Thursday, August 27, 2009

Through the Eyes of Others Travelling Show Preparations

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar
With the current exhibits in place for the remainder of the calendar year, the curatorial department at FAM is keeping busy behind the scenes getting travelling shows ready for the road. On August 28th our first travelling show, Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art, is being shipped from FAM to New York State Museum in Albany where it will be on exhibit from September 8, 2009 - January 6, 2010.

With the time for packing and shipping the show so close at hand, we find ourselves scrambling to make sure every detail has been accounted for. It really is an exciting yet anxious time yet I must confess that it feels good be part of an exhibition that will (hopefully) touch the lives of hundreds of museum visitors, and to know that each of us contributed our own personal skills and talents to making it all happen.
As you may recall from my previous blog, every loan incoming or outgoing must have condition reports done, insurance coverage in place, and packing and shipping scheduled. For this particular show there are 46 pieces of art (ranging from paintings and drawings to sculpture and historical documents) that have to make it from FAM to NYSM on time and without incident. This is just the kind of thing that keeps us up at night! A professional art handling company arrived on August 18th to start packing the objects, some of which are large and very fragile. We will be keeping our fingers crossed that it all goes smoothly… and that our measurements were correct! I must say that it is quite a sight to see when everything is all packed in brand new crates ready to be loaded on a tractor trailer (the crates will never be this perfect and clean again!), and even more so when the truck is packed like a intricate puzzle.
If you have the opportunity, you should definitely visit NYSM to experience this exhibition. It truly is an inspirational and visually rich show and we would love for you to see in person all of the hard work and dedication that went into its creation. And of course we welcome comments letting us know what you thought!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Folk Art: It is what it is

By: Paul S. D'Ambrosio, PhD, Vice President and Chief Curator
Ah, the definition question. That has vexed folk art scholars for decades, mainly because the material is so varied and has attracted the attention of specialists with very different points of view ranging from community-based folklorists to aesthetically minded art historians. At Fenimore Art Museum, we generally take an art historical slant -- not surprising, I guess, since we are an art museum. The following is a working definition I developed for our permanent collection galleries about a decade ago. I'm hoping that some of my folklife colleagues will submit their own alternative perspectives here. For now, at least, here is what we use at the Fenimore Art Museum to guide our thinking about the folk art collection.

American Folk Art
At the end of the 19th century, a few collectors of Americana became interested in the aesthetic designs of redware, stoneware, glass and painted furniture produced in the colonial and federal eras. By the 1920s, proponents of avant-garde art admired a similar aesthetic between the painters and carvers of this period and the post-abstract art of the early twentieth century. In 1930, Holger Cahill, a curator at the Newark Museum, brought groups of 18th and 19th century American objects together for a ground-breaking exhibition entitled American Primitives. The visual power of the exhibition struck a chord in the American public and the basis for what is now termed American Folk Art was created. Cahill called folk art “the expression of the common people, made by them and intended for their use and enjoyment...It does not come out of an academic tradition passed on by schools, but out of a craft tradition plus the personal quality of the rare craftsman who was an artist.”
At about the same time, contemporary folk artists such as John Kane and William Edmondson achieved widespread acclaim at such prestigious institutions as the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The interest in “modern primitives” grew in the 1940s, due largely to the efforts of dealer/author Sidney Janis and the phenomenal popularity of Grandma Moses. In the post-war decades American Folk Art has come to be recognized as a major contribution to American art and culture.

The artists and artisans who created these works are a disparate group. Historically, some folk artists acquired practical skills through apprenticeship in a craft tradition—such as sign painting or ship carving—and made their living by providing necessary items like portraits or shop signs. Others, particularly women, learned watercolor or needlework in schools and seminaries and created pictures for friends and relatives. A significant number of folk artists in the past and today acquired traditional skills through informal, intergenerational example. Lastly, there are folk artists, especially in this century, who create images that are highly personal through they may draw upon popular culture, memory, and the artist’s particular cultural or ethnic heritage. No matter how or why folk art is produced, it is valued for its beauty and expressive power, for the dynamic aesthetic of linear forms, strong colors, the combination of decorative and utilitarian concerns, and the sense of familiarity it evokes by reflecting everyday life as well as the hopes and dreams of ordinary people. Folk art is produced all over the world, and in every part of the United States. It is the product of people from many different backgrounds, creating art for many different reasons. This exhibition focuses on five major impulses in the creation of folk art:

· Expression of religious beliefs and values
· Decoration for the home
· Documentation of self, family, place, and community
· Expression of patriotism and political beliefs
· Stimulation of commerce

These universal impulses cross cultural boundaries and exemplify basic values shared by many Americans. The sixty pieces in this exhibition relate to one or more of these themes, represent the collective cultural heritage of America, and reflect the contributions of many different people to the mosaic of American culture.

So, let us know how you think American Folk Art should be defined!

Above: American Memory: Recalling the Past in Folk Art, installed at Fenimore Art Museum

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Walker Evans and Allie Mae Burroughs

By: Michelle L. Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
The last time we talked about our new exhibition, Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver, we learned about Evans’ early artistic career and the beginning of his work for President Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration. Today, let’s look at one of Evans’ most famous photos from his FSA work, Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs) (1936) and how curator John Hill has helped us to see her with a fresh perspective. Below is text by Hill and Jerry L. Thompson, Evans’ student and assistant:
Many of us recognize Allie Mae without looking closely at her. We don’t really scan the image for details, and we tend to think about her as we did the first few times, or first few dozen times, we saw her. We have seen Allie Mae, and Evans’ other FSA images, so often that we might say we recognize them rather than really look at them. However, through the process of scanning the negatives and printing the images on a large scale, details that we never noticed before became suddenly obvious, and refresh the image as if it were the first time we’ve seen it.

Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife is shot in Evans’s signature straightforward and dispassionate style, yet it evokes depths of emotion and character. Posed against the weathered boards of her farmhouse, her powerful gaze and enigmatic expression convey both strength and weariness. As with many subjects that Evans knew would be of extraordinary interest, he made 4 exposures of the portrait. Only the one seen in this exhibition was made with “open flash fill.”

This deceptively simple portrait is one of Evans’ best-known and most powerful works. Much of that renown is due to his cool rendering and the distance he maintained in order to make a dispassionate, yet universal, record. These are the elements that set Evans’ work apart. John Hill’s new prints reinforce those elements.

This exhibition is made possible in part by The Lisette Model Foundation and The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver is on view through December 31, 2009.

Top: Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs) (1936)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Advertising Tobacco

By: Eva Fognell, Curator Thaw Collection of American Indian Art
In a previous post I talked about American Indian imagery used on citrus packaging. Another set of vivid images of American Indians were used to sell tobacco products such as cigars and cigarettes. The colorful labels from cigar boxes are highly collectible artifacts. I came across a Wall Street Journal article from September 7, 1979 where they published a story about the explosive growth in popularity of cigar box labels both as collectibles and investments.

Early advertising labels were made using stone lithography believed to have been invented in 1796 in Bohemia. In the second quarter of the 19th century chrome lithography was invented in France using red, yellow and blue pigments to produce 7 colors (still using stones). Both of these techniques relied on lithographers to produce the plates. In the late 1920’s the photomechanical process gained popularity. It involved original artwork being photographed through a set of color filters, breaking the picture into four separate colors; yellow, red, blue, and black. This produced a half tone plate consisting of an array of closely placed dots, which were placed in front of the photographic plate. The lithographer was no longer needed.

Here are three images of a few tobacco related labels that are in our collection. It is not only in American advertising that tobacco and Native peoples were associated with each other for the purpose of selling a product. Look at the German language ad. A man wearing an arctic fur parka is smoking a pipe and the ad promotes tobacco made by a company over 150 years old. Does tobacco grow in the Arctic region? Of course not. Famous American Indian chiefs also had their image used by ad companies. It is unlikely that anyone asked Chief Joseph or Red Cloud if they wanted to sell cigars! If anyone has information about dates of any of these labels or more information on American Indians in advertising please let me know. I would love to hear from you.

Top: Joel and Kate Kopp Collection, Fenimore Art Museum. N0007.2001(046)
Center: Joel and Kate Kopp Collection, Fenimore Art Museum. N0007.2001(049)
Bottom: Joel and Kate Kopp Collection, Fenimore Art Museum Collection, NYSHAN0007.2001(230)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Museum's Collection: What Lies Below the Surface? Part 2

By: Doug Kendall, Curator of CollectionsHere’s an object with a summer theme. The Museum holds a significant collection of 19th-century salt-glazed stoneware. Most such objects were utilitarian in nature. But many potters added artistic flourishes to the gray stoneware jugs, churns and jars in the form of flowers, animals and other designs in bold cobalt blue. One decorator at the Fulper Brothers pottery of Flemington, New Jersey painted three young women enjoying themselves at the seaside on this common 3 gallon jug in the 1880s. The Fulper pottery would go on to produce some of the best known American art pottery of the 20th-century, but it had begun in the early 1800s producing the common stoneware forms that were vital to food production and storage. Perhaps this unusual work by a skilled decorator was a harbinger of things to come for the Fulper pottery. Or maybe the artist was daydreaming of summer on a dreary, rainy day in Flemington. Whatever the inspiration of the design, the artist’s work is preserved here in Cooperstown for you and countless other visitors—both virtual and on-site.
The “Bathing Beauties” jug was given to the Museum by Preston Bassett (1892-1992). Mr. Bassett went to work as a Research Engineer for the Sperry Gyroscope Company, for whom he helped develop a wide range of aviation instruments, as well as aircraft soundproofing and airfield beacons that allowed night landings. He eventually rose to the position of President at Sperry from 1945 until he retired in 1956.

Preston Bassett may have helped create 20th century technology, but he collected 19th century tools and artifacts as a charter member of the Early American Industries Association. During his retirement, he served as vice president of the New York State Historical Association, as well as curator of the Keeler Tavern Museum, just down the road from his residence in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Also beginning after his retirement from Sperry, he became an “uncollector” (in his words), dispersing his antiques to a number of museums, including the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum, Old Bethpage Village, The Farmers’ Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum, to which he gave a fine group of early glass objects as well as the Fulper jug.

The Fulper jug’s unique decoration resulted from the inspiration of the artist; its place in the Museum’s collection came from the inspiration of the engineer-turned-collector, Preston Bassett.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Making an Exhibition Happen

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar

Have you ever wondered how a piece of artwork gets from a lending institution across the country onto a gallery wall at FAM? A lot of the work is done before the artwork even arrives at the museum and it takes months of planning for an exhibition and its accompanying loans to come together. Everyone on the Curatorial staff at FAM has a different role to play; my job as museum registrar is to orchestrate the legal and logistical details of loans and to make sure that the requirements of the lending institutions are met. I work closely with lenders for months leading up to an exhibition to make sure loan agreements are signed, insurance coverage is in place, necessary conservation work is done, and the artwork is crated and shipped safely.
Exhibitions may have a just few lenders or they have many, with lenders as close as the next town over or as far away as across country. For example, the current exhibition America’s Rome: Artists in the Eternal City consists of 24 lenders and 134 works from lenders near and far, including Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Toledo Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum of Art. In contrast, the exhibit Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver has 84 works from one exhibition organizer based in New England. From start to finish, however, both exhibits required the same amount of attention to detail and planning on the part of the registrar and other staff at FAM.
When appropriate, specific requirements of the lender must be followed during the life of the loan; for example, some lenders require a courier be sent to oversee installation and de-installation, some require particular security measures to be taken while the artwork is on exhibit, and others have condition issues that must be periodically evaluated. In other words, the work doesn’t end when the exhibition opens!
Let’s follow the path of a typical incoming exhibition loan at FAM: As soon as a shipping crate comes off the fine art shippers’ truck at our loading dock, it comes to the registrar’s office for safe keeping and to acclimate to the environment of the museum. All crates and the artwork they contain must continuously be in temperature and humidity controlled environments, and because of very slight changes during transport, it usually takes 24 hours for a safe transition from the environment of the truck to that of the museum. The crate is then moved to the exhibition gallery in which it will be unpacked. The empty crate is later stored in a holding area by the registrar’s office that has security, pest and environmental controls. During a busy exhibition season this holding area is lined to the ceiling with stacked crates and boxes! The artwork itself is thoroughly examined by the registrar for condition changes and has detailed pictures taken; each piece of artwork is given a temporary number and is entered along with all of its descriptive information into the museum’s collection database. Finally, the artwork is installed on the gallery wall along with a descriptive label. Of course, the entire process is done in reverse when it is time for the loan to go back to the lending institution.
The next time you visit an exhibition at FAM, keep in mind how much time and effort went into getting each and every piece of artwork here. It really is an amazing process. We certainly feel that it is well worth it…we hope that you agree!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Conservation Treatment

By: Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

As the curator of the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art here at Fenimore Art Museum, I’m often asked what it is that I do. I hope that my series of blogs will give you a window into my responsibilities, as well as what happens to the objects I care for.

Because our traveling exhibition, The Thaw Collection: Masterpieces of American Indian Art from Fenimore Art Museum takes up a lot of my time right now, I will show you the process of preparing objects for travel in my next few posts. A few of the objects are being treated by conservator Gwen Spicer, and her assistant, Shaun. For several weeks, we have been changing out objects in the Thaw gallery - taking out ones that are slated for the tour and replacing them with others. Today we took out a Seminole bandolier bag and moved a mask into its place in the gallery. The bag is a bit dirty and, as you can see in the photo, it has some weak spots that need to be stabilized so that we can handle the bag and not risk its integrity when we pack and unpack it. Shaun is seen here cleaning the beads. Next time we’ll catch up with Gwen and Shaun to see what more they will do to the bag.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Walker Evans’ early influences

By: Michelle Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions

Last time we set the stage for learning about the new perspective on Walker Evans’ photographs presented in our new exhibition Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver. This time, we’ll briefly look at Evans’ early artistic life and the beginning of his work for President Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration in 1935 and 1936.

Evans was born into middle-class comfort in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in an elite suburb of Chicago, where his father worked as an advertising writer. As a young man he developed a love of literature, which became a dominant reservoir for his aesthetic sense.

Like many expatriates with literary hopes, Evans traveled to France in 1926. There he discovered the frustrations of writing, especially in his over-awe of writers James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But, his first serious snapshots came from that trip.
Evans returned to New York in the spring of 1927 and began to teach himself the basics of photography. Two major events shaped his emerging style. One was a mutual rejection involving Alfred Steiglitz and his advocacy of fine art photography. Second was his introduction to the work of Eugène Atget, whose dispassionate record of Paris streets matched Evans’ own anti-aesthetic vision. Evans’ style also grew from the muscular, artless imagery of the newsreel, the tabloid, and the work of anonymous postcard photographers. In all these works he found raw power and a lack of artistic pretension that would shape his own works.
In 1933 Evans tested this approach in Cuba, where he made photographs to accompany the highly political text for Carleton Beals’ book The Crime of Cuba. This experience was perfect preparation for his greatest body of work—documenting the effects of the Great Depression on rural families for the Farm Security Administration in 1935 and 1936. While the FSA mission was to generate political propaganda reinforcing President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, Evans resisted anything political. After recognizing the futility of opposition, he compromised and seized the opportunity, producing work that both satisfied his own vision and met many of the job’s demands. Evans later collaborated with the writer James Agee on a book centered around his work for the FSA. The 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men combined an impassioned text by Agee with Evans’cool and distanced images serving as counterpoint.The exhibition Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver features nearly 100 photographs from his 1935-1936 FSA work that exemplify his meticulous, detailed and honest photojournalistic style.

Text provided by guest curator, John Hill.
This exhibition is made possible in part by The Lisette Model Foundation and The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver is on view through December 31, 2009.
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