November 13, 2009 | Here is a point that had somehow eluded me until now: eighteenth-century American furniture—a John Townsend chest-on-chest, a Philadelphia tea table—was already bold, original, and world class while American painting was still struggling for stature and its own voice. This discrepancy dawned on me while reading Carrie Rebora Barratt and Barbara Weinberg's article in this issue about the stories American painters put on canvas to pump up the importance of their calling. Such anxieties seem peculiarly American. The chief business of the American people, one of our presidents memorably lamented, is business; the practical value of a high chest had an obvious appeal to a pragmatic Yankee patron while an oil on canvas was bound to be a harder sell, at least in the beginning.
A new country required something new, but how was the artist to balance the inescapable influence of Europe with the originality a republic seemed to require? The blast of fresh air that blows through John Single…» More
October 23, 2009 | A few months ago Eleanor Gustafson and I spent a day as guests of Historic New England. We had wanted to see what I like to think of as the bookends of that organization's historic houses—the 1938 Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with its spare, modernist decor and bracing use of industrial materials, and the rambling, mysterious Beauport in Gloucester, where Henry Davis Sleeper invented romantic clutter and reinvented interior design during the almost thirty years he worked on it from 1907 to 1934. Of the latter we will have much to say in a future issue. The Gropius House is pertinent here because it reminds me that the Bauhaus, subject of Christopher Long's wonderfully clarifying article in this issue, was a school, not a tyrannical aesthetic imposed by a group of Weimar era killjoys. However alienating the international style eventually became, the Bauhaus as represented by the house Gropius designed for his wife and daughter, is a warm and pleasant reminder of the school's best ideals: beauty joined to function in a timeless design.
There was one thing about the visit that puzzled me, however. Among the furnishings designed by Marcel Breuer is a badly pitted lacquered plywood and chrome-plated tubular steel side table. This is not the kind of furniture that was meant to be restored, and Gropius's daughter Ati Gropius Johansen has argued that it should be replaced by a good new version. Historic New England is not so sure, but I think she is right. With modernism crispness is all, or nearly all. This is not the furniture that Thomas Messel values in Meredith Etherington-Smith's article, where the craftsmanship cannot be duplicated and the passing years only add to the beauty of a piece. Neither is it the luxurious silver furniture of Versailles described in this issue by Florian Knothe, created to burnish the aura of the Sun King. Breuer's designs were meant to be mass-produced for the masses and, to my mind, the patina of age seems beside the point and does not become them.
September 25, 2009 | One of the things I admire about Electra Havemeyer Webb was her instinctive sense that the cultural designations of high-, low-, and middlebrow were silly. I do not mean to suggest that Webb was a prophet of late twentieth-century multiculturalism or that she could have argued for the relative merits of a beautifully carved duck decoy vis à vis a fine Degas. She couldn't, and she wouldn't have seen the point. For her, the decoy and the painting were both objects of astonishment and delight, but she knew that while the latter was justly praised, the former was likely to be overlooked. Thus the long journey to establish her multibuilding Shelburne Museum with its irreverent assemblage of the overlooked—decoys, hatboxes, tools, rowdy circus ephemera, ceramics, glass canes, and everything else that struck her as important and in need of rescue, including some really big items such as a lighthouse and a side-paddle-wheel steamer.
Several months ago I was discussing Electra Webb and the resilience of the Shelburne with my friend Tom Armstrong, former director of the Whitney Museum. That talk resulted in a plan to take eight artists up to the museum to see what they each made of the collections. We did just that with the, to me, astonishing and delightful results you can read about in Eleanor Gustafson's article, "The present learns from the past."
August 10, 2009 | We have grouped a promiscuous array of things in this issue under the broad umbrella of "folk art": schoolgirl drawings, trench art, manufactured advertising signs, as well as objects more conventionally agreed upon as "folky," such as carved walking sticks and weather vanes.
While it is common to worry about the vagueness of the term folk art, I am inclined to enjoy its dodgy ambiguity. Folk artists operate outside the rules of the academy and, most important, apart from the market forces that drive fine art. The way in which they work behind the back of "great" art gives their work the freedom that draws us in and grants us a certain liberty too. I know how I am supposed to think and feel about the sublimity of nature in a Hudson River school landscape; I don't have that certainty when I run across the large carved dog's head in Allan and Penny Katz's living room. Sometimes it's a thrill to be on your own just as that carver undoubtedly was.
July 17, 2009 | While withholding its authentic treasures for serious seekers, New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, makes nostalgia bordering on kitsch easily available. Fortunately, when we embarked on our own West by Southwest migration in this issue we had the benefit of some clear-eyed guidance from Laura Beach, who comes from Santa Fe, and Frederick Turner, who has lived there for thirty years and written widely about American culture and landscape.
You need guides like these to capture the many senses of a place that has hosted major Native American settlements for two thousand years, Spanish settlements for over four hundred years, and only became a state less than a century ago.
Beach's guide to Santa Fe's galleries indicates a vibrant current scene where the ragged conjunctions of Spanish, Native American, and contemporary art have made that city the second largest art market in the country. Her article on the Juan José Prada house now owned by Nedra and Richard Matteucci, who live there with a collection of several centuries of art inspired by the region, is a nice example of how the local dynamic keeps artists and collectors moving forward.
by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton» View All