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CONCEPT AND PAINTING: A Conversation with Robert C. Morgan

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Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned critic, artist, poet, historian, educator and author of the book The End of the Art World. Concept and Painting, an exhibition of the artist and critic Robert C. Morgan is now on view at Proyetos Monclova in Mexico City. The show opened on March 23rd and runs through April 29.

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I first met Robert when we both taught on Fridays at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. We were in different departments, but at midday we each went off campus for lunch. On one of those days, we found ourselves at a restaurant, waiting for dining companions who never arrived. Rather than dining alone, we began a series of conversations, of which this is the latest. On Friday April 7, I sat down with Robert at his home near Union Square to learn more about the exhibition.

Listen to our conversation:

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HUDSON HIGHLANDS SUITE.

A limited edition suite of seven archival digital prints, drawn from James Lancel McElhinney’s Hudson Valley painting-journals is being prepared for publication.

For information on how to obtain a copy, please write to info@needlewatcher.com, using the subject line “Prints”

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Seven archival digital prints will be presented in a fine solander “clamshell” box, with comments by Dr. Katherine E. Manthorne and other texts, in an accompanying chapbook. Each print is 11 x 14 inches, with individual page spreads presented as a trompe l’oeil of an open book.

Here is a preview:

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Storm King

 

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North Gate

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Crows Nest

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Western Highlands

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Boscobel

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South Gate

 

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West Point

TUESDAY, MARCH 14, 2017

Drifting through the Francis Picabia show at the Museum of Modern Art, visitors paused to read wall-texts and view the works through their mobile devices. I might have scoffed at what seemed like inattention or distraction twenty years ago. “Pay attention! Look at the work”, a voice in my head would have admonished, “This is a museum, not an amusement park!”
Visiting the 1996 Picasso Portraits exhibition, an elderly couple reminiscent of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane in The Princess Bride gripped their ear-paddles as they moved from work to work, listening to the audio guide. The husband, who moved through the show a few pieces ahead of his wife, turned, pulled on her sleeve and said,
“Come here! Look at this one.”
She swatted him away.
“Leave me alone,” she shot back, “I’m watching this one now.”
It struck me at the time that for many people visiting a museum was entertainment, a different form of television. Museums in the past twenty years have redefined the realm of infotainment. Half a century ago museums were cathedrals of culture—vast, hushed spaces through which handfuls of the reverent might go to ponder masterpieces. The transformation of museums into meeting-places, food-courts and party-shacks has been sharply criticized, but blending the agora with the acropolis is not stooping to popular culture, but reconnecting with it. The word museum means dwelling-place of the Muse—a place from whence inspiration might be drawn. Guiding the creation of the British Museum, for example, was the necessity to gather together under one roof the greatest achievements of civilization—arts and technology, which subsequently were celebrated by international expositions. Musee du Louvre was created by inviting the general public into a former palace, to feast on culture once reserved for a privileged few. South Kensington Museum—now the V&A, was conceived in part as a place of learning, where practitioners of certain crafts might be inspired to improve their own work by studying examples of excellence in the decorative arts.
Today’s museums must appeal to a broader demographic partly out of financial necessity.
One former museum director told me that entertainment value is a concern. For this reason, art and history museums have been looking to science museums for inspiration. Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s spectacular record of audience engagement has for many years been a model for other museums seeking to build attendance. If a successful science museum needs a cafeteria, planetarium and a dinosaur, a viable art museum needs a restaurant, an event-space and a sculpture garden. Both need board members committed to sustained giving and fundraising. A patron might expect generosity to buy authority in program and exhibition planning, like the studio mogul who puts his mistress in a movie he produced. The job of curators today is not just to organize shows, but to deliver visitor experience.
A continuous screening of Entr’acte, the 1924 film by Rene Clair, art-direction and sets by Picabia accentuated a refreshing promiscuity of media and form which the artist embraced. The ubiquity of vitrines displaying books and other material that once would have been deemed too inferior for a major retrospective underscored the diversity of his creative output. One tends to forget that Picabia’s early pictures are quite large, in contrast to Picasso and Braque’s early Cubist pictures. Standing off to the side of one of these paintings, seven or eight people gathered in a cluster to read the tombstone label. A similar number stood in front of the canvas, engaged in the slow, familiar dance of slipping sideways ahead and behind one another to take in the whole painting, and then drifting away to gaze at their phones, exchange a glance with someone across the room, glimpse a movie star pretending to not notice being noticed and then moving on to the next painting. Weaving my way through the crowd, I found an unobstructed view of La Source, 1912, and noticed some text on the wall underneath, directing viewers to become listeners by accessing a musical accompaniment selected by WQXR’s Terrance McKnight.

Purist might sneer, but this is nothing new. Frederic Church encouraged viewers to bring opera-glasses to explore the details in Heart of the Andes. George Catlin traveled his Indian Gallery around the United States and Europe with a trove of artifacts and a Native American dance-troupe. Catlin lectured on his travels as a painted backdrop moved behind him, between two giant rollers hidden from view. My first encounter with Emanuel Leutze’s image of Washington Crossing the Delaware was in a sound and light show in a deconsecrated church at Washington Crossing State Park, Pennsylvania. After Sunday picnics, hide-and-seek and vexing frogs and other wildlife, my parents, siblings and I would take a seat. Lights dimmed, music swelled, red velvet curtain parted and Washington’s head was framed in a circle of light. Speaking in a sonorous baritone the narrator unpacked a tale of defeat, retreat and hardship and how, with his army on the verge of melting away, Washington conceived a bold plan….

Sitting in the dark, enraptured with a tale that we all knew by heart, we beheld the great image emerge as its surface grew light, one section at a time. We gazed in wonder at the thrilling tableau, and then all was dark again. The curtains closed. The house lights came up and we all rose from our seats. I promised myself that one day I would see the real painting.
In 2012 Kathie and I attended the John Martin-Apocalypse exhibition at Tate Britain. Entering a side gallery, we found a seat on one of the stepped bench-rows installed to recreate the first showing of Martin’s famed triptych. The audience was seated. The room grew dark. A gaslight glow arose, flickering as a disembodied voice described the end of days, and the final judgment when the faithful are carried up to Heaven, with Christ on his throne.
The damned are cast into Hell. And there is the Great Whore of Babylon, conquerors and accursed, tumbling into the pit. And finally, cleansed of evil, the world is reborn as a bright new age begins, and suddenly, I remembered.
The following week we were back in New York. Kathie was speaking on a panel at the Salmagundi Club. One of the other presenters was Kevin Avery, now former curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After giving him a report on the John Martin exhibition, I recounted my childhood memory, and commented on what a pleasure it is to have the original Leutze painting hanging in the Met. He smiled.
“Do you have any idea what happened to that picture you saw at Washington’s Crossing?”
“No idea,” I said. “For all I know it’s still there, behind those red velvet curtains.”
“No,” he said. “It’s gone. Long ago. But I can tell you where it is. You must have seen it.
It’s the centerpiece of the new American Wing. It’s hanging at the Met.”

A Conversation with Sigmund Abeles

Over the last two weeks I collected a series of conversations with Sigmund Abeles for the Jewish Heritage Oral History Archives, in the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston. The audio recordings will be available in the future through the Lowcountry Digital Library.

I fist met Sigmund Abeles in the late 1970s. My then wife Vicki Davila and Sig’s then wife Frederike Merck had been room-mates in Pietrasanta, where both had been studying stone-carving with local artigiani. Over the years we have maintained a warm friendship, and shared a great passion for drawing. We both identify with a Northern esthetic–the figurative German and Netherlandish tradition that favors sharp tools and articulate line.
We spoke of his undergraduate days at University of South Carolina, graduate school at Columbia University, fresco-painting at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Art Students League of New York. Unpacking stories about his career as a draftsman, printmaker, painter and sculptor, he described also the perils of being so diversified in an art-market built on backing brands. Abeles taught in a number of colleges and universities, finally retiring from the University of New Hampshire. The conversation mentioned artists whose names today are less well-known; artists such as Leonard Baskin, Michael Mazur, Harold Tovish, Marianna Pineda, Sidney Hurwitz, Hyman Bloom and Rico Lebrun, whom Sig quoted as saying, “If one has nothing to say, they gossip. If one has nothing to draw, they sketch.”
Resisting pressure to work abstractly, or bow to formalist figuration, Sig’s work embraced narrative, social commentary, eroticism and equestrian subjects. Manifested in visual form, as representational imagery, these works represented a departure from his paternal roots in Orthodox Judaism. He discussed his activities within the National Academy of Design, the Century Association, the New York art-world and his beloved children, one of whom–Max Abeles–is making a name for himself as an artist.

Part of our discussion did address his experience of growing up Jewish in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, his association with the Civil Rights movement that led to his expulsion from the University of South Carolina, standing up to the Klan, and later in life being courted by USC as a Native Son. We spoke of his friendship with Jasper Johns–another South Carolinian, and his first exposure to art at Brookgreen Gardens, which now owns some of his work.
It may come as a surprise that the largest Jewish population in the antebellum United States was not in New York or Philadelphia but in Charleston, followed by New Orleans, Mobile and Savannah. As many as ten thousand Jews saw military service during the Civil War, during which General U.S. Grant ordered all Jews to be expelled from Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Judah P. Benjamin served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State for the Confederacy. Its surgeon-general was Simon Baruch, from South Carolina. The first Jewish governor of any American state was David Emanuel, a captain of militia during the Revolutionary war.
A second interview conducted by Dale Rosengarten, Curator of Special Collections at the College of Charleston, will focus on Sigmund Abeles’s Jewish identity.

The value of collecting these conversations is to preserve the voices and ideas of significant artists like Sigmund Abeles whose creative legacy, despite a distinguished career, might otherwise be forgotten. Artists born in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s are advancing in years. Many have diminished their output, and have been marginalized by shifting trends in the art-market.
Oral history interviews collected by the College of Charleston, the Archives of American Art, the Senior Artists Initiative in Philadelphia, the Frick Center for Oral History and many other organizations become keystone documents–primary sources for researchers to consult, and from which artists and others might draw inspiration.

James L. McElhinney

VOICES IN CONTEMPORARY ART: James Lancel McElhinney in conversation with Marie Watt. Denver Art Museum. June 15, 2016

Marie Watt

James Lancel McElhinney

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Link to video: https://vimeo.com/203531040

On the evening of June 15, 2016. VoCA (Voices in Contemporary Art) sponsored a public program at the Denver Art Museum. I sat down with Native American artist Marie Watt (Seneca) to discuss her work, which was on view in the exihibition “Why We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion”

HUDSON HIGHLANDS SKETCHBOOK: Limited Edition

This suite of seven high-quality digital prints, drawn from James Lancel McElhinney’s Hudson Valley painting-journal is being prepared for A Spring release. More details will follow.

The concept is to use digital media to “break” McElhinney’s book while leaving the original intact. Seven loose sheets will be presented in a fine solander “clamshell” box, with essays and other texts in an accompanying chapbook. Each print is 11×14 inches, with individual page spreads reproduced exactly the same size as the original painting journal, presenting each image as a trompe l’oeil of an open book.

To receive updates or to inquire about how you might obtain a copy, please send a message to:
info@needlewatcher.com, subject line “Hudson Suite”

Here is a preview: a look at the artist’s proofs

 

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North Gate

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Storm King

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Crows Nest

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Western Highlands

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Boscobel

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South Gate

 

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West Point

HUDSON HIGHLANDS SUITE NOW IN PRODUCTION

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Painting in journals for me began with my recovery from a serious illness which left me hypersensitive to oil paint. During my hospitalization, confined to working in sketchbooks, I produced my first journal-painting. Later, learning to work in acrylics was a glorious challenge. I loved that it forced paintings to be in constant dialogue with drawing, but the vexing business of having to save paint every time I mixed a new color drove me into the arms of watercolor. For many years I had resisted it. Perhaps it was because I subscribed in some way to the market prejudice against works on paper and watercolor as an inferior medium. Common wisdom (an oxymoron if ever there was one) cautioned that watercolor was difficult and unforgiving. This of course was pure nonsense. As my journal practice developed, I became more invested in its nimbleness and mobility.  Filling books with paintings suddenly made more sense to me than producing art for the wall–and freed me from an economy of art that was inextricably tied to real estate and conspicuous consumption. It gave me a kind of freedom. It also freed me from any hope of showing and selling. In the end I realized that the wall must have its due, and engaged in numerous conversations with people who were kind enough to provide invaluable advice regarding my cockamamie pocket-paintings, including Charlie Bergman, Eric Brown, Joseph Goddu, Barney McHenry, Steve Miller, Bridget Moore, David reel and Dick Solomon, who observed the problem at hand was “how to get the genie out of the bottle”.

Steps are being taken. Scans of page-spreads are being transformed into limited-edition suites of high-quality digital prints that will be published as “broken books”–unbound sheets with a chapbook set within a solander box. Each page-spread will be presented as an open book, resting on the page as a trompe-l’oeil image. The owner can either keep the pages together in its loose binding–or frame, and display them on the wall. If you wish to receive updates or find out how to order one of these suites, please write to:

www.info@needlewatcher.com,  subject line “Prints”