“But, Then You Read” Baldwin

Next week’s outsidethemuseumblog will continue my appreciations of the current crop of exhibitions on protest and African American artists in the 1960s-. But, before it comes out, I need to make a suggestion for Saturday, September 23th. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is presenting But Then You Read, an all-day symposium on James Baldwin, who observed and participated in civil and cultural protests in that period.  James Baldwin is having a protracted renaissance with popular and academic attention being paid to him and his writings. I never understood why it took so long, but it may be that the critics and historians who admired his prose and political writings were uncomfortable with his novels.

Those of you who know the person who writes this blog, know that the quotation after my e-mail signature (a practice popularized by library and publishing professionals) is the text from which Schomburg took the symposium title. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” I think of it as the theme for everyone who ever felt misunderstood or misappreciated.  Reading doesn’t make the rest of the world understand or appreciate you, but it brings to your own personal angst the understanding that others have also felt angst of their own. Baldwin himself discovered books at an NYPL branch and his archives are now housed at the Schomburg.

I found the quotation from Early Essays not at The New York Public Library, but on the wall on west 19th Street.  To be specific, on the gallery wall at New York Live Arts, the performing arts center.   Live Arts, formed by the merger of Dance Theatre Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, has an gallery wall in full view of the street windows.  It often shows art or design, while a perpendicular wall has video art.   The April 2014 Liveideas (the annual humanities festival developed by New York Live Arts) was dedicated to Baldwin and quotations from his works provided the graphic installation on the window wall.   The Festival events were popular and transcribing quotes would have impeded the audience getting into the performance spaces, so I returned to 19th Street and stood outside the windows to write it out.  So, thank you, Bill T. for sponsoring liveideas, for your recognition of James Baldwin, and for including that quotation on the wall.  Video of the Baldwin liveideas events can be found through the New York Live Arts website.

The Schomburg’s readings and discussion is presented by The New York Public Library in collaboration with Times Talks. It runs from 11 to 5. It will be livestreamed, but if you go to the Schomburg, you can also see the exhibitions, which I will be discussing in my next blog. Try not to miss the symposium – live or livestreamed.


Do not miss this exhibition

This blog is not outside the museum.  It is urging you strongly to go into the museum and see a major exhibition —  We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 1985 through September 17, 2017. Brooklyn Museum https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/

Part of the “Reimagining Feminism” year at the Brooklyn Museum, the brilliant exhibition literally wrap around the permanent Judy Chicago Dinner Party installation. This works beautifully – you ignore the odd shaped gallery spaces except when actually looking on the floor plan to make sure that you didn’t miss anything. It was organized by Brooklyn Museum staff Catherine Morris, Curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, and Rujeko Hockley. I first saw it as an addition to a visit to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit, but have returned often to focus on it alone.

The posters, prints, sculpture, archival cases and videos are organized to represent the organizations of artists and activists (a phrase that is repeated within the exhibit). The artists and activists who are represented include the very well known visual artists, such as Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Maillou Jones, Ana Medieta, Alison Saar, Betye Saar, Faith Ringgold, and Carrie Mae Weems, who would also be represented in a survey of 20th century artists.   It also includes filmmakers Camille Billops and Julie Dash.   I was delighted to see a life-size video wall dedicated to dancer/choreographer Blondell Cummings.  I was even more thrilled to discover poster artists whose posters I knew, and learn the names inside the cooperatives and organizational titles.

You have two weeks – get there.

Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett is one of the multi-talented artists included in Black Radical Women. The display of her sculpture can be seen on its own or in visual context as the curators took advantage of the odd-shaped galleries.   In addition, one of her linocuts in included in a grouping of prints that sets up a continuum of art prints and political posters. It is an important curatorial statement of 20th – 21st century art that needed to be made.

To see more Catlett prints, take the 2 or 3 to the 14th Street stop, exit at 13th St. and walk west to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The ongoing exhibition Where We Are: Selection from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900 – 1960, includes 12 prints included in the

Section entitled “The Strength of Collective Man.”   I hope for a retrospective exhibition of Catlett’s American and Mexican prints someday, but was thrilled for the selection from The Negro Women at the Whitney. As well as the portraits of individuals (Phyllis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman), it includes four of the prints of anonymous women’s roles, such as the singer and the organizer. The final group has bitter titles, identifying ways that Jim Crow laws forced an African American woman is to be special –special water fountains, special houses, etc. medium_Catlett_95_203_cropped

The image with the blog, “My right is a future of equality with other Americans” was designed in 1946-1947 and should be dated, but is not.  “And a special fear for my loved ones” is terrifying, a brilliant composition of line, and as strong a political statement against lynching as I can imagine.

Caption: Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), My right is a future of equality with other Americans, 1947, printed 1989, from I am the Negro woman (re-titled The Black Woman, 1989). Linoleum cut: sheet, 10 5/16 × 7 1/2 in. (26.2 × 19.1 cm); image (irregular), 9 1/8 × 6 1/8 in. (23.2 × 15.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Print Committee 95.203 Art © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY







My own private Idaho eclipse

20170821_113351I was fortunate enough to have a chance to see the solar eclipse last week from the zone of totality. Specifically, I saw it on a field of volcanic rock and sagebrush in central Idaho. My family, which was in Southwestern Montana, drove almost to the Saint Anthony Sand Dunes. When we found the perfect spot and stopped the car, the eclipse was underway, the sun was a third covered. We watched all the way through to the full emergeance and the complete view of the sun. Through eclipse filtered glasses of course.

I had not planned to write a blog about the eclipse. If I were still working at The New York Public Library, I probably would have participated in the staff recommendations. Most eclipse fiction is imperialist. Knowledge of an upcoming solar or lunar eclipse privileges colonialism and lets the visitor claim magic, kingly, or god-like power over the sun or moon.  The Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage sent out a listing of actual folklore narratives about eclipses. The column by James Deutsch can be found in the weekly newsletter, Talkstory, for the week after the eclipse (http://folklife.si.edu/talkstory/swallowing-the-sun-folk-stories-about-the-solar-eclipse)

One rare fictional exception to the imperialist trend, but only because it is so cynical, is in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (originally published in 1889). Hank Morgan, the Yankee who goes back in time, doesn’t claim god-like status. He uses his knowledge of an eclipse scheduled for June 528 to outmaneuver Merlin, who he considers as much of a charlatan as himself. He has a convenient memory:

“It came into my mind, in the nick of time, how Columbus or Cortez or one of those people played an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my chance.  I could play it myself, now; and it wouldn’t be any plagiarism, either, because I should get it in nearly a thousand years ahead of those parties.”   Read the book in as close as possible to the original version – sometimes, the social satire and economics lesson sections are edited down, but they are definitely worth reading.

Morgan’s memory was accurate. Columbus used a lunar eclipse when stranded on Jamaica on his 4th voyage, on February 29 or March 1, 1504.  Columbus’ source for the predicted date was Regiomontanus, an astrologer and mathematician, whose Almanack for 1475-1506 was a standard for mariners.  The indigenous culture in Jamaica at that time was Arawak and, according to Space.com, Columbus did not claim god status – he just wanted food and supplies to help his crew survive until a rescue ship arrived.

Last week’s eclipse lived up to its press. It was majestic even in mid-day on land so flat and wide that there was no sense of scale. And the eclipse glasses that I brought at the American Museum of Natural History did their job very well. But, I have convergence issues with my eyes – distance vision crosses in one direction and close vision works in the opposite way. I have prisms in my glasses that solve the problem. But, the eclipse glasses countered (contradicted?) the prisms, so I had a unique experience – I saw two suns having two eclipses. It was magical, terrifying, and it made me deeply thankful to live in a time when 21st century ophthalmology met up with 17th century lens grinding.

I usually try to ignore science fiction when I have an experience with actual science. But, my eclipse experience reminded me of one of my favorite sci-fi stories. Nightfall was first published in September 1941 by Isaac Asimov in Astounding Science Fiction.  It was expanded into a novel by Robert Silverberg, (published 1990), but my memory is of the original version, which is considered one of the great examples both of science fiction and short fiction. It is a favorite of archivists and scientists since it concerns scholars trying to protect their civilization from the fearful response of a people to what seems to be a predicted eclipse.  Why my eclipse view reminded me of this Asimov story gets a Spoiler Alert.

I recommend both books and the Talkstory article.

Out of Vogue?

When I first began blogging, a dozen yeas ago, it was my antidote to the curatorial curse – having more to say about an artifact than would fit in a caption.  Many related the research process behind my exhibition texts – captions, intro panels, brochures, etc. Those were NYPL staff blogs and can still be found on the Staff Voices section of nypl.org.https://www.nypl.org/blog/author/barbara-cohen-stratyner

My blogging this month relate to my on-going (but soon getting finished) research on the photographer Florence Vandamm, but also relates to past blogs. She was a pioneer of women in photography, having opened her first studio in London in 1908, using her own name (not initials or, in the practice of the time, the street name). My current task relates to an extremely important question – why she moved her successful studio to New York in 1923.  May 1, 1923 to be specific.  I am pleased that she did, of course, since she became Broadway’s premiere photographer and her huge collection of images ended up at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

There are interviews with her over the decades, but they deal primarily with her New York career. In one of the few articles that mention her London studio, she linked the decision to re-locate to the bad economic times in England, citing theater and magazines. When I first read it, we had not found many published images from the early 1920s and I was ready to accept the statement.  Since then, however, after vast amounts of reading digitized periodicals (thank you Hathi Trust and Gale Research Company!) and the wonderful generosity of the National Portrait Gallery curators who shared Xeroxes of 1920-1922 British Vogues, we discovered that 1919-1920 had been very successful for her indeed. So, why this discrepancy? Was it British Vogue’s change of editor? Was it her American husband wanting to go back?  Somewhere in the back of my mind was the description of the early 1920s as Britain’s golden age of popular magazines. Golden for whom? Were they not using photographers or not using her? The answer is probably yes and no to all of the above.

British Vogue did change editors in 1922, turning from Elsbeth Champcommunal to Dorothy Todd. In addition, the ratio of social portraits to performer portraits changed as well  Vandamm could relate well to the young women who were war widows (as she was) or who had been active in suffrage movement or war efforts who were featured un the 1920 issues.  But, as a Jewish woman, she did not have access to society and aristocracy available to rival photographers Lallie Charles, Dorothy Wilding and Cecil Beaton.

England in the period between the Wars was a split society. The image in popular culture is of the “Bright Young Things,” the British equivalent of Flapper Society but with legal alcohol. British Vogue and many of its rival magazines featured them and reported on  their activities.   But there were also the “demobbed” (de-mobilized), the returned veterans who could not find work – the British equivalent of the Bonus Army.

1919-1922 were also the years that Agatha Christie published her first mystery novels and short stories.  Having re-read Christie’s 1922 The Secret Adversary for an earlier blog, I could turn to its opening chapter, when Tommy and Tuppence compare unsuccessful post-war job search notes before turning to their adventures.   I  re-read the excellent introduction to the 2015 William Morrow Paperback edition by John Curran (who edited the Christie notebooks) and found an important clue/clarification that could be the solution.  When it was called the golden age, it was for fiction magazines and short stories were the featured content.  I remembered from all that digitized magazine reading that most of the stories ran with an engraved illustration.  More stories with engraved illustrations had crowded out the photographs.

So, Christie and her generation of mystery writers got published and Vandamm moved her studio and family to NYC.  Conde Nast’s Vanity Fair was still using her author portraits and within 2 years, Vandamm’s photographs became the staple of New York Vogue’s monthly “Seen on Stage” section.   Now, I have to turn all of this into a clear paragraph that links the London and New York sections of the professional biography.

Dystopia — The New Ordinary

I really expected that the popularity of dystopian adult fiction would wane by the 100th day of the Trump era. But fear and loathing do not fade that quickly. Or, possibly, at all.

The most recent re-discovery of the literature connects to dramatizations. A British production of 1984 is coming to Broadway and a serial based on The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming. Margaret Atwood’s vision of Gilead, an American theocracy that subjugates women, was lacking from the original lists, partly because it does not deal with political messaging like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here. But there were many references to the book in the Women’s Marches around the World. Keep The Handmaid’s Tale Fiction and Don’t Make America Gilead showed up among the posters carried here in New York. One of the terrors for Atwood’s characters results from the Aunts’ insistence that the changes to America will become ordinary. This phrase linked to protesters’ insistence that we should not normalize the Trump presidency. Nasty women know their books and we’re not afraid to use them.

Atwood’s impetus for the establishment of Gilead is an epidemic of mutations and sterility. These themes also show up in two British novels. P. D. James’ best-selling thriller Children of Men was set in a civilization very close to her contemporary real-life. Children are not being born and the last new generation is self-destructing. In keeping with James’ prowess in detective fiction, the characters search for solutions to their immediate issue, maintaining the safety of a pregnant woman, balances solving the greater mystery.

A post-Apocalyptic society’s obsession with mutations is the theme of a lesser-known British novel, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.  It was published in 1955, and is now available in a 2008 NY Review Books re-print. The society, Waknut, rejects and destroys all babies that are not perfect. Wyndham also dealt with this theme in his better-known novel The Midwich Cuckoos (aka Children of the Dammed), as the fate of many of the children outside England.   In The Chrysalids, David, and his younger sister, are telepathic, but their invisible mutation has not been discovered. He befriends Sophie, whose extra toe has been hidden by her parents and discovers a secret community of people with mutations who hide in the forest.  I find the novel disturbing since it doesn’t end with escape to a society that accepts all differences. It ends as David and his sister reach a society in which everyone is telepathic.  It is presented as a happy ending. Suitable for England in 1955, but disturbing.

All three books are available at NYPL, which currently lists 2812 entries under End of the World — Fiction.


Icons in peril in World War I posters

This is the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. Many museums chose to commemorate World War I on the 100th anniversary of the European onset of the War, as early as 2014. But, for others, the 2017 date seemed more mission-appropriate.

Since I seem to be obsessed with public protest this year, I will join in the current commemorations. The Museum of the City of New York just opened its Spring temporary exhibition on Posters and Patriotism: Selling World War I in New York. It is well worth a visit. Most of the artifacts on display are spectacularly well-preserved posters from the period, augmented by additional graphics, such as flyers and my personal favorite, sheet music covers. The sub-title is highly appropriate for this exhibit since the works are from a time when all of the commercial art industries were located in New York. Advertising, publicity, magazines, and publishing all came from here. This was a period in which commercial artists and graphics designers were known to the public. Charles Dana Gibson led the way, of course, but Coles Philips, Nell Brinkley, and James Montgomery Flagg were also recognizable from their magazine covers and advertisements. Most of the mad men (plus the Peggys and Joans) contributed to the war effort without sacrificing their personal, recognizable styles.

The common usage of the word “iconic” gets on my nerves, but this exhibit really is about icons.   One of the most noticeable things in the exhibit is that, apart from Flagg’s famous Uncle Sam Needs You, most of the figures in the posters are female. I’m choosing to say female, not women. Since the 1890s, an icon (in the true sense of the word) had taken possession of American graphics – a woman in a Grecian garment and laurel wreath. She represented the future, invention and the new American century.  She had a personal life as an active Suffrage icon as well, of course.  But she shows up draped in an American flag on posters for enlistment and, especially, for the many versions of Treasury notes, bonds and loans with which the general public was expected to fund the war effort.

The alternative iconic woman was the mother figure. She had been integral in the debates about entrance into the war – there were even Tin Pan Alley songs “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” and “I’m Proud to Raise My Boy to be a Solder.” As the War began, however, the American mother figures were uniformly seen as supportive and tragic.  The exhibit deserves praise for including the sheet music cover of “He Draws No Color Line,” illustrated with the African American mother and World War I soldier. The lyrics refer to soldiers in the Civil and Spanish-American War, but, like so many popular songs, it was updated for the current war.   Some of the posters showed the mothers of Europe as well.  They are depicted as refugees in images that look horribly contemporary.

The exhibition, however, features images of active women as well. The women of the Wartime home front were not just pining. They appear in the posters farming with the Land Army, as well as doing factory work as earlier versions of Rosie the Riveter.   They are also drawn in their overseas volunteer activities – Red Cross, nurse, ambulance driver, and YMCA. The latter poster appears next to an actual YMCA uniform, from MCNY’s costume and textile collection.

There will be public programs and curatorial tours throughout the run of the exhibition. Visit mcny.org for more information.

Trio A with flags, photos and exhibitions

The bad news is that we are in a Nixon revival, re-living the 1970s with continuous protests against a bad president leading us in the wrong direction. The good news is that New York is celebrating the 1970s art forms — minimalist music and post-modern dance. If you follow this blog, you know that The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has been working with David Gordon, acquiring his archives as a dancer, choreographer and director with public programs and an exhibition, Archivography – under construction, which will be on view through April 6, 2017.  I strongly recommend a visit or two since it is a dense (in the best sense), media-packed exhibition.   The “under construction” means that elements come and go — the chair, for one thing,

David Gordon has also shown up recently in a key image by Peter Moore used to publicize Stephen Petronio’s season at the Joyce Theater, on through Sunday. In recent seasons, Petronio has added revivals of works by major postmodern choreographers in what he calls the Bloodlines Project. This season, it included works by Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, founding members of the Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union, and California-based Anna Halprin. Rainer, Halprin and Simone Forti are the subjects of Radical Bodies, an exhibition and project of the University of California at Santa Barbara and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It can be seen there now and in New York from May 24 to September 16, 2017.

The Rainer works are the task dance Diagonals (1963), Chair-Pillow (1969), and the 1970 version of Trio A, named Trio A With Flags.   Gordon was also a founding member of Judson and Grand Union, and can be seen in the 1970 Moore photograph of Rainer’s Trio A with Flags. Trio A The Mind is a Muscle has become the best known work from the Judson era due to reconstructions and films.  It can be performed by any number of dancers and requires balance, good timing and an excellent memory for seemingly unrelated movements.   Most versions of Trio A, in fact, most post-modern repertory, were performed in the current version of t-shirts and loose leggings. Sally Banes’ masterful book on the Judson Group is appropriately titled Terpsichore with Sneakers. Trio A with Flags is performed nude with American flags tied like halter bathing suits, hanging vertically. The Petronio dancers, in fact, went on stage, tied their flags and un-dressed under them.   It is less of a political statement now, since laws and an electronic culture have de-fetishized the fabric flag.  Without the cultural commitment that a flag permanently equals faithful patriotism, the gesture becomes less about challenge to the establishment and more about how movement changes compared to the vertical lines (from the stripes).

The Peter Moore photograph from 1970 is all context. You can see it in The New Yorker with Joan Acocella’s preview article in the March 27 issue.  Moore saw a lot of dance and knew how to photograph it. He also really knew and understood the space. Judson was the center of post-modern dance and a working church, but it was also the center for anti-war and social activism for NY.  So, there are posters and banners manipulating American flag images all over the back wall.  Moore shows David Gordon in mid-jump with arms extended so that the flag becomes a flying bib.  The extraordinary photo shows a lot of floor and is cropped so that the jump looks close to the ground – a rejection of dance photography’s usual practice.  You can see legs and an arm behind Gordon’s flag and Yvonne Rainer and her flag can be seen faintly at the back.

The photographs by Sarah Silver in the Joyce program and by Andrea Mohin in today’s New York Times (March 30, 1917, on page C1) are tightly focused on the dancers and clearly show the verticality of the flags and the control and beauty of the dancing bodies.  De-contextualized dancers with beautifully trained and articulated bodies are how we see dance these days, especially post-modern dance.  Exhibitions provide context, so please try to attend the David Gordon show before April 6 and Radical Bodies in California this Spring or in New York this summer.

A video installation of SlowDancing/Trio A by David Michalek and Yvonne Rainer will be on view at Danspace in late June.  Go to danspaceproject.org for the schedule.