Conversation Piece: Mark Bradford's Amendment #8
November 15, 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 October's conversation.

Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford's Amendment #8.

"Restless." "Chaotic." "Visceral." These were some of the first descriptive words voiced by the dozen or so adults who gathered in SAAM's Lincoln Gallery to discuss Mark Bradford's Amendment #8 on the evening of October 5th. Perched on small blue stools, the group leaned in intently to look closer at the artwork.

Though the piece is abstract, some saw references to landscape or the human body in Bradford's artwork. Others focused on the artist's use of color, seeing the suggestion of violence in his generous use of red. Participants noticed quickly that there were words embedded on the canvas, and with the help of the label, were able to identify it as the text to the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A lively discussion ensued about what Bradford might have been trying to say about this amendment, which protects Americans from "excessive bail" and "cruel and unusual punishment."

Marsh shared information about the artist's process —building up layer upon layer of paper and sanding each down to unearth the surfaces below— and some were surprised to learn the piece was constructed from paper rather than paint. Others wondered about possible art historical references to Abstract Expressionist painting, while one was curious about the relationship between Bradford's choice of material and his personal biography. Several people noted connections between the artist's process and his subject matter, and thought Bradford's manipulation and blurring of his canvas might be intended to parallel the way our interpretation of the Amendments has been the subject of argument and debate, evolving over time.

Before we knew it, a security officer was kindly reminding us the museum was closing. A participant joked that he hadn't been sure they could spend an hour with such an abstract piece, but as the conversation continued into the elevator, it was clear there was still more to unpack. While artworks like Amendment #8 can seem intimidating at first, our discussion was a reminder of what can be discovered when we slow down and start a conversation.

The next Conversation Pieces discussion will be held on Wednesday, November 16th at 6 p.m. No advanced registration is required for this free program.

Posted by Phoebe on November 15, 2016 in American Art Education, American Art Here
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Best of Both Worlds: Isamu Noguchi
November 11, 2016

View of the Noguchi exhibition

Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern, installation view.

Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern opens today, a celebration of the renowned sculptor who often found inspiration in ancient art and architecture, including Egyptian pyramids and Buddhist temples, Zen gardens and American Indian burial mounds. The nearly seventy-five objects in the show span the artist's six-decade career and show his love of material, whether it's natural or manmade, stone or even light, as evidenced in his ethereal Akari light sculptures.

Noguchi saw himself as an inventor as well as an artist. His Radio Nurse, both Cycladic and contemporary in appearance, is considered to be the first baby monitor. A man of this world and possibly a world beyond this one, he was not only interested in landscape and social spaces, but the atomic age and outer space as well. His Model for Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars (1946) was made in sand and no longer exists, but a wall mural in the exhibition captures the image of one world reaching out to another.

If you can't make it to the show, take a look at our online gallery. Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern remains on view through March 19, 2017.

Posted by Howard on November 11, 2016 in American Art Here
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What We Talk About When We Talk About Self-Taught Art
November 9, 2016

In honor of the renovation and reinstallation of SAAM’s galleries for folk and self-taught art on the first floor, four specialists in the field came together to address the perceptions and practice of folk and self-taught artists, each from a unique vantage point. The speakers joined Leslie Umberger, SAAM's curator of folk and self-taught art and emcee for the evening, in a discussion on the unique position of these out-of-the-ordinary makers of art. One of Umberger's goals for the panel was to address "How we may foster public appreciation for work that might be perceived as simple or unsophisticated but is much more often nuanced and complex."

Folk and self-taught artists have come a long way, from being perceived as outsiders who existed on the wrong side of the academy, to a gradual recognition that they are rightfully a part of the canon. But who exactly are the people who didn't go to art school? What is non-mainstream art? Tom DiMaria, director of Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, talked about his work with people with disabilities who spend their days creating art. "The path to art is often the path to communication," he told us as he shared stories of artists in the Center, including Dan Miller, who is non-verbal and on the autistic spectrum. His drawing, Untitled (peach and gray with graphite) from 2010, was acquired by SAAM, and is currently on view in the new galleries. As a young boy (born 1961), his mother, a schoolteacher, sat with him every night spelling words hoping he would talk one day. "He did talk," DeMaria told us, "but twenty years later when he picked up a pen and a paintbrush and made drawings and images built upon words, one letter after the other." These are the words that were in his head for twenty years, that he could only express when he had paper and pen in front of him. His story is compelling, but it is his artwork that speaks for itself.

Katherine Jentleson, curator of folk and self-taught art at the High Museum of Art, contributed a survey of self-taught art over the past one hundred years. As she told us, "The art is primary and the biography of the artist including his or her access to training is secondary, or even irrelevant." Bernard L. Herman, professor of Southern studies and American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, added to our knowledge of self-taught artists and their practice, and touched on the works of Lonnie Holley and Thornton Dial, Sr., both of whom had works acquired by SAAM in the mid-1990s. Philip March Jones, director of the Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, spoke about artist Melvin Way, who was born in South Carolina in 1954, but eventually found his way to New York City. Like Dan Miller, Way's work was recently acquired by the museum and is currently on view on the first floor.

The Q&A after the talk brought audience questions about the place of digital in the oeuvre, as well as the question of how you address artists who were once labeled "outsiders," now that their work can be found in private collections and museums such as SAAM.

If you missed the discussion, take a look at our webcast:

Posted by Howard on November 9, 2016 in American Art Everywhere, American Art Here, Lectures on American Art
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November's Handi-Hour at the Renwick
November 4, 2016

Loving this crisp fall weather or wishing for the warmth of summer? Either way, this Handi-hour has you covered. Using dried autumn leaves or pressed wild flowers, come and make your own decorative candle or a bookmark. Keep your crafts for yourself or get a jump-start on those holiday gifts. Check out the videos below for a primer on crafting with dried and pressed foliage. Join us on Thursday, November 10 at the Renwick to put those ideas to good use. While you're crafting, enjoy a crisp brew from Denizens Brewing and music from the Brad Pugh duo.

Tickets are sold out for this month, but check back in with us on February 6th when tickets go on sale for our February 22nd Handi-hour.

Posted by Gloria on November 4, 2016 in Post It
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Docents Look Back on 40+ Years at SAAM
November 3, 2016

Every day, SAAM's nearly 130 volunteer docents share their knowledge and love of American art with the public through highlights tours, school field trips, outreach, videoconferencing, and more. Eye Level sat down with two of our longest-serving docents, Phoebe Kline and Susanne Joyner, to hear their reflections on the ways the Museum has changed, highlights of its history, and what keeps them engaged.


Docents Susanne Joyner (left) and Phoebe Kline (right) reminisce in SAAM's Kogod Courtyard.

Eye Level: When did you both become docents?

Phoebe Kline: I became a docent in 1974.

Susanne Joyner: And I started in 1976.

EL: So, over the last 40 years or so that you've been docents at the museum, what are some of the biggest changes you've seen?

SJ: The Kogod Courtyard, which I think is fabulous. The most exciting thing to me was when ... high school students would come in for four weeks for a print workshop. And at the end of the school year they had an exhibit, and they had the award ceremony here. I still think of that and our courtyard.

PK: We used to have what we called children's days. We only did it once a year. It was a big, big deal, and basically docent-run. And we had it in the courtyard, where local artists were very happy to give a day over to exposing kids to art.

SJ: We worked very hard! We had a lot of responsibilities.

EL: Do either of you have a favorite artwork you show people on tours?

SJ: Yes, Hans Hofmann's Fermented Soil. If it's up, that's my ultimate favorite. It begs the question, you know, "what color is dirt?" I like it because I can get a really great dialogue out of it.

PK: I love the Hugo Robus sculpture, One and Another. I really have so much fun with that piece. After we talk about how the bodies are not really touching and how the negative space is as important as the mass in that piece, we begin to think about why he called it One and Another. And with the kids, I always say, well, you know, we all have one experience, and that is being part of our mother. But once we're out in the world, we're a separate being. We're the other. And maybe that's what he's getting at.

EL: What about favorite exhibitions?

SJ: The one I like the best was The West as America.

PK: The West as America was very comprehensive. And it was before its time. I really enjoyed Virginia Mecklenburg's exhibition, Metropolitan Lives, because it brought so many works to us that were classics of the Ashcan School. The 1934 show was great, too. People loved that. A lot of older people remembered that time from their childhood.

SJ: I thought video artist Nam June Paik's exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary was a fun show, too.

PK: It was! And I loved The Singing and the Silence! I thought that was a mind-blower. People were just in love with that show.

EL: Is there a particularly memorable experience that stands out from your time here?

PK: In 1976 there was a retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg. He came to the opening and the museum was crammed with people.

SJ: I saw a woman, I swear she had a dead bird on her forehead, dangling...

PK: Because of his combines, people came to that opening in just incredible outfits.

SJ: It was the craziest show you've ever seen. You're right, Phoebe. And I had just become a docent!

PK: We were both really new to the program. And, man, that made an impression. Probably nothing has made an impression quite like that, except for WONDER . I think WONDER was a fantastic show.

EL: What keeps this job interesting for you?

SJ: The learning.

PK: I think Susanne is right, the opportunity to self-educate is really a great draw. You know, I'd like to be magnanimous, and say, oh, it's the opportunity to serve the public, but it's also just plain fun! And we have wonderful people to work with, and it's interesting to see how curators' minds work when they put up a new exhibition. And it is always changing.

Are you interested in volunteering at SAAM? There are a number of ways to get involved. Check out our volunteer page for more information.

Posted by Phoebe on November 3, 2016 in American Art Education
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