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Lawsuit Ended Arbus Auction, Lawyer Says

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 10, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

A lawyer for the owner of a group of rare, early prints by the photographer Diane Arbus said on Wednesday that the auction house Phillips de Pury canceled the sale because of concerns about a recent lawsuit filed by a man who claims he was duped out of the prints.


Peter R. Stern, the lawyer for the prints' owner, Bob Langmuir, a Philadelphia book dealer and collector, said the auction house told him that a private sale of the photos — estimated to be worth up to several hundred thousand dollars — was still a possibility. Phillips officials have not returned calls seeking an explanation for the cancellation of the auction, which was to be held on Tuesday. The photographs, from the late 1950s, show performers at Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus, a basement freak show on 42nd Street in Manhattan, where Arbus honed her stark signature style. Mr. Langmuir was sued in federal court in Brooklyn by another collector, Bayo Ogunsanya, who claimed he was unaware of the value of the photographs when he sold them to Mr. Langmuir for $3,500 in 2003. Mr. Stern has argued in court that Mr. Ogunsanya's lawsuit is frivolous.

By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times

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Is Photo Old or Oldest?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 3, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Sotheby's said on Wednesday that it would postpone the sale of an early photographic print known as a photogenic drawing because some scholars now believe that the print — an image of a leaf — may have been produced much earlier than previously thought, making it the earliest existing photographic image.


For many years the image was attributed to William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the fathers of photography, and was thought to have been made in 1839. But Larry J. Schaaf, an expert on Talbot's work, questioned that attribution in an essay in the catalog for the photography auction, which will still be held on Monday but without the leaf image, above. Mr. Schaaf wrote that there is evidence to suggest that the work titled "Leaf" — made by placing a leaf on photosensitive paper exposed to light — could have been created by the early photographic experimenters Thomas Wedgwood, James Watt or Humphry Davy. They are known to have produced photogenic drawings, also called photograms, as early as the 1790s, though no examples have ever been found. Denise Bethel, director of Sotheby's photograph department, said the auction house and the image's owner, an investment firm called the Quillan Company, had decided to postpone the sale of the print indefinitely until more research could be done.

By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times

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The Indecisive Image

Posted By Administration, Sunday, March 30, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

In Marco Breuer's recent photographs, black specks dance across a white surface, leaving faint trails that mark the passage of time. Sensuous blocks of yellow glow like crystals lit from within, and drippy parallel lines that seem to sit on top of the paper call to mind Action Painting. Made without camera or film, these lush, textured works, collected in Breuer's 2007 book Early Recordings, defy our basic notions of what photography can be. Breuer achieves his effects by burning photographic papers, scraping their emulsions, and experimenting with chemical formulas that were popular in the 19th century.


Breuer is one of a wave of photographers now gaining recognition for work that abandons recognizable subject matter. "Abstraction goes back to the very beginnings of photography and has come back in different revivals," says Roxana Marcoci, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "There were the New Vision people in the 1920s and another group in the 1960s, and it is here again right now."

The range of work recently on view testifies to the current strength of abstract photography. Last fall, a miniretrospective of Breuer's explorations of light-sensitive materials was featured at Von Lintel Gallery, and Eileen Quinlan's disorienting close-ups of spaces fractured by mirrors and light were showing on the other side of Manhattan at Miguel Abreu Gallery. This winter Walead Beshty exhibited his folded-paper photograms in lurid colors at China Art Objects Galleries in Los Angeles, while Alison Rossiter's foggy prints made on unexposed photographic paper were on view in "The Death of Photography" at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. And when the Whitney Biennial opens this month, it will include photograms of screens that appear digital by James Welling, one of Beshty's teachers at UCLA and an influence on a whole generation of photographers looking at abstraction.

The reasons for the resurgence of abstraction are almost as diverse as the work itself. "The question of what sort of object the photograph is inevitably leads to the examination of abstraction," says Lyle Rexer, whose book tracing the history of abstract photography is scheduled to be published by Aperture in the fall. That question has loomed ever larger in recent decades as the notion of photographic veracity has come under assault. The idea of photographic "truth" is undermined by the conceptual investigations of subject matter in Cindy Sherman's film stills and Philip-Lorca diCorcia's staged street scenes as much as by the mass media's embrace of Photoshop. Digital advances in the commercial realm have drawn art photographers' attention back to a range of earlier methods. "I find 19th-century photography most interesting because the medium was not yet standardized," says Breuer. "Now, too many people automatically make 30-by-40-inch color prints, just like printing 8-by-10 black-and-white was the default 30 years ago."

And while recent years have witnessed a market enamored of pristine oversize prints that require labored postproduction, cameraless photography reintroduces immediacy and chance into the process. "Rather than working six hours on the perfect print, I can go into the darkroom without an idea and just let a direction appear as I work," says Rossiter. Other observers see the pull of art-historical influences. "I think that a lot of these artists are getting back to these movements in the history of photography connected with light experiments," says Marcoci. "But they are also looking beyond photography or even abstraction to the artists in the 1960s and '70s who used unconventional techniques, like James Turrell, Gordon Matta-Clark, Anthony McCall, and Robert Smithson."

While various 19th-century photographers inadvertently skirted abstraction, Alvin Langdon Coburn was the first to deliberately embrace it nearly a century ago. Around 1916 he used crystals and mirrors to create works he called Vortographs, tying the images to Vorticism, a movement of Cubist-inspired painters and sculptors in Britain. Since then, many of photography's best-known names—from Paul Strand, Lotte Jacobi, Man Ray, and Harry Callahan to Wolfgang Tillmans—have been drawn to abstraction, but just a handful have made it the centerpiece of their endeavors. "Abstraction was seen as being contrary to the supposedly genuine nature of the medium," observes photographer Joan Fontcuberta.

No single movement has emerged in the field, although a number of loose-knit groups have advocated for the abstract potential of photography: the teachers at the Chicago Institute of Design in the middle of the last century, the Association of Heliographers and the Generative Photographers of the 1960s, and the Concrete Photographers, largely based in Germany, today. But none of these could rightly be called a school, and each embraced a number of approaches.

The Chicago Institute was an outgrowth of the New Bauhaus school, founded in 1937 by László Moholy-Nagy. He had begun experimenting with photograms as early as 1922, and they played an essential role in his "New Vision" theory, which sought to expand human perception. Although an object, such as an eggbeater, may appear in Moholy-Nagy's photograms, that specific image is completely beside the point. The artist's concern was making a fuller range of light effects visible to the human eye.

For two decades after World War II, the institute was also home to Aaron Siskind, whose abstract works could not be more unlike those of Moholy-Nagy. Siskind used a camera and photographed real things, but often in extreme close-up or in other ways that would eliminate the viewer's frame of reference. When stripped of their context, peeling paint or distressed wood became geometric forms and lush textures. Siskind, who showed at Charles Egan Gallery alongside Willem de Kooning, was the only photographer associated with the New York School, and his abstract work is rightly called expressionist.

Even today much abstract work can best be understood as tending toward one or the other of these masters' primary techniques: creating unique cameraless prints in the darkroom or rendering real subjects unrecognizable as a result of manipulations either before the camera or in postproduction. Over the last decade or so, these two techniques have been joined by a third: process-based work, which is indebted as much to recent research into the methods of 19th-century photography as to the process artists of the 1960s and '70s.

Breuer is perhaps the most radical of the process photographers, but he started his career at a very old and traditional school in Germany, the Lette-Verein Berlin. "After that, I needed to find some place where I could work outside the rules," he explains. So he moved to a remote village and began producing all the work that had been percolating in his mind. "I thought if I minimized new visual input—no television, no billboards, no magazines—and maximized my output, I could get everything out of my system. That is when I started digging deeper into the process and engaging with materials."

Today, at his home and studio in Upstate New York, Breuer pursues his work almost as a series of experiments. "Often I am trying to force materials to do things," he says, "and it is the material's resistance that suggests the image." In 2005, for instance, he set out to see if he could instill a sense of immediacy into the gum bichromate printing method, in which the emulsion is traditionally laid down in layers, in the case of color images, and can take days to build up. He eventually came upon the technique of abrading the emulsion with a palm sander. The finished images resemble colonies of mold spreading across the surface and puddling to form richly varied tonalities.

Ellen Carey, who works with a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera, also disrupts a carefully tuned process, albeit a relatively new one. Her ongoing series "Pulls" and "Rollbacks" present irregular shapes in deeply saturated colors, sometimes drawn out to several feet long. The work, which was on view through last month at IBU Gallery in Paris, is made by interrupting the dye-transfer process in which pigmented emulsion migrates from the contact negative to the positive print paper, or by mixing incompatible chemicals, such as color emulsions and black-and-white developer. The names for the series came from the physical work of manipulating the camera apparatus, but even after years of experimentation the outcomes are largely beyond Carey's control. "The materials inform the process, and the 'Pulls' are documents of their own making," she says. "In a certain way, this is the action of the thing making itself."

Carlos Motta went even further in letting the pictures make themselves in "A Tree Is a Tree Is Not a Tree," which was shown alongside the work of Breuer, among others, in "Agitate," a 2003 show at SF Camerawork in San Francisco that helped define the term "process photography." For the series, Motta tacked unprocessed photographic paper to trees for a week at a time and let the elements go to work. The prolonged contact with bark, leaves, and rain resulted in surfaces that appear both liquid and corroded.

A desire to engage with the accidental motivates many of the artists whose work can be categorized as darkroom abstractions. To produce his "Chance" series, Silvio Wolf, whose show at Robert Mann Gallery in New York will be up through the 15th of this month, uses leader—the film at the beginning of a roll that is never shot through the lens but may be exposed while loading a camera. Wolf's chromogenic dye-coupler prints, which are up to six feet tall, present intense monochromatic fields that mimic the compositions and emotional tension of Rothko paintings.

Though Wolf doesn't control the exposures, he pores over hundreds of leaders looking for a usable frame. Alison Rossiter is more systematic in carrying out the project she calls "Laments." Printing full sheets of commercial paper that have never been intentionally exposed, she is creating an archive with at least one example with an expiration date in each year of the 20th century. The project began when a search for discontinued film on eBay led her to the auction of a complete photographer's studio, including paper that had expired in 1946. Rossiter printed a sheet and was surprised to find an ethereal image that looked like a cloudscape at dusk, the result of years of light leaking through the packaging. "The move to digital imagery is fantastic in terms of postproduction and especially in photojournalism," the artist acknowledges. "But the way that silver gelatin materials make use of light and precious metals is astounding, and there is nothing like the beauty of 19th- and 20th-century materials."

Rossiter has experimented with darkroom techniques, including "drawing" directly on paper with a light. She began by producing nearly unrecognizable outlines of land masses and now does the same for "pictures" of horses from famous paintings. "The image is not abstract, but the technique is," she says. "It only requires light and chemistry, and it goes directly from idea to object without making reference to a thing." Rossiter has also made photograms, the oldest and still most widely practiced cameraless technique.

Both light drawing and photograms figure in Ray K. Metzker's recent work, on view at Laurence Miller Gallery last winter. Tearing and stacking photosensitive black-and-white papers, carefully controlling the exposures, he creates collagelike geometric images that feature stark contrasts as well as subtle shading.

The same restrictions are made plain in the title of Walead Beshty's photogram Picture Made by My Hand with the Assistance of Light (2006). Just as the title highlights the lack of an outside reference, the artist has made a variety of such works by creasing and even crumpling the paper, a technique meant to draw viewers' attention to the physical properties of the medium. Depending on the paper used, the finished imagery ranges from mottled gray tones to pastel mists to brightly colored kaleidoscopic jumbles.

Beshty "is interested in treating the image abstractly rather than the content being abstract," Whitney Biennial cocurator Shamim Momin says of the photograms. That distinction helps link the photograms to Beshty's other work, such as the group of multiple exposures included in the biennial that the artist says depict the abandoned Iraqi embassy in Berlin. In both bodies of work, Beshty is trying to make explicit the essential quality of the artwork as an object rather than an image.

A similar emphasis is evident in the work of James Welling, who is showing at the biennial for the first time after nearly three decades of photographic experimentation. "Welling has been tremendously influential on the post–Gregory Crewdson generation, the people who are not pursuing portraiture or setup photography," Momin says. "But he is also included because this is a very fertile moment for him."

For his show in the spring of last year at David Zwirner gallery in New York, Welling exhibited three series that exemplify the range of techniques available to those who create abstract images by distorting the figurative or removing its context. In the "Authors" series, for example, Welling printed photos he had taken of drapes two decades earlier as a sequence of high-contrast monochromes in negative. He named each work after a 19th-century writer, but the correlation between the moody colors and the individual authors remains unclear.

In contrast, Quinlan eschews technical manipulations in the darkroom. By carefully arranging objects, cropping, then enlarging the small scenes, she fashions almost indecipherable pictures. Titled "Smoke and Mirrors," the works are honest about their attempt to deceive. The reflected planes and refracted light hark back to Coburn, but the angular compositions and strong colors more readily recall the experiments of Barbara Kasten in the 1980s. Kasten, however, reversed the play with scale, photographing fractured architectural spaces and printing them as small puzzle pieces. Last year Kasten showed some of these vintage works at Daiter Contemporary in Chicago, but recently she has been working on tabletop arrangements using wire screens shot at angles to create moiré effects.

Rather than manipulate the content before the lens, Roger Newton has manipulated the lens itself. By shooting through glass and plastic forms filled with fluid—water, mineral oil, corn syrup—he creates surreal distortions of the natural world. He has lately been working on a diamond lens; the resulting pictures are nebulous, and as with the earlier works, the lens is both a tool and the subject.

While these aqueous images have emotional resonance, they lack the direct expressive intentions of Siskind and those who dominated the last abstract photography revival, in the '60s. Conceptual concerns regarding the objectivity of the image, the limits of perception, and the intrinsic properties of materials have moved to the fore as photographers venture into the digital age.

A historian of the medium as well as a photographer, Fontcuberta over the years has revisited many earlier techniques, using them to explore these contemporary concerns. His "Hemograms," enlarged depictions of a drop of blood, ask viewers what they expect from a "portrait." His starry "Constellations," made from photograms of his car's bug-splattered windshield, prod viewers to question the source of photographic information. But recently Fontcuberta has concentrated on a number of digital projects, hoping to get beyond what he calls third-class surrealism and neo-pictorialism. "Digital photography should be much more than Photoshop and photomontage," he says.

Two years ago, at Zabriskie Gallery in New York, he showed his "Googlegrams," photomosaics that piece together miniature digital images selected by the search engine to create pictures with often ironic relations to the constituent parts—portraits of millionaires were assembled into an image of a homeless man, for instance. And Bellas Artes in Santa Fe and Aperture in New York have shown his "Orogenesis" pictures, which use a software program that renders three-dimensional terrain to transform selective scans from art-historical works—a Turner landscape, for example—into otherworldly topography. While both series contain recognizable imagery, they call into question the boundaries of representation in the information age.

Jason Salavon takes these ideas a step further in his show at the Columbus Museum of Art, which runs through May 4. For his "Amalgamations" and "100 Special Moments" series, for instance, he converts similar images—of newlyweds or Playboy centerfolds—into data sets and compresses them. The fuzzy results, as with so much abstract photography, are at once vaguely familiar and completely meaningless.

By Eric Bryant
For ARTnews

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The Topic Is Race; the Art Is Fearless

Posted By Administration, Sunday, March 30, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

In the 1970s the African-American artist Adrian Piper donned an Afro wig and a fake mustache and prowled the streets of various cities in the scowling, muttering guise of the Mythic Being, a performance-art version of a prevailing stereotype, the black male as a mugger, hustler, gangsta.

In the photographs that resulted you can see what she was up to. In an era when some politicians and much of the popular press seemed to be stoking racial fear, she was turning fear into farce — but serious, and disturbing, farce, intended to punch a hole in pervasive fictions while acknowledging their power.


Recently a new kind of Mythic Being arrived on the scene, the very opposite of the one Ms. Piper introduced some 30 years ago. He doesn't mutter; he wears business suits; he smiles. He is by descent half black African, half white American. His name is Barack Obama.

On the rancorous subject of the country's racial history he isn't antagonistic; he speaks of reconciliation, of laying down arms, of moving on, of closure. He is presenting himself as a 21st-century postracial leader, with a vision of a color-blind, or color-embracing, world to come.

Campaigning politicians talk solutions; artists talk problems. Politics deals in goals and initiatives; art, or at least interesting art, in a language of doubt and nuance. This has always been true when the subject is race. And when it is, art is often ahead of the political news curve, and heading in a contrary direction.

In a recent solo debut at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in Chelsea a young artist named Rashid Johnson created a fictional secret society of African-American intellectuals, a cross between Mensa and the Masons. At first uplift seemed to be the theme. The installation was framed by a sculpture resembling giant cross hairs. Or was it a microscope lens, or a telescope's? The interpretive choice was yours. So was the decision to stay or run. Here was art beyond old hot-button statements, steering clear of easy condemnations and endorsements. But are artists like Mr. Johnson making "black" art? Political art? Identity art? There are no answers, or at least no unambiguous ones.

Since Ms. Piper's Mythical Being went stalking in the 1970s — a time when black militants and blaxploitation movies reveled in racial difference — artists have steadily challenged prevailing constructs about race.

As multiculturalism entered mainstream institutions in the 1980s, the black conceptualist David Hammons stayed outdoors, selling snowballs on a downtown Manhattan sidewalk. And when, in the 1990s, Robert Colescott was selected as the first African-American to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, he brought paintings of figures with mismatched racial features and skin tones, political parables hard to parse.

At the turn of the present millennium, with the art market bubbling up and the vogue for identity politics on the wane, William Pope.L — the self-described "friendliest black artist in America" — belly-crawled his way up Broadway, the Great White Way, in a Superman outfit, and ate copies of The Wall Street Journal.

Today, as Mr. Obama pitches the hugely attractive prospect of a postracial society, artists have, as usual, already been there, surveyed the terrain and sent back skeptical, though hope-tinged, reports. And you can read those reports in art all around New York this spring, in retrospective surveys like "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution" currently at the P.S 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, in the up-to-the-minute sampler that is the 2008 Whitney Biennial, in gallery shows in Chelsea and beyond, and in the plethora of art fairs clinging like barnacles to the Armory Show on Pier 94 this weekend.

"Wack!" is a good place to trace a postracial impulse in art going back decades. Ms. Piper is one of the few African-American artists in the show, along with Howardena Pindell and Lorraine O'Grady. All three began their careers with abstract work, at one time the form of black art most acceptable to white institutions, but went on to address race aggressively.

In a 1980 performance video, "Free, White and 21," Ms. Pindell wore whiteface to deliver a scathing rebuke of art-world racism. In the same year Ms. O'Grady introduced an alter ego named "Mlle Bourgeoise Noire" who, dressed in a beauty-queen gown sewn from white formal gloves, crashed museum openings to protest all-white shows. A few years later Ms. Piper, who is light skinned, began to selectively distribute a printed calling card at similar social events. It read:

Dear Friend,

I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are not black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.

I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.

Sincerely yours,

Adrian Margaret Smith Piper

Although these artists' careers took dissimilar directions, in at least some of their work from the '70s and '80s they all approached race, whiteness as well as blackness, as a creative medium. Race is treated as a form of performance; an identity that could, within limits, be worn or put aside; and as a diagnostic tool to investigate social values and pathologies.

Ms. Piper's take on race as a form of creative nonfiction has had a powerful influence on two generations of African-Americans who, like Mr. Obama, didn't experience the civil rights movement firsthand, and who share a cosmopolitan attitude toward race. In 2001 that attitude found corner-turning expression in "Freestyle," an exhibition organized at the Studio Museum in Harlem by its director, Thelma Golden.

When Ms. Golden and her friend the artist Glenn Ligon called the 28 young American artists "postblack," it made news. It was a big moment. If she wasn't the first to use the term, she was the first to apply it to a group of artists who, she wrote, were "adamant about not being labeled 'black' artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness."

The work ranged from mural-size images of police helicopters painted with hair pomade by Kori Newkirk, who lives in Los Angeles, to computer-assisted geometric abstract painting by the New York artist Louis Cameron. Mr, Newkirk's work came with specific if indirect ethnic references; Mr. Cameron's did not. Although "black" in the Studio Museum context, they would lose their racial associations in an ethnically neutral institution like the Museum of Modern Art.

Ethnically neutral? That's just a code-term for white, the no-color, the everything-color. For whiteness is as much — or as little — a racial category as blackness, though it is rarely acknowledged as such wherever it is the dominant, default ethnicity. Whiteness is yet another part of the postracial story. Like blackness, it has become a complicated subject for art. And few have explored it more forcefully and intimately than Nayland Blake.

Mr. Blake, 48, is the child of a black father and a white mother. In various performance pieces since the 1990s he has dressed up as a giant rabbit, partly as a reference to Br'er Rabbit of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, a wily animal who speaks in Southern black dialect and who survives capture by moving fast and against expectations.

In 2001 Mr. Blake appeared in a video with another artist, AA Bronson. Each had his face slathered with cake frosting, chocolate in Mr. Blake's case, vanilla in Mr. Bronson's. When then two men exchanged a long kiss, the colors, and presumably the flavors, began to blend. Shared love, the implication was, dissolves distinctions between "black" and "white," which, as racial categories, are cosmetic, superficial.

As categories they are also explosive. In 1984, when Mr. Hammons painted a poster of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian and exhibited it outdoors in Washington, the piece was trashed by a group of African-American men. Mr, Hammons intended the portrait, "How Ya Like Me Now," as a comment on the paltry white support for Mr. Jackson's presidential bid that year. Those who attacked it assumed the image was intended as an insult to Mr. Jackson.

More recently, when Kara Walker cut out paper silhouettes of fantasy slave narratives, with characters — black and white alike — inflicting mutual violence, she attracted censure from some black artists. At least some of those objecting had personal roots in the civil rights years and an investment in art as a vehicle for racial pride, social protest and spiritual solace.

Ms. Walker, whose work skirts any such overt commitments, was accused of pandering to a white art market with an appetite for images of black abjection. She was called, in effect, a sellout to her race.

In a television interview a few weeks ago, before he formed plans to deliver his speech on race, Mr. Obama defended his practice of backing off from discussion of race in his campaign. He said it was no longer a useful subject in the national dialogue; we're over it, or should be.

But in fact it can be extremely useful. There is no question that his public profile has been enhanced by his Philadelphia address, even if the political fallout in terms of votes has yet to be gauged.

Race can certainly be used to sell art too, and the results can be also be unpredictable. As with politics, timing is crucial.

In 1992 the white artist team Pruitt-Early (Rob Pruitt and Walter Early) presented a gallery exhibition called "The Red Black Green Red White and Blue Project." Its theme was the marketing of African-American pop culture, with an installation of black-power posters, dashiki cloth and tapes of soul music bought in Harlem.

What might, at a later time or with different content, have been seen as a somewhat dated consumerist critique proved to be a public relations disaster. The artists were widely condemned as racist and all but disappeared from the art world.

Eight years later, with the cooling of identity politics, a show called "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage" arrived, with no apparent critical component, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. An array of fashion images, videos and artifacts associated with stars like the Notorious B.I.G., Missy Elliott and Tupac Shakur, it was assumed to be a welcoming (if patronizing) gesture to the museum's local African-American audience. Yet its appearance coincided with the general massive marketing of hip-hop culture to middle-class whites, a phenomenon that Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Early had been pointing to.

Were Pruitt-Early postblack artists ahead of their time, offering a new take on race, as a movable feast that collided with older, essentialist attitudes? If so, they would probably find plenty of company now in artists who stake out terrain both black and postblack, white and postwhite.

Mr. Pope.L (he who crawled up Broadway) does so with a posture of radical outsiderness that cancels bogus notions of racial or cultural essence. Basically he short-circuits the very concept of what an artist, black or white, "should" be. He smiles as he inches up the street on all fours; he uncomplainingly devours news of money he'll never have. He paints murals with peanut butter and makes sculpture from Pop-Tarts, the stuff of welfare meals. In many ways his main subject would seem to be class, not race. Yet race is everywhere in his art.

He works with mostly white materials — mayonnaise, milk, flour — but he also runs the Black Factory, a mobile workshop-van equipped to transform any object, no matter what color, into a "black" object. How? By covering it with cheap black paint.

For a retrospective at the Maine College of Art in Portland in 2003, Mr. Pope.L presented a performance piece with the optimistic title "eRacism," but that was entirely about race-based conflict. In a photograph in the show's catalog, he has the word written in white on his bare black chest. Were he pale-skinned, it might have been all but invisible.

Whereas Mr. Pope.L has shaped himself into a distinctive racial presence, certain other artists of color are literally built from scratch. A Miami artists collective called BLCK, in the current Whitney Biennial, doesn't really exist. The archival materials attributed to it documenting African American life in the 1960s is actually the creation of single artist: Adler Guerrier, who was born in Haiti in 1975.

Projects by Edgar Arceneaux, who is also in the biennial, have included imaginary visual jam sessions with the jazz visionary Sun Ra and the late Conceptual artist Sol Lewitt. Earlier in this art season, a white artist, Joe Scanlan, had a solo gallery show using the fictional persona of a black artist, Donelle Woolford. Ms. Woolford was awarded at least one appreciative review, suggesting that, in art at least, race can be independent of DNA.

The topic of race and blood has always been an inflammatory one in this country. Ms. Piper broached it in a 1988 video installation and delivered some bad news. Facing us through the camera, speaking with the soothing composure of a social worker or grief counselor, she said that, according to statistics, if we were white Americans, chances were very high that we carried at least some black blood. That was the legacy of slavery. She knew we would be upset. She was sorry. But was the truth. The piece was titled "Cornered."

And are we upset? I'll speak for myself; it's not a question. Of course not. Which is a good thing, because the concept of race in America — the fraught fictions of whiteness and blackness— is not going away soon. It is still deep in our system. Whether it is or isn't in our blood, it's in our laws, our behavior, our institutions, our sensibilities, our dreams.

It's also in our art, which, at its contrarian and ambiguous best, is always on the job, probing, resisting, questioning and traveling miles ahead down the road.

By Holland Cotter
For The New York Times

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Schooling the Artists' Republic of China

Posted By Administration, Sunday, March 30, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

On a recent lazy afternoon Wang Haiyang, a student at China's top art school, was quietly packing away some of his new oil paintings in the campus's printmaking department. He is 23, and he just had his first major art exhibition at a big Beijing gallery.

Many of his works sold for more than $3,000 each, he said. And he hasn't even graduated.


"This is one of my new works," he said proudly, gesturing toward a sexually provocative painting of a couple embracing. "I'll be having another show in Singapore in March."

For better or for worse — depending on whom you talk to — Beijing's state-run Central Academy of Fine Arts has been transformed into a breeding ground for hot young artists and designers who are quickly snapped up by dealers in Beijing and Shanghai.

The school is so selective that it turns away more than 90 percent of its applicants each year. Many of its faculty members are millionaires and its alumni include some of China's most successful new artists, including Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. And with the booming market for contemporary Chinese art, its students are suddenly so popular that collectors frequently show up on campus in search of the next art superstar. At the annual student exhibition the students no longer label their works only with their name and a title. They leave an e-mail address and cellphone number.

"I can say we have the best students and the best faculty in China," said Zhu Di, the school's admissions director. "And we give students a bright future."

Yet as the academy reshapes its mission and campus, its flowering relationship with the art market is stirring unease among those who feel that students should be shielded from commercial pressures.

"The buyers are also going to the school to look for the next Zhang Xiaogang," said Cheng Xindong, a dealer in Beijing, referring to an art star, one of whose paintings sold for $3.3 million at a Sotheby's sale in London in February. "And immediately they make contact with them, even before they graduate from school, saying, 'I will buy everything from you.' " (A similar phenomenon has been observed in recent years at hot art schools in New York and Los Angeles.)

"This can be a dangerous thing," he said. "These young artists need time to develop."

Yet many counter that the school's soaring fortunes also result from the Chinese government's growing tolerance of experimental art, which was once banned. While Beijing still censors art that it deems politically offensive, including overtly critical portrayals of the ruling Communist Party, economic and market reforms have changed the way the government thinks about art and the way the Central Academy trains young artists.

In the 1980s the school occupied a modest plot of land near Tiananmen Square in central Beijing where the faculty rigidly taught Soviet-style Realist art to about 200 students, many of whom were destined to work for the state. Today the school has a new 33-acre campus and more than 4,000 students. It offers majors in design and architecture and abundant courses in digital and video art, and some of its graduates are making millions.

In the old days, Mr. Zhu said, students had a passion for art. "They viewed art as a way of life," he said, "and Central Academy was a talent pool. Now, as society has changed, more and more students view art as a job. Students are more practical."

The nation's other leading art schools are undergoing similar makeovers. The China Academy of Art, which has trained some of the country's most inventive artists, boasts a huge new campus in the eastern city of Hangzhou. (It was formerly known as Hangzhou Academy.) In western China the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which has a reputation for training great painters, received more than 64,000 applications this year for just 1,600 openings.

But no school has as much clout as Central Academy, the only arts college directly supported by the central government in Beijing. And recently, academy administrators say, the support has been extremely generous.

The school's new gray-brick campus, 10 miles north of Tiananmen Square, has hip cafes, attractive dining facilities, spacious classrooms and art studios, and sophisticated equipment, including high-powered computers and Autodesk video editing systems that cost as much as $200,000 apiece. The campus also has an impressive new 160,000-square-foot museum and art gallery designed by the prominent Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.

Faculty salaries average just $700 a month, but the pay means little to most of these teachers, whose canvases might as well be painted in gold. Liu Xiaodong, a Central Academy graduate who has been on the faculty since 1994, often portrays China's disadvantaged, for example people displaced in the Three Gorges Dam area, site of one of China's biggest development projects. Yet Mr. Liu is among the country's wealthiest artists; a huge Three Gorges painting sold at auction last year for $2.7 million, a record for a contemporary Chinese artist at the time.

Sui Jianguo, the school's dean and one of the country's most acclaimed sculptors, has seen his works sell at auction for as much as $150,000. And Zhan Wang, a professor and sculptor, is successful enough to employ more than 40 workers in his studio on the outskirts of Beijing.

The prestige of teaching at the nation's most elite arts school remains a major draw for such artists, particularly at a time when China's art scene is flourishing. This year the Central Academy managed to lure back Xu Bing, 53, a past winner of the MacArthur Foundation's so-called genius award, from New York, where he had worked for the last 18 years.

"China is the most avant-garde and experimental site in the world," said Mr. Xu (pronounced shoe), now the school's vice president for international relations. "Everything here is new. There's so much happening, and I want to be a part of it."

Mr. Xu's work was controversial in the 1980s, when China had just begun to open up to the West, and his return was a bit of a surprise to the Beijing art world. His 1988 mixed-media installation "A Book From the Sky," consisting of hand-printed books and ceiling and wall scrolls, appeared to replicate ancient literary texts but in fact contained fake, unintelligible characters. Viewed as a clever critique of Chinese government propaganda, it created a sensation when it went on view at the National Art Museum in Beijing. He was also a popular teacher at the academy in 1989, when many students were complaining about government restrictions that prevented them from freely expressing themselves, in art or speech.

When pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in Tiananmen Square that year, many students and younger faculty members from Central Academy joined the protests, even making the plastic-foam-and-papier-mâché sculptures of the "Goddess of Democracy," which became a symbol of the student movement.

Mr. Xu said he doesn't worry about government interference with artists or censorship. "The old concept about art and government being at odds has changed," he said. "Now artists and the government are basically the same. All the artists and the government are both running with development."

Many of the changes in the Central Academy's mission grew out of the efforts to develop a new campus, which also meant rethinking the school's mission. Some faculty members were leery of the move from the old campus, which began more than five years ago with a relocation to a temporary site.

One professor, Sui Jianguo, made sculptures to protest the move, some of which showed deformed human figures lying in the rubble of the old campus as it was being demolished. But now he is happy with the changes at the academy. "The whole education system had to be done in a new way, which turned out to be better," he said, referring to the openness to new ideas and new majors.

Some faculty members privately lament the decline of traditional Chinese painting and disciplined training in centuries-old mediums. And some complain that today's art students are not as inspired or idealistic as those in the 1980s.

But other teachers said that their students, largely born in the '80s, simply reflect the changes sweeping China, which have brought more wealth to the country and given it more of a global consciousness. While the enormous growth of the Central Academy has opened the way for students without a grounding in traditional mediums, they say, many are highly skilled nonetheless.

"I think the students are more a mix of the best and the mediocre," said Yu Hong, a painter who has taught at the school since the early 1990s. "But there are some students better at drawing than when I was a student."

"Their vision is broader," she said of the students over all. "They've experienced much more."

Most of the faculty agrees on one major shift: The students seem less interested in politics and more concerned about their personal struggles and issues of identity, not unlike artists in the United States and Europe.

For example Wang Haiyang, who will graduate this year, paints canvases depicting someone who looks very much like himself: short, with large, expressive eyes and what might be described as a troubled soul. He depicts his character with a physical double, in sexual poses, in violent acts and in women's clothing. "They tell my own story, my mentality," he said of his works. "The whole process of art is like a process to cure myself."

Raw expression is on ample display at the academy. Students, once required to paint the same figurative portrait again and again, are now encouraged to look deep within themselves and to be creative. Given that the school is no longer purely about painting and sculpture, they can find outlets in areas like photography or new-media art. Majors can eventually lead to career choices like designing video-game characters for big corporations.

Chi Peng, who graduated in 2005 with a new-media degree, is viewed as a success story. He broke into the international art market a few years ago, at 25, with a series of photographs in which his naked image sprinted through the streets of Beijing with blurry red planes in hot pursuit.

Today he sells his computer-enhanced photographs for as much as $10,000 apiece. A decade ago Central Academy graduates who were lucky enough to sell a painting shortly after graduation would have been delighted to earn $100.

Mr. Chi calls himself an "80s boy," part of a new generation that grew up in a freer, more consumer-oriented society. "It's hard to define the 80s generation," he said. "Our generation is a little tender but not spoiled."

As for the pressures of the fast-moving art marketplace, which encourages artists to brand themselves for big collectors, he acknowledges some ambivalence.

Reflecting on his career ascent, he said: "It's fast, really fast. I never could have imagined this, and I'm not sure it's a good thing for me."

By David Barboza
For The New York Times

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Discuss: L.A.'s Arts and Culture Scene

Posted By Administration, Sunday, March 23, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

They're all outsiders, drawn to Los Angeles from such established creative hubs as New York and Chicago by the potential of a city they see as still defining itself culturally.

They speak with confidence about the role that the arts can play in Los Angeles, and declare their willingness to work together to expand arts education and possibly sponsor a major citywide cultural initiative, such as an arts festival.


They're the leaders of Los Angeles' five most prominent cultural institutions: Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.; Placido Domingo, general director of Los Angeles Opera; Michael Govan, director and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, which includes the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre; and James N. Wood, president and chief executive of the Getty Trust.

The Times brought the five together for the first time March 2 for a wide-ranging roundtable discussion. They exchanged impressions of their adopted city, analyzed Los Angeles' emerging status as an acknowledged global center of contemporary art production, detailed challenges facing their institutions and laid out a collective vision of how the arts could play a greater regional role in the century ahead.

To begin with, most said they had been attracted to Los Angeles because its cultural identity is less formalized than those of other cities.

"L.A. has emerged very recently as one of the major centers of art production -- and it's on the rise," said Govan, former director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York City who came to Los Angeles about two years ago.

Ritchie, who ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts before taking over at Center Theatre Group in January 2005, agreed that the arts in Los Angeles are gaining worldwide attention. "Something is happening here, and everybody is discovering it together," he said.

A recurring question raised by the five arts leaders was how their institutions could attract individuals and groups that have traditionally had limited or no access to them.

There was a consensus that educational programming, directed at both children and adults, is key to any such community outreach effort. But there are obstacles and limits to what education alone can achieve, the leaders agreed.

Govan suggested that he and the others "ought to press the agenda of an arts-based education." Wood said that such an effort might start with the city's charter schools but that he was "really nervous about tackling the education bureaucracy."

Calling the institutions' education programs "one of the most important things we have," Domingo lamented that music instruction isn't mandatory in public schools. "We have such a disadvantage today, with the pop music available for every kid," he said.

Borda, who took the reins of the L.A. Philharmonic in 2000 after leading the New York Philharmonic, emphasized that providing arts education "in every single school" is "probably not the best use of what we do" in terms of developing new constituencies.

Rather, she said, the orchestra and other large cultural organizations can serve as "conveners" that leverage their resources to "bring together the many different fabrics of the community."

She underscored the Philharmonic's naming of new music director Gustavo Dudamel, a 27-year-old Spanish-speaking Venezuelan, as "a very determined statement" of the orchestra's commitment to serving Southern California's growing Latino population.

Inevitably the discussion turned toward the giant pop-culture force that has long overshadowed the arts in Los Angeles: Hollywood. For decades among L.A. cultural leaders, Hollywood was regarded with a mixture of envy and wishful thinking. Efforts to solicit Hollywood financial support and integrate Hollywood artists into the city's high-culture scene often produced mixed results.

But according to the five panelists, that old scenario no longer applies.

While Hollywood is too sprawling an entity to be grasped or generalized about, Ritchie said, "there are many individuals or corporate entities that are part of the larger entertainment industry that I think do take part in what we're doing."

However, the group agreed that Los Angeles still lags behind other metropolises in private arts philanthropy. "I guarantee you, Chicago is giving more per capita than L.A.," Wood said.

The question of what it means to program "locally" in a city as cosmopolitan and globalized as Los Angeles has become increasingly complex, the leaders agreed.

Wood, former president of the Art Institute of Chicago, said the Getty is responding to this reality by addressing some of L.A.'s "built-in communities" with a show on Sinai icons and upcoming exhibitions of Mexican antiquities and Cambodian bronzes.

Govan suggested that cultural institutions such as LACMA have become more daringly international and adventurous by embracing rather than downplaying their local identity.

"Twenty years ago, L.A.'s cultural institutions were quite conservative," he said. LACMA's original buildings were "anonymous," Govan added, and the museum is now "making a conscious effort" to recognize its L.A. identity by adding artistic touches like Robert Irwin's palm trees and Chris Burden's street lamp installation.

Who will take the role of arts leadership in the decades to come? The panelists acknowledged the challenges in trying to collaborate or even meet regularly with other local arts entities. As Ritchie pointed out, "it took 40 e-mails" just to arrange this discussion.

Toward the end of the meeting, these various strands of thought coalesced around the idea of an arts festival, proposed by Domingo. He suggested a two-week or monthlong event, possibly connected to L.A. Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle in 2010, with "special exhibitions, whatever could be done, with the Philharmonic, with the opera," as well as family-oriented recreational activities.

The idea was well received.

"The issue is, we need to plan for that," Borda said. "But this is very good. Maybe this will be the excuse that brings us together."

By Reed Johnson
For The Los Angeles Times

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Philip Jones Griffiths, Photographer, Dies at 72

Posted By Administration, Thursday, March 20, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Philip Jones Griffiths, a crusading photojournalist whose pictures of civilian casualties and suffering were among the defining images of the war in Vietnam, died on Wednesday at his home in London. He was 72.


The cause was cancer, said Richard Hughes, an actor and activist who befriended Mr. Griffiths in Vietnam.

The book that grew out of Mr. Griffiths's reporting there, "Vietnam Inc.," is considered a classic, and its publication in 1971 helped turn public opinion against the war. Its harrowing pictures — of a blackened burn victim, a thin woman's body splattered with blood, a South Vietnamese boy in soldier's fatigues, his head tiny beneath a huge helmet — were the kind not often seen in newspapers. And Mr. Griffiths, a pacifist passionately opposed to the war, never considered himself a traditional war photographer.

"I saw myself as producing a historical document," he said in a 2002 interview on the Web site Musarium.com, adding: "Journalists should be by their very nature anarchists, people who want to point out things that are not generally approved of."

"It's by criticizing that society that humanity has made progress," he said.

While critical of the way the United States was conducting the war, Mr. Griffiths also included in his book many humanizing images of American soldiers at a time when they were often being demonized back home. One of the most stark showed an American offering a canteen of water to a Vietcong fighter who had survived a stomach wound for three days, holding in his intestines with a cooking bowl. A similar scenario is played out in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film "Apocalypse Now."

"There were some bad G.I.'s who did terrible, terrible things," Mr. Griffiths said in a lecture at the Frontline Club in London in January. "But for the most part they were kids who were confused. They were not the enemy, to me." The enemy was usually governments and bureaucracies, he often said, and he saw photography as one of the best means to bear witness against their failings.

"Virtually the whole of society believes in what they believe not by direct experience but by what they've been told," he said. "We photographers are in this exalted, privileged position of actually going out to find out for ourselves, and that's why we're so dangerous. Because we were there. We saw what happened."

Mr. Griffiths was born in Rhuddlan, a village in Wales, and came to photography only after an aborted career as a pharmacist. While working at a drugstore in London, he asked for the night shift so he could take pictures during the day to try to sell to newspapers.

"Never underestimate the power of boredom," he said in a January interview with The Independent of London.

He told a Welsh interviewer in 2004 that "coming from a country being swallowed up by its neighbor gave me a natural sympathy for the Davids over the Goliaths of this world."

Mr. Griffiths was deeply influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founder of the Magnum photo agency, where Mr. Griffiths became a longtime member and served as president from 1980 to 1985. Besides Vietnam, Mr. Griffiths reported from dozens of other countries. He covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and worked in Cambodia from 1973 to 1975.

In 1996 a retrospective of his work, "Dark Odyssey," was published, and in 2001 "Vietnam Inc." was reprinted by Phaidon Press, with a new introduction by Noam Chomsky. In 2004 Mr. Griffiths published "Agent Orange: 'Collateral Damage' in Vietnam," a photographic examination of the death, deformities and suffering caused by the use of that defoliant.

Mr. Griffiths is survived by two daughters, Katherine Holden of London and Fenella Ferrato of Manhattan and Damascus. He never married, telling one interviewer that he refused to sign papers that would allow "bourgeois society to dictate my emotions."

The kinds of pictures that became "Vietnam Inc." were often difficult for Magnum to sell to publications, and at times Mr. Griffiths was so low on money that he considered leaving Vietnam. But in 1967 he managed to take pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy in Cambodia in the company of a British aristocrat rumored to be her romantic interest at the time; the proceeds from that paparazzi coup allowed him to continue his war photography.

In interviews he said that he realized early on where his journalistic priorities lay. A London newspaper editor once told him to remember to answer the five basic questions in every photo caption: who, what, why, where and when. Mr. Griffiths said the first two and last two struck him as merely perfunctory.

"It's the one in the middle that counts," he said. "To me that's our task, to say 'Why?' "

By Randy Kennedy
For The New York Times

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Whitney Museum to Receive $131 Million Gift

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Leonard A. Lauder, the cosmetics executive and chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said on Tuesday that his art foundation would give the museum $131 million, the biggest donation in the Whitney's 77-year history.


The bulk of the money — $125 million — will go toward the Whitney's endowment, boosting it to $195 million from $70 million, Mr. Lauder said in a telephone interview.

The Whitney called the gift one of the largest donations ever to a New York museum's endowment. Mr. Lauder said that the money required the museum not to sell its Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street for an extended period, although he declined to specify how long.

The Whitney announced last year that it planned to open a satellite museum downtown in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, which stirred speculation that it might sell its Breuer building.

But Mr. Lauder said he was determined that the Whitney keep its hulking 1966 building. "Like so many architecture lovers, I believe the Whitney and the Breuer building are one," he said.

Given the precarious state of the economy, Mr. Lauder, who turns 75 on Wednesday, emphasized that he could be depended on for the donation, which he said he had long planned.

"Being old enough to have lived through several recessions, when I made the decision years ago, I asked my financial advisers to move the money into T-bills," he said. "So it is sitting there and is very secure."

Mr. Lauder is chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies and, according to Forbes magazine, had a net worth of $3.2 billion in 2007.

The gift includes $6 million to cover expenses until the donation is complete, which is expected to be by June 30, 2009. The money is a major infusion for the Whitney, which has been historically under-endowed. Its new endowment total of $195 million will still pale in comparison with those of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, with an $850 million endowment. (Ronald S. Lauder, Leonard Lauder's brother, is a trustee and former board chairman at MoMA.)

Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney's director, said the gift would help the Whitney sustain its "risk-taking" tradition. "It will now be the first time our endowment will be large enough so that the Whitney can maintain its commitment to living artists and to adventurous programming," he said.

Although Mr. Lauder's donation is likely to quiet rumors that the Whitney might decamp from the Breuer building, the museum's plans remain an open question. Since the Whitney set its sights on the meatpacking district, the city's arts world has fretted that the institution might not be able to afford two locations.

The gift was timed to encourage other Whitney trustees to donate generously to the downtown project. "It has already generated tremendous support on the part of the trustees," Mr. Weinberg said.

Although he declined to say how much money had been raised for the new building or how much the Whitney still needed, he said that the initial, or so-called silent, phase of the capital campaign was "going forward."

In November the Whitney announced that it had reached a conditional agreement with the city's Economic Development Corporation to buy a city-owned site at Washington and West Streets, the same place where the Dia Art Foundation had planned to build a museum. (In October 2006 Dia said it had scrapped that idea and would seek a different site in the city.) The Whitney satellite is to be designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Mr. Piano was also the architect for a proposed nine-story addition to the Breuer building that was abandoned in 2006.

The Piano scheme was the third time in more than a decade that the museum had commissioned a celebrity architect to design a major expansion, only to pull out.

To realize its new project in the meatpacking district, the museum needs to go through the zoning process, conclude the land purchase and determine the cost of designing and building the satellite and operating museums both uptown and downtown, Mr. Weinberg said.

"We are studying the idea of a comprehensive Whitney, trying to see how the two programs would work," he said.

In the world of museum fund-raising, endowment money is always the most difficult to solicit. Unlike donations for building projects, an endowment gift does not give a donor the opportunity to finance a namesake building, a promise extended to the Wall Street financier Stephen A. Schwarzman last week when he gave the New York Public Library $100 million to jump-start its $1 billion expansion. In return, the library's main branch on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street is being renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

Mr. Lauder's gift surpasses that of Mr. Schwarzman as well as a $100 million endowment gift pledged to MoMA by David Rockefeller, a chairman emeritus of the Modern, in 2005. But unlike Mr. Lauder's gift, Mr. Rockefeller's donation will not be completed until after his death. In the meantime Mr. Rockefeller is giving $5 million a year, as if the money were already invested in the endowment.

Mr. Lauder's gift is not the first major donation he has made to the Whitney. Since becoming its chairman in 1994, he has led the campaign for the new fifth-floor galleries in the Breuer building, which are devoted entirely to the permanent collection.

Six years ago he led a three-year initiative to acquire about $200 million worth of art by masters like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock.

Mr. Lauder's American Contemporary Art Foundation was responsible for the largest single group of art in that gift, including major works by Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Warhol and Pollock.

By Carol Vogel
For The New York Times

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Photo Finish

Posted By Administration, Sunday, March 16, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Traditionally, the role of those in the creative and cultural fringes is to lead: embracing unusual ideas, modes of expression and even products that gradually catch on with the mainstream and the masses. (By which time, of course, the fringe has moved on.) But in a recent reversal of the fringe-to-mass journey, many adventurously creative individuals have lately been in a state of rage, mourning and protest over the disappearance of a treasured tool — one that years ago reached, saturated and then passed out of the mainstream: Polaroid instant film.


The Polaroid Corporation announced last month that by the end of 2008 it would discontinue pretty much all of its consumer- and professional-level instant film, closing plants in Massachusetts, Mexico and the Netherlands. The company cited "marketplace conditions," a euphemism for not enough people buying something to make it worth manufacturing. It also expressed willingness to license the technology to any third party that might want to make a go of it.

Not a few Polaroid loyalists heaped scorn on the apparent culprit: "the cancer that is digital photography," as one participant in the Analog Photography Users Group message board put it. It's true that new technologies have marginalized instant photography. But it was consumer-friendly innovation — easy, fun, instant — that made Polaroid cameras and film into mass hits in the first place. In a way, the company's products were the digital photography of their time.

The Polaroid Corporation was, of course, founded by Edwin Land, a Harvard dropout who attained a Steve Jobsian cultural status as an innovator-businessman. By the time his company began selling its first instant-photo camera in 1948, Land had already applied his discoveries in the realm of light polarization to a variety of products, including sunglasses, film and lighting. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid's stock was among the "Nifty Fifty" companies whose shares were seen in that era's stock market boom as sure bets to go-go forever. Time magazine greeted the arrival of the SX-70 with the cover headline "Here Come Those Great New Cameras." Even in the early 1980s, instant photography was a $2 billion market that Polaroid dominated.

Yet it wasn't far into that decade that the story started to shift: layoffs here, management shuffles there. Land left in 1982 (he died in 1991), and patent battles and a costly effort to fend off a hostile takeover bid followed; in the judgment of The New York Times, by mid-decade its cameras had "gained a reputation as blue-collar products." Still, the company did continue to release new technologies, including, as it happens, some of the earliest digital cameras, as far back as 1996. And its flagship camera, the OneStep, still sold briskly. Even as the digital threat came into sharp focus in 2001, Wired magazine published a long article convincingly suggesting that the iconic company could innovate its way into the future. Ten months later, Polaroid filed Chapter 11.

From its earliest camera-making days, the company courted and attracted the attention of artists. Land hired Ansel Adams as a consultant in 1948, and a who's-who of top-level creators have dabbled in or relied upon Polaroid cameras and films ever since. Some used them to test lighting and exposures; some, including Chuck Close, use large-format Polaroids as part of the process leading to the portraits he creates; William Wegman is among those whose best-known works include many Polaroids. Many, especially in more recent years, invented hackerish approaches like manipulating or transferring the emulsion; the "phototransformations" of Lucas Samaras are a notable example. Often the attraction was to precisely those properties that digital photography eliminated in the name of making picture taking easier, more fun, more instant. By comparison with digital, Polaroid images can be somewhat unpredictable and one of a kind.

Postbankruptcy, Polaroid ended up as a subsidiary of Petters Group Worldwide, which has financial interests in more than 60 companies. By way of a licensing arrangement, Petters began selling things like Polaroid-branded DVD players and flat-panel TVs in 2002, acquiring the reorganized company outright in 2005. The latest plan involves a deal to sell "digital instant mobile photo printers" created by Zink Imaging (founded by some ex-Polaroiders) under the Polaroid name. The creative fringe that still loves instant photography does not seem to be satisfied with this. That's why they are creating Web sites like SavePolaroid.com, starting Internet petitions and Facebook fan pages, creating online Polaroid photo pools and using every other tool the digital world provides, to advocate the analog process they love.

By Rob Walker
For The New York Times

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In Santa Fe, on the Trail of New Deal Artists

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

It seems as if every artist living in New York in the 1930s worked for the government through one New Deal program or another. Walker Evans was hired to photograph the effects of the Great Depression on rural families. A young Jacob Lawrence was paid to produce murals and easel paintings in Harlem. Even the Dutch-born Willem de Kooning received money from the government to paint — decades before he became an American citizen.


But New York was hardly the only center of New Deal artistic activity. Another hub was northern New Mexico, where more than a hundred artists — including prominent American Indians — signed on to the government payroll. Although scholarship on their involvement has been spotty at best, local curators say that is beginning to change.

"When we look back at the Depression and that time frame, I think we have images of soup lines in New York and factory workers put out of jobs," said Shelby Tisdale, director of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe. "A lot of people don't even realize that there were Native American artists involved in the New Deal."

Her museum has organized a group show, running April 5 through Aug. 31, to help set the record straight. On exhibit will be art objects created by American Indians in 1934 under the Public Works of Art Project, a predecessor of the Works Progress Administration.

The National New Deal Preservation Association is also holding a symposium, from April 5 to 6 at the museum, on American Indian projects under the program. Topics will range from individual artists to economic policies.

The events are part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, which Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated in 1933. The preservation association's Web site, newdeallegacy.org, lists other events and exhibitions this year. The organization's goals include education as well as the documentation and restoration of New Deal projects, said Kathryn A. Flynn, executive director.

Ms. Flynn said that her interest in the period was ignited when she was deputy secretary of state for New Mexico in the 1990s. One of her first projects was to compile its Blue Book. "Anything you wanted to know about New Mexico — government, education, museums, history," she said. She was thinking about what illustrations to use in the book when someone suggested murals.

"A mural flashed into my head from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, and I wondered why it was there," Ms. Flynn said. "From there I was off and running."

In New Mexico alone, she ultimately found 65 murals or mural-size paintings, 650 easel paintings, 10 sculptures and hundreds of American Indian and Hispanic crafts created under the New Deal.

"And that's just what remains in public buildings," she said.

In addition, she has identified 30 American Indians who were active during New Deal programs in the state and thinks there were others who were not documented. This research fed her book on the subject, "Treasures on New Mexico Trails: Discover New Deal Art and Architecture," published in 1995.

According to her book, it was Roosevelt's appointment of John Collier as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1933 that led to American Indian participation. Besides his drive for social reform, emphasizing self-government by the tribes, Collier had an abiding — if perhaps overly romantic — interest in American Indian art.

He was a good friend of the colorful Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and even lived in the area briefly during the 1920s.

Valerie Verzuh, collections manager at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, who organized the New Deal show, said that she, too, "was surprised to discover the level of involvement of Native American artists in the New Deal."

About five years ago, the museum received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to catalog its collection. "That's when we went through all the pottery, weaving and fine art, piece by piece," she said.

They found about 110 objects in her collection made during the New Deal by American Indians. About half are Hopi kachina dolls, which the museum does not display at the request of local tribal leaders, who view them as sacred objects. The April show, she said, will consist solely of secular objects: Hopi figurines, Navajo weavings and, perhaps most prized, American Indian pottery.

The dozen or so pots to be displayed were created under the program by the celebrated husband-and-wife teams of Maria and Julian Martinez, from the San Ildefonso Pueblo, and Lela and Evangelio Gutierrez, from the Santa Clara Pueblo, both near Santa Fe.

"Both of these couples made really traditional wares that have an Art Deco feeling," Ms. Verzuh said. She noted that the pots were not thrown but built up by hand through the coil-and-scrape method. "The woman usually makes the pot and the man paints."

Lela Gutierrez was known for making polychrome pottery, using multicolored clay slips to build earth tones into traditional redware forms.

Even more famous, Maria Martinez made her name with black-on-black pottery, developing an elaborate technique for creating glossy black pots with matte-black designs.

Another American Indian who participated in the New Deal was Pablita Velarde. Her work is featured in a 2007 show at the museum that was extended until April 13 to coincide with the New Deal activities. Because she was a woman, her father discouraged her from painting, but when she was only 16 she became part of a mural painting team at the Santa Fe Indian School under the Public Works Art Project.

In 1939, when she was 21, she was hired by the W.P.A. under the supervision of the National Park Service to create paintings of American Indian life for a museum at the visitors center of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Over six years, she completed more than 80 paintings in casein on fiberboard and glass, many of which remained in storage until the Santa Fe show.

She was considered a pioneer in other ways, starting with her $5 a day salary.

"With the Bandelier project she made more money than the men with the Civilian Conservation Corps," Ms. Flynn said. "She made enough money that she was able to build her own house on the pueblo, and that made her unique."

Others point to her subjects — everyday life and dance and customs on the 20th-century pueblo — as innovative. "I find her work inspiring," said Nora Naranjo-Morse, a Santa Clara potter whose mother was Pablita Velarde's cousin.

Ms. Naranjo-Morse singles out a painting called "Governor Greets the Tourists" as one of Ms. Velarde's most powerful works. It shows an American Indian in traditional dress who stands just outside his pueblo facing a blue car packed with tourists. His right hand is raised.

"You would think that he's welcoming the tourists because his hand is up, but the gesture is not really clear," she said. "He could be wondering: 'Who are these people?' "

Another Santa Fe museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art, also has a small New Deal exhibition drawn from its collection. The show, which runs through May 18, includes one work by an American Indian: a Zia Pueblo artist named Velino Shije Herrera, also known as Ma Pe Wi. His watercolor, on long-term loan from the General Services Administration, depicts three women grinding corn, with native pottery at their feet and peppers hanging over their heads.

You can see other examples of his work in Washington at the Department of the Interior, where he was part of a larger mural project, or at the Santa Fe Indian School, where he began painting in 1917.

This school is one of many cultural institutions and associations that made Santa Fe such a magnet for artists — and ultimately for government financing, Ms. Flynn said.

"There's no doubt New York was loaded with artists, and California was loaded," she said. "But I think New Mexico may have had more people per capita working on these projects. It's an amazing part of our history, and we haven't seen anything like it since."

By Jori FInkel
For The New York Times

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