Thursday, June 16, 2011

(Portraits) Andy Warhol, 'Sixteen Jackies', (1964)

Andy Warhol’s “Sixteen Jackies” (completed in 1964) is a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the American Pop Art style, painted in response to the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, on 22nd November 1963. Warhol created his portrait using four photographs of Jackie Kennedy he took from LIFE magazine, which he repeated in four rows, four times. The painting recently sold for $20.24million at auction in Sotheby's in New York. (1)

Warhol believed that “reproducing images from popular culture was the visual means for expressing detachment from emotions” (
2), which was something he saw as characteristic of the 1960s. The photographs Warhol used depict, from top to bottom: Jackie stepping off the plane upon arrival in Dallas; in shock at the swearing-in ceremony of former Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson following Kennedy's death; grieving at the Capitol; and smiling in the limousine moments before the assassination. Warhol recalled the moment he heard about Kennedy's death, noting that "I'd been thrilled having Kennedy as president [...] but it didn't bother me that much that he was dead. What bothered me was the way the television and radio were programming everybody to feel so sad." (3) His fascination with image and the process of mass media and advertising was a driving force behind his repetitive work. This repetition, with each copied image slightly different from the first - achieved through Warhol's screenprinting techniques - produces paintings that comment on the falseness of trends and consumer mass production. The juxtaposition of smiling photographs of Jackie and grieving photographs can be considered 'before and after' photographs, presenting personal emotions of a woman who has just lost her husband through a horrifying public incident, and also has to deal with it in the public eye.

The painting has also inspired pieces of poetry; Paul Hoover's eponymously titled poem, "Sixteen Jackies", makes reference to the outfit Jackie is wearing in two of the photos that were taken on the day of Kennedy's assassination:

"a wall
of Jackies

in that
famous suit

with its
blood decoration." (4)

Friday, June 10, 2011

(Week 2 Post) Thomas Hill, "The Last Spike", 1881

I’ve chosen Thomas Hill’s “The Last Spike” as my landscape painting, an 1881 painting that depicts the completion of America’s first transcontintental railroad. The “last spike” refers to the final moment when the railroad was completed with a golden spike. One element that makes Hill’s painting an interesting example of a landscape are the four hundred figures in the painting, of which seventy are individual painted portraits of prominent people who were present at the event. Not naturally grouped as they would have been during the actual celebration, the figures are grouped according to official prominence and importance, and include Leland Stanford, the Governor of California, and many key players in the construction and overseeing of the railroad, with Reverend Dr. Todd leading a prayer in the foreground of the painting.
The view of the landscape is eastward along the Union Pacific Railroad toward the horizon, arguably an interesting direction for a landscape painting, which we have come to associate in American art as left = East, right = West. The painting also includes many elements that we perceive as traditional of the plains and transport, such as a stage coach and covered wagons – now defunct in their functions thanks to the railway, presented in contrast to the modern mode of transport (the railway) the progression in technology and from the old to the new is exemplified. Also interesting to note is the presence of a Native American in traditional dress at the right-hand foreground, one of a small number of people in the painting who are given attention to through portraits, and yet is not named or recognised in a ‘Key to Portraits’ image handed out with pamphlets at the time the painting was presented. For Hill, a member of the Hudson River School whose many previous paintings had been beautiful landscapes celebrating the natural beauty of America, the inclusion of a Native American person looking solemnly in our direction in a landscape that showcases a huge man made invention that would significantly alter the landscape, might symbolise a possible regret at the completion of such technology.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Police Behind Cola Billboard

This week I have chosen John Clem Clarke's Pop Art image Police Behind Cola Billboard. Pop Art was initially developed in Britain although arguably it was the dominant culture of the United States which made the movement so well known and so popular. Pop art in America and Britain developed differently. In America, it marked a return to hard-edged composition and representational art as a response by artists to defuse the symbolism and ‘painterly looseness’ of Abstract Expressionism. In the US, it was linked to the wealth and prosperity of the post World War II era, and artists of the movement depicted the nation's consumer society and cultural iconography.

John Clem Clarke has worked in New York City since 1964 and his work straddles pop art and appropriation. In his best known work of the 60s Clarke updated scenes from classical art with contemporary figures and settings; he also has previously appropriated exact images, sometimes using reproductions as his source material. John Clem Clarke’s image, entitled Police Behind Cola Billboard, although created in 1995, uses the nostalgic imagery and period cultural icons that Clarke so often employs and that are so characteristic of America and American culture. In the early twentieth century, the Coca-Cola Company ran an advertisement of a beautiful woman drinking a Coke. The copy read; ‘Nothing is so suggestive of Coca-Cola’s own pure deliciousness as the picture of a beautiful, sweet, wholesome, womanly woman.’

Associating itself with ‘an ideal American girl’, Coca-Cola directed its appeal to the public’s social desires and cultural familiarity. Clarke takes this advertising concept one step further and combines the ‘Coca-Cola girl’ billboard with the all American theme of the police car chase. His painting Police Behind Cola Billboard is so film like, that it is possible to wonder what will happen next. If it is possible to almost smell the sweat of the boxers in George Bellows Stag at Sharkey’s, then arguably within Clarkes image one can almost hear the ‘hot rod’s’ engine as it nears the police officers hiding place.

These elements highlight this image as fundamentally American, the worship of the industrial and the mechanical represented by the billboard and the police car, the celebration of consumerism represented by the Coca Cola iconography, and the celebration of travel and social mobility signified by the road, another American icon. Therefore this image, and pop art, are unquestionably American, not just by what they show, but also by what they stands for, and what they represent.

Roy Lichtenstein, 'Drowning Girl' and 'In the Car', (1963)

This week I have chosen to look at Roy Lichtenstein, a leading figure in the American Pop Art movement of the mid-twentieth century. Born in Manhattan in 1923, Lichtenstein's most famous work drew heavy inspiration from comic book panels - artwork that had been heavily condescended by the art world previously (arguably, this has yet to change.) His paintings often present "archetypal images of contemporary America, simultaneously glamorous, mundane, dramatic and impersonal" (1) Lichtenstein's recognisable images often fell into two categories; women (failing love) and war, reflections of his own tumultuous personal life.

Perhaps controversially, in many of his paintings Lichtenstein directly copied his original source material, such as comic book panels and advertisement cartoons. Both his 'Drowning Girl' and 'In the Car' paintings - both completed in 1963 - were images lifted directly from scenes in the comic books (originals: 'Drowning Girl': "Run for Love!", DC Comics, 1962; 'In the Car': "Girl's Romances", unknown year.) In his paintings, Lichtenstein makes minor adjustments - obviously his work is not an identical copy, in that he's redrawn them - such as hair colour, characters' names, framing etc., however he does keep the text in the speech bubbles/balloons identical in almost every image. This copying has led to much criticism of Lichtenstein's work, with many art critics claiming they lack originality, plagiarise others' work and give no credit at all to the original artists.

Here are 'Drowning Girl' and 'In the Car' alongside their original sources (taken from David Barsalou's website, 'Deconstructing Lichtenstein' ):

I've chosen 'Drowning Girl' because it is a great example of the way Lichtenstein made changes to his original source. In the original image, the girl is part of a larger panel, above her on a boat is the comic's hero, 'Mal', calling out to her. In his re-imagining of the panel, Lichtenstein has cropped the image so it frames only the girl surrounded by water - you can see the changes he made to the texture of the waves (influenced and adapted by Lichtenstein's own admission from Hakusai's famous Japanese painting "Great Wave off Kanagawa" - "I saw the resemblance and then I pushed it a little further... I don’t think it’s terribly significant, but it’s a way of crystallizing the style by exaggeration.") Also evident is the alteration of the name in the thought bubble above the girl's head - in the original comic book the hero's name is Mal, a name that Lichtenstein felt was too negative in its connotations, perhaps implying that their love would never had lasted very long. Lichtenstein's change of Mal to the nifty all-American name, 'Brad' would change the panel's slightly, implying that the girl is making a regrettable mistake in not allowing him to save her.

During the exact years that Lichtenstein created his comic book inspired work, he was experiencing turmoil in his own relationship. Seperated from his wife in 1961 and divorced in 1965, Lichtenstein's female subjects are often depicted in moments of distress or unease, a reflection of his anger and emotional state. One of the most telling paintings that highlight this is 'In the Car'. Painted in 1963, 'In the Car' is a copy of a comic panel that differs from the original in colour and perhaps slightly in framing, but most noticeably in the removal of a thought bubble which read "I vowed to myself I would not miss my appointment - That I would no go riding with him - Yet before I knew it..." The painting portrays a handsome couple sharing "a moment of chilly silence" (2) in their car.

Lichtenstein's enlargement of comic books and advertisements in his work "emphasised the banality and emptiness of his motifs as an equivalent to the impersonal, mechanized style of drawing." (3) Arguably this might be read as Lichtenstein's criticism of modern America - his archetypally beautiful American characters, the bold, pop, unrealistic colours of his art, all reflections of the meaningless, phony atmosphere that he saw America as.

Marina Abramovic, "The Artist is Present" (2010)

This week I have chosen a particularly interesting piece taken from a retrospective of Marina Abramovic (b.1946) at MoMA NY. Abramovic is a Serbian artist, but is based in New York and specialises in performance and installation art that typically features herself. her work intends to ask questions about the individuals relationship with the body, with other bodies and their own relationship with themselves.

Her previous works have included pieces entitled "Rhythm 10", "Rhythm 2" and "Rhythm 5" which discusses ideas of rituals and gesture, pain and unconsciousness respectively. Her work is highly sensationalist, for example in "Rhythm 10" she played a traditional knife game, recording herself. After the recording ended she attempted to replicate the previous game, including the previously made mistakes and injuries. The desire was to merge feelings of past and present and the pain of doing so, even though it is necessary.

This particular piece from "The Artist is Present" involves Abramovic sitting immobile at a table in the MoMA's atrium staring at individuals who choose to sit opposite her, for a period of her choosing (it could last between a few minutes to over an hour). Perhaps it is a reflection of her career, a desire to stare at Abramovic and to deconstruct her.

What is particularly interesting is how a photographic portrait was taken of every persons face who sat across from Abramovic being collated into a slide show on the exhibition website. This piece fuses together many medias of art, between performance, installation and photography.

There is a link below leading to the slide show of participants

"Theatre of operations"

Saber is a well renowned urban/street artist from L.A that specializes in graffiti and fine art.

Since his famous graffiti piece done on the banks of the L.A river in 1997 he has gained recognition as a street artist world wide.

Saber is part of MSK(Mad society kings/ main street killers) a famous street art group in Los Angeles, known for their blockbusters, billboard , large pieces and the mark they have made on the graffiti culture over the years.

Sabers goal is ' to prepare the art world for the insurgence of Graffiti art by creating great works with determination and integrity' And many of his works are used as an expression

his feelings about society and politics.

Particularly his American flag pieces ,which he used to express his feeling about Obama's health care reform, that he was supportive of.

However the work of his that I have looked at is a painting he did that expressed his anger about the way graffiti art wok is treated, he said about the painting 'This is a painting I did a while back.It represents the vicious cycle of the creative spirit battling the mundane.Its funny the world is falling in on itself yet this asshole is still going to go out and buff that tag' He clearly shows his anger about this through the colouring that he uses clearly showing creativity while the small man barely noticeable at the bottom of the picture is painting over it in boring, beige color. This painting expresses how a lot of urban artists feel, that their art is not seen as something creative but as vandalism.

He sees the battle street artists face from the authority as a war,clearly seen with the title 'Theatre of operations' expressing anger feels as though it is a battle to be taken seriously they are fighting this war through words through the use of art.His paintings he shows his skill as a painter as well as graffiti artists leaves thought provoking ideas.

He shows the importance of urban art as a respected artform, Asssocited with ganster life and poverty, that most other art is not, reflects a culture often not shown in artists.

As he says about street/urban artists ' we are the ones that ultimatley obsessed with the cityscape, and who have ultimate desire to control on cityscapes '
Heres a link to his website;

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Richard Hamilton, 'Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?'

This collage was created by a British artist, Richard Hamilton, in 1956. Called ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’, it is arguably his most famous and recognisable piece. It was created for the London art exhibition, ‘This Is Tomorrow’, which featured work by a variety of artists who concentrated on the ideas of living spaces and the people that live within them. Rachel Cooke, for The Guardian Online, described the show as “a quasi-anthropological, semi-ironic look at the mass-market imagery of the post-war age.” (1) Hamilton has often been regarded as the ‘father’ of pop-art, although the art genre eventually became most associated with American artists. However, his decision to use images from mostly American magazines for this collage is significant as it suggests that Hamilton believed that the typical 1950s household in Britain was largely influenced by the progressions in America at the same time.

The best way to analyse the individual elements of the collage is to consider Hamilton’s question, which acts as the title for the piece. The collage is made up of all the aspects of 1950s life that supposedly made life so different and so appealing. John MacTaggart has commented that British pop artists of the 1950s…

“…viewed the seductive imagery of American popular culture and its consumerist lifestyle with a romantic sense of irony and a little bit of envy. They saw America as being the land of the free - free from the crippling conventions of a class ridden establishment that could suffocate the culture they envisaged[.]” (2)

Hamilton’s collage does exactly this. Each individual magazine cutting has been included because of the impact it would have on the collage’s overall message. Therefore, every object within the scene holds some significance and makes a statement about American identity. As MacTaggart suggests, Hamilton’s collage depicts American culture as a source of envy and desire. The images included are designed to show an America that Britons would want to see and experience, rather than an America to resent and avoid.

At this point, it is worth analysing particular images within the collage and speculating over their inclusion and representation. While much can be said about every object, one image (for me at least) stands out more than the rest. Considering the date of the collage, the image of the naked woman immediately suggests liberation and scandal. The production of better household appliances made work around the home much easier and, as a result, women in particular began to set aside time for leisure. This image in the collage could be seen as a representation of the growing freedom that women were slowly achieving after the Second World War. This is supported by the image of the woman with the vacuum cleaner, which shows how technological advancements made housework less time consuming.

While MacTaggart’s comments suggest that Hamilton’s collage demonstrates the difference between Britain and America in the 1950s, I think that it could also be argued that the collage suggests that the 50s was the decade when Britain began to undergo ‘Americanisation’. Rather than envying what America had, British households were fascinated by the technological and social advances that were being made overseas. As a result, it was common for British people to imitate the images of America that they saw in magazines and films. Therefore, while the collage features mostly American images and suggests a typical image of an American living space, it could also act as an advertisement to British households who were looking for a new way of living after the Second World War.

Either way, the 1950s saw a change in both Britain and America, with consumerism becoming a key aspect of society and lifestyle. ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ creates a collection of just some of the objects that would eventually define the era.



Graydon Parrish 'The Cycle of Terror & Tragedy: Septmber 11, 2001' (2002-2006)

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Graydon Parrish is a realist painter and uses a unique style of Contemporary Classicism which consists of full-bodied figures, linear draftsmanship, dramatic scenes, high contrast of light and dark and historic connotations. Parrish draws his inspirations from French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David and Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo and adapts this European style with contemporary issues. The use of monumental artworks to memorialise historical events is a time-honoured tradition in European art that derives from the Renaissance period.

Parrish was commissioned by the New Britain American Art Museum to create an allegorical painting in memory of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and a New Britain native Scott O'Brien who died that day. 'The Cycle of Terror & Tragedy: September 11, 2001' is one of the largest oil paintings made in America in the past few years measuring at 6 feet 5 inches by 17 feet 6 inches. According to Parrish, the painting 'represents the endless cycle of human frailty; how we are blind to tragic events, no matter in what form and no matter how many have come before.'

The painting is meant to be read from left to right with both ends connected to represent the 'cycle of life' (Child - Youth - Old Age - Child). The three children on the left represent innocence and are blindfolded in order to maintain their innocence and shield them from the horrors that are around them. This is reasserted by the planes which Parrish states are 'toys not weapons'. The central identical figures screaming represent the Twin Towers which are about to collapse. They too have been blindfolded to enforce the belief that they too are innocent alongside the lack of clothing that could be seen to represent vulnerability. The blindfolds could also be seen to exemplify the fact that America did not see the destruction of September 11, coming. Lying at the feet of the twin towers is a man dying with three naked women on the right mourning symbolising the families who were directly involved in the days events, losing loved ones in the rubble of the towers. One is gripping a cloth which suggests she is mourning for her husband while the other two are holding a candle, remembering and grieving. Corresponding to his European influences, Parrish uses the three exposed mourning women to represent the Three Fates of Greek mythology who are all knowing and tragic. Parrish then moves onto representing the survivors through an old man wrapped in bandages. It is unsure about whether the man, who is gripping onto the young girls blindfold, is trying to protect her by shielding her from what is happening and so trying to erase the events from future memory or exposing her to the death and destruction that has just took place in order to make sure future generations remember the events and those who died.

Graydon Parrish not only depicts the events of that day in a magnificent way, his technique shows that American art still today influenced by certain aspects of European art. By modernising the classical European style with contemporary connotations, Parrish revives this seemingly dying method in an American context.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Week one reposted due to deletion.

This image is evocative of many others of its time, during the 19th Century it was popular for American artists to portray romanticised sybolism of the 'taming' of the West through disected imagry. The train cuts the land in half with the wild untamed grasses in the foreground oppossed to the smooth tamed green of the back ground, and the buffalo being chased off by the disasterous and destructive raging fire of industrialism. This image can be likened to others such as Thomas Coles The View from Mount Holyoke: The Oxbow (1836), and George Catlin Wi-Jun-Jon coming and going from Washington(1844)which all show a form of juxtaposition between the traditional 'wild' West and the industrialised or tamed American West.

Currier and Ives were fond of the romatic sybolism of trains and incorporated them into many of their Lithographs, many with similar symbolism and imagry invoking the difference between civilised and wild. According to the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum's website, during the 19th Century train travel and the 'push to the West' captivated the American peoples imagination and Currier and Ives sought to document 'the beauty of a train as it moved accross our magnificent country'. The use of imagry to document the history of the American west allied with the relative low cost of lithographs and prints provides a valuable source of reference regarding the views and interests of the time and also highlight a shift away from more traditional landscapes to artwork that literally tells a story.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

American Urban Art

This week I have chosen the image Abducted Airstream Googie Sign by Chet Phillips. The Googie style of this image can be argued to be quintessentially recognizable as American. Googie’s, the Los Angeles coffee shop that launched an American architectural and artistic movement is now a fading memory, although its imprint on popular culture can be seen to this day. Googie’s retro-future kitsch provided an unrestrained artistic style, perfected in the 1940s's and ’50's by architects such as John Lautner, Douglas Honnold and Wayne McAllister, which flourished in American cities such as southern California, coastal Florida and Las Vegas, locales that specialised in fantasy and escapism. Whimsical, and arguably absurd restaurants such as Pann’s and the Wich Stand, futuristic bowling alleys, drive-in movie theatres, and roadside fuel stations, motels and burger stands sprang up virtually overnight. The effect was startling. As stated by Los Angeles-based journalist Chris Nichols. ‘New York and Miami had Art Deco, but here in southern California, we really excelled at Googie’.

Googie blurred indoor and outdoor living spaces, and employed a space age persona that embodied the technological hopes and dreams of America during the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Add to this the Disneyland and Hollywood scenes, which were both more comfortable with the fantasy element, and the fact that most Californians weren’t tied to tradition, both architectural and artistic, and the West Coast was a prime breeding ground for the Googie style. Facets of the style have permeated pop culture via iconic imagery such as Holiday Inn signs, and McDonald’s legendary golden arches as well as famous landmarks such as Seattle’s Space Needle. Chet Phillips uses inspiration from Googie architecture to create digital based images for both commercial companies and private buyers, specialising in Googie, Steam Punk, and other unusual American styles.

Phillips lives in Dallas, Texas and began his career as a freelance illustrator in the early 80's. He has created work for advertising agencies, design firms, books, newspapers and magazine publishers and corporate companies. He trained in traditional media and has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and drawing, in 1992 he transitioned to digital media using a 'Digital Scratch Board'. He produces fascinating pieces that ironically en-capture America's fetishism for both nature and technology, often combining the two with somewhat bizarre images of animals wearing clothes or Steam Punk suits, people performing the roles of computer components, and Googie signs illustrating cultural identifying icons such as the selected image Abducted Airstream, which focuses upon America's obsession with aliens and fear of abduction. All of Phillips art possesses a notably urban theme and as mentioned often blends urban and nature together producing a iconographic hybridity that whilst the majority of his images are not of ‘cities’ they can be argued, through their use of technological and industrial iconography, to apply to the theme of the ‘city image’. The streamliner is a particularly technological and in some ways urban artefact as it allows the luxuries of the urban home to be taken anywhere and applies to the machine aesthetic, the worship of the machine and the industrial, and the purity of art within an efficient artefact.

Piet Mondrian "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" (1942-3)

This week I have chosen Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" for the blog. It indicates a departure from his usual pieces, swapping the iconic thick black lines and grids for beads of vibrant and bright colour.

The picture depicts the streets of New York City, the hectic grid system and the rush of colours. Mondrian painted this shortly after arriving in the USA and this image manages to capture ones first impression of the city, as by European standards its pace and speed and scale (reflected in the canvas size of 50in X 50in) is incomprehensible. However, the image does not necessary only depict the aesthetics of the city. Mondrian was fascinated by jazz and in particular Boogie Woogie, and utilised this in his work.

The small pulses of colour on the canvas reflect musical rhythm and its improvisational nature. Mondrian himself said of the work that, it was the "destruction of natural appearance; and construction through continuous opposition of pure means - dynamic rhythm" (MOMA NY). The formal image of New York has now been deconstructed and reconstituted as an embodiment of sound and movement and how that in turn relates back to the urban surroundings.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Joseph Feher, 'United Airlines: San Francisco"

This image of San Francisco is by Joseph Feher, who was best known for his artwork of Hawaii and Hawaiian people. Feher moved from Budapest in Hungary to the US in 1928 when he was twenty years old and began a career in commercial art and portraiture. In the late 1940s, however, he was commissioned by United Airlines to create a series of travel posters depicting different American cities.

I selected this image for analysis because I think the way that it represents a famous city is significant. It could be argued that famous cities are defined by specific places and objects rather than the people within them. In the case of San Francisco, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge and the famous view of the Oakland Bay Bridge with a cable car in the foreground have become synonymous with the city’s name. This latter view is what is depicted in Feher’s poster.

In previous weeks I have analysed images and questioned the notion of ‘reality’. This week, however, Feher’s advertisements should be read as images of fantasy. While this image advertises San Francisco, and therefore intends to attract tourists to the area, the picture also creates a sense of romanticism and desire. The use of bold colours is especially dream-like, which could hint at Feher’s view of the American city. As a European who moved to the US, he epitomises the notion of a person searching for and finding the American dream. Perhaps United Airlines deliberately chose a non-American to depict the key areas of the US because they knew that an outsider’s point of view would create an image that would appeal more to tourists. It is therefore worth speculating over whether a second or third generation American would paint these posters in the same way.

Finally, what happens if you see or describe a famous location without these iconic elements? For example, when I went to San Francisco in September 2010 it was extremely foggy for the entire trip. While the city – and the whole experience – was still fascinating, it did not feel complete because this is what I saw when visiting the Golden Gate Bridge:

Can I legitimately say that I have ‘seen’ San Francisco, without having visited and experienced every aspect of the city that makes it so easily recognisable? This further suggests that cities are defined by their landmarks more than the people that inhabit them. Joseph Feher’s other images for United Airlines support this idea; the image for Southern California, for example, consists of a highly populated city, suburban regions with Latin-American architecture, the coast and the mountains. These are not only what one would expect to see when visiting that region, but are also the aspects of the area that tourists would be most interested in seeing. The same can be said for the poster of San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam)' [1932] - Charles C. Ebbets

Regarded as one of the most famous images of the 20th Century, 'Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam)' is a famous photograph taken by Charles C. Ebbets during construction of the GE Building (30 Rockefeller Plaza) at the Rockefeller Center in New York City on September 29, 1932. Before I begin my analysis I would firstly like to state the difficultly in finding information on both the image and the photographer. At the time, Ebbets photographs were used mainly for articles in newspapers and, like Vincent Van Gogh's work, did not hold any popular culture significance until after his death.

The image shows eleven men sat on a girder on the 69th floor, hundreds of feet above New York City's skyline, eating lunch and comes at a time in which sixteen of the city's eighty-two tallest buildings were constructed. The image is one of many depicting the construction of New York City's skyscrapers but not all, including this image, match the daily lives of the workers who participated in the construction of skyscrapers between 1920 and 1935. The cloud like mist in which the buildings in the background peer from shows the sheer height in which the men are sitting. America has always been a country in which bigger was better and in this case the mist represents the process in which America attempts to reach for the heavens. There is a debate concerning this images authenticity, is it real or is it a photo shop fake? After researching as much information as I could on the image, I believe it to be real but staged. It is believed that Ebbets' photographs were taken in order to denounce the obvious dangers that faced the workers and this image does just that by depicting the workers as happy, chatty and smoking and so at ease with their surroundings. However, there is one gentleman in the image that stands out, the one of the far right. He is not involved with the others discussions and is not smiling. He looks at the camera with a slight fear in his eyes and grasping on to what looks like a bottle of alcohol. Is the alcohol an essential for this worker to pluck up the courage to sit on the edge, hovering above the busy streets hundreds of feet below? The fact is that many workers did fall to their death during the construction of Manhattan's skyline and as a result again shows Ebbet's intention of diminishing the common belief that this task was far too dangerous for those creating the iconic American image. It also emphasises the great lengths many had to go through during the Great Depression as many risked their lives in order to put food on the table and clothe their families.

More on the GE building, its distinctive Art Deco design and its famous murals can be found at:

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Eastman Johnson, ‘The Brown Family’ (1869)

Johnson painted in a variety of styles and genres, but this image demonstrates one of his favourite themes; American domesticity. ‘The Brown Family’ was painted in 1869 and features James and Eliza Brown sat with their grandson in the parlour of their New York home.

I picked this image because I found the painting particularly striking. What most interested me was the fact that the image is not reminiscent of the ‘typical’ or conventional portrait. While the main subjects are obviously the family, the room itself acts as a fourth character. The man and woman, dressed predominantly in black, are dull amidst the vibrant colours of the room’s fabrics. The room, and its objects, tell us a great deal about the family. John Davis suggests that the family “…are as much defined by their relationships to each other as by their relationship to their surroundings.” (1)

While more can be learnt about the people by their clothes and activities, it is interesting that even more information is provided by what they own. The typical American value of consumerism as a defining element to a person’s character is worth noting here. (Consider when we read ‘Sister Carrie’ in year 2 and the notion of a person being defined by what they have, not who they are.)

The most obvious and striking aspect of this portrait is that the family are from a wealthy background. Johnson was criticised when he began to paint a series of similar portraits which all featured well-off New York families in domestic situations but as John Davis argues, these paintings are now commonly thought of as ‘classic Johnson’.

(1) Davis, J., 'Children in the Parlor: Eastman Johnson's "Brown Family" and the Post-Civil War Luxury Interior', p.53

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother - James Whistler (1871)

Known as 'Whistler's Mother', Martha Tedeschi stated that alongside paintings such as Wood's 'American Gothic' (see week 1) Whistler's portrait of his mother has, 'achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer and successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.' Like American Gothic, Whistler's mother is looking away from the audience and is dressed in Victorian clothing. This, along with the date, gives the impression that James Whistler is still highly influenced by European art. This image was not well received in England due to its lack of flamboyancy and colour, its description of being 'anti-Victorian simplicity and so creates a feeling of mourning within the image. What I found interesting was that this image is rarely displayed in the United States, only displayed in special exhibitions now and again. Most importantly, this painting was used as an image of national and even worldwide pride on postage stamps during the Great Depression in order to 'thank the mothers of America' in 1939. It has also been parodied heavily in greeting cards, magazine, and by cartoon characters such as Donald Duck.

Kennedy Portrait 1962

The image that I have selected is a portrait of John F Kennedy painted by William Franklin Draper. Based on an oil sketch for which Kennedy posed in 1962, this portrait underscores the youthful vitality that was such an important part of Kennedy's charisma. It, like the many photographs taken by Cecil Stoughton hides the fact that his health was never as robust as it seemed, Kennedy being plagued by recurring ailments including back difficulties that were the source of frequent and severe pain.

This is a perfect example of the issues of accuracy and recognition within portraits. Whilst the image is an excellent likeness of Kennedy, it is arguably not an accurate representation of him as is focuses purely upon the positives of the man. Although, as Kennedy is sitting in the picture it is possible to argue that there is limited scope to show his ailments yet the fact that he is sitting and not standing can be read as significant.

A more representative form of the control of the vocabulary of the pose would be to associate Drapers portrait to Cecil William Stoughton's behind-the-scene pictures of John, Jacqueline and their children in their public and personal life. These were pivotal in shaping the public's view of the U.S.’s first family. His primary role was to capture iconic relatable images which would both endear and empower the President to the American people highlighting his youth and vibrancy whilst hiding his chronic and recurring heath issues such as the afore mentioned crippling back pain.

The success of this campaign is represented by the main source of grief over Kennedy's death being the loss of the eloquence and idealism that he had brought to his presidency and that made him, in the eyes of many, the embodiment of this country's finest aspirations. This applies these images of Kennedy to the issues of reading of the national history and social and historical illumination through portraiture and art. As all the images were commissioned they were closely and carefully controlled to present exactly the image that they were meant to be it natural or as in the case of Kennedy’s images fake hiding Kennedy’s faults and failings and portraying him as the embodiment of wholesome America.

Robert Altman "You" (1967)

This week I have decided to select an image by Robert Altman from his collection of images taken during the "Summer of Love" in 1967. Altman was originally from New york and had previously been trained by Ansel Adams, yet moved to San Francisco and began a career as a photojournalist becoming the chief staff photographer for Rolling Stone magazine.

Whereas traditional formal art forms such as fine art existed as an icon and signifier of personal wealth and aristocracy, it is photojournalism and photographic portraiture that seeks to uncover and reclaim a sense of "truth" in the artistic community.

I believe that Altman's images manage to capture a balance between the purposes of photographic portraiture, he certainly intends to capture a sense of reality and documentary - however it retains an aesthetic appeal. For example in the above image "You", Altman was taking a picture of two people at the summer of love (the initial intention of documentary), yet the image's composition with the young girl being bathed in light versus the older man's darkness certainly entertains aestheticism.

Furthermore the individuals who are the subject of the image act passively to the camera with indifference - they do not relish in the significance of having their picture taken, as opposed to the laboured subject of a portrait.

I believe that the use of photography is of great importance to art, in that when cultural phenomenons such as the "Hippie" movement surfaced there was an immediate ability to capture its highly stylised cultural memory, allowing the photographer to immerse themselves and absorb its importance. Altman even said "my camera became my passport" - a way of transcending through the social barriers of pretension associated with artists. The camera is informal and unobtrusive and ultimately more personable than painting, it captures and immortalises a moment - rather than the arguably warped and licenced realm of fine arts and portraiture.

Portraits. Miss Amelia Van Buren, Thomas Eakins(1891)

Miss Amelia Van Buren, Thomas Eakins ( 1891)

I chose this portrait by Thomas Eakins because I am interested in how women are portrayed and it was different to the other female portraits which show an often romanticised and unrealistic portrayal of the women in the portraits.

The woman in the Portrait was Amelia Van Buren ,who was one of Thomas Eakins art students and who was considered one of his most gifted students. Although a successful artist she became far more interested in photography, something that is thought to have stemmed from Eakings who himself had used photography extensively in his own artwork.

And she turned from painting to concentrate fully on working as a photographer.

It is believed she chose photography over painting as a more challenging art form but also because she would then be offered a better chance as being recognised as a female photographer than a female painter. It shows here then how gender roles and expectations played a significant part in the art world.

Eakins wanted to show Burens mental complexity and this is clearly shown with her looking thoughtfully into the light, her hand supporting her head. She was later diagnosed with Neurasthenia( An illness associated with fatigue,anxeity,headaches and depression)in 1886 she wrote to Eakins saying 'I have last discovered that the trouble with me is in my head it is exhausted by worry or something or other' And this can be clearly shown in this portrait with her greying pulled back and a strained look on her face. She is meant to be in her mid twenties yet looks far older most likely because of the worry and exhaustion she carried.

Eakins wanted to highlight her complex character and successfully does this by focusing is attention on her face and hands, her hands look tense yet relaxed and this was deliberately shown to represent her as a person.

I personally find this portrait far more interesting than other female portraits of the time as it shows a complexity to the subject that many others don't. By moving away from the romanticised, classic ideal, Eakins offers a fresh perspective of the female subject used.And that is why I chose it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alex MacLean

I haven chosen this 'landscape' photograph by Alan MacLean for its stark representation of the taming of the American wilderness. America is famous for its frontier mantality and desire to tame that frontier. Interestingly when the fromtier was ofically declared closed at the end of the 19th Century, America had to find new frontiers to tame. One of those frontiers became nature. Las Vegas Nevada is built inside a natural basin which is full to capacity, as illustrated within the picture that is not enough to hinder Americas drive for progress and the basin walls are now being cut and levelled to provide more room for more identical houses that in the current climate no one can afford to buy.
This image is a simple and posseses no trick photography as used by photographers such as James Gibson and Alexander Gardner who manipulated their photagraph of the civil war to provide greater effect, nor does it intentionally hide elements to provide a false image such as leaving a car park out of a nature shot. What this image does is highlight a realism of American culture in a stark and honest way. Alex MacLean has been described as being 'like batman with a camera.
Except he flies around and takes photos instead of saving people.' The meaning in this likening is that he, like fellow environmental photographer Richard Misrach, uses photagraphs to highlight issues within America and American culture. Another interesting picture taken by MacLean shows a desert storage fascility full of expensive millitary bombers, approxemately fifty eight are visible with signs of many more existing out of shot, mothballed wing tip to wing tip. these images highlight Americas culture of excess and by highlighting metaphors in the land, signify the apparent issues with the potential unmaking of America through continuing and unsustanable growth.

Alex Webb, "Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to the United States" (1979)

This week I have decided to discuss the importance of the role of photography in American art. Whilst a painting or sculpture has the ability to capture a spectators attention in terms of aesthetics it cannot necessarily be viewed as being real. An artist has a certain level of artistic licence, utilising the ability to pick and choose and alter certain aspects of an image to communicate a specific reading.

However this is not the same for photography, as by creating photographs as an art form a sense of "truth" becomes evident, in that rather than replicating a reality through a learned skill such as painting, an individual is capturing an image that was an actual occurrence (and it is a process that can be replicated by anyone). And as such photography has earned a respect as an art form in America as it reflects the virtues of American life, an existence saturated in a popular and mass culture, whilst retaining the ability to capture the majesty of the American landscape and the ever present frontier.

One particular aspect of the American landscape that has always fascinated me is the US-Mexico border - an area of utter transience that is surrounded in myth and mystification. I feel that Webb's work manages to execute a combination of representig the beauty of the American landscape, whilst paying explicit attention to social issues that face the nation.

In this particular image a group of Mexican immigrants have been apprehended whilst attempting to cross into the USA. I believe that it encapsulates the collision between the "Artificial" - The prescence of man-made machinery such as helicopters and weapons, and the "Natural" - the landscape. The use of such bright and vivid colour also gives the impression that the incident pictured is almost dreamlike and fictional, perhaps reflecting how the American population believe the struggle of Latino immigrants to be that of fiction and an unreal issue in society.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

John Gast 's ‘American Progress’ (1872)

John Gast's 'American Progress' represents the American people quest of their of the Manifest Destiny and ultimately the American dream. Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States has the right to expand and spread freedom and spread Christianity westwards.

The central focus of the painting is the angel like woman who is leading the way along the Oregon trail which is represented by the wagons. The right of the picture represents the industrialised East with steamships and cities which indicate civilisation whereas the darkness of the left represents the wilderness in which the people sought to conquer. The native Americans, bears and buffalo flee from the Americans as they are pushed back as these 'civilised' people take over a great part of North America.

This landscape painting was used as propaganda to encourage people to go West in search of a new and enriched life. It also seeks to persuade the public that their actions in regards to the Native Americans were right as they would either settle somewhere else or be enlightened and convert to Christianity and therefore be saved. This leads to the question of whether the American people should be proud of this painting as it not only depicts them moving West and conquering the wilderness and the native people but the beginning of their imperialist mission in the name of freedom and democracy.

Joe Deal, ‘Indian Bingo’ (1974) (or 1983?)

‘Indian Bingo’ by Joe Deal features part of the Morongo Reservation in California. The New York Times describes Deal as “a photographer who broke with the romantic tradition of Ansel Adams to document, with scientific detachment, a Western landscape reshaped by human hands.” (1) ‘Indian Bingo’ is a prime example of this alternative representation of the American landscape.

The Washington University newsroom also comments on Deal’s works, saying that:

“Rather than celebrate a sublime landscape ostensibly untouched by human intervention, Deal focused on the tensions between the built environment and nature, often choosing sites and views that conventionally were considered not worth capturing with a camera[.]” (2)

Looking at Deal’s work, I think these comments are accurate. His landscapes do not have the majestic quality that is found in many 18th/19th century paintings, in which the frontier and the taming of the wilderness were celebrated. At first glance, many of his photographs are rather non-descript, often lacking objects of interest in the foreground which would create depth and detail. However, Deal was one of a group of photographers who were part of the ‘New Topographic Movement’. This movement concentrated on creating photographic images that presented American landscapes less romantically and more ‘realistically’. (This term is used very loosely and will be challenged later on.) Rather than celebrating the beauty of America, these images concentrated on critiquing the human impact on nature. (3)

It is difficult to find accurate information about when ‘Indian Bingo’ was taken. Although several sources date the image to 1974, which would be consistent with the time that Deal’s work was featured in the Topographics exhibitions, the Indian bingo halls were not built in this area until 1983. Today, the Morongo reservation has developed into one of the largest casino and spa resorts in the US, which covers over 35,000 acres of land and cost over $250 million. However, in spite of this obvious sign of consumerism, the Morongo Indians still strive to remember their roots, and to educate others about it too, as is demonstrated on their web site. This information, and the photograph itself, shows how Native Americans struggle to survive in modern society while still preserving their heritage and history. (4)

The most striking aspect of the photograph is how man-made objects overlap and conceal the natural landscape in the picture. The overheard power lines, the ‘Indian Bingo’ sign and the buildings behind all suggest a disregard for the natural environment. This in and of itself is a puzzling notion when associated with the Native Americans, who are known for their love and respect for the land they live on.

Therefore, this photograph does not only demonstrate how humans have impacted on the natural landscape of America. It also represents the Native Indians’ struggle to be recognised and appreciated within their own country. The only way that they can be noticed, and survive financially, is to conform to the traditional white American values of consumerism. To preserve their heritage they have to in fact go against their beliefs. The fact that the information about their heritage is on the Internet, for example, is very telling of the balance between traditional values and modern technology that the Morongo Indians must endure.

When asked to describe his photography, Deal likened his images to the work of a survey photographer. By imagining a grid when composing a shot, Deal’s approach to photography has become regarded as precise and scientific. His images often have an almost clinical feel to them, which contrasts greatly with the richness of landscape photography by others such as Ansel Adams. (5)

This grid-like composition can also be related to the idea of the rule of thirds, which is a popular way of framing images in photography and other forms of art in which the image can be split into three distinct sections. Following this rule is believed to make images more aesthetically pleasing. With ‘Indian Bingo’, however, the division of the sky, background and foreground instead emphasises just how imposing man-made objects have become. The barbed wire in the foreground indicates that the ground is no longer lush and safe to walk on. The mountains are blocked from view by the sign which promises greed and gambling and the sky is obscured by the overhead cables. All this reiterates the idea of human products encroaching on nature

As a result of this, and the photograph being a closed-in shot, a sense of claustrophobia is created. Rather than America’s landscapes being a place of freedom and vast beauty, Deal’s views represents the landscape as if it is shrinking and being swallowed up by man-made objects.

Finally, many argue that photography presents a far more realistic image than a painting or drawing ever could. A photograph of a landscape, compared to a painting of the same area, may look incredibly different. Traditionally, it is thought that landscape paintings create a sense of romanticism, a nostalgic and positive view of America. Photography, in contrast, was believed to reveal the truth about a particular piece of land. In the same way that early cinema is often regarded as realist, photography is often seen as a reliable and accurate source of visual information.

However, this is rarely the truth. As has already been mentioned, ‘Indian Bingo’ has been carefully composed in order to create the most visual impact possible. The image is constructed and therefore does not represent a true image of that landscape but rather an impression or interpretation. While it can be argued that Deal’s photography is more ‘realistic’ than the romantic landscape paintings, it should not be forgotten that every image – painting or photograph – is a construction which has been created based on the artist’s perspective and opinions.

In conclusion, Deal’s work was part of the new Topographic movement, which rejected the traditional landscape images of such photographers as Ansel Adams. Instead, Deal’s photographs aimed to show the American landscape affected by man-made objects in order to demonstrate how the natural beauty of the land is slowly being destroyed. ‘Indian Bingo’, however, could also be read as a critique of the treatment of Native Americans, and how they struggle to maintain their heritage while also making a living in a society that has become obsessed with consumerism.






Thursday, May 12, 2011

Diane Arbus, ‘King and Queen of the Senior Citizen Dance’ (1970)

This photograph features two senior citizens after they were crowned king and queen of a dance in New York city. The man and woman did not know each other, and their facial expressions evoke a sense of discomfort and unhappiness.

Diane Arbus struggled with depression throughout her life, and committed suicide in 1971. Her personal struggles are carried over into her photographs, which often show people at their most vulnerable. It has also been suggested that she had a fascination with outsiders and figures that struggled to fit in with society’s mainstream ideals. Blogger user ‘anythingofinterest’ comments that “[a]ll her photos have a sort of disturbing/unsettling quality to them. She had an uncanny knack for managing to capture people just as they allowed their masks to slip for a moment.” (1)

This comment raises questions, however, about how any photograph should be viewed. The famous phrase, “the camera never lies”, is itself a falsehood. The moment that light is exposed to a film a singular moment in time is captured. Viewed out of context, any photograph can be misread, therefore producing a variety of meanings which may be far from the photographer’s intentions. For example, the man and woman may have been smiling moments earlier. Rather than “allowing their masks to slip”, Arbus may have waited until the man and woman’s facial expressions changed in order to create a far more provocative image.

In spite of this, the photograph should still be read and analysed in the context in which it has been presented to us. ‘King and Queen of the Senior Citizen Dance’ features a man and woman who appear unhappy with their circumstances. There is a stiffness to their poses which suggests discomfort and the space between them emphasises the awkward situation. Most interesting of all, however, is the age of the man and woman, and how their clothing does not fit in with the era in which the photograph was taken. In particular, the woman’s glasses and shoes are reminiscent of the fashion of the 1950s. The man, similarly, could easily be dressed for two decades earlier. The photograph could therefore be a critique of the representation of senior citizens in America. Chosen as king and queen of their dance, and then dressed in regalia, the photograph imitates the traditional ‘prom king and queen’ found at American high school dances. They were not voted in, however, but rather had their names selected at random. The attempt at an imitation of their youth, and the evident unhappiness it has caused, suggests that there is no room for the older generation in 1970s society. While the woman still dresses as she did twenty years ago, American society is advancing and senior citizens are being left behind.

Finally, a museum guard, who Jesse Kornbluth discussed Arbus’ work with, had the following to say about the photography:

“[A]s I spent more time with the pictures, I saw what she was getting at. I got that these people were beautiful. That Arbus loved them. That she in no way exploited them. These pictures celebrate the freak in all of us." (2)

The rather cynical reading of the photograph I have made may then be ignoring an important element of Arbus’ photographs. Her troubled life is evident, and is reflected in the despondent expressions on the senior citizens’ faces. Her emphasis on the unusual and the outsider could also be read as a cynical representation of the ‘true American’, one who is unaccepted within society because they do not conform to the American ideal. However, as the guard’s comments suggest, her photography also reminds us all that no one is ‘normal’, and that these irregularities and eccentricities should be celebrated, not shunned.

(1), 1st April 2005


Thomas Cole's 'The Oxbow', 1836

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, landscape paintings were very popular, especially as urban and industrial areas began to invade the rural, and many American people reminisced and sought out the stunning natural scenery the country had to offer. Thomas Cole, an English-born American artist, founded the Hudson River School art movement in the mid-nineteenth century – a movement known for its realistic and detailed depiction of American scenery and wilderness, and took advantage of the American taste for native scenery, to create the beautiful landscape painting ‘The Oxbow’ (1836). Titled in full as 'View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow', Cole's painting is laden with symbolism. The ordered and peaceful land at the left of the painting - a clear representation of the settled areas of rural America - juxtaposed by the dramatic storm clouds and dark, untamed wilderness at the right might be read as the future potential of the American landscape as a pastoral settlement and the perceived notion of order over chaos (order being the control man has over the landscape, chaos the uncontrolled wilderness.)

According to the website Picturing America, “On the hillside beyond the oxbow, Cole left a hidden message: the word Noah is roughly incised in Hebrew letters, a code that read upside down spells out Shaddai, the Almighty. Is Cole suggesting that the landscape be read as a holy text that reveals the word of God? If so, wouldn’t any human intrusion be a sacrilege? On the other hand, the artist’s careful division of the landscape implies that civilization drives out the danger and chaos inherent in the natural world. Perhaps the painting itself embodies Cole’s ambivalence.” The painting here is ambiguous in its message.

Cole himself is visible in the painting (the small figure in the center, atop the mountain looking over the idyllic scene – sketching materials at hand) a few yards away from a red and white striped umbrella firmly jutting out of the ground, pointing toward the other side of the river. The umbrella here might symbolise a flag, with Cole having planted it to claim the wilderness as American territory; perhaps, as the threatening storm clouds above the wilderness suggest, Cole recognised that the wilderness was a threat to civilisation that should be dealt with – however the painting could also be read as an admiration of the natural landscape and how civilisation is encroaching upon it (note the number of small fires in the settled areas, and what looks like a blasted apart tree trunk on the right.) Cole's painting is a perfect example of the conflicting ideals and landscapes of America in the nineteenth century, as many other artists showed in their work.