Artist Alfredo Jaar presenting the Duncan Phillips Lecture on October 3, 2010.
As a fine art student at Virginia Commonwealth University, I was lucky enough to hear visiting artist Alfredo Jaar speak in 1991 about his installation piece Geography=War (1990). This work was comprised of enlarged color photo transparencies mounted on light-boxes that hung face-down from the ceiling, reflected in the surfaces of large oil drums filled with water. The installation spaces were dark and viewers had to keep moving around the work in order to read the images in full. The reward for such physical engagement was Jaar’s powerful photographs of ravaged landscapes and people enslaved to environmentally destructive labor. He was a passionate and captivating speaker and demonstrated that the world can be changed by the messages we create with our art.
Jaar gave another inspiring talk as part of the Duncan Phillips Lectures in October 2010. If you missed it in person, be sure to listen to it here.
Odilon Redon, Mystery, c. 1910. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 21 3/8 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired by 1925.
What I love about What is Art?, one of the classes offered this semester by the Phillips’s Center for the Study of Modern Art, is the opportunity it provides to form a real connection with the artwork I see every day, yet so often find myself contemplating only in passing. During our second gathering, Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art Klaus Ottmann took our class of about 20 to one of these works – Odilon Redon’s Mystery. While I’ve always found this painting intriguing (and perhaps a little haunting), I was amazed at the fresh eyes with which I observed it after taking in my classmates’ perspectives.
The class syllabus warned that we would leave with more questions than we came in with, and it wasn’t an exaggeration. In the full hour that we spent in front of Mystery, questions were raised from the broadest to most minute topics. Is this person a male or a female? Portrait or self-portrait? What is that bright green spot in the top right corner? Is there something hidden in those flowers? One classmate saw a self-portrait of the artist holding not flowers, but his painter’s palette in his left hand. Another read the contrast in hand and face color as an indication that this is a portrait of a man holding a mask to his face.
While some saw the brightness and pop of the colorful flowers in deep contrast to the muted palette of the rest of the piece, others saw echoes of the drabness in the background manifested in the drooping and dying flowers of the foreground.
My own thoughts fixated around the stark contrast in styles between the foreground and background; it looks almost as if one artist created a somewhat dreary portrait and a completely separate artist came along and added the flowers later.
The hour of observation went quickly, and I left vowing to return. What are some of your own impressions?
As a curator specializing in contemporary art from the 1960s to the present, with a particular interest in performative works by such artists as James Lee Byars and Yves Klein, I was alarmed by a recent court ruling on the issue of who owns the copyright to the photographic documentation of artistic performances. A German court ruled in favor of Eva Beuys, the widow of the artist Joseph Beuys, who claims that she controls the rights to photographs taken during Beuys’s 1964 performance Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp ist überbewertet (The silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated). The photographs were taken by the late Manfred Tischer who was granted permission to document the performance by Beuys at the time, but apparently was not authorized explicitly to publish or exhibit them. When the German museum Schloss Moyland, which houses an extensive collection and archive of Beuys’s works, decided to exhibit 19 of Tischer’s photographs, the artist’s widow sued the museum of copyright infringement with the help of the German copyright society, VG Bild-Kunst. Continue reading “Who owns the rights to documentations of performance art?” »