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.


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.



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.


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.

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.