4.16.2021

Disk Golf at the park in a gentle mist. Everything is green again.

    




The importance of seeing artwork in the flesh.


Sculpture at the Blanton Museum. 

Memory fades over time, of course, but I still have a memory of being very young, probably not even in first grade at the time, and going with my mom and dad and my brother and sister to see show of "modern art" paintings at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. I have a memory, which may or may not be a construct of a combination of visits over time, of seeing a painting of Pablo Picasso's "Peace Dove" on a gallery wall. It was a sunny day and there was a bank of windows somewhere behind me. I distinctly remember some random,  older man saying, out loud to no one in particular, "Hell, my nephew could have drawn that and he's in third grade."  

I may or may not have agreed with him but I didn't really know any third graders and didn't have any idea what they might be capable of doing with paint. I don't remember discussing any of our family visits to museums with my family members but I know that my parents diligently took us to area museums whenever an appropriate exhibition was presented. But the "reward" for a visit to the Amon Carter Museum in particular was always an early dinner at a BBQ restaurant called, The Black Angus, which had saw dust on the floors and some of the best tasting BBQ a youngster ever ate. If we'd been really cooperative at the museum my brother, sister and I would get an additional treat of having a sparkling glass of cold ginger ale with our BBQ. It was primary school gustatory heaven.

When we were growing up I don't remember seeing a lot of artwork in our family home in my early years. Then we lived in Turkey for a couple of years in the 1960s and my mother went on a shopping spree, buying up dozens of original canvases by all manner of Turkish painters. I learned about primitive painting, naive painting, representational painting and even a bit of photo-realism. My mother also collected Turkish pottery, Turkish carpets and works in brass and copper. When we came back to the USA it was almost like a light switch had been flipped and our homes from then on were filled with art of all kinds. It was an interesting transition; from bare walls with an occasional family snapshot to a mini-museum of middle eastern eclectica. I still have small, brass chariot from neighboring Greece, a curved dagger with an inlaid wooden handle and brass sheath from Syria and a large and heavy brass tray table from somewhere near Antioch.

When I decided to pursue photography in the 1970s there were few ways to share one's work. You could load up a slide projector and project your Kodachromes on a white sheet or convenient wall or you could learn how to print. As a student watching every penny I chose printing. And as a student owning two pairs of Levis and one pair of shorts I could only afford to pursue black and white prints. 

As part of learning to print better I went to every gallery show and museum show of black and white photography I could find. It was such a transformative experience to go into the Humanities Research Center at UT and actually hold original prints from the Helmet Gernschiem collection in a cotton-gloved pair of hands. The photo curator would sit with me in one of the small, upstairs galleries, and allow me to hold Edward Weston prints, Strand prints and even a few Henri-Cartier Bresson prints in my hands to better examine every square inch of the surfaces. Imagine my surprise when I was handing an HCB print of one of the Catholic Popes in the middle of a crowd only to realize that my photographic idol of the time had missed hitting sharp focus on the main subject. And then realizing that...it didn't matter. 

Years later, while teaching photography at the University of Texas, College of Fine Arts, one of the high points of each semester was my tradition of taking the students in my studio classes over to see the Gernschiem collection; under the watchful eyes of the curators.... It was usually a revelatory experience for those overly confident students who thought they had nailed the art of printing in only a few short months.

I thought I had become jaded about seeing art after the arrival of the "digital revolution" and the ubiquity of all the images on the web but a show a few years back of Arnold Newman's work, also at the HRC, set me straight. I could stare for ten minutes or more at work he did for commercial clients and magazines which, over time leapt right over any sort of label to become pure photographic art. The tones, the textures and the remarkable detail were all "what was missing" from the same works when reduced to presentation on the web. 

It was interesting to read comments from people and see scholarly reviews about Richard Avedon's remarkable show, "In the American West." It was originally presented at the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas but almost everyone with an opinion saw a "minimized" version of  the work in popular photography magazines and tiny images in magazines like "Art in America." The documentation photographs were mostly small and in many cases badly printed and seeing the subject matter of the photos without the context of the presentation, size and context led to the usual uninformed grousing and posturing. And the idea that it was fashionable to dislike Avedon's non-fashion photography. 

My wife and I were invited to an evening opening reception for the "In the American West" show where we immediately encountered the reality of photographs printed in a way that dwarfed even my most optimistic understanding of how wonderful, powerful and dramatic photographs could be. Entering the main gallery was like opening the door to a newly discovered dimension. 

The black and white prints were magnificently made even if one discounted for the size and presentation but when you saw a perfectly printed (on photographic paper!!!) eight foot by ten foot portrait supported by a steel backing under perfect lighting the power of it would take a normal person's breath away. It was just that different. Just that amazing. 

Added to the excitement of the prints was the fact that Avedon had invited many of the subjects of the photographs to attend the reception. To see "normal" people utterly transformed by Avedon's art, and standing right next to prints of themselves, was another elevation of understanding that never was adequately represented by the work shown small in magazines. Or in the reviews that accompanied them.

It was in that moment that I think I realized how important a direct assessment and appreciation of any artwork is. It's the reason why art lovers make the treks to see original artwork all over the world. Would a  six inch tall,  plastic model of Michelangelo's  Pieta inspire the same wonder and appreciation in generations of art lovers as the magnificent and powerful original statue, situated in the context of the grandeur of the Vatican? 

When I have done shows of my own work in the past I've printed mostly larger black and white prints. I have one such "show" print on the wall next to my desk. You may have seen the image shown here before. It's the one of the Russian Model on the Spanish Steps in Rome. If you've seen it here, on a screen, you saw a version that is about 2200 pixels on a side. Reduced to a Jpeg and presented in (based on most monitors) 6 bits of color or tone differentiation. If you came into my office and walked over to my desk you would see the print made on double weight fiber paper, printed as a 36 x36 inch print, matted and framed. I guarantee that the contrast between the two viewing opportunities would be jarring. 

We have fewer and fewer opportunities to see original art in the flesh (so to speak). But we inflate our experiences and contact with art on the web as something equivalent to appreciating direct and original engagements with art work that also include its context; its actual prescence.

I had seen Caravagio paintings in books like "Jansen's History of Art" often enough to recognize his style and subject matter easily. I thought I knew what there was to know about Caravaggio from art history classes in which our professors projected slides of his work and talked about his use of chiaroscuro at length. But when I walked into small gallery in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence I saw the paintings as if for the first time. I was riveted. It changed my perspective on his accomplishments entirely.

I had the same experience in a gallery in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in 1995 when I saw, for the first time, a painting of "the nursing" Madonna by Leonardo Da Vinci. I kept circling back to the work again and again, seeing something fresh and intriguing each time. So different than a tiny four color process print in a book...

And my reactions have been the same every time I come face to face with the actual art instead of the highly diluted proxies for the art that we are "treated to" on the web. Here, on the web, we know the broad outlines. In person we can look down to the brush strokes, to the grain. To the intention.

We talk a lot on these blogs about things like pixel peeping or dynamic range or sharpness but these parameters are all secondary to an artist's actual and complete culmination of a work. We're picking at little threads instead of standing back and seeing the costume in its entirety and its intended manifestation. Just as telling a scary story is wildly different that living through one. The parameters we discuss these days about lenses and cameras are engineering decisions that I think are aimed at maximizing a screen based experience over providing the best matrix of features for making transformative art.

When photographers discuss printing many are dismissive and predict that the physical print will soon be dead or will only be the preference, or "gold standard", of old farts over 50. I disagree. Well made prints have a power, when seen directly, to be transformative and, well, exciting. That power hasn't gone away. If anything the proliferation of endless mini-replicas of photography on our devices works to lower our expectations in such a way that when we finally see (are confronted by?) the work in the flesh it's even more powerful for the current generations of viewers. It just takes more energy to get today's viewer off the couch and finally standing with full attention in front of actual work. We don't have an NFT for that yet....

I posted some images yesterday from a gallery that I wandered into last weekend. The size of the work, its immediacy and its relationship to adjoining work made it more accessible and valuable to me than any experience of seeing it on the web, on a screen, and especially (God Help Us!) on a cell phone screen. 

It's something to consider as we roam around collecting our own photographic images. Maybe we should always work with the material's highest and best presentation potential in mind instead of just accepting the qualitative restraints of the lowest common denominator of display. Hmmmm. I might be making a case here to shoot with more exacting intention and capturing with the greatest potential for display printing and physical sharing. Even if that means everyone will have to come to an actual show to see the "real" work.

And that's why I go to the Blanton Museum each month, the HRC whenever there is any new, public show of any kind, the Contemporary Museum in downtown, and at least once a quarter to my favorite museum in central Texas, the McNay Museum in San Antonio. Lucky you if you live in Ft. Worth because the Amon Carter Museum is one of the finest in the country. But seeing art directly almost anywhere will reset your expectations in a good and usually unanticipated way. Click, Click. Print. Show. 

Were wine and cheese invented to bolster the gallery experience? Just wondering.