Devout (2016)

Devout (2016)

Produced by Avonbiel

A Fine Art Documentary

Penetrating deep into the Caucasus mountains and remote villages of Georgia, film auteur James Higginson takes the viewer on a journey into a land that is remote and undeveloped, a place where one can find God. Or so one thinks. Where else in this globalized and secular world would God be lurking these days if not in this unfamiliar territory? With a sure hand and observant eye, Higginson pulls us into this unknown Georgia—not the Georgia on your mind, not the Georgia you take the midnight train to—but a beleaguered province, held tightly and unwillingly in the grip of Russia.


Although the film opens with the desperate grief of a young man we learn is a monk in the Georgian Orthodox Church, the war and politics that tore the small republic apart over five days in 2008, seem far away. In the early minutes of the narrative, before we even begin the journey, there is a brief montage in which the monks are chopping wood: an axe cleaves a log in two and the pieces fall to the ground with a thudding clatter as if emphasizing the monk’s agonized disillusionment—but we do not understand his pain. For those who know Higginson’s work, uneasiness is always a subtext and, from the very beginning, he sows seeds of foreboding, which, in this film, are belied by the serenity and peacefulness of his portrait of monastic life in the twenty-first century.


For the contemporary American viewer, used to living large in a secular society, a question might be raised: why would a young man join a monastic order? The answer may not be just personal and spiritual but certainly could be rooted in recent history. After the overthrow of the Czar, Georgia was set free from imperial rule and enjoyed a brief independence until, in 1921, the Soviet Union, reflexively seized the land again, crushing its ancient Orthodox version of Christianity. Being one of the first versions of the Christian religion, the Georgian Church owns the title “Orthodox” proudly, jealously guarding its heritage ever since the fourth century when the Church was established.


Tucked away, greatly distant from Moscow, the Orthodoxy was able to maintain its uniqueness even as the Soviets crushed religion in all the territories under its control. During these dark decades of Communism, it was the Church that maintained the Georgian culture and it heritage so that when the regime crumbled in 1991, the local religion sprung back to life as a signifier of resurgent ethnic identity. The numbers of young men joining monasteries went from less than one hundred to over a thousand.


But eight years ago, Georgia, an ancient land which had existed as a territory in its own right since the Medieval period, fought a brief war with Russia, attempting to be free once again. The Russian reaction, under Putin, was swift and merciless, reducing, in five horrible days, the Georgian population in conflict zones by 75%. Only at the beginning of 2016, did the International Criminal Court agree to take up the question of war crimes by the Russians against the Georgians. Against this background of piety, nationalism and war, the monasteries offer sanctuary for a generation yearning for peace.

the amazing mzovreti monastery

But why should the modern American or European viewer care? Surely Georgia is but one of many territories deemed within in the Russian sphere of influence, from Poland to Czechoslovakia to the Ukraine to the Crimea, that have been slapped down by the angry Bear? But, through the sheer spell-binding beauty of his work, Higginson makes us care. Devout is a beautiful film, exquisitely photographed with the assured hand of an artist who allows the natural land, expansively framed, to speak for itself. The spectator is located, informed of the route, through modest notations that are repeated by the exquisite lace-like Georgian alphabet, the Asomtavruli script, respelling the English words.


The original music in the deep background is based upon Georgian folk music, which, like the local language is being salvaged from deliberate Soviet extinction by those elders who remember what they learned as children. Laced throughout the score is authentic Georgian songs and melodies, lending a melancholy and soulful theme to the thoughtful account of monastic life. With deliberately slow pace, Higginson follows a young monk down the dirt roads leading deep into Georgia, far away from the contemporary and yet inhabited by modern people living an ancient way of life. The viewer, curious about experiencing a place few outsiders visit, walks behind a few paces, following the black clad figure, but content to keep a discrete distance.


Although Higginson filmed at seventeen monasteries, he limited himself to the humble and the ordinary residences, the small and the local, while eschewing the majestic and picturesque monastic sites that soar out of the mountains and call out to worshipers. These monasteries, found by the artist, are found as one traverses the lowlands, the ravine, called the Sacred Ravine, that cuts through surrounding peaks. Given the frequent seismic actions of the region, these grounded monasteries would seem more secure than some of the airborne brethren such as Motsameta, perched on a cliff face. Like the quiet undramatic landscape below with its mores modest mountains, these settlements are, at first glance, ordinary, but Higginson, with his perceptive eye, draws out inherent and unexpected beauty in the quotidian environment of the monks. This all male world is punctuated and revealed by the everyday objects used by the secluded inhabitants as they live out the simple days of their plain lives.


Our first stop is the Mozovreti Monastery, which requires a pilgrimage up a long and winding road, ending at the modest square building perched on a ledge, gazing over green ranges, lined up in sequence towards the distance. It is not the view that interests Higginson but the life inside in settlement, so we are allowed to enter the humble refractory, with strong stone walls, creating a banqueting hall populated by picnic tables covered with yellow and pink flowered oilcloth table coverings. Icons stud the wooden columns and a modern microwave nods to modernity. The community gathers together to prepare a meal that is humble but shines with the natural allure of fresh vegetables transformed at the hands of the monks into a succulent repast. High in the carillon, the monastery has a set of bells which, like the shared meals, are rung in tandem by a team of skilled musicians. The camera looks up, following the movements of the arms of the players and the tilt of the bells as the tongues toll the ancient sounds. The monks do not chime tunes or songs but, instead, simply toll, making a joyful noise unto the Lord.


The next stop is a very different kind of monastery, the Bana Monastery, obviously newer than Mozovreti. Nestled in the lowlands, in the rolling fields fitted among the hills, are a group of small tin roofed log cabins housing the small community of bearded devouts, called to God. Monks, guided by their Archbishop, are of all ages, old, young, middle aged. Their preferred attire, dark robes, closely fitted caps, and heavy sturdy boots, would blend in nicely with the monks of two hundred years ago. It is as though time was stopped when the Soviets came to power, suppressed the monastic life. When Higginson arrived, it was only the second decade of recovery and these old monasteries, dating back centuries, were slowly coming back to life and recovering long lost cultures.

the inner courtyard of the mzovreti monastery where renovations and reconstruction continues a monk stands before a ladder to the rooms above

Much, undoubtedly, was lost over the past century, and what we watch unfold is a society rediscovering itself, reinstituting the almost extinct notion of a spiritual existence. At the Kintsvisi Monastery, the viewer enters into the world of Georgian—not Gregorian—chants, a unique form of worship. Clearly an important church, dating back to the tenth century, Kintsvisi has a capacious interior adorned with icons which stare impassively as the deep sonorous harmonies of the monks float upward towards the crisply painted frescoes, dating back to the restoration of 1995. And yet the glory is for God and the stone exteriors, like all of these monasteries, is austere, reflecting the mountains that were the quarries for the buildings.


The journey among the monasteries is a gentle one, moving quietly along woodland paths, past streams and waterfalls, and wildfires swaying in low winds. The landscapes presented to the viewer are intimate, on human level, eschewing grandeur. The domiciles of the monks are simple and plain, using only natural materials and natural colors, grays and browns against the black robes. Higginson uses color sparingly, a strong yellow flower as a punctuation mark, a low red roof as a grid, paralleling the horizon line, the pale blue of misted mountains in the distance. The ambient sounds are as simple, the lowing of cattle, the song of the bird, the even voices uninflected voices of the monks surrounded by their inner stillness. The most sensuous aspect of the film is the food prepared and shared by the monks. The local rugby team of teenaged boys takes a meal with their teachers while one monk reads to the congregated dinner companions from a spiritual tome. In contrast, the long table is lined with large colorful bottles of soda pop, a concession to the young players.


Giorgio Morandi. Still Life (1947)

Higginson composes each shot like a still life in the tradition of Giorgio Morandi, with his quiet Whistlerian colors. Located at the banks of a small mounting river, Shatberdi Monastery is also fully restored and it is the vivid frescoes and gold filled icons that provide the most color and light for the film, bursting brightly upon the all green landscapes of summer. Regardless of the internal and private splendor, reserved for God, inside the monastery, the life outside the stone walls is simple and timeless, the digging of the land, the sowing of the seeds, the drawing of the water, the gathering of the harvest. One of the sites Higginson draws the viewer into is a church, caved into the side of a mountain. It is here in this dark interior that the film bursts with color—the red robes trimmed in gold donned by the monks for the ceremony, which is as simple as the robes are opulent. There is hand-made, made-up quality about the ritual as if something long extinguished was reignited with imperfect memory. Only men are allowed to attend in keeping with the Orthodox faith that does not admit women as equals. In Russia, this faith, compared to the way Christians worship elsewhere, is without tolerance—hostile towards women and homosexuals and nonbelievers. Beneath the quiet and gentle existence is darkness, whispered but not belabored by the tactful auteur behind the camera.

director james higginson in mzovrety fathers monastery dzama valley georgia

The monk, Father Anubi, whom we met at the beginning of the film, is always our guide, not to the religion and its dogmas, but the meaning of how spirituality fills the human being who can live a life, that is at once ordinary and in harmony with God and nature. This is what the father calls “the sweetest path,” “the path to our salvation.” He is our thread who allows us to connect one section of the film with another. The episodic structure begins to reveal itself as road movie, punctuated by stops at these Georgian sites of worship where the inhabitants, facing the viewer, explain their lives and their faith and their convictions. We read, through subtitles, the rules by which they live.


The small moments are enclosed within a meta codex of folios, bound by the journey, undertaken by the simple act of Father Anubi walking from one place to another. Seclusion from the secular world is necessary to attain this state of grace, which is reconciliation with God, a moment where joy is to be found. Safe from the corruptions of the world and enfolded in a remote community, the monks find peace on their simple farms in their remote monastic retreats. The clergy allowed an American filmmaker, based in Berlin, a thoroughly worldly and very technologically savvy artist, into their lives. Such access was an act of faith in and of itself. Weathering years of bureaucracy and overcoming barriers of social opposition, Higginson entered into a series of closed communes on trust. Once inside, he filmed formal interviews or on the other end of the spectrum, the basic daily functions, such as bread making and the stacking of hay into dome shaped stacks, dotting the green fields with golden mounds. Although the grain is eventually taken away in a truck (a process photographed by David Moskowitz), we see little of the mechanized world and yet there are forbidden cell phones and rugby teams, when the monks integrate with nearby communities.


Truck moving hay courtesy of David Moskowitz

As we witness, we notice that no physical movement of the monks is wasted, each gesture is purposeful and economical in strong contrast with the rest of the world where all is performative. The sunflowers, moving in the breeze, their leaves rustling, are more active than these self-contained monks. The message, given in spoken word and ancient song, is as simple as the way of life the beliefs support—to live by the ideas found in the sacred testaments, both Old and New, to live by the moral and ethical laws of God which are eternal as opposed to the always changing ways of the world. But towards the end of the film, the Archbishop, the spiritual leader of the communities visited by the filmmaker, reveals his knowledge of the globalized world and its perils, even in the remote Dzama Valley. His is an apocalyptic vision of humans awaiting the appearance of the AntiChrist, recognizable only by the Orthodox. We the undevout are implanted with microchips, designed to control us, and when we buy our worldly objects, the code of the Antichrist, 666, is embedded in the bar codes. But the statements by the Archbishop are presented as routine, part of the Orthodox belief system, the unrealistic rigidity that underlies the spiritual beliefs that, the viewer realizes, are not open to all. The film ends as elusively as it began, a journey continued by a young monk, who left the monastic life briefly but returns, because there is no other life possible for him. We witness his final voyage towards perfect peace as he walks down a dirt road, guided by a silvered path of standing water from summer rains. The dark clad figure disappears down a path that is concealed between the sides of the ravine that is his future.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Patrick McElnea: Confronting Collage


at the

Daniel Weinberg Gallery

Los Angeles, CA 90048

The Artist and Bricolage

The postmodern artist was often referred to as “belated,” meaning that s/he comes “after” modernism. In the post-avant-garde art world, nothing could be new and astonishing. Novelty would only be co-opted. Innovation would only be commodified. In this period of “waning,” as Frederick Jameson expressed it, the artist could only mourn the passing of the modern and pay homage by endlessly remaking and restating the art of one hundred years ago. But what is the post-postmodern artist to do, when the theoretical strategies of the postmodern artist have proved to be dessicated and pretentious? Don’t despair; the mash-up is here.

Patrick McElnea is a recent Yale graduate and a product of a culture of art makers relieved of the burden of being God-like creators. His small collages are more related to Bruce Connor’s film montages of found footage than to the modernist collage. The disparate images in Connor’s film were joined together by the music of Respighi. McElnea uses anti-aesthetics to mash his elements into a writhing picture plane, simulating togetherness but resisting cohesion. McElnea is a Twenty-First Century practitioner of random arbitrary bricolage. Like a magpie, he is attracted to the bright and shiny and pretty and picks up whatever strikes his fantasy. But to the found bits, he adds handmade insertions and crams elements together, guided only by formal principles of the decorative and the imperative of craft. The artist subverts the “all-overness” of modernism in his densely packed surfaces by first, shrinking the scale to that of the Medieval miniature, and second, by making the forms collide in a manic frenzy of horror vaccui. Nothing more important is being expressed here but play, one of the most profound concepts of postmodernism.

McElnea’s collages are attractive and retinally irritating, refusing beauty but insisting on visual sensuality. Defying Duchamp, his work agitates the retina, stimulates the brain via the eye, reversing the curse of “olfactory art.” His visual aesthetic seems to stem from Cindy Sherman’s grotesques of the late Eighties—the art of his childhood, which like a sly child, he has cut and pasted, with a mind trained by computers. The cool and dampened color schemes are of the same tenor, a mood of underlying dark, punctuated by neon brightness. These tiny little collages look as if they were vomited from a meal consisting of too much Pollock and Krasner. Throw in a few words and letters, à la alphabet soup, carve out a few shapes and stir well with the binder of expressionistic paint, possibly left over from George Grosz, jam it all together and, voilà, you have a post-postmodern mash up. Kurt Schwitters gone mad, a hundred years later. Not that I am a modernist, but I would like to see these layers of manic activity take over larger and larger surfaces–they are that good and that intriguing. Keep the scale small but let the size grow into a Pollock Mural. These outbursts of manic collage is an anal retentive art of hunting and hoarding, updating Carol Cara but eliminating the future, destroying the vortex but stopping time. An interesting new artist is here–watch him.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Music and “The Long Tail”



Amanda Campbell is not exactly a household name, but the singer has a loyal following and many fans like her mellow bluesy rock style, marked by a strong and self-assured piano, driven by Susan Ferrari, who writes all the songs. Based in Santa Monica, Campbell is the lead singer of The Strands, who label themselves as “alternative” in the world of contemporary music. Alternative means “none of the above” and refers to a kind of music that is more of a hybrid, a home grown mix of many forms of American music strained through the larger filters of popular music, anything from Pop to Rock to Jazz to Blues to techno and beyond. Fifty years after Elvis left the building, music can no longer remain pure as it wanted to be and “alternative” is part of a particular branch of contemporary music that excludes hip hop and rap, or spoken word, but incorporates narrative and story in a compelling melody. But the music of The Strands, however eclectic it may be, is not for everyone.

Teenagers will not appreciate the adult line of thought that threads its way through the songs, and, missing a heavy back beat and the thud of drums, heavy metal fans will simply tune out. For all its inclusivity and exclusivity, alternative music is more than a mere word, it is a stretchy genre that allows artists like The Strands to find their own voice and to make the sort of music that becomes their collective sensibilities, an off beat mixture of jazz and the Philadelphia Sound. But most importantly, “alternative” also means and refers to an alternative means of distributing music. In other words, ten years ago, it would have been difficult if not impossible for a mature woman with a great voice to have any kind of career in music. And yet, here are The Strands, playing in clubs in Southern California, selling CDs and watching people download their songs—all accomplished independently as part of the vast democratization of music. It wasn’t always this way.

When David Bowie died, his passing was a reminder that the generation of musical artists of the 1960s are fading away. We have lost two Beatles already and Syd Barrett passed too soon. These creative musicians and songwriters were the last of their kind: they worked hard, played the game, and were among the few survivors of a very brutal corporate system that made and unmade “Stars.” In his famous essay, “Ten Thousand Hour Rule,” Malcolm Gladwell, painted a compelling picture of the Beatles “working and practicing,” as Bob Seger sang, in the raw clubs of Hamburg. It was there, under less than optimal conditions, that John, Paul, George and Ringo, honed their craft, found their voices and created their mop-headed distinctive look as “mods” who rocked in their black leather jacket. The point is that the Beatles and Pink Floyd and David Bowie all paid their dues, staying true to their vision of a new kind of music that had roots in rock and in the blues but that was also experimental and new. Bowie was booed when he introduced his unique sound in a club in Jersey in the sixties. In Jersey they judged music according to the American Bandstand standard: can you dance to it? But Bowie persevered and steered his career onto the new path of glitter rock, his invention. We are left to wonder, in passing, if his famous song “Let’s Dance” was based on the memory of being rejected in Jersey. It should be noted that “Let’s Dance” is not very danceable and that much of what Bowie recorded is experimental and strange and, even today, unfamiliar.

We know the Thin White Duke through his “hits” because this is how the system allowed us to become “fans” of “Bowie.” There is a difference between an artist and someone who makes music for popular consumption. Bowie was an artist who was fortunate enough to “break through” into public consciousness. But what about all those unheard voices, silenced songs, all those sounds we never heard? For Bowie, those songs are enshrined on his albums of the past and we are told that there are more to come, as the artist provided for us from the future. For those of who wept to Blackstar, we wait patiently for his last words. But the question of all those unheard voices, silenced songs, all soundless sounds can be asked another way—where did they all go, those aspiring artists? The opera singers not quite good enough for the Met or not ambitious enough for Julliard; the excellent pianists too proud to be Billy Joel; the cute guy who played guitar in a high school band; the young singer working her way through college, dreaming of being Linda Ronstadt? There is an entire lost generation, post Elvis, after Patti Page, that was silenced by a corporate system of extinction, dedicated to fitting musical artists onto a sales chart. Where did they go? Church choirs? The world of music teachers?

These lost names and lost music make us happy to hear the sounds of The Strands, signing freely on the internet, selling on their own behalf, their own songs, was they create their own audiences. For those of us who love music, who have grown up as rock ‘n’ rollers our entire lives, the sounds of the Supremes and the Beach Boys are part of the warp and woof of how our brains have been musically woven since childhood. The sounds of Led Zepplin and Fleetwood Mac are the music and lyrics of a certain time, and, for some of us, “the day the music died,” was not the plane crash that took Buddy Holly but the day Kurt Cobain picked up that shotgun. We think we have heard it all, we assume we have heard a lot of music: our iPods are loaded with an entire history of personal taste, we even cherish our outmoded vinyl and guard our old CDs; but for years we received only a fraction of the music that was being made. There was a time when The Strands would have been separate musicians, some of whom sang in the shower, their dreams of being heard beyond the glass door going down the drain, others would have played guitar with Guitar Hero. Songs would be written, composed on a piano but never sung in public. But The Strands are part of a new kind of music makers—artists who make music out of love, who sing and play instruments because there are songs that must be sung. In short, The Strands are redefining “indie” music as independent music–independent of contracts and constraints. Fame would be nice, but it is unlikely; fortune will probably never come. Today, no one pays for music; everyone expects songs to be free. Musicians like The Strands will keep their day jobs, practice at night, and play gigs on weekends. This is music served up with courage and conviction, with no expectations of praise or recognition. It is enough to make the gesture—to put the song out there, send it to the universe and hope that other ears will find this gift. It is strange to think, in what we consider to be a competitive capitalistic economy that there are so many people willing to give the gifts of their talents, the poet who publishes the proverbial slim volume of poems on Lulu and the fan writer who is busily creating a parallel literary universe for Star Wars movies. These are the gift givers and we are richer for them.

There was a time when these talented giving people would have been dismissed as amateurs or scorned for not being “under contract” for a record label, but now we think of the artistic and creative freedom that Amanda Campbell enjoys–a range of possibilities rarely accorded to musicians in the past. If Love and Mercy taught us anything, it was about the sheer joy of unfettered of artists making art, musicians playing music for the sheer pleasure of putting sounds together in new ways. And yet Brian Wilson ran into a rejection of his vision from those closest to him. Wilson’s struggles remind us that Pet Sounds, like Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper, were unique accomplishments that could never have been made inside the system. What happened? What changes in the world of music making has allowed, has given permission to The Strands to form a band and to drop their songs, their gifts, into our lives? For decades, musical artists have been discussed from the standpoint of their creativity and their singing, songwriting, skill and verve with their instruments. The mode of production that made music possible and therefore public was taken for granted. Hiding beneath the Top Forty and the albums and the concerts was a very restrictive means of distribution, controlled for the many by the few. Part of having a “hit” is someone else experiencing a “miss,” just as one person’s success was another person’s failure. The Game was Zero Sum. Pareto Optimality. This was the way traditional top down monopolistic capitalism worked, and with all restrictive economies it was only a matter of time before the breaking point arrives. If there is one thing that cannot be controlled, it is the urge to sing.

The consumer simply began to rebel. The great music rebellion may have begun with Napster and the immediate counterattack by the music industry upon the sharing communities, revealed the extent to which the corporate model had ceased to function. But In 2004, writing between Napster and iTunes, Chris Anderson introduced a new perspective—that of an economic analysis of the music business. Anderson’s now famous article, “The Long Tail,” was published in Wired magazine and then expanded into a book of the same name. The concept of the Long Tail can be applied to any distribution model that uses the Internet, and Anderson, then editor in chief of Wired, analyzed the music industry and analyzed how a very narrow corporate model, was based on the concept of “hits” and “stars.” Notice that this corporate model is not based upon music itself, or upon innovation, or experimentation, or even upon anything new. The model is about sales and profit. The peak of the Long Tail chart is the pile-up of the “hits” carefully constructed, not by musicians, but by sales formulas driven by the conventional wisdom concerning the lowest common denominator of public taste. The models must be optimized for the widest sales within the genre. Therefore, the tall part of the Tail, or rearing head of the musical body, is also based upon exclusion and “failure” be conform to the all important notion of what would be purchased in record stores, such as the now extinct Tower Records. As Anderson pointed out, the crucial feature that was always missing was what music lovers wanted to hear. The conversation was strictly one-way: the consumers were given what corporate wanted them to consume. In explaining to the reader how to read The Long Tail chart, Anderson said,


The term refers specifically to the orange part of the sales chart above, which shows a standard demand curve that could apply to any industry, from entertainment to hard goods. The vertical axis is sales; the horizontal is products. The red part of the curve is the hits, which have dominated our markets and culture for most of the last century. The orange part is the non-hits, or niches, which is where the new growth is coming from now and in the future.

The corporate model mirrored that of radio and television pre-Web—it was one way: we talk, you listen; we sell, you buy; our game, you play. With the Internet, conversation becomes two-way or multi-vocal, and Anderson spends most of his book on ends of the Long Tail itself. There are, he pointed out, many books written, many songs sung, many poems penned, but, until the Internet, these artistic efforts were hidden from the public because they were unavailable to consumers. Bands who did local concerts or singers in neighborhood clubs were forced to spend hard earned money to “make records” and then expend enormous amounts of time, trying to attract the favorable attention of a record producer. Some groups succeeded in being noticed; others devolved into obscurity. The old corporate system was one of pure chance, based, from the artist’s perspective, upon “getting discovered.” Considering the amount of money involved, the inefficiency of the music business is, in retrospect, astounding. What we heard on the radio was not necessarily the “best,” only the most randomly found. “Found Music”—incredibly that was the (hidden and unacknowledged) name of the game. Once “found,” all artistic control was lost to the creators, as the musicians and singers entered into the corporate maw.

As Pink Floyd echoed, “We’re going to ride the gravy train” and “By the way, which one’s ‘Pink?’” In one sentence out of Welcome to the Machine, Roger Waters summed up not only the absurdity but also the mismatch between a corporation and a creator. Pink Floyd was both stubborn and lucky but it was rare for a band to maintain control over its work product as the Beach Boys did for Pet Sounds. The music industry carved out a definite career path, you started out young and dumb, desperate and malleable. Under this model many a group was quickly used up and cast aside, victims of their own naïveté. And this was the likely fate of the supposedly tough rockers, all of whom were male. Outside of Berry Gordy and his “girl groups,” woman had little chance to break through this male wall. It should also be added that people of color were cordoned off in the African-American realm of the blues and jazz, increasingly restricted, now that whites had appropriated rock ‘n’ roll. In the recent film, Get on Up, Mick Jagger and the Stones are shown raptly watching James Brown’s stage show, and learning all of his moves. But women faced a double problem, race and gender.

The reason why women faced extreme difficulties in being heard in the music business, post Carol King, was the post-rock business model, which as Anderson pointed out can be exemplified by the “boy band,” NSYNC. Young female fans, full of dimly recognized sexual yearning, could project their erotic needs upon cute male singers, like Justin Timberlake. This fan based business model is the way Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley built their careers, and the mobs of young women hysterically greeting the Beatles when they landed in America in 1964 bewildered the Fab Four. Conversely, the idea of a mob of young men screaming in excitement at the sight of a female singer is, quite frankly, terrifying for any woman. And it is well known, in any creative genre, from the fine arts to the movies, that women will go to films about men but men will not purchase a painting done by a woman. Given that the music business was built by men for men, as entertainers and as consumers, the post-Elvis scene for women was quite simply brutal. Female musical stars were actually contradictions in terms or the exceptions that proved the rules—no girls allowed, even if she is Janis Joplin.

Chris Anderson does not directly discus the importance of the Internet for women in music. The music industry is typical in its reflexive rejection of all things women, refusing them meaningful roles beyond being consumers of objects provided for them by men. For women who sang, role models were few and far between after Diana Ross. Given the prejudice against women in the arts and the obstacles faced by any woman who wanted a career in music, the achievements of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Heart were truly extraordinary. The phrase “women” and “rock ‘n’ roll” was an oxymoron unless, of course, it referred to groupies. Drummers, guitar players, lead singers—all roles reserved for men. Guitar heroes, such as Keith Richards and Pete Townsend, needed lead singers, playing off their macho attacks on the stringed instrument, like the pretty Roger Daltrey and the prancing pouting Mick Jagger. Ann Wilson sang and Nancy Wilson played—hard—and somehow “Heart” invaded the male precincts. Like Joan Jet’s “Cherry Bomb,“Crazy on You” really rocked, in other words, these were women working a male genre. The best place for women, however, was outside of the hyper-masculine precincts of rock ‘n’ roll: that place called “pop,” the residence of female singing stars, such as Beyoncé. Although the music business, such as it is today, continues to be segregated, according to race and gender and genre, is still as rigidly divided into categories as it was fifty years ago, it is possible, thanks to iTunes U and YouTube, for musical artists–even women–to span styles and to break arbitrary boundaries.

True, Amanda Campbell, the lead singer, and the rest of the band, the Strands, driven by Susan Ferrari, may reside on the far end of The Long Tail, but the group is there, on the Tail, making itself heard. Chris Anderson made a very important point about the Long Tail, and this insight explains both iTunes U and YouTube: ..the potential aggregate size of the many small markets in goods that don’t individually sell well enough for traditional retail and broadcast distribution may someday rival that of the existing large market in goods that do cross that economic bar. In other words, the skinny end of the Long Tail is indeed “long” and extends infinitely and indefinitely and its accumulated possibilities exceed what the music industry envisioned. There is a reason why the long (tail) title of the book is The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. True traditional economic theory has difficult accounting for Anderson’s concept, but traditional economic theories are based on nineteenth century models and are notoriously reluctant to take into account the passage of time or the changes in human behavior. Business models have difficulty making sense of The Strands; for them, the group does not exist in a statistically significant way.

But if you are an artist, The Strands, as determined artists, are your role model. As Anderson wrote, “Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass. And niche culture will get less obscure.” We may have had an inkling of the possibilities of “making your own kind of music,” when we painstakingly made our own tapes or our own CDs, combining our self-crafted “mixtapes.” Thirty years ago, in our clumsy fashion, we made our own kind of music and stuck our songs into our tape or CD decks in our cars and drove along, singing along. And now The Strands can take the songs in their voice, on the strings of their guitar, under the keys of the piano and place it on the Long Tail, carefully set their songs in their own niche, where we find it. The gift of The Strands, of their music and their sounds, does not evaporate into the ethers of the Internet. Instead the gift, the don of Marcel Mauss, enters into the collectivity, marking out a cluster of a particular social collective, pausing at that precise point on the Tail and becoming what Michel Serres called the “luminous tracer.” This shining gift makes nonsense of the corporate capitalistic models of the music industry. The gift is why applying the idea of Pareto efficiency to creative people and their unique “economy” will never work, and the gift is why a Pareto analysis, which is based on the old fashioned idea that the ultimate efficiency is to allow one person to succeed without harming another person. But while efficiency may be optimal, Vilfredo Pareto died one hundred years ago, his model was based upon an assumption of constrictions and limited options. We are now living in an open economy that has broken the historical limits; we survive thanks to the “gig economy” and we leave our bright traces in the “gift economy,” all based upon a local or niche location that is both rooted and, thanks to the Internet, boundless. Rather than consume things, we now share each other.

The only and the best way to understand The Strands is to hear them, to listen to them, never as money makers but as gift-givers. It is with Serres, following in the footsteps of Mauss, who established the concept of the Gift in society in 1925, that we can find powerful and relevant observations about creative gifting. In 1997, in The Troubadour of Knowledge, arguably the best book written on creativity, Serres insightfully wrote,

Creation invents news by recounting today what it didn’t know yesterday—my vocation consists in writing and saying not what I know, boring, dead and past, more than perfect, pluperfect, but, on the contrary, what I don’t know and will astonish me—and the patron would run a dawn to the news, not towards the news that shouts every day at our broken ears of other murders that are really the same ones, of other scandals, wars, catastrophes, seizures of power, still and always the same, old monotonous repetitions of a world given over to iterative domination, but precisely towards the unforeseen of the artist, the unexpected and, strictly, the improbable.

The improbable, defined as the act of unexpected creation–this is what an artist does, create and present—a gift. We have come full technological circle: we are all traveling orators (bloggers) and wandering bards (websites) and traveling troubadours: The Strands of the Long Tail.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]



American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

October 12, 2009 – January 24, 2010

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

February 28, 2010 – May 23, 2010

American Stories is a beautiful exhibition, worth every penny of its exorbitant $20 admission fee. One walks into the room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is immediately greeted by long-lost friends, usually seen only on the pages of art history books—Paul Revere (1768) and Watson and the Shark (1778) both by John Singleton Copley, Mary Cassatt’s The Cup of Tea (1880- 81)—with the rest of the excellent paintings spread out in, beckoning in rooms beyond. The Paintings of Everyday Life span a remarkable period in American history, the time when we were becoming American. The exhibition tells more than stories, it tells who and what we were. But these works are not history, for the artists interpreting or narrating life as they understood it. The last paintings done for the show were completed one hundred years ago and we view them with the eyes of those who know what we have become.


John Singleton Copley. Watson and the Shark (1778)

The first rooms focus on the transition from the early American painters, one step beyond the charming limners of the past. Clearly these artists lack the rigorous training of their European counterparts. There is no Jacques Louis David in the making. Perhaps because early American artists of the Eighteenth Century could make a living only as portraitists, we meet the Early Americans as specific individuals who are affluent enough to pay to have their aristocratic self-fashioning recorded for the ages. As elegant and as wealthy as they look, our ancestors are also endearing, due to the artists’ somewhat awkward grasp of anatomy. The heads of their subjects are slightly enlarged and seem to rest unsteadily on the well-clad bodies, as in Copley’s Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (1773). Proportions of the body are slightly off but all the details are carefully outlined and proffered as attributes of the successful upwardly mobile and aristocratically inclined upper classes. The wall text explains that the by-play between the married couple of Charles Wilson Peale’s Portrait of Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming (1788) is delightfully sexual (despite the big heads). Benjamin is holding a long hose-like walking stick that points towards Eleanor who is wearing a virtuously white dress. The phallic stick points to her crotch, and a pile of carefully cradled fruit in her lap reinforces the prediction of future fecundity.

By the next century, such innocent Freudian slips are rare. American artists are better trained and even folksy artists, such as Lily Martin Spencer and George Caleb Bingham, are producing handsome and well-painted works. Winslow Homer and his successors of the Ash Can School can hold their own with European trained artists, William Merritt Chase and Thomas Eakins. But for sheer virtuosity, few can equal the dazzling brushwork of European trained artists, such as Mary Cassatt or John Singer Sargent at the end of the century. But the formal accomplishments of the American artists are less interesting than the story of America recounted in the paintings. The young country was absorbed in defining itself as a new world of new people who are creating a new way of life offered the artists a wide range of stories to tell. The exhibition is centered upon genre paintings and leaves out landscape paintings, unless they contained a narrative. Even though their original social matrix has vanished, these paintings still act out theatrical tales that lend themselves to interpretation. The wall text provided by the museum is fanciful but seems to be possible within the historical context. The reader is not informed whether the statements come from scholarship or from the curator’s reading of the art, but, ultimately, the paintings themselves tell the most interesting stories.

The artists of the nineteenth century were more open minded or more observant of the great variety of Americans compared to today’s contemporary popular culture, which is ubiquitously white and middle class. Perhaps because the artists of the past were literally present at the creation of a new nation, they avidly recorded everything “American,” as “America” came into being. These painters would have been only a generation or two from immigrants, and, indeed, many of the artists were recent arrivals from the Old World themselves. They were white and male, although a few females dared, here and there, to make art. They or their parents were of European origin and the sheer novelty of “America” was still very real. Today, we are more settled into our American identity. We have become very set in our definition(s) of what it means to tell an “American story.” In comparison to today’s selective gazes, focused on niche sites, the painters in American Stories were eclectic collectors of the sights of the American scene. Because American history had yet to be written and the judgment of our collective deeds had yet to be passed, our national sins were recorded with the same openness as our national virtues were depicted.

The uniqueness of America is its diversity. The nation was forged from a disparate group of people, who were locked in a life and death struggles for dominance and survival. From the very beginning, Europeans were driven by their lust for land and wealth. Land had to be seized from the Native Americans at gunpoint. The vast lands the Europeans grabbed were too large for a single family to manage. The colonials needed agricultural workers and the cheapest laborers were those captured in Africa and sold to plantation owners and businessmen. If America was a second Eden, the sins of theft, genocide, and slavery were present from the start. American Paintings records the uneasy and unspoken bargain with God, who, it was hoped, was white. With all apologies, God, we were despoiling Eden in your name. It is important to remember that the audience of the time for these works was white and middle class, upwardly mobile and ambitious. What we see today as revealing of an ideology of racism and imperialism would have been viewed in the nineteenth century as simply “American stories.”

For the first half of the exhibition, slavery was legal in many states in America, and by mid-nineteenth century, only in the South. Legal or not, the second-class, subservient position of African-Americans was taken for granted from the Constitutional founding of the nation to the end of the Civil War in 1865. The marginal role of the blacks in a democracy, founded upon the principle of “all men are created free and equal” appears over and over in the art. The inclusion of African-Americans in what Alfred Boime called “The Art of Exclusion” changes after the Civil War. After 1865, African-Americans are more likely to be shown in all black groups, segregated from whites. Whites are portrayed as the upper class in opulent interiors or as recent immigrants, urban poor, in tenements. Then by the beginning of the twentieth century, questions of race are replaced with issues of immigration and urban life among the lower classes. The exhibition, intentionally or not, traces the inclusion followed by the exclusion, followed by the disappearance of blacks from American painting.

What we see in these paintings are generations of Americans who were aware of what they were doing but were unwilling to confront the meaning and the consequences of their actions. The races live together but the gaze of the white painters is oblique and ambiguous. What are they trying to record? What stories are left behind for us to read? In 1813, John Lewis Drimmel painted the folk work, The Quilting Frolic (1831), which creates a horizontal display of early American life stretched out in infinite detail. Although the catalogue describes the painting as “democratic,” it is, in fact, an examination of an already solidifying class system.


On the left is a family preparing for the party: the quilt is being stretched on its frame and a little boy helps himself to the prepared food before the party begins. Two white servants seem to be caught off guard, in the act of getting ready for the party. A black child, who carries a tray with a blue and white tea service, assists the staff. An elderly white man and his dog, staying warm by the blazing fire, complete the group. On the right, the upper class white guests arrive, well-dressed in spring attire and self-assured in their casual attitudes. They don’t look much like they would be interested in quilting. Indeed most of the arriving guests are top-hatted men and carefree young women. It is unclear whether they are accompanied by or are greeted by a black servant fiddling at the front door. Whoever the guests are, they are obviously of a higher class that the staff depicted on the right.

These two black servants, a little girl and an adult male, are depicted with bulging eyes, gleaming in the whites, and full red lips, parting to display large white teeth. Their African heritage is fully on display: they are the Other, dehumanized and kept carefully in their visual place. The little girl is burdened and fixed in place by her heavy tray. The man is wearing tattered clothes, handed down from a white man. Like all of African Americans, he is musically inclined, or so the whites thought. William Sidney Mount painted a young black man in The Power of Music (1847) who is also entranced by music, reinforcing the white belief that African Americans were “naturally” musical. The man in this painting has features that are far more human and much less a caricature, but he is a mere eavesdropper on the white men who are the ones allowed to make music. A year later, Richard Caton Woodville featured the same marginality of African-Americans in War News from Mexico. The first declared war of American imperialism was waged on another power, Mexico, only recently released from their Spanish colonial masters. African-Americans were excluded from service in this war, but the black man at the far right of the all-white group listens to the reports from the front as avidly as the other men. After all, he is an American, too. Indeed, the rapt little girl, who is standing next to him, wearing the rags of servitude, will live to see the end of slavery.

America was already occupied by a people the Europeans called “Indians,” when the whites arrived. At first there were thoughts of sharing the vast wilderness and the bounty of the new land, but these thoughts were fleeting and soon dissolved into hostile encounters. The First Contact ended in death and disease and by the early nineteenth century, the Native Americans were the Vanishing Americans, living on borrowed time, somewhere west of the Mississippi. Only when whites venture into the West, do they again encounter that other American race, the Native Americans, who once again stand in the way of Manifest Destiny and its remorseless expansion. Racial issues and racial competition are everywhere. George Caleb Bingham, as early as 1845, noted the frequent fact of interracial mixing in his Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. This peaceful scene showed a French fur trader and his son by a Native American woman and their bear cub, gliding impassively along the mirror like river. Once they set foot on land, the boy becomes a “half-breed.” The father and son are more at home on the fringes of the frontier.

For the Native Americans, time is catching up with them. The settlers are on their way, and the 1840s and 1850s are the last decades before the land-hungry whites overwhelmed the native population. It is during these years that George Catlin was painting portraits of a dying civilization, paradoxically at the peak of its glory. The forts he visited were at the edges of the reach of American authority. Here on the frontier, soldiers and warriors of the plains mingled with traders in a brief moment of uneasy peace. But the territory is already a contested one. Charles Deas revels in the violent fantasies of the fight over territory in The Death Struggle (1845) in a painted pulp fiction tale of the Wild West. A trapper and a warrior and their horses plunge over the edge of a cliff to their doom. From our vantage point, we know that both are soon going to be extinct. In a more peaceful vein, Seth Eastman’s Chippewa Indians Playing Checkers (1848) is an indication of how the pastimes of white culture have already impacted leisure time of the “Indians.”

In 1845 William Sidney Mount painted Eel Spearing at Setauket. In 1855 Charles Felix Blauvel painted A German Immigrant Inquiring His Way. Even though we know that Mount had to re-gender the black spear fisherman to a black woman to make the adult less threatening to whites, both paintings show an easy co-existence between Americans of African extraction and white people of European ancestry. “Easy” coexistence does not mean necessarily “equal” in this newly forming country. Ideology informs the brushstrokes which glaze over the conflicting dialectics of democracy and servitude. The subtext of all of the paintings is the assumed superiority of the white race—even children—over the black or red races. The coexistence can continue—-however tenuously—-only if the status quo is unchallenged. The Civil War disrupts the separate existence of the races and upends the previous balance of power. The art made after the Civil War shows the whites living in their world and the blacks living in their world. The interracial interactions seen before the war ceased to be depicted.

Eastman Johnson painted what would be the last of Negro Life in the South in 1859. He provided his curious white audience with a rare glimpse into the private quarters of the slaves on a plantation. It is unlikely that white women would venture into this alien territory, which would have been supervised by the slaves themselves and, possibly, the plantation overseers. But from the growing number of children of mixed race, we understand that white men, probably the master of the plantation and his sons would have been very familiar with the slave quarters. The great secret of these plantations was the unspoken fatherhood of many of the slaves. White women were expected to close their eyes to their husband and son’s mixed race children sired outside marriage. White men were socialized to accept that fact that their children and grandchildren would be consigned to a lifetime of servitude. There are several shades of skin tones in Johnson’s painting: on the left a very light-skinned young woman is being courted by a darker skinned young man. Accompanied by a young black woman, a young white woman enters stage right. We have no idea why she is there. She looks too young to be the mistress of the plantation, but the museum wall text suggested that she is seeking her black kin. It is highly unlikely any white woman would know of much less acknowledge her brothers and sisters of color. We are left to wonder what Johnson was hinting at in his theatrical setting. Thomas Le Clear’s Young America (1863) is a transition work of art, painted during the Civil War, probably in the North. Carefree white youngsters of middle school age are playing outdoors, while a slightly older African-American teenager watches on the fringes.

These paintings draw the lines between the racial groups: the young white girl is sneaking into a place she does not belong; the black teenager is not allowed to play with the white children. Not until the Civil War are the races brought together. According to the catalogue, the artist, Theodor Kaufmann served with the Union army when the war moved into the South. As the federal troops marched from one Confederate capital after another, the slaves ran, literally for their lives, toward freedom and their only protectors, the Union army. The military was overwhelmed by the presence of the runaway slaves, men, who wanted to serve and fight for their country, women and children who had no where else to go. On to Liberty (1867) shows a group of women, dressed in simple working clothes, light weight and light colored dresses, leading their children in the direction of the Union army. When the painting was completed, the war was over, and the South was occupied by the victorious federal troops. But by the time Winslow Homer painted The Cotton Pickers in 1876, Reconstruction was over, the occupying army had withdrawn leaving the former slaves to their fate at the hands of a South determined to regain control over the errant black population.

What is interesting about these two paintings is the lack of whites. The African-Americans are alone. The interaction with whites is over. The women in Homer’s painting could be the women imagined ten years earlier by Kaufmann. They are still in the South, still working on the very land where their ancestors were enslaved. These women are undoubtedly sharecroppers. They have earned the land they work, but they do no own it. Beautiful and unhappy, they appear stoic and calm, standing among the indifferent cotton plants, silhouetted against the sky. Somehow we place this painting as a pendent to Homer’s earlier, The Veteran in a New Field of 1865. The veteran is white and harvests his own wheat crop. The viewer understands that the African-American women are harvesting, not their own fields, but those of their former (and present) master, or someone very much like him. Farming and endless labor is all the women know.

But a few paintings of African-Americans indicate some measure of progress. Sunday Morning by Thomas Hovenden and A Pastoral Visit by Richard Norris Brooke, both of 1881, show quiet domestic scenes among African-American families. These groups are lower class but not destitute. In fact, their living conditions are positively palatial compared to the actual situation of African-Americans at the time. The simple but well-appointed interiors must have been idealized. Photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White in the 1930s as she traveled throughout the South, recorded that, forty years later, African Americans were living in shacks. The interior walls, without insulation, were covered with newspapers, illustrated by pictures of consumer goods out of the reach of black people. Having formed their own separate culture and social groups, blacks in the paintings of the 1880s appear to accept their lower class situation with contentment. At least they are slaves no longer.

Clearly, a national ideology was at work in the art world of the nineteenth century. What is unclear is the extent to which the artists were critiquing society or whether they were responding to changing social attitudes. The existence of an artist in America was too tenuous to overtly challenge the collectors and audiences without due cause. After the Civil War, people were tired of war and conflict and we can, perhaps it is best read these paintings as attempts to record and reconcile race relations. It would seem that the only way to acknowledge racial differences was to keep the races separate in these documents of color. The only African-American artist shown in this exhibition, Henry Ossawa Tanner, depicts a grandfather giving his grandson The Banjo Lesson. The year was 1899. The century is nearly done. During the early twentieth century, the people of color disappear from art made by white people.

The stories not told are compelling in their absence. We do not see paintings of the continued genocide in the West, the lynchings and the reign of terror in the South, and the grinding poverty of the poor of all races. Artists of the nineteenth century delineated class and racial differences very carefully. What we are seeing in these racially-based paintings is a social arrangement. The first arrangement is slavery and servitude and the second arrangement is segregation and servitude. Both arrangements are strategies of separation of the races. Both arrangements guarantee white power. Neither arrangement was made with the consent of the oppressed group. Under the brushes of the artists, the non-white races are kept frozen in time, trapped in their social place, caught between historical slavery and current subservience, between the noble savage and the marauding savage. People of color were carefully constructed as compliant with their supposed destiny. “They” accepted their supposed inferiority. Meanwhile, Americans who are white evolve and change, migrate and move and improve their status, leaving Americans of color behind in the historical dust of their Gilded Age.

America has always considered itself “white” and “European” and even today there are those who work hard to repel those who also claim the identity “American.” Those to be denied are those who are neither white nor European. But the whiteness of America is but one political ideology. There is another defining belief in what makes “America,” and that is the belief in American inclusiveness. America is a brave new world because it is the first world to welcome all who come to its shores. For some, it is the European cultural heritage of America that guarantees its “exceptionalism;” for others, it is the diversity, the complexity, the changeability, and the inclusion of the nation that constitutes its “exceptionalism.” The American Story told in this exhibition is one of Difference and Otherness, living side by side, but never coming together to form one America. Perhaps that day will come.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Edition Jacob Samuel (2010)




May 23 – August 29, 2010

Jacob Samuel, a master printer and the art world’s “best-kept secret” has a life that many would envy. He gets artists to think “outside the box.” As publisher and printer of “Edition Jacob Samuel,” he does exactly what he wants—publishing prints by some of the most famous artists in the world and producing highly regarded editions of original works, prized by international museums. With few exceptions he works only with artists whose oeuvre he has admired and known for at least ten years, and, if he finds that a project is not going well, he simply backs away. Samuel, as the printer and publisher of his imprint, Edition Jacob Samuel (EJS), is completely in charge of his enterprise. After remaining discretely in the background, the printer is featured in the current exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum, Outside the Box, which displays his entire Edition. For two decades, he has enriched the art world with an old-fashioned medium, etching, working quietly at the service of the artists. The exhibition currently on view features the total output of his publishing career, which has been jointly purchased by the Hammer and by the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art.

The artists in Los Angeles have always independently produced what the trade knows as “artists’ books” and the city has always supported artists who wanted to produce prints. Print workshops such as, the Gemini G. E. L. and Tamarind Institute, are now world-famous. East Coast artists, who wanted to make prints, such as Jasper Johns, came to Los Angeles. Printmaking has been part of the West Coast’s artists’ fascination with materials and experimentation with process. These printmaking workshops were founded in the sixties when Los Angeles was not on the art map, or at last not on the mind of New York critics. Being on the Left Coast and far from the art game, artists in Los Angeles had the freedom to experiment without having to respond to an art market. Although artists, such as the printmaker, June Wayne, from Tamarind, are mostly famous in L. A., book and print artist, Ed Ruscha, is internationally renowned. Ruscha began his career with his series of laconic books, cataloguing the sights of the city, from palm trees to parking lots. His self-published books, which, at one time, you could buy for five dollars, include Every Building on Sunset Strip and my favorite, Royal Road Test. Nowhere are the unexpected possibilities of printmaking explored more inventively than with Ruscha, who has printed with blood, spinach juice, carrot juice, even chocolate, instead of ink.

Samuel honed his craft through a long-term collaboration with the Los Angeles artist, Sam Francis, who died in 1994. In comparison to the exuberant and complicated prints of Francis, the aesthetic of Edition Jacob Samuel is more restrained and reductive. Even though it would seem that Jacob Samuel’s selection of etching, which requires a certain level of exactitude, might constrain the artists’ inventiveness, the prints produced through Edition Jacob Samuel are full of surprises. Ruscha’s work with the printmaker is a case in point. The artist is famous, not just for his books and prints, but also for his paintings, which often feature signs. “Signs” has two meanings with Ruscha, first the familiar advertising signs that guide us, and second, the semiotic sense of sign, that is: signs carry meaning. In one of his better-known paintings, he artist presented the word “hotel” in vivid orange with the letters arranged vertically. The meaning of the arrangement went beyond the word and implied that the “hotel” in question is a cheap one. An expensive hotel always writes out its name in horizontal elegance, while a cheap hotel uses garish neon, economically fixed to the side of the building.

The trademark of Ed Ruscha’s work is the combination of image with text, with the text predominating over the image, until the text becomes the image. After decades of such visual-verbal puns and semiotic play, the prints Ruscha produced for the Edition, Blank Signs of 2004, take the play with signs one step further. In this series of prints, the signs are road signs in the desert, a place where one would need directions; but the signs are blank. The artist’s use of masking on the etching plate rendered the shape of the signs and their supports as ghostly shapes outlined against his delicate drawings of the desert terrain. The traveler is lost without any clues. Perhaps it was the desert winds, but the words are bleached away from the surface of the roadside signs, but the wit of the act of masking out the word play is clear to those who know the artist’s signature satirical style.

Ed Ruscha, like another artist featured in the show, John Baldessari, is local to Los Angeles and can make prints in the city. But what makes the work of Jacob Samuel different from that of Gemini and Tamarind is that artists do not have to come to his print studio; he can travel internationally, carrying his portable studio with him. When an artist comes to the printer’s workshop, he or she is not at “home,” so to speak. But Samuel comes to the artist’s studio where the artist has the full resources of the home studio at her disposal. Through his portable workshop, Samuel provides the printing materials and the artist provides the inspiration and then the portable studio is packed up and the printer goes home. A world famous artist is a busy person, Samuel states, and he respects the limited time of someone like Dan Graham, also in the show. The printmaker and the artist consult on the final result at long distance. The collaboration between the artist and the printer is that of the leader and the follower, the one who initiates and the one who carries out the instructions. Samuel insists upon being humble to not just the artist but also to the materials themselves.

The delicate relationship between the artist and printer are on view with the prints of the German artist, Rebecca Horn. For those of us in Los Angeles, our introduction to the artist was at her influential retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990. Although she had been a leading German conceptual artist since the late 1960s and she had taught in San Diego in 1974, like many European artists she did not get her due in America until mid-career. Her installations in Los Angeles were a revelation in artistic intelligence, but not every work could travel, for example, one of her most important early works, the Overflowing Machine of 1970. Now owned by the Tate, the original machine included a nude dark haired young man, standing immobilized on a pedestal, surrounded by tubes (one of Horn’s trademark materials) through which red blood coursed. The conduits of blood circulation ran up and down on the outside of his body, making the invisible visible.

Her recurring theme of blood reappeared in the series of prints made between Samuel and Horn. The two had met on the occasion of her retrospective in Los Angeles, but Horn was not interested in prints. She actively disliked the effect of the reversed image and said as much to Samuel who immediately offered to solve that problem. The solution was to ask a local supplier of Gampi paper to invent a form of transparent paper. The image could be executed and the print, on surprisingly strong transparent paper, could be flipped over, reappearing in a reverse of a reverse, according to the artist’s original intent. Working in Horn’s large well-appointed studio in Berlin, the printer set up his portable studio and let the artist have her way. Restricted to blood-stain red and to a paper the color of her creamy skin, the redheaded artist made a series of prints, one featuring blood cells, another with marks made from a log from her studio fireplace dragged over a plate, and still another “painted” with a bouquet of dried roses. Like many of the artists in this exhibition, Horn is a writer and is as well known for her poetry as she is for her art, and the poems interspersed among the images preexisted the prints.

Just as Horn scored her plates with found objects, such as twigs, Marina Abramovic scratched her plates with her fingernails. Discussing her Spirit Cooking with Essential Aphrodisiac Recipes of 1996, Samuel noted that Abramovic “performed” her prints, meaning that the process of execution became a performance for the performance artist. Each artist brought his or her unique art form to the experience of making prints. In 2004, Mona Hatoum used her hair as a drawing tool, with coils and strands placed carefully preserved on pieces of paper and then slowly slid onto the plate. The Anglo-Indian artist, Anish Kapoor, commissioned a very special set of colors, deliberately made to reiterate the soft velvety dry pigments of his early works. The result was a set of prints with deep and profound colors that resonated and seemed to lift off the paper. Meredith Monk sang to Samuel as she made her prints of musical scores, and close friend, the late Chris Burden, shared his many encounters with coyotes in Topanga Canyon, told in a school-boy’s handwriting for Coyote Stories of 2005. Each series of prints presents a new but familiar facet of the personality of each artist.

Jacob Samuel takes pleasure in providing opportunities to artists. His Santa Monica studio, located in one of the last un-gentrified blocks in the city, is clean and spare, but, in the window, floats a transparent print by Gabriel Orozco, a Lotus Leaf from 2003. The transparent print ascends above the heavy and gleaming printing press. Although he has an artistic degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in the Bay Area, Samuel insists that he “does not think like an artist” but thinks technically. (Collectors of his paintings would disagree.) The son of immigrants from Wales—his grandfather peddled pins—he grew up in Malibu and Venice, when Venice was “Dogtown” and the “Z Boys” ruled. A long-time surfer, Samuel was interested in the Italian Arte Povera movement of the Sixties. Not unlike the post-war cinema of the Italian filmmakers who used ambient light and sound and untrained actors, the artists of the Arte Povera movement were fearless in striking out beyond the materials approved by fine arts at a time when painting ruled.

One of the veterans of the 1967 movement, the Greek artist, Jannis Kounellis, stepped out of his comfort zone in 1999 and produced a series of prints for Edition Jacob Samuel that were surprisingly delicate and lyrical. It is this fertile mix of Samuel’s interest in the historic discipline of prints, his reductive aesthetic, fueled by the concept of serial imagery of the sixties, and the willingness to be open to the possibilities of unexpected and unorthodox materials that gave rise to his imprint. Many of the artists featured are also writers who produce poetry or narratives, which respond to the images, or vice versa. Samuel employs a professional typographer to execute the pages of text, which have their own presence and yet are subordinate to the images. The rows of small spare prints are elegantly presented in simple and pale frames, hung side by side and while the series is under the name of the printer, “Jacob Samuel,” Outside the Box can also be thought of as a group show, featuring world famous artists. Oddly, collectors have not been interested in these print works and ninety percent of the purchases come from museums, which support the publisher’s efforts. For the art audience interested in the full range of an artist’s work, the exhibition, Edition Jacob Samuel, at the Hammer this summer allows the viewer a rare glimpse into the rewards of the collaboration between artist and printmaker.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Michael West: The Artist was a Woman



Newport Beach

June 5 – September 25, 2010

The Fifties. According to Gore Vidal, the worst decade in the history of the world—unless, of course, you happened to be white, male, heterosexual and an artist. For the American artist with the appropriate characteristics, it was the best of times. The Second World War left the United States in a position of dominance, militarily, politically, and, thanks to decades of conservatism in Paris, artistically in the lead. The art scene and the art market migrated from Paris to New York; and New York, as Serge Guilbaut stated, “stole the idea of modern art.” Operating out of the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, the new American artist had to shake off the “feminine” qualities of being an artist. Sensitivity and intuition were replaced by a strident masculinity, reflecting the military posturing of the Cold War era. Women who were artists were not welcomed in this male dominated arena where tough, ugly, alcoholic men like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline belched and bellowed like bull elephants. Harold Rosenberg wrote of “art as act” and imagined the (male) artist as a modern gladiator bringing himself into being through the act of creation. Females could create only through motherhood. Women were girlfriends, mistresses, wives, groupies, or all three. Some were allowed to have the privilege of being patrons and collectors, like Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. This is the world of Michael West, one of the best artists of Abstract Expressionism. Present at the beginning of the New York School, she was relegated to the footnotes and left behind by art history, all because she was a “she.” To be forgotten was the fate of female artists from the Fifties, the worst of times for women.


Michael West in 1948

Although best known as the reputed girlfriend of Arshile Gorky, whose legend overshadowed her, Michael West was, in fact, one of the stronger women of the New York School. Unlike Lee Krasner, who reacted to Jackson Pollock, she never allowed Gorky to impact upon her art, unlike Elaine de Kooning, she never made the mistake of marrying a colleague and taking his name. As a result of her independence, the art of West remained true to her own vision and she continued to develop and evolve even after her untimely stroke in 1976. West bravely continued to paint until her death in 1991. The way in which she continued to make art, undeterred by the chauvinism and bigotry against women, undismayed by the way in which critics and dealers ignored women artists, and un-swayed from her course by her marriage to combat photographer, Francis Lee, resembles the career of Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler married into the New York School when she became the wife of Robert Motherwell; but her art continued to be sponsored by the smitten art critic, Clement Greenberg. Thanks to him, Frankenthaler would be knitted into the critical fabric of modernism. With little support from critics and dealers, like most women, like West would be left out of the modernist meta narrative. Finally, in the twenty-first century, the artists who were the historical actors in the art world are being, slowly but surely, replaced in the history of art.

It is often overlooked in the circles of art history, that art dealers are on the front lines of primary research, and it is to Miriam Smith and Nora Desruisseaux of the Art Resource Group that much credit is due in bringing Michael West to the attention of the art world. Located in Irvine, the Group deals with the secondary market in art, handling estates and bringing to light artists who need to be remembered. A striking full page in the summer issue of Art in America announced their full scale show of Michael West’s work. West was born in 1908, a year after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon changed the course of modern art. Her original name was “Corrine,” and it was under this name that she began a career as an actor. Photographs taken of her in the style of Edward Steichen show a beautiful woman, her face glowing in the key light. Later photographs reveal that she never lost that sophisticated beauty and sense of elegant style, which must have beguiled Arshile Gorky, the Armenian immigrant painter. As though the event was the closing act of the theater chapter of her life, there was a brief marriage to an actor, quickly over. An unusually ambitious and determined woman for the period, West simply started all over again.

A talented pianist and gifted poet, she had many possibilities before her, but she chose to become a painter. Few women would have gambled in a career in the arts during the Depression, much less go to New York. But she was one of the first students of the new European refugee, Hans Hofmann, at the Art Students League in New York. In 1932, West was joined by artist, Lee Krasner, sculptor Louise Nevelson, and future gallery owner, Betty Parsons, during a period when women were tolerated in an art world devoid of prizes and competition. Undoubtedly Hofmann would have preferred to teach men, but as a newcomer to America, he needed the students. Hofmann was an autocrat, equaled perhaps only by Joseph Albers who was to arrive later. Both were known for bringing European ideas to America and for teaching a combination of Cubism and German Expressionism. Albers was fascinated with color and mixed media, bringing the idea of collage and assemblage to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Hofmann remained a total painter, combining the structure of Analytic Cubism with the color play and expressive brushwork of Der Blaue Reiter. The impact the conservative Cubism of the Twenties shows clearly in his work, reflecting his belatedness to the pre-war avant-garde. But his combination of avant-garde styles was part of the prevailing ethos of the art market in Europe where the collectors wanted the “look of” the radical but nothing actually innovative.


Michael West. Poet With a Brown Hat (1941)

Being of the post-avant-garde generation made Hofmann the ideal candidate to transport European studio talk and German art theory to the New York artists. Clement Greenberg, a fledgling writer, learned the aesthetic discourse at the master’s feet and would translate it into his theory of Modernism. Although Hofmann’s students started out together, they would show little loyalty to each other. Krasner, once so promising, would give up her career to support Pollock. Betty Parsons would run a gallery that excluded women. Working under Hofmann’s strong willed dogmas, West quickly caught on to the basic lessons of post-war Cubism, which incorporated the multiple viewpoints of Analytic Cubism with the large colored shapes of collage but replicated everything in paint. The women trained by Hofmann would have been well ahead of their male counterparts, none of whom were his direct students. When Krasner introduced her lover to Hofmann, the older and more experienced artist famously warned Pollock to work from nature, rather than depend upon his personality. Offended, Pollock insisted arrogantly, “I am nature.”

Like Pollock, West rejected Hofmann and left this breeding ground for new American art. Her reasons were different from Pollock. Hofmann was too domineering and his patriarchal ways did not sit well with the independent American women. In 1934, she began studying under the American Modernist, Raphael Soyer, who seems to have left little trace on her mature work. What did leave a mark on her life was an introduction to a man who had reinvented himself as a Russian, Arshile Gorky. Because of his posthumous fame, she would be recast as his “muse,” although at the time she was his equal as an artist. In 1935, she sifted her locale to start her art career outside of New York. To save money, she lived with her parents in Rochester, where she apparently became a bit of a local art star, showing with the Rochester Art Club and lecturing on the current theories of modern art and about “The New American Art.”

This apprenticeship probably served the same purpose as working for the WPA did for other artists—an opportunity to make art and to learn how to be an artist. The sojourn in Rochester would have been an ideal place to develop a career. Here she could get opportunities that would not have come her way in New York, such as a commission to paint fourteen panels for a local production of the Ballet Petrouchka, originally developed by the Ballet Russes for Nijinsky, with music by Igor Stravinsky. Although the ballet was twenty-five years old, in the Thirties, it was still a very modern take on ballet and the fact that the city was supportive of avant-garde theater and hired a modern artist to do the backdrop speaks volumes of the sophistication that could be found in the provinces.

Since their meeting in New York, Gorky was smitten and deluged West with love letters and poems, mostly purloined from the writings Surrealist poet, Paul Eluard. A telegram he sent her in 1936 was probably the most authentic words he wrote to her: “Dear Corrine, Please come to New York for a few days. Let me know when coming, Arshile.” There are intimations that the separation, bridged by letters, had weakened the relationship, as she later explained, “We planned to marry but changed out minds at least 6 times.” Having learned her trade and craft in the visual arts, in 1938, she returned to New York. Whatever the reasons for leaving Rochester, West had come back at a good time. The clock was ticking down on artistic freedom in Europe and in a year, Hitler had overrun the continent. What followed was the greatest intellectual and artistic migration in modern history. Half the greatest minds and talents in Europe arrived in New York and the rest found themselves in Los Angeles. The Surrealist artists from Paris arrived and became a major presence in New York, sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim and shown at her gallery, Art of This Century. For many artists these haughty painters, who refused to speak English, brought with them the key to the next step for abstract art, automatic writing, écriture automatique. But Michael West seemed to be influenced by the Surrealists in that she assimilated the ideas and reshaped them for her own use more than the actual techniques, while she also stayed true to her Cubist roots.

For this second period in New York, West ceased to be “Corrine” and became “Michael,” upon the advice of Gorky. Undoubtedly, his suggestion was based upon the very real prejudice against women, who had a long history “passing” as men: Georges Sand and George Eliot, for example. West went beyond signing her work as a man; and, like Lee Krasner, she used her new name in all aspects of her life. Becoming “Michael” could not obliterate her beauty and men in the art world probably had a hard time forgetting her gender, but West, like all her generation was consumed with the art problem of the day. How could Cubism become abstract? Hofmann remained figurative for years until he made the shift to painting squares of strong vibrating colors, alternatively roughly and smoothly painted. It should be noted, in comparison to the later works by West, that Hofmann tended to be a flat painter. In his earlier works, he wove a thick and active web of broken brushstrokes, which built up his post-Cubist compositions, featuring favorite cubist still life subjects. Later, he further flattened the picture plane and developed his famous “push-pull” effect, which solved the problem of how to keep abstract painting from going dead. The juxtaposed colors vibrated against one another, cool colors receding and warm colors advancing, activating the surface.


Michael West. Transfiguration (1948)

The decisive move away from her Cubist figuration can be traced from West’s A Girl with a Guitar of 1944 to Harlequin of 1946 to Transfiguration of 1948. The jump to abstraction took two years, but it was not a complete transformation until the Sixties. Like de Kooning, West returned to figuration in the 1950s. What is clear is that she understood the basic lesson of Cubism well: the entire surface had to be activated or what would later be called the “all-over” effect. With Cubism, the problem was to equalize the figure and ground, to reduce all areas of the canvas to a pattern of shattered shapes. Without the armature of the object, the question for abstraction became how or perhaps why to fill the canvas. The solution, which we also see in Pollock of the same period, was to cover the surface with dense biomorphic marks, built up into rhythms of painterly movement—a visual horror vacui. Transfiguration of 1948 demonstrates the same denseness and thickness that would characterize her compromise between geometric Cubism and biomorphic Surrealism. But West was still in the process of becoming. The last years of the decade would be critical for the development of American painting as the artists had to take the final step that would free them from dependence upon European Modernism.

Because we have become so familiar with the history of the American avant-garde in New York, it is important to remember that the scene among the artists was not as clear-cut as it would seem with historical hindsight. In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut recreated the confusion and uncertainty during the late Forties. By the end of the war, representational art disappeared from the galleries, replaced by abstract art. But abstraction was the only certainty. There were pressing questions of the relationship between the European tradition of Modernism and the newly emerged American art. American artists needed and wanted a complete break and sought to create an “American” art. Michael West had been on the forefront of the pioneers who moved forward to create abstract art in an American idiom. However, as a definition of Abstract Expressionism, American avant-garde, American painting emerged, it would be specifically constructed to eliminate certain elements and players, including and especially women.

Politics was removed from art. This removal was part of a rejection of previous art, such as Social Realism and a reaction against wartime fascist propaganda. It was clear to American observers that the French post-war entanglement in politics was harmful to the recovery of their art. In America, there was a conservative reaction against “elitism” and anything that seemed “un-American” such as European based art. Added to the fact that “modern art” became suspect in many quarters was the chilling fear of the coming Cold War and communism. American insularity and hostility to new ideas was on display against the important show of 1946, “Advancing American Art,” a show that traveled to Europe, organized by J. LeRoy Davidson and sponsored by the State Department. Attacked as being “Red Art” made by “left wing artists,” the “travesty of art” was designed to cause “ill will” towards America which would be made to look “ridiculous” by “half-baked lazy people,” who made that “so-called modern art.” An image of Hiroshima by Ben Shahn was singled out for criticism. For any artist who might have qualms about atomic warfare, it would be wise to forego comment, as America apparently quickly became desensitized and brutalized during the war to dropping “the bomb.’ Fortune Magazine’s chilling 1946 account of the dropping of the atomic bombing of Bikini atoll shows either ignorance or fear,

….there is no reason why only one bomb should be dropped at one time. Some bombs might be detonated mainly for blast effects, others underwater to contaminate the whole harbor area. Some military men even foresee the release of clouds of radioactivity without bombs to act as an invisible gas.

Not every observer was so sanguine. By the end of the Forties, West married again to a combat photographer, Francis Lee. It is unclear what impact this marriage to a man who knew war so well had on her opposition to the Cold War, but her horror over what the war had wrought was shared by many artists in New York. This was a generation that had survived the hopelessness of the Depression and the daily fear of defeat by ruthless enemies, only to be faced—after victory, after the peace—with what proved to be a state of permanent war. In an age of total abstraction, when political art or art with any overt content was unwelcomed, many artists had to hide their horror at the continual testing of atomic weapons. Written after American had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese to win the war and after the American government began systematically testing nuclear weapons, one of Michael West’s poems related the plight of the artist in such a dark time:

Rebel March 1948

Black Hands Crowd the Angry Dark
With Tales of Fire Coughing —
Money — genius —
unlimited or even limiter
What a ludicrous price —praying —
Dismantled — disarmed —
the artist in society —suffocates —

During the Sixties, Adolph Gottlieb did a series of paintings, called Burst, an oblique reference to the threat of immanent annihilation. West had also “blasted” her early work, Harlequin, with a dull silver paint, the color of a bomb casing. The spill of paint obliterated the earlier surface, stunning it into submission. This old work was transformed by her Cold War protest, the silver color acting as a metaphor of the Frankenstein effects of technology. Other works of this period show the cultural dis-ease with the Cold War. West’s Nihilism (1949) and Dagger of Light (1951) have titles which predate those of Gottlieb, suggesting a veiled statement, implied but not stated, except in the use of industrial enamel paint splayed across the canvas.


Michael West. Dagger of Light (1951)

After those splashes of violence, the art of West began to include landscapes and still lives on white ground. Her 1950s return to figuration would have been regarded as tantamount to treason in the New York art world after the hard fought battle for abstraction. De Kooning was roundly attacked for his Woman series of 1952. West joined the Dutch artist in being one of the few who dared to challenge the new orthodoxy. The flurry of brushstrokes in Flowers of 1952 and Road to the Sea of 1955 are an entirely new form of mark making for West. The works of the Forties retain a sense of the biomorphic that is, in and of itself, a signature of the era. The straightened marks, applied individually in a slashing movement prefigured her later mature work and were characteristic of the Fifties. What remains a constant for this return of figuration were the colors of the early abstractions. West was a colorist, a very inventive and subtle one, creating cool in-between tones mixed to unusual hues of thinned out reds and metallic greens. Green is a very difficult color for artists to work with, but West not only mastered the color but also invented a new version of her own: dense and acid with a sense of transparency, pale and dark at the same time. A Coke bottle green. This green appears in Space Poetry of 1956 and Study of 1962. As West wrote,

The future of art lies in color—but I/ am personally interested in an/ effect of dark and light/ The color explains the space/ The more complicated the space/ the simplier the color/ (this sounds wrong—but it is right for me)

The work of West during the decade when the New York School and Abstract Expressionism became the dominant movement in the international art world demonstrates the current aesthetic zeitgeist, on view at The Stable Gallery in 1953. In an homage to the famous Ninth Street Show of 1951, Eleanor Ward invited the best and the brightest in New York, including all the (remaining) artists of Abstract Expressionism, including both de Koonings, Motherwell, some future Pop precursors, Rivers and Rauschenberg, and all the notable women of the scene, Frankenthaler, Bourgeois, Mitchell. West was in this famous exhibition, which was prefaced with an interesting and telling introduction by Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, seeking to make his mark as an art critic, echoed the macho rhetoric of Rosenberg, writing of the “indispensible” “rivalry” among artists. The ironic juxtaposition of the presence of many women in an important exhibition and the masculine rhetoric of the short essay boded ill for the future careers of artists who were women. By 1952, the new artist, according to Harold Rosenberg, was an “action painter,” modeled on a militaristic fantasy, echoing American triumphalism.

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce…

Rosenberg continued,

Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating.

So by the time of The Stable Gallery show in 1964, it was already too late for women. Like politics, they were in the process of being written out of art history. The new artist had to be masculinized and Americanized. Stung by accusations of being “left,” the vanguard art world put forward a group of men who were too old or too unfit to fight in the Second World War and who had to be turned into cowboys and fighters. Most importantly the artist had to be depoliticized as well, a feat that was accomplished by elevating “him” to the status of individual, merged with “life” but not with current events. The male artist had to be male in order to symbolize the true subject of modern art: “man.” The independent male individual was alienated—had to be alienated—in order to create transcendent art.

Constructed during an era when men were supposedly suffering from a “crisis in masculinity,” the new American artist became an extreme figure, modeled on Jackson Pollock, a troubled alcoholic. Above all, this male artist must have “freedom.” In contrast, women in the post-war society were shaped for domesticity, were devoted to her husband and family, and were delighted by housework. Without “freedom,” they were unable to open their own bank accounts. Their individuality disappeared under their husband’s names. They were not individuals, but were defined in terms of their family roles. As “wives” and “mothers,” they could not alienated, nor could they ever be independent. This new post-war woman certainly did not even remotely resemble the newly fabricated American artist.

It is necessary to “re-place” Michael West in the history of art, because like all the women of her time, with the possible exception of Frankenthaler, she was written out of the New York School. By Sixties, she had moved back to abstract art, bringing together all she had learned over the past thirty years. Having experimented with avant-garde abstraction and figuration, in the Fifties, she made the choice to stay with her generation and did not attempt to follow figuration into Neo-Dada. She was a woman, and due to her gender, she has been mistakenly located historically as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist artist, but this designation was because the art of women were assumed to be derivative of the work of men.

In fact, West was part of the First Generation and her development during the Forties as an abstract artist paralleled and paced with that of Pollock. He, of course, was given credit for what de Kooning called the “breakthrough,” or the breakaway from the dominance of European art. Her path to abstraction, unlike that of Pollock, was not through the automatic writing of Surrealism, but was through Cubism. Her transition would have been more like that of Mondrian or Malevich, in that she retained the cubist structure; but she utilized the expressive brushwork of Hofmann and broke free of the outlined strong Cubist blocks. Unlike Pollock, she never worked on the field painting scale but she solved the problem he presented in his Mural of 1943-4—how to paint large scale with kinetic strokes over a large expanse of canvas. Unable to work on an easel, Pollock threw an unprimed canvas onto the floor in 1947 and flung paint onto its surface, solving his found problem with a solution found three years later.

WESTEnamel12 copy

Michael West. Enamel 10 (1960)

West apparently learned that she could work in large brushstrokes with a big paintbrush and keep the canvases to a large scale. She maintained the easel painting tradition, like de Kooning, but, when one measures her canvases, one can see that they were sized to fit her body: the size of the brush her hand could hold, the distance her arm could travel from end to end, as she swept across the surface. The canvases were as tall as an average woman’s height, minus a few inches and as wide as her outstretched arms. The term “kinetic” is often applied to Pollock’s work, referring to his throw of paint but the term can also be applied to the way in which West must have interacted with her surfaces and materials. Unlike Franz Kline who painted black against white, creating an intermix of contrasts, which flattened his surface, West laid stroke upon stroke, building up and out. In response to the increased use of the entire body in painting, artists of the Fifties often thought of themselves as performers and many allied themselves with body oriented activities, such as the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College.

The idea of a performance or of a kind or proto-body art did not include women at the time, but an examination of the canvases of Michael West immediately demonstrates the sheer physicality of her painterly style. Her strokes of strong paint drew a map of figure on top of ground, applied with the rhythm of the sway of her body. As can be seen in her paintings of the 1960s, she left behind the packed and built up surface of the forties abstraction and became a figure-ground painter, seen as early as 1955 with a simple black Still Life. The use of dripping, small splashes on the canvas, which will become part of her work begins to appear. At times, she would take advantage of the liquidity of the paint and allow the paint to flow down but she never allowed the direction of the flow to dictate the orientation of the painting. In Narkisses of 1966, the canvas has clearly been flipped on its head.

West’s paintings were built up with gestures of strong over-painting, often allowing the ground to show through. The strong vertical slashes of the figurative paintings of the Fifties were carried over into the next decade and used on a large scale as though the brushes and the brush strokes had been greatly enlarged and blown up to fill a larger stage. Her colors became stronger and deeper, blacks, dark reds (Untitled, 1961), slate blues (Moments 1970), with touches of white (Vietnam Summer, 1963), and pale lemon yellow (Gento Niese, 1978) were applied with great and confident freedom. Despite the stroke of 1976, she painted on. Little was allowed to deter West—not the death of Gorky in 1948, not her second divorce in 1960, not an illness which was defiantly followed by the beautiful Save the Tiger of 1980.


Michael West. Save the Tiger (1980)

Over and over, from decade to decade, Michael West always moved with and was part of the cutting edge of the art world. But just when Michael West hit her stride as an artist, just as she found her own voice, the art scene shifted and abstract art became a historical artifact. Pop Art ascended, followed by Minimal Art, both of which repudiated Abstract Expressionism, and, unfortunately, attention shifted away from abstract painters. We know that she was close to the painter Richard Poussette-Dart, but women received little support in an art world dominated by men and she did not get the exhibition exposure equal to her male colleagues. West simply kept evolving, independent as always.

The question is why did such an interesting artist, so in tune with her artistic time, get left behind and written out of the history books? The answer, as was indicated, is two fold. First, Michael West was a victim of the passing fancies of an art world, increasing driven by an activated art market. New York began to look like Paris before the First World War, becoming home to a dizzying series of “isms.” But there the comparison stops. Before the Great War, the avant-garde movements built one upon the other, but in New York, true to the new martial Cold War fervor, each “ism” ousted the other. The “rivalry” Greenberg wrote of began to infect the art world.

The older Ab Ex artists sparred with each other and the group, never a close one, splintered in the fight for recognition and patronage. Even worse, the New York School was superceded, first, by the upstart Neo-Dada trend, and then, by the Pop artists, who were followed by the Minimalists, who were overcome by the Conceptual artists who eliminated the object. All of the new movements rejected the pompous pretentions of myth and poetry and spirituality that were part of the credo of Abstract Expressionism. Michael West, who was interested in what she called “the new mysticism,” Zen Buddhism, and Henri Bergson’s élan vital, was now in an art world charmed by popular culture and dedicated to literalism. The spontaneous art of personal gesture gave way to artists who hired fabricators and mailed instructions to installers. In this new world, one group was suddenly out and old-fashioned and the new group was in favor. The generation that had fought so hard to break away from the Europeans witnessed the uprising of the young artists, who not only mocked them but also obtained, too easily, the financial rewards they had worked so hard for.

Michael West was left behind by history, but so were Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. Rothko and Newman were not truly appreciated until the Minimalists during the late Sixties. But regardless of the fact that West produced stunning abstract paintings, such as Mt. Siani Clinic of 1962, she still would have been ignored, unlike her male counterparts, because of the art world gender ideology. The second reason women were left out of art history had to do with old-fashioned gender bias and male prejudices against the female. Harold Bloom, the literary theorist, wrote of the history of literature as a contest, an “agon” between fathers and sons. In A Map of Misreading, Bloom wrote,

A poet, I argue in consequence, is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.

Artistic rivalry was Oedipal, between men only. Given the succession of movements in the New York art world, with each generation rejecting the other, a male enterprise; women were not and could not be part of the canon. The ideological construct of men defeating men precluded any role for artists who were female. It took decades for new generation of art historians to recognize that it was not “history” that had been written but a male-based belief system—a belief that only men could be artists. Many years after her death, Michael West is joining the long line of women who paint in the rewritten art history.


Ashton, Dore, The New York School. A Cultural Reckoning, 1973

Belgrad, Daniel, The Culture of Spontaneity. Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, 1998

Bloom, Harold, A Map of Misreading, 1975

Bloom, Harold, Anxiety of Influence 1973

Frascina, Francis, ed., Pollock and After. The Critical Debate, 1985

Guilbaut, Serge, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, 1983

Lewis, David, “Michael West: More than Gorky’s Muse,” in Michael West. Paintings from the Forties to the Eighties, 2010

McNamara, Chris, “By Any Name,” in Michael West. Painter-Poet, n.d.

Olds, Kirsten, “The New Mysticism in Art,” in The 1950s Paintings of Michael West, n.d.

Pollock, Lindsay, The Girl with the Gallery. Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market, 2006

Rosenberg, Harold, “American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New, 1959

Sandler, Irving, The Triumph of American Painting, 1970

Spender, Matthew, ed., Arshile Gorky. Goats on the Roof. A Life in Letters and Documents, 2009

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

The Art of the Steal (2009)

The Barnes Foundation and Art Collecting

The story of how the world-famous Barnes Collection was moved from its long-time home in Merion, Pennsylvania to downtown Philadelphia is told in tones of indignation as a vast conspiracy of moneyed interests who “stole” the art in the name of the people. This film, The Art of the Steal, has a couple of lessons to teach. First, if you want to convince people of your perspective, present only one side, and second, if you are asked to present your side—the other side—give an account of yourself, otherwise your silence will indict you. I have no doubt the people who fought to keep the Collection in its original site were as well-meaning as they were passionate, but their insistence presences hide the fact that many people was simply not present to defend their perspectives. The absence of many important art world figures, who surely have opinions about this “steal” is notable and is explained away as not wanting to get on the wrong side of the Pew Foundation, presented as one of the thieving parties. Still the silence of art historians and curators who specialize in Modernist art or in Impressionism is strange. Not one Cézanne scholar, not one Matisse specialist, not one specialist from other museums, no authorities who specialize in modern art were presented in this film. This absence is very strange.

As interesting as this film is, it is also profoundly manipulative and uneven and disjointed. The Art of the Steal begins with a statement made by Alfred Barnes himself, stating that his purpose is to “attack” the art establishment. Not that there was much to attack. The Museum of Modern Art was not in existence when the Barnes Foundation was established in 1922. The interest in Modernist art in America was small and confined mostly to a couple of groups in New York City, with Walter and Louise Arensberg and Alfred Stieglitz as the centers. Alfred Barnes was able to amass the huge collection of French art, from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, because the French didn’t like these movements either. The avant-garde dealers in Paris had learned to depend upon American collections, who, since the days of the Impressionists, had been happy to buy anything “French.” Duncan Phillips, whose home in Washington D. C., is a case in point. Incidentally his art filled home is now a museum, just like the original intent of Barnes and his collection.

But to stick to the point and try to understand why Barnes went on the “attack:” when Barnes showed his collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he was mercilessly “attacked.” Barnes must have been either naïve or self-destructive to not foresee that the conservatives of a conservative town would not understand his art. Back in Paris, the public was just getting its first glimpse of the collages of Braque and Picasso from the sequestered collection of their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The Parisian artists were horrified at the mere sight of revolutionary multi-media work when the collection, including collages, was auctioned off. Even Barnes did not like Cubism, so it is inconceivable that he did not expect an art public that still worshipped Thomas Eakins to reject the Impressionists.

Barnes may have been an insightful collector, but he overdid it in his collecting of Renoir—almost 200 Renoirs and less than a half dozen Monets?—and, as a result, the collection is more a personal response to modern art and less a historical overview. But more of Barnes and art history later. According to the film, he was so distraught over the reception of his collection, he withdrew his art from the ignorant and provincial art world and sequestered it in a carefully constructed private museum. Barnes lacked the courage of his convictions and was not as brave as the artists he collected. His retreat had a cowardly air about it and the atmosphere of being hostile to the public and to the established art world surrounded the collection.

The construction of the Foundation and its disposition in his later wills was built on a foundation of spleen. The entire idea of secreting the art was to keep it from the public. All information about the collection was as controlled as the access. Only those who were willing to be taught by Barnes himself were allowed in. By the time I was in graduate school, Barnes was long dead and the fearsome Violette de Mazia, who guarded the Foundation with the ferocity of a lioness. The inaccessibility of the famous paintings was legendary. One needed special permission, almost impossible to obtain, to study the collection.

Art historians exchanged war stories of their adventures, of trying and failing to see the fabled art. One such urban legend involved two of the most famous people in the world: Alfred Einstein, the physicist, and Erwin Panofsky, a Renaissance scholar. Both men were German refugees at Princeton, but Einstein the scientist, as The Art of the Steal points out, was a friend of Barnes. Panofsky, however, was only a revered art historian and did not count. He begged Einstein to get him inside the Barnes Collection so he could see the art. The only solution Einstein could come up with was to smuggle Panofsky, disguised as his chauffeur, through the gates of the estate. Innocently, Einstein asked Barnes if his “driver” could have lunch in the kitchen while he was waiting for his “boss” to visit the famous collector. Barnes agreed, not knowing he was allowing an art historian to enter his domain. Panofsky sneaked around the rooms, gazed upon the legendary art and then drove Einstein back to Princeton.

The story may be apocryphal but it is indicative of the reputation of “The Barnes,” as the collection was known. The film insists that the goal of the collector was to teach, but, in fact, teachers of art history were not allowed to have color photographs of the art in the collection. There is a legend of an art historian who managed to take a bad color photo of one of the Matisses, possibly Bonheur de Vivre, and smuggled it out of the institution; but the collection could literally not be taught in an art history class. There were no images and no reliable eye witness testimony.

All of that secrecy changed when it was discovered that the building was in bad shape and that the art as suffering from mold and mildew. The Art of the Steal does not mention that the main problem with the art was the non-archival way in which it was displayed—on burlap-covered walls. Much is made of how the collection is shown in a home-like setting, but Barnes did not know how to conserve art. Burlap was used, for example, in Stieglitz’s famous gallery, 291, where the burlap hung as curtains below the painting rail, not where the art was hung. Take an old house, a damp climate, and moist walls covered with a fabric that collected all kinds of bacteria and mold, now combine those conditions with paintings on canvas pressed against the burlap and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

The paintings were in actual danger until The National Gallery in Washington, D. C. restored them. In return, the Gallery was the first place to exhibit selected paintings from the Collection so that the broader public could see them. Excitement in the art history world was great. In the summer of 1992 the Chicago Tribune announced that the Barnes Collection was “freed.” At last the famous paintings could be seen! And in color! I was in awe of Bonheur de Vivre—-those wonderful pinks and yellows. I must confess that a friend of mine, now deceased, who worked at the Gallery, sent me a color slide taken directly off the actual painting. He was not supposed to slip me the extra copy and I was not supposed to receive somewhat stolen goods. But I was then and probably still am the only person on the West Coast with such a possession. There is a great deal to be said of a pristine collection that has not been handled, for the restored art that I saw at the National Gallery exhibition was in perfect condition. But the art was not shown in the way that Barnes had designed his installation.

The Art of the Steal implied that the new building in Philadelphia will recreate the original design of how Barnes hung the paintings, salon style. The concept that ruled the installation is problematic today: Barnes dispersed African masks and Native American blankets among the Modernist paintings to point to the connections between tribal art and modern art. Today we would called this arrangement colonialism or eurocentricism. Although in 1905, artists thought nothing of appropriating tribal art (they called it “primitive” art) as the inspiration for their own work, today such acts are considered politically suspect, or, as Robert Hughes called it, “cultural imperialism.” In making the tribal connection, Barnes was certainly correct, for certain artists, such as Matisse and Modigliani, who were directly inspired by tribal artifacts; but the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists knew nothing of African art.

Ever since the Primitivism and Modern Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, the formalist comparison between modern and tribal art has been discredited. Today we flinch at the term “primitivism.” Certainly European artists at the beginning of the 20th century used African art to infuse modernist painting and sculpture with something new and “exotic,” but for a contemporary museum to be complicit with cultural requisitioning, unless the historical context is fully explained, is unthinkable today. The question of whether or not the colonialist approach as followed by Barnes for the installation of his art will be replicated remains a question.

The film does not discuss the link between the collection and African art, even though the fact that Barnes left his collection to a black university–Lincoln University–is staring them in the face. Also passed over rather lightly is the fact that a group of rich white people stand accused of stealing a valuable ($25 billion and counting) art collection, which was whisked away from poor black people who were too ignorant to know what they owned. Complicating matters are the black men who were complicit in transferring the property of Lincoln University—the Barnes Collection—over to the city of Philadelphia. No one seemed to feel any ethical qualms of violating the terms of a will or show any particular interest in helping the now-impoverished school.

In the art world, Richard Glanton was a well-known villain, not because he managed to pry the paintings from the dubious burlap walls of the Foundation, but because he mismanaged the money and left the Foundation in apparently dire straits. Whatever money the Foundation made from the tours of the Collection, the profit was apparently handed over to lawyers who had to defend “The Barnes” from neighbors who were rightfully resentful of the steady stream of art lovers coming to pay homage to the paintings. As anyone who watched the battle between another private museum, The Getty, and another powerful and wealthy public community, Brentwood, can tell you, the museum will lose. The Art of the Steal interviews some of the Merion-dwellers, who wisely told their side of the story, and it is clear that these were people with deep pockets. When the neighbors eventually relented, it was too late and Glanton had put the Foundation in a vulnerable place, ripe for the picking.

Despite the rear-guard and last minute efforts of the last of the die-hard supporters of the wishes of Alfred Barnes, the Collection will be housed in a new building and will be open to the public in 2012. Barnes set up his Foundation nearly one hundred years ago, when it may have made sense to try to teach a ignorant public about modern art, albeit in small and exclusionary groups. But one hundred years later, the public loves Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Matisse, et al. One can imagine that the mean old man would be delighted that so many people love his art so much. He would say, “I told you so.” He would have the last laugh. Much of made of how his will was slowly dismantled and written off, but the times that inspired the writing of such a mean-spirited document are in the past.

In its own time the Barnes Collection was an anachronism, an enlarged version of the secret cabinet of a Renaissance prince, who opened the doors only to the select few. Presumably, the French Revolution ended the private and exclusive nature of art and museums became public. Salon exhibitions were open to the people. Artists learned to take public criticism and to enjoy public adulation. We came to believe that art was for the public; that culture belonged to the people. While The Art of the Steal exposed political chicanery and suggested collusion between political power and money, but we learned nothing new, expect that Barnes made his money from a cure for venereal disease and that these profits, well-deserved, no doubt, were used to buy art. Art, power and money have always been cultural triplets. At least the politicians and the power mongers are giving the art to the public, or should I say, they have “stolen” the art only to give it away…to us. Thank you. I am planning my trip to Philadelphia.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)


This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.” Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art. There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form. Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices. By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists. Indeed many street artists, such as JR, pride themselves on keeping a distance from the art market.

Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art. The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers. The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune. Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics. The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style. Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.

On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists. But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm. A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one. At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife. He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.

Street art has been around for decades. One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or become historical and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf. During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located. Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans. To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone. To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come. Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.

Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law. Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled. Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings. The police control the streets. No unauthorized signage is allowed. The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners. For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame. Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits. The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.

Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names. He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the French artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris. Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces. Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across. All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity. The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.

Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion. But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape. He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts. As “Mr. Brainwash,” he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera. Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines. The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.” In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be. If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is. The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive. Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire. Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.

From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters. But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.” The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.” The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts. The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art? Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true. He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone. How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary? All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.

For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis. Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial. It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening. As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art. What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes? Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.” An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other. To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter. Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.

By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else. But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists. They knew what they were doing and why. But that was decades ago. Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child. He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others. All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.

To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London. He learned from Basquiat. A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example. You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans. It will fall, making no sound. Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility. The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight. And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie. His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.

Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene. By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible. But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed. The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap. There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Keith Haring, who used white chalk on black paper. The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants. We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces. Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components. Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper. All of this costs money. Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.

But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist? From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is. He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place. Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years. But that does not answer the real question: is he making art? The short answer is No. The long answer is No Way. Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art. This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism. I am not condemning the man. I am simply describing how he works. Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.” But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra. What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication? Thierry Guetta. Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion. By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists. If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits. Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not. Like pornography.

That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world. He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery. Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition. Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time. They would give their art; the authorities would take it away. Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act. Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor. The art could be seen but not for long. It could not be owned nor possessed. The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach. The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop. But it is Desire that creates art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Behold. Perspectives at Play in a Young Man’s Mind

Solo exhibition of the Photographic Work of James Higginson

Behold. Perspective at Play in a Young Man’s Mind

Haus am Kleistpark, Berlin

Photographic Exhibition from March-May 2015

Unless one is an angel, descending from on high, no one without wings utters the word “Behold” any more. With all its well rounded “ohs” and Biblical and Koranic implications, “Behold” as a command has almost faded from contemporary vocabulary. Behold is an order and an imperious one at that. Behold expands far beyond the causal imperative of “look” or “see” or “view”–behold implies a serious contemplation of a significant unveiling. A revelation is at hand, and a revelation is the disclosure of something previously unknown, a fact that has been hidden or a situation kept secret or a condition previously unknown. A veil will be raised, a curtain will be lifted, a light will be lit and now all will be exposed to astonished eyes. The drama of “behold” suits well the notoriously vivid and astonishing photography of James Higginson, who has made a career of making us look at society’s purloined letters, is lying in plain sight.

To “Behold” is to be witness to what is at play in the mind of a young man and Higginson is the guide who provides the perspective. A photographer, who turns the camera against itself to create fantasies that tell truths too potent to face without disguise, Higginson manipulates and directs his subjects who are actors, displaying elaborate artifices and social constructions. The male, Higginson’s photographic suites insist, is inauthentic, a construct, a tabula rasa who self-constructs into fictions that are forms of exaggerated play on the game of being male. None of the men in this large beautifully mounted exhibition are middle-aged or set in their ways, so to speak, none are old, formed, congealed and hardened into an indelible mold. All are young or wanting to be young, actively engaged in shaping themselves, using the allegorical tools, such as they are, provided by society.

These tools are like toys in a child’s closet, repetitive and limited and yet capable of astonishing variation at the hands of an imaginative young man, who learns very early in life that life is a series of costumes, poses and performances. Being a man is a performance, that much is well known, but what Higginson emphasizes is that the exaggeration of masculinity is a forcing of masculine extremes in the face of flaunted femininity. The artist shows very clearly what can and cannot be revealed: the soul. The body of work from which the exhibition takes its name, Behold (2010), is powerful in its intimacy. Higginson shows the heart of the male, stripped of clothes and posturing, signified as a naked back, a male version of The Bather of Valpinçon (1808) and re-marked as a male obsession with forbidden voluptuousness. Where Ingres caressed with his eyes not his hands, where Ingres touched with his brush, Higginson embraces his vulnerable model, back bare and exposed, with an enveloping black robe which reaches around and holds like a hand in a dark glove. But we must recall that Higginson is always subtly sarcastic in his approach to photography, for what seems to be a dark embrace is actually something much more Ingres-esque–the black is actually paint on skin, a shadow of a touch, an illusion of togetherness. Behold is almost embarrassingly revelatory, full of yearning and desire, a statement of need to be loved, to be touched, all of which must be concealed by the mask of men who must be invulnerable and strident in a male world where all must be hidden.


Closely related to Behold, is the series Interlude (2004), a prolonged study of male helplessness in an indifferent world. Higginson presents the young man adrift in nature, set nude in bucolic nature, naked in the woods. Like Adam, bewildered and alone in the Garden of Eden, the young men linger at the edge a lake, staring across the still waters. Unlike Behold which is in painfully personal deep color, Interlude is deliberately subdued in black and white, denied silvers and devoid of uplifting whites, except for the blank enigmatic skies. Although the American artists lives and works in Germany, there is nothing of the heedless pre-war nude frolics of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at Moritzburg and nothing of the portentous pantheistic grandeur of Caspar David Friedrich in these photographs. It is rather as if Robert Adams were God who placed an unwitting Adam in an anonymous wood and left him to his own untutored devices. These young man are modern, lost and alone, stripped of clothing and of any accouterments of survival. They attempt relaxed or assertive postures but they are classical nudes stranded in a rather sharp-edged forest, stripped of halcyon tones and bristling with future wounds to the pale slim bodies. They are vulnerable because of their age, they are still malleable. Still in states of becoming, the minds of these young men are still in play.


The young man learns to put away the blanket of comfort and childhood and gives up all thought of emotion and is taught to don the costume of maleness or manhood. Since the ancient Romans, puritanical society has commanded men to put on full body armor, a costume of concealment, whether it be the long enveloping robes of a priest or the tense suit of a businessman. Nothing must be allowed to escape, not an errant ankle or stray emotion. Exposure is vulnerability, Higginson suggests, and no one likes to be left alone in the prickly forest. Gender becomes the shield and spear against the traumas of the natural. As Judith Butler noted,

Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being.

In her well-known book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Butler used the words “compulsory” and “regulatory” to demonstrate the constricting effect of language has on the human subject, halting the impulse to play. Suggestion that gender is a social performance which becomes an understudy, taking the place of the “real” person who disappears from the stage. If, as Butler insists, there is no getting outside the discourse of gender, then it is possible to contest the discursive rigidity of “manhood” with the loose linguistics playful clothing. In his series on male attire, the artist resists Butler’s nihilistic theories with the absurdity of fantasy costume in Goth (2009) and in the precision of historical costumes seen in Black Shields (2012). The Black Shields or Georgian Fight Art Federation Shavparosnebi are unfamiliar to American audiences but in the summer of 2015, this group of re-enactors won first place at the first place at the Natale di Roma festival. Since 2012 Georgia, once part of the Roman Empire, has been part of this annual event and the Shavparosnebi demonstrate Georgian fighting techniques, traditional clothing and weapons. The Shavparosnebi represent serious manhood at the extremes, if you will, at the peak of the Roman Empire, an age still celebrated by Hollywood. The fighting men of the Shavparosnebi re-enactors, charged with conserving an obscure but proud culture, pose proudly, conquered and yet always authentic. These modern men, now living in the dangerous shadow of Russia, choose to don the costumes of their ancient counterparts and relive a more glorious past–also lived at the mercy of a greater power. Thus cultural pride provides an assertive stance and a stage upon which to perform manhood.


These alternative self-fashioning are playful antidotes to conservative submissiveness to the characters written in preexisting scripts. In HWD Dresses and in the delightful HWD Dresses in Action (2009), Higginson puts men in female clothing to see what happens. Perhaps it takes men wearing women’s clothing to make the familiar strange and to demonstrate the dislocation that a simple act of switching costumes can cause in a well ordered society.


As if stressing the importance of play in the young men’s mind, Higginson closes in on the tiny toy soldier, khaki green and plastic, wearing camouflage for an imaginary jungle campaign. It is here, in the playroom, that the boy learns to be a man and these simple plastic figures, fighting in bleached out spaces of a photographic field, teach manhood through violence. As he imaginatively enters into the mental space of a fighting man, the boy learns to pretend to fight and kill and even die in the performance of his gender to come, gender to be. There is an active submission and strident compliance in his unthinking conformity to cultural concerns: that there be males to confront females, constructed as each other’s polar opposites. In today’s world, where gender roles are breaking down and men are taking more active part in the nurturing business of parenting and women are in Afghanistan are fighting and dying, Higginson’s pointed commentary on the straightjacket of social norms seems well placed and necessary.


Wisely, the artist refuses to patronize his audience with the obvious commentary on gender roles. Perhaps twenty years ago, such preaching would have been novel, but today, Judith Butler is long out of date. The artist has been working for the past fifteen years, using the directorial mode of photography to demonstrate the charade of gender. Turning performance inside out, Higginson forces his actors to take off their accustomed clothing and to explore other states of being. In the process, he finds a simple truth: before we are anything else, male or female, we are human beings, naked and desiring, alone in the world. In the photographic universe of James Higginson, to play is to think, to think is to gain perspective, to reveal is to behold.

Censorship Redeux: The Smithsonian and MOCA LA


Art of the Streets at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2011

Like the swallows return to Capistrano, censorship of art returns every time forces of morality feel emboldened or threatened. Two decades ago, it was Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano who were the targets of right wing indignation. In 1989, a threatened conservative faction was on its last legs and would be challenged by the Clinton phenomenon. Attacking helpless artists who want to make art not headlines was an easy diversion, a feint that drew attention away from the very real economic problems the nation faced. Today, two new victims have emerged under strikingly similar circumstances—a right wing threatened by the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and an economic crisis of their own making.

The new Conservative attacks struck down the photographer, David Wojnarowicz, who died twenty years ago, and the political German street artist, Blu. This time, one of the culprits was presumed to be open-minded, Jeffrey Deitch of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In an unexpected act of apparent censorship, Deitch ordered Blu’s supposedly offensive mural to be whitewashed. The other violator, the venerable Smithsonian Institution, was under the usual monetary pressure from the usual suspects, the Catholic, led by Bill Donohue and the upcoming Republican Leader of the House, John Boehner. The Smithsonian Institution, dependent upon the federal government for funds, obediently removed Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly (1987) of ants crawling over a crucifix from an important exhibition on homosexual identity. That fact that one museum was under political pressure and the other was not indicates that the issue of censorship needs to be looked at from another angle. When and why does censorship of the arts occur?

Censored Video removed from exhibition

Smithsonian Institution’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

Censors are never right. History proves them wrong every time.

When the Corcoran refused to show the Mapplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, the art world united in its condemnation, and the museum has never recovered from the stain on its honor and reputation. Twenty-one years later, the Smithsonian, a federally funded institution like the Corcoran, was forced to sacrifice the integrity of art for financial survival. And like the Corcoran, the solution of the Smithsonian is short term and is at the expense of moral and ethical principles. If the art was good enough to have been selected, then it is worthy of being defended. The decision by the Smithsonian was particularly strange, given the sea change in public opinion over gay men and women since the deaths of Mapplethorpe (1989) and Wojnarowicz (1992).

The other factor that adds to the ill-timed act of self-censorship is that the Catholic Church, a major actor in this new drama, has lost all credibility. In today’s newspapers, December 18, there are two new stories—one about the Catholic Church sheltering a rapist and the in the other—a pedophiliac. And that was today’s news, not the news of three or four years ago. Where does the Church get off in objecting to the art of a man who has been dead for twenty years? Dead, because conservative factions, including the Catholic Church, blamed the victims of AIDS rather than doing what Jesus Would Do–help the sick and the helpless.

One can perhaps understand the Smithsonian, which was facing a Republican dominated Congress in the fall. But the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” suggests that the decision to censor its own exhibition is, if nothing else, ironic and, worse, pointless. But the whitewashing of the mural in Los Angeles is a strange act on the part of a purportedly open-minded director of a major museum. According to the story, the German street artist, known as “Blu,” had worked with Jeffrey Deitch before and actually stayed with the director of the museum before he painted the mural. Given the checkered history of murals at the Geffen–remember Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Questions) in 1989-90 and the ensuing controversy, it is hard to believe that Deitch did not ask Blu what his intentions were.

Money Draped Coffins

Censored Mural

Christopher Knight, who defended Deitch, stated that, the neighborhood where MOCA’s annex, The Geffen, is located, is sensitive to art projects. Knight pointed to problems with a mural painted by Barbara Kruger in 1989, that year of art censorship, as an example of art offending the Japanese-American community of Little Tokyo. The Geffen is wedged between the Japanese-American National Museum and the “Go for Broke” War Memorial for the Japanese-American soldiers who died in World War II. [1]

Near the Japanese-American National Museum

MOCA was concerned for the feelings of the Japanese-American community, due to the proximity of the “Go For Broke” site.

Kruger’s first mural offended because it was a simple quotation of the Pledge of Allegiance. For the community, the Pledge was movingly depicted by Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Japanese-American schoolchildren with their hands over their hearts. These children would spend years with their parents in internment camps. During war those years, Little Tokyo was emptied out and when the community returned, it was haunted by one of the worst violations of the Constitution in American history. Kruger painted a new mural with theme of who had the right to speak, a powerful political statement in its own right, especially in that location. That the community approved of the new mural indicates that Little Tokyo is perfectly capable of absorbing political discourse.

Who is Beyond the Law?

Barbara Kruger, artist, 1989

However, this time, the Japanese-American had no time to intervene with the painting of Blu’s mural. In “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” Knight made a good point that the community needs to be consulted about public art before it is placed in an environment, that is, like any site, fraught with politics and history. For whatever reason, this very important step was overlooked and the director, acting quickly, arguably too quickly, had the mural painted over the day after it was finished. [2]

process of painting

Blu’s mural

Censorship, in the Twenty-first Century, is a particular futile gesture. Blu’s mural was extensively photographed, first, in its completed state and then, in its wiped out condition of destruction. All images were immediately posted on the Internet where they will live forever. Like Wojnarowicz’s video, A Fire in My Belly, which is on YouTube, the images are easily obtained over the Internet. [3] The images of Blu’s mural are everywhere. The offending mural showed rows of coffins, covered, not in the American flag, but in dollar bills, presumably making a comment about there recent military incursion into Iraq, a highly unpopular and undeclared “war.” Clearly, the artist was making a statement about America waging unpopular and illegal wars of choice for the sole purpose of making money for Halliburton and seizing Iraqi oil.

Who knows what the Japanese-American veterans and their descendants would have thought of the mural? Maybe they would approve of the anti-war statement: lives should never be squandered (hence the $1 bills) for an unjust cause. Lives are too precious and too priceless to be laid down for anything less than a fight for survival. Perhaps using soldiers as pawns in political wars would not go down well with a group—the legendary 442nd—that was the most decorated—21 medals of Honor, the most wounded—9,486 Purple Hearts—and the most killed in the history of the American military.

If the feelings of the Japanese-American veterans were the Museum’s concern, then the view of the institution was not particularly nuanced. There was a significant and vocal group of young men, interned in concentration camps, who took a principled stand against serving a country that took away the rights of its citizens. One of those conscientious objectors was Frank Emi, wh0 died yesterday. According to the obituary in The New York Times, he was joined in his stand against the United States government by three hundred protesters in ten camps.

All these men were tried and convicted of evading the draft. [4] Emi was sentenced to four years in prison and served eighteen months until President Truman acquired a conscience and granted the young men a pardon. Called a traitor by those in the Japanese-American community who served, Emi explained, “We could either tuck our tails between our legs like a beaten dog or stand up like free men and fight for justice.” The Japanese-American community is, like every other group in America, is diverse. But surely they would agree with freedom of speech?

The argument that Deitch’s action was a misjudgment because he did not consult with the community first is not very convincing, because the community was not brought into the discussion either before or after the mural was painted. Rather than opening the doors for a frank and honest discussion of wars and why and where they are fought, Deitch slammed the door with a unilateral decision.

Blu's Mural

Whitewashing the Mural

Writing in The Huffington Post, my friend, Mat Gleason, has stated that the Smithsonian censorship is not like that of MOCA, [5] citing the proximity of the “Go for Broke” site.

But I beg to differ.

So did Peter Clothier in “Censorship: Coast to Coast,” in Huffington Post, December 17. In fact most observers of this fiasco agree: Censorship is censorship. No amount of whitewashing will undo what Deitch has done. [6] However, I will agree with Gleason that the two acts of censorships are different. The Smithsonian caved in to right wing politics to the habit conservatives have of latching on to a perceived “assault” on “family values” and attacking it. Usually, these people move on but leave behind in their wake very real and very lasting damage.

Undoubtedly it is the goal of the religious right to harm “elitist” institutions and that is all the more reason to stand up to the hysteria of such fanatics who would take away freedom of speech. It should be recalled that the heroes of 1989 are not Christina Orr-Carhall of the Corcoran but another friend, the late Ted Potter of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts, and Dennis Barrie of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Both men stood up to their critics and survived with their honor intact.

And then there is the issue of Street Art itself. Did the censorship of Blu’s mural occur because the director was afraid that art would get dragged into politics? If so, he clearly does not understand street art. Street art is often political. Deitch invited unfortunate comparisons with Christine Sterling, who infamously whitewashed the Tropical America mural by David Siquerios in 1933, a year after it was painted.

Tropical America

Siqueiros Mural Restored

The irony is doubled with the Getty at this moment engaged in a years long restoration of the work, obscured for decades. Street Art is, by its very nature, an outsider art. The artists, many of whom practice in anonymity, represent the last of the avant-garde. Supposedly, the role of the contemporary artist is to challenge the public but most of the prominent contemporary artists have long since been co-opted by the Establishment.

Postmodern thinking asserts that the avant-garde is dead and that there can be nothing new in art, therefore, so what? But does the avant-garde, which merely means “forward movement” have to be about the new and the novel? Does the unfortunate fact of belatedness mean that an artist cannot confront a public or shock the art audience from its complacency? Like many observers of the current art world, I am appalled at the moribund state of the art world, which is doing the Same Old, Same Old, or to quote Jean-Michel Basquiat, “SAMO” or the “same old shit.”

Street artists seem to be the last of the Old Guard: the only artists willing to prod people into doing actual thinking. An excellent example of the artist as gadfly was on view the other day when an unnamed street artist put up a poster of Jeffrey Deitch as the Atollah. [7] The judgment of the street artist may be as harsh as the comparison but the poster begs the question is censorship ever justified?


protest poster

Two very real problems have been raised by the actions of MOCA. Public art is always a negotiation between the world of art and the world of the public. If there is a gap between the art and the public, it is because the art world deliberately created that gulf called the “avant-garde.” Can any form of public art remain avant-garde or have the pretension of being thought provoking? The case history of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) would suggest that public art must always be an art of compromise. On both sides. In the case of MOCA’s actions, there seems to have been no negotiation, no discussion, and no compromise, just censorship. If the artist is to have any role in society as an individual with a unique mission, then is it not to stand tall for freedom of expression? Are not artists our first line of defense against those who would silence eloquent voices?

If the career of Bansky is any indication, street artists can slide into the mainstream and put themselves in danger of compromising their principles. Of all people, Shepherd Fairey has condoned the effacement (called the “buffing”) of the mural of Blu’s mural. After a brief flirtation with accommodation, Blu decided he was not happy with being censored. One wonders what will happen to the upcoming exhibition, Art in the Streets, this April—-how many artists will withdraw because of MOCA’s act of censorship? After a problematic overture to the exhibition, hopefully, Deitch can redeem himself this spring with another of those landmark shows that allowed MOCA to make its mark. MOCA’s 1989 exhibition, The Forest of Signs, provoked this powerful mural by Barbara Kruger. Its message still says it all:

Who is Free to Choose? Who is Beyond the Law? Who is Healed? Who is Housed? Who Speaks? Who is Silenced? Who Salutes the Longest? Who Prays Loudest? Who Dies First? Who Laughs Last?

Who indeed?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[1] Christopher Knight, “MOCA’s Very Public Misstep,” The Los Angeles Times, December 12, page 1, Section D

[2] Jori Finkel, “MOCA is Behind the Whitewash,” The Los Angeles Times, December 14, page 1, Section D

[3] The video is available on YouTube but there is cumbersome sign in system. The San Francisco Examiner has provided the video without strings—just click.

[4] Dennis Hevesi, “Frank Emi, Defiant World War II Internee, Dies at 94,” The New York Times, December 19, 2010, page 36.

[5] Mat Gleason, “MOCA Blu Street Art Whitewash is No Smithsonian-esque Censorship,” December 14, Huffington Post

[6] Edward Goldman: “American Museums: All Talk, No Walk,” in Huffington Post and Art Talk, KCRW

Jamie Roo and Steven Harrington, “Censorship: MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” reprinted as “Censorship! MOCA has a Blu Tiger by the Tail,” in Huffington Post, December 15

[7] Deborah Vankin, “Taking a Swipe at MOCA, The Los Angeles Times, December 18, 2010, Section D, page 1.