Friday, February 29, 2008

Conquer and Consume: The American Evolution in Pictures, and Pieces, at the Corcoran

Since other writers will comment on the Corcoran’s endeavor to re-present its diverse treasures in a five-chapter narrative of “American Evolution,” we’ll just mention a few pieces that caught our eye.

Warhol’s cheery, cheeky portrait of Mao so overpowers the Gilbert Stuart’s oil dignification of our first president that “pop art” seems too trivial a term in retrospect. This opening salvo reminds me of the Corcoran’s exhibition a couple years back that proved Warhol was more than a clever opportunist. Among other things, he was a social commentator who exposed ideology as a marketable product.

This art history of America, brief as it is, manages greater fidelity to the truth than both popular and scholastic texts on which most of us were raised. Those colonists and settlers didn’t survive savage beasts; they were the savage beasts. The great nation was built on the backs and blood of native Indians, imported slaves and animals, with entire species exterminated within decades. The land wasn’t tamed; it was trampled.

The American credo: Conquer and Consume.

The American Dream was more about “freedom to” than “freedom from.”

Albert Bierstadt knew the truth, and illustrated it in his colossal oil paintings: nothing is gained without something lost. Indians were displaced, and animals sensed an end to their free-roaming days. In his 1869 “The Impending Storm,” Bierstadt depicts buffalo moving anxiously under threatening skies. One of the Corcoran’s most affecting pieces is “The Last of the Buffalo.” Men on horses decimate a herd, whose fallen members bear red eyes, gaping wounds, blood-matted fur. Life seeps from their ravaged bodies. Sun-bleached skulls of previous victims litter the western landscape. The buffalo stand not a chance; the gored horse and rider piled in foreground illustrate a will to survive – but will is no match for man and his appetites.

As the American Evolution continues, let’s hope the strong will help the others survive.

Take Home the Collection – Book Worth Buying

The opening of “The American Evolution” gave us a chance to revisit the Corcoran’s 2002 catalog of its masterworks, “A Capital Collection.” On first glance, it seemed dated – the Corcoran’s evolution has spanned from its leadership to its zeitgeist – but the timelessness of the works transcends.

Frederic Edwin Church’s ever-popular 1857 “Niagara,” a mighty monument on canvas makes for a conservative, conventional cover choice. But it also foreshadows the powerful force of page after page of works of every kind, accompanied by concise, immensely readable narrative that multiplies appreciation of each creation.

The book kicks off with a futurist panorama that represented Frank O. Gehry’s vision for a new wing. That plan bit the dust; mostly due to money, though not entirely; Mr. Gehry gave me a quick earful during an interview at an awards ceremony at the National Building Museum a few months back. But back to the present ....

The dozens of finds include Guiseppe Croff’s 1860 marble sculpture of “The Veiled Nun.” Excellent photography of the work enables us to see the Italian master’s astonishing sculted veil – a diaphanous piece one would think impossible to render in marble. Beneath it are the gentle eyes and soft skin of the model, who we learn is not a nun.

This alone is worth the price of the volume, which brims with such moments of epiphany. Such as Andrea di Vanni’s portable triptych from the plague-plagued 1300s ... American George Inness’s sublime “Sunset in the Woods” that beckons you to follow the light ... Albert Bierstadt’s power play as bold as his painting style for display of “Mount Corcoran” (which was originally title “Mountain Lake”) ... how D.C. watercolorist Lucian Whiting Powell found his “Afterglow” out west in the Grand Canyon a century ago ... insight into Robert Colescott’s satirical homages, and a tour through his 1981 “Auvers-sur-Oise (Crow in the Wheat Field)”, a bizarre reinterpretation of Van Gogh’s “Crows Over a Wheatfield” that turns on superficiality. See the exhibition; buy the book.

Corcoran details at:

Andy Warhol’s Mao. 1973 synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Update: Kevin's Take:

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Enviromental Systems Research Institute, created by Jack Dangermond nearly forty years ago,
possesses and disseminates the most cartographical knowledge. Jack’s software and cyberware
shape how the world is viewed and its future predicted. Now a half-billion dollar plus business, ESRI innovations have mapped nearly every inch on earth and lots of (outer) space. On Feb. 20 the geo-data company sponsored its annual convention in DC with 2500 attendees.

Jack’s inventions and collaborations create maps with infinite and intricate social, political,
cultural, and ecological informations, past, present, and future. From tracking gang activity to
monitoring industrial-waste cleanup sites, there’s no-one, nowhere, and/or nothing to hide.

Jack’s two-hour plenary presentation kicked-off the conference, custumarily welcoming,
thanking, and many “shout(ing) outs.” Happy days, good times these. But several times
Jack breaks, and alludes to planet peril and the dark side of globalization. Stammering, he
pulls his hair, and wishes there were more he could do to help. Earth stewardship isn’t easy.
We can guess he already recycles his trash, composts his garbage, and has changed his light bulbs. Jack wants to go green at the same all-encompassing scale as his cyber-cartography, but how?

Jack’s geo-data laid bare mankind’s unsustainable folly and its clever unwavering ability
to consume itself plus nature. Jack charted life so long he knows change must come. It’s
right there on the map! What can he do to keep things positive? It it too late already? He
has seen enough. He knows too much. He’s certain he cannot map chaos.

Mapping Disasters, Climate Change, Street Gang Activity and Beyond

ESRI Federal User Conference
Environmental Systems Research Institute
Feb. 20-22, 2008
Washington D.C. Convention Center

Jack Dangermond is an example of a socially conscious business leader who advocates using his company’s innovations for public good and also challenges himself to make a difference. For example, reducing our toll as individuals and collectively on the ecosystem.

Dangermond’s earnestness shone as he welcomed fellow technophiles to the ESRI Federal User Conference in Washington D.C. this week. Dongermond is the president of the Environmental Systems Research Institute [ESRI], which specializes in GIS – Geographic Information Systems. Applications from disease tracking to reallocating resources, mapping habitat destruction, monitoring climate change impact, and decision support for emergency situations – from devastating storms to ethnic conflicts to war.

If GIS doesn’t ring a bell, be assured it has a place in everyday life:

* Medical cartography: GIS provides crucial evidence for health care planning. For example, that freeway pollution elevated incidence of chronic disease in communities, and that avian flu was spread *not* by flying birds but rather, by bird-traders who sold poultry for food. By the way, presenter and ESRI expert Bill Davenhall noted that the most popular Google search topic is health.

* Tuning into the doppler-driven weather report.

* Googling maps technology to find a new place to live, narrowing down those Craiglist’d choices via mash-ups for proximity to your office, favorite food store, and a scenic, safe place to jog or walk the dog.

* Guiding life-and-death search missions. It will be deployed in security at the presidential conventions, and for humanitarian emergencies, for identifying the best transportation routes for speeding relief supplies and relocating communities.

Take-home point: While technology and talents are generally targeted for economic benefits, we should each fit in time to find ways to use them for bettering the world we’ve inherited.

NatureServe: a nonprofit organization that produces research serving as a scientific basis for effective conservation action. The information is used for bringing attention to rare and endangered species and threatened ecosystems – special interest groups without a voice.

Land Change Modeler for ArcGIS: software for analyyzing and predicting land cover change and assessing the impact of such changes on biodiversity. Important when mankind’s ambition and appetites increasingly destroy animal habitat, threaten individual animals and whole species, eliminate plant life faster than it can regrow, and reduce arable land for agriculture.

Example: Natural Rescue Management – one session addressed the utility of GIS for Bolivia, where rapid economic development has led to degradation of foerest, under attack by all sides: government, farmers and businesses within and outside the nation.

Ecosystem-Based Management Tools Network: tools for better management of coastal and marine environments. Tools can be used for initiatives such as: hazard assessment and resiliency use, urban planning and smart growth ... stakeholder engagement (ie trying to get people to care).

Dangermond left attendees with a closing thought: A vision of “Geography for everyone.”. Successful organizations tend to be those that are open and interoperable; open societies prove the same point. “Open standards in respect to our knowledge of the planet will be vital to our survival as a species.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Innovation Motivation

Forum: Incentives for Entrepreneurial Innovation
Feb. 14, 2008
Hudson Institute

Gustavo Manso, professor of finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management, presented research revealing that innovators are more prone to failure through experimentation, that failure is a logical and necessary step in the road to success, and that government and industry should support the creation of incentives for experimentation.

Too often, entrepreneurial risk is regarded with fear, and failure branded with stigma.

A few noteworthy points:

* Debtor-friendly bankruptcy laws can foster innovation by enabling entrepreneurs who just barely missed the mark to try again. Ironically, Europe has been revising bankruptcy laws to model those more forgiving conventions in the the U.S., while the U.S. is now ratcheting up regs.

* Pay for performance was shown in Manso’s research to actually depress creativity.

* A better incentive to motivate exploration and experimentation: an “Exploration Contract.” By incenting exploration, Manso noted the business ventures got closer to the optimal business strategy than those subjects under pay-for-performance and fixed-wage contracts.

* Back to the lemonstand stand.... A key model used in the study was that time-honored indie business symbol: the lemonade stand. Research subjects who were employed under an exploration contract made remarkably greater strides in scouting locations that would best support a new business.

* Innovation team-building blocks: discussant Robert Baum, associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, noted employee selection is critical and that tools exist for evaluating potential employees. For example, look for prospects who express “situation-specific obsession.” If you’re looking to create the world’s best car seat, look for people already jazzed about that goal. Next comes motivation and retention.

* The subprime mortgage mess is having a negative impact on entrepreneurial activity, since credit-tightening means less money for new pursuits and unproven technologies. Breaking convention costs money.

Inability to borrow money will change attitude and effort. If you can afford only one shot, will you try something really new, or take the safer route?

Forum transcript, Manso’s “Motivating Innovation” study report, and more on

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects

Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects

Fitting it is that painter Susan Rothenberg’s Three Masks (2006) graces not only the current Phillips Collection Magazine’s cover but also its table of contents. This most recent acquisition’s debut depicts two of the masks hung by their cords and a disembodied pair of hands reaching for (adjusting, re-hanging?) the third. An obvious allegory is the Phillips’ philosophy of ongoing aggressive contemporary acquisitions – or in the words of museum director Jay Gates, “We’re always moving things around.”

Gates, now preparing to retire, spent the last decade fund-raising record amounts and promised gifts to continue founder Duncan Phillips’ mission of assembling paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Now, the latest one hundred or so acquisitions, with 28 new-to-the-Phillips artists, make up this show. Note the present tense of the verb and final word of the show’s title, “Collects.”

This museum, America’s original for modern art, intimates an eloquence impossible in big-box spots. Unlike the yawning security guards at museum exhibits, Phillips attendants seem well-versed in each piece. Enriching wall text relieves that “I just don’t get this”feeling the casual observer has toward non-representational and abstract art. This show has enough colorful swaths in the eponymous Diebenkorns, Frankenthalers, Motherwells, and Scullys to need that assist.

Even the cellphone audio tour personalizes the experience over the wonder-who-wore-this-last headset. A video loop of outdoor sculpture shows how to shoehorn two tons of Ellsworth Kelly and Barbara Hepworth into tight urban spaces. (Bring your own crane.)

On view to May 25, “Degas to Diebenkorn” does not disappoint. Perfectly complimenting and expanding the permanent collection, this touchstone show caps Jay Gates’ tenure of phenomenal growth.


The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street, NW, near the Dupont Circle Metro (Q Street exit).
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday Artful Evenings until 8:30 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Degas to Diebenkorn features nearly 100 works by Emodern masters including Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas,
Hans Hofmann, Paul Klee, Ansel Adams, Milton Avery, Alexander Calder, Richard Diebenkorn, Elizabeth Murray, Robert Motherwell, Aaron Siskand, and David Smith, as well as living artists William Christenberry, Howard Hodgkin, Ellsworth Kelly, Sean Scully, and many others.

- Posted by Kevin Tierney

Sample of what's on view: Moonlight on the Osage, 1938, by Thomas Hart Benton Tempera on masonite, Partial and Promised Gift of Linda Lichtenberg Kaplan, 2001

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives 1840–1860

On view through May 4 at the National Gallery of Art in D.C.

William Henry Fox Talbot was not blind to the aesthetic and commercial potential of the new technology he helped pioneer. The Englishman was quick to patent processes that produced early photographs. In 1840, for example, he discovered that even brief exposure to light left a latent image on sensitized paper, and this latent image could be conjured for all to behold by bathing the paper in chemicals.

Thus, the calotype was born. The name derives from the Greek word for “Beautiful.” Ten years later saw the invention of a process utilizing collodion on glass to produce negatives faster and with markedly greater clarity.

However, Brits continued on with the calotype. Some preferred the technique for its qualities such as softening detail and nuance of light and shadow. For others, it held more pragmatic benefits: it was easier to deal with paper negatives instead of glass when traveling or working in hot climates.

A new touring exhibition, Impressed By Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives 1840 - 1860, alighted recently in D.C. at the National Gallery of Art. Curator Roger Taylor attributes the survival of these mesmerizing 120 calotypes to “benign neglect” – the original owners typically filed them away in albums, protected through the decades.

The medium gave rise to a small but devoted legion of citizen-photojournalists and accidental artists. Their subjects, displayed with restraint and elegance in this exhibition, range from nature’s elfin elements to man’s monumental achievements. We see the delicate angularity of tiny twigs and the massive stacking of stone in the Colosseum. Steam locomotives, a domed Russian skyscape, and the Taj Mahal share space with mist-shrouded mountains and tree trunks shattered by lightening.

Naturally, Talbot shows up on the walls; look for his 1841 “Wild Fennel” that could easily pass as a sample of science-art microphotography or postmodern minimalist. It’s a striking work.

But this is an opportunity for discovering underexposed, even unexposed, talents. Such as Alfred Capel Cure, whose albumen silver prints form much of the bulwark of this collection. His portrait of a “Blasted Tree at Badger” (1856) surely triggered memories if not PTSD for the photographer: a year before, Cure nearly died while leading his men into battle during the siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War. Once there, artillery fire ripped apart his troops.

More serene is a candid of his ebony dog snoozing in a thicket. In this salted paper print, Cure used a very long exposure to capture a marvelous range of textures from fur to leaves. The composition reveals his keen eye for composition. Good thing the dog didn’t stir.

“Pots and Pans at Nice” is more entrancing than its title would suggest. Alfred Backhouse proved that one need not scale peaks and cross oceans for interesting views; heck, a kitchen raid will do.

Photography gave affluent polymaths the means to document their journeys while expressing their artistic sensibilities. Jane Martha St. John compiled a travelogue unique among her contemporaries, carting her camera equipment throughout Italy. A century and a half later, she gives us a glimpse of the Colosseum, a silent paean to the ruins that, at least that day, were untrammeled by tourists.

Some shots document humans’ less admirable imprints on history. John Murray memorialized the site of the Indian Mutiny’s most horrific event. Exhibition notes for “Suttee Ghat, Cawnpore” tell the story: Hoping for mercy, an English detachment at Cawnpore surrendered to rebels on the promise that they and the European families who had taken refuge in their barracks would be granted safe passage. Instead, soldiers and civilians alike were fired upon as they boarded boats at the barren site depicted in this photograph. Two hundred women and children who survived were marched back to Cawnpore, killed, dismembered and thrown down a well.

Such downbeat selections serve to round out and add gravity to this window on the past, and on the dawn of a novel art form. In some cases, these early photography buffs were carting around more than 500 pounds of equipment – stark contrast to our pocket-sized digi bits. A nice place to catch your breath is in front of Horatio Ross’s castle perched on a faraway cliff.