Reenvisioned Galleries of Folk and Self-Taught Art
October 21, 2016

Folk Art Reinstallation

SAAM's reinstallation of its folk art and self-taught art. Artworks, left to right: Jon Serl's Male Figure, Dan Miller's Untitled (peach and gray with graphite), Charlie Willeto's Male Navajo Figure, Charlie Willeto's Female Navajo Figure, Clementine Hunter's Melrose Quilt, and an Unidentified artist's Untitled (Repeating X).

The Smithsonian American Art Museum's ground floor galleries of Folk and Self-Taught Art reopen today with a compelling, new installation that features more than 120 objects, including 59 new acquisitions. These include works by artists such as Emery Blagdon, Ralph Fasanella, Clementine Hunter, Eddy Mumma, and Achilles Rizzoli. These join visitor favorites by Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Martín Ramírez and Jon Serl.

"The first-floor galleries for folk and self-taught art should have a powerful impact on visitors, conveying not only the museum's commitment to diverse American narratives and manifesting the tremendous quality, depth and power that art by untrained artists can have, but also affirming its rightful position in a museum of great art," said Leslie Umberger, the museum's curator of folk and self-taught art.

The artists in the exhibition grapple with themes both ubiquitous and personal, from the secular to the sublime. Emery Blagdon's Healing Machine is a display of more than 60 sculptures and paintings that represents his efforts to create an environment that harnessed energies from the earth to alleviate pain and illness. James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly has been reinstalled in an expanded presentation that includes Hampton's personal journal, written primarily in an asemic, or unreadable script, and a chalkboard still showing some of Hampton's sketched plans for the Throne. Both are on public view for the first time; the journal will be on display for a limited amount of time.

On Saturday, October 29, at 5:30 p.m. please join experts in the field of folk and self-taught art as they discuss the advance of non-mainstream art and the importance of fostering an appreciation for these complex and highly personal works. The folk art galleries will be changing periodically, so please stop by from time to time to see what’s new!

Posted by Howard on October 21, 2016 in American Art Here
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Throwback Thursday: Art Critic Adam Gopnik on What Makes American Art American
October 20, 2016

It's Throwback Thursday! And we at Eye Level have decided it's a great opportunity to bring back some of our interesting and relevant posts from the past. During this election season, Americans have been debating what it means to be American. So, it's fitting to consider what is American about American art. In October 2012, Adam Gopnik, writer for The New Yorker, spoke about this as part of SAAM's Clarice Smith Lecture series. Back here in 2016, join us for this year's final Clarice Smith Lecture by Edward Rothstein, Critic-at-Large for the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, November 2, 2016.

Adam Gopnik

Taking a stab at what defines American art, Adam Gopnik, art critic at The New Yorker, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the museum's McEvoy Auditorium, as the second (of three) speakers in this year's Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture series in American Art. "Like most of you in this audience , I suspect, I am a museum goer, a gallery goer. I get no thrill as large as I do from simply setting foot in a museum and beginning to look," Gopnik told us at the outset. Neither a historian nor curator (though he did co-curate the Museum of Modern Art's influential High-Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture exhibition in 1990 with Kirk Varnedoe) Gopnik shared with us what he's learned in his many years of looking at American art.

Gopnik started by riffing on commonalities and differences in some of his favorite examples of American art, including examples by Homer, Bingham, Eakins, St. Gaudens, and Audubon, among others. At times, American art carries a lot on its shoulders and teems with subject matter, as in many of the confectionary works by Wayne Thiebaud. At other times, the desire to create is not about the many, but the one. For Gopnik, that push-pull between extremes is one of the sign posts that have defined American art over the centuries.

You can see it for yourself as you travel the many galleries of the American Art museum. Contrast a poetic, monochromatic Louise Nevelson sculpture in the Lincoln Gallery with an operatic Albert Bierstadt one floor below. For me, those contradictions brought to mind Walt Whitman (who walked through the halls of the Patent Office Building during the Civil War), the singular poet of Song of Myself was also the poet "who contains multitudes."

Watch an archived webcast of Adam Gopnik's talk.

Posted by Howard on October 20, 2016 in American Art Everywhere
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Knock Wood: The Future of Furniture is in their Hands
October 14, 2016


Sam Maloof's Low-Back Side Chair

Furniture. We interact with it everyday but we really don't give it much thought, unless we're buying something new, eyeing glossy catalogues from IKEA or Design Within Reach, or when our lower back starts to twitch from sitting in the "wrong" chair. Furniture "affects every single aspect of who we are and what we do though we don't always acknowledge that," said Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Renwick Gallery, in her introductory remarks at the recent Maloof Symposium, Furniture and the Future. A stellar group of experts, designers, artists, and makers looked closely at the changing role of studio furniture, in light of the brave new world of digital technologies and marketplaces.

Held in honor of the centenary of Sam Maloof's birth, the symposium began with an homage to Maloof, the first craft artist to win a MacArthur Fellowship in 1985. He had a show at the Renwick in 2001, and his Low-Back Side Chair is currently on view in the exhibition, Connections: Contemporary Craft from the Renwick Gallery. From there, the morning was filled with talks on topics as diverse as keynote speaker Michael Prokopow's observations on hyperluxury and furniture built for the elite; a behind-the-scenes look at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts with director Paul Sacaridiz; and esteemed author and architect Witold Rybczynski's deep dive into the history of the chair, stationary as well as rocking, from hand-made wooden chairs to the one-piece plastic chair that has become ubiquitous. As Rybczynski reminded us, "though chairs have changed over time, our bodies haven't, and we're only meant to sit for so long." Appropriately, on that note, the morning session ended and we rose from our seats for a lunch break.

The afternoon session, under the stewardship of independent curator Glenn Adamson, brought together an eclectic group that included Vivian Beer, winner of Ellen DeGeneres's Design Challenge, and Renwick favorites Christy Oates, a furniture maker featured in the 2012 exhibition, 40 under 40: Craft Futures, and Wendell Castle, whose great tromp l'eoil Ghost Clock is back on view in Connections. Castle kicked off the session by discussing the use of digital technologies and his studio's acquisition of a robot named "Mr. Chips" to keep things humming at a 21st century pace. The ABB6300 large robot, originally from the US Post Office and most likely used for "pick and place", is about twelve feet tall, and is used for carving. This extra hand enables Castle to create large pieces that can be assembled then disassembled precisely.

To conclude the afternoon, the participants came together for a panel discussion and lively conversation about their individual practices and their common passion for furniture and design.

In case you missed the symposium, we webcast it:

Posted by Howard on October 14, 2016
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Picture This: October Breezes
October 13, 2016

Albert P. Lucas' October Breezes

It's fall in Washington, D.C. The days are cooler, the nights cold, and the wind picks up and deposits leaves to the ground. This painting by Albert P. Lucas reminds me of the weeks that lie ahead for me. With eighty trees hanging over my house, raking those leaves in a stiff breeze has often been a study in futility. But each year I do it. And, given the frenetic quality of my normal day, I use the time to push myself a little closer to nature.

Posted by Jeff on October 13, 2016 in American Art Here, Picture This
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A Pocket-Sized WONDER in Virtual Reality
October 4, 2016

SAAM staff peer into the future! Photo courtesy of Libby Weiler.

Last spring, I paid a solo visit to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, home to one of the largest collections of 13th-century stained glass in the world. I sat down on a bench and spent the better part of an hour observing the morning light as it traveled across the eastern windows, turning the narrow chapel into a blazing jewel box. It was a transporting, magical experience. Then I walked downstairs to the gift shop, and—typical tourist—bought a postcard.

I use my Sainte-Chapelle postcard as a bookmark. Every time I open my book and see it, I think to myself, "How beautiful! I wish I could be there again." I expect this is why postcards are a classic museum souvenir—they jog warm memories of places we've left behind. But wouldn't it be sweet if we could step inside a postcard and look around that faraway museum one more time, even if just for a moment?

How could we capture the experience of WONDER and bottle it, before it was no more than a memory? Could we use technology to give people more to hold onto than just a postcard?

—Sara Snyder, Chief, Media & Technology Office

That yearning to revisit a special place at a moment in time is what led my colleagues in SAAM's Media and Technology Office to create our new virtual reality app, "Renwick Gallery WONDER 360." The WONDER exhibition was the most popular show in the Renwick Gallery's history, an extraordinary collection of site-specific, gallery-sized installations made from an array of unexpected materials. And though the artists of Sainte-Chapelle are separated by more than 700 years from the artists in WONDER, I can say I felt the same deep level of emotion when confronted by Gabriel Dawe’s soaring rainbows and John Grade’s epic hemlock that I felt when surrounded by the stained glass in that Gothic chapel. WONDER was a transporting, magical exhibition. It was also temporary.

Like many, many others, I took my share of Instagram photos of WONDER, and kept a glossy souvenir booklet (in lieu of a postcard). But as the exhibition's closing date drew nearer, my colleagues and I became more anxious: how could we capture the experience of WONDER and bottle it, before it was no more than a memory? Could we use technology to give people more to hold onto than just a postcard?

As it happens, the year that WONDER opened to the public was also the year VR became a mainstream concept. Throughout 2015 and 2016, the technology to support 360-degree panoramic capture got better and cheaper, month by month. In March of 2016, Media and Technology producer Carlos Parada attended the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, where there was a huge Virtual Reality presence. This provided the perfect environment to learn about the technology and network with developers. At SXSW, Carlos connected with a startup company, InstaVR, and saw the opportunity we were looking for: a system that would allow us to create an experience, in-house, to make people feel like were inside the gallery. This was very important for WONDER, a show in which the immersive installations needed to be experienced, not just seen.

So with only a few months left before the show's closing, Carlos designed the interactive app. With several hundred dollars’ worth of new equipment and software—plus a whole lot of patience and perseverance—he managed to take hundreds of photographs of the entirety of the WONDER exhibition from a variety of vantage points in super high-resolution, stitching them into virtually seamless 360-degree files. Working together with InstaVR, we rolled the 360 panoramas, along with a number of artist videos, into native mobile apps for both the iTunes App store and Google Play.

We've launched "Renwick Gallery WONDER 360" as our first major experiment with producing immersive VR experiences. I hope you'll download it, and please let us know what you think by rating it in the app store! This is just our first pass at VR, and we're excited to keep on exploring the potential of this emerging technology to enhance and expand the variety of ways that art lovers can interact with their favorite museums. And since the app can be downloaded for free, you can step back in time and be transported into the WONDER exhibition for even less than the cost of a postcard. How WONDER-ful is that?

Posted by Sara on October 4, 2016 in American Art Here, Museums & Technology
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