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.

Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain

View from Central Terrace, Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province, China. Photograph by author, 2005.

“The attributes of a great place like this
are difficult for someone like myself to relate.”

—Translation modified from Illich, Marina. “Selections from the Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Polymath: Chankya Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje), 1717–1786.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 2006.

“‘At the formation of the world, this earth is situated on top of a golden wheel. On the golden wheel are sharp spikes, one of which bore a small golden wheel. This wheel is located half way up the northern terrace. It is where Mañjuśrī’s Palace of the Seven Jewels is located. Groves of fruit trees fill the entire compound, surrounded by ten thousand bodhisattvas. On top of the northern terrace is a pond. Its name is the golden well. The great sage Mañjuśrī and all sagely entourage appear from it. It is interconnected with the Diamond Grotto. The domain of the Great Sage is no ordinary realm.’”

“‘世界初成. 此大地踞金輪之上. 又於金輪上. 撮骨狼牙. 生一小金輪.其輪.至北臺半腹.文殊菩薩七寶宮殿之所在焉.園林果樹.咸悉充滿. 一萬菩薩之所圍遶. 北臺上面. 有一水池. 名曰金井. 大聖文殊. 與諸聖眾. 於中出沒. 與金剛窟正相通矣. 大聖所都. 非凡境界.’”

Taishō shinshū daizōkyō 大正新修大藏經 (The Buddhist Canon, comp. Taishō era, 1912–1926). Edited by Takakusu Junjirō 高楠順次郎 and Watanabe Kaigyoku 渡邊海旭. Tokyo: Taishō issaikyo kankokai, 1924–1932. 2099: 51, 1119a2–15.

The domain of the Great Sage, or Mount Wutai—also known as the Clear and Cool Mountains, the Pure and Cool Mountains, the Clear and Cold Mountains, or the Five-Peaked Mountain—has been a preeminent site of international pilgrimage for over a millennium. Home to more than one hundred temples, the entire range is considered a Buddhist paradise on earth, and has received visitors ranging from emperors to monastic and lay devotees.

Wen-shing Chou’s Mount Wutai explores the history of this sacred Buddhist mountain through Qing dynasty-era objects of art, architecture, worship, and translation. Chou explains how Qing Buddhist rulers and clerics from Inner Asia, including Manchus, Tibetans, and Mongols, reimagined the mountain as their own during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Mañjughọsa Emperor, 18th century. Thangka. Ink and colors on silk. 113.5 × 64 cm. The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Purchased by anonymous donor and with Museum funds, F2000.4.

“‘I see the Clear and Cool Mountains illuminated by the radiance of lapis lazuli, foothills of the mountain ornamented by various jeweled trees whose radiance brightly illuminates the entire place without the slightest difference between day and night, and that land of the Venerable One is not a place within my domain.’”

“’Ngas bltas na ri bo dwangs bsil ’di baiḍūrya’i mdangs su gsal zhing / ri bo rnams kyi zhol du rin bo che’i ljon shing sna tshogs kyis sbras pa ’od ’tsher bas nyin mtshan kyad med du lhan ne lhang nger snang ste / rje btsun gyi yul ni kho bo’i spyod yul min no shes smras te mi nang bar gyur to /.’”

—Lcang skya Rol pa’i rdo rje, Lo chen Ngag dbang bskal bzang, Gro tshang Mkhan sprul, and Lcang lung Ārya Paṇḍita Ngag dbang blo bzang bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan. Zhing mchog ri bo dwangs bsil gyi gnas bshad dad pa’i padmo rgyas byed ngo mtshar nyi ma’i snang ba (Guide to the Clear and Cool Mountains: A Vision of Marvelous Sun Rays That Causes Lotuses of Devotion to Blossom). Beijing: Zung gru ze’i par khang, 1831. Typeset edition, Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe sgrun khang, 1993. 29b, lines 1 and 2.

Map of Mount Wutai in Laozang Danba, New Gazetteer of Clear and Cool Mountains, 1701. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“‘Have you not heard that the same phenomenon will be perceived differently by three people? Just as the eyes of their karmic retribution are different, what they see will also be different. If the Clear and Cool Mountains that you see are in the color of emerald green, with terraces and hills filled with variegated jeweled trees with illuminating radiance that eliminates the slightest difference between day and night, this dwelling place of the bodhisattva is not within my reach.’”

“‘師豈不聞一法無異, 三人殊見者乎? 蓋隨其各具業報之眼有殊, 而所見亦異. 若某所見清涼山, 碧琉璃色, 諸臺麓間, 皆雜寶林, 光明煥發, 日夜無閒. 而菩薩住處, 非我所及也.’”

—Qingliang shan zhi 清凉山志 (Gazetteer of the Clear and Cool Mountains). Compiled by Zhencheng 鎮澄 (1546–1617). Originally published 1596; revised in 1660 by Lama Awang Laozang 阿王老 藏 (1601–1687); reprinted in Gugong bowuyuan, Qingliang shan zhi, Qingliang shan xin zhi, Qinding Qingliang shan zhi. Updated compilation by Yinguang 印光 (1862–1940) in 1933; reprinted in Du Jiexiang 杜潔祥, ed., Zhongguo fosi shizhi huikan 中國佛寺史志彙刊. Taipei: Mingwen shuju, 1980–1985. Juan 7, 8a.

Bodhisattva’s Peak, Mount Wutai. From Sekino and Daijō, Shina bunka shiseki, vol. 1, pl. 92.

“What mountain anywhere is not sacred?
Why go to the Five-Peaked Mountain with a walking stick?
Even if a lion with the golden mane manifests in the clouds,
It is nothing special when seen with pure eye.”

“Nyin cig ri bo rtse lngar chas tsam na / hwa shang zhig gis tshigs su bcad pa smras pa / sa phyogs gang gi ri kun chos kyi ri / ci’i phyir ri bo rtse lngar ’khar bas ’gro / smrin gseb mngon pa’i seng ge gser ral can / ngag pa’i mig gis bltas na dge mtshan min / zhes so // chan shis de la ’jus nas dag pa’i mig ces pa ci yin zhes dril pas cang mi zer ro / de nas chan shis khur po bsnams te bzhud do /.

—Lcang skya, Zhing mchog, 42b, lines 1 and 3.

Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic View of Mount Wutai, ca. 1846. Honolulu Museum of Art. Accession no. 3202.1.

“This little map of Mount Wutai cannot possibly exhaust every detail of the mountain. The benefactors from all four directions who make a pilgrimage to the sacred realm of the Clear and Cool, see this map of the mountain, listen to and recount the spiritual efficacy and wondrous dharma of the bodhisattva, will in this life be free from all calamities and diseases, and enjoy boundless blessings, happiness, and longevity. After this life, they will be reborn in a blessed land…. Should a person make the vow to print this image, they will accumulate immeasurable merit.”

“此五台一小山圖, 未能盡其詳細, 四方善士凡朝清涼聖境, 及見此山圖, 聞講菩薩靈驗妙法者, 今生能消一切災難疾病, 享福享壽, 福祿綿長, 命終之後, 生於有福之地…. 如有大發願心, 印此山圖者, 則功德無量矣.”

—Inscription of Gelöng Lhundrub, Panoramic Picture of the Sacred Realm of the Mountain of Five Terraces, 1846, bottom-right corner.

Illustrating the Passover story: Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink

One of the most beloved books in the Jewish tradition is the Haggadah. This is the text used to conduct a Seder, a Jewish gathering of family and friends that celebrates the holiday of Passover by retelling in story, prayer, and song the biblical account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Modern observers have a diverse array of Haggadot available to them—from political to comic, from juvenile to literary, and from Broadway-inspired to online dating-themed. But this diversity of Haggadot isn’t unique to our century. As early as the fourteenth century, scribes and artists were producing unique and beautifully illuminated Haggadot for use at Passover. Over subsequent centuries, much of the Jewish visual tradition found its most creative expression in exquisitely illustrated editions of this narrative.

The following examples of illuminated Haggadot (and one page from a hand-illustrated Pentateuch, or collection of the first five books of the Bible) are taken from Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein. This sumptuous volume offers the first full survey of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, ranging from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present day.

A community of scholars: the Five Rabbis at B’nei Brak. Haggadah, German rite with the commentary of Eleazar of Worms and illustrations by Joel ben Simeon Feibush (The Ashkenazi Haggadah). South Germany, perhaps Ulm, ca. 1460. London, British Library, MS Add. 14762, fol. 7v.

Joseph’s dreams. Haggadah (The Golden Haggadah). Spain, Barcelona, ca. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 5rb.

Decorated opening world. “And these [are the names] . . . ,” the first word of the book of Exodus. Pentateuch with targum intercalated (Aramaic translation inserted after the Hebrew line by line) (The Duke of Sussex Pentateuch). Germany, Lake Constance region, early 14th century. London, British Library, MS Add. 15282, fol. 75v.

The Four Children in the full spectrum of contemporary male dress. Haggadah written and illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 6v.

Israelites building store-cities for Pharaoh. Haggadah illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Germany, Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 11v.

John Elderfield: Working on Cézanne Portraits

ElderfieldI first published a text on Cézanne in 1971, a review for Artforum of an exhibition of his drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, because Rosalind Krauss said she didn’t want to do it. By the end of that decade, I had become friendly with two great Cézanne scholars, John Rewald and especially Lawrence Gowing; and, as a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art, had assisted William Rubin on his great 1977 exhibition of the late work. Since then, I had long wanted to curate a Cézanne exhibition myself, but it never seemed right for the MoMA schedule, so I followed the continuing exhibitions from the sidelines, writing the occasional article, my fascination with his work increasing and increasing. It wasn’t until 2008 that I found myself in conversation with London’s National Portrait Gallery about curating an exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits.

My initial reaction had two parts: delight in the opportunity to do this, and uncertainty about what it would mean to pull the thread of Cézanne’s portraits from the rest of his oeuvre. The uncertainty at first increased by my learning that there never had been a survey of the portraits. Then it gave way to the realization that, precisely because this would be the first such exhibition, it offered the unique opportunity to try to draw the first map of the place they occupied in Cézanne’s work. I was specifically interested in the following questions:

How did the chronological development of Cézanne’s portraiture practice unfold? What were its persistent characteristics, and how did things change with respect to style and method, on the one hand, and to an understanding of resemblance and identity, on the other? To what extent did particular sitters inflect the character and development of the practice? What is the image of Cézanne as artist and person as viewed through the filter of his portraits?Cézanne

The questions kept accumulating. Even as they did, some things began to become clear: Our knowledge of the portraits from Cézanne retrospective exhibitions, which required their curators to choose very selectively from similar works, minimized the importance of his creation of pairs and series of versions of the same subject. The idea that Cézanne treated his portrait subjects just like his still-life subjects—an idea that had taken hold even before Cézanne’s death in 1906—was simply not true. To the contrary, their pictorial inventiveness and their vivid depiction of human presence are mutually reinforcing. The idea that he was constantly besieged by doubt was only one side of the equation; the other was that he was an extremely systematic, highly methodical painter. And, looking from one portrait to the next, standing where Cézanne stood when he painted them, yes, he does seem present to us as we follow his career; more vividly so than with his landscapes, still lifes, and invented figure compositions. His own presence and the presence of the portrait subject are inseparable.

Exhibition Schedule:
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (March 25 to July 1, 2018)

John Elderfield is chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. His many books include De Kooningand Henri Matisse. He is currently the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator at the Princeton University Art Museum and lecturer in the Princeton University Department of Art and Archaeology.