Kuniyoshi as Organizer
June 30, 2015

This is the third and final blog post by the Archives of American Art's Mary Savig and Jason Stieber focused on the life of the artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The exhibition Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art is on view in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, and is organized in conjunction with The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi on view at at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

AEA Dinner

Artists Equity Association Dinner in honor of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1948 March 25. Photograph by Alexander Archer.

The challenges of being an "alien of enemy nationality" during World War II activated yet another facet of Yasuo Kuniyoshi's remarkable and complex character, that of organizer. Within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuniyoshi gathered with other Japanese artists living in New York City to draft a letter of allegiance to the United States. Kuniyoshi was also sympathetic to the plight of his fellow Japanese Americans on the West coast. He donated his artistic and executive talents to the Woodstock Harvest Festival Dance, a fundraiser to aid Japanese Americans who were restricted to internment camps in the western half of the United States for the duration of the war.

In 1942, Kuniyoshi worked with the Office of the Coordinator of Information, a federal intelligence and propaganda agency, to broadcast a speech over Japanese radio waves about American culture. Kuniyoshi praised his adopted home as "a country of all races—gathered together here because they share a belief in democratic ideals."

Kuniyoshi painting a mural for the Woodstock Harvest Festival Dance, 1945?, unidentified photographer. Yasuo Kuniyoshi papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

After World War II and the subsequent waning of government support for the arts, Kuniyoshi led a group of artists and organizers to found the Artists Equity Association (AEA) in 1946, an organization tasked with strengthening social and legal support for artists. The organization quickly attracted more than 160 artists, united "to advance the economic interests of painters, sculptors, and graphic artists." Kuniyoshi was elected the AEA's first president in 1947 and worked to establish regional chapters across the United States.

To see more photographs of Kuniyoshi in his studio and to read Kuniyoshi's artist statements, correspondence, and notes for his unpublished biography, visit Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art. You can explore his artworks in the online gallery, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

Posted by Jeff on June 30, 2015 in American Art Here
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Come Play With Us: Five Questions (+1) with Game Makers Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman
June 23, 2015

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is thrilled to take part in America Now! a three-part collaboration jointly organized with the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History. In our inaugural year, all three museums have been focused on highlighting a fundamental part of the American experience: innovation! We found Italian architect, Nathalie Pozzi's, and game designer, Eric Zimmerman's collaborative physical games to be a captivating hybrid of art, innovation, and fun. Public Programs Coordinator, Katy Corella, interviewed them about their game, Starry Heavens, which will be front and center in the Kogod Courtyard on June 27th for our celebration of innovation in art.

Installation Rendering of Starry Heavens

Rendering of Starry Heavens in American Art's Kogod Courtyard. Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, Starry Heavens, 2011, 3-D rendering by Air Design Studio.

Eye Level: How did your collaboration begin?

Eric Zimmerman: Several years ago, I was working on a game project called Block Ball for the "Come Out and Play" festival in New York City. It was a sport played indoors and had lots of physical components. On the day of installation I realized too late that I was in over my head and Nathalie swooped in to help me. I was amazed by her ability to immediately size up a space and her advice on how to use physical materials.

Nathalie Pozzi: A few months later Eric had gotten a commission from a conference called "The Art History of Games" to design a game in gallery. He asked me if I wanted to collaborate and for some reason I said yes. That was more than five years ago and we've done several projects together since then.

EL: When you are collaborating, how integral is the physical space and the installation to the concept of the game? Do these two components start out separate then integrate, is one designed for the other, or are they tied together from the beginning of design?

NP: We are an architect and a game designer, so the relationship between the space design and the structure of the gameplay is a key part of our projects. And our thinking has evolved over time. In our earlier projects, the physical elements acted almost like a stage for the game experience. But in our more recent work, the two are more and more integrated with each other. In Starry Heavens, we feel like you can't really separate the two.

EL: The environment of Starry Heavens is such an essential part of the game. The inflatable ribbon is so whimsical while the game is very strategic. How does that whimsy compliment or reinforce the concept of the game?

NP: That is such a nice way to describe the work. What's ironic is that Eric is the playful one, even though he's the one making the rigid rules for people to follow. I am much more serious and usually prefer severe forms.

EZ: The contrast between the organic suspended shape and the more rigid game grid also speaks to the kind of narrative we want to create through the game. Starry Heavens is a kind of fable about people trapped in a society of rules. During the game, the Ruler slowly pulls down a large helium balloon, trying to escape from society and reach the heavens above.

EL: When you saw the game played for the first time, were you surprised about how people responded to the game/environment/each other? Did anything happen that was unexpected or unintentional?

EZ: The first time we saw the game played we were struck by how much the players looked like they were taking part in some kind of dance. When the Ruler in the center calls out a color ("black," "white," or "gray") the other players all step at the same time to a new space. It's like some kind of slow-motion waltz. That's why, the next time we staged the game in Berlin live musicians were added that improvised with the game players. Having musicians play music that responds to what people are doing is now an important part of the game. For the Smithsonian, we're excited to be working with musicians from the group Good Co.

NP: Adding music also gave players more agency. When a new Ruler begins, he or she starts by saying, "I am the Ruler of [fill in the blank]." And they can fill in the blank however they want. This is a cue to the musicians as to what kind of music to play. We've seen everything from "I am the Ruler of Polka Dots," which resulted in somewhat plinky and staccato sounds, to "I am the Queen of Love," which produced a sexy tune that got all the players swaying their hips in time.

EL: I know Starry Heavens has been played at other museums as well as other games physical games you have worked on, do you find that players in a museum setting have a different approach to the game? If so, what it is it?

EZ: Lots! Every game has rules to learn. If you just bought a new boardgame, you don't mind taking out the rules and going through them before you start. If you're playing a new videogame, the game itself usually has a tutorial level to help you learn how to play. But nobody coming to a museum or gallery wants to learn a bunch of rules just to interact with something! So we spend a lot of effort trying to make our rules simple and easy to learn. That said, it seems more than more that people don't mind participating with interactive experiences in a museum space. We just need to make sure that we provide an environment where everyone is comfortable playing.

EL: Any tips for players of Starry Heavens?

EZ: Watch your back! And play multiple times! There's a lot of strategy to discover.

NP: Don't listen to him. Just enjoy yourself and don't get caught cheating.

Come and play Starry Heavens in the Kogod Courtyard on June 27th from 4-7 p.m. at America Now! Innovation in Art. The event is free and open to the public. No reservations required. America Now! is made possible with the generous support of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Family Foundation. The America Now! Series will continue for 10 years so stay tuned for next year's events.

Posted by Jeff on June 23, 2015 in Five Question Interviews
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Seeing Things (14): Christo at 80
June 18, 2015

This is the fourteenth in a series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. Take a look at Howard's other blog posts about seeing things.

Running Fence

Christo's sketch for Running Fence

On the third floor of American Art, two works by Christo hold a kind of silent dialogue, and frame his journey from solo artist in the early 1960s to his becoming one-half of the creative powerhouse couple, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Together, they created memorable, environmental projects such as The Gates, in New York's Central Park, and the Running Fence (Project for Sonoma and Marin Counties, State of California), whose archive and documentation were acquired by American Art a few years back. Package, 1961 is a solo work that evokes the tale of the artist's migration from his homeland of Bulgaria. It is a cloth construct, tied with rope, from which semi-familiar shapes bulge. Across the room is part of the documentation of the Running Fence project from 1976, a beautiful fabric work that literally ended in the Pacific Ocean. They were about as far west as one could get.

One fact I always remember about Christo and Jeanne-Claude is that they were born on the same day: June 13, 1935. A wonderful detail in the lives of a creative couple. A few days ago, on June 13, Christo turned 80. Sadly, Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. In honor of "their" birthday, we invite you to the museum to take a look at these two works of art and imagine the dialogue between them and the world the artists created.

Read more about Christo and Jeanne-Claude on Eye Level.

Posted by Howard on June 18, 2015 in American Art Here, Seeing Things
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Luce Artist Talk: Five Questions with Rachel Schmidt
June 16, 2015

Luce Artist Talks presents Rachel Schmidt, whose exhibit, Forgotten Futures, tells the futuristic fairy tale of the last elephant. On Saturday, June 20th, Rachel will be in the Luce Foundation Center to talk about the exhibition, her other works, and the connections she sees between her work and artworks on view in Luce. Eye Level got the chance to talk with Rachel about her work and inspiration, and the vision she has for the future. Forgotten Futures is on view at Flashpoint Gallery through July 2nd. Luce Artist Talks are presented in collaboration with CulturalDC.

Rachel Schmidt

Rachel Schmidt wears a mask from her 2014 sculptural installation Apocaloptimist: A Future True Story.

Eye Level: What about the future inspires your work?

Rachel Schmidt: Questioning the future and the shape it will take seems an integral part of being human, the question of what's next is always on everyone's mind. I find that making work based on futuristic cityscapes offers me an expansive platform to explore a variety of concepts, but since the collaged images I use are based on existing cities and places, I can create a stronger reality or believability.

EL: How do you go about creating the worlds you build?

RS: I day dream quite a bit, I like to look at the state of the world now and allow my imagination to run with scenarios and through that find stories and characters that enhance those realities. But it's also very personal, all of the collaged worlds are based on images that I've personally gathered, so there are textures, spaces, and motions that I have witnessed and felt.

EL: Why did you choose elephants as the focus for this installation?

RS: Elephants share many personality traits with people, they have strong societies and groups, they live a long time and have a natural sense of wisdom and grace. These traits allow the elephant in my exhibition to be a very strong protagonist in a larger story. They also just have an overwhelming power and inherent magic that makes them such strong characters.

EL: Why do you find animals to be a good vehicle for storytelling?

RS: Animals have been vehicles for storytelling for centuries, I am only a part of a long tradition that exists across most world cultures. Specific animals have very significant roles to play in most cultures, I think I am just tapping into a form of storytelling that is both ancient and playful at the same time.

EL: Many of your exhibitions feature different types of animation. How is the animation for Forgotten Futures different from your previous work, like Eastern Boats?

RS: Future Myth, the animation in Forgotten Futures, is my first step at utilizing time based media to generate an actual narrative. With my animation, Eastern Boats, I was reacting more to the fact that you have to loop a video when you exhibit it. I always found aspect of time-based media a hilarious but tragic Sisyphean function. So Eastern Boats plays more with the action of the loop rather than addressing linear concepts of storytelling. Boats have a special kind of power and magic, not that different from elephants. There is a graceful timelessness imbued with wooden boats, but they also have a specific kind of sadness that I think lends itself to my visual message.

Posted by Gloria on June 16, 2015 in Five Question Interviews, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Five Questions: DC Jazz Composers Collective
June 11, 2015

The American Art Museum's monthly concert series, Take 5!, brings one of America's original art forms—jazz—to the stage every third Thursday. On June 18th, the DC Jazz Composers Collective, will play new works they composed for this performance taking inspiration from our collection. Katy Corella, Public Programs Coordinator, spoke with Kevin Pace, one of the founders of the DC Jazz Collective, to learn more about his work in the local jazz community and what inspires him.

Marvin Beerbohm

Marvin Beerbohm's Automotive History (mural, Detroit Public Library), one of the inspirations for the music of the DC Jazz Composers Collective.

Eye Level: The DC Jazz Composers Collective is a non-profit organization seeking to increase the performance of original jazz compositions. How did you get started doing this?

Kevin Pace: A few years ago, a band led by Collective member Bobby Muncy played every Wednesday night at Utopia on U Street. We played only original music and anyone was welcome to bring their tunes to play with the band. In that spirit we formed a non-profit organization as a way to keep original jazz music in DC alive.

EL: It seems like we have such a rich jazz landscape here in the city. Is the need for original jazz compositions a large concern in the greater DC jazz community?

KP: I think it depends on who you talk to. Some musicians only play standards, others run repertoire bands. That preservation of history is just as vital to the growth of jazz as are the ensembles that play new tunes or incorporate songs outside of the genre. So while some players might not agree that it's necessary to play new music on gigs, I'm pretty sure we all agree that a larger variety of jazz concerts and their availability to the public will only enrich our musical community.

EL: What is your composing process like?

KP: Honestly, that depends on the day. Some days I'll be practicing and a tune will just pop in my head. I'll write it down as fast as possible then move on to something else. If I remember it a day or two later then it's a keeper. Other days I'm only able to write a bar or two and the music can take weeks to complete.

Luckily, for this concert I was able to spend a good many hours in the gallery. Researching the art, artists and the stories behind some of their works provided a ton of inspiration.

EL: We're really excited about your show because it's unlike most other Take 5! concerts—you have used our collection to inspire your jazz compositions! Can you tell me about artworks you found in the collection that inspired you?

KP: Three that inspired me were: Automotive Industry (mural, Detroit Public Library) by Marvin Beerbohm, Its Another Spring by Man Ray, and Split by Kenneth Noland.

I have no idea why these stood out to me more than others. I'm sure other members of the collective Gene D'Andrea's, Bobby Muncy's, and guest trombonist Reginald Cyntje's inspiration for their compositions for the concert were completely different. It makes you wonder what speaks to different people.

EL: If you could have any artist create a visual representation of your music, who would it be and why?

KP: I would love for Banksy to interpret my music because I'm sure it would be the opposite of whatever I would expect it to be —as long as he doesn't spray paint my bass during the show. What I'd love to see happen is the Collective and an artist create a work together live and completely improvised. That would be incredibly hip!

The DC Jazz Composers Collective will be performing as a part of the Take 5! Jazz concert series on June 18th, 2015 from 5-8 p.m. in the Kogod Courtyard. No reservations required.

Posted by Jeff on June 11, 2015 in American Art Here, Five Question Interviews
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