contrast and filling in details as I look over the photos. These details aren’t necessary to the images themselves but they engage my mind as I look them over. As “realistic” as the images are, they’re also much closer to paintings than modern photography in terms of how they make me imagine the scene. I’m not looking for small specific details in the frame (or noting those details the photographer has called out for me), I’m getting a sense of the place and letting my mind do the rest of the interpretation.

The technical limitations also mean that these photos often rely on shapes and forms and large-scale compositional elements which don’t require a lot of fine detail—something that will make all photographs better but is even more critical here. That said, there is a lot of fine detail present as well. For example, you can see the birds and the seals roosting on the Farallon Islands just as clearly as you can make out the forms of the rocks.

I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.

I don’t prefer the older message, I just like seeing the world when it had a different mindset. And I find that seeing that mindset makes a better case for why things should be different today. It’s been a century and a half. We should know better now.

Carleton Watkins. Magenta Flume Nevada Co. Cal., c. 1871.

One of the wonderful things about Watkins when compared to O’Sullivan and Russell is how his photos can work with both messages.

Much of Watkins’s work are industrial commissions showing development in San Francisco or mining operations in the Sierras. It’s very clear that he’s a working photographer tasked with making functional documentary images.

At the same time, his Yosemite photos directly resulted in Congress granting Yosemite to California in 1864, “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” Not a National Park. Yet. But not for development either.*

*There’s a great note in the wall text about how in the 1860s, the only two photographic series being viewed in the US were Watkins’s photos of the Pacific and Brady’s (and Gardner’s) photos of the Civil War. The text suggests how different these series must have seemed to the public. I also can’t wrap my head around there being only two photographic series in public consciousness for those years. Definitely not the world we live in today.

In both his commissioned work and in his Yosemite photos, you can see the conflicts between settlement and industry versus nature. Many of his industry photos feel like the struggle is still ongoing rather than complete—cities are still being built, nature still dwarfs the structures. Even where massive amounts of earth have been moved, the environmental consequences should already have been somewhat common knowledge in California.*

*Malakoff Diggins and the Marysville flooding.

Similarly, many of his unspoiled Yosemite views feature development. A cabin or lodge here. A bridge there. Trees with all of their lower limbs harvested. Nature is glorious but our footprints are all over it still.

Carleton Watkins. Cape Horn near Celilo, 1867.

The Columbia River views are even better at making this point. Watkins documents what’s ostensibly a journey along a railroad along the river. The landscape here however dwarfs the technology and rather than documenting how a railroad is imposed on a landscape, the railroad here is often just taking what the landscape will let it take as it squeezes between the river and the cliffs.

The cliffs are huge. The river contains un-dammed rapids. This is spectacular country where the accomplishment is just getting there and reaching the end of the Oregon Trail.

Carleton Watkins. The Wreck of the Viscata, 1868.

It’s also impossible not to look at these historically. Not only is this San Francisco before the earthquake, it’s San Francisco while it was being built. A very different city with basically nothing recognizable to me, including the coastline. I can count 35 stars on the US flag.* Most-weird is looking at views of the California coast before Eucalyptus took over. This is home before it became home.

*Meaning it must have been taken in the one-year window between West Virginia’s admission in 1863 and Nevada’s in 1864. Assuming that people replaced old flags as soon as new states were admitted.

Watkins’s Yosemite photos also include the Indian names for everything. While we still use many of those names, a lot has been renamed since. It’s nice to be reminded about whose land we’re on and how we’ve tended to erase or forget the origins of their names.

The exhibition also plays up the historic angle through a series of interactive multimedia displays featuring maps and rephotography so visitors can see what things look like today, where the photos were taken, or what changes have been made to the sites between then and now.

In addition to the multimedia displays, there’s actually a lot of other technical information beyond the photos. The exhibit talks about collodoin and wet-plate photography; albumen and contact printing; and even a bit at how a view camera works in terms of composing the scene. It’s nice to see the awareness that museumgoers probably have a much different concept about cameras and photography and that the difference in technology is hugely important to understanding a lot of what we’re looking at.

The Cantor even goes so far as to include examples of prints from Watkins’s negatives made by an inferior printer as well as calling out when Watkins switched from a normal to a wide angle lens.*

*According to the wall text, his 1861 Yosemite photos led to Congress’s Yosemite Land Grant in 1864 which led to the 1865 California Geologic survey of Yosemite for which Watkins acquired a wide angle lens.

It’s a great show. That it consists of photos that are housed at Stanford is even better. The Bay Area, still, does a lousy job of marketing its art holdings as being hugely important to the art world in general. So for a local institution to take its locally-relevant art holdings and put together a show like this is the icing on the cake.