Category: From the Collection

Seeing Art in Person: A Conversation with Professor Rick López

IMG_0628This fall, Amherst history professor Rick López is teaching in the study room at the Mead Art Museum, where students in his class on “Mexican Material and Visual Culture” examine art and other objects from the museum’s rich Mexican collection. Here, López, who’s also dean of new students, tells us why it’s important to get close to art—and what it would be like to spend a day with him in Mexico City. (Hint: Pack comfortable walking shoes.)

“Mexican Material and Visual Culture” — is this a history course or an art history course?  It’s officially a history research seminar, but it is both a history course and an art history course. My hope is that by using objects and visual material in innovative ways, the course can bridge the two disciplines while enriching each of them.

How do your students feel about being surrounded by objects from Mexico’s past, some of which are truly ancient?  So far the students have really enjoyed encountering these objects directly. A photo of an object cannot begin to capture its physicality: its weight, materials, signs of its creation by hand, and marks from use acquired over time.

How does this kind of class work? Do you lecture about the objects while the students take notes?  When we look at objects, the students begin by drawing them from multiple angles, zeroing in on particular details. IMG_0629Museum staff turn the objects over to allow the students to view them from every angle. This connects them to the people and experiences of Mexico’s past in a way that images never can.

Is there something about Mexican history that never fails to surprise your students?  The proximity of the United States and Mexico creates the illusion of familiarity. Whenever I teach a course on Mexico, students are amazed at how much they did not know about our southern neighbor, and how much of what they thought they knew turns out to be different from the reality. They are also surprised by how deeply aware Mexicans tend to be of their own history, and how much the past is alive in the lives of people today.

You’re an Amherst College graduate. Was there a course like this when you were a student here?  There was not, but there were some courses that helped me realize the remarkable gap between an object and the image of it we see in a slide. Courses by Profs. Carol Clark, Kevin Sweeney, and Nicola Courtright took us into the museum to look at American and European painting.

Lettuce Pickers mural
Juana Alicia, Las Lechugueras (The Lettuce Pickers), 2794 24th St, San Francisco, 1983. Photo Tim Drescher. Photo: Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC)

My commitment to seeing art in person was deepened by my work on my senior honors thesis on San Francisco’s Chicano murals, which I wrote under the direction of Prof. Natasha Staller in Art History.

I traveled to San Francisco to walk the streets, see the Chicano murals in person, and interview the artists.

If you could take your class on a field trip to Mexico for one day, where would you take them?  I fantasize about such an opportunity. If I had just one day, I think I would take them through the streets of downtown Mexico City where they could see the intermingling of six centuries of art and urban design.

They could visit the Metropolitan Cathedral and a preconquest archaeological excavation site, which sit side by side on the main plaza.

Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
Catedral Metropolitana de México

Students could also touch the walls and floors of ostentatious colonial palaces built from the stone of the Aztec temples that the Spaniards dismantled, and which, in turn, were later subdivided into claustrophobic tiny apartments for the urban poor after their facades were cracked by earthquakes and their floors rendered uneven due to the fact that Mexico City is slowly sinking into the earth. They’d see the parts of the city where nineteenth-century urban planners demolished the colonial past, replacing it with wide avenues and buildings in the style of the Parisian Belles Époque, and which later gave way to high-modernist skyscrapers.

Courtyard of the Museo Franz Mayer

The sprawling Museum of Anthropology houses a stunning collection of preconquest art. In the Museum of Fine Art students could see masterworks of Mexican painting and sculpture from the colonial era to the present. Just a few blocks away is the Franz Mayer Museum, with the finest examples of colonial-era craftsmanship, set within an old monastery. After a short subway ride from downtown, students would retrace the route of Juan Diego up Tepeyac Hill where he is said to have met the Virgin de Guadalupe in 1531. Then they could examine the Virgin’s shroud for themselves within the Basilica. With enough time, we might even rent a van to see the great pyramids of Teotihuacán.

6378283841_efa3b845ed_oPerhaps the most exciting thing for the students might be to simply experience the flow of life and ebullient energy of the city street, and to walk through a fruit and craft market to take in the smells, tastes, sounds, and creativity of everyday Mexican people.

We’re in the middle of national Hispanic Heritage Month now (Sept 15–Oct 15), established by the federal government under President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Everyone from PBS to the NFL has events celebrating it. What’s your feeling about the month?  I value that fact that this official designation provides a moment for us, as a nation, to collectively pause to honor our Hispanic heritage and to learn about the diverse Latino population, which now makes up almost 20 percent of the United States, more than 60 percent of whom trace their heritage to Mexico.

I heard you worked at the Mead as a student in the early 1990s. What did you do exactly?  Back then things were more informal around campus and the Mead did not yet have a professional security staff. Instead, student workers guarded the artwork, answered visitors’ questions, offered tours, and gave talks. My junior year, I was put in charge of these student employees, recruiting and training them, as well as creating the work schedule. It was a great opportunity to see art up close for long periods of time, and to become friends with fellow students who shared a passion for the arts.

What’s one material object from your own life that you think would be worth studying in a US history class 300 years from now?  I have a Keuffel & Esser survey transit that belonged to my grandfather. The tool, used for surveying and measuring the landscape, is beautiful, but it is neither rare nor remarkable in itself. Its importance comes from its story.

Lopez transit
The Keuffel & Esser survey transit that belonged to Professor López’s grandfather Felipe Alderete López

My grandfather Felipe Alderete López bought it when he worked as a surveyor on government projects in southern New Mexico during the early twentieth century. Anti-Mexican attitudes of the era made it unusual for a Mexican-American to be hired as a land surveyor, and caused him to be passed over for promotion time and again in favor of Anglo newcomers whom my grandfather trained. Frustrated, Felipe quit and found work using his transit to survey land for the large landowners in the valley around his home who were supplying the booming demand for cotton. This was a bittersweet alternative, because the land my grandfather was surveying had been dispossessed from Mexicanos such as him, whose families had lived on and farmed it for two centuries. Felipe taught himself bricklaying and then modern home construction, and started a business building custom homes for the cotton farmers who were enjoying newfound wealth.
When I put my eye to the lens of my grandfather’s survey transit, I think of him looking through the same telescope at a landscape where shifting borders, political battles, and changes in property laws intersected with racism and growing economic exploitation to forever alter the destinies of the people of the US-Mexican borderland.

Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones

Questions for David Little, Director and Chief Curator of the Mead

David Little, captured recently by iPhone

Were you one of those kids who loved going to museums when you were growing up or were you dragged to them against your will?

Honestly, I didn’t really catch the bug for museums until college. But I grew up as an Army brat in Europe, so my parents did bring me as a child through museums and historic sites in Italy and Germany—wearing lederhosen, no less!

lederhosen Zewy
Karl Zewy (German, 1855–1929). The New Lederhosen. Oil on canvas

People are said to “curate” everything these days, from their Facebook page to their sock drawer. Does that bother you? 

No, it doesn’t bother me at all. It suggests people are more conscious about how they make choices. Also, the exciting part of media today is that we really do have more choices. It’s hard to think back to a time when you couldn’t binge watch a series and had to wait until a specific time to watch a television show. The quality of curating is really the question; and there will always be those curators whose outstanding work will separate them from others.

In a similar vein, now that everyone has a cell-phone camera and access to Instagram filters, what do you think about the democratization of photography?

Portrait of Margaret Bourke-White by Alfred Eisenstaedt, ca. 1940. Mead Art Museum, Purchase with Acquisition Fund, 2000.380

Photography has always been democratic in nature; its popularity was one reason why many didn’t consider it an art form. But now it is cheaper than ever to own a camera and make images. More than anything, I love the fact that people can take and share images immediately. It is magical, especially having taken so many bad analogue photographs myself. Much like with curating, more people are taking photographs, but there aren’t necessarily more great photographers, like Edward Steichen or Margaret Bourke-White, in the world.

What is your greatest extravagance?

My greatest extravagance is the time I get to spend with artists and traveling to see art. It seems too much fun to be a job.

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 11.26.21 AMWho do you follow on Twitter?

LeBron James and Biddy!

What place and time in art history do you wish you could have lived in?

I would have loved to have hung out with the Dadaists and Surrealists.

You’re having a dinner party and can invite five artists—living or dead. Who do you invite? What do you serve them?

I have met many of the living artists who I admire—or I am working on it—so I will focus on the dead: James Baldwin (with his former schoolmate Richard Avedon as guest, and Gordon Parks too), Leonardo Da Vinci, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Artemisia Gentileschi, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Duchamp. If you ask me tomorrow, I would add more . . . hard to leave out Hannah Höch, André Breton, Vladimir Tatlin, John Cage, and the list goes on. I would have Gertrude and Marcel “curate” the meal with a chef.

Marcel Duchamp Descends Staircase, by Eliot Elisofon, 1952. Mead Art Museum, Purchase, 2004.14

If you could commission any artist in the world to make your portrait, who would you pick?

That’s hard. Can I say Picasso???!!!

You’re a native New Englander, right? But you’ve spent many years in Minnesota. Do you regard this as a homecoming of sorts?

My family was based in Minnesota for seven years and we really gained a great appreciation for the Midwest, with its warm people, not so warm weather, great artists, and deep commitment to cultural philanthropy and community spirit. We loved it. But my wife and I grew up and went to school in New England. And our extended families are here. So this is, indeed, a wonderful homecoming.

Speaking of homecomings, you got your master’s degree at Williams College, which, as you know, is Amherst’s rival—in football at least. Who are you going to root for at the Homecoming game this fall?

The team wearing purple.Amherst Williams

You’re moving 1,300 miles from Minneapolis to Amherst. What are you most looking forward to, and what are you going to miss?

MIA snow
Minneapolis Institute of Art, where Little was until recently curator and head of photography & new media

I can’t wait for fall and being close to the ocean. And, oddly, I think I’ll miss the Minnesota winters. Once spring arrives in Minnesota (in early July) there is this exuberant feeling that you have survived.

Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones