Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Addison Gallery/An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

James McNeill Whistler, Thames Warehouses, 1859

Link to Exhibition Website:

Curators: Margaret F. MacDonald  and Dr. Patricia de Montfort, University of Glasgow

From the Press Release: "This exhibition brings together numerous paintings, prints, and drawings from this pivotal period in Whistler's career, providing a detailed examination of his approach to composition, subject and technique."

This exhibition opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and will travel to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, after the Addison.

Reviews of the London installation can be found here and here.

Recommended For: A deep, meaningful and satisfying connection with James McNeill Whistler

Museum administrators may dream longingly of big-draw blockbusters, but often it is the smaller exhibitions that deliver a more satisfying experience for the visitor. An American in London is the kind of small show that proves this point. The show is thoughtful, insightful, deftly composed and arranged, and full of works of outstanding artistic quality and achievement.

Whistler and the Thames introduces us to a young and eager artist and lets us journey with him across the decades of his career. Whistler experiments with a variety of media and techniques of representation, but the common context of the bustling banks of London's Thames- the neighborhood in which Whistler actually lived and worked- provides a strong connective narrative that tells a coherent and compelling story from beginning to end. Curators Margaret MacDonald and Patricia de Montfort connect us with the working Whistler in an engaging and thorough fashion.

Our introduction to Whistler comes in a series of etchings and drypoints of the gritty Thames waterfront begun in the late 1850s and published as a folio titled the Thames Set in 1871. The works are simply astounding. Whistler's adroit skill with the medium reminded me of John Singer Sargent's command of watercolor demonstrated by the recent MFA show. This section is enhanced by clear and eloquent labels outlining the demanding process of engraved prints. 

The body of An American in London brings together a large group of works that put us squarely behind Whistler's editorial eye. Through sketches, watercolors, oils and other media, we see the artist repetitively shaping, rearranging, and reworking his subject striving for a satisfactory balance of composition, color and effect. The impressive diversity of the sources of the loaned works is a telling tribute to the depth of scholarship achieved by curators MacDonald and de Montfort. 

Whistler's mature form, which we have seen develop over the course of the exhibition, really comes into its own in the final third of the show dedicated to his Nocturnes and his fascination with Battersea Bridge. The remarkable works shown here show the painter as daring, experimental and pushing the boundaries of aesthetic representation in his day.  The works, centered around the magical oil on canvas Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, provide a deeply satisfying finish to the exhibition. Both the curators and the Addison are to be congratulated for bringing such a compelling show to the Boston area.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge, 1872/73

Monday, February 17, 2014

PMA/Fine Lines: American Drawing from the Brooklyn Museum

Winslow Homer, Study for "The Unruly Calf" ca.1875

Link to the Exhibition Website:

Curator: Karen A. Sherry, Chief Curator and Curator of American Art, Portland Museum of Art

From the Press Release: "Fine Lines showcases drawing as a dynamic art form in the United States across two centuries."

This exhibition opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the late spring of 2013. A New York Times review of that installation can be found here.

Recommended For: a behind-the-frame glimpse of the making of American art history.

The Experience:
OK, unlike Worcester or Lowell, which are deceptively close to Boston, Portland is legitimately something of a hike to get to from the Hub. But worth it. The Portland Museum of Art is a terrific destination and downtown Portland is a super place to eat. So, plan for the day and you won't be sorry.

Fine Lines, is a modestly-sized exhibition tastefully installed in the changing exhibition galleries of PMA just off the lobby. The show is thoughtfully organized by curator Karen Sherry into sections according to compositional subject- the portraits are together, the anatomical studies, the narrative works, the landscapes, etc. This organization allows the visitor to appreciate the wide range of techniques and modes of representation utilized by a impressive range of American artists. The artists of the drawings shown- and there's over 70 different artists represented- reads like a veritable who's who of American art history. This is a real tribute to the depth and importance of the Brooklyn Museum's holdings. I will say that it helps to view Fine Lines with a familiarity with the finished works of the artists included. In some cases, an example or thumbnail of the finished works is provided, but often it is left to the viewer's own knowledge.

It was the varied functions of the drawings that intrigued me.  Some were studies for later works finished in another medium such as painting or print. Others were part of the artistic training of the artists, studies of human form and landscape studies and suchlike. Still others, like some of the travel sketchbooks, were merely of subjects that caught the artists' eye. Studying the catalog (which is fantastic) after the show, I couldn't help but wonder if the function of the sketches, rather than their subject matter, couldn't have provided a compelling alternate organization for the show.

That aside, there are some truly exceptional pieces in the show that stopped me in my tracks with their arresting immediacy and the powerful insight into the artist's mind they provided: Robert Henri's Nude Perched on Chair, Bradley Walker Tomlin's Back, Minerva Josephine Chapman's Woman in Profile and Charles Caryl Coleman's A Shower of Ashes upon Ottavaino. My favorite two sketches in the show were Benjamin Orso Eggleston's Little Girl Holding an Apple and Albert Bierstadt's Study of a Ewe.

Drawing happens to be one of my favorite media, and it was a real treat to see such a sweeping collection of examples on view. Portland may be a bit of a drive, but Fine Lines will make you glad you went.

Benjamin Orso Eggleston, Little Girl Holding an Apple, 1927

Thursday, January 23, 2014

HUB ORIGINALS: New England Quilt Museum/Quilts Japan

Mikiko Misawa, Grassland, Thai silk, Contemporary Category
Link to Exhibition Website:

Curator: Pam Weeks

From the Press Release: "the only Northeast venue to showcase these award winning quilts from the 2011 international competition of the Japanese Handicraft Instructors' Association"

Recommended For: A decidedly Asian twist on a familiar American art form with interesting contemporary art harmonies. Not just for quilters!

The Experience:
See It All will kick off 2014 with an new series I'm calling HUB ORIGINALS. This series will look at some of the more unique and focused museums in the greater-Boston area. I'm starting the series with the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell.

A very easy drive up Route 3 on a frigid January morning took me into downtown Lowell before I knew it. The New England Quilt Museum was easy to find and nearby parking was readily available. I had come to see Quilts Japan, the NEQM's new show that opened on January 16.  Quilts Japan is a selection of 32 quilts that received awards at the 2011 Quilt Nihon competition.  This competition is held biannually in Tokyo and is sponsored by the Japan Handicraft Instructors' Association.  The 2011 competition brought in a staggering 377 entries in both the Traditional and Contemporary categories.  It attracts primarily Japanese, but some international submissions.  Pam Weeks, NEQM's curator, told me that Japanese quilters first started gaining prominence in the 1980's and 1990's.  The emergence of Japanese artists into a traditionally western textile art gives Quilts Japan an interesting connection to PEM's Future Beauty, as this was exactly the same time that Japanese designers first started making inroads into the world of couture fashion. Food for thought.

I went to Quilts Japan expecting to see sumptuous fabrics and exquisite craftsmanship and I was not disappointed. The examples shown span a range of very traditional designs to progressive forms that push at the boundaries of what makes a quilt a quilt, but all shared an absolutely superb level of skill and technique in their construction. I was also struck by how many of the quilts were created to evoke a moment of essentialized natural beauty, from starry skies, to carefully tended gardens, to breeze-blown fields of grass. This is an impulse I see carrying over into many other Japanese art forms.

The method of display at NEQM allows the visitor to get extremely close to the quilts, unimpeded by plexiglas or barriers and this makes the viewing of these works a very rich experience. I do wish that there had been more contextual information about the rise and popularity of quilting in Japan, but this did not really detract from appreciating the stunning craftsmanship on display.  If the presentation of the show seems a little bare-bones, I think they can be excused as Weeks confided in me that the show arrived from Wisconsin 1 DAY before it opened in Lowell!

Note that this show overlaps the MFA's Quilts and Color show by only 1 week, but they would make for very complimentary experiences.

Here are some of the standout examples for me (photos posted with the permission of NEQM):

Yoko Komatsuno, Streamline, cotton, Traditional Category

Chiaki Desho, The Crossing Time IV, kimono fabric, Contemporary Category

Yoko Kageyama, Feel Something from the Kimonos, kimono silk, Traditional Category
Soohee Lee, In the Blue, recycled bluejeans, Contemporary Category
In the Blue, detail

Harue Konishi, SYO #53, Contemporary Category

Sunday, December 15, 2013

See It All's Spring 2014 Preview

Well, it has been a great pleasure and privilege to see such a wonderful group of exhibitions this fall. My personal favorites would have to be the ICA Boston's Amy Sillman: one lump or two and MIT Museum's 5000 Moving Parts, with WAM's [remastered] close behind. The spring of 2014 has some exciting and varied offerings for See It All. Exhibitions featuring painting, installation, textiles, drawings and rare books and manuscripts will all be opening in and around the Hub.

The Shows

Fans of quilts and textiles can continue their exposure to amazing work started at New England Quilt Museum's The Roots of Modern Quilting by attending their follow-up show Quilting Japan, opening in mid-January.  Then, in April, the MFA mounts Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection which should present a diverse and masterful array of examples of the quilting art.

Two very interesting examinations of the act and meaning of collecting can be seen by visiting the Currier Museum's collaboration with Andrew Witkin, Exploring the Currier Inside and Out: Andrew Witkin, Among Others. This meditation on collecting and collections can be followed up in April with the Boston Athenaeum's second installment of their Collecting for a New Century, featuring rare books and manuscripts (a personal favorite of VO.)

Another favorite medium of VO is drawing, which will be the subject of a show opening at the Portland Museum of Art in late January. Fine Lines: American Drawings from the Brooklyn Museum, will give New England audiences a rare chance to view these delicate works.

The ICA Boston will provide a dramatic shift from their Amy Sillman show by turning their West Galleries over to unique installation and sound artist Nick Cave, an exhibition that's bound to dazzle.

A deep and stimulating glimpse into a painter's love of place will be featured in the Addison Gallery of American Art's An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. The examination of an artist's treatment of a paricular subject is also the theme of VO's most anticipated show of the spring, PEM's Turner and the Sea opening in May. This show features representations of the sea in the work of England's renowned 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner.

See It All's Most Anticipated Show of Early-2014
PEM/Turner and the Sea opening in May

Enthusiasts for all things nautical can sate their appetite further at the MIT Museum's The Herreshoff Legacy about America's most famous yacht designer (and MIT's own,) Nathaniel G. Herreshoff.

Another show that I am anticipating eagerly is Knights! at the Worcester Art Museum, opening in March. This will be the lead-off public event in the integration of the beloved Higgins Armory Collection into WAM's galleries, collections and programs.  I am fascinated to see how the absorption of the Higgins collection by WAM will play out.  The loss of the Higgins Museum from the Boston-area community of museums is a sad event and I applaud WAM's dedication to making the processing of this collection fairly transparent.  More information on this can be found here.

See It Before It Closes
Closing Dec. 31, Higgins Armory Museum
Closing Jan. 5, ICA Boston/Amy Sillman

Spring Preview Links:
Most looking forward to:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alas, I Live in Modern Times.... A Farewell to the Higgins

The Higgins Armory Museum will be closing its doors forever on December 31.  This quirky, unique institution has been a staple of the New England museum scene for over eight decades, long enough to have impacted generations of visitors. There is not another institution like it in the entire country nor is there likely to be another for the foreseeable future. It is a sad event and one to which other New England museums large and small should pay attention.

John Woodman Higgins
The Higgins must close because it does not have the endowment to provide the financial stability the museum needs to operate. It must close because it is an institution from another time. The museum was the personal venture of John Woodman Higgins, a Worcester industrialist whose business, Worcester Pressed Steel, provided both the reason and the means for Higgins to begin amassing his collection of arms and armor in the early 20th century.  Higgins had a life-long passion for medieval armor and wrote in a poem about his collection lamenting the fact couldn't have witnessed the armor in use personally, "alas, I live in modern times."  The collection grew and was housed in its own building and welcomed generations of visitors. It is a story of civic philanthropy based on industrial wealth that underlies many of our revered museums across the country, but especially in the Northeast. It was an American philanthropic model that worked for much of the 20th century, but whose relevance has eroded and whose sustainability faces significant challenges in the 21st.

Higgins's Glass and Steel Wonder under Construction
This surface story does explain much of the demise of the Higgins, but there are deeper more interesting dimensions to its history. In 1931, Higgins built a state-of-the-art museum building utilising cutting-edge architectural techniques to house his beloved collections. How many museums around the world are turning to Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry to do the same today? At its inception, Higgins saw the arms and armor collection as a means of stimulating interest in steel fabrication and the collection was intermixed with modern examples of the latest in steel manufacture and design. The Higgins Armory Museum wasn't about armor, it was about steelA tour of the museum was followed by a tour of the factory itself to see steel being worked and shaped using the latest methods. Juxtaposing the historic with the contemporary. Sounds pretty progressive, right? Believing that museums have a powerful role in inspiring interest and future involvement in science and engineering.  Sounds like STEM, doesn't it? 

© Frank H. Jump
But this forward-looking focus did not survive the economic tumult of the latter part of the 20th century.  At some point the factory tours and the modern examples fell away and the focus of the museum reverted onto Higgins's fabulous collection of arms and armor. Worcester Pressed Steel went out of business in 1975 but the museum continued on, still nestled among industrial buildings to which it no longer had any relation. The survival of the institution was now in the hands of those generations of visitors who had been so bewitched by Higgins's visionary magic in previous decades.  And, sadly, the love, the successful programming, the educational commitment, all wasn't enough.

The good news is that John Higgins's beloved collection is staying in Worcester and plans are already well developed for its integration into the collections and interpretation of the Worcester Art Museum. Both institutions are trying hard to make this transition as transparent as possible and you can read more about this here.  What fate awaits the building itself is, as yet, unclear.

Museums are expensive and the days of depending on a single or small group of benefactors are largely over. At the same time, I believe that museums are important and worth the expense. What will be the new philanthropic model that sustains these institutions for the next eight decades? Museum directors across the country are struggling to find out. The passing of the old model does, I think, spell the end of a certain kind of American museum and as I walk through Higgins's soaring great hall, I can't help but muse, alas I live in modern times...
-Vident Omnes

Worcester Art Museum/ [remastered]

Venus Disarming Cupid, Paolo Veronese, about 1555

Curator: Matthias Waschek, Executive Director, Worcester Art Museum

The PR Buzz: Paintings will be displayed in medallion-style hangings—reminiscent of the 17th-18th century—that encourage the viewer to make personal connections with and between the works. This project is one of many where the Museum is focused on reshaping the visitor experience.”

In-depth reviews of the installation can be found here and here.

Recommended For: a glorious immersive experience of Old Master splendor.

The Experience:
Good Lord does the Worcester Art Museum have a good collection! I shouldn't be so surprised by this by now, but I am. Every time.

I made the drive out to WAM in less than 45 minutes. (Worcester may seem like the far side of Pluto to the Hub mentality, but let's be honest, it takes longer than that to get across Cambridge usually!) 

I was greeted outside the gallery entrance by a nicely-worded, but visually dull, label by new museum director Matthias Waschek, who was the driving force behind [remastered].  The label serves as an invitation to "stay and enjoy longer." The lackluster impression of the intro label vanished immediately as I entered the suite of three galleries that make up [remastered].  Sumptuous moss-green and terracotta gallery walls set off the rich tones, colors and luxurious highlights of the Old Master paintings. In short, the works look fantastic in the new galleries. As the museum literature promises, the paintings are hung in clusters that share themes, subjects, compositions and emotions. The flanking galleries feature more secular imagery, while the center gallery is dominated by religious, moral and allegorical works. The visitor is invited to make extended study of the paintings and spin their own webs of connection and meaning between them.

What there is: each gallery has its own gallery guide, there are rolling shelves with selections from the art research library on a variety of topics relating to the paintings, the artists and their times, two iPads set up to support two of the paintings in the central gallery that have a number of essays from a range of museum staff and community figures and the ability to enter your own commentary on the works, and an imaginative schedule of public programming in the galleries that enhance the experience of being around the art.

What there isn't: traditional on-the-wall labels. 

Does it work? Yes and no.

WAM has clearly made the choice to make all of its supplementary material as unobtrusive as possible. The gallery guides are placed in holders that are low and out of the way, the iPads revert to dark click-to-begin screens, and the books are presented in plain brown wrappers. Unfortunately, based on my observation, this meant that visitors seeking more information either did not know this material was available or how to use it if they noticed it. One visitor I asked found the laminated gallery guides "cumbersome." The add-your-own-label feature on the interpretive iPads had largely been used by visitors to debate whether the lack of traditional labels is a good idea.

What [remastered] gets right is installing superb examples of Old Master painting and then getting out of the way and letting the works speak to visitors in their own voices. The paintings themselves are tremendous and the museum's new acquisition, Veronese's Venus Disarming Cupid, lives up to any amount of hype that could be thrown at it.  These works were created to be studied, explored, and contemplated in a way that is too often undermined by traditional museum labels.

I am not arguing in favor of restoring the supplementary information to its traditional prominence, but what does need to be much more assertive is the museum's desire for people to assign their own values, meanings and perspectives to the works. Old museum habits- like label reading- are hard to break and if WAM wants to change the rules in [remastered], this intention should not be communicated discreetly, but emphatically. Waschek's invitation to "stay and enjoy longer" needs to be louder and clearer. My hope is that WAM will continue to tinker with the interpretation of the installation and that [remastered] will function as an evolving laboratory for creative content delivery.

Personally, I found the label-free installation helped me make extended and close study of the paintings and their marvelous details bloomed under my eyes. The experience, like the paintings themselves, was rich and glorious. Here are some of my favorite discoveries, come to [remastered] and find them if you can!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

PEM/Impressionists on the Water

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Oarsmen at Chatou, 1879, National Gallery of Art
Link to the Exhibition Website:

Co-Curators: Christopher Lloyd, former Surveyor of Queen Elizabeth II's collection, Phillip Dennis Cate, former director of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, and Daniel Charles, author and historian. PEM coordinating curator, Daniel Finamore

The PR Buzz: "Through nearly 60 oil paintings, works on paper, models and small craft, this exhibition illuminates the importance that access to the sea and France's extensive inland waterways played in the development of one of the world's most enduring artistic movements."

This exhibition was organized by the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco and opened there in June of this year to positive reviews, for example here and here.

The Globe review of the show in Salem can be found here.

Recommended For: a compelling portion of a day-long visit to PEM, but don't have it be the only reason you went.

The Experience:
Impressionists on the Water is a difficult show to write about. It is, in the end, an object lesson on the tremendous pressure that museums are under to capture media attention and generate "draw." This pressure causes some uncomfortable compromises to be made and this can, in many cases, undermine the effectiveness of an exhibition when it finally hits the galleries and opens its doors. Impressionists on the Water is such a show. It could have been, with largely the same checklist, a eloquent show about the evolution of water as a subject and inspiration in 19th century French fine and decorative arts. This would have encompassed a time of radical social, cultural and aesthetic change. It would, ultimately, have been a show that included, but was not about, Impressionist works.  It would have been original.  It would have been unique. But would you have bothered to go?

It was a sleepy weekday morning at PEM when I made my way up to the third floor special exhibition galleries. Although visitor traffic was light, a little admission desk eavesdropping confirmed that my fellow visitors had also come to see the Impressionists. I was greeted in the opening gallery with 2 paintings and a racing yacht model. The show's title was awkwardly placed to the left and the opening text was on the right. Although these objects make sense, given the lens of the show, there was nothing visually strong enough to really establish what you are about to see and why.

The show then proceeds thematically, exploring in turn, Masters of French Marine Art, Harbors and Coasts, Rivers, Gustave Caillebotte Artist and Yachtsman and the Open Ocean. This thematic hang does provide visitors with clusters of artworks that share a subject. This is useful in a show like this one where there is a variety of media- paintings, prints, photographs and ephemera- that are shown together. However, the sections are uneven in the number, size and quality of the works. It wasn't until I got to the third section on Rivers that I was greeted with the kind of visual punch that this show needed to start with.  This gallery featured a vibrant, large Renoir (Oarsmen at Chatou), the sleek and elegant rowing boat Nana, and (finally!) a large map of France that helped orient me to where all of these works had stemmed from.

Gustave Caillebotte, Boating on the Yerres, 1877, Milwaukee Art Museum
The section on Gustave Caillebotte gave the most coherent justification for the blending of models and painting in the show and could have, as Sebastian Smee rightly points out in his review, made for a compelling boutique exhibition on its own. It was my opinion, however, that Caillebotte, however avid a yachtsman he may have been, was nowhere near as good a painter of the waters as Boudin, Isabey and Renoir, all of whose works we had already seen by the time we meet Caillebotte.

The final section, The Open Ocean, was again weak visually, so the show has no real big finish. This section features seascapes by Courbet and Monet that unfortunately remind you how many other artists painted the sea and surf better than they did. Le Gray's photograph, The Brig, was a standout exception to this last gallery.

Ugh, I hate being so negative, but Impressionists on the Water is a show that should not have privileged the impressionists to the extent that it does (as much as I recognize the seductive lure of doing so.) The show does not demonstrate that water was an exceptional subject for impressionism, nor that impressionist representations of water were particularly influential.  It was very telling that as I was in the gallery, I overheard a docent-led tour begin by declaring to the group "This is not an Impressionist show." She was right, so why was it billed as such?

Gustav Le Gray, The Brig, 1856
I can't wrap up this review without mentioning some of the truly exceptional works that are in the show. There is a glowing, if modestly-sized Vernet (The Bathers, 1789), two wonderful Isabeys, three very good Boudin views of French ports, a strong Pissarro paired wonderfully with a lively Matisse, a couple of outstanding Le Gray photographs, and a brilliant Raffaelli (View of the Right Bank of the Seine, Paris, 1880).  All of these works are supported by a spectacularly diverse array of French print work from the period.

While You're There: see the impressively-expansive and revealing Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion and the exquisite Toshio Shibata: Constructed Landscapes.