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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Call for Papers: Emerging Scholars Symposium

The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms and the American Fine and Decorative Arts Program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art seek submissions for the Third Annual Conference for Emerging Scholars to be held at the Stickley Museum on Saturday, October 5, 2013:

 “Integrating Art and Life: Idealism, Economics, and the Arts and Crafts Movement”

Writing in the March 1902 issue of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine, A. M. Simpson told readers: “Unless the production of the necessities of life can be made beautiful, pleasurable and instructive, our whole society must remain disorganized, disintegrated, and productive of pain, and inartistic… What is needed at the present time is a process of synthesis and correlation.”  This aspect of modern life that the Arts and Crafts movement sought to correct—the tension between economic viability and a satisfied, artistic life—remained a constant concern for producers throughout the period.  This conference seeks papers that explore the different aspects of this issue, including (but not limited to) whether producers were able to meet these lofty goals?  Were these goals shared by everyone?  How did the movement’s aesthetics shape perception about these products and the ideas behind them?

We invite current graduate students and recently graduated scholars to submit proposals for 20-25 minute papers that critically examine this issue.  Please direct any questions to:

Jonathan Clancy
Director, American Fine and Decorative Arts Program
Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York

Submission Guidelines:
Please submit the following by May 31, 2013:
·       A one-page abstract of your topic with title.
·       A current c.v.

All submissions will be reviewed by June 28.  By June 28, you will receive an email with the decision about your proposal.

Accepted proposals must submit a final draft of the paper by September 7th, 2013.

Participants must be able to attend the symposium in order to deliver their paper.

Williamsburg Antiques Forum

Williamsburg and I have had a slow courtship at times, I drag my heels, I am not particularly certain how to balance the aspects of preservation and reconstruction and quite get a handle on whether or not the place is authentic, and to what degree.  I maintain that the experience of walking through history--itself a blend of repositioned and re-imagined spaces is a useful teaching tool and that there are craftspersons working at CW that are second to none and provide useful lessons on craft, business, and production in the 18th century.  I also realize that its quite a lot to ask of students to visit solely for this experience, and thus we pair it with the Williamsburg Antiques Forum.  It's a way to keep them engaged with current scholarship, meet collectors, future colleagues, and mentors in the field and each year it seems to get better. 

This year there were particularly great talks and I thought it would be useful to recount for me what were the highlights.  Really, all the talks were very good but it seemed useful to provide a condensed view of the week here.

Karina Corrigan's talk "The Other Export Arts: Indian Textiles and Luxury Goods for America" on Sunday morning was exceptional.  As the H. A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, this is somewhat expected--she has access to a tremendous collection.  What made the talk so good though was her clarity, her pacing, the clear choices of images she chose to illustrate her points, and the care she took in preparing it.  It was a read paper (as most were) that didn't feel read.  She didn't lose her place.  She really commanded the audience from start to finish and (especially for myself who knew little of Indian export art) formed a cogent narrative.  For the students, this was an opportunity to discuss what distinguishes a very good talk from a great one, what did you like about her presentation.  The conference allows me to not only to expose them to objects and scholarship, but because we're there for an extended stay to talk about the art of presentation and deconstruct strategies for successful public speaking.  The nicest part of the day was when Karina joined a few students, Ron Bourgeault, and me at the BBQ Ron hosted.  It was a great opportunity for them to interact with her, ask questions, and show their appreciation.

Sunday afternoon we had a split schedule: we heard about the conservation of the Drayton Hall desk and secretary from Christopher Swan and Tara Gleason Chicarda; then moved through the galleries to view objects, hear from the curators, and think about design, display, and didactic materials.  The Drayton Hall desk looks great, and the conservation team really deserves credit for their thorough and innovative approach to the piece.  For instance, worried that replacing the original mirror (sadly missing) with quarter inch glass would strain the door hinges and threaten the structural integrity of the piece, they opted for a plexiglass replacement that is half the weight and aged to better blend in.  There were a few murmurs among the crowd that perhaps the restoration was too clean, but at the end of the day that was an issue more decided by the customer (Drayton Hall) then the conservation team.  The desk has something like 10 individual secret compartments and is well worth a visit.  It will be at CW for a few years while Drayton hall readies themselves for its return.

Throughout the week all the speakers were very good, but the other standout for me was Alexandra Kirtley's talk "It's all about the dress: Upholstery on Early American Furniture."  She took the audience not only through the state of scholarship on upholstery but really showed the practical side of why this matters.  Whether it was correcting the size of a squab (cushion) and showing how that corrects the proportions of a chair, or finding evidence of original upholstery campaigns and demonstrating the different challenges and options this presented her with, it was a fascinating side of furniture interpretation that is often absent or less obvious.   

The collections at the museum are deep and wide--and as it was pointed out to me, one could essentially use the museum as a teaching laboratory with a little advance planning and enough time.  Even beyond the collections, the craftspersons really make the visit worthwhile because they provide an intimate knowledge into the making of paces, and are a tangible example of how much labor went into the creation of objects.  The highpoints for me were the printer, because he reiterated to them the relative paucity of printed news in the colonies and made them consider populations, densities, and markets as a large component in the evolution of newspapers.  He's also fairly wonderful, quite amusing, and works non stop while he talks.

 I try to always take them to the bookbinder as well, since he's an excellent craftsman, a skilled teacher, and a pleasure to see.  It's easy to forget not only how labor intensive book-making was, but also that the top selling books were blank paged ones, for record keeping.  The level of skill required to bind books well, to tool the leather, and complete the gilding is exceptional. 

The milliner's shop is another favorite of mine too.  There, you can learn about fashion history, import history, clothes construction, wardrobe--really more aspects of the culture than you might believe at first glance.  Colonial Williamsburg seems to have combined the shop to represent both the traditional store as well as have an expert tailor on hand.  

And lastly, because everyone likes to see furniture made, we always go to the cabinet maker's shop.  It's one of the rare chances at Colonial Williamsburg to pull out drawers and flip over chairs to see the details of 18th century construction.  Admittedly, these are reproductions, but we're more interested in seeing and examining joints, having a sense of what finish looked like in the period, and feeling the weight of different woods.  Also, it gives students a chance to have hands on demonstrations and explanations of techniques they may not be fully able to envision, so it's quite useful.

At the end of a grey day in Williamsburg, during which it was windy and pouring, I admit that my enthusiasm for showing them every nook and cranny can be less infectious than I'd like.  However, despite some groans, I did make them see the Governor's palace because I think that walking through an interior (even a reconstructed one) is much different than seeing a slide, and because I really like the kitchen there, the types of preparation they do, and the manner in which somehow seeing and smelling food makes a deep impact that helps the students connect with the space.  I don't always love the interpretation of the palace, and the idea that we (as citizens of the 21st century) have been mysteriously been invited to a ball on the 18th of January and we should be excited to meet the governor--I like a straighter interpretation of spaces and materials.  I will say, however, that our guide was excellent, and that upon learning they were MA students, he tempered the talk to social issues and served as historic and social issues guide, rather than beckoning us to the ball.  All in all, another great trip.

Travels to DC and Williamsburg: Saturday

Saturday began with a tour of the Heurich House Museum, one of the often overlooked gems in DC.  Built after Christian Heurich's visit to the Columbian Exposition the house is a marvel of late Victorian design and modern technological conveniences.  Built to be fireproof, the house included full indoor plumbing, a central vacuum, elevator shaft, and pneumatic and electric communication systems.  The house is a somewhat riotous look backward at late Victorian wealth and exuberance, reflecting Heurich's efforts to demonstrate his wealth, celebrate his German heritage, and acquire art and furniture in the latest styles.  It's a great house, well interpreted and worth a visit.  My only regret is that we didn't have more time.

The Kaufman Collection

One of the most significant additions to the National Gallery (really to any museum) was the acquisition of the Kaufman collection and the decision to put it on permanent display on the ground floor.  Spread out over three rooms and spanning the 18th century through the early 19th, the collection will undoubtedly expose many visitors to American arts by virtue of its central location and the high quality of the examples.  Like most collections formed in the twentieth century (and even those today) the collection is heaviest on the Northeast: Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia dominate the Queen Anne and Chippendale holdings while New York and Baltimore emerge in the Federal period.  A notable exception to this general trend is the exquisite Virginia Tea Table and a federal period Clothes Press from Charleston, and its always heartening to see more attention being paid to Southern furniture, the collection of which has long been neglected by our Nationally known museums. 

Perhaps the nicest part of the exhibition is that it rewards close looking—there are details that emerge from furniture when it is considered, re-engaged, and patiently examined.  For example, the spectacular japanned high chest from Boston with gilt finials and shell is at first overwhelming—it’s a rare example of japanning and gilding in the period and an exceptionally graceful form.  It took a second visit back to the piece for me to notice the hand tooled designs on the brasses and the evidence of saw or file marks still present.  

A number of the early Boston pieces on display shared similar working, but each had a slightly different design.  On the japanned chest (I think that's what the photo is from, it might be the japanned William and Mary dressing table too), you really get a sense of each individual strike of the tool, the shape of the instrument used to create it, and the varying force behind each impact.  It seems to me that the brasses, more so than an inventory taken upon death, yields specific clues about the workbench and the tools that workmen used.  Just on this brass alone, you see a small circle used in the background, a middle sized circular tool used and a larger circle surrounding that.  A straight-edged tool (likely the width of the lines in the central gridded square) formed the border and straight lines of the piece, and a larger circle still must have been used for the larger, open curves.  The changing thickness of the curves seems to indicate that the maker used a fully circular tool to make these arcs, but struck the tool at an angle so that only a half circle appeared in the brass.  Carefully using a vocabulary of just five shapes, the artist creates a variety of forms and texture.  Although the well-lit gallery makes close looking like this rewarding, I couldn’t help but think about how theses details in the chest would have shimmered differently in the flickering light of candles.

Some other details I noticed were the extent of separation between the ball and claw on this piece of Newport Furniture.

My students were easy to spot throughout the day as they were usually on or near the floor, trying to better see the details of construction and carving like they are here with a Philadelphia Table.

Another item of note is a late classical Philadelphia table whose inlaid stone top was imported from Italy.  (As an aside, I have a new phone, hence the preponderance of panoramic shots) 

The base and frame were made by Anthony Quervelle but there’s another signature on the top that seems significant “N. Fish [Fash?].”  A little research (perhaps it has already been done?) might shed some additional light on the top including where it was made and what sort of operation this was.  Were these custom ordered?  Pre-designed? 

From furniture we moved to paintings, and as always the National Gallery does not disappoint.  From Stuart’s Skater to Copley’s Watson and the Shark, to still life, portrait, and what I have always found to be Bellow’s best painting (the Last tenement) there is always more to see.  I was kind of delighted that one of the paintings I really like seemed to show its age—Winthrop Chandler’s Mrs. Samuel Chandler—because for the first time I noticed that there’s a painting underneath this painting.  

Evident in raking light and close examination (somewhat close, the guards remain unamused by really close looking) there is evidence of a different dress, a different chair height, what appears to be a bouquet or ball of yarn on the table with trailing ribbons and numerous other changes.  This is covered briefly in the National Gallery’s American Na├»ve Paintings catalog but I wondered if this was even the same sitter?  

Was it a correction requested by the sitter at the time she saw the painting, or a later addition like the Elizabeth Freake’s dress?  I think a number of us came out of the visit with new questions, and this perhaps is the best thing a museum can do: foster new inquiry.

Travels to DC and Williamsburg: Friday

For the past four years (and really at the suggestion of Amelia Peck), I have been taking the students to the Williamsburg Antique Forum in order that they might get a sense of the field, hear about recent developments in scholarship, and expand their networks by interacting with collectors, other students, and professionals.  This year we made a quick stop in Washington DC on the way there--this breaks up the train ride, allows us a chance to see major pieces in collections, and makes the budget go a bit further so that we can include more travel in the program.  Some of you may have noticed that I have been posting less about the earlier trips this year; I admit this is true.  Frankly, it seemed a bit strange to essentially tell the same stories of who we met, what we saw, and where we went.  Since the principal differences would have been names and images of students, I trust those interested will scroll back through the posts to get a sense of what we do en route to Boston, Charleston, and Delaware.

That being said, one of the great things about the Antiques Forum is that it changes each year.  It presents a roster of experts in the field, a glimpse into an exceptional collection, and gives the students a chance to have extended discussions with peers, colleagues, and each other.  Perhaps more than any other field study we do, Williamsburg allows the students to break out of the insular nature of the program (and the travel we do) and make connections, learn both formally and informally, and discuss their own work.  As always, I remain grateful for those colleagues and friends whose generosity to the students and willingness to engage with them makes this an exceptional opportunity.   In particular I'd like to mention Ron Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions, Brandy Culp of Historic Charleston, Robert Leath and Daniel Ackerman of MESDA, Tom Savage of Winterthur, Nick Vincent from the Met, Alexandra Kirtley from the PMA, and Ralph Harvard.

I should mention too that DC changes too, and we were fortunate to have a chance to see the Renwick Gallery, The Corcoran, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Friday.  The Renwick is a jewel and if you haven't been recently, I'd suggest going soon.  I'd suggest planning your visit to coincide with the exhibition Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (it runs from April 12 through July 28, 2013).  The strength of the collection is the survey of craft it presents and the opportunity to teach students in front of the objects.  My only complaint is that with so much strong work in the collection, there is more I want to see.  If it were up to me (and I admit that few things are), I would remove all of the paintings and get more of the collection on view.  That being said, there are pieces not to be missed, and Kim Schmahmann's Bureau of Bureaucracy (1993-9) is high on my list.

While a few students found the accompanying video explanation of the work a bit tedious, everyone marveled at his craftsmanship and I think related to the object because that sense of craft, the elegance of line, and the joy one takes in seeing something well made are qualities that transcend specific eras.  Having learned to admire and appreciate the craftsmanship of a Townsend-Goddard high chest, or the carving of a Philadelphia chair it gives a whole new lens through which to understand Schmahmann's work.  In my mind the quotations and layers of historical references in the choice of materials and forms         (not the narrative elements introduced) provide richer connections that enhance and complicate the narrative in significant ways.  The piece requires time and multiple engagements--it is richly layered, complicated, and retains an elusive subtlety that churns below the overtly didactic elements.  

From there we made our way to lunch, then the Corcoran Gallery.  I love the Corcoran and stop in every time I am in Washington in order to see Church's masterpiece--Niagara.  Unfortunately--for me, but likely not for the painting--Niagara is undergoing conservation and was not on view.  The frame, however, remains in place, and while it is a beautiful frame, its presence seems only to underscore the absence of the painting.  The gallery without Niagara undoubtedly will present a void for visitors, but the frame seems to emphasize this void, calling attention to what the gallery is missing and distracting from the other pieces in the gallery.  I took no pictures while I was there this time--I think the missing Niagara unsettled and unfocused me--but soon we were on our way over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Yes, we did stop in front of the White House and take a picture.  There's a certain sentimentality which overtakes the group as we head into second semester, and perhaps this explains the desire for pictures.  For me, I like to have good pictures of what I see, and to me that always suffices to remind me of the trip and experience.  Perhaps that's the result of often traveling alone?  Enough about my habits of remembrance and memorial, I'll get back to the art.

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, we saw the exhibition titled the Civil War and American Art, an exhibition whose images I like very much, but whose narratives and catalog I have some issues with.  First, the exhibition presents a narrow view of American Art which seems to have excluded sculpture for the most part, ignores portraiture (which causes problems I'll address later on), and seems to gloss over some of the interesting points of disagreement within the field.  In addition, I couldn't help but think that rather than expand and explore the discourse about the war--about remembrance, and about the manner in which the south's defeat led to some very disturbing and still relevant attitudes that continue to permeate scholarship in the fine and decorative arts--the exhibition avoided them.  It presented a victor's view of the war and missed a great opportunity to challenge persistent notions and to demonstrate why exhibitions, art history, and scholarship is about more than just pictures, that it allows us to broaden discussions and has increasing relevance to everyone.

I love Martin Johnson Heade, and I particularly like seeing his Approaching Thunderstorm, but I’m not entirely convinced that it necessarily had a lot to do with the Civil War either for him, for the audience, or for Noah Hunt Schenck who owned it.  I do think that the persistence of the Thunderstorm throughout his oeuvre—almost to his death—raises serious questions about the viability of this interpretation proposed in Sara Cash’s excellent catalog, as Barbara Novak and John Updike have noted.  Although it didn’t surprise me that people continue to agree with Cash’s argument, I was kind of stunned that nowhere in the text or notes was there any sense that this was an issue with more than one side.  The presentation of this view as a fact rather than one side of a complex issue oversimplifies the issue and missed the opportunity to present these sides to a broader audience and public.

I found the exhibition's and catalog's use of photography to be problematic as well.  Despite highlighting the fact that photographers wanted to be treated the same as artists during the period, the catalog and exhibit separated the photographers and treated them differently. In addition, the focus on Brady, O'Sullivan, Gardener, and Barnard at the expense of Cook and other Southern photographers reinforced the northern bias of the show.  I thought too that the discussion of Barnard's images of Charleston deserved more attention--although presented as destruction caused by the war, certainly there are parts of images that document the destruction caused by the fire of December 1861. It would have been useful to explore how the conflation of these incidents impacted understanding of the war or reception of these images.

The decision not to include portraiture in the exhibit missed an opportunity to explore the imagery created in the South to create its own history and reinforced the northern bias of the works and artists presented.  GPA Healy's portrait of Beauregard would have been a useful inclusion here as it was a northern, Boston born painter working in the South.  At the end of the day, I found myself glad to see the images in person, yet left feeling (as I had after reading the catalog) that there were missed opportunities to expand the discourse about the war, art, and American culture.

The delight for me was seeing a room of Victorian collages like the one seen above.  I don't recall seeing them before and they're strange, delightful, and visually appealing.  I tried to convince one of my students that this could be a thesis--exploring the sources for these, thinking about the visual strategies employed, and the use of different materials.  I may the only one convinced that this is a great topic, but I'll keep you posted.