Isamu Noguchi: Watering the Art
December 27, 2016

The Well

Isamu Noguchi's The Well

Objects conservators have a challenging job. On any given day Ariel O'Connor, an art object conservator at SAAM, might be asked to research, examine, document, and treat works of art made with bronze, wood, plastic, stone, plaster, glass, and many, many other types of materials. The Isamu Noguchi exhibition Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern perfectly exemplifies this material diversity, with sculptures ranging from heavy stone obelisks to feather-light delicate bamboo and paper lanterns. Even with years of training and experience, one sculpture is proving to be a unique challenge for Ariel: a 3,000 pound basalt stone fountain titled The Well.

The Well is normally on view at The Noguchi Museum in New York, with a twist: it's usually outside. The dirt that accumulates on rocks outside does not harm the stone, but is not ideal inside a museum where we must follow strict guidelines for environmental conditions within the galleries.

Washing rocks

Washing the trap rock before taking it inside museum.

Before the piece could be brought inside SAAM, Ariel first had to clean the stones which surround the base of the fountain. Twelve buckets full of two inch trap rock were shipped on pallets from New York City to Washington, D.C. On a warm sunny day on a loading dock outside the museum's storage area, with Exhibit Specialist Nick Primo's assistance, the rocks were spread out, washed with brushes and soap, and dried in the sun before their journey inside the museum. Sometimes a conservator's day involves complicated analytical research, but sometimes they're scrubbing large piles of rocks!

Installation of The Well

Installing The Well in SAAM's gallery.

With the trap rock clean and dry, The Well and its many components were brought inside the gallery. Riggers, or specialists who install large and heavy artwork, worked with SAAM staff to lift the fountain and place it carefully inside a steel catch pan. The fountain had to be perfectly level, or the water wouldn't flow evenly across the top. Three fountain pumps were placed in the catch pan, and plastic tubing was fed up through a hole in the stone.

Pouring water into Noguchi's The Well

Water being added to The Well.

With everything in place, 18 gallons of tap water were added to the catch pan and the pumps were turned on. The water filled the sculpture and trickled down all sides of the stone, filling the galleries with soothing sounds of flowing water. The catch pan and pumps were neatly hidden below pounds of freshly-cleaned trap rock.

Usually a conservator's work would finish at this point after an installation, but The Well requires ongoing attention and maintenance throughout the exhibition. One challenging issue in the dry winter months is that the running water slowly evaporates. To check the level of the water, Ariel uses a low-tech but effective solution: a hidden ruler. When the levels get below the specific marker, water is added.

The water chemistry is also extremely important to the safe exhibition of The Well. Each week, Ariel and conservation intern Anna Ersenkal check the water chemistry to make sure it is safe for the basalt stone. A sample is collected and the water pH and alkalinity are tested and recorded. If any of the levels are off, Ariel and Anna adjust them by adding small amounts of deionized water, or by draining the water completely and refilling the fountain. Algae growth inhibitors called "polyquats," are added when necessary to prevent algae from forming on the surface of the artwork.

It's a delicate balance and unique challenge to keep an artwork which also functions as a fountain running safely inside a museum, but the sculpture is a highlight in the gallery for all of our visitors. Besides, fountain chemistry can now be added to Ariel's diverse and interesting conservation job description at SAAM.

Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern is open through March 19, 2017. Ariel O'Connor contributed to this post.

Posted by Abigail on December 27, 2016 in American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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Guest Curator Dakin Hart Speaks About the Work of Isamu Noguchi
December 22, 2016

On December 1, Dakin Hart, senior curator of The Noguchi Museum and co-curator of Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern gave a talk at SAAM on the themes of the exhibition. As Hart navigates Noguchi's visionary work, he looks at the artist's ability to take inspiration from the ancient and the modern to create abstract and timeless works.

In a way the whole show is trying to figure out, 'What does it mean to be classic? What does timeless mean?'

Dakin Hart

Watch our webcast below as Dakin Hart presents Noguchi's ideas and artworks, relaying the stories behind the artist's creative process, exploring his inventive designs and sculpture, and revealing the wit and curiosity of an innovative sculptor. Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern runs through March 19, 2017.

Posted by Amy on December 22, 2016 in American Art Here
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Betsy Broun’s Vision: An Appreciation
December 15, 2016

Betsy Broun

Betsy Broun, standing in front of Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii

I have worked my entire professional life knowing only one boss, Betsy Broun. She retired yesterday after nearly 30 years at the helm of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. So I've been taking stock of her vision for the museum and how the ways we connect with people to tell stories of art in a citizen democracy are tied to her ideas about American art and contemporary society. Technology has always been at the forefront of SAAM's programs, with Betsy advocating for new ways to engage with visitors—from launching one of the earliest museum websites through America Online in 1993 to supporting this blog, the first at the Smithsonian in 2005, to our current Linked Open Data initiative that connects our collections with others across the U.S. This list could go on and on. I found this quote from Betsy that reminded me how forward thinking she is:

In the third century of our national experience, art could at last find a meaningful place in American life if we choose to use the objects of the past and the technologies of the future to make the right connections. Instead of 'trickle-down' culture, people could search through our incredibly diverse collections to find that peculiarly rewarding match that occurs when we see in an artwork something we ourselves have understood or experienced. At last we have the means to make art available to a democratic society in which individual experience, not hierarchical systems, can find expression.

Although this statement could have been said today, it was in fact said more than 20 years ago. Betsy included it in a talk she gave to the Smithsonian Commission on the Future on January 7, 1994 (which was published later that year in SAAM's journal American Art). As my colleagues and I prepare for new leadership at SAAM, we can rest assured that Betsy has directed us down an exciting path. Thank you.

Posted by Laura on December 15, 2016 in American Art Here
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Director's Choice: Who Made the Cut, Part II
December 13, 2016

In honor of Elizabeth "Betsy" Broun's nearly thirty years at the helm of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and her imminent retirement, Broun spoke to a full house at the McEvoy Auditorium this past October, revealing insights and personal observations about her favorite works of art in SAAM's collection. And since she's the director, her Top Ten contains eighteen artworks. Last month, we posted the first part of her "Top Ten." Today, we are posting the rest on her list of favorites.

W H Johnson

William H. Johnson's Early Morning Work.

The lives of African Americans, women, and the Whitmanesque vistas of the American landscape rounded out SAAM director Betsy Broun's presentation of her favorite works of art in our museum's collection.

The discussion of three African American artists representing vastly different times in our nation's history began with William H. Johnson. His colorful, vibrant works portraying faith and family are well represented at SAAM. Born in 1901 in South Carolina, when "Jim Crow was alive and well," Johnson moved to New York at the age of 17, before temporarily relocating to Europe to study with some of the masters, including Chaim Soutine. In terms of Johnson's style, Broun told us that "Instead of being a slashing modernist, he simplified, and adopted a naïve, folk-art style" that is evident in many paintings including Early Morning Work. Johnson's life assumed a tragic arc late in life and his works—many in poor condition— were almost destroyed in a warehouse in New York City. "Nobody wanted them. The surrogate court ordered the collection destroyed. And then the Smithsonian stepped in. Instead of destroying them all, they came to our museum. When I think of how close this artist came to having his life work destroyed, it makes me realize the heavy weight of responsibility we have here to make sure that important artists find a friend in us and take a stand—he was unknown, and had no reputation or advocates. Long story short, it's a call to conscience for our museum and many others."

Fast forward to the 1950s and James Hampton's visionary, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly aka The Throne. This monumental work of art, praised by art critic Robert Hughes as the most important piece of visionary art ever made in this country, is currently on view with additional elements in the reimagined Folk and Self-taught galleries. "We still don't understand this work altogether, either," Broun told us, "Why was he doing this? Was he going to open a storefront church? Was it simply a private devotional enterprise? We do not understand. It is a spectacular achievement made from some of the most humble materials." And as with William H. Johnson's oeuvre, this work was destined for the dustbin until it was saved by folks in Washington. "We're lucky to have this one, too."

Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas' Portrait of Mnonja

Mickalene Thomas' Portrait of Mnonja, created in 2010, is "dramatic, sensual, and huge. It's kind of flashy. All of these are things for so long denied to women and to black people and here she is doing this dazzling image of empowerment." Mnonja reclines like a classical nude, and made Broun's list for it's embodiment of affirmation and power. "It feels so different from all the artworks where you have to tell a sad story to go along with it. Not with this one. Mickalene is on top of the world."

The discussion of Thomas's work led to a look at a selection of women portrayed in the collection over time, some on top of the world, some redefining their world, and others seemingly trapped. This included the solitary woman in the iconic Edward Hopper painting Cape Cod Morning from 1950 who may be a stand-in for all American women after World War II who were forced to return home after playing a crucial role in the workforce. About 25 years later and in the early years of Ms. Magazine, Martha Rosler created Semiotics of the Kitchen, an early form of video art where the artist uses the tools in her kitchen to create a kind of alphabet of feminism. From there, the discussion led to Viola Frey's nine-foot-tall woman, Lady in Blue and Yellow Dress, which towers over everyone and everything.

The talk concluded with works by George Catlin (an artist she greatly admires), Emanuel Leutze (whose Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol) with its panel of the Golden Gate, reminded us of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's monumental and expansive outdoor work, Running Fence), Ray Strong's bold image of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Wayne Thiebaud's Levee Farms, which Broun praised for its "positive view of the future that is in some ways uniquely American." In these last works there was a sense of optimism and a belief in America's sense of freedom and expansiveness and a "confident willingness to march forward in the future." Where will our journeys take us?

Broun concluded her talk by reading a section from Walt Whitman's great, "Song of the Open Road," ending with the words, "All seems beautiful to me," the same message she found in the works of art she shared with us.

Posted by Howard on December 13, 2016 in American Art Here
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Conversation Piece: Martin Puryear's Vessel
December 8, 2016

Each month, visitors to SAAM are invited to participate in a discussion-based program called Conversation Pieces. Spending an hour with a single work of contemporary art, participants engage in an open-ended experience of guided looking and discussion facilitated by Joanna Marsh, Senior Curator of Contemporary Interpretation. Marsh wrote about the theory behind the program in a previous blog post. Here's a taste of November's conversation.

Visitors discuss Martin Puryear's Vessel during November's Conversation Pieces program.

From the outset of our conversation about Martin Puryear's Vessel, it was clear that the large-scale sculpture sparked the curiosity and imagination of our group. Participants had no shortage of questions about the artwork: Is it meant to be a ship? An astronomical object? An allusion to Jonah and the Whale? Why is there a black ampersand inside the wooden structure?

Senior Curator of Contemporary Interpretation Joanna Marsh broadened our perspective on the piece by showing us examples of other Puryear sculptures and drawings in which he experiments with similar forms. This prompted our group to notice the sculpture could be seen as a human head, with its face flat against the ground. There are curved pieces of wood on either side that suddenly look like ears when viewed with this in mind.

The meaning of the ampersand seemed to dominate much of our discussion. Some people noted that the wooden ball sitting next to it could be read as a period, and wondered what message Puryear might be sending by juxtaposing these two symbols from our written language. We talked about how the ampersand is used in writing to connect things and suggests addition, whereas the period is used for closure. If we imagine the wooden structure to be a head, one person noted, the ampersand and period might represent thought.

We also discussed the significance of the ampersand's striking blackness and its unusual materials: wire mesh coated with tar. One participant observed that the ampersand appears to be suspended from the wooden structure by a shackle. This led the group to wonder if Puryear was intentionally invoking dark periods of African American history. Might this "vessel" be a reference to a slave ship? Marsh shared with us that the artist spent two years in Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps, which sparked thinking about the possible African stylistic influences in the piece.

The many layers of potential meaning we uncovered by our exploration of Puryear's sculpture seemed only to deepen our group's interest throughout the hour. In the end, it seemed that the ampersand was a fitting symbol of our conversation—it felt like we could have continued to say "AND" infinitely, finding more and more possibilities in the artwork.

The next Conversation Pieces discussion will be held on Wednesday, December 14th at 6 p.m. No advance registration is required for this free program.

Posted by Phoebe on December 8, 2016 in American Art Education, American Art Here
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