Rebecca Bedell on Moved to Tears

Rebecca Bedell Moved to Tears book coverIn her new book Moved to Tears, Rebecca Bedell overturns received ideas about sentimental art, arguing that major American artists—from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the eighteenth century and Asher Durand and Winslow Homer in the nineteenth to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth—produced what was understood in their time as sentimental art. This was art intended to develop empathetic bonds and to express or elicit social affections, including sympathy, compassion, nostalgia, and patriotism. In this Q&A, she discusses the ways sentimental art has been misunderstood, and why it is important today.

What is new in the book? What did you hope to accomplish?

I hope both to uproot the still tenacious modernist prejudice against sentimental art and to transform our understanding of it. So many art critics, art historians, artists, and others regard “sentimental art” as a synonym for “bad art.” I want to redefine and complicate ideas about sentimental art: what it looks like, who made it, the cultural work it does.

Isn’t there bad sentimental art?

Yes, of course. There’s also bad abstract art, bad Impressionist art, bad portraits—but we don’t dismiss those entire categories of art because of that.

I associate sentimental art with Victorian genre painting. Is that what you focus on?

No. I do not associate sentimental art with particular subject matter, nor do I locate it in the Victorian era alone. I’ve tried to suggest in the book the extent to which the sentimental pervaded artistic production (and reception) from the later eighteenth century onward. It touched nearly all categories of subject matter: portraits, history painting, religious imagery, landscape, and so on. It affected the creation not only of painting, sculpture, prints, and photography, but also architecture, landscape design, and public spectacles.

Who are the key figures in the book?

The artists I address range from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the late eighteenth century, to Andrew Jackson Downing, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and others in the nineteenth, to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth.

So, what is sentimental art?

Sentimental art has fundamentally to do with connectedness, with our connectedness to others, to place, to the conditions of our existence. Sentimental art aims to develop empathetic bonds and to represent and elicit what were called in the eighteenth century the “social affections,” those emotions that bind us together, including tenderness, affection, sympathy, compassion, and patriotism.

I see sentimental art as part of the broader “sentimental project,” as historians have termed it, launched from Great Britain in the eighteenth century. Its ambition was to transform individuals and society through the cultivation of sympathy. Abolitionism, penal reform, child labor laws, and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals were all, in some measure, parts of the project.

In working on the book, did you come upon anything that surprised you?

I began the project by combing through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books, newspapers, and magazines for the use of the word “sentimental” in relation to art. The first instance I found of this was a surprise to me. A writer for a Boston newspaper in the 1780s described John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War paintings as sentimental, and in a very positive way. That was my first hint that sentimental art’s early associations were not with the feminine and the domestic, but with the masculine, the public, and the political.

Where did the book begin? What launched you on this project?

As an art historian and teacher, I have been thinking about these issues and themes for a long time. But in a way, this project began in a big way for me during Barack Obama’s presidency, when he was selecting a new Supreme Court justice. He said that one of the qualities that he valued in jurists was empathy. The backlash against that statement was so intense and powerful that it shocked me. To me, empathy, an ability to think oneself into the subject position of someone different from oneself, seems a critically important quality in a judge.  Where did this angry, visceral reaction against the connective emotions of the sentimental come from?

At the same time, in my readings in my field of American art, I was continually coming upon statements such as, “Winslow Homer was never sentimental,” “John Singer Sargent’s paintings of children are never sentimental.” Yet their works—at least some of them—looked sentimental to me.  Why this need to deny the presence of the sentimental in the works of artists we admire?

All of this came together to launch me on this project. I had become conscious of a broad societal aversion to and rejection of the sentimental in both art and public life, and I wanted to understand it historically. What caused this aversion? Where did it come from? When did it begin?

Is sentimental art still being made today?

Certainly.  Steven Spielberg is one of the great sentimental filmmakers of our time. Ken Burns too. Much of the environmental art being created today is deeply concerned with our connectedness to the natural world. Some of the most powerful art associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Carrie Mae Weems’s recent work, is, in my understanding of the term, sentimental. In fact, I think it is difficult to identify any artists whose work excludes the sentimental completely. Its emotions—compassion, sympathy, affection, pity, concern—are fundamental to our human identities. I don’t think they can ever be wholly suppressed, and indeed one of my discoveries in my research and writing is that the sentimental is at the core of much of the art we admire and enjoy the most.

Rebecca Bedell is associate professor of art and chair of the Art Department at Wellesley College. She is the author of The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Princeton). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

UPress Week Blog Tour: #TurnItUp Arts and Culture

Welcome to the University Press Week blog tour. We’re kicking off today by turning up the volume on arts and culture with these fantastic university press offerings from our colleagues: Duke University Press writes about how partnerships with museums have helped them build a strong art list, Athabasca University Press offers a playlist by author Mark A. McCutcheon of all the songs featured in his book, The Medium Is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology. Rutgers University Press dedicates a post to their book, Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin. Over at Yale University Press, you can read a piece by author Dominic Bradbury about how immigrants enrich a country’s art and architecture, then head over to University of Minnesota Press for a post about their author Adrienne Kennedy, who will be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame today. Stay tuned for a great lineup of #TurnItUP posts throughout the week!

Green: Ten Facts You Didn’t Know about the Color Green

Pastoureau Green book coverGreen is the color of cash, and also of protecting the environment. A green light means go, but a green-tinged emoji means someone is about to be sick. Where did these cultural meanings come from, and how have they developed and shifted throughout history? Michel Pastoureau’s book Green: The History of a Color takes readers from ancient times to the present day, exploring the role of green in Western societies over thousands of years.

Green is just one title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the history of colors in European society! This National Color Day, don’t miss Red, Blueand Black.

How many of these facts about green did you know?

1. The ancient Egyptian god Ptah was depicted with a green face. In Egyptian painting, green was a beneficial color that protected against evil.

2. The Roman emperor Nero was known for eating a large amount of leeks he consumed, which was unusual for a high-ranking person at that time. Leeks were strongly associated with the color green, and even lent their name to one of the Greek words for the color, prasinos.

3. The Roman Empire’s chariot races featured two opposing stables: the Blues and the Greens. The Blues represented the Senate and the patrician class, while the Greens represented the people. Each stable was backed by a large, influential organization with a network of clientele and a lobby that extended far outside the racecourse.

4. The prophet Muhammad favored the color green. After becoming the dynastic color of the Fatimids, green came to be the sacred color of Islam as a whole.

5. During the Middle Ages, green was the color of hope for pregnant women in particular. Pregnant women in paintings were often shown wearing green dresses.

6. Possessing a green shield, tunic, or horse’s quarter sheet often meant that a knight was young and hotheaded. One well-known example of a “green knight” is found in the late fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

7. In Gothic stained-glass windows, green was the color of demons, sorcerers, dragons, and the Devil himself.

8. Dyeing in green was difficult during the Middle Ages. Green dyes from plants produced faint and unstable color that grew even more faded when mordant, or fixative, was applied. Because of this instability, green came to represent inconstancy, duplicity, and betrayal. Judas, for example, is often shown dressed in green.

9. Another obstacle to dyeing in green was the way the dyeing trades were organized. Professional dyers were licensed to dye only in certain colors. This made mixing colors—such as blue and yellow, which make green—next to impossible. Even dyers who broke the regulations and used both blue and yellow dyes had to possess the then-rare knowledge that blue and yellow combined make green. This combination may seem obvious to us now, but in pre-Newtonian color classifications, green was never located anywhere near yellow.

10. Schweinfurt green was a shade developed in Germany in 1814 and made from copper shavings dissolved in arsenic. It was used to make paint, dye, and painted paper. When exposed to humidity, the arsenic evaporates and can be toxic. According to some theories of Napoleon’s death, he was poisoned by his wallpaper.

Qualification, Exclusion, and the Art of Bill Traylor

by Leslie Umberger

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor, regarded today as one of America’s most important artists, was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Traylor and his family continued to work as farm laborers after Emancipation, work that Traylor himself spent some seven decades doing. In the late 1920s, Traylor moved by himself to Montgomery, Alabama. About a decade later, no longer able to take on heavy physical labor, he began to make drawings. What does it mean for Traylor, untrained as an artist, to now be held in such high esteem?

Certainly, part of what makes Traylor’s story so profound is that he chose to become an artist of his own volition; no one suggested he make drawings or showed him how to do it. In fact, in the days of slavery, literacy was strictly the privilege of whites. Reading and writing were regarded as tools of empowerment, and blacks seeking these tools were often harshly punished. Traylor never became literate, and in his time and place, the very act of taking up pencil and paper might have been viewed as an affront to white society—even if it was becoming increasingly common for African Americans to be both educated and successful.

So what Traylor did was radical in multiple ways. He was among the first generation of black people to become American citizens, and Traylor grappled with the meaning of that identity as he sat in the black business district of Montgomery in the 1930s and 1940s and watched a rising class of business owners and community leaders—finely dressed, educated black folks who were strong, creative, and were assertively shaping a cultural identity distinct from that of white America. Traylor created a record not just of his own selfhood, but also of the oral and vernacular culture that had shaped him.

Many terms are bandied about for untrained artists; we often hear them called self-taught, folk, visionary, or “outsider.” Traylor may not have conceptualized being an artist in a predetermined or conventional way, but the way we talk about him and his art matters. Traylor lived and worked quite literally in a different world than that of the mainstream fine arts.. And as is true with any artist, the facts of his life provide meaningful contexts and deeply inform the work he made. It is highly significant that Traylor came through slavery and lived the rest of his days in the Jim Crow South—this life powerfully undergirds the entire body of work.

Still, when we speak of an artist as being successful or important only within a subcategory of art, we diminish an artist’s larger validity. To say, for example, that Traylor is among America’s “most important self-taught artists” is to qualify his importance, to send a signal that his work is ultimately lesser than that of trained, mainstream artists—that it exists in a subcategory without full rank. To call an artist an “outsider” is to note difference as the foremost framework. The term describes the artist, not the art, and ultimately functions as a euphemism for race, class, or social agency. Marketers often grab encompassing terms because they are easy, but “outsider” has always been a disparaging way of grouping individuals by difference, rather than seeking to foster a broader understanding of art and its diverse makers.

Understanding context in a deep way brings meaning to art that is unique and unaffiliated with the mainstream art world, yet it is key to remember that qualifiers always signal disparity. We recognize that it is demeaning and inappropriate to say, for example, that someone is “among the best female employees,” or “among the best black experts,” but we have yet to fully extend this to artists like Traylor. It has been clear for decades that Traylor is among the most important self-taught artists; his work fetches blue-chip prices and is recognized and collected the world over. Today we need to look at the magnitude of what he did against the larger backdrop of art in his nation. He is one of America’s most important artists—no qualifier welcome. Between Worlds fleshes this out and proposes a different, more encompassing course that moves beyond an exclusionary past.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

Leslie Umberger on Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) came to art-making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance; today he is remembered as a renowned American artist. Traylor’s experiences spanned multiple worlds—black and white, rural and urban, old and new—as well as the crucibles that indelibly shaped America—the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration.

Leslie Umberger’s book Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor accompanies the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, curated by Umberger. She presents an unparalleled look at the work of this enigmatic and dazzling artist, who blended common imagery with arcane symbolism, narration with abstraction, and personal vision with the beliefs and folkways of his time. In this Q&A, Umberger offers an introduction to Traylor’s life and work. For more, check out the exhibit and the book!

Who was Bill Traylor?

Bill Traylor was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Although slavery ended when Traylor was about twelve, things in Alabama didn’t change dramatically or rapidly after that, and families like Traylor’s had limited options for finding work, shelter, and safety elsewhere—so they often stayed on as laborers, living in the same cabins as they had before Emancipation. This is what Traylor’s family did.

Traylor spent over seven decades working as a farm laborer. His life was split almost evenly between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so he was eyewitness to enormous change over a lifetime that almost reached ten decades. Around 1927—Traylor’s wife had died and most of his grown children had given up on life in the South—he made the choice to move, alone, into Montgomery. The city was segregated, and he was increasingly old and frail between then and his death in 1949. But in the last years of his life, Traylor began to draw and paint memories, stories, and dreams recalling that remarkable lifetime and observing black life in an urban setting. Against the odds, many of the artworks he made in the late 1930s and early 1940s survived, and today he is acclaimed as one of America’s most significant artists.

Your book is titled Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor. What “worlds” was Traylor between?

Traylor’s lifetime spanned an epic period of American history that encompasses slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, two world wars, and, through it all, the steady rise of African American culture in the South. Traylor didn’t live to see the civil rights movement, be he was among those who laid its foundation. Six years after Traylor died, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger just a few blocks from where Traylor had sat and painted.

Throughout his life, Traylor straddled markedly different worlds: slavery and freedom, plantation and city life, and overarching it all, black and white cultures. “Racial etiquette” was the custom in the Jim Crow South wherein black people had strict and demeaning rules governing what they said and how they behaved in the presence of white people—any minor infraction of which might literally imperil that individual’s life. Traylor knew these systems, and his drawings nimbly employ symbolism, allegory, and ambiguity to send different messages to black and white viewers—to “code switch” as we would say today. He lived between worlds, looking back at a long life of labor and oppression, and ahead at the long, hard road toward freedom his children were traveling on.

What kind of topics did Traylor depict in his artworks?

Traylor covered a lot of territory in his subject matter. He became known not only for deceptively simple renderings of horses, mules, and other animals he knew from farm life, but also for many other species, including dogs, snakes, and birds. Traylor knew these animals and their visages well, but his representations of them are complex, for he also had a deep grasp of their symbolism. For example, the mule as a metaphor for black slaves or laborers, or the snake as a symbol of deceit—the lurking enemy.

Throughout his oeuvre there is a strong thread of storytelling. He often revisits particular themes or memories, and very often the works cohere when seen together in ways they don’t when viewed alone. A particular focus of both the exhibition and the book is to give certain images adjacency and draw out related themes, so that the artworks can function collectively and tell their stories more completely. Traylor depicted people he recalled from plantation days as well as the finely dressed black citizens of Montgomery he saw before him. His drawings are often quite enigmatic, as the artist engaged dreams, superstitions, and various spiritual belief systems.

Some of Traylor’s most iconic drawings present multifaceted narratives, chaotic action that swirls around a house, a tree, or a local site such as the fountain in Montgomery’s Court Square. He devised a manner of presenting story lines, sometimes left to right on the page but more often from top to bottom—or bottom to top. He discovered that vertical arrangements gave the story a different reading: events unfold rapidly or simultaneously, instead of sequentially. The viewer’s eye is caught in a swirling eddy of action that obscures Traylor’s meaning, which, in turn, gave him a higher degree of safety among white viewers. These works have a quality of operatic drama and demand a deep look: narratives that might at first seem humorous are often quite dark; the unspeakable violence of Traylor’s life and times looms large.

Traylor’s body of work is a sizable pictorial record of the oral culture that had shaped him. He embarked on making a record of selfhood that he devised for himself, one picture at a time.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

 

10 facts about the color black

Black—favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists—has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue, Red, and Green tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe. 

Here are ten facts from the book about black:

When Isaac Newton discovered the color spectrum in 1665, he presented a new order of colors in which there would no longer be a place for white or black. This thinking continued for centuries.  

In the Medieval period, painters and dyers did not make purple by mixing blue and red, rather by mixing blue and black; purple was a sort of demi-black.

In Medieval Europe, white is the color of priests, red the color of warriors, and black is the color of artisans.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, humans learned how to make black pigment by burning plants and minerals. Depending on the original material—woods, barks, roots, shells, pits—the shade of black would be more or less brilliant and more or less dense. When they learned how to burn bone in a similar fashion, they had access to even more beautiful blacks.

The most prized black pigment by the Romans was from vines, obtained through the calcination of very dry vine shoots that gave the color depth and blue highlights.

In Latin caeruleus can refer to both blue and black. Viridis can refer to green and black.

Medieval heraldry used only six colors: white, yellow, red, blue, green, and black. Black could be found in 20-25% of European coats of arms. Red was the most common color and green, the rarest.

It was lawyers, judges, and magistrates who popularized black as a color for clothing in early 14th century Europe. Prior to that, black was the color of Satan and fear, but it came to be seen as a color of sobriety and gravitas. By the end of the century, merchants, bankers, and all men of finance had also adopted black as their chosen color for attire.

Early inks following the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid 15th century contained linseed oil to make it heavy and viscous enough to adhere to the paper; iron or copper sulfate to give it a brilliant black color; and metallic salts to facilitate its drying.

While the Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a near universal retreat from dark colors throughout much of Europe and embrace of bright colors and pastels, Protestant morals in Northern Europe forbade too vivid or frivolous colors—black prevailed there.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton) and The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes.

Asma Naeem on Black Out

Black Out Naeem book coverBefore the advent of photography in 1839, Americans were consumed by the fashion for silhouette portraits. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes, gathers leading experts to shed light on the surprisingly complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simple art form. Silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation, roiling with tensions over slavery and political independence.  Presenting the distinctly American story behind silhouettes, Black Out vividly delves into the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of this evocative, ever popular form of portraiture.

Here, author Asma Naeem discusses her interest in the form, as well as some of the surprises she discovered during her research.

The exhibit this book accompanies is curated by Naeem and runs through March 10, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the inspiration for Black Out?

The spark for Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now happened many years ago on a brilliant sunlit day as I stood in front of an antiques shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Tucked in the corner of the window, away from the mahogany Chippendale secretary, Federal convex mirrors, and handsome Windsor chairs, were some of the most arresting objects of early Americana that I had ever seen. The simplicity of design, the lustrous maple and gilt frames, the creamy paper, the intense black shapes cut by human hands, not to mention the intimate nature of the portraits – all of these things formed an indelible impression.

Imagine my pleasure years later when I joined the National Portrait Gallery and became a steward of one of the most stellar collections of silhouettes in the country.

Once I began researching these objects, however, different impressions began to form, impressions of an America that many of us didn’t know existed.

Why did you decide to include both historical and contemporary artists?

Once I decided to create an exhibition on silhouettes, suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw silhouettes—on signage, on book covers, on my mobile phone, and of course, in thrilling contemporary art installations by established and emerging artists alike. I knew then that I had to share these discoveries, known only to handfuls of experts, with the public at large.

What was your research process like?

I conceived of this show four years ago and it has been a years-long journey to find and then narrow down the list of objects for the exhibition. I wanted this show and catalogue to be more than your grandmother’s silhouettes, so I had to spend a lot of time looking for unique objects, both historical and contemporary. I went to many small historical societies to unearth their treasures. I encountered some of the most generous archivists and a few ghost stories along the way! I also had to spend much time accumulating all of the scholarship on silhouettes, much of which is written for antique collectors. For the contemporary works, I visited the artists in their studios or galleries when possible, and had numerous conversations about what I envisioned the show to look like and how their work fit in that vision.

Were you expecting to find so much historical material dealing with race, enslavement, and disability?

Yes, and no. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the traditional medium of portraiture, oil on canvas, precluded the less wealthy, women, and people of color because of its expensive, exclusive status. I didn’t expect to find such interesting, beautiful portraits of African Americans, the disabled, and such spunky women, particularly within our own collection here at the Portrait Gallery.

What can studying the history of the silhouette teach us about the representation of identity today?

This book will hopefully deepen our understanding of how Americans—women, men, black, white, states men, laborers—wanted to see themselves in the years of the Early Republic. We have always been a polyphonic, vibrant society. It also opens new pathways between our past and our present in terms of period notions of individualism, racial profiling, power, and even how our digital selves can be critiqued through the medium of portraiture.

Who else contributed essays to the book?

This project has been enriched and transformed by some of the most erudite minds in American art and conservation. I was fortunate to have essays written by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Art on Paper at the Harvard Art Museums.

Nemerov and Shaw each probe the cultural contours of the remarkable worlds of unconventional nineteenth-century silhouettists Martha Ann Honeywell and Moses Williams, respectively. Knipe carefully examines silhouettes from the inside out, revealing various aspects of their material composition—about the paper, the scissors, and so forth—that many readers will find surprising.

Anne Verplanck, associate professor of American studies and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who is one the preeminent scholars on silhouettes in the country, also was generous enough to write entries on many of the objects, not to mention offer her invaluable expertise to me regarding the historical art form on numerous occasions.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that readers will find silhouettes as fascinating, complicated, and significant in the history of American art as I do. I very much want the reader to see how silhouettes, like other forms of craft, should no longer be devalued in the art canon, and do, in fact, offer revelatory insights into how our country’s racial, social, and political history. I also would like to see silhouettes repositioned in our understanding of portraiture – what an incredibly popular and democratizing force they were in Early Republic America – well before the advent of photography in 1839. Without silhouettes, we would not have as much insight into the lives of such overlooked populations as the enslaved, same-sex couples, international envoys, and the disabled. And with the contemporary works, I’d offer silhouettes as an enduring, capacious, and utterly modern mode of expression, with their seemingly contradictory qualities of generality and specificity, blackness, playfulness, and the intersection with our social media profiles of our digital selves. The four female contemporary artists featured have created breathtaking, complex works that confirm that silhouettes are here to stay.

Asma Naeem is curator of prints, drawings, and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery.

 

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Michael North on What is the Present

The problem of the present—what it is and what it means—is one that has vexed generations of thinkers and artists. Because modernity places so much value on the present, many critics argue that people today spend far too much time in the here and now—but how can we tell without first knowing what the here and now actually is? What Is the Present? takes a provocative new look at this moment in time that remains a mystery even though it is always with us. Presenting an entirely new conception of the temporal mystery Georg Lukács called the “unexplained instant,” this book explores how the arts have traditionally represented the present—and also how artists have offered radical alternatives to that tradition.

What inspired you to write a book about the present?

I’m interested in the fact that some of the most obvious and ordinary aspects of life are also the most mysterious. The present is one of these. You might say, in fact, that the present is the most obvious aspect of life, one that we can never get away from. And yet, whenever you come to think about it at all seriously, it becomes very confusing.

How so?

Well, we tend to think of the present as something like a dash on a timeline or a tick mark on a clock, as if it were nothing more than an ultra-thin divisor between past and future. But we also think of ourselves as living in the present, and this implies that it takes up some amount of time. If so, then how much time does it take up? Is its length always the same or does it change from time to time or even from person to person? And then if the present is separate from past and future, how does time get connected back up again? If I watch as I move my arm, I seem to see the whole movement as one indivisible process, not as a series of snapshots. In other words, I seem to see the whole process as if it were happening now, not separated out into past, present, and future. And yet logically the very beginning of that movement must be in the past by the time the whole movement is concluded. How do we come to see it as one apparently simultaneous arc?

Couldn’t some of these puzzles be cleared up by scientific investigation?

Unfortunately, science just makes it worse. For a long time, physiological psychologists hoped to isolate the present by measuring human reaction times, on the assumption that the shortest possible reaction time could be taken as the length of the present. But they could never really come up with a consistent value. Now it seems that the human nervous system may be governed by a number of different clocks, running at different rates. There isn’t any central agent to which all the various parts of the nervous system report, so in a sense there isn’t a single physiological present at all.

But surely there must be an objective present, even if the subjective present turns out to be a fiction?

I guess not. Go outside some night and look up at the stars. The starlight you see in the “present” is actually billions of years old, some of it more and some of it less. What sense does the concept of the present make in that context? As our knowledge of the universe has expanded, it has become less and less possible to believe in the Enlightenment concept of a universal simultaneity, a now that would synchronize all the matter in existence.

Does any of this make a difference on a more practical level?

It could. We hear a lot of complaints nowadays about the present, how it has become too important, crowding out the past and the future. These complaints rely on the assumption of a normative present, one that is neither too long nor too short, but just right. If this present is a fiction, then we are flogging ourselves for no reason. And it turns out that if you examine the evidence offered for this normative present, the little that exists is primarily figurative in nature.

Figurative in what sense?

The present is almost always explained in metaphorical terms. A time-line, for instance, is a spatial metaphor, with a point or a short dash representing the present. People sometimes think of the present as something like a single frame in a movie, static by itself but fluid when shown with the entire film. Versions of this particular metaphor go all the way back to the magic lantern, which Locke used as a metaphor for the experience of time. It turns out, though, on close inspection, that these are not metaphors for something else. Where the present is concerned, these metaphors are all there is. In fact, it is because of the force and vividness of these metaphors that we continue to believe in the present, though it has always been so hard to establish its actual status.

So does that mean we should abandon a category that has always seemed essential to our understanding of time? Is there no future for the present?

An important part of this book is an account of how the arts have represented and used the present. Painters, writers, and film-makers have had to contend with the problem of the present in various ways, and the solutions they have come up with are more flexible and expansive than the standard notion of it as a thin slice of time sandwiched between past and future. I’m particularly fond of George Kubler’s version of this when he calls the present “a plane upon which the signals of all being are projected.” It sounds a lot like our present right now, with its apparently infinite access to all of recorded history, but it suggests a present that is bigger and more comprehensive, not smaller and more isolated. In this sense, the present contains the past, and I guess in a sense it contains the future as well.

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Novelty: A History of the New, Machine-Age Comedy, and Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word.

Announcing the trailer for Gorey’s Worlds

The illustrator, designer, and writer Edward Gorey (1925–2000) is beloved for his droll, surreal, and slightly sinister drawings. Gorey’s Worlds delves into the numerous and surprising cultural and artistic sources that influenced Gorey’s unique and instantly recognizable visual language. A variety of objects shaped his artistic mindset, from works of popular culture to the more than twenty-six thousand books he owned and the art pieces in his vast collection. As this book shows, these artistic pieces present a visual riddle, as the connections between them—to each other and to Gorey’s works—are significant and enigmatic. Featuring a sumptuous selection of Gorey’s creations alongside his fascinating and diverse collections, Gorey’s Worlds reveals the private world that inspired one of the most idiosyncratic artists of the twentieth century.

Gorey’s Worlds by Erin Monroe, with contributions from Robert Greskovic, Arnold Arluke, and Kevin Shortsleeve, from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Erin Monroe is the Robert H. Schutz Jr. Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. She is the author of Andrew Wyeth: Looking BeyondRobert Greskovic is a dance critic for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Ballet 101Arnold Arluke is professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology at Northeastern University. His books include Just a Dog and The Photographed CatKevin Shortsleeve is associate professor of English at Christopher Newport University. His books include Thirteen Monsters Who Should Be Avoided.

Roy Brooks on Designing Gorey’s Worlds

When I begin a new book design project, I immerse myself in the topic. Ideally, this means first reading the text of the book. In the case of Gorey’s Worlds, I had access to the complete manuscript, which is relatively rare so early in the process, but incredibly helpful in evaluating the tone and actual content of the publication. Often, the text has yet to be written at the design stage. In these instances I try to acquire other books on the particular artist or group to familiarize myself with the work, while searching for background information that may yield cues for the visual direction of the book. With an artist like Gorey this can be challenging, given how well known he is in popular culture, and the fact that he created so many books himself in his signature style.

In general, I strive to create books with a distinctive look and feel that respectfully frame the featured artist without simply mimicking their own aesthetic. In the following post I will describe the process of developing two distinct title treatments for Gorey’s Worlds, and how they were ultimately integrated into the cover design.

Typography

In my experience, designing publications for art museums is largely about the book’s typography. The images are usually sacrosanct, and cannot be manipulated beyond their scale and placement on the page. Given these constraints, the text layout is where my designs take root. This runs the gamut from the expressive scale and arrangement of the title page, for instance, to less visible details like letter spacing or the rag of the text.

I often start the design process by looking at the title set in numerous different typefaces. Throughout this process, I’m constantly asking questions, often on an intuitive level, and wondering if the title lends itself to certain settings:

Should the title be set in a serif typeface? Sans serif? A combination? Should it be thin? Heavy? Condensed? Extended? Should it be set large? Small? Should the subtitle be set smaller or the same size? Should it be set in all caps? Mixed case? Lower case? Flush left? Centered? Flush right? Should it be rotated? Should it feel contemporary? Historical? Geometric? Hand-wrought? And the list goes on….

These basic settings can then be visually expanded, perhaps in relation to an image, a color palette, a material, or to a particular binding method. The goal is to continue building a graphic language that will inform all decisions regarding the book’s many textual components.

The Swash

Based on Gorey’s own aesthetic, I wanted to pursue a typographic approach that conveyed the flourishes of the Victorian era. I came across the typeface Bookman that included an extended suite of swash characters. Swash characters feature embellishments such as exaggerated serifs or extended strokes. Specifically, I used the swash ‘r,’ which extended up and over the adjacent letter ‘e,’ in an appropriately Gorey-esque quirk (fig. 1). The capital ‘G’ swash was also used, and the subsequent shape of the word “Gorey’s” began to dictate how the word “Worlds” could be incorporated. I developed a tightly-leaded version in the same size text that nested the words together with an almost puzzle-like fit (fig. 2). And I developed a version where the word “WORLDS” was set much smaller and tucked between the descenders of the ‘G’ and ‘y’ (fig. 3).

Figure 1. The swash ‘r’ extends up and over the adjacent letter ‘e.’

Figure 2. Tight leading nests the words together with an almost puzzle-like fit.

Figure 3. “WORLDS” is tucked between the descenders of the ‘G’ and ‘y.’

 

Woodblock

Another distinct title treatment featured the typeface Woodblock. This face is based on wood type, which entered mass production in the nineteenth century, the era that Gorey preferred to represent in his work. Its chiseled quality—think tombstones—reflects Gorey’s obsession with the macabre (fig. 4). The rectangularity of the stacked Woodblock title treatment suggested that it be encapsulated in a box. Further, the angles of the letterforms prompted me to chamfer the corners of this framing device (fig. 5).

Figure 4. The chiseled quality of the typeface reflects Gorey’s obsession with the macabre.

Figure 5. The framing device’s corners are chamfered to match the angles of the letterforms.

 

Application

Given that this publication was about more than just Gorey’s artwork, including essays on his own art collection as well as his love of ballet, a portrait seemed like an appropriate cover image. These black-and-white photographs conveyed the artist’s own restricted palette and could be effectively reproduced as halftones or duotones as a cost-saving measure.

My cover design featuring the swash treatment proposed printing the photograph directly on a cloth binding with a debossed and foil-stamped title (fig. 6).

Figure 6. In this cover design, the photograph is printed directly on a cloth binding with a debossed and foil-stamped title.

 

For the Woodblock version I suggested a paper-over-board binding, in which the box would be die-cut through the cover board to reveal the title printed on the end sheet beneath. The die-cut seemed especially appropriate given Gorey’s fascination with windows. This particular “window” was placed over a tightly cropped photo of Gorey at work in his home studio, implying a glimpse into the artist’s inner sanctum (figs. 7 and 8).

Figure 7. A tightly cropped photo of Gorey at work offers a glimpse into the artist’s inner sanctum.

 

Figure 8. In this paper-over-board binding, a box is die-cut through the cover board to reveal the title printed on the end sheet beneath.

 

Ultimately, the Woodblock version was chosen, but with several modifications, including a friendlier condensed sans serif for the title treatment. The die-cut cover was also a tough sell, so the scheme evolved into a printed and debossed title. Coupled with the smaller trim size, printing the image directly on the cloth binding lends the book a warmth and tactility that feels more akin to a classic work of literature (figs. 9 and 10).

Figure 9. The scheme evolved into a printed and debossed title.

 

Figure 10. Printing the image directly on the cloth binding lends a warmth and tactility to the book.

 

Roy Brooks operates the graphic design studio Fold Four, which specializes in designing exhibition catalogues for art institutions and publishers. He received a bachelor of graphic design degree from North Carolina State University. Upon graduation he moved to New York City, working first for the Whitney Museum of American Art and, later, the international design consultancy Pentagram. The following four years were spent in Chicago working under the moniker Field Study. Fold Four was founded in 2005 and continues to pursue projects primarily in the cultural sector. Current clients include the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Erin Monroe on Gorey’s Worlds

The illustrator, designer, and writer Edward Gorey (1925–2000) is beloved for his droll, surreal, and slightly sinister drawings. While he is perhaps best known for his fanciful, macabre books, such as The Doubtful Guest and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, his instantly recognizable imagery can be seen everywhere from the New Yorker to the opening title sequence of the television series Mystery! on PBS. Gorey’s Worlds delves into the numerous and surprising cultural and artistic sources that influenced Gorey’s unique visual language.

The book accompanies an exhibition, curated by Erin Monroe, that runs through May 6, 2018, at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.

What was the motivation behind Gorey’s Worlds?

This book was inspired by Edward Gorey’s personal art collection, which he left to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art upon his death in 2000. This is the first project to closely examine the artists he collected and admired. The book coincides with an exhibition of the same name, Gorey’s Worlds (on view through May 6, 2018), but the content goes beyond the scope of the exhibition. The plural of “worlds” is meant to reflect the richness of Gorey’s life and the imaginative texts and illustrations he created.

What are some the artists Gorey collected? What are some of the more prevalent themes and ideas?

I asked those very same questions when I began my research in 2014. In short, it’s eclectic and slightly peculiar, which should come as no surprise given Gorey’s aesthetic. There are 73 works of art that represent a wide range of makers. The content is primarily works on paper—prints, drawings and photographs—a few oil paintings, and a few small textiles. The artwork spans nineteenth-century drawings to contemporary art of the 1970s and 1980s. The familiar names include Eugène Atget, Charles Burchfield, and Manet. There are lesser-known contemporaries of Gorey’s, such as Albert York, and unidentified folk artists. In terms of technique, much of the work resembles Gorey’s densely cross-hatched drawings. The artwork is predominantly black and white and small-scale, again echoing Gorey’s own work.

I expect the collection to be macabre and gothic. Is it?

Some of it, while others were quite humorous and whimsical. There are many strong affinities with Gorey’s illustrations, but there are also big distinctions.

For example?

Well, for one, there are no images of children in any of the artwork he collected, whereas the majority of his stories involve children or invented animals/creatures acting like children.

How did that distinction inform your research? Did it change your approach?

It was critical, to me, to not be too literal and only look for visual connections, for example. It helped deepen my understanding of his work and accept that the relationships might be entirely impossible for someone like me to detect. Gorey layered ideas and concepts so densely that peeling away those layers isn’t easy.

Another example is how the ballet is literally absent from the bequest. It isn’t as if his art collection is filled with Degas ballerinas, yet Gorey watched nearly 160 performances a season for almost 30 years under the direction of George Balanchine. His ballet-watching, to me, helped shape his figures that are posed “just so,” deliberate, expressive, like a dancer. His drawings are typically horizontal, stage-like. Beyond that, Gorey knew of the museum’s early history with the ballet in 1930s, and this in part inspired his gift to us.

How did you learn about Gorey’s ballet obsession?

One of the writers for Gorey’s Worlds is Robert Greskovic, a dance critic and friend of Gorey’s. Robert’s essay is a touching remembrance of Gorey’s reactions to various productions, costumes, etc., and revealed the degree to which he noted every single detail that contributed to mood of the performance.

Who else wrote for the catalogue?

Given Gorey’s ties to many different cultural arenas, I felt it was important to engage different perspectives on his work. Arnie Arluke, a specialist in human-animal studies, discusses animals in Gorey’s work, and Professor Kevin Shortsleeve delves into Gorey’s connections to nonsense literature and surrealism. My essay presents principal groupings that emerge in the artwork Gorey collected, such as French art and American art, for example.

Was either of the other authors familiar with Gorey’s work before the project?

Yes and no. Kevin studied Gorey’s work for his master’s thesis, but this project presented a new angle on Gorey for him. Similarly, Arnie knew of Gorey’s work, but freely admitted that applying his knowledge to visual art was far different than the scientific research and papers to which he was accustomed.

Were you a Gorey fan before this project?

I wasn’t familiar with his work until this project. When I look back at my childhood and even teenage years, I realize I liked “Goreyeseque” books growing up.

Such as?

I loved Roald Dahl, and since my mom was Canadian, I read the funny (slightly dark) stories of Dennis Lee, a Canadian children’s author and poet; years later, I read the Lemony Snicket series. I love murder mysteries, and my favorite movie in high school was Clue. Turns out Gorey loved Tim Curry, too….

Going back to your research, what was different about this project?

Trying to get to know Gorey as a person and how he lived with his collections was a departure from my normal approach. I tracked down photographs of his New York City apartment, to look at what artwork hung where, for example. I also spent time at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, on Cape Cod. The staff has many of the curiosities Gorey collected, such as vintage objects, rocks from the beach, tarot cards, etc. They also let me spend the night in the house, in Gorey’s bedroom! I can attest there are no bats or menacing creatures lurking about, at least none that I witnessed.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

For the first time, readers will have a chance to step into his artistic mindset, to look at the artists that sparked his imagination. Edward Gorey is more complicated than people realize. Many assume because his work is moody and dark that he, too, was reclusive and weird. I found far more humor, more absurdity, than anything.

Erin Monroe is the Robert H. Schutz Jr. Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. She is the author of Andrew Wyeth: Looking Beyond.