From the Curator's Desk

Encyclopédie, Smithsonian, & Cedarhurst

Rusty Freeman - Friday, February 26, 2021

What could the 18th-century and the 21st-century possibly have in common?  Two things: a love of knowledge, and a love of takings things apart to see how they work.  See Things Come Apart and Jefferson & Diderot blogs.  

The Encyclopédie gathered current knowledge in written essays and illustrations to make it available beyond aristocrats and scholars.  

A side-by-side comparison; left, an illustration from the 1765 edition of the Encyclopédie on Clockmaking.  Right; a dismantled clock from the current exhibition at Cedarhurst, the Smithsonian’s Things Come Apart.  

In the exhibition currently at Cedarhurst, February 27 - May 2, the Smithsonian has done much of the same thing.  The exhibition features the photography of Todd McLellan who loves taking things apart.  

"Clockmaking" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2020.  From l'Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 4 (plates). Paris, 1765. All illustrations courtesy of University of Michigan Library.  

McLellan disassembles to teach himself how things work and by doing so gains a greater respect for the work and craftsmanship that went into it.  McLellan encourages the wise use of our limited resources.  

Other messages from the exhibit include showing kids how to use power tools to make their own creations, ending planned obsolescence, and most important of all, repair it, don’t throw it away.   

What the Encyclopédie strove to achieve, what the Smithsonian strives for in making knowledge accessible, is also what art museums, like Cedarhurst, strive to achieve everyday, making art and knowledge accessible to the communities we serve.  

Smithsonian's "Things Come Apart"

Rusty Freeman - Friday, February 19, 2021

This exhibition explores the product design and evolution of some of our most cherished tools, the telephone, the clock, and the camera.  And many others.  Along the way, we discover that some of our most important, like the smartphone, though incredibly well-designed, and without a doubt, now indispensable, may not be the most sustainable and best use of limited resources.  

Ingraham Mantel Clock 1928, all photos courtesy of Smithsonian 

Much more than a critique, the exhibition celebrates human ingenuity.  It is a photography exhibit featuring 39 photographs and includes four, actual, disassembled objects.  A 1928 Ingraham Mantel Clock, a Nintendo game console, a Sony Digital SLR Camera, and my favorite, a circa 1970 Suffolk (England) Push Lawnmower.  

The exhibit centers on the photography of Todd McLellan and his weird passion to disassemble objects.  (I think my own father liked to take things apart for the sake of it; under the guise of course, of repairing it.  I like to take things apart, too.  Mostly, works of art.)  

McLellan (Melville, Canada) is a professional commercial photographer who also films his disassembled objects.  McLellan wants to show the objects’ beauty and quality.  He also believes that objects should be made with an eye towards being reusable.  

The book, Things Come Apart (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013) features essays by McLellan, Kyle Wiens, Gever Tulley, Penny Bendall, and Joseph Chiodo.  

Wiens is the co-founder of iFixit, a San Luis Obispo company which specializes in custom tools and replacement parts to aid homeowners repairing electronic devices.  Wiens’ company became experts in “teardowns” of smartphones.  See “How iFixit Became King of the iPhone Teardown.”  

Ryobi Power Drill 2006 

Tulley, a former software engineer, founded Tinkering School, (San Francisco), which is a week-long camp for kids to learn how to use power tools and to think of and build their own ideas.  Wiens wrote, “They apply a little bit of mathematics and art and a little bit of physics and put them in a context that makes sense.”  And my favorite, “We should give kids pocket knives again.”  

Bendall, is a fine arts conservator in Britain.  Her essay brought out the ethical perspective when art museums conserve works of art and how to include the history of an object’s repairs in the next conservation effort.  Every repair tells a story of the time period and how they thought about conservation.  Bendall wrote, “Critical factors to consider are the longevity of the treatment and materials used and honesty in the interpretation of the original in order to guarantee the survival of the object for future generations to enjoy and study.”   

Blackberry 2007

Chiodo is the inventor of the “active disassembly process.”  Active disassembly is the exact opposite of “planned obsolescence.”  Active disassembly plans for the future use of an object’s parts, so that the resources that went into the object continue to be useful.  

McLellan has written, “In this disassembly process, I gain a basic understanding of how the item works, and a greater respect for it.”   

You’re invited to come see how things are designed and how technology has evolved over time.  And how things come apart.  

Jefferson & Diderot

Rusty Freeman - Friday, February 12, 2021

The founding of the United States by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams and others was inspired, in part, by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment.  

The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, was a movement itself inspired by recent discoveries in science particularly the work of Issac Newton.  The study of nature using inquiry and analysis based on observation created new debates in philosophy.  

Denis Diderot and others captured 18th century thinking in a massive document known as the Encyclopédie, or Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades.  Comprised of 17 volumes of written texts, 11 volumes of illustrated plates, with written essays by more than 130 contributors, and 21 years to complete.  The 1751 publication of the very first volume was immediately deemed indispensable.  The Encyclopédie brought contemporary science and philosophy, and hosts of many other topics, to the general public.  Its influence moved scientific reasoning to the forefront of all discourse and spurred social and cultural change across the world, but especially in England, France, and America.  

The front page of the Encyclopédie, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons  

For over two decades, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) led the editorial direction of the Encyclopédie and wrote many of its finest essays.  He was also a philosopher, novelist, satirist, and art critic.  He is widely admired for elevating art criticism into a literary genre.  Diderot’s chief goal for the Encyclopédie was nothing less than to give all people a new tool to think with.  Recent scholarship now regards Diderot as one of the most sophisticated of all the Enlightenment philosophers perhaps moving ahead of Voltaire.  

The aspirations of Diderot were bold and magnificent; the writers of the Encyclopédie were self-consciously trying to prepare an instrument of useful information for their reading publics with the overall aim of benefiting all of society.  The Encyclopédie embraced in over 70,000 articles nearly the entire scope of knowledge from the abstract theoretical to the most practical and mechanical in the sciences, arts, and trades.  It was collaborative.  There was a shared sense of purpose.  

The page on Masonry from the Encyclopédie.  The articles featured a range of topics from masonry to mechanical arts, from agriculture to anatomy, from engraving to ethics.  

Three revolutions occurred during the Enlightenment era: the English Revolution 1688, the American Revolution 1775-1783, and the French Revolution 1789-1799.  Some of the American documents influenced by Enlightenment thinking include the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and The Federalist Papers.  

Thomas Jefferson lifting the Declaration of Independence; a bust of Benjamin Franklin sits on the table.  Cornelius Tiebout (1777-1832), engraver, 1801. From a painting by Rembrandt Peale.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

Thomas Jefferson, in 1781, purchased Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the founding document of the French Enlightenment.  Jefferson purchased it for the state of Virginia and the public’s use.  But upon possession, Jefferson kept it for at least two years, before finally being persuaded to give it up to the state.  Afterwards, he purchased his own set of volumes and ordered a set for the College of William and Mary.  Jefferson also bought a complete set for James Madison and sent sets to Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe as well as at least four other Americans.  

Jefferson’s Encyclopédie set eventually went to the Library of Congress.  The Virginia Museum of History and Culture has an original set.  In Louisiana, a recent September 2020 article details how 18th century law was transcribed directly into Louisiana state law.  See “The Encyclopedist Code: Ancien Droit Legal Encyclopedias and Their Verbatim Influence on the Louisiana Digest of 1808” in the Journal of Civil Law Studies.  Befitting our own digital age,  there are (at least) two online versions of the Encyclopédie courtesy of the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan.    

The American phase of the European Enlightenment involved appropriating the best modern conceptions of political principles of government.  

First public printing of the US Constitution in The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser, September 19, 1787.  What would it mean to live in country where the government rose beneath one's very feet for the first time? Courtesy of the Library of Congress  

The political theorists Jefferson, Franklin, Monroe, and Madison were deeply read scholars and up-to-date with current thinking.  For their project of creating a new and theoretically possible humane form of government, they pulled from the best thinkers of political philosophy of the time.  Among their resources were: John Locke in England, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot’s Encyclopédie from France.  Americans constructed one of the boldest political documents of the Enlightenment, the US Constitution.  

Their principles of bold thinking, collaboration, a singular sense of purpose, of embracing the entire spectrum of humanity in a common cause of uplifting and improving society are the hallmarks of the American republic.  

This blog prepares ground for the spring exhibition featuring the art of Ken Botnick and John Fraser.  

The Allegory of Freedom

Rusty Freeman - Friday, February 05, 2021

The personification of Woman began when we looked to the sky and named a planet, Venus. 

Woman as allegory can stand for a variety of conceptualizations.  The Ideal of Woman as quintessential Other has been appropriated endlessly to personify conceptions: Nature, Nations, Ships…, as well as the promise of Democracy and Freedom. 

Today, “Goddess” does not stand for antiquated notions of beauty as perpetuated by the glamor fashion industry.  “Goddess” embraces contemporary linguistic constellations orbiting around “authoritative, capable, equal, leading, unconventional, creative, intelligent, balanced, visionary.”  

The social construction of Woman in the East was, naturally enough, the Goddess.  Perhaps the quintessential Buddhist representation of a goddess is Avalokitesvara of India.  

Northern Song Dynasty, or Jin Dynasty, Guanyin, Water-Moon Bodhisattva, 12th century, wood, paint, 39” height, Saint Louis Art Museum, Public Domain, Courtesy of St Louis Art Museum

In India, Avalokitesvara was portrayed in art as male, his qualities feminine.  Avalokitesvara became in China, Kwan-yin, and in Japan, Kwannon, and both became portrayed as female.  Avalokitesvara was the most popular of the bodhisattvas, a kind of “wandering saint teaching the doctrine of enlightenment.”  Bodhisattvas are those who forgo Nirvana and remain on Earth to teach enlightenment and show compassion and infinite patience (indifference to time itself).  Living among the people, bodhisattvas assume “at will the appearance of the beings to whom they are appearing.”   

This disguise of the bodhisattva using human appearance will be an aspect, I believe, Victor Wang will appropriate for his depictions of goddesses as an everyday, ordinary existence woman.  

The everyday, ordinary women is an aesthetic defamiliarization by Wang of the over-worn icon of Woman as Goddess.

Victor Wang, The Journey, 2019, oil on canvas, 62”x96”

The woman in The Journey, 2019, Wang has said in conversation is “the goddess of freedom.” 

The Journey signifies the promise of liberty through the allegory of the everyday woman as bodhisattva of enlightenment.  Wang recontextualized the French horn as her attribute of progress, modernization, and democracy.   

Kwan-yin may be one historical Eastern reference for Wang’s goddess interpretation.  A potential second historical source for the goddess is the long history of the American allegory of Freedom.  

Since the Renaissance, the New World was personified in Europe as a woman.  As America progressed, it developed its own artists, who, following custom, portrayed the new country, at first, as a Native American woman, and later, as a neoclassical princess icon.  

American symbol of “Freedom,” based on “goddess” icon.  Thomas Crawford, Freedom, 1855, bronze, 19.5 feet height. US Capitol Dome.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

In 1855, sculptor Thomas Crawford was commissioned to design a sculpture for the top of the Dome of US Capitol.  Named “Freedom,” the female figure features the attributes of sword, shield, and olive branch.  The headdress combines eagle’s head, feathers, encircled with stars. Wang’s goddesses often wear elaborate headdresses.  

The paintings of Wang reinvent the American allegory of Freedom as the everyday woman sharing once again with the world the promise of the democratic republic experiment.  Wang’s paintings are never intended to be merely realistic.  

Such is the power of Victor Wang’s vision to see, to reframe yet again, the ancient celestial goddess into the everyday woman. 

The Myth of Icarus & The Object of Art

Rusty Freeman - Friday, January 29, 2021

The word “object” can be associated with art through three related, though differing, meanings.  

For this essay, I use it to mean first and foremost, the actual work of art itself.  The term will also employ the second, and related meaning, to mean the “goal” of art; what does art strive to accomplish?  Third, “object” refers to the psychological dimensions of how people relate to other people, events, and things in the world as “objects.”  This meaning as well, encompasses art.  

Brent Kington, (1934-2013), Icarus, 1981, Mild steel, polychrome, Collection of Cedarhurst, Museum purchase with matching funds from the Illinois Arts Council, 1987.1.01

From Cedarhurst’s permanent collection comes the art object Icarus by Brent Kington.  As we will see, the artwork exhibits an aesthetic complexity which animates an ancient wisdom.  

The story of Icarus centers on his father Daedalus.  A talented craftsman, Daedalus built a labyrinth for King Minos, but later fell into disfavor and was imprisoned by the king on an island.  To escape the island, and with his son, Icarus, Daedalus, as is well known, built wings for them.  He cautioned “Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them.”  As we know, Icarus did not follow instructions and perished.  There is more than one moral to this story, but the one that Kington chose to depict was that of moderation or balance.  

The sculpture’s forms suggest movement, a forward motion. 

Kington constructed his work of art with precision.  The head of the figure features a colorful bird-like countenance.  The head evokes a tribal ceremonial mask.  The tapering limbs stretching out from the head suggest forward motion and perhaps flight.  At the precise position where the sculpture rests on its base is the point of articulation where the heavy steel sculpture sits in perfect balance.  The large and heavy head counterbalances the lighter limbs.  Kington put all his energies into having the heavy steel sculpture balance perfectly on the smallest point possible.  

The point of articulation and balance.  

Form follows function here, and Kington’s artwork functions to convey the myth of Icarus in an aesthetic and materially physical way that facilitates easy remembering of the tale’s moral.  

The “meaning” of Kington’s sculpture is significant, but not nearly as much as the sculpture’s form which first had to be constructed in the first place in order to signify.  

Art is an object used to think with.  The art object can be a sculpture, movie, song, or poem.  Each art form poses its own ways of contemplation.  Art objectifies life events for further study.   

Art is a conversation.  We create art to objectify our thoughts and share with others for feedback.  Paintings and sculptures have a role to play in these conversations but it is more likely these days that the art we share is found in songs, movies, and novels.  

Counterbalance as both form and content. 

Any art—song, poem, film—is at its most dynamic when it is both aesthetically challenging and challenging in message.  Ambiguity or abstractions or realism can all be appropriately challenging.  No art worth its salt is one-dimensional, engaging art is never only about aesthetic form or only about message.  Art becomes Art when Message so merges with Form that one cannot be discerned from the other.  

The artist-songwriter-filmmaker is part of the process, but never the final word on what or how their artworks may signify.  

The experience and interpretation of an artwork involves the viewer actively bringing her viewpoints into critical and thoughtful engagement with the work of art.  

Meaning in artworks may evolve over time.  Artworks that stand the test of time continue to evoke, provoke new meanings, new nuances, new insights for new generations.  

Interpreting works of art can follow no single ethical purpose by which to define a work.  Each work of art must be evaluated on its own evidence, its own merits.  Interpretation is based on what is there, what is said, how it is said.  Each work of art will, in a sense, guide its own critique.  A reader (interpreter) must be open to a work of art’s aspirations, its form (style, materials constructed with), its mood, its function in society, its implied personal and social values, and move out from there to the historical period in which it is created, in order to weigh it fully and thereby know the object of art.  

Beauty, Truth, and a New Year

Rusty Freeman - Friday, January 22, 2021

Since the time of the Greek philosopher Plotinus, Beauty has been regarded as inextricably linked to Truth.  Modern writers John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde shared this conviction.  

In appraising Beauty, we sense something greater than the sum of the form’s parts.  No single attribute defines the object, it is a cumulative effect. 

During Modernism’s rise to prominence, it became wary of beauty’s value to engage critically with the discourse of the times. Beauty had been coopted by others.  Modernists instead turned to “truth to materials” and an autonomy of the object.  Beauty was sidelined as a critical mode to think with.

Beauty here is twin-fold in both the human body and the outstanding excellence of marble sculpting craftsmanship.  Giovanni Benzoni, Veiled Rebecca, 1872, collection of Cedahurst 

Although it is natural for artists to recognize and represent the social and cultural world, it is perhaps even more aspirational to bring something hopeful to it.  

There are many avenues to represent beauty.  Artists create works that attempt to speak directly with the viewer, engaging them in a dialogue of what is mutually relevant, intellectually stimulating, and validating.  

Some images only flicker with truth and not for long; others can be returned to again and again for the satisfaction and pleasure they give.  Beauty in Art rekindles hope made manifest.  

Simplicity and elegance in the timeless design of the vessel.  Craig Rhodes, Cool, 2012, stoneware urn, collection of Cedarhurst 

Philosophers have noted, beauty is not found in appearance alone; it is a confluence of factors that are spatial, temporal, and ephemeral.  Plato and Schopenhauer declared that beauty does not stop with the object.  Contemplation of beauty may lead to further insights and greater depths of virtue. 

The well known arts writer, Suzi Gablik championed artists who embrace the world with art-making that is engaged, participatory, and socially relevant.  Gablik has written that beauty “is an activity rather than an entity, a consciousness of, and reverence for, the beauty of the world.” 

The Windsor chair design is over 320 years old.  A form of beauty that has stood the test of time.  John Quick, Sack-Back Windsor, 2004, maple, poplar, oak, collection of Cedarhurst 

Alexander Nehamas in “The Return of the Beautiful: Morality, Pleasure, and the Value of Uncertainty” suggested how the study of beauty may open doors.  

“The contract of beauty unites spectator and image in mutual trust.  A beautiful thing invites us further into itself.  And the further we go into it, the further we need to go into everything else.  Beauty is a call to adventure.” 

In our contemporary world, some artists swim against the flow.  Following their own vision.  When we study developed and thoughtful art, we are looking at a way of life, a way of living, a philosophy.  The reading process is most vital when a vision may go against our own, that we should pause, and give that vision consideration.  It is at that moment that our own world opens onto more.  

John Singer Sargent

Rusty Freeman - Friday, January 08, 2021

One of the most remarkable artists in the Cedarhurst collection is John Singer Sargent, an American by birth, who lived his entire life based in Europe.  Born in Florence, Italy to wealthy American parents, Sargent often traveled to America for commissions, but settled permanently in London.  

Sargent was the preeminent society portraitist of his time who was famously scandalized by his painting of the well-known French socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau.  The painting, known as Madame X, was shown in the 1884 Paris Salon and was judged at the time to be provocatively erotic.  The scandal socially embarrassed both the artist and his subject.  

Nonetheless, the scandal did not in any way inhibit those who desired to be painted by Sargent.  He had over 400 commissions for portraits during in his life.  An exemplary work of Sargent’s elegance and refinement is seen in the triple portrait, The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant, 1899, oil, 9 feet 7 inches by 7 feet, Metropolitan Museum of Art.   

Interestingly, portraits were not the artist’s preferred genre to work in though Sargent excelled in them.  He also enjoyed landscapes and murals.  A famous mural is in the Boston Public Library titled the Triumph of Religion.  Sargent worked on the mural for 29 years leaving it uncompleted at his death.  

Sargent’s painting in our Cedarhurst collection is a landscape made while visiting the island of Majorca just off the coast of Spain.  Sargent painted his sister Emily, and their friend Eliza Wedgwood, who accompanied Sargent on his trip to the island in 1908.  Eliza is related to the famous 18th-century potter.  

Eliza Wedgwood in her diary misnamed the scene describing it as “a wonderful picture of the blue pigs which scavenge in the magnificent ilex woods.”  

John Singer Sargent, American, born Florence, Italy (1856-1925), Ilex Woods at Majorca with Blue Pigs, 1908, Oil, Gift of John R. and Eleanor R. Mitchell, 1973.1.54

Richard Ormond, a Sargent scholar who has researched the artist for over 30 years, has found alternate titles for the painting, including the one we know it by here at Cedarhurst, Ilex Wood at Majorca with Blue Pigs.  Three other titles used with the painting include Ilex Wood with Blue Pigs and Exotics, Garden of Gethsemane, and Under the Olives.  

The last one is pertinent as it names the very trees depicted in the painting.  According to Ormond’s work, Sargent himself named the painting using Under the Olives.  

Following tradition, we will likely continue with the title by which we have come to know the painting, but will going forward cite the artist’s own designation with his researcher’s fine scholarship.  

To find precedent for such tradition, a fine example may be Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, for if you should find yourself in the Louvre looking for it, be sure and ask for it by the name it is known locally, La Joconde.  

New Year Calling

Rusty Freeman - Saturday, January 02, 2021

Have you ever spent New Year’s Day calling family or friends, especially ones you haven’t seen in a while?  

This is the grand tradition when on New Year’s Day gentlemen would spend all day traveling to the homes of as many family members and friends as possible.  It was a happy, festive day and the goal was to visit one’s entire circle of family and friends.  Nicknamed the “day of social atonement” the visits renewed friendships, deepened bonds, and amended lapses of staying in touch with the family.  

Upon arrival, Victorian protocol required the gentleman to present his calling card and wait to be announced.  Visitors could expect lavish buffets and the generous flow of spirits.  Polite conversation with the hosts was the main event.  Talk centered on paying respects, well-wishes for the new year, and perhaps artful flirting that may or may not have held possibilities.  Often conversation did not last more than a few minutes as the gentleman caller was expected to hurry on to his next appointment.  

Men were expected to travel, usually by walking, but sometimes on horseback or carriage, to their destinations.  Men dressed in their finest coats, gloves, and top-hats.  Women waited at home for their gentlemen callers.  Women prepared the night before readying their finest dresses, jewelry, and best hairstyles.  In fact, the whole house was redone often weeks in advance for this day.   

The custom immigrated with the Dutch arrival to America and flourished in New York City’s Victorian era of the early nineteenth-century.  By the late 1890s the custom was fading as the city grew larger and the day of festive-gathering with friends turned into the midnight party on New Year’s Eve. A revival of sorts is underway today with the National Call a Friend Day which you may find on Facebook.  

Winslow Homer, Waiting for Calls on New-Year's Day, 1869, Wood engraving for Harper’s Bazar, photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.  

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is one of our giants of American realism.  Homer was an astute observer of real life, able to capture a subject’s essence without slipping into sentimentality.  In this illustration, which Homer did for his commercial job at Harper’s Bazar, we see Homer’s talent to record the moment.  Compare the busy energies of all the women scurrying to see who is coming next.  Homer singled out the lady now slumped in the chair and crestfallen.  The note she holds has gone limp.  Even her dress even seems a little less ornate compared to the others. Clearly, her suitor cannot visit today.  It is characterizations like this that Homer brought to even his commercial work that makes his art such a fascinating study even today.  

Thomas Nast, New Year’s Day, from Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1864, photo courtesy of Merchant’s House Museum, NYC.   

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is a German-born American artist who made a lasting impact on our national psyche.  From about 1859 to 1886, Nast was a cartoonist for the magazine Harper’s Weekly.  Nast was a political cartoonist who created the icon of the elephant for the Republican party, popularized the donkey for Democrats, and created our very familiar version of Santa Claus.   

Gossaert's Adoration

Rusty Freeman - Saturday, December 26, 2020

Imagine a world without the constant barrage of digital images.  The Renaissance was such a world where fantastic paintings like Jan Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings were viewed only in special places like churches or abbeys.  This painting was finished in 1515.  Among the greatest technological achievements at the time were European ships just beginning to circumnavigate the globe.

Imagine working on this painting for five years, for that is how long it took Gossaert to finish, without assistants.    

Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart) and (Mabuse) 

The Adoration of the Kings, 1510-1515, oil on oak panel, 71x64”, National Gallery of London.  

Almost six feet in height and 5’4” in width it is an arresting image; visually and conceptually dynamic and mesmerizing both intellectually and emotionally.  The huge painting has an imposing physical presence.  A wonder to behold, meticulously painted details, it portrays the miracle birth but is also rich in the normal realities of everyday life in sixteenth-century Europe.  

Three wise men had come to adore the miracle heard around the land.  They are Balthasar (far left), Caspar (knelling), and Melchior (far right).  The Christ child and St. Mary are in the geometric center of the painting.  St. Joseph, in a striking red robe, studies the angels.  The crowds peer in hoping to catch a glimpse.  If you were fortunate to be able to travel to a painting such as this, it was a marvel to behold, it was an event.  

Balthasar brought myrrh, a Near East aromatic tree gum resin used for medicine, perfumes, and incense.  Caspar brought gold, and Melchior offered frankincense, an African aromatic tree gum used as incense.  Incense is used by every major religion as symbolizing prayers sent heavenward.  

Historically referred to as the Magi, the plural of Magus, which were an ancient Persian hereditary priest caste.   

The wise man Caspar (Jasper) is depicted as the real life Daniel van Boechout, a wealthy, grey-haired benefactor.  Boechout commissioned Gossaert to paint an altarpiece for the Abbey of St. Adrian, in Graamont, Flanders.  Caspar’s gift was gold.  The Christ child holds one of the coins.  St. Mary’s blue robe protectively envelopes the child visually emphasizing the event. Note Gossaert’s sensitivity and talent to convey the reverence and awe expected to be seen on the faces and gestures of the people looking in.  

Balthasar waiting his turn, holds his gift of myrrh, carried in an ornate gold tabernacle.  His attendant holds his long robe and straightens a fold on his shoulder.  Gossaert excelled in enumerating details.  Balthasar’s colleague wears a silver collar jewelry where Gossaert signed his name, one of two times.  

Gossaert also signed his name and more prominently in the red trim along Balthasar’s jeweled head covering.  

Melchior brought frankincense carried in a lavish and expensive jeweled gold tabernacle.  

A very popular event as many people cue in line, with the overflow extending on horses over the hill.  

As everyone knows, the three wise men had followed the “Christmas Star.”  The Holy Spirit, the white dove seen just beneath the star, hovers over the entire proceedings.  Returning to our time for a moment, this month witnessed a corresponding celestial event in December.  Named the “great configuration,” Jupiter and Saturn merged in the evening sky, a rare occurrence every 800 years.  

The event has drawn huge crowds who wait in line.  Note Gossaert’s variety of expressions in their faces and gestures.  The grand architecture filling the background is an amalgam of real life and Gossaert’s imagination.  

The decay of this palace ruin sharply conveys the story’s plot line that there was no room available at the inn.  Weeds and crumbling tiles are everywhere.  Roofs have fallen in.  A dog gnaws a bare bone.  Interestingly, Balthasar’s feet wear leather “boots.”  Boechout as “Caspar” has laid down his ornate hat and scepter.  


Spectacular and colorful angels fly in, filling the skies, to pay homage.  Heaven and Earth collide with this momentous occasion.   

A unique and nascent halo surrounds the head of the Christ child symbolizing the Trinity.  

Jan Gossaert was one of the leading painters of his time.  From his hometown of Maubeuge, Netherlands came his nickname “Mabuse.”  Born circa 1478 and died in 1532.  Gossaert earned the respect of his peers for his ability to paint in oil convincing atmospheric spaces and light itself.  And his “always teeming” details.  His commissions took him all over Europe including the Royal House of Denmark.  His paintings were widely influential in his time and remain admired today, five hundred years later.  

The Art & Justice of Agnes Gund

Rusty Freeman - Friday, December 18, 2020

Dispelling misconceptions is but one function of Art and maybe this blog.  This week we peek into the life and times of Agnes Gund.  Lost in the swirl of today’s chaotic world is Gund’s recent and surprising creation of the non-profit organization Art for Justice Fund.  

Gund created, only in 2017, this non-profit by selling one of her most prized possessions, the 1962 Roy Lichtenstein painting titled Masterpiece.  Hedge fund entrepreneur and art collector Steven Cohen bought it for $165 million.  

To put this painting into perspective, Roy Lichtenstein is considered the number two Pop Artist after Andy Warhol, and some consider Lichtenstein number one.  Both artists shattered the reigns of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  Both Warhol and Lichtenstein challenged and changed culture; the effects of which we are still experiencing today.  With them, elite art moved out of rarified late-modern metaphysics and into ordinary social worlds.  Think Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman.  Or Banksy and Kerry James Marshall.  Or to prove a historical point, the much earlier Honoré Daumier or Jean-François Millet.    

One may think it easy for a wealthy art collector to part with one painting.  However, the Lichtensteins, Roy and Dorothy, are close friends of Agnes Gund.  Though Roy had long passed, Agnes personally broke the news to her friend Dorothy.  It was for a good cause.  

The year is 1962.  Roy Lichtenstein surrounded by his game-changing paintings in the justly famous Leo Castelli Gallery, NYC.  To his right, Masterpiece, 1962; on his left, Aloha, 1962.  Photo by Bill Ray, courtesy of the website ifitshipitshere. 

The cause got $100 million from Gund to begin the effort to end mass incarceration of African Americans in America.  

In February 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsberg presented Gund with the inaugural award of the “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg Woman of Leadership Award” established by the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation.  

How we got here is interesting.  

Gund at home, a Mark Rothko on the dining room wall, browsing a book open to a detail of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride.  Photo by Annie Leibovitz, 2014, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. 

Agnes Gund hails from Cleveland, Ohio where her father George Gund II, owned one of the largest banks in Ohio.  Gund attended the best schools, Miss Porter’s School, the Connecticut College for Women, and later, Gund earned a Master’s in Art History from Harvard University’s Fogg Museum.   

After her divorce Gund moved to New York City.  She joined the Museum of Modern Art’s International Council in 1967, and was invited to the museum’s Trustee Board in 1976.  

Gund started in 1977, Studio in a School, a non-profit that taught art in public schools with artists in resident.   This was during New York City’s infamous financial crisis when art education was the first to be cut from public schools.  Studio in a School is still going strong today.  

Elected President of the MoMA Trustees in 1991, she served her “five-year” term until 2002.  Gund was that good.  While at MoMA Gund consistently asked that women and underrepresented artists of color be shown.  Gund’s civic service to foundations and non-profits is noteworthy and long.   

In 1997, Gund received the highest award given by the government to artists and arts patrons, the National Medal of Arts.  

For the bigger picture, see Aggie, the documentary on Gund by her daughter, the filmmaker Catherine Gund.  

And now we arrive at the moment where Gund, at 78, encountered her next cause.  

In 2016, Gund watched 13th, the Ava DuVernay documentary on mass incarceration and racism in America.  Watch 13th for free here.  

DuVernay is a force in her own right. 13th unpacks the stories of slavery and its continuing evolution in America.  How we tried to abolish it, but because of economic market forces and misuse of law, slavery continued in America by morphing into different systems of oppression sanctioned by the market and the law.  Mass incarceration is market driven and racist.  

Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, (MoMA not coincidentally, is a much criticized institution and structurally flawed in many ways, and at the same time, culturally valuable, significant, and worth rehabilitating) wanted to do something about mass incarceration and for her black grandchildren.  Gund knew firsthand from her long philanthropic support of art education the power of art to change lives.   

Ava DuVernay declared “Art and justice are the same thing.  They’re both about imagining something that’s not there and believing in it and working to make it so.”  

DuVernay had posited, or theorized, a structural equivalence between Justice and Art.  

Looking closer into the words, we can bridge Art and Justice together.  As DuVernay showed and Gund sanctioned.  

To be “just” is to be right, true, appropriate, morally right, adhering to high moral standards, fair, evenhanded, equitable, well-founded, substantial.  

To be “art” is to represent something.  Art’s function is to “represent.”  Art historically has been an instrument-methodology-practice seeking to establish, to determine for all the highest values, the most just values.  The practice of Art (the written word, 2D visual, 3D objects, music, song, dance, and nowadays especially, movies) was used, is used to seek, to establish, Truth and Beauty. 

Check out a Daumier, or a Goya, or a Mark Bradford

Or this from Common and Bilal, “Letter To The Free.”  

In artworks and songs like these the moral melds easily with and flows out of aesthetic form.  

Both words, Justice and Art, are about imagining something that is not there, yet, and then making art to represent those ideals.  Believing in the ideal and working to make it so.