On the heels of Monuments for a New America, his conceptual two-page comic spread in the Washington Post, the Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall has created two large murals for the Haas Atrium at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Depicting Mount Vernon and Monticello––among many other hidden aspects––these works, which debut on February 26, continue Marshall’s investigation of history.
THE CHALLENGE AT SF MoMA is to put something in the space that will not be overwhelmed by the architecture itself. Originally, I proposed to transform the atrium into a Garden of Eden with a stream running down the steps and out the front door. But then there would have been too much on the floor and therefore too many issues for the museum regarding flow and access. Once you move from the floor you have to start looking at the walls, and I decided to make two murals using the logic and devices particular to coloring books, such as connect the dots and mazes. The murals take history as an activity; viewers will be able to discover, reveal, and expose the hidden elements embedded in the murals.
Although it’s a temporary project that looks at two presidents––George Washington and Thomas Jefferson––conversations about the works began last January, well before the election. I’ve always been interested in history and in particular the nexus between American history and African-American history. I’m interested in the mythology that surrounds the figures we recognize as being historically important. My ongoing comic-book work RHYTHM MASTR, which was featured at the Wexner Center for the Arts last year, also has many references to history, both well known and not so well known, and these new murals are outgrowths of that interest.
One idea is to look at the distortion around these two figures, particularly their estates, which are presented as great historical sites. The support system that allowed these residences to operate is not often clear. There’s an aspect of the history that is ignored in favor of the idea of both of these men as being primary movers in the struggle for freedom and independence: They felt put upon enough by the British to go to war for freedom, yet they still held slaves. These are men who accumulated a decent amount of wealth and wanted to be able to preserve their wealth even though it was largely built on the backs of slave labor––their estates simply couldn’t have been sustained otherwise.
It is a problem to recognize the greatness of Washington and Jefferson without also acknowledging that as they fought for freedom they were denying it, not only to African Americans but also––in the process of consolidating the country––to Native Americans through genocide. Liberty didn’t extend beyond the white men who organized to fight for themselves. The Declaration of Independence expresses wonderful words and great ideas; but if you write it, and yet still hold, buy, and sell other human beings who don’t have access to what you write about, then it’s a problem.
The murals have nothing to do with whether or not these presidents should be held responsible for their investments in slavery at the time. I don’t think inheriting the institution of slavery traumatized them, as some people believe. In these works, I’m not giving them the benefit of the doubt. John Adams, the second president, was not a slave owner. If he didn’t do it and still ascended to the presidency, then the question remains, Why did they need to?
Adrian Piper recently finished the second volume of Rationality and the Structure of the Self, the philosophical treatise she has developed for over three decades. Though both volumes were accepted by Cambridge University Press, the publishing house’s marketing department demanded cuts. Piper decided instead to self-publish the manuscripts, offering them to readers on her personal website. Here she discusses the evolution of Rationality and the Structure of the Self, and how her decisions to self-publish and advertise—as well as her long careers in art and philosophy—might shape the audience of this work.
I HAD NO IDEA what a long-term project this would be. It started as my undergraduate honors thesis, which I wrote on deception and self-deception. Looking at earlier drafts, I see that I did not understand the structure of my own mind well enough to articulate the formal structure of mind generally that I now feel is right. I learned that through my meditation practice, which involves looking at various levels of the mind from other levels. And I had to understand how my desires work, how my reasoning sometimes got it right, sometimes fell short—in order to be able to write about desire and reason and the intellect.
My editor at Cambridge University Press was the best I could have asked for. And the two-volume set, as it appears on my website, was formally accepted by the syndicate of Cambridge University Press—a board of eighteen professors. But the marketing department then required me to cut one hundred pages from each volume so they could sell it. I approach publishing—to my great dismay!—the same way I approach making an artwork: You work on it as long as you need, until you get it right. It would be utterly unthinkable for an exhibition venue that offered to show it to then demand that you cut off a third of it because the space was too small! I set a personal historical precedent for self-publishing around 1973–74, when I was placing Mythic Being ads containing texts from my personal journals in the Village Voice. The permutational system that chose which particular text would appear once selected one with a salacious word. The Voice refused to publish it. So I just published an announcement that the censored text was available for free at Jaap Rietman Bookstore in SoHo.
Rationality and the Structure of the Self is first and foremost targeted at specialists. However, it has a much broader audience, because it’s about desire, which is very sexy, and reason, which everyone would like. I think of this project as an extension of Sol LeWitt’s innovation when he fathered Conceptual art: that you could make art with your mind as well as your hands. Of course, artists always work from intuition; you can’t argue yourself into the kind of art you should make. But is intuition always perceptual? Kant thought intuition could be intellectual, too. When you make art from intellectual intuition, you directly intuit ideas with your mind. That I went into philosophy from art was extremely important—my approach to philosophy presupposes training in a field that requires attention to form, manipulation of objects, and hand-eye coordination. When I first started philosophy, I was exhilarated by the ability to soar anywhere in the universe with my mind. But the more I realized the demands of credible argument and theory building, the more I appreciated the pull of the real. And that comes from being in my studio, having to deal with objects—to hammer them together, cut them up, overpaint them—all the physical things artists do. That’s very important to the way I practice philosophy.
Composer and performer Meredith Monk became the first artist to engage the Guggenheim Museum’s entire rotunda in a single work with the premier of Juice in 1969. A new work, Ascension Variations, incorporates visual and musical material from both Juice and Songs of Ascension, a performance that has been touring the country since its premiere at Stanford University last October. Here Monk speaks about her involvement with Buddhism, as well as her experience preparing Ascension Variations from fragments of two other works.
I WAS EXPOSED to Buddhism in 1975, when I was asked to teach and perform at the Naropa Institute. I responded immediately to the respect art was given in that spiritual context. At that time, Naropa was a very lively creative community—it had the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics; Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman were there. I had already made a lot of work by then, and I felt affinity to Buddhist principles of silence, space, and fluid time. Those were already the aesthetic values in my work. I continued to study Buddhism, but I didn’t really commit to the practice until about ten years later because I felt I needed to work on some things in the “life” part of my life. Buddhism made me much more conscious of my aspirations as an artist and as a human being.
Ascension Variations is quite a complex project. The music and the movement from Songs of Ascension are the overall material, but I’m also weaving in some elements from Juice as a kind of echo. I’m also following the spatial structure of Juice, where the audience starts downstairs and then moves upward and passes small events that are going on throughout the spiral. At the end, the performers are at the bottom and the audience is at the top, looking down, so the space is turned inside out.
Songs of Ascension also has a surprise ending, with a reversal of the audience’s point of view. We did a version of it in October in Ann Hamilton’s tower in Alexandra Valley, California. Her building is eight stories high, but it’s a narrow double helix, with the audience on one strand and the performers on the other. It was very intimate. The Guggenheim allows me a bit more freedom in terms of entrances and exits, because getting people into and out of the tower before was a major operation.
Both Songs of Ascension and Juice have their own integrity, and I’m trying to weave in elements from the two pieces. Interestingly, the color palette of Songs of Ascension is the same that I used for Juice, dominated by shades of red, with white, black, and gray. The choice of that palette just came naturally, before I started thinking about Ascension Variations. Also, I was working in my archives and found an element for Juice that I had never used, because the violinist whom I had written it for died a few months before the performance. It has a very earthy quality, and when I listened to it I thought it would be interesting to include it in Songs of Ascension, which is very airy. I like that contrast between visceral music and more spacious material. Ascension Variations contrasts the raw quality of Juice with the more refined Songs of Ascension. Performing this weave at the Guggenheim will bring the past and the present full circle.
Ascension Variations will be presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in conjuction with the exhibition “The Third Mind” on Thursday, March 5, at 6:30 PM and 9 PM.
Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art and director of the Center of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, organized “Thomas Chambers: American Marine and Landscape Painter, 1808–1869,” the first major exhibition of Chambers’s work in over fifty years. She also authored the exhibition’s catalogue, which is the first book to survey Chambers’s life and paintings.
ORGANIZING THIS EXHIBITION was a very long process. About fifteen years ago, when the Indiana University Art Museum received twenty-nine works by Thomas Chambers, I tried first to answer the most basic curatorial question, Who is this artist? In preparing a catalogue of these gifts, I discovered that scholarship on him had not advanced beyond a brief sketch of his life published in 1956. Any art historian with an amateur-detective streak would rise to that challenge. At first, curiosity and opportunity drove my response to the work.
My research proceeded in fits and starts; I kept an ongoing file into which I would tuck notes and information as I traveled around the country on other projects. When I arrived in Philadelphia in 2002, the museum’s late director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, loved the mystery, and my colleagues were enthusiastic. As it became an exhibition, my work shifted into a theoretical realm. I began researching Chambers’s place in history, his relationship to his contemporaries, the surprising terms of his rediscovery in the twentieth century, and even more arcane subjects like sailing terminology. I knew nothing about marine painting going into this project, and little about mid-nineteenth-century American “folk” art, which is a wilder area than my usual beat, the well-documented period fifty years later, when Thomas Eakins and academic naturalism were dominant.
One of the first things to know about Chambers is that the critics of the 1840s and ’50s would have been horrified by his art: It was too bright and flat, it wasn’t fully finished, it was reproachfully dependent on printed sources and therefore insufficiently original. When Chambers was rediscovered in the middle of the twentieth century, of course, all of those qualities were turned upside down: His work looked brilliantly abstract, expressively personal. The 1942 exhibition that brought him back to the public eye labeled him “America’s First Modern.” I found that roller coaster of taste fascinating, if only because period biases made both his critics and his admirers misapprehend his work.
One of the difficulties in approaching his work today is the way that modernism continues to skew one’s vision; it’s difficult to inhabit the context of Chambers’s era. He was a child of the Romantic period, the cult of imagination that characterized the 1820s and ’30s. His manipulation of sources and the free addition of details—clouds, weather effects, and so forth—are all pure fancy. Chambers probably produced his pictures entirely in the studio. He wasn’t like Thomas Cole or Frederic Church––two of his more famous contemporaries––who would sit at the base of the waterfall and sketch. Over the course of his lifetime, his imaginative mode of working was eclipsed by the increasing importance attached to firsthand observation and documentary detail as signifiers of artistic authenticity.
There are at least two possible explanations as to why his work didn’t change to “keep up” with his era. One is that he had a very strong personal sense of what he wanted to do. The other is that he found an audience who liked the way he painted. We have no testimonials from his patrons, but he made hundreds of paintings, and somebody was buying them. My thesis is more rooted in the second explanation: I think he found a new market of patrons who had previously not been collectors of landscape and marine painting. But by 1860, not long before he died, popular taste and the alternatives available on the market (chromolithographs, for example) had changed. Chambers was steamrollered; he died poor in England in 1869.
When he was resuscitated in the 1940s, it was as a folk artist—albeit one of a very sophisticated type. My wish for this exhibition was to disturb somewhat that easy categorization of him by placing his work alongside that of so-called academic contemporaries like Thomas Doughty and Cole. Chambers’s work is, unlike some folk art, an equal partner in the visual conversation set up by such juxtapositions. I also attempted to emphasize the milieu surrounding his work and in which his paintings were originally installed. (For example, the exhibition in Philadelphia featured items such as window shades, painted clocks, wallpaper samples, and decorated chairs.) We still have the tendency, as modernists and “Westerners,” to segregate objects and prioritize painting and sculpture. In the museum world, this segregation breaks down along departmental lines. But just like today’s environment, the environment of the 1840s was full of messages for the people who knew how to decode them. The language of visual culture ranged across many surfaces—walls, furniture, porcelain, textiles—and recovering the sweep of that knowledge will allow history (and art history) to make more sense.
“Thomas Chambers” will be on view at the Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY, from February 8 to April 19. It will subsequently travel to the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington. The exhibition catalogue is available from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Press.