Sunday, June 24, 2018

Wisdom of the East Exhibition

I'm very pleased to share the news that I've curated an exhibition now on view in the Wallach Study Center of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia. The show, entitled Wisdom of the East: Buddhist Art from the J. G. Phelps Collection, brings together a group of Asian sculptures and ritual objects from Tibet, Nepal, Japan, and China, dating from the 12th to 19th centuries, in the permanent art collection at Columbia. The image you see above is one of the four cases, this one showcasing three Buddhist sculptures from Japan. The figure on the left is Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom who rides a lion, carries religious texts, and defends the faith with his sword. The figures on the right are a Bodhisattva and Buddha associated with Mahayana Buddhist traditions of Japan. All three are gilded and lacquered wood. This exhibition brings together just a small selection of the 50+ sculptures and ritual objects that the NYC socialist politician James Graham Phelps Stokes (1872-1960) donated to Columbia the year before he died. I mentioned Stokes recently as the author of the observation on time and experience in his travel journal to Japan in 1892, an entry I discovered in doing research in anticipation of this exhibition. You can read a little more about the exhibition here. It will be up until September 14, 2018.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Gibson and Portraiture Essay

Back in 2016 I had blogged about the new exhibition at the Royal Academy on the sculptures and drawings of John Gibson (1790-1866). Toward the end of the exhibition's run, there was a study day held at Tate Britain, and I was honored to be invited as one of the speakers for this event. We also did a local London version of the Gibson Trail and examined closely a selection of his figures and busts in the UK capital. About two months afterward, our host for that day, M. G. Sullivan, announced that some of us had been invited to submit articles associated with that study day in Tate Papers, the peer-reviewed, free online journal published by the museum. Sullivan and I decided to collaborate and co-author an article on Gibson's portraits, basing a portion of the essay on the bust of William Bewick that is in the Tate's collection. Our essay--and three others--have now been released (click here), and I must say that I am pleased to see this one in print.

Our essay is the first to focus on his portraits, and I think we managed to convey well how, despite Gibson's general distaste for portraits, he still made quite a number. We tapped into his extant account books to record prices and heretofore unknown commissions, and examined a number of these works chronologically and culturally. The image you see above is a detail from the back of the bust of an unidentified woman, dated to the 1820s, by Gibson; the work is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art and is a rather magnificent bust, particularly in the carving of the sweeping hairdo. The title of our essay is "'Men thinking, and women tranquil': John Gibson's Portraiture Practice." I'm looking forward to reading the other essays on Gibson's studio practice by Anna Frasca-Rath and his association with the Duke of Devonshire by Alison Yarrington (a subject I've written about as well, from a queer context, but Yarrington is the world expert on Devonshire's sculpture gallery). I read the other day Susanna Avery-Quash's essay on Gibson's friendship with Sir Charles Eastlake, which was excellent. So take a look, and if you feel inclined, enjoy the reading!

DC Heading to the Bronx

My friend and colleague Deborah Cullen, who for the past 6 years has been Director and Chief Curator of the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, has just been named the Executive Director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts. ARTNEWS has written up a great piece on her new role, as has The New York Times. I've never actually been to this museum, I'm sorry to say, but over the past few years it has raised its profile and I am eager to visit because of some of the exhibitions on at present and opening soon. (My family, on my mother's side, is all of Bronx extraction, but I wonder if any of them had ever been to this museum before?) She lives in the Bronx with her husband, sculptor Arnaldo Morales, so it likely means a lot to the museum that she has been a resident in that NYC borough for quite some time now.

Deb and I are both alum of the Graduate Center, City University of New York, although she graduated about a decade before me so we only just met when I started at Columbia about a year after her. She is a major art critic and curator of the art of contemporary African-American, Caribbean, and Latinx artists; prior to role at Columbia, she worked at El Museo del Barrio. At Columbia, she successfully transitioned the Wallach Gallery to its gorgeous new space, a white-cube windowed gallery in the Lenfest Center for the Arts on 129th St. The inaugural show "Uptown" that she curated there, the first of what she has called a triennial, focused on NYC artists who work north of 99th St., so essentially the Harlem and Washington Heights area. The show was fantastic. She and I have served on each other's respective planning committees for the gallery and the permanent collection at Columbia, and she and I have worked together to secure some amazing new art work by contemporary artists in the permanent collection. John Pinderhughes, a fantastic Harlem-based photographer, was among those artists, and he took the photo of Deb you see at the top of this post. I'm thrilled for Deb as she moves onto this new position, but I will definitely miss working with her. Here's a selfie of us in Seattle in May 2014 when we attended together the annual conference of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Video: E-Journals in Art History

No one ever likes to hear him/herself on tape or video, but everyone on my panel session from February agreed to the request to be filmed, and that online video is now available for viewing for free here:

This was in association with the panel session I chaired at the ARLIS/NA conference held in NYC, "Born-digital and Other E-journals in Art History: Crossing Boundaries among Art Historians, Editors, and Librarians," about which I first blogged here. The response to the session by some audience members and the panelists themselves was very positive, so we are glad that it went so well (even if we are embarrassed to hear ourselves on video afterward!).

Skanda in Georgia

I'm writing this post from Athens, Georgia, where today we de-installed a few works of art that we loaned from the Columbia University art collection. The exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, which closed yesterday, was "Images of Awakening: Buddhist Sculpture from Afghanistan and Pakistan." It revolved around an amazing new acquisition they have received: a 5th-century Buddhist head from Hadda (their image online currently is pre-conservation; trust me, it's gorgeous). The exhibition included loans from a few collections to narrate more fully the story of art, mostly Buddhist in nature, from the region once known as Gandhara, a crossroads for Western and Eastern cultures from the time after Alexander the Great to nearly the 7th century. Today, of course, this region is a political quagmire because of the Taliban and Isis, which is partly why a show like this in Georgia (traditionally, a more-conservative state) becomes so important. In my role as Curator of Art Properties at Columbia, I can say that we were very pleased to be able to participate in this exhibition and loan four small schist stone sculptures to this. Three of them were Buddhist in nature, but the work you see here actually has origins in Hinduism. This is somewhat surprising as Hinduism was not yet fully developed as we know it today, although its earlier origins as Vedism were culturally entrenched throughout the Indian sub-continent. A sculpture of a Hindu deity from this region, during a time when Greek-inspired art was influencing Buddhism, arguably demonstrates how globalism has always impacted art and is not a 21st-century phenomenon.

The figure represents Skanda, the god of war and son of Shiva and Parvati. It dates from the 4th to 5th century. His mythological origin is rather fascinating, and a bit provocative--curiously, it seems to bear some relationship to the Greek story of the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love (both born from water, seed thrown into the water, etc.). Despite its fragmented state today, this work has held up well (it had some minor conservation in order to be shown, so thank you Jones Abbe Art Conservation). The sculpture shows the god not with multiple heads but rather in a warrior stance holding what once was a spear and, in his other hand, a peacock, the animal with which he is associated. That makes for another interesting analogy, as peacocks in Greek mythology are associated with Hera, queen of the heavens, and seen as a symbol of marriage. Is another love/war cultural emblem at work here? Perhaps. Peacocks are beautiful birds, particularly when they display their shimmering iridescent feathers, but they are also notoriously loud and vicious. I guess all is fair in love and war.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Time and Experience

Whenever my dear friend JAM emails me wondering how I am, because she hasn't seen any updated posts on bklynbiblio, I know it's been a while since I've blogged and I've overdue a post or two! A few new posts will be coming over the next week or so, but for now I thought I would make a return by commenting on the passage of time (hence the pocket watch), but also the importance of life experiences. This past Christmas Eve, I included in a post that in general my blogging had dropped overall largely because of a general lack of time due to the numerous projects I have going on both related to work and of my own professional interest. But I also noted that I had recognized a shift in my own life over the past few years, where the recording of events is no longer as important to me as actually "living in the moment" has become instead. I'm certainly not the first person, nor will I be the last, to ever come to this rather individualized existential realization. However, I recently came across someone from the past actually acknowledging this very idea in their own writing. I came across the following in a travel journal I was reviewing related to a current project.

Greatly to my regret, I find it impossible for me to continue my journal in the foregoing way. My desire had always been that my journal should record not only facts, but also, to a certain extent, impressions and descriptions. As writing matter it would in that way afford me much more temporal enjoyment, and as reading matter would, I believe, be much more interesting in the future. But lack of time forbids such continuance. I have so much to see, and so much to do in order to see it, that it is wholly impracticable at even the present length, to keep the writing up to date. And so for the present at all events, my "journal" must consist of little more than more or less disconnected notes.

Those words were written on November 5, 1892 in Japan by James Graham Phelps Stokes (1872-1960) in his travel journal that he kept while touring Asia. (This journal is part of the Stokes papers in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia.) His brother and he had only just arrived in Japan a few weeks earlier, their first stop on what would be a year-long trip from there to China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India. His previous travel entries had been incredibly detailed, but there is a marked difference in tone--more phrases and personal asides then documented historical facts--than the earlier portion.

When I read his words, I couldn't help but smile and find it reassuring that even in 1892--without technology, just a notebook and pen--someone could still feel as overwhelmed attempting to record life in detail, rather than actually living it. It was a subtle reminder for me that, regardless of the passage of time, we humans are not much different from the people of the past.