Archive for the ‘Art Essay’ Category

Of Memorials and Memory: Martin Luther King Memorial


The Martin Luther King Memorial

Washington, D. C.

Artists make our memories for us.  We tend not to think about this prodigious feat of collective historical construction but when we ask ourselves what is the first image that comes to mind about, say, Iwo Jima? We answer “The Iwo Jima Memorial.”  Not the wounding photographs published sixty years ago in Life Magazine but the huge cast bronze group of men, thirty-two feet tall, raising the American flag on Mount Surabachi.  The sculptor, Felix de Welton, is less well-known than the photographer Joe Rosenthal who staged the famous photograph upon which the Marine Corps War Memorial (1954) was based.

But, in recent times, we have been faced with challenges that have gone far beyond the traditional monuments or memorials.  The problem of the last forty years has been how to represent tragedy and to wring something redeeming from it.

Two recent memorials, dedicated within weeks of each other, demonstrate eloquently a lack of eloquence that conveys the delicate question that the artist must answer visually—how to touch the hearts and minds?  How to create a meaningful history? How to heal wounds?  On one hand we have what I consider a complete and colossal failure, painful to look at, and ill-conceived at its very heart, The Martin Luther King Memorial.  On the other hand, we have the National September 11 Memorial in the footprint of the World Trade Center in New York. This memorial was designed by architect Michael Arad, and this very different structure is far more successful, suited to the site and understated in its impact.

The Martin Luther King Memorial rears up out of the green tuft of the Mall, yet another blemish on what is becoming an overcrowded field cluttered with really bad works of public “art.”  The huge white sculpture of the Civil Rights leader emerges like a bad Michelangelo work (evoking an unfortunate memory of the Renaissance artist’s series of Slaves for the Tomb of Julius II).  King’s arms are crossed and he has a pouting unpleasant expression on his face.

The sculpture was based on a photograph by Bob Fitch in 1966.  This particular image was a strange choice, a passive pose for an active man. Fitch was summoned to King’s office when the preacher was enjoying a rare pause between appointments and had time to pose for some photographs.  He and his wife spent a great deal of time in Atlanta with the Kings, with his wife acting as Coretta King’s secretary.  It is clear that King was comfortable with Fitch, for his posture is relaxed and peaceful.  His folded arms are a gesture of relaxation and familiarity with an old friend.  No one asked Fitch’s permission to use (misuse) his original image, reverse it, and turn it into a cold totalitarian figure looming over the Mall.

The pose of Martin Luther King was transformed into something forbidding and off putting—a stand-offish stance that repels rather than attracts.  The folded arms ward off any approach—an impossible posture for a leader who gathered followers.  It is strange that the first African-American honored on the Mall, should be so glaringly white.  Chosen by the memorial committee from an international competition, the Chinese artist Lei Yixin was given King a very Asian look, as if King were Chinese or Mao was African-American.  Yixin stated,

“Dr. King’s vision is still living, in our minds; we still miss him, we still need him,” said Yixin through a translator, calling the sculpture the most important of his life, technically and emotionally. “I am trying to present Dr. King as ready to step out … this is King’s spirit, to judge people from their character, not race, color or background.”

Nice words but one can’t help wondering what David Hammons would have done with such an opportunity.

There is a clumsy literalness about the idea of King on the part of the uninspired artist that captures nothing of the history of King the minister, King the leader, King the martyr.  Adding to the illustrative quality to the experience is the very silly chunks, supposedly made from a white granite “mountain,” broken in two parts named, and one shudders at these names, the “Mountain of Despair” and the “Stone of Hope.”

King’s speech from which the phrase was taken is far more eloquent: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” from his “I Have a Dream” speech.  The preacher holds a copy of the speech in one of his hands, the speech read on that very Mall August 28, 1963. And if that is not enough there are fourteen other quotations from his speeches. According to other news source, the great poet, Maya Angelou objected the shortening of some of the fourteen quotes.  I must agree that it is nothing short of vandalism to tamper with someone’s writing, especially a speaker as powerful as Martin Luther King.

The quotation that Angelou disliked the most was originally, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

But the short version states simplistically, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Which immediately conjures up an image of King in a band uniform tossing a baton into the sky.  One wonders why this and other statements were shortened—budget costs?

The failure of this work is so great, in my opinion, that it makes the World War II Memorial—an artistic abjection that I have long thought to be a huge fascist monstrosity—look positively noble.  The problem is not that the artist is not American but that the artist is not imaginative or inspired.  In other words Mr. Yixin had a photograph but no concept.  Can you make art when you know nothing about your subject?  Can you create a successful memorial out of a concept?

For an answer, look no further than Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center of 1988.  She was in her twenties, she had never learned of the Civil Rights Movement, but Lin read one of King’s speeches with a quote taken from the Bible.  King paraphrased Amos 5:24 and said, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

As Lin said later, “The minute I hit that quote I knew that the whole piece had to be about water,” Lin said. “I realized that I wanted to create a time line: a chronological listing of the Movement’s major events and its individual deaths, which together would show how people’s lives influenced history and how their deaths made things better.”

The architect made a powerful black circle engraved with the forty names of all those who had died in the cause of voting rights, including Martin Luther King in 1968.  Water streams over the surface of the smooth etched surface, healing the wounded hearts of those still waiting for justice.  In other words Maya Lin had a concept.

What kind of memorial would have been fitting for Martin Luther King?  King was a small man who led a big movement, a long march that continues today, and he agreed to join the Civil Rights Protests, knowing that once he did, he was dead man.  We forget today that for a black child going to school with white boys and girls in the 1950s was impossible—textbooks touched by a black child could not be touched by a white child: books were kept separate and unequal.  We forget today that for a black man to try to vote in the South in the 1960s was to invite the inevitable lynching.

Martin Luther King made integrated schools possible, made it safe for African-Americans to vote, made it possible for Barack Obama to become President. King gave his life, as did many others, so that American citizens could have American rights.  There was something knowing and innocent about King’s face: his eyes were set wide apart and his light brows made him look open and welcoming.  He was a man with a face that seemed to know what was coming.

King’s role model was Ghandi and we see the photograph of the Indian leader in the photograph by Bob Fitch.  Twenty years after Ghandi’s assassination, Martin Luther King, apostle of non-violent protest, was murdered.  I believe his memorials are everywhere and appeared spontaneously.

The Footprints he left Behind

The films of his Marches

The films of his Speeches

“I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

The famous photograph of his assassination

Joel Sternfeld’s photograph of the Lorraine Motel

The Testimony of his Followers

The Memories of his Family

What all of us have Learned from this Man

The Martin Luther King Gravesite, Atlanta

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Why Some Artists are Obscure: The Curious Case of Roger Kuntz

Last spring of 2009, the Laguna Beach Art Museum held a retrospective for a little known but aptly named, artist, Roger Kuntz (sounds like kunst, “art” in German).  Since I teach a course in contemporary art in California, called “California Dreaming,” I was intrigued.  I had never heard of this man.  According to the museum, Kuntz, who died young in 1975 of skin cancer was once an up and coming, promising artist, named in Life Magazine as one of the top five artists in California in 1962 and was part of the California Pop scene. Kuntz was featured in the Los Angeles art magazine, Artforum in 1963 as a local art star.  He made all the right moves.  And then, five years later, he took a wrong turn and got lost and twelve years later he was dead.

Often, these retrospectives of the forgotten artist show the viewer someone who was unjustly overlooked by history, but the Kunzt exhibition showed two things: first, Kuntz was justifiably overlooked and second his career was a tragedy of missed timing and bad choices.  For that reason, the exhibition was a fascinating one, raising the question of how one artist becomes successful and another does not.  Success is more than random chance.  Success is a matter of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right audience.  Success is recognizing the moment and seizing it.

Roger Kuntz was right on target in the early Sixties, painting the concrete landscape of Los Angeles as a noir terrain of freeway with its engineered and programmed twists and turns and abrupt signage that replaced the free exploration and human communication.  Begun on a national scale in the late 1959s, the California freeway was a relatively new subject in the art world.  The artist was sensitive to the alienation that such transportation conveniences would bring to the population. And yes, today we fly along the asphalt in our private pods, isolated from our fellow human beings.  The editor of Artforum, John Coplans understood Kuntz as a “Pop” artist, because the graduate of the Claremont Colleges painted the vernacular Pop culture of Southern California.

But Kuntz presented a dark vision of Los Angeles straight out of Raymond Chandler.  In the early Sixties, the dark city painted by Kunst was a direct rebuke to Ed Ruscha’s deadpan and cherry acceptance of the City of Angels or Richard Diebenkorn’s hard edged, sky blue Ocean Park series.  And then, in 1968, Kuntz went off course.  When I walked into next room and into the next phase of his career, I said out loud, “Oh, something happened to him.”  Suddenly his terrain changed from public to private, from contemporary to historical.  Kuntz began painting nude women, or the same nude woman, over and over, usually in bathroom settings.  Like many painters, he was really a drawer, someone who was better with line than color, and his choice of color for these paintings was too strong and too bright and too harsh.  One could not help but compare Kuntz to Edgar Degas or to Pierre Bonnard, his obvious role models, but he lacked to obsessive voyeurism of these artists.  There was a feeling that the paintings reflected his personal life and in a not very interesting way.

And yes, the next stage of his career placed him far away from the other artists in Los Angeles, those boys of the Ferus Gallery.  He drifted to Laguna Beach where he proceeded to continue to paint his life in his beach home in a series of small works that are the kind that (unjustly) give the city a bad name for art.  I hate the word “cringe worthy,” but I must use the phrase here.  On the lower level of the museum, it only got worse.  Kuntz’s last works raised the question of what kind of subject matter is appropriate to art?  I am not referring to the controversial of the 1980s, the kind that faced censorship and caused controversy, but to something more basic—-should an artist ever paint a blimp and if so under what circumstances?  Should an artist ever paint the astronauts visiting the moon, and if so, under what circumstances?  At this point in his career, Roger Kuntz was painting the Goodyear blimp, while Billy Al Bengston had a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968.  Ed Ruscha was the featured artist in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1970.  Roger Kuntz was painting the moon landing.  He was not a bad painter.  He simply selected his subjects badly.  He followed his personal life with his art, but his ordinary life was like all our lives: uninteresting.  The Ferus Gallery artists also led uninteresting lives, like most successful artists, but they were intelligent enough to make art about their own times, not their own lives.  It is a rare artist who can make great art about his or her private obsessions.  It takes a great eye for culture to turn the vernacular environment to art.  Roger Kuntz had a career shaped like a downward trajectory.  If I compared it to the freeway, I would say he abruptly exited, made all the wrong moves, and reached a dead end.  Art is all about the ability to make the right choices.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Elvis, Michael, and Diana

When Elvis died, ABC News reported on the Panama Canal. On August 16, 1977, Elvis was not “news.”  Today, no one can recall what—if anything—was going on at the Canal that was so “newsworthy.”  Today, everyone knows what he or she was doing when they heard the news that Elvis had left the building. I was on the road, driving to California to go to college.  I passed through Memphis the day after the funeral of the King.  For some reason celebrities tend to die in groups or clumps.  Take for example, the sad situation during the summer of 2009. Taking a break from the spectacle of health care wars, Americans were preoccupied with ritual mourning.  Within one week in June, many celebrities have died: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and Billy Mays.  Suddenly we were all joined in collective mourning for people we did not know, were not friends with, may never have seen in person, and yet, we grieved for them and felt the loss of their presence keenly.

All of these people were artists, or at least they were “personalities;” but they were also “family.”   They came into our homes for decades and suddenly they are gone. We thought we knew them.  We gave ourselves the right to gossip about them and to discuss their private lives as though they were our best friends forever. Setting aside the particular abilities it takes to be a “second banana,” discussed by people far more eloquent than myself, and the talent it takes to sell the strange and unsellable, I am more interested in the deaths of individuals who touch us deeply and make us cry, like Michael Jackson and Princess Di.  Full disclosure, I still have an old video of my personal taping of her funeral.  Billy Jean is one of my favorite songs.  I am well aware of the truths of these people, the unseemly and undignified details of their sad lives.  But what interests me is why are we so impacted by their tragic and untimely deaths? Or is it their lives that are so resonate to us?

I always admired Michael Jackson.  He struck me as someone who was blessed with a minor talent and parlayed it into major stardom.  Most artists have only a minor talent, few are born with major talent, except for Picasso, who some call a “genius.”  But genius is not something you are born with.  Genius is something you make. Michael Jackson was a good singer and a talented dancer who created genius through his work.  His greatness was that he became someone else, transcending his sad lost childhood of abuse. Michael Jackson became the “Gloved One.”  Although Madonna (another genius) made Jackson’s crotch-grabbing seem tame, the downfall of Michael Jackson came when he revealed who he really was.  What we loved was the persona and the performer of Thriller and the transformative music and dance of Beat It. The dark side was clearly evident, made even more explicit in his video performances, but his darkness came across as an artificial mask.

Michael Jackson’s performances were true works of genius, the result of years of creative endeavor.  We were riveted.  We sang his songs, we danced his dances (or tried), and generations of music fans all over the world adopted him, forgiving him of all his manifold sins.  The tragedy of Michael Jackson is that we did not want him to be real.  The other tragedy of Michael Jackson is that he did not want to be real.  Already a success, a creative genius, he wanted to be something else, and on this long journey he drifted down a strange road.  Alas, he is dead and we shall never know how he would have wanted his story to end.  His story was his art.

What Princess Di and the Gloved One share is that they are makeovers or should I say, they were made-ups?  We projected our fantasies upon them; we made them up. But they also transformed themselves.  In Thriller, Michael Jackson literally danced with his demons and all lthe other dancers were in costume.  What separates the Moonwalker from the Princess, I believe, is that Jackson sought, unwisely, to try to make himself more real than real. Unsatisfied with the “self” created by the Jackson Five, he attempted to fabricate a new identity that was completely his own.  How else could all that bizarre plastic surgery be explained?   The sad outcome was that he lost himself.

In contrast, Princess Diana was always in costume and, unlike Jackson, she was careful about not showing herself.  She never broke with the Princess role, even when she was ousted as the Princess.  Diana understood that she was the costume.  Perhaps because women are socialized to always be on display and to perform a masquerade, it was easier for her to conflate the artificial with the real.  This is what women do: we lose ourselves in the disguise.  We become the masquerade.  The irony of her story is that she was miscast in a story tale of a well-born Cinderella who married a very unwilling prince.  Like all women, she was sold on romance novels of love and happiness ever after.  Like all women, she could hardly think beyond the most beautiful wedding dress in the world, the ride in the golden coach, the handsome (well, plain) prince in a splendid uniform by her side. What could be better?

Once I had watched the wedding of the century on television and copied her hairstyle, I lost interest in the trials and tribulations of the tragic princess, forlorn and unloved. And then she died.  To my surprise, I was grief stricken and sadden by the death of someone so full of courage.  A work of art had died.  As women, we are each our own greatest work of art.  Any woman who loses touch with herself as a public persona loses her identity and her self-esteem.  Contrary to theorists who insist that men lead public lives and women live private lives, the opposite is true.  Men lead very active clandestine and protected private lives, while women are always on public display, being watched and being judged.  Diana knew the secret—that femininity was a masquerade and she used this fact to her advantage.  Charles made a tactical error.   Her husband indulged himself in a private love affair.  Far from being a sympathetic character—the poor man was forced to marry a woman he did not love—-the Prince lost control of his story and was revealed as a betrayer of his young wife and the helpless mother of his children who had sacrificed her youth for the Crown.

Far shrewder than the forces of Majesty, Diana honed her public image, carefully choosing each costume for maximum advantage.  The rest of her life can be told in a series of photographs: the famous “John Travolta Dress” that allowed her to upstage the Prince, the red skirt with the purple jacket she wore at the monument to love, the Taj Mahal, telegraphing the end of her love story, the quasi-military outfit in the mine fields, and finally the one-piece swimsuit on Dodi Fayed’s yacht. We read her life through her costumes and saw that she was brave and courageous and insistent upon continuing her role as “Princess.”  She was the most eligible woman in the world who unfortunately had terrible taste in men, but we were convinced that someday her Prince Would Come.  He never did, but she was more fortunate than Elvis or MJ. Diana died young and beautiful at the peak of her powers. The masquerade was never allowed to slip.  Beautiful, even in death, she created herself.  Diana was her own best work of art.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Claremont Museum of Art

Claremont, California

How does a museum die?  Slowly circling the drain or suddenly closing at an opening?  The Claremont Museum of Art died on the spot, closed at the opening of the last exhibit, the victim of credit card bills and overarching ambitions. The name of the exhibition?  “The Ten Pound Ape.”  More like the 800 pound gorilla in the room—-no money.  A few years ago, in Artscene, I wrote about the opening of the Museum in a repurposed fruit-packing factory in the heart of Claremont’s charming downtown.  In 2007 the new director had dreams of the museum being a “destination” for art lovers on their way from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and points East.  Just as people will drive miles to an amazing restaurant, he claimed,  the audience for contemporary art would trek to the small college town.  Despite the notorious reluctance of Angeleos to venture down the notorious 10 Freeway to the eastern most parts of their county, the idea of being a destination museum was not entirely unfounded.  Claremont, a place I have often referred to as “the town that time forgot,” has a group of colleges, a few graduate schools, arts and crafts houses, shady tree-lined streets, a feel of the Fifties, and a thriving arts community.  The Claremont Colleges hosted as students and professors, Chris Burden, James Turrell, Paul Soldner, Kim Dingle, Karl Benjamin, Roland Reiss, and Pitzer College has established a politically engaged art gallery.  With such a strong history in painting, installation art, performance art and ceramics, including a ceramic museum, Claremont would seem to be a great place for a destination museum.

But it was not to be.  Founded during the days of financial hubris, or better known as the era of doing too much with too little money, the Claremont Museum of Art began with only two million dollars.  Perhaps more money would materialize: there were promises of money in the future.  But for the present, the dream was simply greater than the amount of money on hand. Running a museum is an expensive business.  In order to be a destination museum, the institution needs to show destination-worthy works.  Such art is expensive, to rent, to mount, and to ship.  Staff has to be paid; rent comes due.  The exhibitions mounted were interesting but not exactly destination worthy.  However, the museum was starting—correctly—with its base and was generous to the local art community.  Many supportive artists donated their works to the substantial permanent collection. Everyone tried. There was simply wasn’t enough money to give the museum enough time to build a reputation.  A challenge grant was not met and the museum lost their last chance to stay alive.  At the end the city of Claremont paid the last month’s rent: $9000. But such a generous donation could do little but stave off the end.  The owners of the building simply could not afford to donate such an expensive space to the community, and by January of 2010 the museum was gone.  There was no fault, no malfeasance, just naïvité and inexperience.   Two million dollars are gone, jobs were lost and the collection is now housed in the basement of the American Museum of Ceramics in Pomona.  For some the dream lives on, but, meanwhile, this is how a museum dies.  Rest in peace Claremont Museum of Art.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger