The Collection in Context
May 22, 2016 – August 14, 2016
This summer, experience your art museum’s collection like never before. The Collection in Context brings together the finest works in GRAM’s permanent collection with select loans from the Whitney Museum of American Art and exclusive private collections, rarely on public view. The exhibition will feature many of GRAM’s exciting new acquisitions and works of art never seen in Grand Rapids, such as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and Jun Kaneko’s Large Dango, alongside beloved classics by Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt, Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Gauguin, and more. Important temporary loans round out the exhibition, including photography by Cindy Sherman, prints by Elizabeth Catlett, and new work from Anila Quayyum Agha.
The Collection in Context rearranges and remixes art work from different time periods, styles, and media to present new and unexpected ways of looking, learning, and responding to art. Art can inspire such varied, personal, and beautiful responses, depending on our own unique experiences and perspectives. The Collection in Context celebrates this variety of perspectives within our own community. A special element of the exhibition is the diverse interpretations of artwork by Grand Rapids community members, which will be featured in writing throughout the exhibition. A broad cross-section of individuals have participated in this effort, including artists, students, educators, spiritual leaders, historians, and activists. GRAM is excited to present its collection in this new way, and we hope you’ll share your own reactions, opinions, and responses to the works featured in The Collection in Context.
Chief Curator, Ron Platt, has arranged the exhibition into four distinct thematic groupings:
The Evolving Landscape presents paintings and works on paper that embody humankind’s evolving relationship with the natural world and the changing ways we depict the natural world in art.
Faith and Its Symbols includes works of art that incorporate the symbols and icons of the world’s major faiths: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. These collected works demonstrate the interconnectedness of faith and symbolism and give insight into the cultures in which each object was produced.
Nature-based Abstraction showcases abstract sculpture, painting, and decorative objects inspired by nature.
Representing Women includes works featuring female subjects that reveal society’s changing attitudes toward women over the past two centuries.
Support for this exhibition is generously provided by:
James and Mary Nelson
Greg and Meg Willit
Donald Battjes, Jr.
The Collection in Context Label Squad
Scroll Left and Right to Activate Slideshow
Anila Quayyum Agha – Artist and Associate Professor
Label for Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections-Black – I, II, III
In the city of Lahore, where I grew up, the mosque was not only a place of worship, but also the repository of the public art form. Thousands of mosques are spread all over the city, filled with bouquets of calligraphic writing and geometric symmetry that embrace pilgrims five times a day. But, like the millions of women in Lahore, there was no space for me in any of these mosques, the dictates of culture relegating us all to praying at home. It is this seminal experience of being excluded from a space of community and creativity that resonated with me when I recently visited Moorish Spain. There I experienced the historic site of the Alhambra. To my amazement, I once again discovered the complex expressions of both wonder and exclusion that had been my experience while growing up in Pakistan.
The Alhambra palace was built in the thirteenth century for the last Muslin emirs in Spain. Poets called it “a pearl set in emeralds”. Intersections-Black emulates patterns from the Alhambra, which was poised at the intersection of history, culture, and art. It was a place where Islamic and Western discourses met and co-existed in harmony and served as a testament to the symbiosis of difference.
Rosie Baker – Security Officer, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Label for Eugene Masselink’s Eight-fold Screen
Look at me
I was once a tall walnut tree
My leaves changed colors in the seasons
The rain and snow provided water for my roots
The sunbeams helped me grow
Look at me now
I am no longer that tall tree
A lumberjack came and cut me down, he cut my branches off
He dragged me to his truck and hauled me to a mill
He peeled my bark from me, there I lay, a naked tree
Look at me now
I was hoisted up and placed on a line belt
Oh no, he sent me down the line
I heard a grinding saw and then
It began to slice me, once, twice, three times and more
Now look at me
You can only see the grain of my life line, my circle has been broken
Oh no, he was not finished with me
He hauled me to a lumber yard; they stacked me up and placed a price tag on me
Look at me
I was once a tall walnut tree planted in the hills of Tennessee
Now I am stacked up in a store, waiting
There’s a man, he looked my way
I whispered pick me, pick me
Suddenly I felt a hand stroke me
He rubbed me up and down then across backward and forward
He said I can design a grand wall divider with these pieces of wood
I was loaded in a van and taken to his studio
There I was placed on a table and sanded
I was rubbed, stained, painted
I was adorned with colored leaves like the ones that once covered my branches
Look at me now
These pieces from a tall walnut tree
Look at me, a work of art designed by Eugene Masselink
I am modern art
Other trees before me and after me are cut down
Wow, you can’t see the forest if there are no trees
Patricia Barker – Artistic Director, Grand Rapids Ballet
Label for Barbara Morgan’s Martha Graham – Letter to the World
In this photo, Martha Graham embodies the physical form as architecture, illustrating line through negative space. You see the vitality and life force, an energy that is translated though the eye into action. She captures the spirit of movement and expands the boundaries of linear limitations. Clear, direct stimulating intensity is what engages the onlooker to stay looking. Such iconic images of Martha and my memories of her continue to inspire me to reach beyond boundaries as a woman and as an artist.
Khary Bridgewater – Senior Program Officer, DeVos Family Foundations
Label for Ernst Barlach’s Der Geistkampter (Champion of the Spirit)
Ernst Barlach used Gothic religious symbolism and medieval heraldic imagery to convey the triumph of the human spirit over suffering. This striking bronze sculpture was created as a pacifist anti-war memorial. Barlach made a number of sculptures protesting the violence of war and the rise of German Nazism.
Barlach created the somber angelic being with drawn sword standing upon the back of a snarling wolf-like beast for the University of Kiel in Germany. In a letter he explains that the sculpture calls for the noble spirit of humanity, represented by the robed figure, to use its intellect to overcome its base instincts, depicted as a hound of war.
The tall vertical figure with sword pointing heavenward breaks free from the horizontal earthly plane. The Champion Spirit stands as a modern mythical symbol of hope for humanity.
Cindy Buckner – Former Associate Curator, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Label for Paul Gauguin’s Auti te Pape (Women at the River)
Paul Gauguin moved to Tahiti in 1891 as part of his increasing effort to reject the materialism of contemporary society in favor of a more spiritual, unfettered life. The images of his Noa Noa Suite draw upon Tahitian myth and elemental human experiences, forming a fluid cycle of divine creation, sexuality, birth, death, and rebirth. The naïve sensuality and primitivism he attributes to the young Tahitian women was actually a misleading representation of the natives who for the past three generations had embraced the Protestant morals and belief systems brought to the island by British missionaries.
In creating these images Gauguin strove for ambiguity. He used over-printings and off-register printings, blending of inks on the blocks, hand rubbing the paper against the blocks, and inking the lower areas of the blocks so that the paper would pick up the soft, wavy marks made by the chisel. Gauguin imbued his art with a sense of mystery and expressive power, connecting him to the early twentieth-century notion of “primitivism” in the arts.
Jess T. Dugan – Artist
Label for Jess T. Dugan’s Self-Portrait with Mom (Mirror)
I had chest reconstruction surgery in January, 2005 at the age of 18. Two weeks later, the first time I could physically handle my 4 x 5 view camera, I made a picture of my mother and I standing topless next to each other. In that photo, the bruises on my skin are still visible and surgical strips hold together the incision that would become my scars. My mother stands next to me, proudly exposing not only her own body, but also her unwavering support of me and mine. Since then, I have continued to photograph the two of us side-by-side, and I also created this picture, Self-portrait with Mom (Mirror).
It is my hope that my photographs capture the unwavering love between us and that they are also an invitation to viewers to look carefully and without fear, seeing at once the strong love between a mother and child and also two people sharing an honest moment about what it means to truly forge your own path in this world.
Isra El-beshir – Curator of Education & Public Programming, Arab American National Museum
Label for Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections-Black – I, II, III
As I gaze at Anila Quayyam Agha’s three drawings entitled Intersections-Black, I find myself mesmerized by the black background and gold arabesque shapes that are reminiscent of the drapes and scripture that adorn the holy site of the Kaabah in Mecca. There is a mystery to the three drawings that draws me closer to the Divine. It makes me highly conscious of his omnipresence, of my surroundings, my being, and my faith. The darkness in the drawings and its intricacies heighten my sense of existence as a Muslim woman in the West. The curvature is that of a pathway—an entrance to a spiritual space that transcends time and evokes a strong sense of belonging. Agha’s drawings have such a strong intrinsic and religious value to me as a Muslim and its impact leaves me not only nostalgic, but also inspired.
Dana Friis-Hansen – Director & CEO, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Label for Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Buddha 004, 005, 006, 1995
The humbling human experience of time is the common subject across five decades of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s art.
These three images are part of a series of 48 photographs of Kyoto’s Buddhist Sanjusangen-do Temple, or Hall of Thirty-Three Bays, a 390-foot long wooden building originally erected in 1164. As one walks the corridor that runs its length, one passes 1000 nearly but not quite identical five-and-a-half-foot hand carved statues intended to represent eternity. With his simple composition excluding the architectural elements (pillars, floor, walls, and ceiling), the artist seeks not to convey the temple’s overall experience, but by filling his frames with a field of sculptures, a similar unit but each slightly different, he prompts the viewer to slow down, look closer, and explore deep questions about existence, presence, and mindfulness.
We usually think of time as a linear extension of repetitive cycles: Seconds follow seconds, minute follows minute, day follows, day, etc. Yet our perception darts between an awareness of these subdivisions which add up to months, years, decades, a life, and further that, beyond historical time to the epic, cosmic realm.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus compared time to the flowing of a river, observing, “you can never step into the same river twice.” A camera is a tool to trap time—forever preserving a unique moment which is gone in a flash. Here Sugimoto challenges that tendency by opening up each individual image within the repetitive cycle to a wide ocean of infinite detail, and we are left suspended, without grounding, invited into a sublime realm of reflection.
Brian Howland – Guest Services, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Label for Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper
Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper reinterprets a story which was far too familiar for many former slaves and people stuck within a cycle of poverty after the Civil War. Catlett, however, breaks free from representing the sharecropper’s toil. Instead, she chooses to depict a moment of rest for the unknown woman. Her eyes escape the picture plane, the fields dissipate behind her, and she is caught in an ethereal moment. This ethereal moment is simultaneously solidified in time by Catlett’s purposeful chiseled mark making. Catlett’s marks outline the figure which also enforces the uprightness and motionlessness of the sharecropper.
Sharecropper, to me, suggests a sense of true freedom from the stresses that life presents, especially true for a sharecropper. Fleeting moments are too many times forgotten. Catlett, I believe, presents us with just how significant these glimpses of freedom are.
Tom Knechtel – Los Angeles-based Painter
Label for the collection of Indian paintings
Indian painting has never adhered to the same rigid sense of perspective as Western painting, and in its place is a rich, complex reimagining of how space, landscape, and architecture can be represented. Color is approached as a set of powerful yet subtle juxtapositions, as often as not descriptive of emotional states rather than physical reality. Above all, Indian painting is attuned to nuances of touch and the trail of a brushed line, to adjustments of form and color, synthesizing information from the throbbing variegated world into relationships on a flat surface–and as such continues to challenge my own sense of what painting can be. The paintings are, for the most part, fairly small in scale and made with water-based paints on paper. The paintings are traditionally stored grouped in bundles and wrapped in cloth, to be brought out and admired up close, held in the hand.
India contains a vast numerous of wholly distinct folk cultures, each with their own developed visual manifestations. One group of folk drawings are yantras, diagram-like images that aid in daily mediation, much like mandalas in Buddhist practice. They are used both privately, and in temples. They are typically composed of various geometric shapes, along with written mantras. The colors used in yantras are symbolic, each color denoting inner states of consciousness. This exhibition includes the Hanuman yantra, a wild spectacle filled with images of gods and planets and splashes of red paint which the devotee used to activate the image.
While the bulk of my collection consists of drawings, I own a small group of paintings, including the 19th century painting here of the Hindu god Shiva–one of the religion’s three major gods–in his incarnation as the fierce diety, Bhairava. Bhairava is the embodiment of fear, and it is said that those who meet him must confront their own fears. He is depicted with a raised sword, and often wears necklaces of snakes and an apron strung with human skulls and bones. Bhairava is considered both a protector or guard, and a punisher.
I feel incredibly happy to have the opportunity to live with these objects.
Mira Krishnan – Psychologist
Label for Jess T. Dugan’s Self-Portrait with Mom (Mirror)
Jess Dugan has been photographing the transgender/gender diverse community since 2005, focusing on “examining how deeply gender norms have become embedded into our society.” Her work in this area includes a number of portraits of other transgender and gender diverse people, as well as portraits of herself, including numerous portraits with her mother, as shown here. Many of the portraits with her mother contrast the appearance of their upper bodies, here perhaps using the mirror as a device to accomplish this.
The mirror is deeply woven into the cultural stereotype of feminine vanity, and the most commonly used symbol to depict femaleness or femininity, the♀symbol for Venus, is typically interpreted as a mirror. This narrative frequently depicts girls and women as overly sensitive to their physical appearance, often attributing the self-monitoring and evaluation of feminine appearance to vanity rather than cultural pressures, thus simultaneously both pressuring for and criticizing against hyper-awareness of appearance. Simultaneously, femininity is depicted as a form of “artifice” that is put on in a way that masculinity is not usually perceived to be, so that masculinity is inferred to be a fundamentally natural state, and femininity in turn an unnatural one.
For transgender and gender diverse people and others, the mirror is also often used to describe the mismatch between self-perception and that of others, recognizing simultaneously the image that others would see in the mirror (which is false from the perspective of the individual) and the image that they cannot see (which is true, but which they struggle to express). For transgender men and other transmasculine people, a common desire is to see a flat, traditionally masculine chest in the mirror, which is sometimes achieved by chest binding underneath clothes and/or reconstructive surgery. As transgender people take steps to be more authentic to their gender identity, some describe themselves as looking in the mirror and finally seeing “themselves” for the first time.
Namh Lahade – 8th Grade Student
Label for Alexander Calder’s The Blunt-Tailed Dog (Animobile)
Alexander Calder was an American sculptor known as the creator of stabiles. The thing that makes stabiles like The Blunt-Tailed Dog unique is their delicately balanced and suspended shapes that move in response to air currents. The Blunt-Tailed Dog has wire connecting loops and fasteners as visible elements of the design. In his stabiles, Calder used soaring, outstretched, arching gestures to emphasize movement and energy.
Alexander Calder started making objects at a very young age. At eight, he was creating jewelry for his sister’s dolls from beads and copper wire, small animal figures, and game boards from scavenged wood and brass. Calder initially intended to focus on mechanical engineering and applied kinetics, which he studied at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. After graduating, he tried many jobs. He studied painting and then worked as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette. Then he moved to Paris, where he began making moving toys and figures, and linear portraits and figurative sculptures from wire. He soon became popular in the art world for his Calder’s Circus performances during which he set in motion the many different characters he had created. Calder began to focus on finding a way to make abstract color move through space. A year later he exhibited his first abstract wire works and produced his first, groundbreaking mechanized sculptures, pioneering kinetic art. It was later, in the 1930s, when he began making stabiles.
Oum Lahade – 8th Grade Student
Label for Tapio Wirkkala’s Leaf Platter
Tapio Wirkkala was a Finnish artist who made a wide array of sculptures and designs in materials including plastics, metals, ceramics, wood, and glass. The renowned artist created intricate objects that were versatile and attractive. Wirkkala’s artworks won him numerous awards such as a gold medal at the Faenza International Ceramics Competition, First Prize for a Design Competition for engraved glass, and the opportunity to design stamps for the 1952 Olympic Games. One of Wirkkala’s primary beliefs was that all materials have their own unwritten laws, and that an artist should be in harmony with his material, rather than going against those unwritten laws. Along with this belief, he also followed another primary characteristic of Finnish design that great art is inspired from nature, as seen in his Leaf Platter.
Wirkkala’s Leaf Platter was praised for its simplicity and naturalistic qualities, and declared, “the most beautiful object of 1951”. I like this laminated wood platter for its simplicity and elegance. Another pleasing aspect of this sculpture is how it simply suggests the form of a leaf but is not too conspicuous. For example, the small, protruding line which signifies the stem of a leaf.
Amanda Lahikainen – Assistant Professor, Aquinas College
Label for Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections-Black – I, II, III
Apart from exploring certitude and fluidity, along with other problematic binaries like light and shadow, the work of Anila Quayyum Agha also relies on certain precepts of Islamic faith. She gives fresh interpretations to the geometry and floral designs that have a long history in many parts of the world where Islam has flourished, from the Middle East to the South Pacific. But why are there no figures – no people, no animals, no narrative? In accordance with most interpretations of Islam, the creation of such figurative imagery is to compete with Allah, to compete with God. Thus, in the history of design geometry reaches new levels of exploration in Islamic art. Take a minute to compare this precept – the avoidance of figural imagery – to the barrage of figural imagery most individuals in the western world see every day. Think also of the long history of satiric images in the West and the inflammatory debates that satires on Islam have created periodically, from the Danish cartoons of 2005 to the satirists assassinated in 2015 at Charlie Hebdo. When the use of images stands so close to faith, as it does in Islam, the possibility for cultural conflict and miscommunication can increase with cultural exchange in the public sphere. Recall that Christianity has dealt with similarly held beliefs about the use of images and iconoclasm within its own history, famously during eighth-century Byzantium and the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century.
Monroe Aki O’Bryant – Artist, A Fearless Brother Project
Label for Gordon Parks’ American Gothic, Washington, D.C.
1942, I cooked my breakfast, and bathe
The children are ready for school,
I pinned up my hair, I’m on my way
“Seems like a great day to learn something new”
I told them as they went to school
“Stand clear of police man”
I hope…I pray they know the rules
My peanut butter and jelly is ready
Sunlight strikes my windowpane
Long walk to the bus stop
GOD! My feet are in pain
As I walk up the brick hill
The avenue of whites give me cold stares
On my way to the capital
I hope I should be safe there
I always hated the bus
It smelled like gas, my body shakes from the bumps
Who’s that waving at me?
Oh! It’s Ms Alice. She sits in the front
This is our stop. The capital
On the corner, Ms. Alice and I get off
We dress the same, we have the same job
So together we walk and talk
But she makes more money than me
My pay is extremely meager
I have to split this between 4 children
So working here, I’m very eager
I mop this place, which is full of liars
I ponder as I drink from the colored faucets
It irritates me when Ms Alice shouts,
“Ms. Watson, I need you to first clean my office”
She talks about the good meal she ate last night
I’m trying to ration the leftovers tonight
I’m telling you if we had Black president
He would surely make this right…Right?
But I keep all my thoughts locked away
I really don’t have much to say
I just smile, mop my floors, clean the toilets
and just hum for the rest of the day
But Mister, Why you want to take a picture of me?
There’s clearly more important people to stalk
I just told you my daily story, and I still don’t know your name
It’s Gordon Parks.
Ron Platt – Chief Curator, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Label for Marsden Hartley’s Maine Landscape
Marsden Hartley was born in Lewiston, Maine and as a boy found solace and inspiration in the state’s natural beauty. At thirteen, he made detailed and accurate drawings of the state’s flora and fauna for a local naturalist. As an adult, he returned to Maine to paint its landscape again and again. (He called himself a “Maine-iac”.)
Maine Landscape is an early painting that demonstrates Hartley’s use of the “Segantini stitch,” a technique in which color is applied side-by-side in long, heavy strokes to create a vibrant energy. When I look at this painting, it almost seems like the image is actually stitched onto the canvas. Hartley’s expressive brushwork also demonstrates the influence of the Transcendentalist movement on his work, as he sought to convey nature’s spiritual essence as well as its physical forms.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons – Rabbi, Temple Emanuel
Label for the works of Illya and Resia Schor
Abraham runs to greet three guests who happen to walk by his tent. This picture represents the Jewish value of “Hachnasat Orchim,” or welcoming people into our homes. Abraham quickly offers these three men a place for respite. He invites them to relax and to have some food with him. Sarah bakes cakes and a calf is slaughtered so they will have a meal to eat. What is remarkable about the haste in which Abraham attends to his guests is the fact that he is recovering from surgery. He has recently entered into the sacred covenant with God by undergoing a Brit Milah, a ritual circumcision.
These three guests are not simply ordinary men who happen to be out for a stroll. They are angels who come with good news for Abraham and Sarah. They tell Abraham that God will bless Sarah with a child in her old age. When Sarah hears the angels telling Abraham about this good fortune she laughs a hearty laugh. She is delighted at the news but wonders why this blessing has come so late in her life. When Abraham and Sarah become parents they will name their son Isaac, the root of which in Hebrew means “to laugh.”
Jenn Schaub – Neighborhood Revitalization Specialist, Dwelling Place Inc.
Label for collection of Guerrilla Girls posters
Striking, bold, and whip-smart, Advantages Poster responded to criticism that works previously released by the Guerrilla Girls were too negative. The New York City art establishment was turned off by their previous, 1985 feminist street art posters proclaiming “Women in America earn only 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men do,” and asking, “How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC Museums last year?”. In response, the Guerrilla Girls changed tactics by creating the Advantages Poster, mockingly embraced the inequality women artists face. Almost 30 years later, the Advantages Poster is the most requested and reproduced image created by the Guerrilla Girls. The riotous message shared in this work isn’t exclusive to the art world; it is about women’s lives as the overlooked, underpaid, minimized “other” half of the human race. In the words of Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Women’s rights are human rights.”
Protest art like the posters of the Guerrilla Girls proclaim injustices, inspire hope for change, and challenge us to be better humans. Isn’t it time that we expect results?
Mira Schor – New York-based Artist and Writer
Label for the works of Illya and Resia Schor
My father Ilya Schor was born in Zlotzow, Galicia (now Ukraine) in 1904 in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family lived near the synagogue. His father, Naftali Schorr, was a sign painter and Hasidic folk artist.
My mother was born Resia Ainstein in Lublin, Poland, in 1910. Though from a traditionally observant background with ties to the Hasidim, her family was more urban, more Polish. Her mother fought for her daughter’s right to pursue advanced studies in art even though she was a girl.
When he was a teenager, my father apprenticed with a goldsmith/engraver so that he would learn a trade. My parents met in Warsaw in 1930, the year my father began his studies in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. He moved to Paris in 1937 to continue his studies, and my mother joined him there in 1938. They fled Paris together in 1940, in advance of German troops.
My parents arrived in New York on December 3, 1941. My father and then my mother worked in the same room in our apartment for forty-eight years. In this narrow little room are two worktables, and jeweler’s, engraver’s, and painting tools are arranged on the shelves and walls in an orderly manner.
My father is best known for ornamental jewelry and Judaica. He received commissions from synagogues for silver Torah crowns and pointers. The woodcuts and paintings on paper you see here by my father are like short stories from a lost culture. Details of religious and village life that convey the Hasidic penchant for the mystical appeal of humility.
As a painter in New York in the 1950s, my mother produced and exhibited sensual abstract works, but after my father died in 1961, she began to work in metal, picking up and transforming his practice and her own.
The continuity of my parents’ work is more important and enriching than the difference. Both chose the mezuzah as their object. My father shifted toward cubism and abstraction in some of his Judaica pieces and in the brass sculptures he made in the late 1950s. In a radical and iconoclastic gesture, my mother took the mezuzah and turned it inside out, revealing and cutting into small fragments the small talismanic text that had always been hiddenand was not to be touched by a woman.
Chris Smit – Executive Director, DisArt
Label forAndy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn)
This image of Marilyn Monroe, part of Andy Warhol’s celebration of mass culture, celebrity, and screen printing, strikes audiences on many different levels. The obvious point of reference here is that of Monroe herself, an iconic female celebrity whose image was as omnipresent as it was overexposed in Postwar American visual culture. This over-consumed photographic image then takes on a life of its own through Warhol’s manipulation of recognition through color. Consequently, the piece itself becomes one about pleasurable conversion, the viewer taking delight in the dance between the real and unreal.
The significance of the work for me, however, rests in its epitomization of the mass-mediated act of consuming the female body. Warhol’s “mass-produced” portrait of Monroe targets the ease with which female bodies get bought and sold, digested and purged within the context of capitalism, patriarchy, and mass culture ideology. It is not difficult to imagine this image portraying Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, or any of the other countless female artists who have been tricked into believing that their bodies act as their prime entrée into the public’s imagination. The colors, transformations, and manipulations of the image mirror the ways in which pop-culture markets play with these female bodies in order to make them more appealing, subservient, and essentially exiled from any experience of authentic selfhood.
Monroe is a salient study for Warhol because she is one of the first body-centered, female megastars. In other words, her career (and demise?) teetered on the uncertain pillars of sexual spectacle, the malleability of image, and the centralization of the physical in her own identity.
Debbie Stabenow – United States Senator
Label for Gordon Parks’ American Gothic, Washington, D.C.
I love that Gordon Parks named this photograph American Gothic, linking it to the very famous painting by Grant Wood. The Wood painting shows a stern-looking man and a woman standing in front of a simple house–and his painting has long been a symbol of the resolve of rural Americans. Parks’ stunning photograph suggests a similar resolve–and dignity–on the part of his subject, Ella Watson, who cleaned floors at the Farm Security Administration building in segregated Washington, D.C. Here is a woman with a backbreaking job in America’s capital city, who had to enter restaurants through the back door and could not attend a show at a white theater. It took nearly two decades after this photograph was taken before Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act. I think this piece still challenges us today to see and respect the dignity of those who are too often invisible, and to never stop fighting for a more equal America.
Elizabeth VanArragon – Art Historian and Exhibitions Coordinator, DisArt
Label for Hans Arp’s La Sainte de la Lisière
Hans Arp was an Alsatian painter, sculptor, and poet and one of the first members of Dada in Switzerland in 1915. A movement that embraced chance and rejected the aesthetic traditions of Western Art, Dada spread during the period between the World Wars. While the smooth marble and organic shapes of La Sainte de la Lisière do not at first appear to evoke the anti-art trajectory he helped initiate, Arp was a crucial figure in rejecting the rationality and classicism of the Western avant garde and academic traditions. He shifted from collage and relief sculptures in wood and cardboard to work in the round by the 1930s. La Sainte de la Lisière, or the saint of the forest’s edge, was made two years before the artist’s death, at a time when he began searching for tranquility through explorations of the lives of the saints, meditation, and Eastern mysticism. The sculpture demonstrates the inspiration he found throughout his career in natural forms, abstracting the human figure, eggs, leaves and trees into biomorphic structures. His sculptures were never representations of organic forms but independent entities governed, as he argued, equally by the laws of nature and the laws of chance. His playful art influenced Alexander Calder and Ellsworth Kelly, both also found in this gallery.
Margaret Vega – Artist and Professor, KCAD
Label for George Inness’ Sunset in the Woods
Sunset, the termination of the day. I love the conflicting emotive quality that is evident in the later work of George Inness. The glowing orange light is hot, burning, like the combustion of the sun or a forest fire consuming the landscape. It contemplates the primal fervor of the attack of the sun on this pastoral field. The figures are dwarfed by the mystical, explosive quality of the light signifying the conclusion of the day.
Inness presents an idyllic landscape with a sky that seems at once foreboding and ominous, yet seductively clairvoyant; reaching beyond the natural range of the senses and the association we have of sunset, into the spiritual. The sky, the spirit of nature, is about to overtake the day, while the land and its inhabitants are oblivious, unfazed by the darkness that will follow.
The poetry of Inness’ work and his use of saturated, almost violent color, is intended to give us a deeply personal examination of the mystical relationships within nature and the celebratory experience of the natural world. For me, Sunset in the Woods has captured the sublime beauty of light in landscape.
Jennifer Wcisel – Curatorial Assistant, Grand Rapids Art Museum
Label for Pat Stier’s Between The Trees
Pat Steir likes to think her paintings make themselves. In 1988, she began experimenting with “waterfall” paintings in which she works from a ladder, pouring paint and flinging it from oversaturated brushes onto unstretched canvas tacked to the wall. When one layer of color dries, she applies the next and watches as the paint cascades down the canvas.
“It’s chance within limitations,” she says. “I decide the colors and make simple divisions to the canvas, and then basically the pouring of the paint paints the painting. It changes as it pours down. Gravity becomes my collaborator. The way the thing works is always in part a surprise.”
Steir does not paint literal waterfalls, as in landscape painting, but rather allows her paints to flow in the same way water flows, creating the analogy of a waterfall. Once dry, the paint becomes static, but gives the impression of flowing water as seen between a forest of green and orange streaked trees.
Rev. Gordon Wiersma – Hope Church RCA
Label for Édouard Manet’s Dead Christ with Angels
Although it is at the bottom edge of the image, one of the first things I notice is the snake crawling out from behind the rock. This calls to mind the story in Genesis 3 of the serpent’s role in the corruption of God’s good creation and God’s pronouncement that ‘humanity will strike the serpent’s head, and the serpent will strike humanity’s heel.’ This drama from the the dawn of creation is played out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as evil and death are confronted by God in the incarnation of Christ. This drama is still unresolved in Manet’s setting, as the snake is alive while the body of Christ is lifeless. But Manet’s presentation of Christ’s body seems to point to the final outcome of the story: the crucified body of Christ is portrayed as strong and vibrant; even in death, Christ sits enthroned; the pierced hands of Jesus are extended in blessing and invitation. This all combines to speak to the viewer of the resurrection story that is to come, with life as the final work in the drama.
A final aspect I was drawn to in this work was the striking emotion and tenderness of the angels who are attending the body of Christ. One figure is turned away in grief, while the other cradles the head of Jesus with her face drawn close. In these figures I feel Manet drawing out the emotions of the viewer in facing death and even expressing the tenderness of the heart of God in the midst of suffering. While the movement is towards resurrection, the painful reality of death is still felt.
The Venerable Deok Wun – Guiding Teacher and Founder
Label for Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Buddha 004, 005, 006, 1995
Buddhism teaches us that we are a part of a vast, boundless web of oceans of universes inhabited by countless oceans of beings. In each of those numberless realms dwells an ocean of Buddhas. Each ocean, universe, being, and Buddha depends on each and every other universe, being, and Buddha. No one stands alone. This fundamental teaching on interbeing is at the heart of Buddhist belief, and practice. Experiencing this interbeing transforms how one moves through the world with love, kindness, compassion, and joy. The Sea of Buddhas presents this teaching vividly. Each Buddha interconnects with every other Buddha. Cut just one thread and the connections are lost. The vast, numberless oceans will evaporate, taking with them the way of love, kindness, compassion, and joy.
Students attending Learning to Look tour with GRAM Docent guide
Label for Jennifer Bartlett’s Small House
Docent: “What can you tell me about this piece?”
Child: “There’s a house in the middle of it!”
Docent: “Yes, this artist puts houses in many of her pieces. What else can you tell me?”
Child: “It’s made out of dots.”
Child: “The dots are on squares”
Child: “It’s very colorful.”
Docent: “What colors do you see?”
Children: “Aqua, blue, purple, green, brown, black”
Docent: “Lots of colors! Are the greens all the same?”
Child: “No there are lots of shades. In the blue too!”
Child: “There’s small dots and big dots.”
Docent: “Do you think we could count them all?”
Child: “100, 1,000, 10,000, a billion dots!”
Docent: “Let’s back up now. What does it look
Child: “Can’t really see the dots.”
Child: “I see all the dots make a picture.”
Child: “Blue sky, green ground – that’s grass!”
Docent: “What kind of painting is this?”
Child: “It’s a landscape.”
Docent: “Yes, and what shapes do you see?”
Child: “Squares and circles. And a triangle.”
Docent: “Do you like this painting?”
Child: “I like the painting because it’s so cool.”
Child: “It’s pretty.”
Guerrilla Girls – American Artists and Activists
Label for collection of Guerrilla Girls posters
In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art opened an exhibition called “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” and in this exhibition there were one-hundred-sixty-nine artists; very few were women or people of color. I think the number of women was thirteen. It was pretty pathetic. The Women’s Caucus for Art called a demonstration in front of the museum and I remember Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo and I went to this demonstration. So, we are walking around on a picket line and nobody paid attention to it. We were kind of shocked. I mean, women artists in New York were so upset, but the public didn’t care at all. It was pretty clear that they thought that whatever was in the museum was the stuff that was supposed to be in the museum, and whatever wasn’t was the stuff that wasn’t supposed to be. I remember us walking and walking and walking and at one point we just turned to each other and we said, there has got to be a better way. There has got to be a way to do something that can break through people’s notions about this issue and maybe change people’s minds. That was the idea for starting a group.
Aquinas College Students
Label for Ansel Adams’ Monolith, Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California
The imaginary conversation below takes place between the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and one of his students. They are discussing two works in this section of the exhibition, the Asher Durand painting to your immediate left, and the Ansel Adams photograph on the wall behind you.
Socrates: Do these works of art deserve comparison? They are, after all, different mediums.
Student: If you mean the painting by Durand and the photograph by Adams, then, yes, I do.
Socrates: How can a grandiose oil painting be compared to a photograph exposed for only 5 seconds?
Student: They both convey the sublime.
Socrates: The sublime. What is the sublime?
Student: You know, a concept or feeling that was discussed quite a bit in eighteenth-century Europe. The sublime fills the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power, inspiring awe or some other high emotion like terror.
Socrates: Is that definition coming from a philosopher, or did you make it up?
Student: Well, both. The eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke defined the sublime as “whatever is in any sort terrible.” So the part of my definition mentioning ‘terror’ comes from his writings. Perhaps more famously, but less clear, is Immanuel Kant’s definition of the sublime as being found “in a formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented.” In his view, boundlessness creates the sense of ‘overwhelming grandeur’ I mentioned.
Socrates: Ok, got it. How can both of these artworks evoke the sublime?
Student: They both demonstrate the grandeur of a mountain, in terms of scale and the power of nature. The sky and clouds in the Durand painting obscure a mountain top and threaten a terrible storm, especially in relation to the small man in the foreground. This could make any viewer feel overwhelmed and afraid.
Socrates: What about the photograph?
Student: As I recall, Adams himself said the shadows on the half dome at Yosemite and the stormy sky were both threatening and gloomy. He said, “I saw the photograph as a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distinct sharp white peak against a dark sky.” Notice that the sky on the upper left is dark indeed.
Socrates: So, have we decided, contrary to the obvious, that two very different works of art can evoke the sublime?
This label was created by the following Aquinas College students as part of Professor Amanda Lahikainen’s class on 19th Century American Art: Katie Durham, Sarah Ellis, Sierra Hawley, Olivia Hoffman, Jim Laramy, Clare O’Malley and Alex Whiteley.