Monday, May 16, 2016

The Other 90%: Alice Neel

We’re spotlighting some of the artists included in The Other 90%: Works from the GW Permanent Collection, on view now through June 3, 2016 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.


Life & Career


Alice Neel (1900-1984) was one of the most prolific American portrait painters of the twentieth century. Although abstraction was popular during the 1940s and 50s, she continued to paint in a style that depicted real people from celebrities of the art world like Andy Warhol to impoverish Neighbors in Spanish Harlem. Her gift was being able to reveal something of her sitters’ inner selves through depictions of their outer appearance.[1]

Neel was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania and began her art education at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now known as Moore College of Art and Design), enrolled from 1921-25 Her early life was turbulent and her marriage to the artist Carlos Enriquez took her from Pennsylvania to Cuba to New York. With the death of a child and a disintegrating marriage, she suffered from anxiety and depression, which led to several suicide attempts. By 1932 she had returned to painting and to New York, where she participated in the First Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit that year. Like many artists living in New York during the 1930s, Neel joined the Public Works of Art Project (which would later become the Works Progress Administration, WPA), a government-funded program run under the Whitney Museum of American Art; she worked with the program on and off again until its termination in 1943.[2]

While she was included in a number group shows and small exhibitions during the 1940s and 50s, Neel only began to see increased recognition in the 1960s. By 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art was holding a retrospective of her work, which many considered to be ‘too little, too late’ although she considered it a triumph. In 1984, the year of her death, she appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, offering to paint his portrait.[3]


Activism


Neel was an activist throughout her life. She was investigated in 1955 by the FBI who had been looking into her activities with the Communist Party since 1951. Their file described her as a “romantic Bohemian type communist.” [4] In 1959, she appeared in the Beat film Pull My Daisy with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, among others. In 1968 she participated in a protest of the Whitney Museum of American Art over the exhibition 1930s Painting and Sculpture in America, because of its lack of women and African American artists, and again over the exhibition, Contemporary Black Artists in America, which was accused of being hastily organized by its curator, Robert Doty. 

She participated in a demonstration against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, in 1969; she, Raphael Soyer, John Dobbs, and Mel Roman were the only white artists to attend the demonstration, organized by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. She also stood with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam opposing Governor Nelson rockefeller's handling of the Attica prison riot in 1971. Her portrait of Kate Millet appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 in an issue dedicated to the “Politics of Sex.” Between 1973 and 1975 she participated in at least eight exhibitions exclusively devoted to the work of women artists.


Connections


As a major figure in the art world during the last decades of her life, she had connections to a number of other artists exhibited in The Other 90 Percent. In 1970 she painted a portrait of Andy Warhol, and Warhol attended and photographed a dinner held in honor of Neel by NYC Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion in 1982. [5] She protested with Raphael Soyer, and also painted a portrait of the artist and his twin brother, the artist Moses Soyer, in 1973. In 1972 she participated in the “Conference of Women in the Visual Arts,” held at the Corcoran School of Art, in Washington, D.C., taking the opportunity to present slides of her work.

Alice Neel, Family, 1982, lithograph, ed. 68/175, 
31-1/4 x 27 inches. The George Washington 
University Permanent Collection. Gift of James 
M. Kearns, 1993. 



Artistic Style


Although, she had numerous illustrations printed in the magazine Masses and Mainstream during the forties and fifties, Neel did not begin making prints, like the one shown here, until later in her career. She worked with Judith Solodkin at Rutgers University in 1977 to produce Nancy, a lithograph, and an etching, Young Man. [6] The lithograph in the GW Permanent Collection, Family (1982), is representative of her style of portraiture: strong outlines, bold brushstrokes, and tilted perspectives create a flatness against the picture plane and often suggests the uneasiness and personal struggles of many of her sitters.






[1] National Museum of Women in the Arts, “Alice Neel, 1900-1984,” <http://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/alice-neel> Accessed 14 March, 2016.
[2] Sarah Powers, “Chronology,” in Alice Neel, exhibition catalog, June 29, 2000–December 30, 2001, Philadelphia Museum of Art and four other institutions, 159-176.
[3] Powers, 176.
[4] Powers, 169.
[5] Powers, 175.
[6] Powers, 174.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Makonde Tree of Life: Updates #1 and #2


Update #1: Who are the Makonde?

The Makonde people live in East Africa, in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Although both produce art objects, the Makonde of Mozambique and the Makonde of Tanzania are culturally different, due to the division of their lands by the Rovuma River and the wood carving known as “Makonde” is produced by the Tanzanian Makonde. Able to resist colonization until the early 20th century, the Makonde’s traditional religion is based on ancestor worship and their art also centers around celebration and remembrance of ancestors. The “Tree of Life” type of carvings are highly collectible and depict men, women, children, and in our case birds, one on top of the other and connected. These types of carvings developed in the 1950s as well as the carving of shetani, or spirits in abstracted form. 


Fima Lifshitz, An African Journey Through Its Art (AuthorHouse: Bloomington, IN 2009) 126-128.


Update #2: Mystery Solved?

One day, quite by accident, a breakthrough came in the mystery of the Makonde Tree of Life’s origins. While touring the MPA building for a completely different reason Tony Beasley, a GW Facilities worker, saw the Tree of Life sitting in our study room and exclaimed “That used to be in my office!” It had been there when he got the office and he liked it so much he decided to keep it. He couldn’t remember the name of who had the office before him, “Paul something?” but told us to ask Susan Hyde, an Administrative Assistant at the Virginia Campus. 

A call back from Hyde revealed that the office used to belong to Dr. John S. Wilson, Jr., the Dean of the Virginia Campus. Now President of Morehouse College, via the White House Initiative on Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Wilson was at GW from 2001-2009 as the Executive Dean of the Virginia Campus and associate professor in higher education in the Graduate School of Education. Along with links to Dr. Wilson’s bio from Morehouse, Hyde sent the message “I hope you can get in contact with Mr. Wilson and solve this mystery!” 

We hope so too! I guess we’re calling Atlanta.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Makonde Tree of Life: What is This?

The work pictured below arrived at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery when the office where it had been for years was renovated.  It's arrival coincided with a planned cases exhibition of work from our traditional African art collection featuring recent gifts and a number of works that had not been on view in several years.  The addition of the Makonde work provided a way to talk about a "Found in Collection" work of art, another facet of museum collections work. 

An almost life-sized image of this work and any new information we discover on the piece will be on view as part of Building Knowledge: Traditional African Art in the GW Permanent Collection through June 2016 in the 21st Street side cases on the first floor of the MPA Building.


What is this?

The mystery of “What is this?” is unusual but not unknown in the museum field. Objects and artifacts sometimes lose identifying information as they make their way from origin, through a life-span of use, and into a museum collection, over the course of decades or centuries. We are fortunate that many works of Western art bear signatures, dates, and even places of origin. But other times there is nothing beyond what we can see with our eyes. 

Luckily, through diligent research, we can connect the dots and re-write the story behind a work. There isn’t much we know about the piece itself, besides the information it came with, but we’ll be investigating all leads and will bring you updates every other week here and in the first floor cases in MPA as we find out more. 

Join us as we attempt to answer the question “What is this?”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What DO we know?

  • This is a Makonde “Tree of Life.” 
  • The Makonde people are traditionally located in an area that stretches across the border between Mozambique and Tanzania. 
  • It came from an office on the Ashburn Campus, left behind when someone moved
What would we like to know?

  • What is a “Tree of Life?”
  • Who are all of these figures and what is the meaning of the work?
  • Who owned this?
  • How did it get from Africa to Ashburn?
  • Can we trace this back to a specific person?

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Other 90%: Barbara Morgan


Born in Kansas in 1900, Barbara Morgan moved with her family to a peach farm in Southern California where she spent her youth.  During this time, Morgan developed an early interest in dance and movement. Her father noted this interest and suggested that the five-year-old “think of everything in the world as dancing atoms.”[1]  Since that young age, Morgan examined the world and her artwork with this scientific perspective.
This mindset was further affirmed during Morgan’s formal training at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1923. Under the direction and principles of Arthur Wesley Dow, Morgan explored the concept of art synthesis, which paired abstract design with figurative drawing and painting.[2] These principles are evident in Morgan’s early work, which consisted mostly of drawings, prints, and watercolors.  She was also influenced by the “Chinese Six Canons of Painting,” which were developed by art historian, Xie He, in sixth-century China.  According to He, there were six points to consider when examining a painting: spirit resonance, bone method, correspondence to the object, suitability to type, division and planning, and transmission by copying.[3] Morgan specifically appreciated the concept of spirit resonance, which refers to the vitality and nervous energy transmitted from the artist into the work. This energy contributes to the overall power of a work of art. He contested that without spirit resonance, there was no need to look further into an artwork. Morgan felt similarly and found that spirit resonance encapsulated her father’s early suggestion on how the world and beauty was composed.
Morgan found that she could incorporate spirit resonance into her work through lighting and balance. While at UCLA, Morgan volunteered to set up stage lighting for a group of visiting French playwrights. The playwrights staged and performed Failures, a play that traced emotional changes over time. Morgan was tasked with constantly changing the mood on stage through the lighting. Since Morgan possessed no training in theatre or lighting, much of her learning occurred on site. Despite this lack of knowledge, Morgan became fascinated by lighting principles and was able to master them in a short time. The experience taught her about the overall power and role lighting plays in bestowing meaning to an artwork.
Morgan experienced a shift in her career after working with her husband, Willard D. Morgan, on a photo project of Dr. Albert Barnes’ art collection in Merion, Pennsylvania. At the time, Morgan did not consider herself a photographer; however, she used the project to explore photographic lighting. As part of the project, Morgan was allowed to photograph Barnes’ entire collection. While photographing a fertility sculpture from Sudan and masks from the Ivory Coast, she discovered how these ritual sculptures became either menacing or benign, through control of lighting.[4] This revelation further confirmed Morgan’s belief in the power of lighting and shifted her interests to photography. In fact, light manipulation became the central theme in her famous photographs of American modern dance and movement.
In Morgan’s photographs of dance and dancers, she attempted to free figures within space, focusing on singular movements and light in order to create a slow-motion effect. Morgan stated, “I love to build a lighting scheme in which light and the moving subject matter is reciprocally alive; now moving in opposition, by-passing, flowing together, modulating into shadow, reappearing in muted areas, until the entire design is rich and mobile.”[5] Morgan’s passion for lighting schemes is prominent in her Sixteen Dances series. For this series, she collaborated with Martha Graham, a modern dancer and choreographer, and her company.

Barbara Morgan, Jose Limon-Mexican Suite-Peon-1944, 1944, printed c. 1980, silver print.  Gift of Gary Granoff, Esq., 1983.

Sixteen Dances is an important series in Morgan’s career because it showcases the purpose and artistry behind her craft. Morgan shot all of the photographs in Sixteen Dances in her studio with specific lighting that she designed for each piece. Thus, the project was challenging from a technical point of view and put insurmountable pressure on Graham and her company. Due to the technicality of Morgan’s process, Graham and her dancers were often asked to pose and re-pose countless times in order to achieve the proper lighting and perspective. Reflecting on the experience, Graham remarked in an interview that, “[Morgan] was a terror.”[6] However, it is important to note that Morgan’s specificity during the project was necessary in order to transfuse spirit resonance into each piece. Morgan remarked on this necessity, stating, “I wanted to show that Martha had her own vision. That what she was conveying was deeper than ego, deeper than baloney. Dance has to go beyond theater....I was trying to connect her spirit with the viewer—to show pictures of spiritual energy.”[7] Ultimately, in the series, Graham’s energy is successfully conveyed as a fluid and significant movement, which the viewer can experience without having knowledge of the entire dance.
Capturing the beauty and effort of dance on film takes not only a trained eye, but, more importantly, an understanding of the science that creates such action. Barbara Morgan mastered both of these abilities. Her legacy of observing life in relation to “dancing atoms” will always be preserved on film and on paper, providing a glimpse into her world of photography, light and modern dance.
Barbara Morgan’s works will be on display as a part of The Other 90%: Works from the GW Permanent Collection, on view until June 3, 2016 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.



[1] Dunning, J. (1992, August 19). Barbara Morgan, Photographer Of Modern Dance, Is Dead at 92. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/19/arts/ barbara-morgan-photographer-of-modern-dance-is-dead-at-92.html
[2] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[3] Cahill, J. F.. (1961). The Six Laws and How to Read Them. Ars Orientalis, 4, 372–381. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4629151
[4] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[5] Morgan, “Kinetic Design in Photography,” 27.
[6] Acocella, J. (2011, June 1). An Unforgettable Photo of Martha Graham. Smithsonian Magazine.
[7] Ibid

Monday, February 22, 2016

Colorful Explorations


Over a week ago, spectators gathered around a tree-trunk cage to watch Punxsutawney Phil emerge from his winter sleep. The groundhog, known famously for his shadow, forecasted an early spring. Although not scientifically supported, Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions offer hope for warmer temperatures during the dead of winter.  This winter has been especially difficult to endure given large snowfalls, freezing wind chills, and overcast skies. Yet, the colorful works of art currently on display at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery offer much needed life to this despondent weather. In fact, broad brush strokes and vibrant colors emit from Elizabeth Osborne’s paintings, which are on display as part of Color Bloc: Paintings by Elizabeth Osborne. The exhibition showcases Osborne’s simultaneous explorations into the abstract and the specific. For example, paintings feature clear figures lost within expansive color. Ultimately, these explorations profoundly activate a viewer’s senses, allowing for powerful memories to emerge from resonating color fields.
It is difficult not to become transfixed by the glowing colors of Osborne’s paintings and the pages and stories in Coloring Pages: Works from the Corcoran Collection of Artists’ Books, which are equally engaging. Each book within this exhibition uses similarly bright hues to illustrate abstract and specific ideas like Osborne’s work. Additionally, some of these pieces tell stories completely through color such as the accordion style Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (The Little Red Riding Hood). A key on the first page of this book identifies Little Red Riding Hood, her mother, grandmother, the hunter, and le loup (the wolf) as differently colored dots. As the story progresses, the viewer notes the small red dot of Riding Hood moving through the green forest to grandmother’s house, followed by the ever-growing black form of the wolf. This clever visual re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood captivates the viewer’s color memory as he or she remembers the story along with each colored dot. 
Real Lush provides another visual narrative through design and movement. Real Lush is considered an interactive flip book because it lends itself to the act of flipping due to its tight, bolted binding. When a viewer flips the pages of Real Lush, brightly-colored images overlap and repeat in sections of the book, which results in compelling motion. Additionally, individual images reappear throughout the work; some sequences of images depict continuous movement: a man running from left to right, or a bird flying off the page. These numerous elements provide multiple narratives, which simultaneously craft a larger story about color. For example, one section of the book showcases a sweeping figure as it lunges towards its destination. The figure is depicted in red hues, which accentuates its movement throughout vast and contrasting background scenes. In addition to expansive color explorations, the author includes several details within the book in order to further stimulate the viewer’s perception. Specifically, small figures in the corner of each page vary to produce their own tiny scenes. These figures and larger scenes are shown in slow motion (see video), which allows for the book’s craft to be exhibited slowly and deliberately. It should also be noted that the book's structure lends itself to be viewed diversely at different speeds. Thus, Real Lush reveals new meaning during each viewing.

video
video

The meaning of Mikhail Karasik’s Gas Masks is evident from visual depictions of historical events. In this collection of ten prints on cardboard, Karasik illustrates the use of gas masks in the 1930s Soviet Union, where masks were available for every man, woman, child and even animals. Additionally, the back of each panel contains parts of the script of “Gas Masks,” an absurdist play written in 1923 by Sergei Tretiakov (1892-1939), in which a repairman dies from a leaking gas pipe because of a shortage of gas masks. In memoriam, his son is named Gasmask. The bold depictions of this story are passionately conveyed using equally forward colors. Ultimately, these colorful scenes illustrate the story’s deeper meaning regarding  power and refuge to the viewer.
Altogether, Coloring Pages: Works from the Corcoran Collection of Artists’ features a large collection of colorful books and stories. These stories offer a creative and lively refuge from wintry conditions and forecasts. So, until Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction becomes a reality, visit the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery exhibitions in order to delve into works featuring warm and enlivening colors.


 ColorBloc: Paintings by Elizabeth Osborne will be on view until February 26, 2016. 
Coloring Pages: Works from the Corcoran Collection of Artists' Books will be exhibited in the 2nd floor cases of the School of Media and Public Affairs building through March 25, 2016.

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Found In Collection

Covering exhibits at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery and giving you a peek into the Permanent Collection of the George Washington University.

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Howard Hodgkin: Paintings - May 16, 2012

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Other 90%: Alice Neel

We’re spotlighting some of the artists included in The Other 90%: Works from the GW Permanent Collection, on view now through June 3, 2016 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.


Life & Career


Alice Neel (1900-1984) was one of the most prolific American portrait painters of the twentieth century. Although abstraction was popular during the 1940s and 50s, she continued to paint in a style that depicted real people from celebrities of the art world like Andy Warhol to impoverish Neighbors in Spanish Harlem. Her gift was being able to reveal something of her sitters’ inner selves through depictions of their outer appearance.[1]

Neel was born in Merion Square, Pennsylvania and began her art education at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now known as Moore College of Art and Design), enrolled from 1921-25 Her early life was turbulent and her marriage to the artist Carlos Enriquez took her from Pennsylvania to Cuba to New York. With the death of a child and a disintegrating marriage, she suffered from anxiety and depression, which led to several suicide attempts. By 1932 she had returned to painting and to New York, where she participated in the First Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit that year. Like many artists living in New York during the 1930s, Neel joined the Public Works of Art Project (which would later become the Works Progress Administration, WPA), a government-funded program run under the Whitney Museum of American Art; she worked with the program on and off again until its termination in 1943.[2]

While she was included in a number group shows and small exhibitions during the 1940s and 50s, Neel only began to see increased recognition in the 1960s. By 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art was holding a retrospective of her work, which many considered to be ‘too little, too late’ although she considered it a triumph. In 1984, the year of her death, she appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, offering to paint his portrait.[3]


Activism


Neel was an activist throughout her life. She was investigated in 1955 by the FBI who had been looking into her activities with the Communist Party since 1951. Their file described her as a “romantic Bohemian type communist.” [4] In 1959, she appeared in the Beat film Pull My Daisy with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, among others. In 1968 she participated in a protest of the Whitney Museum of American Art over the exhibition 1930s Painting and Sculpture in America, because of its lack of women and African American artists, and again over the exhibition, Contemporary Black Artists in America, which was accused of being hastily organized by its curator, Robert Doty. 

She participated in a demonstration against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, in 1969; she, Raphael Soyer, John Dobbs, and Mel Roman were the only white artists to attend the demonstration, organized by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. She also stood with the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam opposing Governor Nelson rockefeller's handling of the Attica prison riot in 1971. Her portrait of Kate Millet appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 in an issue dedicated to the “Politics of Sex.” Between 1973 and 1975 she participated in at least eight exhibitions exclusively devoted to the work of women artists.


Connections


As a major figure in the art world during the last decades of her life, she had connections to a number of other artists exhibited in The Other 90 Percent. In 1970 she painted a portrait of Andy Warhol, and Warhol attended and photographed a dinner held in honor of Neel by NYC Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion in 1982. [5] She protested with Raphael Soyer, and also painted a portrait of the artist and his twin brother, the artist Moses Soyer, in 1973. In 1972 she participated in the “Conference of Women in the Visual Arts,” held at the Corcoran School of Art, in Washington, D.C., taking the opportunity to present slides of her work.

Alice Neel, Family, 1982, lithograph, ed. 68/175, 
31-1/4 x 27 inches. The George Washington 
University Permanent Collection. Gift of James 
M. Kearns, 1993. 



Artistic Style


Although, she had numerous illustrations printed in the magazine Masses and Mainstream during the forties and fifties, Neel did not begin making prints, like the one shown here, until later in her career. She worked with Judith Solodkin at Rutgers University in 1977 to produce Nancy, a lithograph, and an etching, Young Man. [6] The lithograph in the GW Permanent Collection, Family (1982), is representative of her style of portraiture: strong outlines, bold brushstrokes, and tilted perspectives create a flatness against the picture plane and often suggests the uneasiness and personal struggles of many of her sitters.






[1] National Museum of Women in the Arts, “Alice Neel, 1900-1984,” <http://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/alice-neel> Accessed 14 March, 2016.
[2] Sarah Powers, “Chronology,” in Alice Neel, exhibition catalog, June 29, 2000–December 30, 2001, Philadelphia Museum of Art and four other institutions, 159-176.
[3] Powers, 176.
[4] Powers, 169.
[5] Powers, 175.
[6] Powers, 174.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Makonde Tree of Life: Updates #1 and #2


Update #1: Who are the Makonde?

The Makonde people live in East Africa, in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Although both produce art objects, the Makonde of Mozambique and the Makonde of Tanzania are culturally different, due to the division of their lands by the Rovuma River and the wood carving known as “Makonde” is produced by the Tanzanian Makonde. Able to resist colonization until the early 20th century, the Makonde’s traditional religion is based on ancestor worship and their art also centers around celebration and remembrance of ancestors. The “Tree of Life” type of carvings are highly collectible and depict men, women, children, and in our case birds, one on top of the other and connected. These types of carvings developed in the 1950s as well as the carving of shetani, or spirits in abstracted form. 


Fima Lifshitz, An African Journey Through Its Art (AuthorHouse: Bloomington, IN 2009) 126-128.


Update #2: Mystery Solved?

One day, quite by accident, a breakthrough came in the mystery of the Makonde Tree of Life’s origins. While touring the MPA building for a completely different reason Tony Beasley, a GW Facilities worker, saw the Tree of Life sitting in our study room and exclaimed “That used to be in my office!” It had been there when he got the office and he liked it so much he decided to keep it. He couldn’t remember the name of who had the office before him, “Paul something?” but told us to ask Susan Hyde, an Administrative Assistant at the Virginia Campus. 

A call back from Hyde revealed that the office used to belong to Dr. John S. Wilson, Jr., the Dean of the Virginia Campus. Now President of Morehouse College, via the White House Initiative on Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Wilson was at GW from 2001-2009 as the Executive Dean of the Virginia Campus and associate professor in higher education in the Graduate School of Education. Along with links to Dr. Wilson’s bio from Morehouse, Hyde sent the message “I hope you can get in contact with Mr. Wilson and solve this mystery!” 

We hope so too! I guess we’re calling Atlanta.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Makonde Tree of Life: What is This?

The work pictured below arrived at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery when the office where it had been for years was renovated.  It's arrival coincided with a planned cases exhibition of work from our traditional African art collection featuring recent gifts and a number of works that had not been on view in several years.  The addition of the Makonde work provided a way to talk about a "Found in Collection" work of art, another facet of museum collections work. 

An almost life-sized image of this work and any new information we discover on the piece will be on view as part of Building Knowledge: Traditional African Art in the GW Permanent Collection through June 2016 in the 21st Street side cases on the first floor of the MPA Building.


What is this?

The mystery of “What is this?” is unusual but not unknown in the museum field. Objects and artifacts sometimes lose identifying information as they make their way from origin, through a life-span of use, and into a museum collection, over the course of decades or centuries. We are fortunate that many works of Western art bear signatures, dates, and even places of origin. But other times there is nothing beyond what we can see with our eyes. 

Luckily, through diligent research, we can connect the dots and re-write the story behind a work. There isn’t much we know about the piece itself, besides the information it came with, but we’ll be investigating all leads and will bring you updates every other week here and in the first floor cases in MPA as we find out more. 

Join us as we attempt to answer the question “What is this?”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What DO we know?

  • This is a Makonde “Tree of Life.” 
  • The Makonde people are traditionally located in an area that stretches across the border between Mozambique and Tanzania. 
  • It came from an office on the Ashburn Campus, left behind when someone moved
What would we like to know?

  • What is a “Tree of Life?”
  • Who are all of these figures and what is the meaning of the work?
  • Who owned this?
  • How did it get from Africa to Ashburn?
  • Can we trace this back to a specific person?

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Other 90%: Barbara Morgan


Born in Kansas in 1900, Barbara Morgan moved with her family to a peach farm in Southern California where she spent her youth.  During this time, Morgan developed an early interest in dance and movement. Her father noted this interest and suggested that the five-year-old “think of everything in the world as dancing atoms.”[1]  Since that young age, Morgan examined the world and her artwork with this scientific perspective.
This mindset was further affirmed during Morgan’s formal training at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1923. Under the direction and principles of Arthur Wesley Dow, Morgan explored the concept of art synthesis, which paired abstract design with figurative drawing and painting.[2] These principles are evident in Morgan’s early work, which consisted mostly of drawings, prints, and watercolors.  She was also influenced by the “Chinese Six Canons of Painting,” which were developed by art historian, Xie He, in sixth-century China.  According to He, there were six points to consider when examining a painting: spirit resonance, bone method, correspondence to the object, suitability to type, division and planning, and transmission by copying.[3] Morgan specifically appreciated the concept of spirit resonance, which refers to the vitality and nervous energy transmitted from the artist into the work. This energy contributes to the overall power of a work of art. He contested that without spirit resonance, there was no need to look further into an artwork. Morgan felt similarly and found that spirit resonance encapsulated her father’s early suggestion on how the world and beauty was composed.
Morgan found that she could incorporate spirit resonance into her work through lighting and balance. While at UCLA, Morgan volunteered to set up stage lighting for a group of visiting French playwrights. The playwrights staged and performed Failures, a play that traced emotional changes over time. Morgan was tasked with constantly changing the mood on stage through the lighting. Since Morgan possessed no training in theatre or lighting, much of her learning occurred on site. Despite this lack of knowledge, Morgan became fascinated by lighting principles and was able to master them in a short time. The experience taught her about the overall power and role lighting plays in bestowing meaning to an artwork.
Morgan experienced a shift in her career after working with her husband, Willard D. Morgan, on a photo project of Dr. Albert Barnes’ art collection in Merion, Pennsylvania. At the time, Morgan did not consider herself a photographer; however, she used the project to explore photographic lighting. As part of the project, Morgan was allowed to photograph Barnes’ entire collection. While photographing a fertility sculpture from Sudan and masks from the Ivory Coast, she discovered how these ritual sculptures became either menacing or benign, through control of lighting.[4] This revelation further confirmed Morgan’s belief in the power of lighting and shifted her interests to photography. In fact, light manipulation became the central theme in her famous photographs of American modern dance and movement.
In Morgan’s photographs of dance and dancers, she attempted to free figures within space, focusing on singular movements and light in order to create a slow-motion effect. Morgan stated, “I love to build a lighting scheme in which light and the moving subject matter is reciprocally alive; now moving in opposition, by-passing, flowing together, modulating into shadow, reappearing in muted areas, until the entire design is rich and mobile.”[5] Morgan’s passion for lighting schemes is prominent in her Sixteen Dances series. For this series, she collaborated with Martha Graham, a modern dancer and choreographer, and her company.

Barbara Morgan, Jose Limon-Mexican Suite-Peon-1944, 1944, printed c. 1980, silver print.  Gift of Gary Granoff, Esq., 1983.

Sixteen Dances is an important series in Morgan’s career because it showcases the purpose and artistry behind her craft. Morgan shot all of the photographs in Sixteen Dances in her studio with specific lighting that she designed for each piece. Thus, the project was challenging from a technical point of view and put insurmountable pressure on Graham and her company. Due to the technicality of Morgan’s process, Graham and her dancers were often asked to pose and re-pose countless times in order to achieve the proper lighting and perspective. Reflecting on the experience, Graham remarked in an interview that, “[Morgan] was a terror.”[6] However, it is important to note that Morgan’s specificity during the project was necessary in order to transfuse spirit resonance into each piece. Morgan remarked on this necessity, stating, “I wanted to show that Martha had her own vision. That what she was conveying was deeper than ego, deeper than baloney. Dance has to go beyond theater....I was trying to connect her spirit with the viewer—to show pictures of spiritual energy.”[7] Ultimately, in the series, Graham’s energy is successfully conveyed as a fluid and significant movement, which the viewer can experience without having knowledge of the entire dance.
Capturing the beauty and effort of dance on film takes not only a trained eye, but, more importantly, an understanding of the science that creates such action. Barbara Morgan mastered both of these abilities. Her legacy of observing life in relation to “dancing atoms” will always be preserved on film and on paper, providing a glimpse into her world of photography, light and modern dance.
Barbara Morgan’s works will be on display as a part of The Other 90%: Works from the GW Permanent Collection, on view until June 3, 2016 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.



[1] Dunning, J. (1992, August 19). Barbara Morgan, Photographer Of Modern Dance, Is Dead at 92. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/19/arts/ barbara-morgan-photographer-of-modern-dance-is-dead-at-92.html
[2] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[3] Cahill, J. F.. (1961). The Six Laws and How to Read Them. Ars Orientalis, 4, 372–381. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4629151
[4] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[5] Morgan, “Kinetic Design in Photography,” 27.
[6] Acocella, J. (2011, June 1). An Unforgettable Photo of Martha Graham. Smithsonian Magazine.
[7] Ibid

Monday, February 22, 2016

Colorful Explorations


Over a week ago, spectators gathered around a tree-trunk cage to watch Punxsutawney Phil emerge from his winter sleep. The groundhog, known famously for his shadow, forecasted an early spring. Although not scientifically supported, Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions offer hope for warmer temperatures during the dead of winter.  This winter has been especially difficult to endure given large snowfalls, freezing wind chills, and overcast skies. Yet, the colorful works of art currently on display at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery offer much needed life to this despondent weather. In fact, broad brush strokes and vibrant colors emit from Elizabeth Osborne’s paintings, which are on display as part of Color Bloc: Paintings by Elizabeth Osborne. The exhibition showcases Osborne’s simultaneous explorations into the abstract and the specific. For example, paintings feature clear figures lost within expansive color. Ultimately, these explorations profoundly activate a viewer’s senses, allowing for powerful memories to emerge from resonating color fields.
It is difficult not to become transfixed by the glowing colors of Osborne’s paintings and the pages and stories in Coloring Pages: Works from the Corcoran Collection of Artists’ Books, which are equally engaging. Each book within this exhibition uses similarly bright hues to illustrate abstract and specific ideas like Osborne’s work. Additionally, some of these pieces tell stories completely through color such as the accordion style Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (The Little Red Riding Hood). A key on the first page of this book identifies Little Red Riding Hood, her mother, grandmother, the hunter, and le loup (the wolf) as differently colored dots. As the story progresses, the viewer notes the small red dot of Riding Hood moving through the green forest to grandmother’s house, followed by the ever-growing black form of the wolf. This clever visual re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood captivates the viewer’s color memory as he or she remembers the story along with each colored dot. 
Real Lush provides another visual narrative through design and movement. Real Lush is considered an interactive flip book because it lends itself to the act of flipping due to its tight, bolted binding. When a viewer flips the pages of Real Lush, brightly-colored images overlap and repeat in sections of the book, which results in compelling motion. Additionally, individual images reappear throughout the work; some sequences of images depict continuous movement: a man running from left to right, or a bird flying off the page. These numerous elements provide multiple narratives, which simultaneously craft a larger story about color. For example, one section of the book showcases a sweeping figure as it lunges towards its destination. The figure is depicted in red hues, which accentuates its movement throughout vast and contrasting background scenes. In addition to expansive color explorations, the author includes several details within the book in order to further stimulate the viewer’s perception. Specifically, small figures in the corner of each page vary to produce their own tiny scenes. These figures and larger scenes are shown in slow motion (see video), which allows for the book’s craft to be exhibited slowly and deliberately. It should also be noted that the book's structure lends itself to be viewed diversely at different speeds. Thus, Real Lush reveals new meaning during each viewing.

video
video

The meaning of Mikhail Karasik’s Gas Masks is evident from visual depictions of historical events. In this collection of ten prints on cardboard, Karasik illustrates the use of gas masks in the 1930s Soviet Union, where masks were available for every man, woman, child and even animals. Additionally, the back of each panel contains parts of the script of “Gas Masks,” an absurdist play written in 1923 by Sergei Tretiakov (1892-1939), in which a repairman dies from a leaking gas pipe because of a shortage of gas masks. In memoriam, his son is named Gasmask. The bold depictions of this story are passionately conveyed using equally forward colors. Ultimately, these colorful scenes illustrate the story’s deeper meaning regarding  power and refuge to the viewer.
Altogether, Coloring Pages: Works from the Corcoran Collection of Artists’ features a large collection of colorful books and stories. These stories offer a creative and lively refuge from wintry conditions and forecasts. So, until Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction becomes a reality, visit the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery exhibitions in order to delve into works featuring warm and enlivening colors.


 ColorBloc: Paintings by Elizabeth Osborne will be on view until February 26, 2016. 
Coloring Pages: Works from the Corcoran Collection of Artists' Books will be exhibited in the 2nd floor cases of the School of Media and Public Affairs building through March 25, 2016.

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Washington, District of Columbia, United States
"Found In Collection" or simply "FIC" is the way many museums classify the more mysterious items in their possession that have little or no documentation. Here at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery of the George Washington University, we do keep extensive records of our collection, but some of the items we come across in academic buildings or our own storage can leave us wondering. This blog is an effort to showcase some of the more curious examples and their stories, and to provide a glimpse of the great variety of art pieces within the collection. To learn more about the Brady Gallery's history, recent exhibitions, or the George Washington University, take a look at the links below.

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