From the Curator's Desk

Formalism and Symbolic Content

Rusty Freeman - Friday, August 28, 2020

Formalism is a fundamental theory of aesthetics (the study of art and its values) emphasizing the overall appearance of a work of art. The appearance is judged for how well the formal arrangement of elements within a painting, sculpture, etc., manages to convey a successful “internal logic.” All formal elements must work together to convey a unified whole. Formal analysis judges how well a work of art succeeds in creating a pleasurable aesthetic experience separate from its inherent symbolism or interpretations.  

Formalism studies just the forms that compose a work of art. Formal analysis weighs how the subject of the painting, say portrait or landscape, uses color, shape, line, texture, scale, pattern, and framing to make its “statement of content.” For any symbolic content to be conveyed successfully the formal elements must all work together in harmony. The more successful formal harmony, the more successful the symbolic content in a work of art.  

Walter Benjamin once said, “A literary work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct.”  

Georges Braque, Violin and Palette, 1909, oil, 36x17”, Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 

In the early 20th century, Cubism developed into the most emphatic, game-changing art movement since the Renaissance. Fifteenth century Italian artists had successfully worked perspective precision into the visual arts. Five hundred years later, Cubism broke decisively from the perspective method. Together, Picasso and Braque developed Cubism. Picasso was particularly interested in how the “object” itself could be fully portrayed without using the scientific precision of the perspective method. Braque in turn was interested in how empty “space” itself could be represented as three-dimensional form in a two-dimensional medium.  

The young Paul Strand first saw Cubism and works by Cézanne and Picasso in Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 art gallery. Strand studied Cubism and the innovative new works of modern art learning how and why an artist arranged the pictorial elements.  

Strand asked “What do Picasso and those other painters mean? Why do they do it that way?” By 1914, Strand was implementing his insights from modern art into his photography— particularly abstraction and sense of composition.  Strand: “We all talked the same language….  It has to do with understanding a painting like a Villon or a Braque. You have to go into a picture; it has to have three-dimensional movement, lovely to the eye, full of variety of color and shape.”

Paul Strand (1890-1976), The White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916, Gelatin silver print, edition #15/100, Gift of the Paul Strand Estate, Michael E. Hoffman, © Aperture Foundation, Cedarhurst Collection 1987.8.1a

Strand would in turn apply his newfound methodology of formal arrangement to his work in photography and filmmaking. Strand successfully applied modern art’s formal approach to composition to his photography.  White Fence 1916 ushered in the era of modern photography.  

Georges Braque (1882-1963) invented Cubism with Picasso, 1907-1914. Cubism is the art of three-dimensional space—taking objects and space apart—revealing multiple sides simultaneously on a two-dimensional surface.  

Paul Strand (1890-1976), Georges Braque, Varangéville, France, 1957, Gelatin silver print, edition #18/100, Gift of the Paul Strand Estate, Michael E. Hoffman, © Aperture Foundation, Cedarhurst Collection, 1987.8.2f  

Strand met Braque in 1957 at his home in Varangéville, France. Notice how Strand composed his portrait.He surrounded the artist of space with “cubistic planes” and literally had Braque opening a spatial threshold and emerging from one space into the next. There is a terribly intriguing inclusion of a giant crab seemingly out-of-context, until one remembers that Picasso and Braque also invented collage, the use of disparate elements to compose pictures rich in symbolism.  

A near-perfect example of Strand’s and Cubism’s influence on modern photography may be seen in David Gilmore’s, Crossville, Illinois.  

David Gilmore Crossville, Illinois, 1992, black and white photograph, Cedarhurst Collection  

If we put aside for the moment any likely implicit content or symbolism in the photograph and look only at the picture’s “formal elements”—shapes, lines, geometric forms (diagonals, angles, rectangles, trapezoids), black and white tonalities, and most of all, repeating forms—we can begin to see why Gilmore stopped right here, in front of the trestle and composed this rather fascinating and intriguing work of art. Not only is it an intersection from real life, it is an intersection of Gilmore with History, with Strand, and Strand’s study of Cubism.  

The content of any work of art (visual, music, film) owes everything to its formal arrangement and composition.  

What is a Permanent Collection?

Rusty Freeman - Saturday, August 22, 2020

What is a Permanent Collection? 

A way to study History. And Art. Certainly a permanent collection can be used to study art history. The study of form and stylistic change. To study how new technologies inform and change the style and content of art. 

This blog compares Tradition and Innovation as themes in the Cedarhurst permanent collection. Here, this George Inness painting, (Durham, Connecticut, 1879, oil) may be considered following tradition when compared to Prendergast's innovative and colorful By the Seashore.  All artworks from the Cedarhurst collection.  

A public art museum’s permanent collection reflects the tastes and values of the institution much in the way a private collection reflects the owner’s worldviews on art. What an individual or public institution collects says much about who they are and their aspirations.    

But a museum’s permanent collection is open to being freely interpreted by the communities the institution serves. The museum helps their communities achieve those interpretations.  

Innovation in the work of Maurice Prendergast, By the Seashore, 1905, oil.  

To study the Cedarhurst permanent collection is to see the history of the United States through art objects.  

Art in America has a long history of maintaining traditions with the innovations of each new generation running alongside. Collections reflect traditions and innovations.  

To study tradition and innovation we ask what historical events were significant during the making of this or that artwork. How did the historical event affect the people’s lives? How does this artwork reflect or embody that historical event?  How did people in the past view their world? How does the past help us make sense of the present?  

The objects in any collection are layered with buried stories of identity, representations, ideologies, conflicting messages; they give shape to our mythologies, to create our sense of place, to our dreams of new worlds.

Giovanni Maria Benzoni, Veiled Rebecca, 1872, marble; follows Neoclassical tradition. 

All collections lie in a state of suspended animation, like Sleeping Beauty, awaiting that one curious person to say, why was this object made, why this way, for what purpose, who benefited, how did this object lead to the next great thing, and a host of other as-yet unimagined questions.

The historical context of any object, be it a 100-year-old oil painting or digital photograph, is so important for understanding the many stories that came together in the making of the object. Some of the stories are known; some are unknown. It is discovering the unknown that makes the objects come alive again and can benefit us in the here and now.  

Our stories change. Over time, the ways collections have been valued evolve. For example, the notion of “beauty” has changed, and objects formerly valued as “scientific” or “naive” can become valued for their “beauty.” The next younger generation will see things differently, and that's important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the continuing evaluation and appreciation of our historical heritage. 

Innovation in the art of Annelies Heijnen, Jeu de Boule, 2007, white earthenware. 

The design of this chair is over 300 years old. Its origins reach back to the 18th century in England's countryside. Known as the Windsor chair, its eloquent design features graceful curved spindle back, saddle shaped seat, sturdy arms, and splayed legs. This chair was handmade in 2004 by John Quick, titled Sack-Back Windsor and used walnut, tulip popular, and white oak. This is tradition.  

The Cedarhurst collections offer many opportunities for young scholars to explore the ethos, characteristics, principles, beliefs, customs, assumptions, and values of social and cultural life in the communities of southern Illinois.

In the end, what do you value in these art collections of American History?   

The Curator-Visitor Relationship

Rusty Freeman - Friday, August 14, 2020

Today’s blog introduces the role of the curator in organizing art exhibitions with an eye towards the creative involvement of the visitor.  

Marcel Duchamp declared in his 1957 paper, “Creative Act,” that “all in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds [her or] his contribution to the creative act.” (My italics and pronoun edit to original).  

The following excerpts from are Francesco Manacorda’s essay “For Whom Do We Write Exhibitions? Towards a Museum as Commons.”  [See link below].  

We might “consider exhibitions as communicative constructs; texts using a combination of iconic, textual, aural, and exhibition-specific conventions."  

“An exhibition’s textuality involves a variety of signs and other texts being woven together; this includes the works of art, but also other key textual components, such as their titles, interpretative panels, direct quotes from the artists, extended captions, the exhibition’s accompanying printed matter, and three-dimensional associative enunciations—display conventions such as the juxtaposition of works to generate meaning through similarity or contrast."  

"The art exhibition is essentially a lazy machine which counts on the plus-value of meaning that the viewer introduces as if to fill a series of blank interstitial spaces.”  

Manacorda quoted my favorite art critic Peter Schjeldahl who had this to say about how viewers may interact with an art exhibition. Schjeldahl reviewed an exhibition that seemed to be “withholding the often intricate backstory that informs each of the works and this leaves a viewer with three choices that I can see." 

“One is to be maddened by the tease." 

“Another is to be stimulated to consult the catalogue, which is replete with brainy curatorial essays and with extended quotes from such cynosures of the art-school seminar as Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and from artist friends, including Barbara Kruger, Daniel Buren, and Lawrence Weiner." 

“Still a third is to relax and enjoy the mute and striking elegance of an installation that amounts to an exhibition about exhibiting. I have tested all three options.  They all work.”  

Manacorda: “I consider an ethical duty of the curator—especially the museum curator—to facilitate the various possible actualizations of exhibitions for audiences of different backgrounds.” I am in agreement with Manacorda’s declaration. 

“The question of [curatorial] responsibility leads us to the focus on how to deliberately increase the cooperation with the public, finding ways of writing—or designing—exhibitions that allow, stimulate, and encourage their readers/viewers to contribute.”  

“Would it be possible to contemplate that the reader/viewer cooperation might not just be circumscribed to the interpretation and actualization of a text, but more literally in the territory of co-authoring?” 

What would co-authoring with the art museum curator look like?  

“Rather than Umberto Eco’s ‘lazy machine,’ in this [collaborative] model the museum is like a learning machine. One that learns with the audience in a pedagogical relation that is bidirectional. If the traditional museum can be compared to a broadcasting television or radio station that distributes knowledge generated by experts to general learners who grow by acquiring information and new knowledge, the museum as a learning machine sees all involved actors in the learner position, although not everyone would occupy the expert position as well.”  My italics.  

Curators as knowledgable historians have to have the last word in exhibition design and interpretation.  

Manacorda’s exhibition Art Turning Left, 2012, is cited as an example to “illustrate how we experimented with these ideas at Tate Liverpool. [The photos are from this exhibit.]  The framework of the show in question was to investigate the way that political beliefs had changed how artists produced their work or their attitude towards the ownership, management, and re-design of the means of art production.”  

According to the Tate Liverpool press release: Art Turning Left is a thematic exhibition, based on key concerns that span different historical periods and geographic locations. They range from equality in production and collective authorship to the question of how to merge art and life. The exhibition moves away from the political messages behind the works and claims about the ability of art to deliver political and social change, and instead focuses on the effect political values have had on the processes, aesthetics and display of artworks.  

Manacorda’s curatorial experiment “symbolically highlight[-ed] how the exhibition was a text to be added to, enriched, and debated [and] not necessarily only in a positive way.”   

At Cedarhurst, we offer visitors ways to read and unpack exhibitions for their potential meanings and encourage visitors to determine their own conclusions about an art work’s significance and place within the fabric of history.  

See Stedelijk Studies: Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director at Tate Liverpool.  

Aesthetic Autonomy

Rusty Freeman - Friday, August 07, 2020

This blog introduces the current exhibition Fables, Allegories, and Aestheticism: The Art of the Message.  

The exhibition compares two modes of art making; a mode which prioritizes the art itself as “the message of form” and a mode that prioritizes “the message of content.”  

Artists who follow the “message of form” create art without an intended moral or political point of view and instead offer a tableau that viewers can interpret based on what they see. Those who follow the “message of content” create art with an intention to deliver a socially beneficial message of some kind. Both modes have benefits and purpose. At their best, both modes want viewers to see something from life that they had not see before.  

Fables, Allegories, and Aestheticism: The Art of the Message brings together a diverse group of artists with the intent to understand how these artists use art to convey messages. Key are the artists who practice art with no pre-planned message. For these artists, there is an important social value in creating artworks that may stimulate viewers to find their own message. These artists are Dominic Finocchio, Michael Onken, Glenn Moreton, and Daniel Overturf. The artists with implied social messages are David Yates, Lizzy Martinez, Chloe Flanigan, and Margaret Keller. A Siegfried Reinhardt (1924-1984) painting is included from the Cedarhurst permanent collection as an example of a type of allegorical social commentary found in modern art that viewers must interpret for themselves.  

Dominic Finocchio, Purged Ideology, 2017, oil.  Finocchio’s signs and symbols, though carefully chosen, are left open for interpretation by the viewer based on his or her experiences.  

David Yates, Nighthawks Revisited, 2015, oil.  Yates intends his signs and symbols to carry messages, but encourages the viewer to determine meaning.  

Lizzy Martinez, Little Red Riding Hood, 2017, oil.  Martinez intends a social message.  Here, turning the fable plot upside down, the artist would like to see improved gun regulation.  

Fables are supernatural short stories featuring a useful truth told by animals or inanimate objects. Fables often conclude with the aphorism or maxim. Aesop is a prime example. Allegories are stories where the moral message is implied but never explicitly stated in the storytelling.  John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, published 1678 is a major example. 

Aestheticism was a late 19th century movement of art for art’s sake. The Aesthetic Movement was the idea that art only needed to express beauty or formal excellence without a socially mandated requirement to espouse moral lessons. The Aesthetic Movement together with the especially powerful and influential Neoclassicism and Romanticism gave rise to the Modern Art movement.  

Glenn Moreton, Open, 2020, acrylic.  Moreton paints carefully chosen scenes from real life, but imposes no storyline.  Viewers are free to determine significance for themselves.  

Modern Art championed the priority of the aesthetic autonomy of the art object itself.  

In literature, New Criticism emerged in the 1920s which insisted that the art work alone was the bearer of meaning. Outside references to biography or history were unnecessary. The new critics insisted that everything needed to understand a poem was already in the poem. To an important degree, that is still true today; interpretation begins with form, but social and historical issues are also considered.  

Chloe Flanigan, Hide and Seek, 2018, watercolor, color pencil.  The artist’s social message is to bring awareness to sexual violence against women.  

Clement Greenberg in 1939 began a battle against the products of the mass market by urging that the fine art avant-garde must elevate art with art for art’s sake and “pure poetry.”  This elevation of “pure” art could be easily distinguished from the banal mass culture. 

The early beginnings of postmodernism began in America with the critique of Greenberg’s narrow definition of high art. Pop Art inaugurated the postmodern formal and social critique with its reaction to Abstract Expressionism.  

Michael Onken, Tea with a Traveler, 2019, watercolor, gouache, acrylic. Though loaded with symbolism, Onken intends no message or agenda.  

By the late 1970s and 1980s postmodern artists took Pop Art’s socially referenced outlook and combined it with Conceptual Art’s critical thinking and social commentary to make a new kind of art. The realization grew that it was no longer logical to separate art based solely on its formal qualities from social issues.  

Daniel Overturf, Lonnie Swept the Playroom and Swallowed Up All He Found, 1994, darkroom C-print from original camera negative. Clearly intending a story, Overturf nevertheless leaves room for individual interpretations.  

Margaret Keller, Tortellini Means Venus’ Navel, 1984, watercolor. Though Keller today is better known for her social messages, here, in this early work the artist plays with visual and written language as well as the sensuous gaze.  

Today, aesthetic autonomy means the freedom to choose between the values of “the message of form” or “the message of content”. Art for art’s sake has its place as does art with a social message.  As we know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  

Artist Hometowns:
Dominic Finocchio, Lizzy Martinez, and Margaret Keller are from St. Louis. David Yates lives in Edwardsville, IL. Glenn Moreton and Chloe Flanigan are from Mt. Vernon, IL.  Michael Onken lives in Carbondale, IL. Daniel Overturf lives in Murphysboro, IL.

A brief interpretation of The Magic Game  

Siegfried Reinhardt was born in Germany and lived and worked in St. Louis. Reinhardt taught at Washington University for 15 years. Reinhardt’s The Magic Game, 1961, is a moody, allegorical painting where children play amid abstract, geometric cabinetry against a sheer wall. Circles on the wall appear as holes and moon-like; more circles echo throughout. I think it would be a mistake to interpret the children literally. The tenor of the 1960s was a time of great change and influence. Consider these 60s events - Kennedy was elected, the nuclear sub Triton and nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise were launched, sit-in protests in the South, birth control pills first marketed, spy plane U-2 shot down, and the Bay of Pigs. Reinhardt’s painting reflects the mood of the 1960s and is social commentary of a high order.