Picture This: Last Chance to Visit the Renwick Gallery
December 5, 2013
The Renwick Gallery is about to undergo a major renovation. The last day the Renwick will be open to the public is Sunday, December 8. Be sure to stop by over the next few days to check out the two exhibitions that are still on view: A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets and Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby.
The renovation includes completely renewed infrastructure, enhanced historic features, and other upgrades that will make the National Historic Landmark building a 21st-century destination. We plan to reopen the building in 2016 and will keep you updated on progress over the next two years!
Five Questions for Basket Collectors Martha Ware and Steve Cole
December 3, 2013
Debrah Dunner, curatorial assistant at our Renwick Gallery, interviewed basket collectors Martha Ware and Steve Cole about A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets at the Renwick Gallery. The show is up for six more days, through December 8, 2013.
Eye Level: What prompted you to start collecting baskets?
Martha Ware and Steve Cole: We've often said that a collector doesn't realize they are starting a collection when they first purchase something. Our interest in baskets reflects our longstanding interest in indigenous crafts. We met when we both were Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia in the early 1970s. We loved the native crafts of Colombia. When we returned to the United States, we brought many with us; among them were six baskets. Jump forward about 15 years to a business trip Steve took to Louisville, Kentucky. On a random walk through the downtown area, he bumped into the Kentucky Craft Gallery, founded by Kentucky First Lady Phyllis George to support the crafts of her state. The Gallery included a craft shop where, unexpectedly, he purchased five baskets that day. Two of these by Richard Krupa and Jesse Butcher (attributed) are included in the exhibition. When Steve entered our home upon returning, he said to me, "you're not going to believe what I just did!"
EL: What personal guidelines did you use to build your collection?
MW/SC: Initially, we were less selective than we became. Martha grew up in Arizona so we naturally began to acquire Native American baskets. We also began our search for baskets near our home in Virginia. It wasn't long until we felt the need to narrow our collecting. In particular, we decided to no longer collect Native American baskets, refocusing our collecting on the baskets made by the descendants of American immigrants - primarily the children and grandchildren of African Americans and English and German settlers. There are many baskets in the collection that don't fall into these categories, but many do. Very early, we decided to restrict our collecting to baskets that are entirely handmade from materials harvested by the artisan. We wanted our baskets to be as natural as possible and avoided baskets with dyed material. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we wanted baskets that were traditional—those that were made to do a task, vessels made to hold something.
EL: What were the challenges of collecting you discovered as you went along?
MW/SC: At some point in our collection, we realized that we were creating a collection that was broadly representative or a particular kind of basket: vessels based largely on tradition. Ensuring that the collection achieved this objective was at times a challenge. We wanted to ensure that we had excellent examples of baskets from the widest range of materials, from as many places in the country as there were basket making traditions, and that reflected the uncommon talents of as many contemporary traditional basket makers as we could find. Early on, finding new artisans was a challenge. We went to craft shows. We visited galleries where we might find a new maker. We also simply kept our eyes open for the unexpected, finding baskets in convenience stores (McCauley) and by the side of the road. Eventually, the relatively small community of basket makers began to use the Internet as a way to let the world know about them and their baskets. This helped immensely as we sought to close the last few important holes in the collection.
EL: Why did you decide to donate your collection the Renwick Gallery?
MW/SC: We never gave serious thought to donating our collection to the Renwick. Steve worked on the same block on 17th Street as the Gallery and visited it quite often. Over the years, he came to believe that the Renwick had no interest in the kind of baskets he and Martha collected, ones that leaned heavily to tradition. Our experience of the Renwick was that it exclusively or almost exclusively focused on contemporary studio crafts, ones that tended to the Avant Garde, or, to a lesser extent, toward established artists working in traditional ways whose names were widely recognized, at least in their own fields. Traditional baskets, no matter how finely wrought, no matter how beautiful, are still very humble crafts made by humble people. We never believed the Renwick would have any interest in what we had. At an event at our home, a guest encouraged us to let the Renwick know about our collection. We did and the rest is history.
We are often asked why we have given our collection to the Renwick Gallery at a relatively young age; we are in our mid-60s. The simple answer is that we had the opportunity and believed it might not come again. Curators change, tastes change and so we accepted the Gallery's invitation to donate our collection. Three quarters of the collection has already been donated. Another quarter less a few are promised gifts. The last few we have chosen to leave to our daughters.
EL: What is your favorite basket in the collection, and why?
MW/SC: We don't have one favorite. Martha has especially loved Jennifer Heller Zurick's Black Willow Bark Carrying Basket, #205. Like all of Jennifer's baskets, it has so much life and presence; it breathes. Both of us love Jeffrey Gale's white ash baskets. They reflect what we think are the essential elements of a great basket: excellent materials, uncommonly fine workmanship, excellence in design reflected in just the right balance and proportion. If we had to choose just one of Jeffrey's, it would, no doubt, be the Large Market Basket. We also want to mention Aaron Yakim and Cynthia Taylor. Both as basket makers and as scholars of the craft, Ike and Cindy have made extraordinary contributions. Their white oak baskets are unsurpassed. We especially love Ike's Kentucky Egg Basket, #4-09, and Cindy's Egg Basket with Converging Ribbing, #99-13. Finally, Steve has always loved Bill Cook's Market Basket. In so many ways, he believes it achieves what every traditional basket seeks: beauty, simplicity of design, uncommon quality, and to be used (in our case to hold our dogs' toys for more than two decades). Frankly, it seems a bit unfair not to list all of the baskets and basket makers as our favorites. Each and every basket and its maker have enriched our lives for years. We're truly lucky to have had these baskets and befriended their makers.
What's LOVE Got to do with it?: Barbara Haskell on Robert Indiana
November 26, 2013
Remember when LOVE was all the rage, as opposed to social media's lukewarm, one-size-fits-all, "Like"? Robert Indiana's iconic Pop image from 1970 seemed to sum up the era in its message as well as its delivery: bright colors and strong graphics. Indiana, who has had a long association with the American Art Museum (where the first exhibition of his sculptures was held in 1984), was the subject of the final talk in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series. Barbara Haskell, scholar and curator at the Whitney Museum of Art (where Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE remains on view through January 5, 2014), spoke on the artist's work and shifting reputation.
Where did Indiana's LOVE come from? Perhaps from a lack of it as a child. Born out of wedlock in 1928, he was adopted by the Clarks of Indianapolis and raised by a superstitious mother and a financial failure of a father, who would abandon the family when Robert was ten years old. Indiana, who according to Haskell, wanted to change the unwanted into the wanted, the unloved into the loved, committed the ultimate act of transformation when, at age thirty and living in New York City, he left Robert Clark behind and became Robert Indiana.
According to Haskell, Indiana, like his contemporaries Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist, "drew on the vocabulary of advertising and consumer culture transforming it into high art. In Indiana's case he specifically drew upon highway signs and roadside entertainments and used language, to embed not only autobiographical but cultural references in his work. He created a synthesis of both celebration and criticism of the American dream and what it means to be an individual in American society. In some ways he was a Pop artist and in some ways he charted a course away from Pop."
Haskell traced Indiana's career from early works that used found materials in his lower Manhattan neighborhood (again the theme of transformation), to the explosion of LOVE which became so popular that it took on a "viral" life of its own (even the artist lost control of it and his reputation suffered when it appeared on everything from keychains to coffee mugs), to a new look at the artist's work, of which this iconic painting is only a part.
It's interesting how an artwork can define a period of time, the way LOVE captured the mood of a changing America, which would forever be altered by war and assassination. I wonder what word Indiana would choose today? Would it be LOVE, the infectious yet ho-hum LIKE, or something else?
If you missed Haskell's talk, watch our webcast of her lecture.
Hacking the Museum
November 21, 2013
Last weekend, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened up its doors and its data to a group of enthusiastic hackers. We were looking for help re-imagining the digital interpretation in the museum's visible storage facility, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art. The Luce Center displays around 3,000 artworks from the museum's collection in floor-to-ceiling glass cases. Visitors can currently access information about the artworks and artists through ten computer kiosks in the space. These kiosks are now several years old and in need of a refresh. They were developed before social media and mobile technology were widespread, so there are many opportunities for improvement!
The weekend began with a tour of the Luce Foundation Center and a demonstration of the existing kiosks. Then, after lunch, the hackers got to work. Museum staff and Smithsonian IT experts had created an API (application programming interface) that allowed the hackers to access and build applications on top of our collections data. Most participants worked in groups, combining programming skills with expertise in design and user experience to brainstorm and build prototypes.
Late on Sunday afternoon we asked everyone to wrap up and present their work to the group. There were nine submissions in total, and all of them were incredible! One team had imagined what the Luce Center would be like if every surface was a screen, and created an inspiring video that illustrated this idea. Several had built innovative mobile websites that searched the collection in unusual ways or allowed visitors to contribute their suggestions. Some groups had developed art-based games. You can explore all of the submissions and see the videos that each group submitted on our website, and see photographs from the event in our Flickr group.
The Luce Foundation Center plans to use some of these ideas to develop a new digital experience in the museum. Is there anything that you would like to see us do? Do you have a favorite submission? Let us know in the comments.
Clarice Smith Lecture: Richard Lacayo on the Art of Growing Older
November 13, 2013
Time magazine art critic Richard Lacayo spoke the other evening on the work and lives of aging artists as the second speaker in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art. In a lecture entitled, "Hurry Up Please It's Time: Artists in Their Later Years," Lacayo focused on the themes and techniques that mark an older artist's output: "how their art changed as they entered that period of life, how they used those years to distill and intensify certain aspects of their art, and how they used it as an opportunity to come to terms with mortality and end of life issues, and to report to us what they had learned."
Do artists in their later years exhibit what art historian Kenneth Clark referred to in 1970 as a "transcendent pessimism"? Focusing on works created by Titian, Matisse, and Hopper after the age of seventy, Lacayo makes a case for a creative efflorescence, finding in each artist's work, an affirmation of discoveries worked out over the course of a lifetime. For Titian, it was his use of pigment and "whiplash brush stroke," for Matisse it was the color in his "ecstatic cut-paper work," and for Hopper, the palpable light that can illuminate even the darkest moments.
Perhaps the most memorable quote of the evening belonged to the Japanese artist Hokusai, painter of the iconic The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (better known as just The Great Wave) who said, "All I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature. When I am eighty I shall have made still more progress. At ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At one hundred I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am one-hundred-ten everything I do, whether it be a dot or a line, will be alive." Hokusai lived to be eight-nine, producing much of his memorable work in his last decades.
The evening ended with an image of Sun in an Empty Room, one of Hopper's last paintings, an interior with two shafts of light, perhaps an elegiac representation of Hopper and his wife Jo, nearing the end of their lives. When asked late in life what he was searching for in his work, Hopper replied, "I'm after me." Perhaps, in thinking back to what Kenneth Clark said, one person may see a transcendent pessimism in this work, but is it possible that what's emerging from the painting is a kind of optimistic transcendence?
If you missed Lacayo's talk watch our webcast. And join us on November 20th for the third and final Clarice Smith lecture, when Barbara Haskell, scholar and curator at the Whitney Museum of Art, delivers her talk, "Robert Indiana: His Art and its Shifting Reception."