Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Did Winslow Homer provide a precedent for E. Irving Couse’s “The Captive” (1891)?

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

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In which the author speculates on a compositional inspiration for a controversial American painting and is not afraid to invoke the name of this nation’s great master Winslow Homer

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The Captive is a large studio work completed early in the career of the American artist, Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936. Shown at the artist’s first solo exhibition in 1891, held at the Portland Art Association in Oregon, the work was also exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1892. The Captive is significant in Couse’s career as the first Native American subject attempted by him. Couse would go on to achieve fame in the United States for his paintings of the indigenous inhabitants of New Mexico. The Captive is now in the collection of the Phoenix Art Museum.

This is a “staged” picture, to be sure. Yet the narrative suggested by The Captive is rooted in historical fact. The background story involves a raid conducted by the Cayuse Indians in 1847 upon a mission settlement of white immigrants in the Oregon Territory. The incident culminated with the capture of a woman, a 17-year-old school teacher named Lorinda Bewly, whom Cayuse chief Five Crows wanted to keep as a wife. The young woman refused his offer, and after two weeks she was put up for ransom. The ransom was paid by the British at Fort Vancouver.

Wikimedia Commons user Rob Ferguson, Jr., describes the scene portrayed by Couse:

Couse’s painting shows us a dramatic scene – Lorinda is lying on the floor of the chief’s teepee, unconscious, with bloody bonds testifying to a terrified but courageous struggle. Five Crows is seated on the floor, staring at her and unable to fathom her behavior, her aversion to him. Couse has shown us two cultures in tragic juxtaposition, and we are able perhaps to have an understanding of each.

It is reported that Couse’s wife, a rancher’s daughter from Washington state, and a local Kickitata indian, served as models.

From its earliest appearances before the public, The Captive generated attention and controversy. According to a descriptive note attached to the Wikipedia Commons image of the painting, this notoriety arose in part from its “sexual implications (rather strong for the art of the period)” and, at the same time, its contradictory “stereotyping of Native Americans” and “‘noble savage’ romanticization of them.”

In our own day, the controversy was revived when tin 1991 he work appeared in an art exhibition, The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920, organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (then known as the National Museum of American Art). This ambitious show included a total of 164 works. Essays in the shows catalog, as well as the descriptive wall texts that visitors to the museum found next to each picture, sparked protests from some historians who disputed the curatorial interpretation of artists’ meanings and intents. More noisily, rebuke came from conservative politicians who condemned the show for what they saw as its leftist agenda.

As an example of the material that incited critics, here is the wall label that accompanied The Captive (text written by William H. Truettner, Curator):

“From Puritan cultures onwards, the captivity theme had been an occasion for white writers and artists to advocate the “unnaturalness” of intermarriage between races. Couse’s painting is part of this tradition. The painting establishes two “romances.” The first – suggested but not denied – is between the woman and the Indian. The two figures belong to different worlds that cannot mix except by violence. (Note the blood on the woman’s left arm). The second romance is between the woman and the viewer of the painting, implicitly a white man, who is cast in the heroic role of rescuer. This relationship is the painting’s “natural” romance. These two conflicting romances account for the ironic combination of chastity and availability encoded by the woman’s body. The demure turn of her head shows that she has turned away from the Indian. Yet this very gesture of refusal is also a sign of her availability: she turns toward the viewer. It is by her role as sexual stereotype that the woman in Couse’s painting is really captive.”

I am not aware of any study or analysis, by critics or art historians, of the formal aspects of The Captive. This may be due to the overwhelming interest in matters racial, sexual, social and political. In particular, I have yet to find any mention of the sources or inspirations for Couse’s composition or the details he chose to emphasize. If, as seems likely, the artist relied on some existing model in sculpture or painting, it has not yet been identified and announced. A moment ago, for example, I conducted a Google search, placing in the search box two titles, “The Captive” and “The Wreck of the Atlantic,” and what I got in return was zero results. Let me explain the reason to consider that second title as a precedent for Couse’s work.

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In 1873 Winslow Homer submitted to the illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly a drawing for a wood engraving that would be titled, The Wreck of the Atlantic – Cast Up By the Sea. The picture was published in the April 26, 1873 edition of Harper’s Weekly (Volume XVII, p. 345). It was a somewhat delayed response to a devastating shipwreck that had occurred off the coast on Nova Scotia on April 1, 1873.

Of 952 passengers and crew onboard the transatlantic ocean liner, RMS Atlantic, at least 535 perished in the pitch-black night, including every woman and every child except for one young boy. Historians of the event emphasize how the disaster captured popular interest to an extent that was not to be exceeded until four decades later with the sinking of the Titanic. Background and resources about the sinking of the RMS Atlantichere; additional material and links here.

The American printmaking firm of Currier and Ives quickly produced for public consumption a lithograph, offered in a hand-colored version, below, which depicts a journalistic view of the incident.

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Currier and Ives also offered a second version of the scene, found here.

Homer, in composing his picture, chose different means to convey the tragedy. The fact is he did not visit the site in person. Instead, as a long-standing “artist-correspondent” for the Harper’s Weekly whose artistic skills had recently outstripped his reportorial talents, his task here was to imagine the scene and present it to readers in a powerful way. Here is an illustrator transitioning to artist.

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It is the day after the terrible night, and Homer relegates the evidence of the wrecked ship to the distant background in favor of a focus on a single victim, a woman found “cast up by the sea” (the image above is from the Boston Public Library; click on the image for an enlargement of details).

Homer forgoes the busy mechanics of the Currier and Ives depictions. Simply, he heightens the life-and-death drama by establishing a relationship between two figures: a drowned woman and a man belonging to the search party called up from a nearby fishing village.

Recent commentators mention the sexual undercurrent of Homer’s treatment. An unnamed annotator of the Brooklyn Museum‘s impression of the print describes the image as “at once pathetic and erotic.” When the work appeared in “100 Days of Homer,” a recent exhibition posted on the tumblr page of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the text observed: “In The Wreck of the Atlantic – Cast up by the Sea, Winslow Homer combines real-life events with melodrama.”

Homer’s imaginative re-visualization of an actual event of a shipwreck (call it a subjective after-image) is, at least, a conceptual precedent for the course Couse chose for his artistic treatment of a recorded Indian raid. More interesting still is Couse’s replication of Homer’s formal solution to picture-making, starting with his use of the relationship of two figures to carry meaning.

To make more apparent the affinities between the two works, it’s helpful to reverse the direction of the Homer work (an action that restores the orientation of Homer’s original drawing as transcribed onto the wood engraving block). I’ve also converted the colors of Couse’s painting to black and white values.

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The points of congruence in the two compositions, and the parallels in related details, are many. There is an exact repetition of the relative positions the protagonists. The central energy and tension of both works — the vector of the male gaze — points at the same angle to the identically immobilized female. The supine bodies of the women trace identical forms. There are the echoed details of the drape of their chaste white garments; bare feet; left arms positioned in an unconsciously protective gesture; heads tilted demurely away from the gaze of the man and toward the viewer’s gaze; and the flowing spill of long hair. In both compositions rope is used as a poignant artifact — signifying captivity in one instance and the dashed hope of salvation in the other.

In The Wreck of the Atlantic the male rescuer, though overseeing and closely scrutinizing the female victim, is kept at a discrete remove from her body by the physical intervention of a boulder. Consequently, we read his presence as grounded and still. In The Captive the pose given to the Chief also conveys present stillness. This is achieved by grounding him in a cross-legged sitting posture. These similar pictorial strategies serve a common purpose in controlling the viewer’s reaction. Where Homer implies the present “discretion” and sympathy of the male by hiding from our view the man’s eyes, Couse similarly tempers what Truettner assumes are the viewer’s fears related to complications of gender, sexuality and race by hiding the Chief’s hands in the bondage of his blanket cloak.

And so the question arises: Was Couse aware of Homer’s The Wreck of the Atlantic as he went about planning his first mature figurative work, some 18 years after the senior artist had confronted a similar pictorial challenge?

It’s a tantalizing possibility. But I have to concede it presupposes some lucky circumstance by which a copy of the 1873 Harper’s Weekly wood engraving survived and was available to Couse.

Now, it is a fact that many copies of Homer’s engraving were made and widely distributed.  At its peak, the circulation of Harper’s Weekly reached 300,000, and it was also one of the journals that some libraries in the country made it a point to preserve. While Harper’s Weekly’s commanding subtitle  – “A Journal of Civilization”! — is forgivable puffery, the publication was well respected and considered to be as a good record of current events as any. Many individual subscribers and readers kept  (or one might say, hoarded) back copies as well, just as people in later eras saved their copies of Life magazine, National Geographic and Playboy. Homer’s magazine illustrations in particular were appreciated by discerning eyes. So it is at least possible that Couse, in want of guidance two decades later, could have had access to the image and used it as an aid when creating The Captive.

Note, however, one factor that would strengthen the case for direct influence is not present in this case. I’m not aware of any secondary iterations of Homer’s “The Wreck of the Atlantic” — no reproductions of the picture in other media that would have increased the image’s circulation and survivability. For example, we know that Homer recycled some of his wood engravings of the 1860′s and 1870′s, using them as the source for oil paintings. Examples include Waiting for a Bite, and Dad’s Coming. He presented A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty to the public twice, first as a painting (his own first oil painting) and then as a published wood engraving. However, I’m not aware of him replicating his picture of the shipwreck. Art historians point out that Homer’s The Wreck of the Atlantic provided a springboard to his painting of 1884, The Life Line — but that powerful work, which enjoyed significant national exposure, is a completely different composition.

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There is, of course, another possible explanation for the affinity between The Wreck of the Atlantic and The Captive – namely, that both Homer and Couse owed their compositions to some third source of an earlier date, perhaps a European painting or sculpture.

A variation on this theory would have Couse independently finding a source for the central figure of his unconscious female captive, and then turning to Homer’s wood engraving for guidance in completing the scene, the most important element of which is sensitive placement of the secondary figure.

However speculative this theory may sound, at least its first component — Couse’s direct access to a model for his primary figure — has some support in the art historical record. According to recent scholarship, Homer himself likely relied on an existing source — a contemporaneous French painting — when drawing his drowned woman, and Couse would have had equal access to the same source. See Roger Stein, “Picture and Text: The Literary World of Winslow Homer,” in Winslow Homer: A Symposium, ed. Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., Studies in the History of Art, no. 26 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1990), pp. 49-50; and Kathleen A. Turner, “Winslow Homer’s Life Line: A Narrative of Gender and Modernity,” available online, here.

According to Stein and Turner, the painting Homer may have turned to is The Death of Virginia (La Mort de Virginie) by James (aka Jean Baptiste) Bertrand (1823-1887), 1869, oil on canvas, 32 5/8 by 72 1/2 inches. Musée Bertrand, Châteauroux, France.

Unlike Homer and Couse’s narratives, both of which are rooted in historical incidents, Bertrand’s painting is based on a fiction:

“Virginia [was] one of the ill-fated sweethearts described in the 1787 French romantic novel by Bernardin de St Pierre, Paul et Virginie. The novel, which was translated and widely read in Victorian England, centers around a shipwreck, during which the heroine must shed her clothes to be rescued. She refuses to sacrifice her modesty and drowns.”

Unfortunately I could find no satisfactory image of the original painting online. However, due to its popularity in the 19th century, Bertrand’s work was much reproduced. Close — and some not-so-close — copies of it were made, by art students training their hand and possibly by professional artists for the tourist trade. Here are two examples, the first an oil on canvas and the second a painting on porcelain, both of which appeared recently at American auctions.

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How closely Homer followed the placement and contours of the figure of Virginia when he composed his own “Cast Up by the Sea” can best be shown by comparing the two pictures as graphic works, that is, pairing the wood engraving matched a later transcription of Bertrand’s oil painting into a graphic medium. In 1888, the international art dealer Goupil & Cie, based in Paris and with shops in New York City and other locations, began selling a gravure reproduction of “Le Mort de Virginie”. Here it is, followed by Homer’s work (once again I’ve reverse the direction of the published wood engraving to simulate Homer’s original drawing of the scene):

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Bertrand’s picture, then, was almost surely part of Homer and Couse’s visual memory. In fact, the appeal and influence Bertrand’s painting on American artists was brought to my attention yet again when I recently came across the following image of a small painting by Kenyon C. Cox (1856-1919) that will be auctioned on October 24, 2013 at Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers: Reclining Nude on a Beach, oil on panel, 10 x 12″, signed on the reverse. This undated study looks to me to be an offspring of the same ancestor:

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What Might Have Been . . . And What Is

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

In 1999 architect Frank Gehry won the competition to design an addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. On an adjacent vacant property the Corcoran used as a parking lot, the striking new structure would double the space available to the museum and Art School.

In an exhibit shown at the museum in 2004-2005, Gehry presented his revised design, as shown in the photos below. Note: the Corcoran’s 19th-century Beaux-Arts building is on the left side of the model.

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By 2005 the Corcoran board chairman had scuttled the plan, due to funding inadequacies. In July 2011, the empty property was sold off to make way for a commercial office building. It is now nearing completion. Below are photos of the site taken September 25, 2013.

One could have a lively debate over whether the new structure is as ugly as the dull cast-concrete commercial building directly across the street, reflected — intentionally? — in its mirrored facade. But it would be hard to dispute, no matter where you stand, that here is sad instance of a missed opportunity.

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“The Connoisseur” by Evan S. Connell

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

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The dictionary tells us that the word “connoisseur” derives from the Old French “conoisseor” — meaning a judge or a person well versed in anything. The term can be traced back even further to the Latin “cognoscere” — to know. Knowing this, it should be no surprise that from the hands of a modern writer, one skilled in social satire and irony, a book entitled “The Connoisseur” will explore the question of how we, poor modern men, struggle to know. And so in what on the surface appears to be a novel of manners, Evan S. Connell sets his protagonist, the middle-aged insurance executive Muhlbach, on a quest for authenticity, exploring depths beneath the surface.

The Connoisseur is a short novel containing finely delineated characters and clean and clear prose. But there is little or no story to speak of. We follow the seemingly directionless path of a lonely widower in mid-life crisis. In the opening chapter he is suddenly captured by the siren call of a piece of ancient sculpture he finds in a care-worn shop while on a business trip to New Mexico. It is a terra-cotta seated figurine of a Mayan dignitary, likely from the Island of Jaina, Mexico, Classic Period, 600-900 AD.

The paucity of plot and the specialization of the subject matter explains why many, maybe even most, readers will come away from the book disappointed.

There are some, however, who will be enlivened. This group includes readers intrigued by art history — here, pre-Columbian sculpture — and by the art trade. In a series of vignettes Connell examines the art world in all of its variety, from experts to charlatans, from rude wheeler-dealers to the most sophisticated purveyors. Muhlbach labels this world “a pastiche of aesthetics, art and commerce.” In a narrow sense, then, the book is about the education of a new collector.

The book is even richer for a still smaller, self-selected cadre of readers — the sort who, having finished the novel, will keep it on a shelf reserved for books they already know they’ll want to re-visit in future. There are those who, for personal reasons, seek to understand the psychology of collecting and the psychology of collectors. These are the readers who, if they turn back to the Epigraph Connell chose for “The Connoisseur” —  a line of Thomas Aquinas defining beauty, “Id quod visum placet” — will nod in sympathy, since for them this is a book which, being read, pleases.

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A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.

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Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Example No. 1)

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

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On Thursday of this week The New York TImes reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided, after 42 years, to stop issuing to each museum visitor one of its signature admission buttons. The colorful metal tags are being abandoned in favor of adhesive paper stickers. Cost is the reason.

The writers of the Times article anticipated my reaction: “In an era in which physical objects seem to be rapidly dematerializing into the digital, the loss of a durable little chunk of the Met will undoubtedly be missed.”

This sad news prompted me to dig out of my desk drawer some of the tags I’ve saved over the years.

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For many, these are mementos to be saved and cherished. For a few, these objects will continue to form the basis for a collector’s hobby.  As is true when collecting objects — coins and stamps are prime examples — each individual Met badge, once acquired, becomes a piece of a larger puzzle — a puzzle whose solution leads the collector into history, technology, and design evolution. The matter of design includes material, shape, size, color, and image. The questions are endless. Just take a look at the photos of the front and back — no, let’s call them recto and verso — and ideas will pop into your head.  Why, for example, was it decided to extend the color of the disk to the stem of the current (final) design, the one featuring an “M”?  Why does the depth of the “frying pan” differ from tag to tag?

Even among my collection of a mere dozen pieces there are so many variants! I suspect among the millions of Met tags manufactured, there are many accidental variants as well — “errors” that tantalize the collector with the most coveted of attributes: rarity. Note in the second photo how the metal generally is a tin or steel gray color, except for one instance of a brass-like finish. How rare is that issuance? Even more exciting is the middle tag in the bottom row. Its unpierced stem meant this was a flawed badge, sure to fall off of the visitor’s lapel. How many of these are out there? Do I own the “Inverted Jenny” of Met badges?

Hundreds of folks have commented on the Times article, most of them nostalgically. But one of them — Alan Wright (NJ) — offers a warning aimed straight at me:

“The only thing more wasteful than those stupid metal pins is any time spent researching, writing, reading, and commenting on them.”

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Barry Bridgwood, “Hot Dogs” (1983)

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

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Last week I bought a painting by the American artist Barry Bridgwood. Hot Dogs is the title he gave to the enigmatic work.

Bridgwood was born in Massachusetts in 1957. He attended the Art Institute of Boston (1978-81) and the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1981-83. Fresh from art school he joined the creative ferment of the short-lived East Village art scene of the early 1980s. From the vantage point of today, critics find it difficult if not impossible to reduce to an easy formulation the polymorphous art spawned by that time and place. As one who was there explains: “The East Village didn’t have a style per se, it was more of an explosion of artists trying to get their work out.” I see no reason to disagree, and so for now choose to defer generalizations in favor of an immediate appreciation of the artists’ works themselves, including this one:

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[Hot Dogs, 1983, oil on canvas with integrated strip frame, 20 3/4 x 25 inches, signed and dated verso, and inscribed "New Math Gallery"]

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Hot Dogs was shown at one of the initial exhibits — and possibly the very first show — at one of the East Village’s pioneer store-front galleries, New Math Gallery. When in 1983 Nina Seigenfeld decided to open the gallery (with co-owner Mario Fernandez) she and Bridgwood were still students at SVA. Seigenfeld recently wrote an engaging but all-too-brief history of the gallery, describing the energy of the time and the “camaraderie and sense of community that can never be replaced.” Her article appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of Fine Art Magazine, available online here (page 36). The online site of Artists Space includes a photo of the first location of New Math Gallery; two years later the gallery moved to a larger space on Avenue A between 12th and 13th Streets, which it occupied only a short time until the co-owners decided to shut it down in 1986).

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What attracted me to Bridgwood’s Hot Dogs? At first blush it was the unplaceable color of the work, at least as it appeared in the auction’s online catalog entry:

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Now that the painting is hanging on a wall in my home I can report the color in the illustration was false. It is not mustard, not orange, not salmon, notred, and so the intrigue of its “actual” color remains powerful. This mercurial chroma also confounds my digital camera’s optics. I’ve been photographing the painting at various times and vantage points, and the camera simply cannot decide what the object’s definitive color is.

Then there is the subject matter of the painting. The incised drawings, which reveal a white ground in some areas and an under-layer of black elsewhere, present a conundrum.

All of the figures you see stay mute and polite within the bounds of the painting’s rectangular field. However, if the viewer is so inclined, this content may be ordered into three horizontal bands. So arranged, the analysis may follow this path:

The top band initiates what appears to be a mathematical equation. Its opening terms include contour line drawings of two recognizable objects. These are a piece of fruit with a stem (most likely an apple) and a hot dog cradled in a bun. The relationship of the two comestibles to each other and to what lies ahead is established via two basic interstitial symbols. One establishes equality (=) and the other spurs multiplication (X). The first line ends with a cliffhanger. That “times” sign is a transitive verb that asks, Times what?

In other words, my defensible assumption is the equation continues on to the next line (the middle band). There, equal symbols appear again, confusingly. The symbol for addition (+) shows up, in black and white flavors. There too are two parentheses. The usual function of parentheses in a long mathematical formula is to organize and clarify complex relationships among terms. But at this point in our scanning of the painting, exactly what is being organized is becoming ever more elusive.

Then on to the the bottom band. It may or may not be a continuation of the conversation. How do we know whether it belongs in the formula? Certainly the tone is different. Gone are the carnal suggestions of the objects met in the top line, their roundness hinting of succulence. Such temptations are abandoned, replaced with straight lines that form three geometric constructions. We see: a rectangle with an internal “X” large enough to touch its four corners; an outline of another rectangle, this one empty but with a broken top segment suggesting openness; and finally a classic cube tilted to show three of its implied six surfaces. The viewer may wish to reconsider whether the middle band is meant as connective tissue between top and bottom bands. Certainly the stability of the relationship is nowhere near certain.

An extraneous piece of the puzzle is this: The work’s title promises hot dogs (plural) yet there is only one weiner to be seen. Does the painting offer a mechanical formula to create more? Is this a blueprint for a duplicating machine whose first test run involves processing a simple frankfurter?

Equally elusive is the question of the quality (the success or failure) of the work. The art that emerged from the East Village in the early 1980′s attracted its share of haters, and this remains true today. Detractors dogtail even (or maybe especially) the artists who went on to rise furthest from its midst — Jeff Koons (childish fixations!), Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (all that scribbling and doodling on blank slates!). Is it possible the painting now in my custody deserves the same obliquey – lazy and puerile! – and I’m just too blind to realize it? In time will my judgment change? Who knows.

Right now I’m enjoying the sight of Bridgwood’s playful handling of the enamel paint-smeared canvas that he treats as his very own schoolroom chalk board, a proprietary surface to mark with personally meaningful signs and symbols. The syntax of those signs and symbols — and the ultimate message of the painting — I will wait to decipher.

I’m reminded of the young instructor who points to figures upon a blackboard in a watercolor done a century ago by Winslow Homer titled Blackboard (1877). Do you see, there in the bottom row, a large “X” whose four limbs touch the corners of an imprisoning rectangle?

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Where is the teacher who will help the eager, interpreting viewer to decode the formulas of here and now?

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Update 1 (02-19-2013): During my Facebook conversation with the painter, begun yesterday, Barry Bridgwood told me, “I did a lot of ‘math’ in my early 80′s paintings.” I must follow up on that remark.

Update 2 (02-20-2013): The artist generously replied to my questions about his math paintings. Highlights:

I feel the math draws the viewer into it and makes the mind think and ask questions! like a magnet! … I started to put algebra/math in my paintings as a type of a further abstraction element … Although by the mid 80′s, 1984 on, I was making mostly the computer generated work, I did keep making paintings with algebra in them … My 1st show at New Math was mainly algebra type paintings … In 1990 I had a show at Laurie Rubin Gallery in Soho that had both the computer silk screen work and “math” paintings … Many of the “math” painting sold very well, many collectors have them … There where 2 in a New York Group show in September called “Crossing Houston” at Smart Clothes Gallery on Stanton Street in the Lower East Side, an “80′s NY/East Village” show … The math paintings have started showing up in shows and the auction! It’s great to see them again! … Also, putting algebra in paintings can make them look smart. I was in a group show at Harvard University some years back called “Smart Art” !

Bridgwood’s Facebook page contains this photo, from the 2012 exhibit, “Crossing Houston,” at Paul Bridgewater’s Smart Clothes Gallery, showing two other 1980′s paintings with one of his small “computer paintings” from 1992 in between:

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Update 3 (02/26/2013): During a Facebook conversation today, Nina Seigenfeld Velazquez writes, “I think Hot Dogs might have been in our very 1st show at New Math.”

Update 4 (04/27/2013): I came across two other paintings from Bridgwood’s series of “math paintings.”

One was painted the year following Hot Dogs and features a reused frame as an integral part of the work (Untitled, 1984, enamel on board, 24 x 36″ with integrated frame). It is reproduced on page 321 of the March/April/May 1986 edition of the German art publication, Kunstforum International, in an article entitled “Tropical Codes” by Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo. Bridgwood is one of 24 New York Scene artists profiled by the authors — a group engaged in “new conceptual work [that] entails, for the most part, a post-Simulation model involving the collapse of abstraction and appropriation into a hybrid form–a new cultural sandwich for informed mouths.”

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Describing the signs infusing Bridgwood’s art of this period, Collins and Milazzo observe:

“The image (usually mathematical symbols and various fruit) is primitively scratched into the pictorial surface, constructing an unnatural painterly (hot) system of austere (cold) signs, extreme in their transparent, scientific, but, ultimately, fictional transmission of signic energy across a slow, opaque, nebulous surface.”

The second painting I recently located belongs to the collection of the Fisher Landau Center for Art, in Long Island City, New York (Untitled, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40″, property of Emily Fisher Landau, New York).

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“The Civil War and American Art” by Eleanor Jones Harvey

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

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This book is published in connection with the museum exhibition of the same name, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, from November 16, 2012 through April 28, 2013. The show will travel to New York City where it will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of American Art from May 21, 2013 to September 2, 2013. Both the book and the museum exhibition are experiences of such quality that they will appeal to persons beyond the camps of Civil War buffs and lovers of American Art. For me the exhibition is a must-see. The book? It is a must-have.

What impresses is how successfully all elements of the book converge.

First and foremost is the text. Eleanor Jones Harvey’s thesis is a simple one: “The Civil War had a profound and lasting impact on American Art, as it did on American culture. Both genre painting and landscape painting were fundamentally altered by the war and its aftermath.” As well, she demonstrates how photography–the third of her areas of interest–was newly empowered as an art form.

Harvey’s writing occupies pages 1 through 241 of this large book. Each generous page measures 12 1/2 by 9 15/16 inches, allowing double-column formatting of the text and providing a broad field for its many illustrations, most prominently the 77 paintings and photographs that form the exhibition. Harvey’s prose is wonderfully clear, a pleasure to dip into, blessedly free of academic jargon and devoid of esoteric pleading. She unleashes a seemingly inexhaustible supply of essential facts and observations without halting the forward momentum of her narrative and argument. This is no mean feat.

It is a pleasure to follow the author as she conscientiously uncovers layers of meaning in each of the featured paintings and photographs. Among the pieces closely analyzed are thirteen Civil War related paintings by Winslow Homer, an artist who will grow larger in your estimation thanks to the findings of Harvey’s eye and mind. She unfurls a mini-essay on each of these works, and her enthusiasm cannot help but inspire your own looking at art. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to the exhibition, as I was, this book is an enlightening spur to engagement.

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During my tour of the exhibition at the Smithsonian I spent several reflective minutes in front of Homer’s Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave, a small work (just 16 1/8 by 8 inches) that Harvey discusses on page 167.

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While standing before it at the Smithsonian, I noticed two aspects of the painting not touched upon by Harvey — two understated features that will slowly surrender meaning to the patient viewer. The first is Homer’s treatment of the trooper’s stance. The artist’s depiction of feet or shoes, the natural terminus of the long-legged figure, is ambiguous, replaced with brushstrokes that create a seamless transition between the human body and the field of the dead. The vector of this transition is uncertain. Is the figure emerging from the earth . . . or subsiding into it? The second stunning detail is the trooper’s jacket whose middle buttons are opened. To a viewer this initially reads as a split in an otherwise closed seam, a way for the proudly uniformed trooper to cool himself on a warm day. Then the literal reading gives way to an alternative view, seeing a gash in his torso that opens up to reveal darkness. Homer renders this void in pure black pigment, blacker than any other application of black elsewhere on the canvas. Call it an exposure of the darkness of the heart, or the heart of darkness. We see a figure, eyeless, hollow, soulless: Death.

Each new encounter I have with Homer reinforces my belief that transition is the essential theme of his work. And how could it be otherwise for a contemplative artist whose career was birthed by the Civil War? If the vicissitudes of transition are encoded in Homer’s best work, the complementary theme of connections is of nearly equal importance. Not the least of the linkages Homer carefully constructs is that of viewer to painting. Consider this:

In a museum I stand in quiet reflection before a painting that depicts a man standing in quiet reflection before a grave. The grave is marked by a simple wooden cross. From the soldier’s perspective that cross is tilted back, as if responding directly to his gaze. It is easy for me, the viewer, to imagine the unseen face of the cross as a mirror, reflecting back to the man his own face. It is a face I study, with trepidation, for revelation.

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The book, “The Civil War and American Art,” contains a feast of documentation. This includes a section of Notes (32 pages); a Bibliography of over 300 sources and references (20 pages); a Catalog listing the 77 works featured in the Exhibition; and a list of the 123 Figure Illustrations found throughout this beautifully designed book. A helpful Index rounds out the volume.

If I have any quibble it is that its reproductions sometimes fall short. Especially is this so with the many images captured by the early photographers Alexander Gardner, Matthew Brady, George N. Barnard and others which are reproduced in the chapter devoted to The Art of Wartime Photography. They have a denatured look on the page, in contrast to the original source albumin prints in the exhibition which possess a life and death immediacy.

A similar deficiency-of-the-derivative occurs in the reproduction of Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field (1865). Harvey’s discussion of the painting (at pp. 225-229) mentions its “autobiographical quality,” and she specifically focuses on the former soldier’s war-issued canteen and jacket resting on the ground in the lower right corner. Here is a photo I took of page 227 on which the painting is reproduced.

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A close-up shot of the lower right corner is unrevealing.

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What’s not visible because of the book’s low-resolution reproduction, is a critical detail: the initials “WH” inscribed on the veteran’s canteen. This detail is best appreciated, of course, if you are in the presence of the painting itself and are able to move in for a closer look. At the end of the exhibition’s tour, The Veteran in a New Field will return to its permanent home as a treasure of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently renovated wing devoted to American Art. In the meantime, you can catch a glimpse of  the “WH” inscription thanks to the Met’s online image of the painting (click on the “fullscreen” option and zoom in). Here’s a screen capture of the jacket and canteen.

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Unlike Richard Estes (or, in a different medium, Alfred Hitchcock) who plants his name (or himself) in his work as an act of whimsy, Homer sometimes does so for a meaningful reason. Most poignantly this occurs in my favorite Homer painting, The Fox Hunt, 1893 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), where in the lower left corner of the painting his signature is immobilized by the drifting snow, echoing the pose and plight of the fox. Note also how the fox, just as the war veteran three decades before, turns his body to face away from us as he confronts a new kind of challenge on a potentially exhausting field.

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On a playful note, another example of Homer’s look-at-me urge is to be found in a wood engraving, The Beach at Long Branch, published in Appleton’s Journal, August 21, 1869 (click on the image to enlarge). Here three young women stand wondering, Who is WH? What I myself wonder is whether Homer is alluding to the Judgement of Paris episode in Greek myth. Is he pulling a tongue-in-cheek reversal on that story, assigning to the most comely of the three young women the role of selecting . . . Mr. W.H. himself ?

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“The Civil War and American Art” is a publication of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in association with Yale University Press. To get a sense of the book’s design, you can view the first 18 pages on Scribd.com. Some additional photos of my copy prove the values that guided its production.

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NOTES and further observations

1.  An abbreviated version of this book review appears on Amazon.com, here.

2. The photograph of Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave in this post is the Announcement Image for a 2009 exhibition at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens (Memphis) and the Katonah Museum of Art, “Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era,” a show organized by Kevin Sharp which explored ground similar to that of “The Civil War and American Art.”  Additional information about that exhibit is available herehere and here.

3. Faith Barrett, in her recently published “To Fight Aloud is Very Brave,” argues that poetry also had an important role in defining national identity: “Civil War poetry changed the way Americans understand their relationship to the nation.”  A November 2012 interview with Barrett can be read on the Poetry Foundation’s website , here.

4. A new installation of American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts “explores the themes of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery.” The works in the small exhibition are part of the permanent collection galleries in the Richard A.Manoogian Wing of American art. Among the paintings is this 1861 still life, Patriotic Bouquet, by George Henry Hall.

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5.  On the subject of communication by metaphor, in a previous blog post I argued that still life paintings — no less than landscape and genre paintings — may encode responses to the Civil War.

6.  Three years after he painted The Veteran in a New Field, Homer once again included himself in Artists Sketching in the White Mountains. The renewed artist has returned to his natural field. Homer’s back is turned away from us; he is intent on work. In a corner of the canvas, instead of finding a discarded canteen or jacket we now see a large case for the tools of the artist’s trade (visible in the detail, below). That is where Homer proudly affixes his signature.

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“Manet and the Object of Painting” by Michel Foucault

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

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The text of this thin volume is a translation from French to English of a transcript of a recording of a lecture Michel Foucault delivered in 1971 at the Tahar Haddad Cultural Club in Tunis. Foucault’s words, in print, occupy 40 pages.

While multiple factors (time, place, language, the reduction of voice to print) conspire to keep Foucault’s lecture from fully engaging the American reader of today, what Foucault still manages to communicate are insights that, I believe, will interest the typical museum-goer.

Foucault illustrated his lecture with 13 slides. The book includes reproductions of each of those paintings, from “Music in the Tuileries” (1862) to “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1881-82). Unfortunately, the illustrations are so tiny (for example, the 81.9 inches by 104.5 inches of “Luncheon on the Grass” (1862-63) are shrunk to a Lilliputian 3.2 by 4.2 inches) and so blandly reproduced (details are lost, colors misplaced, and the punch of Manet’s blacks absent) as to make them nearly worthless. Until a future e-publisher energizes Foucault’s text with interactive content, consider bringing to your reading spot both this book and a tablet on which to access the illustrations in fuller detail, such as the set of 13 gathered on one page on this site.

Additional editorial content includes an excellent introductory essay by Nicolas Bourriaud (11 pages), a very brief Translator’s Introduction by Matthew Barr, and a one-page index.

At the beginning of his lecture Foucault notes: “I am not a Manet specialist; nor am I a painting specialist, so it is as a layman that I would speak to you about Manet.” His focus is on formal analysis, and he organizes his thoughts under three rubrics: (1) the space of the canvas; (2) lighting; and (3) the place of the viewer. It is with these strategies, Foucault argues, that Manet succeeded at “inventing, if you like, the ‘picture-object’, the ‘painting-object’” — a move that made possible all of modern art.

Reading “Manet and the Object of Painting” provided me a new set of deciphering tools to use when standing before a Manet. More broadly, Foucault taught me new ways to look at representational art of all kinds.

Consider, for example, the first of his themes — Manet’s adoption of a radical approach to space that eschews traditional depth into the picture plane. Pointing to his first slide, the painting “Music in the Tuileries” (1862), Foucault notes how “there is not much depth, the figures in front are in a way masking almost completely what happens behind, from which derives this effect of a frieze.” In his second illustration, “The Masked Ball at the Opera” (1873-1874), he again points to how “the whole spatial balance is modified … Not only is the effect of depth erased, but the distance between the [front] edge of the picture and the back is relatively short, such that all the figures find themselves projected forward; far from there being depth, you have on the contrary a sort of phenomenon of relief.”

Similarly, in “The Execution of Maximilien” (1868), Manet employs “the same procedures, that is to say a violently marked and compressed closing of space by the presence of a large wall, a large wall which is no more than the repetition of the canvas itself; whereby, as you can see, all the figures are placed on a narrow band of earth.”

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Armed with Foucault’s observations, I looked anew at the work of Norman Rockwell. This may seem an odd choice for a compare-and-contrast exercise. Yet I would argue that in many of his immediately memorable compositions Rockwell effectively reforms space in ways reminiscent of Manet. Recall Foucault’s descriptions in the preceding paragraphs: not much depth … the presence of a wall … a violently marked and compressed closing of space … the effect of a frieze. See how fittingly those strategies attach to “The Problem We All Live With” (1964):

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Citing Normal Rockwell serves a secondary purpose, which is to suggest the constraints on Foucault’s perspective. First, his interest is limited to painting. Other forms of representation such as sculpture, drawing, printmaking and illustration, are ignored. More importantly, the revolt whose success Foucault convincingly attributes to Manet ended what we now are able to appreciate was merely a brief interregnum, a mode that triumphed but a few hundred years (from, say, the early 15th to the late 19th centuries) before receding into the broad flow of European artistic output. Also, non-European art — the bulk of mankind’s imaginative achievements — is not within Foucault’s ken.

You may be disappointed too if you expect Foucault to stray much beyond formal analysis into the realm of philosophy. Fortunately, that task is taken up by Nicolas Bourriaud whose superb essay I recommend be read both before, and after, reading the main text — especially if, like me, you’ve had no previous exposure to Foucault’s works of philosophy.

“Manet and the Object of Painting” is a handsomely produced book; I was pleased by Tate Publishing’s surprising use, in a paperback binding, of stitch-sewn signatures (click on the photos to enlarge them).

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NOTES

1.  Available online are the initial minutes of Foucault’s Lecture on Manet, in Tunis (I estimate the entire lecture occupied an hour). The audio recording can be accessed from the right side of this French language pagehttp://michel-foucault-archives.org/?Manet. The site introduces the audio excerpt with this explanation: ”En marge du Cahier de l’Herne Foucault qui reproduit deux versions des conférences de Foucault sur Manet, nous mettons en ligne quelques minutes de la conférence que Foucault donna le 20 mai 1971 au Club Haddad, conférence intitulée « La Peinture de Manet ». Foucault avait en effet le projet d’un ouvrage sur Manet, entrepris à partir de 1966, et qui était promis aux éditions de Minuit. Ces recherches donnèrent lieu à plusieurs conférences : à Milan en 1967 où il fit la rencontre d’Umberto Eco, à la Albright-Knox Art Gallery de Buffalo le 8 avril 1970 sur “Le Bar des Folies Bergères” ainsi qu’à Florence en novembre 1970, à Tokyo durant l’automne de la même année, et enfin à Tunis en 1971.”

2.  Here’s a mystery calling for a solution: The present volume (on page 27, footnote 1) indicates this lecture was part of a regular Tuesday evening series at the Haddad Center. Yet all the scholarship I’ve found cite Foucault’s Manet lecture date as May 20, 1971, which was a Thursday.

“Custer” by Larry McMurtry

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

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Larry McMurtry’s take on CUSTER, according to a growing consensus of reviewers on Amazon, is a pathetic effort. Some of these reviewers are historians of professional or amateur status and others are not. But all of them, it seems to me, come across as serious readers who care about the truth and care about history done right. They’re offended by the book’s countless flaws, factual errors, book production missteps, and quality-control oversights.

I join them in saying this is a sadly misbegotten thing.

I’m not a historian, amateur or otherwise, just a general reader. Before opening CUSTER I knew next to nothing about the General, other than how easily come the laughs whenever his name is invoked when characterizing someone else’s abject failure. Even if you don’t know the date by heart as do Custer-maniacs — it was June 25, 1876, by the way — everyone knows the outcome of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. So to those of you in a similar position, novices who might be attracted to the book because it looks like it might be a good way to enter Custer’s world, I say this:

Stay away.

As a biographer, McMurty fails the new reader. His presentation is disjointed. Without any helpful introduction, McMurtry drops in names and places and events that aficionados of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn will recognize but that leave the rest of us neophytes without a clue. He repeatedly veers off into tangents that have little or nothing to do with the subject at hand. The chapters are so short that narrative momentum is impossible.

Maybe you’re like me, expecting McMurty would take his talents as a storyteller and his skills as a novelist (no dispute that in his fiction he’s crafted fully-rounded characters you swear are real people) and use those talents and skills to re-imagine Custer for readers of today. Well, there too you’ll be disappointed. For me the final bitter pill was this: when I finished the book I had no strong sense of what it would have been like to meet Custer in person and know the man.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but aside from the major criticisms of knowledgeable reviewers, there’s yet one more problem to mention. In a book that carries a $35 list price, you will be shocked — and as a reader you will feel insulted — by how many typos mar McMurtry’s text as it now lies on the pages of this book. Was nobody at Simon & Schuster available to proofread it? On the more serious matters of factual inaccuracies in McMurtry’s text and in the captions accompanying the otherwise interesting illustrations (on the latter point, see the list of errors, here), why didn’t the editor listen to the pre-release readers who submitted comments and corrections? Why was this rushed into release in this sorry state?

For sure there’s a story to be told someday about how McMurtry, a writer with a long and distinguished career, got roped into this terrible adventure. If the unfocused, error-riddled text is from his hand and if it represents his final polished draft, then this truly must be viewed as a misconceived endeavor.

If, despite all the guff we unpaid reviewers are dishing out, you remain interested in adding CUSTER to your library or giving it as a gift, please consider waiting a bit. Mark my words: not long after the holidays there will be stacks of CUSTERs on the remainder table at your nearest Barnes & Noble, radically marked down with a ”must-sell-or-we-send-it-to-the-pulp-mill” low price.

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One more thing that got my goat is how Amazon teamed with the Simon & Schuster publicity shop to tout a product using misleading means.

A lot of people will decide whether to buy CUSTER based on information found on the book’s product page on Amazon. Potential purchasers may check out a few of the customer reviews and might also scan the “Editorial Reviews” section for insights. That section, just above the “Product Details” area, is where Amazon places comments on the book derived main stream media outlets — newspapers and magazines. This material is fed to Amazon from the publisher. In the case of CUSTER, this means Amazon is featuring blurbs plucked by Simon & Schuster from ten positive reviews of the book. Or at least you’re led to believe they’re reviews of CUSTER. And so someone who absorbs that material, together with the customer reviews, may wind up scratching their head in wonder: How could those smart folks at The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post say such nice things about CUSTER, when most of the common readers who posted detailed reviews are so negative? The answer is simple:

None of those positive-sounding quotations relate to CUSTER.

If you do a Google search you’ll discover the quotation from the Wall Street Journal actually comes from a review of McMurtry’s 2010 book entitled “Hollywood”. The statement from The New Yorker was previously attached to the author’s “The Berrybender Narratives”. The sentence from the Chicago Tribune was pulled from a 2002 review of “Sin Killer” (the first of the “Berrybender Narratives”). The words from the Washington Post were also previously attached to “The Berrybender Narratives”. Of you’re wondering about that second dry quotation from the Wall Street Journal — well, it appeared in a recent interview piece with the author; in no way should it be taken as the Journal expressing a positive judgment on CUSTER.

The remaining excerpts in the “Editorial Reviews” section do in fact come from recently-published reviews of McMurtry’s new book. Yet there, too, skepticism is in order.

For example, the 20 upbeat words carefully lifted from Kirkus Reviews are, in truth, more than overshadowed by the critical remarks found elsewhere in the complete review (available online here), such as this less-than-enthusiastic summary: “McMurtry’s observations are not especially interesting [...] and some wander off topic.” The same goes for the excerpt from a review in Booklist, which, when read in its entirely, also comes across as damning McMurtry with faint praise. Booklist labels the book as “neither a comprehensive nor a conventional biography of Custer. Instead, McMurtry offers a series of vignettes and musings … McMurtry often paints an unflattering and probably unfair portrait of Custer.” Granted, the Booklist reviewer does say many of the author’s “tidbits” are “interesting.”

As for the USA Today’s review of CUSTER that Amazon cites, upon reading the complete review I found it contains some not entirely reassuring words of advice to the potential reader; words that, for some reason, are missing from Amazon:

“You will enjoy the book more than Custer enjoyed the battle.”

I kid you not.

(As Jack Paar used to say.)

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An Apple that was America

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

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Recently I acquired a small still life painting by the 19th century American artist Edward Chalmers Leavitt (1842-1904):

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Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop
Oil on canvas, signed lower right and dated 1862.
6.5 x 8.75 inches

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Depictions of apples are very common in nineteenth century American art, and it’s not hard to understand why.

The apple’s renown can be traced to decades of widespread cultivation of apple trees throughout the growing nation. Successful harvests yielded not only abundant and flavorful table fruit, but an important beverage: millions of gallons of hard cider which thirsty Americans consumed with abandon.

For a young nation still in the process of defining itself, the apple was an object poised to take on symbolic importance. The natural stages of apple production — seeds, saplings, trees, new blossoms, nourishing fruit — furnished metaphors for nation-building. And when the new nation was in need of home-grown myths, they annointed Johnny Appleseed, whose legend is substantially rooted in fact.

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William Gropper, “Johnny Appleseed,” lithograph (another version, here)

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Johnny Appleseed became a hero of a quintessentially American kind, as his story blends both moral and practical lessons. Likewise the humble fruit he championed. Americans saw in the apple something they were temperamentally inclined to invest with representational authority.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the apple had achieved a status approaching that of a national symbol. Twice in his journals (in 1848 and in 1851) Ralph Waldo Emerson declared the apple to be “our national fruit,” and he later voiced that same judgment without fear of contradiction in lectures devoted to “Country Life“ delivered to audiences in Boston and Worcester (1858) as well as in Brooklyn (1859):

“The apple is our national fruit. In October, the country is covered with its ornamental harvest. The American sun paints itself in these glowing balls amid the green leaves, the social fruit, in which Nature has deposited every possible flavor; whole zones and climates she has concentrated into apples.”

This background adds to our understanding of Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop and the artist who painted it.

In 1862, Edward Chalmers Leavitt, a young man eager to extend his artistic reach beyond an early talent for drawing, decided to capture an apple’s essence in oil paint on canvas. This small painting may be the earliest surviving work by him, according to my research. Indeed not much is known with certainty about Leavitt’s training and early career as an artist. His first participation in an art exhibition occurred five years after Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop, when a work labeled “Fruit Piece (painting)” appeared at an exhibition sponsored by the Rhode Island Society for Domestic Industry. In his later years Leavitt achieved local prominence as the premier still life painter in the city of Providence, churning out grandiose and meticulously detailed compositions reflecting America’s material prosperity at the end of the century. These later commercial works, designed for an upper middle class market, are a long way away from his early apple.

A single apple on a shelf: what could be simpler, more humble, more innocent?

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But look closer. Doesn’t this begin to look like more than the commonly encountered image of an apple? I think the answer is yes. Many a curious thing is to be found in Leavitt’s depiction of America’s fruit. Some things extraneous. Some things pointing beyond the literal, beyond the space the artist constructed to house his apple. Perhaps something with a personal meaning.

What I see in the painting now set before me is this:

Here, in a simple depiction of an apple on a marble shelf, the artist has encoded the state of the nation in 1862.

I interpret the painting as a representation of the country as seen through the eyes of a young man during the eventful year of 1862. Yes, I’m engaging in some speculation here. I may never find confirmation of my premise. But what I do have in hand already are two things: a tantalizing biographical fact, and the evidence of the painting itself.

Here is the interesting fact: Edward Chalmers Leavitt, born and educated in Providence, Rhode Island, decided at the age of 19, at the outbreak of the Civil War, to volunteer to serve the Union cause. Exactly when in 1862 he painted Apple on a Marble Tabletop may never be determined. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout the months of 1862, Leavitt, like other young men of his time and place, must have followed intently every scrap of news and rumor that came his way about the campaigns and battles of the war. That second year of the Civil War saw the further terrible sundering of our nation. Blood was spilled on the battlefield; tears were spilled on the homefront.

The painting itself — its iconography — is intriguing. My reason to believe Leavitt had a higher aspiration for his painted apple, that he intended this apple as a commentary on contemporary events, is grounded in three elements of the picture. These details telegraph a message.

1.   The geography of battle

First there is the matter of how Leavitt depicts the physical setting the apple occupies. Within a very small format (just 6 1/2 by 8 3/4 inches) the artist has created a narrow and shallow display space. On reflection, however, this space broadens out to encompass a larger space. This in turn allows the apple to assume a larger meaning. What did Leavitt do to transform the space?

I find it significant that instead of attempting to replicate the look of marble as would other painters of the period, Leavitt purposely designs the stone’s signature mineral veins to achieve something other than mere verisimilitude. I’ve never before seen an American still life artist paint marble in this way. The veins, as ordered by Leavitt, are like meandering rivers that spread out across a wide territory. More broadly still, these lines suggest geographical markers or boundaries of territory. Some of these geographical cues refer to natural formations (we think of rivers) while others are man-made (notice the straight east-west line marking the meeting of the interlocked planes — creating “north” and “south” halves of the painting).

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Both the flat backdrop slab of marble and the flat shelf that projects outward toward the viewer are of equal prominence. While we perceive these as two separate surfaces, they can also be read as sections of one partially unfolded but not yet fully flattened map, thanks in part to the implied continuation of veins from one plane to the other. Indeed, on the left side of the picture we seem to be able to observe a river, formed in the north, grow as it wends its way south. The web of arteries, while mysterious, strongly suggests this decipherment. But what, in a larger sense, is the meaning of this eerie feature of Leavitt’s composition? What does it signify in the American context of 1862?

I believe the landscape-like element of this still life represents the geography of the American Civil War.

For Leavitt to use his painter’s brush to conjure up rivers, creeks and runs in the year 1862 was inevitably to awaken the names of skirmishes and battles lately entering people’s consciousness and speech: Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Middle Creek, Shiloh. Even if it was the convention of just one side of the conflict (the Confederacy) to name battles after the nearest river or run, those names would have been in the thoughts and on the tongues of everyone, north and south, following news of the war, reading newspaper accounts and pouring over illustrated maps. I cannot claim the lines Leavitt etched into his unfolded stone map correspond to any actual geographical boundaries or waterways met in the path of war. They don’t have to. It served Leavitt’s purpose to create a general schematic of the water-carved fields of battle. What Leavitt intended has been successfully evoked.

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Notice also what happens to us, as viewers, when we entertain the notion, even if only for a moment, that this apple is resting on a huge expanse of territory. In our mind’s eye the apple balloons in size. Our sense of scale goes kerflooey, as happens when we look at a surrealistically large apple in a painting by Magritte.

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At the very least, our sense of the meaning of the apple expands to include new possibilities.

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2.   The inflicted wound

The apple has suffered a bruise. It’s a distinctive wound.

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For centuries still life artists have used the trope of imperfections in the skin of a piece of fruit to signify the impermanence of beauty, illustrating the poet’s observation, “everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment.” Yet this is almost always conveyed through depictions of naturally occurring flaws, inherent decay rising to the surface or the natural decomposition of skin post-ripeness. Apples, for example, may be shown with lesions of apple scab disease.

In contrast, the bruise Leavitt painted has a different look and meaning. It appears its cause was an irregular action, an unnatural source, something external. A plausible reading is that the wound is one inflicted by an opposing human hand, when the violent pressure of a finger and nail left a ghostly outline on the skin.

This wound occupies the southwest quadrant of the face of the apple the artist presents to the viewer. From the vantage point of Leavitt’s New England roots and his Providence, Rhode Island, home base, to the southwest is the very direction he would point, when locating the depredations of the major Civil War engagements in the year 1862. Think of Shiloh (Tennessee); Gaine’s Mill (Virginia); 2nd Battle of Bull Run (Virginia); Battle of Richmond, Kentucky; Antietam (Maryland); and Fredericksburg (Virginia).

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3.   The blood of battle

One aspect of the apple delights the eye at first glance — or at least delights the eye of a viewer who assumes this to be an innocent representation of an apple. Two drops magically cling to the apple’s skin. These two drops belong to the tradition of trompe l’oeil still life, whose practitioners applied embellishments of this sort to impart a reality to the painted object (depicting a fly alighting on the fruit is another off-used trick). Later in his career Leavitt himself would return to the practice, in one instance dotting a cabbage leaf with drops of water, and on another occasion affixing raindrops to the yellow roses and leaves in a painting from 1885:

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But note that in these later examples the drops of moisture are of an entirely different character. We understand the drops on the cabbage leaf were applied externally (from refreshing rain or from being washed by man) as were those on the rose (again, from rain). In contrast, the drops on the apple appear to come from inside the apple. Just as a matter of gravity it’s hard to fathom how a drop of water could be placed on the shear side of the apple and retain its globular form. Instead we must imagine a puncture, a hole in the skin from which a vital essence slowly is escaping. The top drop appears to have just emerged. We imagine it will grow larger. The heavy bottom drop falls like a tear.

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It does not matter that science can explain why the drops are red, and can assure us the drops are only behaving as lenses relaying the red color of the apple skin. No: despite such knowledge we are seized by one terrible thought.  This is blood. The apple is bleeding.

This apple was America.

If you also admit the possibility of seeing Leavitt’s apple as a human torso, then what the young artist depicted is a mature and consequential image. In symbolic form he shows us the scene that follows the triggering scene drawn by Winslow Homer and published in Harper’s Weekly in 1862 (The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty). Homer called the actions of the sharp-shooter “near murder.”

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Notes and additional observations

1.  As I write and post this piece, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is preparing to open an exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, that will be on view from November 16, 2012, through April 28, 2013. Later the exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, May 21 through September 3, 2013. Although the accompanying scholarly catalogue, authored by Eleanor Jones Harvey, is not yet available to me (Amazon currently lists a future release date of November 27, 2012), I’ve just read an illustrated essay, apparently an excerpt from the catalog, in American Art Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, 2012 (November-December), pp. 80-85. In it the author reveals her thesis that the Civil War had a profound effect on the mission, content, and uses of art in America. She focuses her analysis on landscape painting and photography as well as postwar genre painting. While those are the most obvious arenas, let me suggest the investigation into signifiers should not stop there. Still life may also respond to a war’s wounds. In the hands of an engaged artist, even a mere apple can be a nation.

2.  I’ve mentioned that the web of veins in the marble platform have a mysterious aura, a mystery that activates a viewer’s desire for decipherment. In this way they remind me of the puzzling lines in the backgound of some Jasper Johns works from the 1980s and ’90s (lines whose source and meaning art scholars have scurried to uncover):

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3.  If, as I argue in this essay, Leavitt set his American apple upon a generalize map of the battlegrounds of Civil War America, it seems almost unnecessary to call attention to the shadow cast by the apple  – the shadow of death and mourning — falling across the land. The apple cannot escape from the narrow shelf; its fate awaits. Three years later, mourning the spilling of every drop of blood, ruminating on the terrible course of events, Lincoln sadly recalled: … AND THE WAR CAME.

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A Pair of Inadvertent Chuck Closes

Friday, October 19th, 2012

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The signature style of American portraitist Chuck Close is unmistakable. Its basis is a grid, usually of squares filled with colors that from a distance blend to recreate the original photograph of the subject.

Recently, when editing photos on my iPad, an apparent malfunction occurred in the crop and save function, causing a few pictures to be transformed into fuzzy, gridded structures. I see them as accidental Closes.

Below is an actual piece by Close (“Emma,” woodcut, 2002) whose tilted “grid” is made up of diamonds, rectangles and L-shapes; followed by one of my iPad-restructured photos, this one of Hillary Clinton.

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Here’s another Close (“Alex II,” oil on canvas, 1989) followed by an iPad-transformed photo of Paul Ryan from the 2012 Vice Presidential debate:

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