Online art encounters | The Art Assignment

This new series, The Art Assignment, is a fun conversation with artists working today. Each episode runs about seven minutes, and features an artist talking first about their own work and then assigning a similar art project to viewers. In turn, viewers can then post their completed art projects back to The Art Assignment. The assignments are very accessible, and some would be great for parents and kids.

Hosted by independent curator Sarah Urist Green and her husband John, the series promises to “take you around the U.S. to meet working artists and solicit assignments from them that we can all complete.” The Greens introduce each episode and periodically pop in with some art historical context. John Green’s role, at least in the first two episodes, is to ask “but is it really art?” enabling Sarah to discuss the artistic goal of an assignment. Here’s what to expect from the first four episodes:

Episode #4: Never Seen, Never Will – David Brooks
Citing Durer’s Rhino as an example, the assignment is to depict something you know exists, but that you have never seen in person, and probably never will. By making a relationship with the unseen, your relationship to what exists around you is heightened.

Episode #3: Intimate, Indispensable GIF – Toyin Odutola
Odutola creates a GIF of her hand, opening and closing. The assignment is to create your own GIF of something intimate that is indispensable to you. In describing how she works, Odutola mentions how drawing relaxes her – what she’s really talking about is flow, that satisfying feeling of total absorption in the task at hand. (Watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk to learn how flow is the secret to happiness)

The first two episodes, #1 Meet in the Middle, and #2 Stakeout, offer more activity-based assignments. Each inspires viewers to experience the environment in different ways, and become more observant of their immediate world in the process.

You can subscribe to the entire series here, and view and/or submit completed assignments at The Art Assignment’s tumblr site.

MoMA | Gauguin: Metamorphoses

The French painter Paul Gauguin was a man in love with the idea of a place. His Tahiti was pure: unsullied by outside influence, its people primitive, and its gods powerful. In reality, by the time Gauguin first visited in 1891, the island’s culture had already been permanently changed by French colonialists. Undaunted, Gauguin remained dedicated to his vision of paradise on earth, and through his art celebrated the idealized Tahitian culture he so longed to experience.

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Paul Gauguin, Arearea – Joyeusetés 1892. Musée d’Orsay.

The Show
While I was familiar with Gauguin’s famous paintings of Tahitian women, I didn’t really know much else about him. So this exhibition, which I did not research ahead of time, seemed a good opportunity to learn about his oeuvre beyond the Tahiti subject matter. Gauguin: Metamorphoses now on view at MoMA is a show about the artist’s prints of…Tahiti! While the subject matter is not new, the show offers a more nuanced look at Gauguin by examining his artistic process and technique in the mediums of printing, sculpture and ceramics.

Three key points about Paul Gauguin’s process:
1) He sampled his own work. Gauguin revisited the subjects of his paintings. From complete scenes to isolated motifs, he experimented with creating new interpretations through print variations. One version might be light and abstract and another dark and detailed, the mood of the work changing according to the printer’s craft.

2) He invented a technique called oil transfer drawing.

3) He depicted the same motifs in different mediums, including print, wood sculpture and ceramics.

I suspect if I had ever hand printed anything (a print or photograph, for example) the show would have been more engaging for me personally. As it was, the repetitive subject matter of the works didn’t hold my attention, and I even found myself developing a small bias against Gauguin. What must this man, who lived so insistently in an idea of the past, have been like in real life? Fortunately I am not writing Lives of the Artists, so need ponder his character no further. Gauguin’s bold paintings, exploratory printmaking and innovative art techniques are bold departures from the prevailing salon aesthetic of the time, and mark him as an artist of the modern era.

The visitor experience: what worked
Exhibition design: The galleries are open with plenty of room for visitors to linger, and the dark blue of the walls sets off the artwork, adding a feeling of intimacy to the environment at the same time.
Digital elements: Really, this is part of exhibition design but I call it out separately here because I think the three ipad tutorials on Gauguin’s techniques are very effective, and necessary in a show like this. Similar in-gallery tutorials were successfully integrated into the Metropolitan Museum’s Interwoven Globe textile show and the Brooklyn Museum’s John Singer Sargent show last year.

The visitor experience: room for improvement
Audio guide: Like the Guggenheim, MoMA appears to have put its app onto its audio device without any modification. The assets (narration/images) are good but the onscreen navigation is clunky. To return to the main menu (a photo strip), I had to push an “X” at least two times (maybe three?) on a not-very-responsive touchscreen to close out the windows covering the menu. How about a shortcut key back to the exhibition’s intro screen?  It’s too bad that just as that museums are loading up unmodified apps, the device hardware is losing the hard keys that could provide easy solutions.

It will be interesting to see how the audio guides develop. Right now there is no consistency in behaviors across script flow, app, device, or performance from museum to museum. Museums may be embracing digital but the audio guides are becoming less user-friendly in the process.

Exhibition site: I’m a fan of dedicated exhibition sites in general, but this one loads inconsistently. Several times I encountered a split screen obscured by the floating black navigation box. When the site does load correctly it is a long scrolling page that uses awkwardly labeled collages as navigation prompts. All the information is there if you need it, but otherwise stick to the exhibition’s straightforward page on the MoMA site.

Gauguin: Metamorphoses is on view at MoMA through June 8, 2014. If you haven’t visited recently, MoMA is now open to the public seven days a week, and stopping for lunch at The Modern makes it an ideal New York City outing.

Online art encounters | 82nd & Fifth @ Metropolitan Museum of Art

As should be clear by now, I believe in museums. But I don’t always feel like visiting them and I’m sure you don’t either. Fortunately many museums are now developing exclusive website content, making them easy to visit from afar and possibly inspiring that in person visit after all.

82nd & Fifth is a web series produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each episode is just two minutes long and features a Met curator speaking about a favorite work of art in the museum’s collection. A typical narration covers historical context for the artwork (where, when, why it was made) and why the curator is so passionate about the piece. Each episode feels like a mini-getaway; here are four (of 100) to get you started:

Fine Dining: on a flashy gadget of affluent Rome. Did you know that Emperor Nero employed a dedicated invitation writer? Decadent.
French Dressing: on the mastery of construction in fashion.
Morning Catch: on the risks and rewards of hand painted porcelain. And the necessity of broth in the daily toilette ritual of 18th century France.
Blazing Saddle: on the 1,000 year decorative tradition of Tibetan saddles.

You can watch all of the episodes at the 82nd and Fifth website. If only the entire museum website was as clean and visual as this micro-site! Enjoy.

Guggenheim Museum | Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe

Out with the old. So said the Italian Futurists who, “sought to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity.” While wholesale rejection of the status quo is de rigueur for youthful up-and-comers, the Futurists seem especially dour.

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Fortunato Depero, Skyscrapers and Tunnels, 1930.© 2014 Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: © MART, Archivio Fotografico

Consider these gems from the group’s founding Manifesto, published in Le Figaro in 1909:

“We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.”

The Show
Strangely, I don’t remember hearing that perspective in art history class. In any case, what I knew of Futurism was restricted to a few representative paintings. Thanks to Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe on view through September 1, 2014 at the Guggenheim Museum, a much more comprehensive and vibrant history of the movement is now available to explore. The show, with over 300 works, is perfectly suited to this venue. The dynamic energy of Futurism pairs naturally with Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral design.

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Ivo Pannaggi, Speeding Train, 1922. Fondazione Carima–Museo Palazzo Ricci, Macerata, Italy

Here are eight key points to know about Italian Futurism:
1) Futurism began as an avant-garde literary movement
. Manifestos were issued regularly, and ten are available online for closer reading, including the perhaps inevitable Manifesto of the Futurist Woman.

2) Futurists were committed to reinventing the world through rigorous advocacy of all that was new and modern. Its mostly philosophical origins presented artists with the challenge of giving the movement a recognizable pictorial form. Consequently, distinct stages of artistic evolution exist although most of us are only familiar with works from the “heroic” stage just before World War I.

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Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon
R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kris McKay © SRGF

3) Futurism was conceived as a holistic movement. As such, artists – painters, set designers, architects, musicians, fashion designers, potters, and furniture makers alike – created environments big and small that represented the Futurist vision. From designs for cities, to designs for toys, furnishings and opera costumes, no opportunity to reshape the world was left unexplored. The dress above made me think of Marni, a contemporary Italian fashion brand.

4) The Futurists were captivated by the changing technologies around them. Their work abounds with depictions of motion and speed. Perhaps inspired as the norms for travel and office work were upended by aviation advances and mechanized typewriters, the Futurists explored how other long-accepted practices could be reinvented. Language was randomized, and performances were performer-less. The world was in flux.

5) Women were active, respected participants in the movement, despite the ugly misogyny proclaimed in the original Manifesto. Futurism founder F.T. Marinetti’s own wife, Benedetta, painted the murals pictured below.

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Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon
R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kris McKay © SRGF

6) Futurism is historically associated with Fascism. While Futurism is a source of national pride for Italians, Mussolini’s Fascist reign is definitely not. This controversial identity may explain why Futurism is treated as a footnote in art survey classes, and why it has been the subject of so few museum shows.

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Giovanni Acquaviva, Facismo/Futurismo Plate
from The Life of Marinetti Dinner Service 1939. Wolfsonian Museum.

7) Marinetti was an eager advocate for Italy’s entry into World War I, war being the ultimate change agent. So it is not surprising that he was a Mussolini supporter. However, Mussolini did not make Futurism the official art of the Fascist regime despite what Marinetti might have hoped. Most new regimes embrace historical styles to establish legitimacy, and Futurism wouldn’t have helped with this.

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Tullio Crali, Before the Parachute Opens, 1939.© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Claudio Marcon, Udine, Civici Musei e Gallerie di Storia e Arte

8) Movements, like people, don’t exist in a vacuum. Inevitably Futurist art was influenced by the past to some extent. Futurist teapots  share the same basic form with their non-futurist  cousins, and children still need toy rhinos to play with,  Futurist or not.

The visitor experience: what worked
Exhibition design: The design includes an elegant integration of additional curved walls, video and plenty of space between objects. Every view across the atrium pops with color.

Website:  A dedicated site for the exhibition is well designed, with bright colors, large images, and easy navigation across content areas. Oddly, there is no mentioned of the audio guide on this site-within-a-site, though it is available online.

Audio guide: The audio guide includes and illustrates several related works that are not on display; this expanded content is where these guides have an opportunity to really shine. You can listen online, or via the Guggenheim app.

The visitor experience: room for improvement
Exhibition design/labels: The label placement was a frustration. I’m all for eliminating visual clutter, but not if it means a) searching for a label, b) bunching up with everyone else trying to read the label, and c) leaning in to find the audio guide number when there is ample space for less congested label placement. The labels are primarily grouped together on the right wall of each display alcove. Elegant, yes. Accessible, not especially.

Audio guide: I downloaded the app to my phone, but unfortunately it shut down three times while I was listening to the introduction within the museum. I decided to use the museum’s audio device instead, which uses the same app. It doesn’t seem to have been optimized for the device at all, and the hardware/software interaction is really clunky. For example, I would enter an item number. Then I would have to press “Enter Exhibition” on the screen. And then I would have to press a tiny “Play” button on the screen. Why should I ever have to press “Enter Exhibition” in the first place? And why isn’t there a hardware “Play” button?

I wasn’t alone in my frustration; I watched one guard answer questions from three different people about how to use the device. This is a shame because the content (audio and visuals) is engaging and really rounds out the visitor experience nicely. What good is great content if people can’t access it?

These are minor inconveniences. By all means, go see this show. It’s a great and possibly rare chance to learn about a neglected art historical movement in a comprehensive way, and a visual treat that shows the spiral at its best. If you can’t make it in person be sure to visit the website and browse the excellent exhibition catalog. Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe is on view at the Guggenheim Museum through September 1, 2014.

Noted | The Ghost Army: the arts and artists of deception

The true tale of the Monuments Men saving cherished artworks and literature during World War II is well-known today. Did you also know that, at the same time, the solder artists of the Ghost Army were using all of their talents to stage 21 tactical deceptions, creating crucial battlefield advantages for the Allied Forces during the final years of the war? This true tale is less well-known, but just as fascinating.

The story of the Ghost Army was declassified only in 1996, and in spring of 2013 the documentary The Ghost Army debuted. I discovered it on PBS, and was riveted by the story of what was officially known as 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. Charged by the U.S Army to impersonate other U.S. Army units in order to deceive the enemy, its members were recruited from the “creative class” of the day, bringing expertise from advertising, art schools, theater, and engineering. Among the recruits were the painter Ellsworth Kelly, (future) fashion designer Bill Blass, and illustrator Arthur Singer.

Each operation included coordinated plans for visual, radio, and sonic deceptions. These plans worked together to create the impression of an existing unit for anyone flying a plane overhead, traveling by ground within a 15 mile radius, or eavesdropping over the airwaves. In essence, the Ghost Army was building and breaking down a massive “set” with each operation: setting the stage and sourcing the actors, props and script. Executing such complex plans required specifics: for example, instructions on the timing required to inflate a dummy tank.

Careful planning for each operation helped the men of the Ghost Army ensure their “sets” were foolproof from all directions, including the sky. In Operation Viersen, the 1,000 man Ghost Army successfully impersonated two full divisions (40,000 men).

No detail was overlooked. The distinct visual identities of the real units that would be impersonated were carefully recorded and recreated for each operation.

Audio was critical to conjuring a successful deception, both on the radio and on the ground. The Sonic Half Track pictured below was capable of broadcasting the sounds of troops movements up to 15 miles away.

When not enacting deceptions the creative corps of the Ghost Army sketched. In some cases, as with this bombed church in Trévières, Normandy, multiple views were recorded. There at least six different sketches of this scene.

The Ghost Army (4th Platoon, Company D) arrived in Normandy, eight days after D-Day. Arthur Shilstone recorded the experience, sketching his unit digging in after their arrival.

A number of Ghost Army veterans were interviewed for the film and hearing their recollections firsthand makes the successes and challenges of 23rd Headquarters Special Troops all the more vivid. Sadly not all of them lived to see the film made, but how wonderful that the filmmaker, Rick Beyer, was able to record their personal memories about this long classified chapter of American history for us to discover and enjoy.

I can’t encourage you enough to watch this documentary; it is available for purchase (dvd) or rental (stream) on Amazon: