Art Conservation: A Look Inside Pio Casimiro Bacener's Autorretrato
August 26, 2014

Pamela Johnson is a second-year Graduate Fellow in the Winterthur Art Conservation Program at the University of Delaware. She recently completed an eight-week internship in the Lunder Conservation Center's paintings laboratory and specializing in paintings conservation. While at the American Art Museum, Ms. Johnson focused on a number of projects and shares her favorite with us below.

Bacener Painting

Left: Pio Casimiro Bacener's Autorretrato. Right: X-radiograph of Autorretrato.

During my eight weeks here at the Lunder, I have gotten to know a number of paintings in the Smithsonian American Art Collection. I have spent the most time, however, staring into the face of Puerto Rican artist, Pio Casimiro Bacener, as I work to conserve his self-portrait, Autorretrato.

Bacener was born in San Juan in 1840 to a mother who was a slave. It is assumed that Bacener was also born into slavery, however by the time he married in 1868, records indicate that he had gained his freedom by unknown means. Bacener was taught by Francisco Oller, a well-known Puerto Rican artist who had studied in Paris among the impressionists, and Oller recorded that Bacener was one of his most outstanding students. Bacener was known to paint landscapes and portraits, as well as create paintings on gourds, make masks and paint faces for carnivals, decorate facades and even inscribe tombstones. In spite of his reported wide array of works, only a few pieces are known to survive today.

Looking through conservation files, I noticed that an x-ray image of the painting had been taken in 1997. The image was difficult to read, but conservators at the time noticed two small arms folded with hands clasped or in a prayer position at the center, and an extra shoulder on the sitter's proper left side, much higher than the current one. This led to hypotheses of a portrait of a child or angel in prayer under the current figure.

To investigate further, we took an updated digital x-ray, which reveals the same indication of a shoulder hovering a couple inches above the current sitter's shoulder as well as the indication of two small arms folded in the area of the sitter's shirt and jacket.

With our curiosity piqued, my American Art colleagues and I collaborated with Keats Webb, an Imaging Specialist at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute, to look at the painting with infrared reflectography. Whereas x-radiographs can penetrate through the paint to the deepest layers, infrared penetrates less deeply, revealing aspects such as an artist's underdrawing.

Infrared image of painting

The infrared mosaic of Autorretrato, has a higher spectral sensitivity and reveals more details like the shoulder on the left side.

Although infrared did not answer all our questions about a potential painting-under-a-painting, it did give us important clues into Bacener's working style. Underdrawing visible in the face revealed careful planning as to the placement of the eyes, eyebrows, nose and hairline. A vertical line visible under the proper right eye indicates that Bacener was likely measuring distances between facial features before he painted them. The mystery shoulder above Bacener's proper left can also be seen, in a more detailed image compiled from multiple smaller images. Above both shoulders, the infrared also reveals scrape marks, perhaps from a previous placement that was later changed.

While the possibility of a mystery figure under Bacener's portrait has yet to be resolved, imaging techniques like x-radiography and infrared reflectography lent us important clues and information on the artist's working method. If there is, in fact, another figure underneath, it was perhaps only thinly sketched, partially completed, or scraped away as marks from the infrared images indicate. What we learned for certain is that the painting we can see, Bacener's own portrayal of himself, was well-planned out and thoughtfully rendered.

Posted by Chris on August 26, 2014 in American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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Luce Design Series: Five Questions with Tanis Gray, Knitwear Designer
August 21, 2014

This Saturday, August 23rd, from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., the Luce Foundation Center's Design Series will host a talk by Tanis Gray, local knitwear designer and publisher of numerous knitting books. Public programs coordinator, Katie Crooks, had a chance to talk with Tanis about her work.

Tanis Gray

Tanis Gray. Two-time National winner of the DAR American Heritage Committee's Women in the Arts Awards for fiber arts, author of numerous books including Capitol Knits, Knit Local, winner of a gold IPPY Award, Cozy Knits, and Knitting Architecture & 3 Skeins or Less. She is also a host on PBS's Knitting Daily TV

Eye Level: How old were you when you started knitting?

Tanis Gray: My mom wanted to knit me a sweater when I was 8 years old. She had knitted in her youth and wanted to get back into it but it had been a long time and she needed someone to help refresh her skills. While she re-learned, she taught me. With the help of her, a knitting neighbor and my LYS (local yarn shop) owner, I quickly became obsessed and fascinated that I could make something that was both beautiful and useful. I never looked back!

EL: How long does it take you to design something to knit?

TG: It depends on what I'll be designing. If it's something that has a fairly specific surface area (like a hat or mittens) I know the parameters I have to work within. That doesn't mean it's always easy. There are thousands of stitch patterns, a lot of math, gauge, silhouette and aesthetics to work into the equation, but working on something small like that takes less time than a sweater, shawl or cowl where the possibilities are endless. Sometimes a design that you think will work simply doesn't when you get to the actual knitting stage, even if you swatched it out. Yarn is a factor as well, especially if it's tricky to work with. It can completely change a look or idea.

EL: What do you look to for inspiration?

TG: Inspiration has never been an issue. I'm fortunate enough to live near DC, where the architecture, landscape and museums we have at our disposal are bursting at the seams with inspiration. My mother is a painter and pastel artist and has taken me to museums my entire life. She taught me to always be on the lookout for inspiration and I do my best thinking and working out of patterns and ideas at night when I run.

EL: How does one, and you specifically, become a knitwear designer?

TG: Anyone can design! Just like anything in life, practice, practice, practice. I got started because I couldn't find mittens that I liked, so I designed and knitted my own at age 8. I always tell people that I've ripped out more than I've knitted and you need to be able to do that, not get attached to your knitting and not be afraid to make mistakes and go back to the drawing board. Take classes to learn new techniques, speak with other knitters, find your own voice and aesthetic and do what makes YOU happy. I stumbled into designing while working at Vogue Knitting. I never thought I'd be able to design something as beautiful as what was in the magazines, but it takes a little faith, a little experimentation and a good idea. I find a lot of knitters to be perfectionists and they get frustrated when they can't make something work. I tell them to remember when they first picked up knitting needles and had no idea what they were doing and look where they are now! In the digital age we live in, anyone can start a blog and publish a pattern.

EL: Are there other types of crafts that you'd like to learn how to do or that you do on the side already?

TG: When our son was born I got pretty heavily into photography. I took a lot of classes and read a lot of books and now photograph knitting books for other people as well as my independent patterns. I also love to sew and tend to sew and quilt late into the night while everyone else is asleep. I am fascinated by all sorts of crafts and techniques and will try anything at least once!

EL: What did you do before you started designing knitwear?

TG: After I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, I worked briefly at Martha Stewart, HBO doing animation for their family station and in TV and film in the art department. I left the film industry after the hours got to be too much and worked at Vogue Knitting for years. I never thought something I had enjoyed most of my life that I had just seen as a useful hobby could turn into a career that I adore!

Posted by Jeff on August 21, 2014 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Plastics in Pop Art Prints
August 19, 2014

Curatorial assistant, Nina Williams writes about the use of plastics in Pop Art printmaking. Our exhibition Pop Art Prints is on display until August 31, 2014.


Roy Lichtenstein, Moonscape, 1965 © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In one of the most famous scenes from the 1967 film The Graduate, Benjamin (played by Dustin Hoffman), anxiously greets a flurry of guests at his college graduation party. Among them is a man who takes Benjamin aside to offer his unsolicited advice. He says, "I just want to say one word to you, just one word. Plastics. There is a great future in plastics."

Nearly fifty years later, that statement has certainly proven to be true. Just look around you—plastics are everywhere!

But back in the 1950s and '60s, plastics were new and exciting. Everything from chairs, to clocks, to children's toys, were redesigned in the gleaming, colorful material. During the postwar economic boom, plastics fueled Americans' growing desire to consume more and more new and affordable products.

Pop artists, too, were attracted by the versatility of plastics, and incorporated them into their artworks. It was the ideal medium for artists concerned with popular culture and material consumption. There are three examples of how Pop artists used plastic in their printmaking practices in American Art's Pop Art Prints installation, including works by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Tom Wesselmann.

In the mid-1960s, Roy Lichtenstein constructed hybrid printed works using a prismatic plastic called Rowlux. In Moonscape, Lichtenstein uses the specialty plastic to simulate the night sky in all its infinite depth. The artist took full advantage of this newly invented material, which was originally intended for use in road signs, to create a mesmerizing surface that moves before your eyes.

Claes Oldenburg, who famously made larger-than-life sculptures of everyday objects out of sagging vinyl (a form of plastic) in the early 1960s, also experimented with vacuum-forming, an industrial process for manipulating plastic. Teabag showcases his innovative approach to printmaking: he combined screenprinting with a popular technique used to form eye-catching road signs.

Come down to see these prints in person while you still can; Pop Art Prints will remain open through August 31st.

Posted by Jeff on August 19, 2014 in American Art Here
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Picture This: Dowager in a Wheelchair by Philip Evergood
August 14, 2014

Philip Evergood

Philip Evergood's Dowager in a Wheelchair

If you haven't seen American Art's exhibition Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Collection, it's time do come on down to the museum. The show closes this Sunday, August 17.

Following World War II, with the accent of Abstract Expressionism, still life painter, Sara Roby encouraged artists to make figurative work. In 1952 she created a foundation to purchase and exhibit this work. After Roby's death in 1986, her foundation donated the work to the American Art Museum. The show includes seventy paintings and sculptures from the collection.

Posted by Jeff on August 14, 2014 in American Art Here, Picture This
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Five Questions for Andrew Greene, Director of the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra
August 12, 2014

On August 16th at 2 p.m., the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery will present the next installment in our Cine-Concert series. The next program features Andrew Greene, Director of the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra, performing his original score for the Buster Keaton classic College (1927, 66 minutes). As a special bonus, the screening will be followed by a 30 minute concert of back-to-school themed ragtime classics. For more details, check out our museum calendar.

In anticipation of the screening and concert, programs coordinator Allison Jessing spoke with Andrew Greene about his passion for ragtime and the upcoming performance at the museums.

Andrew Greene

Andrew Greene, Director of the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra, will perform an original score for Buster Keaton's 1927 film College at the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery on August 16th. Image courtesy of Andrew Greene.

Eye Level: You're the Director of the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra, which is dedicated to the celebration and performance of ragtime music. What is it about ragtime that you find interesting and compelling?

Andrew Greene: Ragtime has a pep and enthusiasm that no other musical style can match. It is America's first popular music, predating jazz. Many composers who define the American music genre wrote during the ragtime era, including George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, John Philip Sousa, and Scott Joplin. It grabbed me at a young age as being more "fun" than other works, and I try to share that fun with the audience when I play it. One of the sad things about this music is that while so much of it was published and recorded, it's popularity faded over time. So many worthy compositions have been forgotten. It's thrilling for me to rediscover these pieces and have them performed again.

EL: You'll be performing a score for Buster Keaton's classic film College here on August 16th. What's your favorite moment in that film?

AG: Near the middle of the film there's a scene at a coliseum at his college, where Buster attempts to try and perform in all of the various track and field events (pole vaulting, javelin, discus, etc.) Each of these he tries to do, with hilarious results. Especially when he tries to do a high jump, and ends up buried in the sand!

EL: If you had to write a score for any film ever made, what would you choose and why?

AG: One of the joys of scoring silent films is that virtually no film during that era had a specific score written for it. So almost any silent film that still exists today has the potential to be scored by yours truly! That being said, I'd love to try out scoring The Artist (2011) to give it a true silent film score. It would be neat to see a modern silent film paired with authentic silent film accompaniment!

EL: My favorite question for our musical guests: "What's on your iPod these days?"

AG: Right now my iPod is 80% ragtime music, with a combination of modern and historic recordings of the music, and then selections by classic rock and jazz artists. You'll hear anything from The Beatles to Count Basie, Al Jolson to Rick James. There's not too much modern music on my iPod!

EL: Any exciting projects coming up that you can share with us?

AG: Well, the week after my performance of College my orchestra and I will be playing on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, August 24th! It's quite thrilling to play for the Smithsonian one week and at the Kennedy Center the next! Other than my orchestra's touring concerts and silent film events, I'm about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for the orchestra to raise money for our next CD. The subject and fundraising will begin at the Kennedy Center show so keep an eye out for that!

EL: Thank you, and we're looking forward to the show on the 16th!

Cineconcert: Buster Keaton's College with pianist Andrew Greene is on Saturday, August 16, 2014 at 2p.m. in the McEvoy Auditorium. Free tickets will be available at 1:30 p.m. in G Street Lobby.

Posted by Jeff on August 12, 2014 in Post It
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