Category Archives: Fine Arts

Art of the Projector


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Rodney Graham, installation view of The Green Cinematograph (Programme I: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink), 2010, 16mm film; color, silent; custom film projector with looper, bench, 5:35 min.; Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London © Carnegie Museum of Art

As a film and video archivist, I’m excited to see the amount of moving image work being exhibited at the Carnegie right now. It’s all over the place: projected on floors and projected on doors, shown on a screen or a TV monitor machine, to state it in rhyming couplet form. Thanks to the 2013 Carnegie International and the reinstallation of the Scaife galleries—and to the hard work of assistant curator Amanda Donnan and the rest of the contemporary art department—you can scarcely turn your head without seeing some manifestation of what we in the biz call time-based media. But beyond the artworks on display, I’ve been fascinated to see so many examples of the cinematic apparatus being revealed, if not highlighted, in the installation of those works. The most obvious case in point is Rodney Graham’s The Green Cinematograph (Programme I: Pipe smoker and overflowing sink) (2010), probably my favorite single piece in the International, a 16mm film that cuts between a shots of Graham smoking a pipe and a sink overflowing with soap bubbles. More specifically, it’s a 16mm film that passes through a stunning, custom-built projector with a massive looper made of transparent green Lucite, into which the film cascades, creating a swirling tableau that recalls the hypnotic liquid light shows projected behind psychedelic rock concerts in the 1960s and 70s, or the lava lamps that brought that psychedelia into our very homes. There’s also certainly a resonance between the flow of the spent film strip and the bubbles projected on screen, but if you end up watching the looper and ignoring the screen altogether, that’s cool too.

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Joachim Koester, installation view of Tarantism, 2007, 16mm film; black and white, silent; 6:31 min.; A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund © Carnegie Museum of Art

The whirring of the projector is a near-omnipresent sound in the contemporary galleries. In the Scaife film room, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight* (1963) plays, the only soundtrack the opening and closing of the projector’s shutter. The 16mm film, actually made by pressing small bits of detritus between two strips of splicing tape, inevitably draws your attention from the projected image to the physical object and the mechanism of the projector. The same can be said of Tarantism (2007), by Joachim Koester, another silent, 16mm film, in which the spastic dancing of the performers clashes with the uniformity of the projector’s moving parts. As the film passes again and again through the looper, the apparatus takes on an ominous quality, forcing the dancers through a perpetual cycle of frenzied convulsions.

*Note: Between the writing and publication of this post, Mothlight was deinstalled, but the 16mm projector is still hard at work in the Scaife film room. The current film is Robert Nelson’s Oh Dem Watermelons (1965), a frenetic and positively Gallagher-like assault on the eponymous fruit.  A full schedule of experimental films can be found here.
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Mark Leckey, installation view of Made in ‘Eaven, 2004, 16mm film; color, silent; 3 min.; looped 20 min.; Courtesy of the artist; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne; and Cabinet Gallery, London © Carnegie Museum of Art

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Mark Leckey, installation view of Made in ‘Eaven, 2004, 16mm film; color, silent; 3 min.; looped 20 min.; Courtesy of the artist; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne; and Cabinet Gallery, London © Carnegie Museum of Art

The fourth and final film projector/looper can be found among the gems in the Wertz Gallery of the Museum of National History. In fact, as you enter the room, the only thing you see is the projector, sitting on a tall pedestal and pointing outside the room, down an adjoining corridor. Coming into line with the projector, you glimpse the screen, on which plays Mark Leckey’s Made in ’Eaven (2004). The fact that the two elements of the piece, the projector and the screen, inhabit different spaces underscores the unsettling tension of the film, between the physical fact of the analog media, and the impossible picture it captures, a probing pan around Jeff Koons’s mirrored bunny that could only have been accomplished through digital manipulation. As an analog type of fella, I found myself backing away from the uncanny image, toward the comforting hum of the projector.

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If you’re interested in learning more about archiving and exhibiting moving image works in a museum, register for Carnegie Museum of Art’s symposium A Collection of Misfits: Time-Based Media and the Museum, taking place Nov. 21–23, 2013. The Misfits symposium will bring archivists, artists, curators, and conservators from institutions around the world to discuss case studies, pressing issues, and the future of the field. For more information, visit our website: www.cmoa.org/misfits.
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Telling-Vision

Tony Oursler, installation view of (Telling) Vision #3, 1994, video projector, VCR, video, tripod, light stand, cloth; Second Century Acquisition Fund and Oxford Development Fund © Carnegie Museum of Art

This focus on the apparatus isn’t restricted to film work, either. In Tony Oursler’s video installation (Telling) Vision #3 (1994), a video projector angled atop a tripod figures significantly, simultaneously giving a face and a voice to the brown-suited scarecrow (also propped up on a tripod) and gazing curiously up at the bizarre character. A closed-circuit security camera and monitor provide a live mirror for the Thinker to contemplate in Nam June Paik’s TV Rodin (1976-1978).

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Nam June Paik, installation view of TV Rodin, 1976–1978, plaster, video camera, tripod, monitor, pedestal; A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund © Carnegie Museum of Art

In all of these cases, the “audiovisual equipment” usually hidden in museum exhibition is brought to the fore, becoming vital elements of the work. It is a good rule of thumb when looking at moving image work to think about how the images are produced and transmitted; these processes are essential to the artists and should inform how we consume the work. The film and video on view at the Carnegie press the issue by laying bare the cinematic apparatus, and acknowledging it as an intrinsic component of the art object.

Cassatt & Degas: An Unlikely Friendship


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Mary Cassatt, Young Women Picking Fruit, 1891, oil on canvas; Patrons Art Fund, 22.8. This work is currently on view in the Scaife Galleries.

…It may interest you to know what Degas said when he saw the picture you have just bought for your Museum. It was painted in 1891 in the summer, & Degas came to see me after he had seen it at Durand-Ruel’s. He was chary of praise but he spoke of the drawing of the woman’s arm picking the fruit & made a familiar gesture indicating the line & said no woman has a right to draw like that.

This excerpt from a letter written by Mary Cassatt, late in her life in 1922, to Carnegie Museum of Art director Homer Saint-Gaudens upon the museum’s acquisition of her painting Young Women Picking Fruit, includes a tantalizing reference to her old friend Edgar Degas (who had passed away in 1917). She also references an inside joke that had existed between the two artists going back decades. Here she remembers Degas’s observation of the S-curve lines formed by the arms of the figures in her large painting. This particular aspect of composition—the S-curve—became a recurring theme in the art of both artists beginning around the time of the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, and can be seen again, for example, in Degas’s later pastel Dancers, c. 1897 (Detroit Institute of Arts). Join us on September 19 for the next Lunch & Learn program, where we’ll explore the full context of how and why compositional devices such as the S-curve became an important component of the exchanges between these great artists.

The artistic relationship between Cassatt and Degas is a subject that I had been working on for years before I arrived at Carnegie Museum of Art. It was the subject of my dissertation and has been integrated into many different curatorial projects over the years. Next week’s Lunch & Learn program will focus on the 40-year friendship and working interactions between these two major artists in the collection. We’ll discuss aspects of biography, their professional support for one another, and anecdotes surrounding their social interactions in the Impressionist milieu, including Cassatt’s occasional willingness to pose as a model for Degas. But primarily we’ll juxtapose examples of their art side-by-side to see how their artworks seem to be locked in a visual dialogue. My interest in these two artists together has always focused on how their works seem to be in conversation in terms of art production, subject matter, and composition.

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Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery, 1879–1880, etching, soft ground, aquatint, and drypoint on wove paper; Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom, by exchange, 76.57.1

It is well-understood that these two fiercely opinionated, independent, and sometimes difficult artists were close friends in Impressionist circles. In fact, it was through Degas’s invitation to Cassatt in 1877 that she joined the Impressionist exhibiting group in Paris. Cassatt was an expatriate from the United States (born in Allegheny City—now part of Pittsburgh!) and was the only American and one of only three women to ever exhibit with the French Impressionists. Though they were close friends, one of the difficulties in studying their interaction is that their correspondence between one another has been lost. Some of the most direct traces of their communication that remains manifests in their artwork—where they seem to respond to each other in a range of different ways. Interpreting these visual, aesthetic forms of communication, of course, leaves room for a great deal of ambiguity and subjective understanding. Their relationship was enveloped in the challenges of nineteenth-century gender politics and social conventions. Factors of age, nationality, and gender differences undoubtedly complicate the interpretation of their art and professional interactions.

Delving into the nuances of their artistic production and their occasionally fraught friendship helps produce greater understanding of Impressionist artistic circles—yet, looking at their art side-by-side and comparing the circumstances of their careers complicates our understanding of both of them as artists. Why would the cantankerous Degas, known for his occasionally difficult attitudes towards women, be drawn to the younger feminist/suffragist Cassatt, and vice versa? A mutual understanding as well as the sense that they could challenge each other and stand up to each other’s forceful personalities laid the groundwork for their enduring friendship and undoubtedly helped make each of them stronger artists.

Amanda Zehnder, Associate Curator of Fine Arts

Video: The Art Connection


We just wanted to say thanks to everyone who came out on Sunday, April 14 to mark the opening of The Art Connection Annual Student Exhibition! Check out the video to see our student artists hard at work in the museum’s studios as they prepared for this year’s exhibition. Throughout the school year, students in grades 5–9 worked through the creative process with the help of teaching artists in the museum’s galleries and studios. Artworks in this year’s exhibition reflect the influence of recent exhibitions such as White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Art at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939, and Cory Arcangel: Masters.

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Japan is the Key


There is a lot of work that goes into preparing an exhibition, even the relatively small shows that go on view in Gallery One. Much of the work is not exactly glamorous—hours spent in libraries paging through deteriorating volumes covered in 100-year-old dust, or hours spent removing 100-year-old dust from a work of art—but it can still be very exciting (seriously)! When Lulu Lippincott, curator of fine arts, first had the idea to exhibit our early Japanese print collection, she wanted to present the works in a different context than they have been shown at CMOA in the past. Remembering that both our collection and our neighbor’s (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) contained a number of Japanese ivory sculptures in storage, we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to bring the two mediums, woodblock prints and ivories, together in one exhibition exploring the early history of collecting Japanese art at this museum. The exhibition, “Japan is the Key…”: Collecting Prints and Ivories, 1900–1920will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One.

A key figure in our story is ketchup magnate Henry J. Heinz, an avid collector who donated over a thousand ivory sculptures to the museum. While the majority of these are small-scale works ranging from two to 14 inches tall, there is one that soars above the rest—a life-size ivory eagle measuring nearly four feet tall. Heinz purchased the work for the museum in 1913 during his travels throughout Asia and it had been on continuous view until the early 1990s. For those of us who can’t remember or who have never seen the giant eagle, it is easy to be stunned by the sheer size of it; knowing that it is constructed out of such a precious material only adds to its magnificence.

Having spent nearly 20 years in storage, the giant eagle has accumulated layers of dust and other particulates on its surface. Thankfully, it was kept in the original case built for its display in 1913 which has managed to offer some additional protection over the years—although the two jars of pesticides which were sealed inside offered a rather… malodorous surprise when it was opened for cleaning. Over the next several weeks, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s objects conservator Gretchen Anderson and her team of interns will be analyzing and cleaning the eagle before it goes into our exhibition. As a rare treat, the team will work in full view of the public and, yes, they do take questions! You’ll be amazed by the resourcefulness of objects conservators and stunned to find out their use of common household materials, such as makeup sponges and chunks of a Magic Eraser to remove the grime.

Next time you visit the museum, skip the PaleoLab (just this once) and head up to the third floor’s Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians (at the back of Polar World) where you can see this team of conservators in action. They’ll be there 10 a.m.–4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays for the duration of the conservation. If you don’t get a chance to see it being cleaned, it will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One as part of the exhibition!

Installing the Presepio


Art handler Matt Cummings takes on the delicate task of installing figures in the middle of the scene for the Neapolitan presepio.

Every year on the Monday—Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, Carnegie Museum of Art staff installs the museum’s remarkable Neapolitan presepio. Beloved by Pittsburghers as an annual holiday tradition the presepio is an incredible multi-media work of art, created by 18th-century artisans in Naples.

Monday

We install the stage set within the steps of St. Gilles in the Hall of Architecture. The set is made up of dozens of platforms topped with miniature buildings, bridges, roads, rocks, and a stream. The various pieces are unified by the application of conservation-safe moss cloth.

A member of the so-called “Turkish band,” a common sight in the bustling Mediterranean port of 18th-century Naples.
Watch out—his sheep has a wild look in his eye.

Tuesday

In come the figures on rolling metal carts. More than 100 human and angelic characters, plus another dozen animals, and countless finimenti or finishing touches (tiny props like walking sticks, assorted foods for the marketplace, and tiny ceramic and silver jars and platters. If all goes well, we finish the day by suspending the host of angels overhead.

Museum staff place figures in the foreground, while the yellow ladder at back will help us install the angels overhead.
During the rest of the year the presepio figures rest in carefully padded and outfitted drawers like this one.

Wednesday

We polish off the installation with a green velvet skirt, gold stanchions, and didactic panels, as well as a special display case that provides an opportunity to see one figure up close.

The Moorish King Balthazar
This lady even has carefully crafted miniature earrings.
Work in progress: this is the cheese seller’s stand, which is ultimately set up with dozens of tempting hard and soft cheeses for his customers. As we place figures it looks like he is keeping an eye on our vegetables and fruit.
The fisherman is the oldest figure in the presepio, dating to 1700. A natural fit for a streamside spot, he also serves as an allegory for Christ, who was called the “fisher of men.”

This begging dog is quite a character with his upward gaze and wagging tail.
Art handler Steve Russ arranges items based on photographs from a previous year.