Category: From the Collection

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

Little_photoshop
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?

Bourke-White
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.

Duchamp
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

Peri Schwartz: The Studio as Subject

Walk into Peri Schwartz’s studio outside New York City, and you might see angular stacks of books on a table, light pouring in from a large window, canvases leaning against the wall, and translucent glass bottles and jars filled with richly colored liquids. Instead of inventing subjects, Schwartz prefers to work directly from life, and the objects that occupy her studio space also serve as subjects for her paintings, drawings, and prints.

Schwartz_crop
Peri Schwartz (American, born 1951). “Bottles & Jars XXXI,” 2009. Monotype. Gift of the artist, 2014.81

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Schwartz, and learn more about her artistic process and inspirations. One of Schwartz’s artworks in the Mead’s permanent collection, Bottles & Jars XXXI (2009, monotype), is part of a larger series of monotype prints. Monotype is a specific printmaking process that involves painting ink directly onto a glass surface or panel and using a press to transfer the ink to paper. Schwartz says that she first started making prints while at the Boston University School of Fine Arts, and has continued developing this process ever since. She works in painting and drawing in addition to printmaking, often focusing for long periods on a single medium. For example, she says that she just spent six months working on monotypes and has now switched back to painting. She says that every time she returns to painting, drawing, or printing she feels like she is rediscovering the medium. Each one, she says, requires a different way of thinking.

Peri Schwartz. American (1951- ). Self-Portrait at Night IV, 1985. Print, monotype. 30 15/16 in x 21 in.  Purchase with Wise Fund for Fine Arts, 2001.575.
Peri Schwartz (American, born 1951). “Self-Portrait at Night IV,” 1985. Monotype. Purchase with Wise Fund for Fine Arts, 2001.575

In her work, Schwartz says she strives for a balance between representation and abstraction. One of the ways she achieves this is through a grid technique, which she acquired in school when learning the basics of composition, and which is now an essential part of her work. She initially applied the grid when composing self-portraits, such as Self-Portrait at Night IV (1985, monotype), as a way to remember exactly where she was sitting, and now uses grids in all of her work. Schwartz’s grids extend beyond the canvas or paper and onto the walls, tables, and books in her studio, turning the space into a real-life grid with intervals on the walls and in the painting.

Grid lines are visible on the walls of Peri Schwartz's studio in New Rochell, New York.
Grid lines are visible on the walls of Peri Schwartz’s studio in New Rochelle, New York.

One of the reasons Schwartz says she loves working with monotypes is that they function as a record of where she’s been compositionally. Prints are much more immediate than painting or drawing, and each monotype typically yields two prints — the original print and what is often called a ghost print, which is made with the ink left on the plate after the first printing. These ghost prints can be great ways to build new colors and interpret the composition in a new way. More prints can be laid on top of the ghost print, similar to a color etching where a different etched plate is used for each color. Schwartz’s video on monotyping provides a good overview of the process: https://vimeo.com/121209304.

Schwartz uses plexiglass as the surface for the prints, and Q-tips to clean up the lines of the forms and colors. One of the things she likes about printmaking, she says, is the freshness of colors that can be achieved, and that the original white of the paper can be maintained to bring out these colors. In printmaking Schwartz says that she feels there is more space between the composition and the actual paper, leaving room for necessary contemplation of the arrangement of the subject before putting ink to the plexiglass plate. Prints cannot be erased or painted over, and the final work is the product of only a few prints of a certain plate.

The series to which Bottles & Jars XXXI belongs focuses exclusively on bottles and jars. Schwartz sees this series as a “marriage of subject matter” and medium, combining the liquid of ink with the liquid in the bottles. In Bottles & Jars XXXI, an intense red liquid overlaps a jar with orange liquid, and white bottles are set in contrast next to yellow and red. The colors reflected on the table and the overlapping cylindrical forms make this print both realistic and abstract.

Peri Schwartz. American (1951- ). Painting, 2015.
Peri Schwartz (American, born 1951). Untitled, 2015. Painting. Scheduled to be on view at the University of Mississippi Museum in fall 2015

Schwartz’s monotype Bottles & Jars XXXI, as well as her self-portrait monotype and recent painting, all exemplify her combination of realism and abstraction. By working directly from life, using the grid to lay out and analyze each composition, and continuously rearranging the composition, Schwartz’s work has an undeniable sense of energy and coherence that still lifes often lack.

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

Changing Tastes: The Celery Vase

The Mead Art Museum has in its collection a glass vase designed to hold celery as a presentation piece at the dining table (fig. 1). Celery vases, and all forms of presentation pieces for celery, are largely passé today as the status of celery has changed over the years. While it is now mainly known for its crunch and bland taste, celery was a high-status food in nineteenth-century America because of its historical associations and labor-intensive growing process.

Celery holder
Figure 1. Bakewell, celery holder, ca. 1815. Cut glass. Gift of Preston R. Bassett, Class of 1913, 1973.10

Celery was used in ancient Greece and appears in Homer’s Odyssey, although not as a food.[1] Wreaths of wild celery were given to victors at the Panhellenic Games at Isthmia (fig. 2, the left wreath).[2] Celery was first used as a food — to add flavor — in sixteenth-century France. As the quality and palatability of celery increased in the 1700s, it became increasingly common among the wealthy. The cultivation of celery was initially difficult and labor intensive. It had to be blanched during its growth to preserve the whiteness of sweetness of the stalks. This was achieved by piling soil around the plants during growth.[3]

Marble relief, celery
Figure 2. Marble relief fragment depicting athletic prizes. Roman. 2nd century CE. Rogers Fund, 1959. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 59.11.19

During its period as a status symbol, celery would be displayed prominently on tables as part of the table setting. A table-setting diagram from the women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book (fig. 3) shows the prominent position the celery and celery vase held near the center of the table. The entire bunch of celery would be placed in the vase with the leafy top still intact, creating a dramatic centerpiece (figs. 4 and 5). The vase itself was a part of this showy display of wealth and taste and was usually made of glass or silver. Celery could also be displayed in low dishes, but in the 1860s through the 1880s, celery vases (also known as stands or holders) were much more popular.[4]

Godey's Lady's Book
Figure 3. Diagram of table setting for dinner, “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” March 1859. http://athomeinthenineteenthcentury.blogspot.com/2012/07/celery-at-dining-table.html
Celery, cock, and bowl
Figure 4. Albert Sterner (London 1863–1946 New York). “Celery, Cock, and Bowl,” 1933. Oil on canvas. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1933. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 33.51
Tomato soup ad
Figure 5. 1880 Tomato soup advertisement, http://www.patternglass.com/Store/CeleryVase/index.htm

The Mead’s cut-glass celery vase was made by the Bakewell glass company of Pittsburgh (whose name went through many variations over the years), active from 1808 to 1882. Bakewell was founded by the Englishman Benjamin Bakewell, and became known for quality lead (or “flint”) glass. The factory began to produce cut and engraved glass in 1810, and until 1819 it was the only American company producing cut-glass tableware. Given the quality of its products and the rarity and luxury of cut-glass pieces at the time, Bakewell became quite well known. One of their notable commissions was a set of engraved glassware for President James Monroe.[5] John P. Bakewell received the first patent for mechanically pressing glass in 1825, leading to the mass production of glassware.

This particular celery vase is cut in the strawberry diamond-and-fan pattern, “the most popular cut glass pattern in the United States in the early nineteenth century.”[6] Techniques for glass cutting were brought to the United States from Ireland and England. Glass was cut by a succession of abrasive and polishing wheels.[7] Before the advent of pressed glass, faceted glass cut in this way was relatively time consuming and expensive to make, making it a luxury item.

By the end of the nineteenth century, celery’s status had undergone a change. In 1884, a new type of celery, the “Gold Self-Blanching” variety, was introduced by the W. Atlee Burpee Co. (fig. 6).[8] It was much easier to grow and did not require the same mounding of dirt as the older varieties. This commercial strain became more widely available and more affordable, and celery thus became a commonplace vegetable, as opposed to a status symbol.[9] Around this time, the presentation for celery began to change as well. While the vase had initially been the most prevalent method of displaying celery, by the 1890s, low celery dishes (or trays, an example of which is in the Mead’s collection) became more popular.[10]

Golden celery
Figure 6. “Golden Self Blanching Celery” from the 1891 Johnson & Stokes annual. http://www.victoryseeds.com/celery_golden-self.html

This celery vase demonstrates how concepts of taste and luxury have changed over the years in food and decorative arts. Scarcity and labor cost made celery a fashionable commodity to be flaunted, until it was no longer expensive and exceptional and became just another vegetable. Cut glass was also once expensive to produce and a luxury good. While it is still seen as a fine decorative art, the advent of pressed glass made glassware generally more accessible and less prestigious. While they are sometimes collected today for their status as antiques and examples of decorative art, celery vases no longer hold the same position at the table as they once did.

Written by Sylvia Hickman, Class of 2016

[1] Susan Williams, Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America (New York: Pantheon Books in association with the Strong Museum, 1985), 110.

[2] Label text, “Marble Relief Fragment Depicting Athletic Prizes” (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/255013.

[3] Williams, 110.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “Bakewell Glass”, accessed April 14, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/49555/Bakewell-glass.

[6] Label text, Celery vase (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/1501.

[7] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, “Cut Glass,” accessed April 14, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/147462/cut-glass.

[8] Ken Kraft, Garden to Order (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962), cited in Williams, Savory Suppers.

[9] Williams, 110.

[10] Ibid., 110–11.