“However the image enters / its force remains within / my eyes”: A Juneteenth meditation

Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995 (reverse, detail). MOCRA collection.

Juneteenth is on the consciousness of more Americans than ever before. Like the vast majority of white Americans, I didn’t really know much about Juneteenth (or New Year’s Eve Watch Night observances) beyond the fact that they celebrate the end of slavery in America. The reality was much more complicated, as first the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed slaves in states that had seceded (which was only made effective in Texas with the arrival of Union troops in Galveston Island on June 19, 1865), and then the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in all U.S. states and territories when it was ratified on December 6, 1865.

The National Archives recently located the original handwritten record of General Order No. 3, issued by U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865.

The present-day stark disparities in health, employment, and wealth between Black and white Americans remind us that slavery may have ended, but racial discrimination, violence, and injustice remain deeply and insidiously rooted in contemporary society. Musical artist Usher wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday would be a small gesture compared with the greater social needs of black people in America. But it can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.”

While reading and reflecting this week on Juneteenth, a work of art by the late Frederick J. Brown (1945–2012) in the MOCRA collection kept coming to mind. Brown was one of America’s finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical, and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. In 1991 he told Eve M. Ferguson, “I think my heritage has a great significance to the images I produce, but you can limit people with a name or a title to only serve one group. When you see my work, you can tell it is done by someone who is Black. But, I want to provide as many beautiful things to the world as I possibly can.” (“Art Sings the Blues,” The Washington Afro-American, October 26, 1991)

Frederick J. Brown at MOCRA, December 1995.

Read a 2012 remembrance of Frederick J. Brown by MOCRA Founding Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J.

In 1992, Brown offered to execute a large, multi-paneled altarpiece for the soon-to-open MOCRA. The resulting Life of Christ Altarpiece was completed in 1995 and is comprised of a central triptych (BaptismDescent from the Cross, and Resurrection) and two side panels (Madonna and Child and Descent into Hell, which in the original the were placed at a 90° angle to the triptych). Through strong brushwork and brilliant coloration, Brown created a moving visual theological reflection on the life of Christ.

Frederick J. Brown, The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

The work that has been on my mind is the final panel, Brown’s reflection on a subject rarely seen in modern western art—the Descent into Hell. Traditional depictions of this episode (more often seen in the art of the Eastern Churches) typically show the risen Christ astride the gates of the netherworld, now dashed asunder, as he draws the souls of Adam and Eve and matriarchs and patriarchs from death’s clutches.

14th-century Anastasis fresco in the Chora Church, Istanbul. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Brown’s version is distinguished by a return to the style of Abstract Expressionism that he used in the 1970s, the style which won the attention of the artist Willem de Kooning, who became an important mentor and friend for Brown.

Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

The title of Brown’s version suggests we are in a moment before Christ’s triumph. There is no clear sense of scale, and the removal of figural elements heightens the sense of vast, even limitless despair. This is a descent into a hell with personal resonances, a deeply felt understanding of what it is to look into the abyss and be overwhelmed by the various struggles of life. (Brown intimated that this panel resulted from a dark moment in his own life.)

And yet there is such energy in this work! If it is a descent, it is the descent of the Tunguska meteorite smashing into the earth with a force that could level a city (or indeed, crack the gates of hell). But to me it also looks like an eruption, the energy of life unleashed and spirits triumphantly ascending. Death and life, despair and hope, held together in a single, infinite moment.

Now this energy speaks to me of the forces unleashed following the heartless killing of George Floyd. The pain, cruelty, and lack of human compassion compressed into eight minutes and forty-six seconds exploded, propelling protests and demonstrations—and darker moments of violence and looting. It is an unbridled energy, like the jets of paint that intertwine and race past each other on the canvas, with a momentum that has yet to expend itself (and, I hope, will not flag until substantial transformations of society are achieved).

Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece (detail), 1994–1995. MOCRA collection.
Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece (detail), 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

If we let our focus shift behind the bright skeins and spumes, we begin to notice deep purples, blue-blacks, blacks tinged with yellow—the colors of bruising, of throbbing and tenderness, the evidence of trauma. Saturating the canvas, this background is both illumined by and indelibly linked to the energy of the foreground: Not unlike the deep pain of generations of unjust, accumulated and accustomed, but insufficiently acknowledged.

We might also notice the raw canvas at the upper corners and along the left side. These areas have caught some overspray, but they are largely blank, fresh pages offering the possibility of writing a different story.

One of the perks of working in an art museum is the opportunity to see works from perspectives not visible to the general public. In the case of Descent into Hell, seeing the reverse of the work is discovering another work of art.

I usually get the impression of an image from the Hubble Telescope of unbridled cosmic energies swept along in currents or gathering in whorls and eddies. But today I’m also seeing a roiling vortex sucking us down deep into cold waters, away from the light beckoning at the surface. And my imagination takes me to the horrors of the Middle Passage, to the dead and half-dead tossed overboard and consigned to oblivion.

As noted above, when first displayed, the Mother and Child panel faced the Descent into Hell.

Frederick J. Brown, Mother and Child from The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

The hallmark piece of the work, Madonna and Child has an iconic and a monumental feel. Brown builds on the long tradition of this subject, but makes it clearly a work of the late twentieth century. Read in the context of Descent into Hell, the vaguely melancholy child Christ seems to sense his destiny. But the Madonna towers over us, her face bearing the influences of African, Egyptian, Byzantine, and Oceanic art. At first she seems severe, but then we notice that her closed eyelids are pronounced and glistening, as if she is tearing up in anticipation of her son’s trials to come.

Today, this interaction of mother and son reminds me of “the talk” that Black parents must have with their sons. As explained by filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir and Blair Foster:

For generations, parents of black boys across the United States have rehearsed, dreaded and postponed “The Conversation.” But when their boys become teenagers, parents must choose whether or not to expose their sons to what it means to be a black man here. To keep him safe, they may have to tell the child they love that he risks being targeted by the police, simply because of the color of his skin. How should parents impart this information, while maintaining their child’s pride and sense of self? How does one teach a child to face dangerous racism and ask him to emerge unscathed?

This Op-Doc video is our attempt to explore this quandary, by listening to a variety of parents and the different ways they handle these sensitive discussions. In bringing about more public awareness that these conversations exist, we hope that someday they won’t be necessary.

Out of the nearly three-hundred graduating seniors in my 1990 Jesuit high school class, three were Black. I’ve been thinking about Melvin and Charles and Kevin, about how limited my conversations with them were and how little I knew about their lives—about my own obliviousness. And yet, in the fragments of conversation I can recall, I glimpse the multiple worlds they were inhabiting, the outsize burdens they were carrying. I can guess now at “the talks” they received from their parents and elders.

The title of this post comes from the Audre Lorde poem “Afterimages,” a searing meditation on the murder of Emmett Till and its impact on Lorde’s psyche: “His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year / when I walked through a northern summer / my eyes averted / from each corner’s photographies . . . ”

I think about my young niece and wonder what afterimages of this summer she will carry with her into adulthood. She has seen boarded up businesses in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood, but also the many messages and artworks that adorn them. She has walked by her father’s side at a peaceful demonstration alongside people of many races and all ages. She gives me great hope.

Descent into Hell reminds me also of that crescendo in grand fireworks displays when rocket trails on rocket, a riotous cacophony accompanying coruscating light. The afterimages persist well after the sparks wink out. This seems like a fitting metaphor on this Juneteenth of 2020. Today’s celebrations remind us that, even as we confront painful memories and mourn significant loss, we can harness our creative energies to live our way into a better future. As the juxtapositions of Frederick Brown’s Life of Christ Altarpiece suggest, sometimes that may require a powerful eruption that remakes the world; at other times we need a moment of quiet embrace and contemplation.

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

Remembering Christo

Christo, the great international environmental installation artist, passed away on May 31, 2020, at the age of 84. I had the good fortune of knowing him and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. They were impressive, generous people who viewed themselves as soulmates because they were both born in the same year (1935) and on the same day (June 13), Christo in Bulgaria and Jeanne-Claude in Casablanca.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude.MARKUS WAECHTER/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK Source: ARTnews.com

I first learned of their work in the early 1980s while I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California at Berkeley. I was taking a course on modern and contemporary sculpture taught by the late Dr. Peter Selz, and found myself particularly fascinated by two of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s projects that Peter presented to the class: Valley Curtain (1970–1972) and Running Fence (1972–1976). 

Typical of Christo’s works, these two works were monumental in size. The saffron-colored Valley Curtain was 1,250 feet wide and 365 feet high. The Smithsonian Institution called Running Fence (24.5 miles long and 18 feet high) the “single most important work of art in the latter half of the twentieth century,” and it was the first work of art that required an environmental impact statement. Peter was the project director of Running Fence, and he worked closely with Christo and Jeanne Claude. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–1976. Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © 1976 Christo.

Peter became one of my dissertation advisors and I had the privilege of working with him closely. In early 1988 Peter announced his retirement from Cal-Berkeley, and the university announced plans for a special program for him on April 18 featuring artists, colleagues, and students with whom Peter worked. I was invited to give a presentation at the conference. The participants read papers that focused on Peter as curator, museum director, scholar, and professor, but I wanted to do something different. 

At the time I was the curator of exhibitions at the Graduate Theological Union (a theological consortium located one block north of the Cal-Berkeley campus), and knowing of Peter’s role in Running Fence, I hit on the idea of mounting an exhibition in the GTU’s Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the correspondence, designs, and legal issues involved in realizing the work. I obtained copies of the written correspondence between Christo and the property owners in Marin and Sonoma counties, as well as some of the key legal documents. I also displayed over fifty photographs of legal hearings and the construction process. With Peter’s help, I was able to borrow original drawings of the proposed work, including a major piece owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

The response was excellent as visitors filled the exhibition area of the Library on the April 15 opening night. Best of all, Christo and Jeanne-Claude flew from New York to attend the GTU reception and to participate in the Peter Selz tributes on the Cal-Berkeley campus. During the months-long process of planning the exhibition, I had many long-distance phone conversations with Jeanne-Claude, but I had never spoken with Christo until they arrived in Berkeley (Jeanne-Claude would run interference for Christo, managing all the business details while he focused on the creative process.) I was nervous about meeting them, but they were both pleased to be in attendance and they were charming guests. Accompanying them was Jeanne-Claude’s mother, the Countess de Guillebon. 

While planning their trip, Jeanne-Claude called me from New York to find out if there would be a post-opening dinner. I said yes, and that I planned on about six people for dinner at a fine East Bay Italian restaurant. That was not acceptable to Jeanne-Claude, who said that she and Christo could not possibly come to Berkeley without thanking the many people who helped them with Running Fence: I should plan for about thirty people at the dinner. I nearly panicked; this would be well beyond what my tight budget could support. I admitted this to Jeanne-Claude, who quickly reassured me. “Mon Pere,” she said, “I have a solution. You pay for your guests, and Christo and I will pay for our guests.” With this equitable and face-saving arrangement, I ended up paying for my six guests, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude paid for their twenty-four. 

At the restaurant, Jeanne-Claude asked if any of the guests spoke French. Several did, and she asked one of them to sit next to her mother, who did not speak English. Jeanne-Claude also noticed one young couple sitting by themselves, and she quickly did some furniture arranging so that the couple was included in the event. I was witnessing firsthand how important Jeanne-Claude was in her partnership with Christo. The food was delicious, the conversations were animated, and both Christo and Peter made remarks to the dinner guests.

The program for Peter took place the next day, April 16. Christo was among the participants seated on stage, and I sat next to Jeanne-Claude in one of the front rows of the auditorium. During the program, noticing my fatigue, she leaned over and, in a soft voice, said to me, “Mon Pere, just think how happy you will be tomorrow.” Startled, I asked her why I would be happy, and with a twinkle in her eye, she said, “Because we will be gone.”

Indeed, Jeanne-Claude, her mother, and Christo departed the next day. But two years later, I encountered them at a cocktail party held for them in New York, and they immediately came over to say hello to me. That was the last time I saw them.

Although I had curated an exhibition of one of Christo’s most famous works, I didn’t experience any of his works in person until February 2005, when The Gates opened to the public in New York’s Central Park. I told my good friend, artist Tobi Kahn, that I planned to come to New York to see the The Gates, scheduled to open on February 12. Tobi knew that February 10 would be my sixtieth birthday, and he and his wife Nessa prepared a wonderful birthday celebration for me. Two days later, I joined the throngs of people to walk through the 7,503 gates that comprised the installation, each approximately eleven feet wide and sixteen feet high. It was a beautiful mild winter day, with recently fallen snow resting on the tree branches, grass, and park benches and architecture. It was a breathtaking and peace-filled experience, as the saffron color nylon fabric panels hanging from the tops of the frames dramatically contrasted with the monochromatic winter landscape of Central Park. The colors of The Gates, reflected in the melted snow on the asphalt walkways, gave me the sensation of walking on liquid saffron. Although I did not walk the full twenty-three miles length of the installation, I did walk about eight miles; I can’t think of a more magnificent birthday experience.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude truly were a remarkable couple. Their environmental sculptures may have been temporary, but those works were so imaginative and impressive that they remained in our memories long after the works were taken down. Truly, these were artists who helped to change how we see the world.

Terrence Dempsey, S.J.
Founding Director Emeritus, MOCRA

“Let go of certainty and grab hold of creativity.”

Those are the words of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, welcoming me and other “attendees” last week to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) virtual conference. The theme of “Radical Reimagining” seemed prescient in a moment when Americans are called to radically reimagine social structures, policies, and priorities.

Some people have been doing the risky work of challenging the status quo for years, rooted in painful personal experience. Some have given lip-service to the idea of reform, but have not felt the urgency to act. And some actively oppose any change to a system that, to them, seems to work just fine. I occupy that middle group, as a white cisgender male who has benefitted from systems of housing, education, and employment that favor folks who look like me. I am thankful that my privilege included a Jesuit education that cultivated critical reflective skills and emphasized the call to be women and men for others. But the murder of George Floyd and everything that has followed since, have made clear to me that my complacency and acts of omission far outweigh the actions I have taken to work for change.

There’s a yawning gap between letting go of certainty and grabbing hold of creativity—like a trapeze act working with no safety net—but it’s time to launch into that void.

For at least two decades, diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) have sounded a steady drumbeat in the museum field. Progress has been halting and uneven, from tentative steps like gearing exhibitions toward underserved communities, to more equitable relationships where museums involve those communities in decision-making. Museums are confronting difficult questions about their roots in, and role in perpetuating, the injustices of colonialism and racism. They must examine the makeup of their boards, the sources of their income, and inequities in their staffing and compensation.

MOCRA is a relatively young museum, but even so, we must undergo this same self-evaluation. Thus, we respectfully acknowledge that our building sits on the traditional, ancestral lands of the Osage Nation. The process of knowing and acknowledging the land we stand on is a way of honoring and expressing gratitude for the ancestral Osage people who were on this land before us.

In 2016 the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province, and Saint Louis University created the Slavery History, Memory, and Reconciliation Committee, which shed light on the fact that SLU’s early Jesuit leaders brought six enslaved men and women from Maryland to St. Louis in 1823; eventually the Jesuits owned as many as thirty-five to forty slaves. We acknowledge that we, too, have benefitted from the forced labor of those men and women. 

Looking over MOCRA’s collection, exhibitions, and programs, I can point to times when we brought to the fore Black artists and artists from other marginalized identities, or confronted difficult and painful issues directly tied to America’s racist history. I also humbly admit, on my own part and the museum’s, to moments of presumption, naïveté, and missed opportunities to affirm that Black lives matter. 

Museums can no longer look away from their history of complicity in racist and white supremacist structures. Yet Lonnie Bunch (14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture) reminded us during an AAM keynote address that museums are a glue in our communities. At their best, museums highlight our common humanity, provide a space for healing, and help us envision a better future. Bunch exhorted us not to retreat from the uncertainties of the present moment, but to commit to the work of justice and equity.

On behalf of MOCRA, I join with my colleagues at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art and Samuel Cupples House, in affirming that the Museums and Galleries of Saint Louis University stand together with the SLU community in stark opposition to the systemic racism and structures in our society that oppress Black people and other people of marginalized identities. We must bring hateful rhetoric and dehumanizing violence to an end. Solidarity and community mean that we never have to face such evil alone. With a firm belief in the capacity for art to articulate grief, fear, and anger, to inspire empathy, compassion, and solidarity, we pledge our support and join with those working for justice and equity in our community. MOCRA’s mission prompts us in a particular way to bring to the fore, through art, the ways in which the religious and spiritual dimensions can be transformative positive forces, while never being blind to the ways religion can be twisted and perverted to sustain unjust structures and beliefs. 

Thank you for taking the time to read these thoughts, which I share as a way of holding myself accountable, and asking you to help hold MOCRA and me to account. I am aware that they may resonate with some people, provoke anger in others, and fall short of the mark for yet others. I welcome your responses, thoughts, and suggestions. You can e-mail me at david [dot] brinker [at] slu [dot] edu, or leave a message through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

May you and yours remain safe and healthy amid the ongoing pandemic, as we travel together through this uncertain terrain, seeking a better future.

David Brinker
MOCRA Director

What we see, and what we don’t

“What’s going on in this picture?”

This is a question that kicks off the practice of Visual Thinking Strategies, a method of critical observation of art that helps to develop analytical and communication skills and visual literacy. It is followed up with a second question, What do you see that makes you say that? and then, a third: What else can we find in this picture?

An artwork from the MOCRA collection has been on my mind this past week, and especially this weekend as protests have blossomed across America. It’s titled Crucifixion of Dountes and was made in 1988. I invite you to take a look at it with those VTS questions in mind. (What might not be apparent seeing it on a screen is that the work is on black velvet, which creates a deep impenetrable ground for the figure drawn on it in colored pastels. The figure is slightly larger than life size.)

So . . . What’s going on in this picture?

Eleanor Dickinson, Crucifixion of Dountes, 1988. Pastel on black velvet. MOCRA collection, a gift of Dr. Mark W. Dickinson, Katherine V. G. Dickinson, and Peter S. Dickinson.
Eleanor Dickinson, Crucifixion of Dountes, 1988. Pastel on black velvet. MOCRA collection, a gift of Dr. Mark W. Dickinson, Katherine V. G. Dickinson, and Peter S. Dickinson.

For many years, MOCRA’s didactic materials have explained how this work is from a series called “Crucifixion” by the late Eleanor Dickinson (1931–2017). She drew on her upbringing in the Baptist church, her familiarity with communities in rural Appalachia, and her ability to identify and engage with people who somehow identified with Jesus hung on the Cross.

In the commentary we note that art on black velvet is often dismissed as “kitsch,” and trace the work’s dramatic contrasts of dark and light to the Baroque tradition and the school of Caravaggio. We point out the simultaneous vulnerability and elevation of the figure. (We also marvel at Eleanor’s ability to draw feet.)

Eventually we draw attention to the lack of nails or a wound in the side, to the facial features, and to the hair, whose dreadlocks casual viewers might mistake for a crown of thorns. And that leads us to a discussion about the subject of the portrait, a fellow named Dountes Diggs from Oakland.

Twenty-some years after this work was made, Eleanor ran into Dountes again and he agreed to model for another portrait (I wish we had an image of that work). She asked him about his religious  beliefs and he told her:

I’m very spiritual—though I stopped going to church at seven years old.
My Grandmother told me there was good and bad in each heart.
I chose to be good.
Life is hard: you do the best you can.
Grandmother worked in the cotton fields in Louisiana in the ‘30s;
they moved to California later for better opportunities.
They were all Methodists.
I’m very spiritual—just who I am.
I’m comfortable with that.

Take a moment and look at the work again. What’s going in the picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What else can we find?

“What do you see that makes you say that?”

A few years ago, a Saint Louis University undergraduate theology class was visiting MOCRA and we were talking about this work. As usual, I didn’t tell them anything about the work before we began looking at it. What did they see?

They saw a black/brown body. They saw it in agony, suffering and punished unjustly. They saw “hands up, don’t shoot.”

This was a couple of years after Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown. After the deaths of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner. A few years after protestors with the Occupy SLU movement had encamped around the nearby campus Clock Tower, not far from MOCRA’s entrance. 

The students had been studying the work of James Cone and other Black liberation theologians. Through those writings and experiences, the students’ eyes were opened. And through their eyes, my eyes were opened to Eleanor’s work in a whole new way. 


“What else can we find in this picture?”

As the news unfolds following the senseless murder of George Floyd, I find myself asking, What’s going on in these images? Or more fundamentally, What do I see? What do I see in the videos of a cop kneeling on a man’s neck minute after excruciating minute? What do I see in social media posts of large crowds gathered to speak up for justice? What do I see in news footage of looting and clashes between protestors and police? What do I see/hear when politicians and civic leaders speak or Tweet about what is happening?

What am I not seeing? What am I blind to?

And then I have to face the harder question: Now that I have seen, what am I going to do about it?

Art cannot answer these questions, but it can help raise them, frame, them, focus our reflection, and inspire us to respond. Dountes told Eleanor, “My Grandmother told me there was good and bad in each heart. I chose to be good. Life is hard: you do the best you can.”

What are we going to choose? What is the best we can do?

David Brinker
MOCRA Director

More than just numbers

Yesterday the U.S. officially marked 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. The clinical detachment of that number masks a staggering loss of individual lives, a cutting short of vibrant stories. It has also encouraged a conversation about communal grieving and acts of memorial, asking how our present moment is like, and unlike, previous collective experiences of loss from war, terrorism, and illness.

We at MOCRA don’t pretend to have any great insights, but we do believe in the capacity for art to carry us past the limitations of speech in articulating our grief, fear, confusion, and anger, to remind us of the power of empathy, compassion, and solidarity. This can be especially true of art that emerges from an engagement with the spiritual and religious dimensions: art rooted in the fertile soil of wisdom found in the world’s faith traditions, or shaped by the discipline of ritual, spiritual, or artistic practices; art that taps into a treasury of images and themes that speak across time, geography, and culture.

Juan González, Don’t Mourn, Consecrate, 1987. Installation at Grey Art Gallery.
Juan González, Don’t Mourn, Consecrate, 1987. Installation at Grey Art Gallery.

Don’t Mourn, Consecrate, by Juan González (1942–1993), was likely the first work of public art to deal with AIDS when it was displayed in the street-front windows of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University in 1987. Quoting Hans Holbein’s sixteenth-century painting ”The Dead Christ in the Tomb,” González invites us to confront the frailty and vulnerability of our bodies. Then, as now gathering clouds evoke the looming, still unfolding impacts of a deadly virus.

In its original installation, the work was accompanied by a scroll on which the cumulative tally of AIDS deaths was updated weekly. Photos from 1987 show the numbers growing by tens and hundreds. When MOCRA displayed the work in 2009, the numbers were growing annually by the millions.

Juan González, Don’t Mourn, Consecrate, 1987. Photo-collage with mixed media. MOCRA collection. Installation at MOCRA, 2009. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.
Juan González, Don’t Mourn, Consecrate, 1987. Photo-collage with mixed media. MOCRA collection. Installation at MOCRA, 2009. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

González was no stranger to the ravages of AIDS, and ultimately died from complications related to the disease. Yet his artwork might encourage us to transmute our present mourning into something more profound, to consecrate our losses by recognizing the humanity behind each one of those 100,000 deaths, then rededicating ourselves to compassionate and tangible care for our fellow humans, to solidarity and community beyond partisan or national divides.

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

“Con-Texts” for reflection

As I write this post, we in St. Louis are moving into our ninth week of stay-at-home orders, while beginning a transition to limited reopening. Whatever our personal experiences have been during this time, we all likely have plenty we’re trying to process and make sense of.

Community artist Con Christeson (featured in Episode 24 of the MOCRA Voices podcast) has been posting weekly prompts for reflection in the window of her Red Chair Studio in south St. Louis. With her permission, we’ve been sharing them with MOCRA’s social media followers. Even though Con has framed these questions for this strange and disruptive moment, I think you’ll find they are ones that could stimulate our imagination any day.

Enjoy this compendium of the first five weeks of “Con-Text” reflection prompts.

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

Week 1

NOT afraid of __________

BECAUSE of __________ .

Week 2

I had to let go of __________ for now . . .

I have noticed that I can __________ for the time being.

Week 3

Today, I __________ because I __________ .

Today, I __________ because you __________ .

Today, I __________ because we __________ .

Today, we __________ , and, because of that, we __________ . 

Week 4

How do you __________ ?   
[take a shower] [make the bed] [shop for groceries] . . . 

  •  Where does it happen?
  •  What do you see/smell/taste/touch?
  •  Who is with you? Who is not?
  •  When it’s over, what’s next?

How do you tell a story?   
[Draw it.] [Collage it.] [Sing it.] [Dance it.] . . . 

Week 5

Lots of reasons I didn’t do my work today.
Reason #1 __________ .

Lots of things to worry about.
Reason #3 is __________ . 

Lots of things to wonder about.
Reason #6 is __________ . 

Remembering Thomas Sokolowski

Thomas Sokolowski

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Thomas Sokolowski on May 4, 2020. Tom was an important presence in the American art world:  Curator and then Director at the Chrysler Museum of Art In Norfolk, Virginia in the early 1980s; Director of the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center at New York University, 1984–1996; Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, 1996–2010; and Director of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University from 2017 until his untimely death. Where many museum directors are guarded and reserved, Tom took chances and was exceptionally generous in helping others who were just cutting their teeth in the museum world. I am one of the people who experienced Tom’s warm support.

Our paths intersected several times over the years. Each time, my life was enriched and I was redirected on an exciting new trajectory. In the 1980s, I was undertaking doctoral studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. I was researching the emerging phenomenon of contemporary American artists addressing the spiritual and religious dimensions in their art. My former student, sculptor Michael MacLeod, introduced me to Tom in 1985. Michael knew that Tom also had an interest in this topic, expressed in his group exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery, Precious: An American Cottage Industry of the Eighties.

In the summer of 1985, Tom generously opened the door for me to meet some of the artists in the show whose explorations of the spiritual and religious dimensions were not satirical or ironic. He literally opened his door to me—he was under the weather and invited me to come to his apartment near Washington Square. He was gracious and witty, and gave me contact information for ten New York artists who he thought would be good candidates for my dissertation research. By the time my research was completed, I had located over 100 artists across the country who were addressing the religious and spiritual dimensions in their art, but it was Tom who opened that all-important first door.

I completed my dissertation in 1990 and joined the art history faculty at Saint Louis University that fall. Within two years, I had secured support from the University to transform a former Jesuit chapel into MOCRA, the world’s first museum of contemporary art addressing the religious and spiritual dimensions. When MOCRA opened in February 1993, the inaugural exhibition, Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, included a number of the artists Tom had referred me to.

In addition to his recommendations for Sanctuaries, Tom played an important role in two key exhibitions that brought MOCRA national attention and had a deep effect on audiences. In 1994, I curated the group exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS, bringing together work by twenty-eight artists representing the broad spectrum of the visual arts community. I turned to Tom, one of the four founders of Visual AIDS, for advice, and again he provided invaluable recommendations. He also graciously came to MOCRA to deliver a well-attended lecture on “The Changing Face of AIDS.”

From left: Tom Sokolowski, Patrick O’Connell, and Jimmy Morrow wear Visual AIDS’ Day Without Art t-shirts featuring artwork by Barbara Kruger, 1994. Source: Visual AIDS.

Tom also played an indispensable role in MOCRA’s most popular exhibition to date, Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds. I attended an event at the Andy Warhol Museum in the late 1990s and experienced in person the Silver Clouds, large, pillow-shaped silver mylar balloons that drift through the gallery. I was enchanted. I approached Tom, who by then was Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, to ask if we might display the Clouds in MOCRA. He was dubious, concerned that MOCRA’s large nave gallery space would be too big. I assured him that we could make it work. He put his trust in me, and he made all the arrangements to make the exhibition possible at MOCRA.

Living St. Louis visited the Silver Clouds at MOCRA.

At that time (in 2001), it was the largest installation of the Silver Clouds anywhere, and it proved so appealing to visitors that we presented it again in 2002 and 2006. Anecdotes of this exhibition are numerous, but my favorite memory is something an older man said to me as we watched his 5-year-old grandson reveling in the Clouds: “Look at my grandson. Look at his smile. This is his first experience of an art museum, and it will be a joyous memory that he will take with him the rest of his life. Thank you for bringing this exhibition here.”  And I thank Tom for making that memory and many others possible. 

I shall miss this fine man. He was sassy and irreverent, a person of great imagination, and a generous colleague. He had vision that enabled him to see the possible, however improbable. I retired from Saint Louis University and from MOCRA last June. Tom sent a note of congratulations, characteristically witty but heartfelt. I quote part of his message here, by way of offering his sentiments back to him:

Who would have thought that after our first meeting in the Summer of 1985 we would become colleagues and friends for lo over some thirty-four years! Rarely does one have the pleasure of intellectual maturation of like minds while, concomitantly, physical decrepitude sets in for both of us. Oh, for when we were both young and beautiful. As the ancient Greeks would have put it to be kalos kagathos (to be handsome and well-thought of). The imagination and zeal that you have put into various projects throughout the years have been amazing. . . . You proved again and again, spirituality and modern art were not binaries. . . . Remember, we first met over my eighties show Precious, and you are definitively one precious man. I am so proud and thankful that you are my friend.

Tom Sokolowski made a profound difference in my life and, by extension, in the lives of thousands of visitors to MOCRA since 1993. Thank you, dear friend. You broadened my life and my imagination in being able to see what is possible.

Terrence Dempsey, S.J.
Founding Director Emeritus, MOCRA

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Dan Ramirez reflects on “Caelestis Praesepe”

The work of Dan Ramirez has been displayed at MOCRA since our inaugural exhibition in 1993. His work is a visual embodiment of paired values held in tension, such as solidity and ethereality, structure and improvisation, presence and absence. His painting Caelestis Praesepe (which may be translated “Celestial Manger”), from the Celestial City series, is included in MOCRA’s current (but presently inaccessible) exhibition, Surface to Source.

We asked Dan how this work speaks to him in the present moment, and he graciously offered this reflection:

Faith-driven gestures come in many forms. Sometimes by intention and sometimes as a consequence of circumstances that reveal themselves later. As I reflect on my painting, Caelestis Praesepe, I am beginning to appreciate that many of the questions I have struggled with over the years regarding my faith as a Roman Catholic may very well be manifested in how I processed what inspired me to create such a work. 

Like most of us who look back and reflect on things that we’ve experienced in the past we often struggle with recapturing what may have been, after all memory does not always serve us with a literal and/or accurate rendering of the past. What we can do, however, is bring to the present viewing of an older work new experiences from the intervening years.

As a former musician, I still resonate with the inexplicable demand on feeling and intuition that music encompasses. And it still feeds and nurtures much of my consciousness and much of my art. Sometimes overtly, sometimes obliquely. With Caelestis Praesepe, I recall a similar resonance and confidence with each sharp-edged stroke, each wash of luminosity, the scribing of the arched architectural vaulting systems meant to metaphorize Gothic cathedrals, and the celestial blue pigments that wander in space. So when I reflect on a complete rendering of some of those feelings two essential things come to mind: the inspiration of the music of Olivier Messiaen, the French classical composer of religious music, and two of his compositions: the symphonic Celestial City and a suite of twenty piano pieces entitled Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (“Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus”). 

Caelestis Praesepe embraces both of these inspirational pieces simultaneously. The English translation of the Latin title is “Celestial Manger.” And the music from which the inspiration for using the Christ-child’s manger as subject was “Contemplation of The Prophets, the Shepherds, and the Magi,” the sixteenth contemplation from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. The overall visual structure for the theme, both the trapezoidal-shape and the interior interplay with light, line, and space was inspired by Gothic architecture, the implied metaphor throughout Messiaen’s symphonic Celestial City; and the choice of blue pigment with its historical association with the Celestial.

[Ed: Ramirez made a series of prints based on Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. They were displayed at MOCRA in 2004.]

Daniel Ramirez, XVI: Contemplation of the Prophets, the Shepherds, and the Magi (Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages), 1981. Etching, aquatint and embossing. Collection of the Smart Museum of Art/The University of Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist.

But ultimately, words cannot convey the experience that unfolded over time on its own. There were numerous surprises and nuanced moments of reflection that found its place in the painting. Instead, I invite you to listen to what caught my attention back in 1982 and eventually manifested itself as the painting, Caelestis Praesepe: the sixteenth Contemplation from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, “The Prophets, the Shepherds, and the Magi.”  I offer you, too, an invitation to explore further all the marvelous and incredibly beautiful and sublime music of the composer of religious music, Olivier Messiaen. 

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Salma Arastu reflects on “Healing Prayer”

MOCRA is home to two works by artist Salma Arastu. Our current (but inaccessible) exhibition, Surface to Source, includes her 2014 painting Healing Prayer.

We asked Salma what the work might have to say in this present moment, and she graciously offered this reflection:

“This painting is based on a beautiful verse from Al Quran (27:62) that is very reassuring and consoling for a distressed soul:

<Or, Who listens to the (soul) distressed when it calls on Him, and Who relieves its suffering, and makes you (mankind) inheritors of the earth? (Can there be another) god besides God? Little it is that ye heed!>  (Yusuf Ali translation)

“Generally Muslims all over the world memorize it and read it three times if anyone is sick in the family or community as they believe it removes all illness and heals the body. But some translations bring out that it is not only the illness of body but this verse has power to remove all evil from mind and soul too.  

“In Healing Prayer I used the first part of the verse, which is normally used for healing purpose, but I have quoted the complete verse here as it has many dimensions for the present situation of the world. We are feeling oppressed and lost as we face the greatest calamity of our times. We are seeing death and illness all around us. Unemployment and hunger are increasing. This disaster has come suddenly and is big in terms of magnitude. 

“So let’s pray together and ask for His forgiveness and Mercy, and He will remove the evil. I feel this is an awakening call to all human beings about our ill-treatment of Nature Supreme. We should take care of this earth as He has entrusted us. God has the power to remove the affliction and He responds to distressed souls—that is the blessing from Him. But let’s promise Him that when we are out from this crisis we will continue to live with humility and great respect for nature.

“The last line of the Surah again jolts us: Let’s reflect on how small and fragile we are! The novel coronavirus has brought the whole of humanity to its knees gasping for air. This is the World War III of the 21st Century. Our enemy is invisible, attacking us from front and back, left and right. We cannot use our top-of-the-line weapons, technical Intelligence, or diplomacy. We have to surrender to the Almighty.”

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Jon Cournoyer reflects on “Dios da y Dios quita”

Once of MOCRA’s significant early exhibitions was Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS. The importance of that show is reflected in the presence in the MOCRA collection of a number of powerful works addressing AIDS. One of these, Dios da y Dios quita, by St. Louis-based artist Jon Cournoyer, is on display in our current (but inaccessible) exhibition, Surface to Source.

Jon Cournoyer, Dios da y Dios quita, 1997. Cibachrome. MOCRA collection.
Jon Cournoyer, Dios da y Dios quita, 1997. Cibachrome. MOCRA collection.

We asked Jon what the work might have to say in this present moment. He graciously offered this reflection:

“Observing the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis in San Francisco during the early 1980s was the impetus for a decade-long series of photographs exploring fear, pain, grief, anger and ultimately hope. 

“This photographic series was created using multiple  negatives of photographs I shot at El Santuario de Chimayo, a church in Chimayo, New Mexico. The process I used was to slice, manipulate, and reassemble multiple negatives before developing a final image.  

“From the 1980s through the end of the 20th century I would make pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo. Founded in 1816, this church is one of the places where I found solace. I felt magic there. I felt the healing properties that exist within the soil. I took several friends there and smeared the sacred dirt on the foreheads in hopes that the healing properties of the soil and the blood of Christ would bring about a new life for them.

“It is odd timing that the work is being exhibited now. Much of what I felt during those days is similar to what I have been feeling for the past several weeks.

“Regardless of what causes unsettling time, the power of creativity is unleashed and is the antithesis of despair.  

“Magic, faith, spirituality, and unity can be discovered when we strip ourselves of our differences. Then, we can collectively move forward with a better understanding and compassion for humanity.”