Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 16,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other works on paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection: exhibitions, class visits, monthly Student Picks exhibitions, as well as research on and personal encounters with individual artworks. Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Student Picks is a SCMA program in which Smith students organize their own one-day art show using our collection of works on paper. This month’s student curator and guest blogger Khadejeh Al-Rijleh '16 discusses her show “Lo! Medieval Muslim and Christian Art” which will be on view THIS FRIDAY, March 7 from 12-4 PM in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. We hope to see you here!
Unknown. Missal Page, ca. 1285. Simple leaf on vellum. Purchased. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1951:295
Choosing the theme for my Students Picks show was not difficult. I knew that I wanted my show to have the coolest objects in the collection. The coolest objects are the oldest ones. And many of the oldest works on paper in the Cunningham Center are, unsurprisingly, religious manuscripts.
Iranian (Persian). Joseph Bathing in the Nile, late 16th-early 17th century. Opaque water base colors and gold on paper with gold border. Gift of Mrs. Evan M. Wilson (Leila Fosburgh, class of 1934). Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 1990:2-26
My favorite thing about religious art is that it is not art for art’s sake. I decided to feature religious texts and photographs of buildings because unlike other artistic mediums such as drawings or paintings, their primary function is something other than being awe-inspiring and compelling to look at. Rather, their purpose is practical – in this case the manuscripts are sources of knowledge and the mosques and churches in the photographs are sites for religious affairs.
Detail of Joseph Bathing in the Nile
Thanks to Maggie and the Cunningham Center for making this show possible. Thank you also to the unnamed artists, artisans, scribes, workers, and all who made the beautiful manuscripts and buildings in the photographs.
Underwood & Underwood. The prayer-niche (S.E. toward Mecca), tomb-mosque of Kait Bey, Cairo, Egypt, no date. Stereograph. Bequest of Henry Latimer Seaver. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2011:26-151
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Agnes Martin. American, born Canada, 1912-2004. Untitled from the On a Clear Day portfolio, 1973. Screenprint in gray on cream-colored Japanese rag paper. Purchased with the Josephine A. Stein, class of 1927, Fund in honor of the class of 1927. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2013:16
“My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work which is also wordless and silent.”
– Agnes Martin, The Still and Silent in Art
The enigmatic Canadian-born American artist Agnes Martin spent her long life and career purging her mind and art of all conceptual thoughts, living and working by inspiration alone in the pursuit of beauty and purity. Her paintings, drawings, and prints are most often square-shaped with subtle stripes of white, gray, cream, or light colors arranged horizontally, vertically, or in a grid formation. Martin was part of the Abstract Expressionist generation, yet her work was adopted by the young Minimalists of the 1960s who admired her seemingly objective approach to art-making. While she exhibited alongside the likes of such artists as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, she fundamentally disagreed with the Minimalists’ impersonal attitude toward their work. Contrary to their rigorously objective and unfeeling approach, Martin recognized that while nothing in nature (artwork included) could be perfect, her work could evoke the feeling of “transcendental perfection” and exaltation.
In 1967, amidst a wave of recent critical and commercial success, Agnes Martin suddenly left New York City, where she had been living for ten years. She traveled throughout Canada and western America for about a year and a half before putting down her roots in New Mexico, where she built a house by hand and lived in almost complete isolation for the next six years, in which time she made no art whatsoever. At the end of this artistic hiatus in 1973, Martin produced On a Clear Day, an epic series of thirty 12” x 12” screenprints which explore different grid configurations, a common motif in her work. The following year, Martin built a studio and returned to painting.
The SCMA recently acquired one of these remarkable prints, which are often considered to be Martin’s most successful attempt at eliminating all presence of the ego from her art. Martin’s relationship to spirituality and religion was rather complicated. In her writings on art and life, it is clear that she drew inspiration from Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, yet she never adhered to any particular belief system exclusively. In the tradition of Zen Buddhist practices, Martin strove for a non-egoic existence and artistic practice in which she emptied her mind to reveal deep-seated inspiration: “You have to wait if you’re going to be inspired. You have to clear out your mind, to have a quiet and empty mind.”
Martin’s artistic practice was contemplative and solitary, which is reflected beautifully in On a Clear Day. The clarity mentioned in the title can easily be interpreted as clarity in the natural world as well as in the mind of the artist. The understated neutral palette and near-perfect lines evoke the sensation of boundless space. “My [artworks] have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of this simple, direct going into a field of vision as you could cross and empty beach to look at the ocean.”
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Holly Trostle Brigham, American (1965 - ) Persephone: Rebirth of Spring, 1995. Watercolor on paper. Gift of Elizabeth and Neil Swinton in honor of Julia Meech, class of 1963. Photography by Petegorsky/Gipe. SC 2010:45
Holly Trostle Brigham (Smith College class of ’88) explores her own identity through the solitary female figure, and during the 1990s focused on women through the lens of ancient mythology. The Museum owns one work from her, a watercolor titled Persephone: Rebirth of Spring.
The title alludes to the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, the young daughter of the goddess Demeter. In most versions of the story, Persephone was picking flowers in a field when Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped her. He brought her down into the underworld and forced her to stay. Distraught and confused, Demeter went searching for her lost daughter, and neglected her divine duties as the goddess of fertility and agriculture. Crops began to fail worldwide, and humanity starved. Still, one god had seen the kidnapping: Helios, the sun. When he saw what was happening to the Earth, he finally told Demeter what had happened, and where her daughter had been taken.
Demeter forced Hades to return her daughter. By then, though, Persephone had made a crucial mistake. During the months she was trapped underground, the girl had tasted the food of the underworld, some pomegranate seeds. As a result, she was obliged to stay with Hades forever. Enraged, Demeter appealed to her brother Zeus, who created a compromise. Persephone would spend a third of the year with Hades, one month for each seed she had consumed, and Demeter could allow the crops to die during that time. The rest of the year she was free to be with her mother.
The myth is an etiological explanation for the cycle of fertility around the Mediterranean, a way to illuminate the change of the seasons. The return of Persephone from the underworld brought spring and fertility back to the world.
It is this moment that Holly Trostle Brigham illustrates in Persephone: Rebirth of Spring. Without the title, it would be nearly impossible to identify the work. Usually, artists depict Persephone with a pomegranate to indicate who she is, but this Persephone doesn’t have any props. She’s even naked – stripped of all clothes, she could from any culture or time period (although the red lipstick does look modern to me).
Detail of Persephone: Rebirth of Spring
Instead of making the woman a clear Persephone, Trostle Brigham created a lush scene that embodies the feeling of the Persephone myth. Behind the women is a cascade of blooming flowers. On some level, the artist is making a visual parallel between the fertility of nature and of the human body.
Still, the figure's direct gaze makes one pause. There's something in her eyes that makes it difficult to imagine her as the passive subject of a fight between Hades and Demeter, despite her vulnerable nudity. In its own way, the work is both a distillation of the Persephone myth down to its core elements, and a challenge of it, no pomegranate needed.