Posts tagged "sculpture"

artist-animal collaborations at the Peabody-Essex Museum.

I finally had the chance to go to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, just a short train ride away from Boston. And I’m so glad I made the trek. Among the fantastic exhibitions on view was Beyond Human: Artist-Animal Collaborations in the museum’s recently redesigned Art & Nature Center, a space that explores the intersection of contemporary art and nature through interactive experiences. Upon first impression, Beyond Human’s subject matter and format—animals and interactives—suggest “kids.” And yeah, there were many families tinkering, discussing, and overall enjoying the work on view. But the exhibition’s central questions are deeply fascinating ones that I believe can be stimulating and valuable for all audiences. 


The show explores works that were co-created with or otherwise heavily involve live animals, challenging our traditional notions of creativity, authorship, and power in the production of art. Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi, for example, pours sand into an ant farm in the shape of different symbols, such as currency and flags, and then lets loose a colony of ants. Overtime, the ants’ pathways distort the image; in a way, Yanagi relinquishes formal control over the final product to the insect laborers. 


Beyond Human’s central premise reminds me of Art Worlds, Howard Becker’s look into the sociology of art. According to Becker, art is formed through a coordinated network of many individuals that he calls an art world. Art, therefore, is a collective action that occurs through cooperative links, rather than the work of single individuals. In other words, Van Gogh might be the person we assign as the author of Starry Night, but the work could not have been created without the individual who sold him the canvas, the person who grounds his pigments, any of the people who trained him or influenced his work, and so on. In the same vein, the Peabody Essex exhibition questions what it means to be the creator of an object when animals are essential to the work. 


When we study art worlds from Becker’s sociological perspective, we see that the production of art is no different from any other kind of production. In a sense, there is nothing special about artistic creation except for the value we place on it. While some might find this viewpoint sacrilegious, I find it refreshing. Beyond Human similarly challenges these notions of the sanctity of art. When one of the most exciting “artists” in the exhibition is the bowerbird,* a creature from New Guinea and Australia that makes incredibly ornate and idiosyncratic shelters, it makes you think about what makes art Art. 

*Actually, the bowerbirds are represented in a video about Mary Jo McConnell’s quest for the bird and the subsequent paintings she makes. She regards the birds—a few of whose patterns she has followed for years—as artists and equals. (I kind of like the bowerbirds even more.)

applying digital humanities approaches to museum collection data.

At the end of my recent blog post on a data visualization project, I had more questions than answers. I set out to answer one question—had the Museum of Modern Art been collecting American artworks since the museum was founded?—and left wondering what else we could learn about a museum’s collecting practices using big data. In addition to providing the perfect opportunity to continue working with the MoMA dataset, a recent three-week unit on the digital humanities for my Workshop graduate course gave me a new framework to guide my analysis. One of the approaches in the digital humanities—a loose area of research and teaching that explores the intersection of digital methods and humanistic inquiry—is to employ big data and what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading” to probe into literary, historical, and artistic texts. From one perspective, the digital humanities borrow computational strategies and overlay them onto the humanities. At the same time, though, the digital humanities imbue computational methods with the strategies we value in the humanities, such as conducting close readings and recognizing ambiguities.

With the spirit of the digital humanities in mind, I had a few overarching goals for this unit:

  • How can I transition from using data to answer a specific question to discovering unexpected trends or aberrances? In the first phase of the collection data project, I had a precise question in mind. Often, though, a researcher doesn’t know what questions he or she wants to ask. What other stories could MoMA’s collection data reveal, and what strategies could I undertake to identify a research question? Which leads me to…
  • What kinds of new tools can I use to find patterns in my data? One my personal goals for the digital humanities unit was to explore tools I had never used or created before. Using the open-source SIMILE Exhibit publishing framework, I created my very own faceted browser, a software tool that organizes information according to a faceted classification system. The browser allowed me to explore MoMA’s Painting and Sculpture online collection data through a series of filters. I was able to quickly filter the 2,670 pieces of data by criteria such as artist’s birthplace, artist’s gender, and the object’s year of acquisition. Using the faceted browser allowed me to get a quick overview of patterns and aberrations in the data. For example, I was able to see that MoMA had collected British-born artists since 1936—six years after the museum was founded—and that, surprisingly enough, the first British-born artist to enter MoMA’s P&S collection was a woman.

  • How could I create a visualization that reflected the nuances and ambiguities of the humanities? Johanna Drucker argues that, as digital humanists, we should reconceive our data as capta—that is, as “taken” rather than as a given. Processing humanistic topics through statistical and empirical means runs the risk of being “crudely reductive” and violating “basic principles of critical thought…or at the very least, put too far to the side” (source). Drucker argues that, “to intervene in this ideological system, humanists, and the values they embrace and enact, must counter with conceptual tools that demonstrate humanities principles in their operation, execution, and display.” I was intrigued by Drucker’s experimental visualizations: in her graphs, she allowed for permeable, fluid boundaries, revealing ambiguities behind supposedly quantitative information. I won’t be sharing my version of a Drucker-esque visualization here today—it still needs a lot of work—but hope to continue this process in the future.

I also had a few more specific questions I wanted to ask of my data:

  • How have women artists fared in MoMA’s Painting and Sculpture collection? It’s no surprise that at most art museums, MoMA included, galleries tend to be dominated by objects by male artists. But how has the gender ratio of artists in the collection shifted over time? I coded the MoMA P&S collection data by artists’ gender. For artist collectives of multiple individuals of different gender, I categorized them as “not applicable.”
  • What can we learn by looking at the span of time between when an artwork is made and when it is collected? During my first forays in visualizing the P&S collection, I found that MoMA was heavily biased towards European works during the museum’s early years, and in more recent decades has collected works by artists from all over the world. I wanted to investigate whether these later, more diverse acquisitions were revisionist attempts to recognize artists that had been previously marginalized. I hypothesized that the works that took longer to enter MoMA’s collection were works by women and non-Europeans. In order to answer this question, I had to make a few decisions. I had acquisition dates and the dates of works’ creation, but how do I deal with works of art whose creation spans a number of years? How can I code a work that was made “circa” 1920? What about Adrian Piper’s What Will Become of Me, a work started in 1985 but is still ongoing? I decided to code the works’ dates by their earliest year listed.

So what did I find? Unsurprisingly, women are the underdogs in MoMA’s P&S collection. Out of the 2670 works in my dataset, 332 were by women, at a whopping 12.4% of the collection. The average year of acquisition for works by men is 1977, whereas the average year of acquisition for women artists is 1991. The same pattern emerges for the date when the work was created: for objects made by men, the average year of creation is 1952, whereas for women the average year is 1974.

Additionally, my hypothesis was upended: The works that took the longest to acquire were made by white, European men. The objects that had a difference of 100 years or more between when the work was created and when it was acquired were by Vincent Van Gogh, Auguste Rodin, Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Paul Signac, and Odilon Redon—in other words, the big wigs. To me, this pointed to two potential conclusions: first, the foundation upon which the history of modern art is founded is still solidly French; additionally, the works that take longest to collect are frequently prized works by beloved artists, such as Van Gogh’s The Olive Trees.

On the other hand, works collected the same year they were created run the gamut. Some objects mark seminal moments in art history, such as Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Other works are by artists who have, by comparison, fallen into oblivion: Joso De Creeft, Frederick Papsdorf, and Manoucher Yektai are just of the few names completely foreign to me.

I wanted to do a bit of a closer reading of the span between when a work was made and when it was collected. To do so, I chose a smaller dataset. I narrowed the list down to artists included in American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe—the exhibition that incited this project in the first place. Then, I used a tool called TimeFlow to map out the work’s trajectories over time. In the image below, the line represents that magical time between when an artwork was made until when it was collected. The longer the line, the longer the work took to enter the collection.

Again, like the overall collection data, this visualization was inconclusive. Works by some of the big names we cherish now—Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis—took a long time to enter the collection. But another cherished painting—Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World—took only one year.

While I could not identify a broad trend about the creation-date-to-acquisition-date query, this exercise pointed to some interesting cases that could be the starting point of a rich art historical investigation. My favorite example is Florine Stettheimer. Stettheimer was a painter, playwright, set designer, and poet who led a salon in Manhattan. Her paintings are often bizarre and whimsical, such as Family Portrait, II above. Stettheimer was also one of the six artists I was unfamiliar with when American Modern open. In an attempt to gauge these artists’ relative renown (or perhaps more appropriately, obscurity), I did a quick Google Ngrams search that plotted out their mentions in Google’s digitized library over time.

It turns out that Florine Stettheimer—the only woman in the group—is currently on an upswing, at least according to Google Ngram Viewer. If we consider the Google books corpus to be a reliable dataset, then what this chart tells me is that Stettheimer may not have been recognized in her own time, but now scholars are increasingly noticing and writing about Stettheimer’s work. MoMA’s collection data suggests a similar story: the two paintings in MoMA’s P&S collection took 23 and 48 years to enter the collection. Of course, two pieces of data are not sufficient to come to any conclusion. However, it could be the start of a great art historical research project. Applying the computational strategies to the humanities isn’t always about the big picture; sometimes, it’s about revealing those hidden aberrations.

visualizing American and European art in MoMA’s Painting and Sculpture collection.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York is perhaps the foremost museum of modern and contemporary art, and its fifth floor Painting and Sculpture galleries are the most trafficked areas of the museum. Housing some of the most renowned works from the 1880s through the 1940s by artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Claude Monet, these rooms tell the history of modern art, or at least MoMA’s version of it. The floor plan looks a little like this:


In this diagram, you’ll notice that most of the artworks in the galleries are European works (blue), while the American works—in green—are housed primarily in the interstitial spaces, such as hallways and elevator banks. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith recently wrote, “Since opening its renovated and expanded building in 2004, the Modern has tended to relegate American paintings from the first few decades of the twentieth century to the areas adjoining its escalators. They are excluded as much as ever, if not more, from the overwhelmingly European narrative that dominates the permanent collection galleries.”

This quotation comes from Smith’s review for American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe, an exhibition that runs through January 26, 2014. The exhibition’s website describes American Modern as “a focused look at the strengths and surprises of MoMA’s collection in an area that has played a major role in the institution’s history.” Smith, however, interprets its aims this way: “It wants to prove that, contrary to prevailing views, the Modern did not ignore American artists during the museum’s early decades, when it was acquiring the works of European masters hand over fist.” So the question remains: Has MoMA been collecting American artworks all along? 


It turns out that much of the data needed to answer this question lives on MoMA’s website. Each collection object page has extensive information about the artwork, including title, date of creation, and artist’s nationality. Additionally, the MoMA number—also called an accession or acquisition number—seems like an arbitrary string of digits but in fact holds useful information. The last four digits are the year the object entered the museum’s collection; the number before the period denotes the order of the individual acquisition. For example, the accession number for Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad is 3.1930; it was acquired in 1930—the first year of MoMA’s existence—and was the third work to enter the collection that year.


American Modern exhibits works spanning many of MoMA’s collection departments, including Prints and Illustrated Books, Drawings, and Photography. For the purposes of this investigation, I limited my data set to objects from the Painting and Sculpture collection, as these include MoMA’s most well-known (and dare I say prestigious?) works that are consistently on view, and the ones that populate the aforementioned fifth floor galleries.

I used to create a web crawler that would scrape the data from all works in the P&S online collection. It is important to note that this data is not without its holes. MoMA, like many museums today, is actively involved in digitizing its collection, and its online presence is vast. Still, some works are not online: in certain cases, copyright restrictions prevent objects from appearing on the website, and at other times, the scarcity of staff and funds slows down the digitization process.

After scraping, I cleaned up the data. First, I extracted the four digits indicating the year of acquisition from each object’s accession number.

Next, I removed any unnecessary information from the “nationality” field, which proved to be more of a philosophical question that I had ever imagined. For some artists, such as Mona Hatoum—of Palestinian ethnicity, born in Lebanon, exiled to the United Kingdom, where she works today—assigning nationality is difficult. An artist like George Grosz is listed as “American” in nationality, but “born Germany”; like many European artists in this time, he emigrated to the U.S. as Hitler rose to power. While his nationality at the end of his life was American, Grosz is considered to have contributed most to German Expressionism. Additionally, from 1930—MoMA’s founding year—until now, national borders have shifted.


Nationality, thus, is a fluid identifier, one that can change through out a person’s life and can be multiple (hello, dual citizenship). But an Excel worksheet is not built for ambiguity and nuance. I determined there were three ways that I could code nationality: by the artist’s birthplace, by his or her nationality at death (which is what MoMA’s online collection generally foregrounds), or by contribution to art history. This last method refers to an artist’s place in the development of twentieth century art as understood in the popular imagination (Duchamp was central to French art, Arshile Gorky contributed to American art), a categorization that can be very subjective.

Ultimately, I chose to look at the objects that entered MoMA’s collection over time based on the birthplace of the artist. Using Tableau Public, a free data visualization software, I was able to visually witness the ebbs and flows of MoMA’s collecting practices.


The interactive below shows objects entering MoMA’s P&S collection by birthplace of artist for every year from 1930 to 2013. A larger a bubble indicates the more objects were acquired from said country. I have color-coding the countries by continent (admittedly, another subjective categorization).

Key: orange=Asia, yellow=Africa, blue=Europe, green=North America, purple=Oceania, red=South America

It’s fascinating to quickly scroll through the decades and notice the accumulation of colors as MoMA’s collection becomes more and more diverse. The first years are mostly blue (European countries) with a smattering of green—North America, for the most part the United States. While artists born in the United States are represented in the early years, they tend to be outnumbered by Europeans, especially French artists. It is not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the number of works by American artists consistently outweighs works by artists from any one European country. This makes a lot of sense: it was not until after World War II, when many Europeans emigrated to the U.S. and Abstract Expressionism took its hold, that New York became the center of the art world. In the early 1960s, we see the rise of new, experimental forms of art like Minimalism, Conceptualism, and performance that solidified the prominence of American artists in the history of art. I’ve added a few annotations onto the timeline that hope to contextualize MoMA’s P&S collecting practice within the larger frame of art history.

To answer the original question—has MoMA been collecting American works all along?—the answer is yes and no. Artists born in the United States have been present in the collection from the beginning, starting with Hopper’s House by the Railroad. Still, the early years privileged European works over the works from MoMA’s own homeland. The bar graph below charts out European versus North American artworks by decade. At a glance, we see that European works overwhelmingly exceed North American objects until the 1960s, when they start to level out. 

Digging deeper

The data has spoken about the American Modern debate, but many stories remain untold. I’m interested in further pulling out trends (as well as outliers) to unearth the history of MoMA’s collecting practices.

For example, what happened in years when the data seems erratic? Anomalies in the representation can often be explained by taking a closer look at what was collected. The year 1942 is overwhelmed by the United States, with more acquisitions of objects by American artists than all the other countries combined. Well, not exactly. One of the year’s major acquisitions was thirty paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series, half of the sixty-panel work shared between MoMA and the Phillips Collection. Generally shown together, these paintings serve as vignettes of the Great Migration of African Americans from rural Southern U.S. to the North. Thus of the thirty-five works collected in 1942, thirty of them can be considered as one larger acquisition. The same situation happened in 2010 when MoMA acquired Franz Erhard Walther’s First Work Set, consisting of fifty-eight elements.

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series at the Museum of Modern Art (via)

As I continue to develop this project, I want to look at the two other ways to conceptualize nationality that I had outlined above, and compare the resultant visualizations. Additionally, it might be interesting to consider the gap between when a work was made and when it was collected. Museums are never just collecting newly created works; they are constantly examining where there might be gaps in their collections. Collecting down the road, thus, can be a way to revise history; museums start to collect women and minorities that had been excluded from earlier years of the institutions history. Finally, I’d like to do cross-museum comparisons. How have different museums’ collecting practices developed? How are these practices similar or different across institutions?

Of course, we must continually be wary of visual representations, as a slew of colorful dots in varying sizes doesn’t tell the whole story. Not all artwork is collected equal. For example, how can we reconcile years when fewer but more expensive works are collected? Does considering each object as a data entry strip it of its individual story? I believe that, with a healthy dose of skepticism and a critical eye for the history of art and museums, these visualizations can teach us a lot about how art becomes historicized through institutions.  

This post is part of project on data visualization for one of my graduate courses, CMS 950: Workshop.

comparative imagery: tony feher or science experiment?

1. waves.



2. pyramids.



3. catenaries.




Tony Feher, Just So, 2002 (via)

Slinky waves experiment (via)

Tony Feher, Mountain Home, 2004 (via)

Saqqara stepped pyramid (via)

Tony Feher, Swimming with Galileo (my photo)

Catenary arches (via)

Tony Feher is on view at the deCordova Sculpture Garden and Museum in Lincoln, MA, through September 15.

el anatsui at the brooklyn museum.

The question is not, how are we to classify Anatsui in relation to our rigid art historical lineages, but rather, what purposes do these classifications serve anyway? Anatsui’s work is compelling not so much because it is critical or celebratory of globalism, but because it asks us to consider our frame of reference.

I wrote about Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui for the Brooklyn Rail. Anatsui’s work isn’t always monumental in the physical sense, but it is metaphorically.

comparative imagery: art that tells you what to do.

Jeppe Hein, Please, 2008 (found on Art Stack)

George Segal, Walk, Don’t Walk, 1976 (source)

Martí Guixé, H!Bye Pills and Instruction Card Prototypes, 2000. (source)

Hennessey Youngman, ART THOUGHTZ: How to Make an Art, 2011

Marlene Dumas, How to Kill Your Mother, 1989 (source)

John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, 1971 (source)

jennie c. jones’ objects at the studio museum: look. and listen.

Shhh is the title of one of Jennie C. Jones’ series, but it may very well be a directive: Shhh. Look. And listen.

Objects, Jones’ autonomous installation within Shift at the Studio Museum in Harlem, consists of two series and a site-specific work that reveal themselves slowly. Upon first glance, the objects are unassuming, simple forms made of metal and black line. However, a few minutes of looking (and listening) reveals a quietly radical rethinking of Minimalist aesthetic. In her work, Jones revisits the legacy of Minimalism through the lens of sound production and postwar African-American musical contributions.

Song Containers certainly fit the Minimalist aesthetic: four pairs of miniature monoliths stand upright on a white pedestal. To make the series, Jones reproduced vessels for music—LP sleeves, tape cassette liner notes, and 8-track cases—as mechanically-reproduced aluminum sculptures. They remind us of the packaging we used to cherish, pore over, and embellish our walls with, but are now, with the advent of iTunes and mp3s, obsolete.

Jones has also made these song containers obsolete, but in a different way. They’ve been converted into anonymous, abstract objects that sit in a gallery, removed from our nostalgic touch. Stripped of words and images, these objects could be anything: the tape cassette liner notes become oversized matchbooks; the album covers are books propped slightly open as if on a window display.

And this is a good place to start understanding Jones’ work. Tabula rasa, blank slate, she tells us. Let’s reconsider the twentieth-century history of art and music that has thus far been credited to a lot of white guys. It’s only fitting that she uses 1960s Minimalism as her starting point: as both the apex and the end of modernism, she sees the moment when the 20th-century visual arts world was radically altered as the perfect opportunity to rewrite history.


Serving as the background for Song Containers, the Shhh works are made of professional noise-cancelling cables, sound production accessories that are customarily camouflaged with gaffer’s tape but are now placed prominently on view. In each work, a cable is plugged into drywall at two points that lie on an imaginary vertical line, and between lies a jumble of cord. The white wall serves as a piece of paper and the black cable as drawn lines, resulting at times in elegant, lyrical loops and at other times creating tangled scribbles bundled haphazardly with pieces of felt.

Noise-cancelling cables reappear in All Blues (For Fred), a site-specific work in the main Studio Museum gallery. Starting from a low pedestal on the floor and extending up to the vaulted ceiling, two aqua cables have been plugged together and then stretched taut like a yarn sculpture by Fred Sandback, after whom the sculpture is named.

If a Sandback work uses only line to make us aware of the three-dimensional space in which it exists, then Jones’ objects employs the silent tools of music production to make us aware of the sound in the world around us. What started as a tribute to Fred Sandback turns into a nod at composer John Cage’s 4’33”, in which a performer is instructed to not play his or her instrument for the duration of—you guessed it—four minutes and 33 seconds.

Jones’ allusions to Sandback and Cage—some 40 to 50 years after their heyday—both celebrate and playfully challenge Minimalism’s core aim: to strip objects to their most essential form and concept. She whittles her objects to bare structures and subsequently adds a layer of African-American cultural developments. The title All Blues may describe the cable’s color, but it also implies the black music tradition with a complex history stemming, from antebellum spirituals, work songs, and field hollers, that evolved into the most pervasive music genres today, such as jazz to rock and roll. In the same vein, Shhh is borrowed from the title of a song on Miles Davis’ first electronic album. Simultaneously expressing admiration and wariness, Jones takes Minimalism—a movement dominated by white men—and inserts her identity, as a black woman artist, into its lauded place in the art historical canon.

It’s also impossible not to make a connection to post-Minimalist artist Eva Hesse. The graphic lines and shadows of Shhh #6 are reminiscent of the drooping rope-and-latex arcs in No title. The three-dimensional cable, affixed to the wall but jutting out into space, reminds me of Hesse’s seminal Hang Up, which hovers between painting (an empty painted frame hung on a wall) and sculpture (steel tubes jutting out from two points on the frame). In fact, Jones—who also produces sound, text, prints, and paintings—calls these works “objects” because of their refusal to conform to one medium or the other. Perhaps Jones even identifies, at least in part, with Hesse, a woman whose work was both an extension of and a reaction against Minimalism.

And as Jones directs our attention to alternative histories of visual art and music, she also implores us to look and listen to what’s around us. On the micro-level, she points us to the other works in the larger, patchwork exhibition Shift, which includes a selection of the Bearden Project, a consideration of Romare Bearden’s legacy in the work of contemporary black artists. On the macro-level, we see the neighborhood around us: the site of the Harlem Renaissance, the home of W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, and the heart of civil rights movement in New York City.

With one little Shhh, Jones demands that we consider all of it: the objects, the institution, the neighborhood, the forgotten and not-so-forgotten histories. Yes, she asks a lot of us, and I can only hope that the art world will take a few moments to look and listen.

Objects is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through May 27, 2012. Photos via Studio Museum and artist’s website.

comparative imagery: jennie c. jones and eva hesse.

Jennie C. Jones, Shh #2, 2010

Eva Hesse, No title, 1970

comparative imagery: crate and barrel.

When I was an intern, I witnessed the crating of Eva Hesse’s No Title, currently on view at the Whitney. Straps supported the latex-covered rope, slings cradled the fragile, already-cracking surface—all working to fight to ominous and inevitable force that is gravity. Crates are essential to the support, protection, and careful transportation of cultural relics, but in these works, the crate is the artwork. 

Sam Collins, Sometimes the Journey is Better than the Destination, 2010 (source)

Glenn Ligon, To Disembark, 1993 (source and source)

Richard Artschwager, title, year (source)

comparative imagery: plywood.

Jackie Winsor, Laminated Plywood, 1973 (source)

Sherrie Levine, Untitled (Lead Knots: 7), 1988 (source)

Peter Danko, Model Chair, Mold and Box Containing 9 Sheets of Plywood, 1976 (source)

Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.