Tag: Amherst College

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

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.

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

Some Prints for Spring: From Japan to New England

It’s finally spring at Amherst! The quad lawn chairs are out, the Ultimate team is tossing discs, and it’s raining, not snowing! Crazy, right?

The other day in Japanese class, my sensei mentioned that in Japan, the cherry trees are just ending their bloom, and in fact, we have three cherry trees on the Amherst College campus that are just beginning their bloom. (Can you find them?) As Amherst’s landscape becomes more colorful, this essay seeks to compare the springtimes of two cultures — Japanese and American — through the lens of two prints from the mid-nineteenth century, one depicting a city landscape in Japan and the other the rural landscape surrounding Amherst in Western Massachusetts.

In their riotous, uncontrolled bloom, the cherry trees of Japan are a spectacle to behold. When an individual gazes into their gossamer of color, it’s all too easy to lose focus and dream. Year after year, the Japanese people anticipate the pinkish hue that will soon dominate Japan’s landscape. Relatives and friends gather to enjoy the drink and dance of sakura matsuri (cherry tree) festivals, and the beauty of nature around them.

Amdo Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige). Japanese (1797-1858). Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara [Shin yoshiwara naka-no-chō yozakura'), from the series
Ando Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige). Japanese (1797–1858). “Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara” (Shin yoshiwara naka-no-chō yozakura), from the series “Famous Places of the Eastern Capital” (Tōto meisho), ca. 1840–1842. Woodblock print. Gift of William Green, 2005.366
Andō Hiroshige’s Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara, from the series Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, depicts Japan’s cherry blossom festival in Edo’s (modern-day Tokyo’s) pleasure district, or Yoshiwara. Filled with brothels, the Yoshiwara combined the public spectacle of the cherry blossom festival with other aspects of public life. Notice how the cherry blossoms line the Yoshiwara canal in the foreground of the print and how courtesans meander the streets of the district. Come springtime, this district would be the place to visit because of its fertile associations with spring.

The significance of the cherry tree in Japanese culture dates back hundreds of years. Cherry trees convey the fragility and beauty of life. In the spring, when the cherry trees flower, the Japanese people are reminded that their lives are as ephemeral and precarious as a cherry-blossom petal whisked away by the wind, and they are therefore meant to enjoy what time they have. So when they congregate to celebrate and appreciate their surroundings, not only is the beauty around them on their minds, but also the deeper cultural meaning and consideration of their annual tradition.

Hiroshige also integrates the night sky as an element into this print. He uses bokashi, a gradient technique, to wash the black night sky into the Western, Prussian blue that delineates the sky. This woodblock print would have been sold as a souvenir to Japanese citizens traveling to Edo, and by examining the print closely, we can tell that it was very popular: black lines are faded, and the red cartouche at the top right is not sharply defined as it would be in an earlier impression, an indication that the block was used for multiple editions.

A couple of weeks ago, while Tokyo’s cityscape was dominated by cherry trees, Amherst’s spring was making its gradual approach. One day would be 35 and storming, but the next, 60 degrees and perfect. Unlike the ephemerality linked to the cherry trees, the scenic change that occurs is one that settles and becomes familiar. People are outside, breathing the fresh air, and are relaxed, not in a hurry to hit the hotspot in town.

Robert Brandard, after William Henry Bartlett, engraves our familiar vista of the Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke (1838). “After” means that Brandard reproduced Bartlett’s drawing of the same view, using a medium allowing for wide distribution of its multiples, a common practice of artists and publishers. They both depict the view from the top of Mount Holyoke, located only a few miles from Amherst. Bartlett, an English artist, published drawings he made during his trip to the region as American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature, which subsequently played a significant role in making this location the second-most-popular tourist destination in America. Like the Japanese Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, Brandard’s engraving was part of an artist-publisher collaboration and investment project intended for the tourists who flocked to Mount Holyoke and bought these prints as souvenirs. It is hand-colored (two other impressions in the collection, 1965.100 and 1955.698, are not). This means that someone took the time to further enhance its visual appeal and value.

    Robert Brandard; Bartlett, William Henry (after). British (1805–1862); British (1809–1854). Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke, 1838. Engraving. Gift of Francis T. P. Plimpton, Class of 1922, 1943.7.
Robert Brandard (British, 1805–1862); after William Henry Bartlett (British, 1809–1854). “Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke,” from “American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature,” 1838. Engraving. Gift of Francis T. P. Plimpton, Class of 1922, 1943.7.

Let’s take a look at the Brandard engraving: compared to the lively night-life and the vibrancy of the cherry blossom flowers in Hiroshige’s print (created around the same time), nature in Brandard’s/Bartlett’s print is staggering, serene, and withered. In the foreground, we can tell that the tree is old and gnarled, a stark contrast with the setting’s apparent youth. Bartlett stresses the scene’s cultural aspects: the peaceful day, the people who engage in their leisurely hunting and picnicking activities, and contrasts the variegated, wild vegetation in the foreground with the landscape below, dotted with indications of settlement. Bartlett described the Connecticut “intervals” as some of the most fertile and sunny pictures “gemmed with prosperity, neatness, and cultivation.” No doubt, the landscape is beautiful and bucolic.

Both of these prints emphasize nature — cherry trees dominate the foreground of Hiroshige’s woodcut just as the lush vegetation and jagged rocks do in Bartlett’s engraving — to show how humans integrate themselves into spring’s renewing splendor. Even at Amherst, we’ve created a culture where we mark spring’s arrival with our annual ritual of bringing the lawn chairs out to the quad.

Written by Fawzi Itani, Class of 2018