In this Case: Ceramicist Howard Kottler
July 2, 2015
In Case 53B of the Luce Foundation Center sit four plates that first attracted my attention when I was a graduate student a few years ago. I was drawn to these by the figure of a boy, who looked very much like a famous painting, yet strangely manipulated. I also thought it odd that these plates were in the craft section, yet these white porcelain discs looked nothing like the plates I had been taught were craft while earning a degree in pottery.
As I looked more closely, I realized that the figure of the boy was indeed from a famous painting—it was Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy. On these four plates, the ceramicist Howard Kottler rearranged the figure in various ways, and gave each plate a clever name to match the position of the boy. In my favorite plate, Ambitious Resident from the Blue Boy Set, the boy is cut up and appears in sections across the windows of two carriages. Often, when I tell people he is cut up, it sounds gruesome and gory, but it's not. It's rather humorous. In one carriage window, his feet dangle, separate from the rest of his body, but seemingly fine. In the center of the first carriage, he peers out, his expression unchanged and he seems unconcerned with the fact that he's been spliced so neatly.
This sly, slightly dark, interpretation of a well-known painting opened up an entire world of ceramics and craft to me as a graduate student. Kottler especially loved turning the ceramics world on its ear with his work in decalcomania and porcelain blanks. He took mass-produced plates and combined them with specific decals that appropriated well-known images, like American Gothic and the U.S. Capitol, and made plates full of social commentary rather than a dinner feast.
Kuniyoshi as Organizer
June 30, 2015
This is the third and final blog post by the Archives of American Art's Mary Savig and Jason Stieber focused on the life of the artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The exhibition Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art is on view in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, and is organized in conjunction with The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi on view at at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The challenges of being an "alien of enemy nationality" during World War II activated yet another facet of Yasuo Kuniyoshi's remarkable and complex character, that of organizer. Within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuniyoshi gathered with other Japanese artists living in New York City to draft a letter of allegiance to the United States. Kuniyoshi was also sympathetic to the plight of his fellow Japanese Americans on the West coast. He donated his artistic and executive talents to the Woodstock Harvest Festival Dance, a fundraiser to aid Japanese Americans who were restricted to internment camps in the western half of the United States for the duration of the war.
In 1942, Kuniyoshi worked with the Office of the Coordinator of Information, a federal intelligence and propaganda agency, to broadcast a speech over Japanese radio waves about American culture. Kuniyoshi praised his adopted home as "a country of all races—gathered together here because they share a belief in democratic ideals."
After World War II and the subsequent waning of government support for the arts, Kuniyoshi led a group of artists and organizers to found the Artists Equity Association (AEA) in 1946, an organization tasked with strengthening social and legal support for artists. The organization quickly attracted more than 160 artists, united "to advance the economic interests of painters, sculptors, and graphic artists." Kuniyoshi was elected the AEA's first president in 1947 and worked to establish regional chapters across the United States.
To see more photographs of Kuniyoshi in his studio and to read Kuniyoshi's artist statements, correspondence, and notes for his unpublished biography, visit Artist Teacher Organizer: Yasuo Kuniyoshi in the Archives of American Art. You can explore his artworks in the online gallery, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
Come Play With Us: Five Questions (+1) with Game Makers Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman
June 23, 2015
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is thrilled to take part in America Now! a three-part collaboration jointly organized with the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History. In our inaugural year, all three museums have been focused on highlighting a fundamental part of the American experience: innovation! We found Italian architect, Nathalie Pozzi's, and game designer, Eric Zimmerman's collaborative physical games to be a captivating hybrid of art, innovation, and fun. Public Programs Coordinator, Katy Corella, interviewed them about their game, Starry Heavens, which will be front and center in the Kogod Courtyard on June 27th for our celebration of innovation in art.
Eye Level: How did your collaboration begin?
Eric Zimmerman: Several years ago, I was working on a game project called Block Ball for the "Come Out and Play" festival in New York City. It was a sport played indoors and had lots of physical components. On the day of installation I realized too late that I was in over my head and Nathalie swooped in to help me. I was amazed by her ability to immediately size up a space and her advice on how to use physical materials.
Nathalie Pozzi: A few months later Eric had gotten a commission from a conference called "The Art History of Games" to design a game in gallery. He asked me if I wanted to collaborate and for some reason I said yes. That was more than five years ago and we've done several projects together since then.
EL: When you are collaborating, how integral is the physical space and the installation to the concept of the game? Do these two components start out separate then integrate, is one designed for the other, or are they tied together from the beginning of design?
NP: We are an architect and a game designer, so the relationship between the space design and the structure of the gameplay is a key part of our projects. And our thinking has evolved over time. In our earlier projects, the physical elements acted almost like a stage for the game experience. But in our more recent work, the two are more and more integrated with each other. In Starry Heavens, we feel like you can't really separate the two.
EL: The environment of Starry Heavens is such an essential part of the game. The inflatable ribbon is so whimsical while the game is very strategic. How does that whimsy compliment or reinforce the concept of the game?
NP: That is such a nice way to describe the work. What's ironic is that Eric is the playful one, even though he's the one making the rigid rules for people to follow. I am much more serious and usually prefer severe forms.
EZ: The contrast between the organic suspended shape and the more rigid game grid also speaks to the kind of narrative we want to create through the game. Starry Heavens is a kind of fable about people trapped in a society of rules. During the game, the Ruler slowly pulls down a large helium balloon, trying to escape from society and reach the heavens above.
EL: When you saw the game played for the first time, were you surprised about how people responded to the game/environment/each other? Did anything happen that was unexpected or unintentional?
EZ: The first time we saw the game played we were struck by how much the players looked like they were taking part in some kind of dance. When the Ruler in the center calls out a color ("black," "white," or "gray") the other players all step at the same time to a new space. It's like some kind of slow-motion waltz. That's why, the next time we staged the game in Berlin live musicians were added that improvised with the game players. Having musicians play music that responds to what people are doing is now an important part of the game. For the Smithsonian, we're excited to be working with musicians from the group Good Co.
NP: Adding music also gave players more agency. When a new Ruler begins, he or she starts by saying, "I am the Ruler of [fill in the blank]." And they can fill in the blank however they want. This is a cue to the musicians as to what kind of music to play. We've seen everything from "I am the Ruler of Polka Dots," which resulted in somewhat plinky and staccato sounds, to "I am the Queen of Love," which produced a sexy tune that got all the players swaying their hips in time.
EL: I know Starry Heavens has been played at other museums as well as other games physical games you have worked on, do you find that players in a museum setting have a different approach to the game? If so, what it is it?
EZ: Lots! Every game has rules to learn. If you just bought a new boardgame, you don't mind taking out the rules and going through them before you start. If you're playing a new videogame, the game itself usually has a tutorial level to help you learn how to play. But nobody coming to a museum or gallery wants to learn a bunch of rules just to interact with something! So we spend a lot of effort trying to make our rules simple and easy to learn. That said, it seems more than more that people don't mind participating with interactive experiences in a museum space. We just need to make sure that we provide an environment where everyone is comfortable playing.
EL: Any tips for players of Starry Heavens?
EZ: Watch your back! And play multiple times! There's a lot of strategy to discover.
NP: Don't listen to him. Just enjoy yourself and don't get caught cheating.
Come and play Starry Heavens in the Kogod Courtyard on June 27th from 4-7 p.m. at America Now! Innovation in Art. The event is free and open to the public. No reservations required. America Now! is made possible with the generous support of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Family Foundation. The America Now! Series will continue for 10 years so stay tuned for next year's events.
Seeing Things (14): Christo at 80
June 18, 2015
This is the fourteenth in a series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. Take a look at Howard's other blog posts about seeing things.
On the third floor of American Art, two works by Christo hold a kind of silent dialogue, and frame his journey from solo artist in the early 1960s to his becoming one-half of the creative powerhouse couple, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Together, they created memorable, environmental projects such as The Gates, in New York's Central Park, and the Running Fence (Project for Sonoma and Marin Counties, State of California), whose archive and documentation were acquired by American Art a few years back. Package, 1961 is a solo work that evokes the tale of the artist's migration from his homeland of Bulgaria. It is a cloth construct, tied with rope, from which semi-familiar shapes bulge. Across the room is part of the documentation of the Running Fence project from 1976, a beautiful fabric work that literally ended in the Pacific Ocean. They were about as far west as one could get.
One fact I always remember about Christo and Jeanne-Claude is that they were born on the same day: June 13, 1935. A wonderful detail in the lives of a creative couple. A few days ago, on June 13, Christo turned 80. Sadly, Jeanne-Claude died in 2009. In honor of "their" birthday, we invite you to the museum to take a look at these two works of art and imagine the dialogue between them and the world the artists created.
Read more about Christo and Jeanne-Claude on Eye Level.
Luce Artist Talk: Five Questions with Rachel Schmidt
June 16, 2015
Luce Artist Talks presents Rachel Schmidt, whose exhibit, Forgotten Futures, tells the futuristic fairy tale of the last elephant. On Saturday, June 20th, Rachel will be in the Luce Foundation Center to talk about the exhibition, her other works, and the connections she sees between her work and artworks on view in Luce. Eye Level got the chance to talk with Rachel about her work and inspiration, and the vision she has for the future. Forgotten Futures is on view at Flashpoint Gallery through July 2nd. Luce Artist Talks are presented in collaboration with CulturalDC.
Eye Level: What about the future inspires your work?
Rachel Schmidt: Questioning the future and the shape it will take seems an integral part of being human, the question of what's next is always on everyone's mind. I find that making work based on futuristic cityscapes offers me an expansive platform to explore a variety of concepts, but since the collaged images I use are based on existing cities and places, I can create a stronger reality or believability.
EL: How do you go about creating the worlds you build?
RS: I day dream quite a bit, I like to look at the state of the world now and allow my imagination to run with scenarios and through that find stories and characters that enhance those realities. But it's also very personal, all of the collaged worlds are based on images that I've personally gathered, so there are textures, spaces, and motions that I have witnessed and felt.
EL: Why did you choose elephants as the focus for this installation?
RS: Elephants share many personality traits with people, they have strong societies and groups, they live a long time and have a natural sense of wisdom and grace. These traits allow the elephant in my exhibition to be a very strong protagonist in a larger story. They also just have an overwhelming power and inherent magic that makes them such strong characters.
EL: Why do you find animals to be a good vehicle for storytelling?
RS: Animals have been vehicles for storytelling for centuries, I am only a part of a long tradition that exists across most world cultures. Specific animals have very significant roles to play in most cultures, I think I am just tapping into a form of storytelling that is both ancient and playful at the same time.
EL: Many of your exhibitions feature different types of animation. How is the animation for Forgotten Futures different from your previous work, like Eastern Boats?
RS: Future Myth, the animation in Forgotten Futures, is my first step at utilizing time based media to generate an actual narrative. With my animation, Eastern Boats, I was reacting more to the fact that you have to loop a video when you exhibit it. I always found aspect of time-based media a hilarious but tragic Sisyphean function. So Eastern Boats plays more with the action of the loop rather than addressing linear concepts of storytelling. Boats have a special kind of power and magic, not that different from elephants. There is a graceful timelessness imbued with wooden boats, but they also have a specific kind of sadness that I think lends itself to my visual message.