Watch This: Write as Rain
August 26, 2015
"At your turning, each part of my body turns to verb," writes Evan Zimroth, in his poem Talk, You. The writing forms the individual letters that play across the screen in Text Rain, the video work from 1999, by Romy Achituv and Camille Utterback. Featured in the current exhibition, Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, Text Rain remains on view at SAAM through September 7.
Some works of art get people talking. This one does the communicating for you. Standing in front of a large projection screen, the video invites viewers to participate, to use, in Utterback's words, "... the familiar instrument of their bodies, to do what seems magical: to lift and play with falling letters that do not really exist."
Once the letters land on your shoulders like rain or snow, you'll begin to move. Your inner Isadora will be released and, even if others are watching, you'll perform. An arm, both arms, a leg, all the while the letters seem to be adhering to the outline of your body. This is choreographed, moveable type.
Text Rain has caught the imagination of our visitors who are sending out images of their Text Rain portraits via social media. Though created sixteen years ago, the work has a freshness due to its playfulness, thoughtfulness, and perhaps prescient nature into how museum-goers would evolve into active participants in museum experiences.
Only a few weeks remain before Watch This! closes September 7. Visit, and I promise, your body, too, will transform from noun to verb.
Q and Art: Torre di Schiavi
August 19, 2015
This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: Q and Art, where American Art's Research department brings you interesting questions and answers about art and artists from our archive. If you enjoy this post, take a look at others in our series.
Question: I enjoyed seeing the Thomas Hotchkiss painting Torre di Schiavi at SAAM. Does the painting show a real place that I would recognize if I visited, or is the scene from the artist's imagination?
Answer: Yes, Hotchkiss' painting depicts a real place that is open to visitors. Torre di Schiavi is the 19th century name for the ruins of a large villa said to be built by the Imperial Gordian family, which lived during the third century. An internet search for Villa dei Gordiani will find current and historical images of the site.
Located in the Campagna (the countryside surrounding Rome), the villa consisted of the mausoleum painted by Hotchkiss, luxurious baths and a large colonnade with three structures. In later centuries the mausoleum was used as a Christian church, faded frescoes depicting saints could be in Hotchkiss's time. Near the end of the Roman Empire the remains of the bath were converted to a military watch tower. A few artists visited the ruins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the site was largely ignored until archeological investigations began in the nineteenth century. Today the ruins are preserved within an archaeological park.
While the mausoleum ruins look remarkably the same one hundred fifty years later, one aspect of Hotchkiss' composition that has changed is the emptiness of the landscape. Today, communities populate the Campagna, and commuter trams move people between the suburbs and the city. However, in the 1800s many visitors noted the distinct line between Rome and the Campagna. Outside the city gates the uncultivated countryside held very few inhabitants. One of Hotchkiss' neighbors in Rome, American sculptor William Wetmore Story poetically described a journey through the Campagna: "The country now grows wild, desolate, and lonely; but it has a special charm all its own. . . .It is dreary, weird, ghostly, —the home the winds; but its silence, sadness, and solitude are both soothing and impressive." The beauty mixed with melancholy and a sense of risk drew many artists out of the city. Despite the modernization of the landscape, artists continue to find inspiration in the Campagna. For more recent artworks depicting the area check your local library or used bookstore for American photographer Joel Sternfeld's book Campagna Romana.
To learn more about Thomas Hotchkiss and Torre di Schiavi, look for the following article and book: Charles Eldredge, "Torre dei Schiavi: Monument and Metaphor" in Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 1 no. 2 (Fall 1987), pp. 14-33 and Barbara Novak, Dreams and Shadows: Thomas H. Hotchkiss in Nineteenth-Century Italy.
Take 5! Storytellers and Crooners
August 14, 2015
On August 20, our monthly series, Take 5! will feature the Smithsonian Institution's James Zimmerman who will celebrate "Storytellers and Crooners." Focusing on jazz vocalists, Zimmerman and his ensemble will highlight the artistry of great musicians by bringing the narrative of song to SAAM's stage. Zimmerman works as a Senior Producer for Special Initiatives at the National Museum of American History. And, in his role, he has interviewed seminal jazz artists for the museum's Jazz Oral History Program. James Zimmerman took some time to fill us in about these jazz artists and their influences.
Join us for an exciting evening of vocal Jazz with Storytellers and Crooners: African American Male Vocalists featuring the songs popularized and recorded by "storytellers" Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, and Oscar Brown, Jr. and "crooners" Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, and Bill Henderson. These African American vocalists have been quite influential to the legacy of jazz, and are worthy of greater recognition. The "storytellers" came out of the bebop tradition adding lyric/songwriting to their artistry. The "crooners" are romantic song stylists who came out of the ballad/American Popular Song tradition (with the exception of Eckstine who was also a bandleader, instrumentalist, and songwriter).
Their respective repertoires are extensive and their ability to bring new life and vivid imagery to bebop jazz instrumentals and American Popular Song remains an enthralling and innovative aspect of the American music tradition.
These vocalists loved bebop and wanted to be a part of the new, creative and energetic genre—modern jazz—introduced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They wrote lyrics to compositions by the composers and jazz soloists. One of my earliest introductions to jazz vocals was through the song, Moody's Mood for Love, written by Eddie Jefferson. This song, based upon saxophonist James Moody's improvisation is the first recognized example of vocalese —the art of setting lyrics to recorded jazz instrumental standards, then arranging voices to sing the parts of the instruments. That song also influenced renown songwriter/vocalist, Jon Hendricks . Having written vocalese lyrics and songs for Louis Jordan and others, extending that concept of writing lyrics for full big band jazz orchestra excited him and led to his partnership with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross to establish the smashing vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Oscar Brown, Jr. was, as Duke Ellington expressed, "beyond category"; he was an intellectual, social activist whose music captured the historical, theatrical, and authentic expression of Negro culture.
While primarily know as a crooner, Billy Eckstine was a composer, songwriter and one of the first bandleaders to present modern jazz "bebop" featuring many of the jazz heavyweights we know today. In 2008, I helped secure the collection of pianist Bobby Tucker, musical director for Billy Eckstine from 1949 until Eckstine's death. This collection is available at National Museum of American History. In the early 80s, I fell in love with Johnny Hartman's recording with John Coltrane. He was a quintessential balladeer, and I cherish the time I met him at Blues Alley when encouraged me as a singer. Bill Henderson was a wonderful mystery to me who's beautiful and heart- felt interpretations resonated with the melancholy romantic in me. He is the least recognized of these artists because he chose to have a duel career tracks as a vocalist and film actor.
Luce Artist Talk: Anthony Cervino and Shannon Egan
August 13, 2015
Each month, we invite local artists to the Luce Foundation Center to make connections between their artwork and our collection as part of our Luce Artist Talks series. One of my favorite things about this program is trying to guess which artworks in the Luce Center our guest will speak about based on what I know about their work. This month, sculptor Anthony Cervino and his partner and collaborator Dr. Shannon Egan will talk about Cervino's most recent pieces, which examine the course of his artistic career.
Cervino and Egan spoiled my guessing game last week when they told me which artworks they will choose. Now that I know, I'm especially interested to see what connections they'll make, and how they'll do it. From a 19th-century trompe l'oeil painting, to an early 20th-century allegorical sculpture, to a late-1930s industrial scene, the selected pieces are so varied in style, medium, and subject, it's difficult to guess at what they have in common. Cervino himself works across media and his often humorous sculptures experiment with trompe l'oeil —other than that, I'm at a loss!
If your curiosity is piqued too, join us at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 15 as Anthony Cervino and Dr. Shannon Egan wrap up our Artist Talks for the summer. This program is presented in collaboration with CulturalDC.
Cloudy, with a Chance of Music
August 11, 2015
The best place to watch afternoon thunderstorms in D.C.? Hands down, it's the third floor of American Art, a special corner in the current exhibition, Watch This! Revelations in Media Art. Cloud Music, created between 1974-1979 by artists Robert Watts, David Berhman, and Bob Diamond is a weather-driven audio/visual installation that reads the sky like it's a musical score. A closed-circuit camera scans the sky and translates its activity through a video analyzer that sends signals into a specially-designed music synthesizer. Whenever there is a change in the sky the harmonics in the gallery shift. Inside the gallery, the sights and sounds unfold.
Today, with an afternoon of thunderstorms predicted, the musical score promises to be a performance worth catching. Will it be dark and brooding, or contemplative and soaring? Come in out of the rain and see (and hear) for yourself.
After viewing Cloud Music, take a look at April Gornik's Virga in the Lincoln Gallery, and Albert Bierstadt's Among the Sierra Nevada, California, on view in the East Wing, second floor. Let us know your favorite weather-related works of art, cloudy or not!
Cloud Music and Watch This! Revelations in Media Art remains on view through September 7.