Monday, February 18, 2013

That Brilliant Brillo Box: Pop's Debt to Abstract Expressionism

A set of Warhol boxes exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1964 (source)
Just about 50 years ago, in December 1963, Andy Warhol ordered a large number of pine boxes from the Havlicek Woodworking Company.  These were destined to be used in the first project in his new studio, dubbed the Factory, which would be presented in his first ever sculpture show.  In the early months of 1964, Warhol and his helpers would screen print the labels of famous consumer products on each box, creating facsimiles of the originals: Campbell's tomato juice, Del Monte peach halvesHeinz ketchup, Kellogg's cornflakesMott's apple juice, and, of course, Brillo pads.  The Brillo boxes (there was both a yellow version and the iconic white) were the most memorable, and, with the earlier Campbell's soup lithos, count among of the most famous images in Warhol's oeuvres.  Stacked in piles at New York's Stable Gallery, these boxes would help catapult Warhol into superstardom, and Brillo would become emblematic of that ascent.

The Stable gallery opening (source)
One visitor the the Gallery was a then unknown philosopher from Columbia University, named Arthur Danto.  Danto would go on to become the most noted English-language aesthetician of the second half of the 20th century.  He published his first seminal article, one of the most reprinted in all of aesthetics, in 1964, shortly after seeing the exhibition.  Called "The Artworld," Danto asks what distinguishes a work of art from an identical looking object that is not art.  His central example is, you guessed it, Warhol'd Brillo Box.  This question would hardly have come up a few years earlier when abstract expressionism dominated the New York art scene.  Expressionist painting are hard to mistake for anything but art.  But Warhol's box, like Duchamp's readymades from 50 years earlier, blur boundaries between art and artifact; they suggest that there is nothing intrinsic to every artwork that distinguishes from not art.  Art status depends on context of presentation and a background theory, which gets renegotiated as artists try to expand the boundaries of art.  For Danto, the essence of art hangs on institutionalized practices of art making and art viewing, not just on features inherent in artworks themselves.  To become art, an object must be appropriately contextualized.  The Brillo Box was needed to make that fact clear.  In Danto's eyes, it reveals the essence of art more clearly than any prior work.  It is, to that extent, the consummate work of art.  Throughout his distinguished career, Danto has come back to Brillo again and again.

The original Brillo box with Warhol's copies

After writing his original essay, Danto learned a striking fact that still hasn't made its way into every art history book--but should.  The original Brillo packaging, which Warhol's versions copy almost exactly, was designed by a fellow named James Harvey (see portrait below by Bob Schulenberg).  Harvey, it turns out, was an abstract expressionist painter, who, failing to pay his rent through fine art, had taken a job in advertising.  The Brillo logo, with its primal dynamism, stands out among Warhol's boxes because it is more visually compelling than the others.  And it is more compelling because it was designed by an artist who had highly developed skills as an action painter--exactly the kind of art that Warhol was reacting against.

In diametric opposition to pop, action painting is about raw expression -- a angry post-war gesticulation, visceral and energetic.  It is decidedly non-representational and it takes painterliness to a level unprecedented in art history.  James (or Jim) Harvey was a paradigm case.  His canvases (see example below from here and here) are impasto explosions, about as far removed from consumer culture as you can get.  At least ostensibly.  When one compares these works to the classic waves framing the Brillo logo, a kinship can be seen.  Brillo is an explosive design.  Like the sound-effects in a Batman TV episode, the typography seems to burst off the package.  Unsubtle, unrefined, and unapologetic.  It might be described as capitalist expressionism, which shouts at the consumer rather than gently coaxing.  It is also aggressively modern, announcing a new generation cut off from classical antiquity, just as abstract expressionism had been seen as a new, distinctively American art.

At the end of 1963, we find Warhol, having gained notoriety with Campbell's soup, searching the supermarket shelves for his next masterpiece.  Many brands grab his eye, as the ensemble at the Stable Gallery will soon attest, but there was, we can presume, a Brillo moment, when this ostentatious box demanded his reverent attention.  Warhol was searching for the fatal bullet that would finally bring abstract expressionism down, but he happened to select a work that might be better regarded as the grand culmination of that tradition. The image that would secure Warhol's coronation in the artwold was an inadvertent homage to the tradition he deposed.  Thus, through the Brillo Box, expressionism seized a quiet triumph.  

A James Harvey on auction
Jim Harvey's work shows that the gulf between pop art and abstract expressionism has been exaggerated.  Far from usurping the expressionist empire, Warhol's work can be seen an an outgrowth. In hindsight, this continuity was already apparent from the painterly first steps of the movement.  Painterliness is an overt characteristic in Rauschenberg and Johns, and we can find traces too in early Warhol.  Consider his rhinoplasty portrait, Before and After, of 1961.  Here paint drips from otherwise carefully executed lines, just as one might expect in an expressionist canvas.  The formal composition also evokes Rothko and Gottlieb.  One might even speculate that Warhol's carefully crafted persona as an opaque celebrity short on words was a spoofy reworking of Pollack's reticent brand of cool.

For his part, Jim Harvey did not see pop as a worthy successor.  He scoffed at Warhol's work, and his gallerist wrote an outraged press release.  According to an article in Print Magazine, Harvey chatted with Warhol at the opening of the 1964 exhibition, but he didn't mention having designed the Brillo packaging.  Some time later, he posed for a photograph holding a Brillo carton in front of one of his expressionist paintings, as if to contrast his commercial work with his "real" art.  Though the contrast is striking, there are also similarities.  It's hard not to see the Brillo swirls as echoes of Harvey's abstract work.  The photo appears below, so you can judge for yourself (source: Danto's book, The Abuse of Beauty, and a book on the Brillo Box, by Michael Golec).  Sadly, this may have been one of the last photos of Harvey.  A year after Warhol's exhibition, he died of blood cancer, presumably aware that abstract expressionism was over.

Or was it?  Inspired by Warhol's Brillo Box, Danto described art as the transfiguration of the commonplace.  Pop artists, like centuries of artists before them, turn ordinary things into extraordinary things.  They are, as Duchamp liked to say, alchemists.  Artists also transform artworks made by previous generations.  Artistic innovation is almost always an extension of previous styes or a negation.  It turns out that pop is both of these things.  In negating Harvey's brand of art, Warhol helped to extend art's expressive nature into directions that fit more naturally with the commercialization that had emerged in the wake of post-war angst.  Both action painting and commercial appropriation are outpourings of their respective ages, and the apparent gulf between those ages shrinks when we cross Harvey's colorful bridge.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Drawn to Surrealism

Surrealism is sometimes seen as something of an embarrassment.  Silly in a century of seriousness, illustrational during in a era that rejected representation, Freudian in ways that now seem fraught.  An exhibition currently at the Morgan Library (earlier at LACMA) seeks to correct that image.  The exhibit focusses on surrealist drawings, broadly construed to include mixed media and collage, which is a good choice, since the surrealists did much to turn drawing into a respected medium.  It draws attention to the international impact of the movement, its inclusiveness, its experimentation, and its influence on subsequent art forms.  Some of the works, like the impressive André Masson above, anticipate things happening in art right now (think of Julie Mehretu).

The exhibit includes many things that one would expect to see in a surrealist show, such as frottages by Ernst (which, admittedly, I detest), and a collection of exquisite corpses (which, admittedly, I love).  A bit more surprising is a wonderful formalist montage by Matta (below), which is more geometric than his usual work, and the monochrome format save us from his ghastly palette. 

The show also makes special effort to establish that surrealism was not just a French thing, nor even French, Belgian, and Spanish.  There are collages by Joseph Cornell, a nice postcard piece by Roland Penrose, some fine works by Mexican surrealists, including César Moro, Czech artists such as, Jindřich Štyrský, and Ei-Kyu (!), from Japan.  See examples below.

Seeing these works reminds one of surrealism's enduring influence in these countries.  Within Mexican art, there are close ties between surrealism and mural painting, in the Czech republic there is an ongoing tradition of surrealist animation, and, in Japan, phantasmagoric imagery is a mainstay of the anime-aesthetic.  Rather than seeing these international expressions as offshoots of French art, the show suggests that there was a large cross- national conversation.  That said, many of the highlights in the show are French.  I was particularly taken with the erotically charged works of Georges Hugnet.  Interestingly, these some how evoke the eroticism of Japanese cinema, and one wonders about the lines of influence. 

In addition to it's international emphasis, the other main editorial element of the show is the effort to demonstrate a link between surrealism and subsequent movements.  We see, for example, a mediocre Rothko, which serves a missing link between surrealist drawings and his more iconic abstractions, as well as a somewhat more successful Pollack (below).

 There are also some Paolozzi's, the unsung originator of pop art, which hint at the idea that pop grew out of surrealism.  This is probably a distortion, because pop iconography owes more to dada, but the juxtapositions here are suggestive (below, left).  

Another link is suggested between surrealist automatic drawings and subsequent experimentations with chance.  Near the end of the show, there is an appealing Ellsworth Kelly consisting of a grid of lines that have been assembled using a random method.  Dadaists like Arp, Tzara, and Duchamp may be a greater influence on this work, devoid as it is of the dream-like imagery that weighs down the surrealist enterprise.  But still, the exhibition succeeds in rescuing surrealism from the periphery and repositioning it as one of the most influential and long-lasting movements in recent art.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Courbet Recapitated

Gustave Courbet's perennially provocative L'Orgine de Monde has made cameos in two recent artbouillon posts (quoted in works by Michalene Thomas see Rosemarie Trockel).  Now art history's most infamous crotch shot is in the spotlight once more, and for an astonishing reason.  It was reported this week in Paris Match that an art collector found what seems to be a missing part of the painting.  While rummaging though a Paris antique shop, an art collector found a painting of a woman's head leaning backward as if lying on a bed.  It has now been confirmed that the weave of the canvas matched Courbet's painting, and the head appears to belong to what was long believed to be a headless presentation the a woman's netherregion.  This 1,400 euro purchase will change art history books.

Courbet's painting shocks viewers, in part, because of it's headlessness.  Reclining nudes are common in Western art.  This one is unusually explicit, but it's brazenness owes much to its cropping.  We are not presented with a whole woman here; there is no face to express her thoughts or feelings.  Woman is distilled to the part that, in Courbet's time like ours, is too often seen as the measure of her worth (be it as sex object or as mother).  Then there is the cosmological title, which reminds us that we are all born to women.  A feminist commentary on Courbet's part?  A condescending apotheosis?  Or, worse still, a sly suggestion all life begins in vulgarity?  All vying interpretations must now factor in this new discovery.

We can now see that L'Orgine de Monde was once a full portrait.  It is sexually changed like many of Courbet's nudes (see above), but not nearly as radical as it has been described to be.  It is much like other pornographic pictures of the time.  Of course, Courbet may have decapitated the painting himself.  In that case, he deserves the dubious honor of dissecting away his sitter's humanity.  But historians will surely want to know now when and why.  Perhaps he was trying to save the woman's reputation, for example, or salvage her portrait for a respectable buyer.

On this topic of identity, the new discovery is a great boon.  The identity of the sitter for L'Origine de Monde can now be confirmed.  It appears to be Joanna Hiffernan, an Irish model and muse to two famous painters: Courtbet and James Whistler.  Hifferman is known to have posed for The Sleepers (the entwined nudes above), as well as Whistler's Symphony in White 1 and 2 (2 is on the left).  Here, Hiffernan catches her own reflection, a commentary, perhaps, on her own status as a mere depiction, forever trapped in a two-dimensional world.  Comparison of these likenesses suggests that Hiffernan is represented in the recovered Courbet portrait, and hence its more familiar lower half.  This settles what has long been a matter of speculation.  Interestingly Hiffernan is reported to have been an artist in her own right, though her work is now unknown.  Thus, her once anonymous anatomy, presented as a cradle of creation, can be cast in a new light.  Like Courbet, Hiffernan partook in a form of worldmaking: not birth, but the creation of art.  By regaining her head, Hiffernan at last regains her status as a thinking, feeling, and creative human being.  Indeed, her expression is not that of a soulless woman in ecstasy, but of a woman in contemplation.  Where Courbet drew attention to the possibilities in her pelvis, we now see Hiffernan's eyes staring upward in imagination as if to suggest more cerebral acts of engendering.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Curious History of Museums

The museum, as we know it, is a recent invention.  Museums are institutions, open to the public, where we go to see art.  There are also museums that specialize in natural history or artifacts of cultural interest, but these are usually housed separately from art museums and their function is manifestly didactic.  This concept of the museum emerged in the mid-19th century.  Before that, "museums" were private collections, and they mixed art, artifact, and natural history together. They had some didactic interest, but they were, more than anything, places of curiosity, were people could come see objects that were strange, mysterious, exotic, or even monstrous.  They were called cabinets of curiosity, or in the German, Wunderkammern.

Over the last month, the Grolier Club on East 60th St. in New York hosted an exhibition tracing the 500-year legacy of the Wunderkammer.  They assembled some of the most important books pertaining to these collections, with illustrations that give insight into a time when art, science, and a sense of the miraculous were all intermingled.  Some of these illustrations are often reproduced, but it was a rare privilege to see the originals.  Others were more unusual, and the curators did a fine job of showing how cabinets of curiosity evolved into more modern museums.

The Wunderkammer concept gained popularity during the Renaissance and spread quickly throughout Europe, with natural philosophers (proto-scientists), noblemen, and explorers amassing enormous collections, which members of the educated classes would seek out with great interest.  The Grolier exhibit allowed easy comparison of some important early collections by juxtaposing pictures of each (usually printed as the frontispieces of books describing the collections).  Among these were two from  Italy: Ferrante Imperato's Dell'historia Naturale (16th c., top) and Lorenzo Lagati depiction of Ferdinando Cospi's cabinet (17th c., above).  The exhibit also had the classic depiction of Ole Worm's 17th century cabinet, which was once one of the main attractions is Copenhagen (right).

Moving into the 18th century, the show has an outstanding image of an important Dutch cabinet: Vincent Levinus's Wondertooneel der Natuur (above).  On the left side of this image, you can see shelves of specimen jars, some containing what look like malformed humans.

The exhibit also honors another Dutch Wunderkammer.  One fine example is the early 18th century plate from Frederik Ruysch, who took special pains to turn his the objects in his collection into lavish display pieces.  He was assisted by his daughter Rachel, one of the greatest still-life painters of all time.  She would sew eleabrate lacework to adorn severed limbs in here father anatomica preparations.  Together, they went well beyond earlier cabinet makers in exaggerate the otherworldly qualities of the anatomical and botanical objects in their collection  Click on the image to the left to appreciate a spectacular example, guarded by infantile skeletons .

These cabinets may seem a far cry from art museums, since they mostly display animals (specimen jars, bones, shells, fossils, taxidermy, and so on).  But some of the items in the Grolier exhibit gesture at  a link to art.  Frederick and Rachel Ruysch provide an example, since their creations can be viewed as sculptures.  A more direct link to the art museum can be detected in an image from Le Cabinet de la Bibliotheque de Sainte Genevieve, created by Claude du Molinet in 1660 (above).  Notice that Molinet combines artifacts with paintings (above).  This was not unusual.  Guidelines written in this period instructed cabinet makers to strike a perfect balance between naturalia with artificialia.

That said, the Grolier exhibit strongly emphasized naturalia.  They included some wonderful colored prints by Albertus Sebus (the alligator above was used to advertise the show).  They also included an actual preserved pufferfish, which resembled a Sebus print (below).  The Sebus pufferfish was not on display but can be found in a lovingly prepared book by Taschen.

Another puffer appeared in a charming page of creatures from Paul Contant's Le Jardin, et Cabinet Poetique (below right).  There was also a monstrous snail (below left), and a page or insects from Laurens Theodorus Gronovius, along with some metal insect models (below, as well).

It is noteworthy that Wunderkammern did not include any animal specimens they could get their hands on.  They selected, instead, creatures that would have been regarded as strange or wondrous.  These were places for viewing oddities.  It is no surprise, then, that Wunderkammern were a major influence on P.T. Barnum, who opened one of the first major museums in New York, the American Museum, which burned down in 1865.  The image below (which was not on display) shows how much Barnum's collection of curiosities resembled Wunderkammer of old, but unlike these, it was open to the general public (there were special hours open for African American visitors).

Barnum's institution was a step forward in the modern museum concept, and by opening his doors to all he helped to democratized museum going in the United States.  Of course, Barnum was no poster child for egalitarianism or humanism.  His museum took the Wunderkammer concept to a new level by exhibiting human oddities, such as his Fiji cannibals (see brochure below from the exhibition) and albinos.  The image below of an albino family (not in the show) is from a series called "Barnum's Gallery of Wonders"-- a term that echoes the Wunderkammer tradition.  Next to that is an image of Barnum's Freejee "mermaid" one of many false oddities that he advertised dramatically to draw crowds.

As I've been telling it, this institutional evolution seems to go from the Wunderkammer to the freak show.  But what about the art museum?  Aside from my mention of du Molinet and Ruysch, that part of the story has been left out.  The Grolier exhibition also left some bits of the narrative untold, but it described how the British Museum began to exhibit mummies in the 19th century, which serve as a missing link between odd biological specimens and art.  Throughout that century, the British Museum purchased natural curiosities along side ancient artifacts and European paintings, as if these three categories belonged together.  Similar acquisitions were made by New York's Metropolitan Museum.  I end with a 1897 image from an article in Harper's Bazar found on Ebay) showing a fin de siècle display of artifacts at the Met.  One can see in this chamber of cabinets and walls pilled high with exotic objects a clear residue of the Wunderkammer era.  Even now, when we go to see paintings in galleries, we should recognize that this practice is partially continuous with an old tradition of viewing strange and wondrous things.