MOCRA’s showing of Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah in Spring 2012 proved to be a highly popular exhibition, one that elicited deep appreciation for Granot’s technical virtuosity and sense of design, as well as his skillful manner of reinterpreting a classic religious text for a contemporary audience. One of our disappointments was that we could not arrange to bring Archie to MOCRA during the run of the exhibition.
Fortunately, in early May MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, and I had the opportunity to sit down with collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned The Papercut Haggadah) in the studios of WFUV (90.7 FM) at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. Archie joined us on the phone from his home in Jerusalem. For the next hour or so we enjoyed a wide ranging conversation covering topics such as how Archie was drawn to the art of papercutting, how the commission came about, the special considerations engaged in creating an artwork based on a sacred text, and continuity and innovation in the Jewish tradition. The rapport between Archie and Max was evident from the get-go, and their exchanges open a window on the fascinating process of collaboration between artist and patron.
The remembrances offered by Fred’s family, friends and colleagues (including Stanley Crouch, Lowery Stokes Sims,* Stephen Rosenberg, and Sherry Bronfman) made manifest a man who was deeply immersed in his heart, but not in a way that isolated him from others. Rather, his art expressed his full and passionate engagement with the people in his life and the movements and events of his time. His daughter Sebastienne shared a note she found in one of his sketchbooks, addressed to those he loved:
When you know I love you, my heart is full, and I love myself. Just to see a smile is enough to keep me afloat in the great sea of life, and I give it back as often as possible. You are my main source and reason to do great things, and to become as complete a human being as I am capable of being. Just remember that I love you.
The vitality of Fred’s life was celebrated in another way through the musical offerings of outstanding jazz musicians including Henry Threadgill and David Virelles, Oliver Lake, and Amina Claudine Myers. Jazz music and the artists who create it were a perennial subject in Fred’s art and an integral part of his life.
Trinity Church has made a video of the service available on its website for a limited time. I encourage you to set aside some time to watch this tribute to an outstanding artist and human being. Watch the video here.
— Terrence E. Dempsey, SJ, Director
* Lowery Stokes Sims was unable to attend the service. Her remembrance was read by Jean-Claude Samuel.
We at MOCRA were saddened to receive word that painter Frederick J. Brown passed away on May 5, 2012. The MOCRA staff extend our condolences to Fred’s wife Megan and his children Sebastienne and Bentley.
Born in 1945, 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 fact, the connection between music and painting was a constant in Brown’s life and art. He called music “the catalyst for much of what I do” and frequently worked on a portrait while listening to the subject’s music. In a 2005 interview (cited in this remembrance by Judd Tully), Brown spoke about the vibrant New York cultural scene in the 1970s:
. . . you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing. . . . Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth.
Its vitality energized one of Christianity’s most frequently depicted subjects, with the top frame barely able to contain the rising Christ figure who bears the physical signs of his crucifixion. And I couldn’t ignore the bewildered man at the bottom of the canvas who stared out at me trying to understand what he is witnessing. With his eye contact he drew me as a viewer into this powerful event.
Since I was just beginning my doctoral dissertation research at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley on the topic of the renewed interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions in contemporary American art, I knew that I had to meet this artist. Nearly a year passed before I was able to get together with Fred in his New York studio in SoHo. Surrounded by canvases in various stages of completion with recordings of the jazz music he so loved playing in the background at full volume, Fred was totally at home in this element. He was surrounded by his depictions of great jazz musicians and visual artists, a large painting of John Henry and a compelling portrait of Sitting Bull, a small but powerful painting of a young Maori warrior, images of the overlooked members of our society, and portrayals of Jesus, David and Goliath, and Moses. (Several of Fred’s paintings can be viewed on his website.) All of them harnessed the energy that he found in bringing together the visual and aural arts, as well as the sacred and profane. Perhaps I should retract the word “profane” because all of his subjects were sacred to him, and every painting revealed the respect that Brown had for his subjects.
Fred and his work became an important part of my dissertation, and in 1989 I also had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of his works in the gallery areas of the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the Graduate Theological Union. Upon completing my Ph.D. work in 1990, I began teaching art history at Saint Louis University. The opportunity arose to realize my desire to create the world’s first museum of interfaith contemporary art—what was to become MOCRA—and I knew that I wanted Fred to be a part of that museum. Owing to our lean budget, I had in mind simply borrowing works, but Fred offered to paint a multi-paneled work that would become a permanent part of MOCRA’s collection.
MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., will give a lecture tomorrow evening, March 16, at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in New York City. The lecture, titled “The Crucifixion in Art History,” begins at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
Drawing on the work of over 25 artists from the fifth century to the present day, Fr. Dempsey will give a slide-illustrated lecture on the origins of Crucifixion images and how those images have evolved in various cultures over the centuries.
St. Ignatius Loyola Church is located at 980 Park Avenue (at 84th St.), New York, NY 10028. For more information, call 212-288-3588 or click here.
Since circumstances prevented James Rosen from visiting St. Louis during the exhibition, we are going to record a conversation between Rosen and MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., this coming week of February 20, 2011. If all goes well, we plan to make the conversation available through our website. We already have a number of questions we want to ask Rosen, but we would like to include one or more questions from our audience.
If you have a question you would like to ask James Rosen about his work, please e-mail it to us, post it on our Facebook wall, or call us at 314-977-7170. Please make your question as specific as possible, and include your first name and last initial, as well as your location. Questions must be received by Thursday morning, February 24.
We cannot guarantee that all questions will be used in the interview, but will include as many as we can. We are excited to be adding a new dimension of artist interaction to our programming, and hope you will consider participating in this experiment.
Artist Tobi Kahn, who has a long association with MOCRA (including the exhibitions Metamorphoses and Avoda: Objects of the Spirit) , was featured in a recent New York Times article on the role art can play in the dying process. (Read the article here.) As he relates in the article, Kahn found that through his artwork he was able to provide a measure of solace to his mother as she lay in the hospital during her final days. From that experience, Kahn was inspired to consult with clergy members, hospice workers and funeral directors about what qualities in art would be comforting to people who are dying.
MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., was interviewed for the New York Times article. He remarks, “One of the common bonds across traditions is the human concern with suffering, love, mortality, immortality. The role of religious art at the end of life is that it helps us focus on what’s really important–an interior healing, even if there is no physical healing, and finally a sense of gratitude.”
I am struck, though, that Kahn is creating art for this privileged point in people’s lives with a measure of intentionality. While many (if not most) health care facilities select art that will be soothing to its patients, and even commission specific works of art and even sculpture gardens or meditation rooms, I wonder how often that art is considered from the perspective of those who know that death is near, that there is no further physical healing to be expected. How can art contribute to palliative care? How can it complement the services of chaplains and hospice workers in accompanying people as they approach the end of life?
Samuel Freedman, the author of the article, suggests that Kahn’s works “subscribe at least loosely to the Judaic concept of ‘hiddur mitzvah,’ sanctifying something (a commandment, if one is literal) by beautifying it.” Amidst all the trappings of current American healthcare–cutting edge technology, powerful pharmaceuticals, agonizing contention over how to pay for treatments–can all parties in their own ways help to beautify, and thereby sanctify, the process of dying?
Curating an exhibition involves many decisions, major and minor, no matter what the work or the venue. MOCRA’s space presents particular challenges but also some intriguing possibilities. Allow me to share a few notes from the planning and installation of our current exhibition, James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer.
In this case, we had a superabundance of materials from which to choose, as MOCRA has on long-term loan or in its collection a significant body of works by Rosen. The majority are works on paper, including numerous sketches and studies. With nary a false note in the mix, we sought to identify a modest number that would demonstrate succinctly the qualities of Rosen’s work we wanted to highlight: the confidence and fluidity of his line in drawings, the subtlety of his watercolors and gouaches, his analysis of old master works for composition and form, and the occasional wry, playful image amidst more “serious” work.
Beyond the works on paper, we selected from a number of paintings, some quite intimate in scale, one an 8-foot tall canvas. Early on we made a decision to draw primarily on works in our collection or on long-term loan, to be supplemented by a few select works borrowed from collectors or other institutions. This decision helped frame the exhibition, not as a comprehensive retrospective, but as a generous survey of Rosen’s six-decade career.
A natural approach to this material would be a chronological presentation, but here we ran up against the challenges of MOCRA’s configuration, with its twelve intimate side chapel galleries and soaring nave gallery (see these earlier posts for some discussion of repurposing a 1950s chapel as a museum space). Smaller works are best served by the side chapels, and of necessity the large works have to be placed in the nave gallery. Furthermore, visitors may begin by heading down the south side aisle, or find themselves drawn into the nave gallery, so although we can try to encourage a particular pathway, we can’t ensure that visitors will travel the way we want them to.
We did an initial layout of the smaller works along chronological lines, but soon saw that we wouldn’t be able to carry that approach through consistently. Instead, we began to think in terms of theme or subject matter, with chronology and medium as secondary criteria. With this approach, things quickly began to shape up in the side chapels along the categories of Figuration and Portraiture; Architecture; and, Landscape and Abstraction. The limitations of space helped us further refine the selection of works, and the introduction of wall cases for the unframed works helped to anchor the arrangement of framed works.
Meanwhile, we had the larger works to consider. From early on, MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., knew that he wanted to present six “Saints” paintingsl from Rosen’s two-year sojourn in Ferrara, Italy, together in one half of the nave gallery, along with the monumental Homage to Guido da Siena: La Maestà. His hope was to create a meditative space that would invite visitors to slow down and experience the subtle luminosity of Rosen’s work, to allow the work time to reveal itself. A generous number of chairs reinforces this invitation.
The other half of the gallery would display the Homage to the Isenheim Altarpieceand the Homage to the Pietà d’Avignon. Unfortunately, that left one large wall unaccounted for: how to balance out two major works? The solution was a combination of a wall case with three small portraits above it, and flanked by two medium-sized paintings, all on religious subjects.
One of the side chapel galleries on each side faces a gap in the long nave walls, so any work in that gallery can be seen from a relatively distant vantage point across the nave. Normally we place visually commanding works in those chapels, works that might seem confined in the other side chapels. In this case, we saw a way to link the side chapels with the nave. We placed works relating to Rosen’s time in Ferrara in the side chapel, including his images of an old monastery called the Certosa. Thus, with the help of the labels and wall texts, visitors can look out from the chapel at the Saints paintings produced during that time, while the wall case in the nave contains studies and drawings produced during the time in Ferrara.
Speaking of texts, throughout the process of selecting and placing works, we were also considering what sort of labeling and didactic texts would be used. How much should be made explicit in terms of “categories”? How could we give visitors sufficient context and bearings, without overwhelming them or the artwork with text? Fortunately, Rosen is articulate in discussing his process and aims, and we looked for opportunities whenever possible to let him tell his own story.
The final stage in the installation process is the lighting — never a simple matter with 28-foot ceilings, and a particular challenge with Rosen’s favored oil and wax/oil emulsion medium. Our initial lighting scheme was very subdued, especially in the nave gallery. One of our student workers remarked that it was so dim he was afraid he would doze off during his shift! The light also gave a color cast to paintings at those low levels, even though it tends to bring out subtleties of detail. There was also the safety of our visitors (avoiding trip hazards) to consider. So, the lights came up a few notches, and we hope we have struck a good balance that shows the work to its best advantage.
Each exhibition tells a story; sometimes it is one consciously framed by the curators, sometimes it is implicit. We hope that with The Artist and the Capable Observer we have been able to highlight several chapters from James Rosen’s long, varied, and productive career, allowing the artist himself to draw our attention to both the significant and the subtle.