January 18 marked the birthday of an inventor little known to most art historians. This from the Writer's Almanac:
“It’s the birthday of Joseph Farwell Glidden, born in Charleston, New Hampshire (1813). For centuries hedgerows and stone walls were the only way to keep livestock contained; in the American West, cowboys followed herds of cattle to make sure no harm came to them. Glidden saw an exhibition in which a wooden rail with nails protruding from it kept livestock at a distance. He rigged up an old coffee grinder to twist strands of wire around each other, then clipped off the protruding ends to make barbs. A number of men filed patents for similar barbed fences at the same time, and there was a tremendous fight, but Glidden won, and his barbed wire factory made him one of the country’s richest men. That was the end of the Wild West. Long cattle drives came to an end, and longhorn cattle began to disappear; it wasn’t necessary to breed cattle tough enough to survive out on the range anymore.”
Glidden’s invention actually relates very closely to one of my favorite paintings in our collection: Frederic Remington’s The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895.
The Fall of the Cowboy, 1895, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 1961.230
In 1895, Remington's friend Owen Wister published an article in Harper's Monthly titled "The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher." A number of illustrations, including a printed version of Remington’s painting, accompanied the article. Remington advised Wister to write about the gradual end of the customary cowboy way of life—open ranges without fences were becoming a thing of the past thanks to inventions like Glidden’s. The painting has a somber, wistful tone, conveyed by the muted colors of a winter scene, in keeping with the artist and author’s intent to mourn the passing of mythic cowboy traditions.
Remington’s picture elegizes the passing of a fundamental way of life. Though it relates on the surface level to a specific aspect of culture that was of its time and place—the transformation of the Wild West open range into a new type of ranching practice—to me the painting has always conveyed deeper significance as a timeless gesture toward endings and beginnings of all sorts—from shifts in weather manifested through stormy skies, to seasonal change as shown in the crisp white snow, to symbolic death and reinvention evoked by the hanging heads of the horse and the sturdy industry of the cowboys.
The signal of a great work of art is when it makes us pause, feel something, and contemplate ideas bigger than ourselves. The Fall of the Cowboy is a moment of quietude in the career of an artist ordinarily preoccupied with ceaseless drama and action.
I have a friend who calls me an alien. She means it as a compliment. It’s a signal that I often don’t approach the subject at hand in a conventional manner. I’m ok with that assessment. After all, who wants to be known for thinking inside the box?
In the curatorial or art historical disciplines, experience often brings a narrowing of interest and increasing specialization. As I grow in the field, my approach to art history echoes the ethos of the Amon Carter—that is, I firmly believe in drawing connections from past to present and present to past, expanding the story art tells. A narrative of American art extends to today; living artists have a lot to learn from their predecessors and our visitors gain a more complete understanding of the art of the past by these juxtapositions.
So, you can imagine my nerdish glee when we had the opportunity to place two works of art in dialogue with each other—communicating across centuries.
Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34 (2016) graces our Atrium space. Dawe strung thousands of individual strands of sewing thread across the expanse of the large room, forming an intricate network of connective fibers, drawing our notice to the architecture that surrounds us and exciting our visual cortices with a splendid kaleidoscopic display that coalesces and dissolves as we navigate space. His evanescent phenomenon is light made palpably material, the thinnest of substances tying together architecture, rays of sun, and atmospheric transformations.
Plexus no.34 at the Amon Carter
On the landing next to Plexus no. 34, you’ll now find Henry Kirke Brown’s Filatrice (1850). At first blush, this classicized bronze figure has a solemnity and solidity that seems in contrast to the weightlessness of the Dawe. But in fact they are connected in rather poetic fashion, I think. Or at least, to an alien the juxtaposition elicits delight.
Brown, Filatrice, 1850, bronze
Filatrice is an Italian word for a spinner of thread. In ancient mythology, three sister goddesses called the Fates were considered the weavers of the thread of life, determining the destiny, longevity, and manner of people’s lives. Brown’s sculpture harkens back to these classical deities. The columnar form of his spinner, clothed in her ancient Greek peplos gown, conveys all the gravity of history. And yet, far from ponderous, connecting her distaff to her spindle, you’ll find the thinnest and lightest of metal threads, enticing in its delicacy.
As fate would have it, here Filatrice stands, a spinner of thread, right beside Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 34, an installation by a living artist whose work is based on the vibrant effects of more than eighty miles of assembled sewing thread. Spinning string is the joint avocation of Filatrice and Dawe; forging connections is the mandate of Dawe and at the center of my curatorial enterprise. I’m glad that I had some part in pulling these strands together.
This is part II of a blog series. Read part I.
As you know from a previous blog post, Jodie Utter, conservator of works on paper, and I, paper conservation fellow, recently travelled to Montreal for the 44th Annual Meeting organized by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC).
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Florence flood, which destroyed masses of art and cultural material, this year’s conference theme was Emergency! Preparing for Disasters and Confronting the Unexpected in Conservation. Many of the talks addressed the effects of past, present, and future disasters on collections and cultural property. Much focus was placed on the need for effective risk assessment and emergency response strategies. This emphasis reiterated the importance of keeping our emergency plans at the Carter up to date.
Between the two of us, Jodie and I attended a large variety of presentations. These included talks about collections emergency procedures in various institutions and treatment protocols for a myriad of situations. Other more scientific-based talks were also interesting, covering many technologies used to identify or document works of art—including Reflectance Transformation Imaging and X-ray fluorescence. One presentation even discussed the precise dating of ancient Egyptian manuscripts using Micro-Raman spectroscopy!
A presentation about separating photographs stuck to glass or to each other.
There were many receptions organized throughout the length of the conference at key cultural institutions in Montreal. This included the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, and the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec. Naturally, such events were accompanied with behind-the-scenes tours, which are always a treat.
The reading room at the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec.
The staff at the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec showing us some of the prizes in their collection.
During the closing ceremony, Jodie was awarded the AIC Publication Award for her technical study on Charles M. Russell’s watercolors. This award recognizes excellence in writing about conservation topics. What an achievement for both her and the Carter! If you wish to read her essay, the book Charles M. Russell: Watercolors 1887–1926 is available at the museum store.
Jodie with her publication award.
--Stacey Kelly, Paper Conservation Fellow
Last month, the paper conservators at the Amon Carter travelled to Montreal for the 44th Annual Conservation Meeting organized by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC). The meeting featured numerous talks covering multiple disciplines in conservation, including books and paper, photographic materials, paintings, textiles, objects, and so on. There were also hands-on workshops focusing on new conservation techniques, networking receptions, discussion groups, exhibitions, and various other activities related to the historical and cultural areas of Montreal.
Conservation techniques are constantly evolving with the development of new technologies and materials. Jodie Utter, conservator of works on paper, and I, paper conservation fellow, had the chance to attend a workshop on the application of rigid Gellan gels used for conservation treatment. Gellan gel is a nontoxic biopolymer produced naturally by a microorganism. In conservation, the gel is formed in sheets of varying thickness and sizes for controlled wet treatments. The gel, when placed over paper, pulls soluble degradation products out via osmosis. Compared to other treatment methods, it is a gentle process that minimizes changes in the surface of the paper.
During the workshop, we made several batches of Gellan gel in different concentrations. We also tested gels with different additives like alkali and reductive bleach on aged and discolored paper samples provided by the organizers. Take a look at the pictures below to see the Gellan gels in action.
Luckily, I won a bag of Gellan gum in a drawing at the end of the workshop! Needless to say, we are excited to practice some of the techniques we learned at the workshop in our own lab.
Above: An excited Jodie watching the preparation of Gellan gel.
Above: Mixing the different ingredients needed for a batch of Gellan gel.
Above: Placing a sheet of Gellan gel on a discolored sample.
Above: Removing the Gellan gel after "washing" a discolored sample.
Above: A sheet of Gellan gel showing the discoloration removed from the paper sample after 15 minutes.
Above: Discolored used sheets of Gellan gel.
Above: Gellan gum for the Amon Carter's lab!
Q&A with Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo
Richard Misrach is among the most highly regarded American photographers of his generation. Guillermo Galindo is a renowned experimental composer whose work pushes beyond the conventional boundaries of music. Together, they forged a unique partnership for the exhibition Border Cantos—artist as documentarian, photographing and collecting lost items of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border; and composer as sonic interpreter, crafting sound-generating devices from the gathered items and giving them musical voices. The two artists kindly fielded a few questions about the exhibition they co-organized.
Richard Misrach, Wall (post and wire mesh), Douglas, Arizona, 2014, inkjet print, © Richard Misrach, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, LA
Richard, I imagine you watching some of Guillermo’s music videos and thinking, “I need to get in touch with this guy.” How did this collaborative concept take shape? In 2011, I participated in a pop-up magazine event consisting of a dozen artists, writers, and musicians who were invited to make short presentations of new work on stage before a crowd of 3,000 people. Guillermo and the writer Daniel Alarcon contributed a musical composition by Guillermo made from objects he had recovered from the Texas/Mexico border. I was making an unrelated presentation, but a few years earlier on the California/Mexico border had discovered human effigies dressed in discarded migrant clothing and had photographed them. I was stunned by the similarities of our projects and subsequently invited Guillermo and Daniel to my studio, where I had gathered large-scale prints of my effigy images. We knew next to nothing of each other’s work, but I invited them to collaborate. Eventually, Daniel had to drop out due to other commitments, but Guillermo and I jumped in and never looked back.
Items discarded, lost, and forgotten by people trying to cross into a more promising land. What compelled you to photograph such things? One sees clothing, backpacks, religious items, water bottles, and so forth all along the border. These objects are often referred to as trash, but they are not trash. As Guillermo points out, these items embody, and are the testimony of, the long dangerous travails of those who dared to make the passage.
As Guillermo was unable to travel to the border because of work and family obligations, and I was there a lot, I took on not only photographing but gathering items. That act of working together--of inspiring each other and of helping each other--became a potent symbol of the whole project. We were not only making photographs and music in response to the divide, but our collaborative process represents an alternative model—bridging, not walling up the border.
It’s easy to think, These images are from far away and have nothing to do with me. Are there universal implications for the human condition in these photographs? Who in America is not a descendant of immigrants? Who in America does not interact daily with those who are from other cultures and nations? The border presents complex, difficult issues that will challenge America's national sovereignty for decades to come. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America, whether here legally or illegally, are a vital part of our workforce, daily lives, and culture.
The wall appears in most of your images in this series. In some, it seems that it would take little more than a child’s ability to scramble over sections. Did you move back and forth between countries while you worked? The wall is an empty political symbol. The cliché is, build a 12-foot wall, and they will build a 13-foot ladder. There is a video online of two teenage girls climbing the wall in under eighteen seconds on their first attempt without the aid of a ladder! People go over, around, and even under it. The current walls cost $4-12 million a mile to construct. [Donald] Trump's proposal to add 1,000 miles of new wall, mostly through Texas, is now estimated to cost $25 billion. That taxpayer money would be better spent fighting terrorism and improving education and healthcare. And yes, there are areas where the border wall just ends and I was able to walk around and photograph from the other side.
The U.S.-Mexico border is highly militarized and increasingly monitored by drones. Did working with the knowledge you were being watched influence your creative approach or the images you made? I was always pretty self-conscious photographing. Often I would get to a remote area via Border Patrol access roads. I would inevitably set off ground sensors, but it would often be hours before the BP showed up. Usually, they were pretty civil, sometimes showing me pictures on their iPhones or suggesting where I might get a better shot. Once a woman agent with a large rifle came out of nowhere to stand sentry while I worked, worried that I might be vulnerable to nearby cartel activity. Other times, they could be hostile, check my car and camera bag for heroin, threaten that the cartel would steal my camera, etc.
In the end, however—perhaps because I have been photographing in the American west for over 40 years—I just worked in the painstaking way I always have, mostly with a camera on a tripod. At times, I felt the need to work fast, and I found that my iPhone made a huge difference. Probably a third of the images in the book and many in the exhibit were made with an iPhone, among them images in the 32-foot-long artifact grid and the target-practice shots.
It must have been at times intensely emotional photographing these subjects. Is there a particular moment that stands out in your memory? In Hidalgo County in 2014 I photographed fields of mostly children's items. These were undoubtedly left behind by some of the 52,000 unaccompanied children from Central America, which got a lot of media attention. But really, I have to shut off my emotions while I’m working. For me, the emotional impact usually hits after I am home, going through the pictures.
How do you describe Guillermo’s music? I will paraphrase Guillermo, who has said that conventional instruments allow the musician to impose their will on them. But the instruments he makes from migrant shoes and water bottles or Border Patrol shotgun shells dictate the sound and play the musician, so to speak. The sounds hardly resemble conventional music. On the one hand, they perhaps evoke the primal notion of how and where music first evolved, and on the other, they suggest the struggle and suffering of the people trying to cross the border.
Do you have a favorite work by him in this exhibition? Why? I think the 4 hour and 20 minute Sonic Border is the most powerful work in the whole exhibit. It is played on eight instruments fabricated from migrant artifacts and border patrol objects. Each instrument has a speaker next to it, through which its recorded sounds are played. The long piece is comprised of a series of vignettes of sounds, sometimes a single instrument, sometimes a symphony of all eight at once. The sound can be grating and harsh or lyrical and harmonious. Obviously the normal visitor can't be expected to stay for the full piece—part of the challenge to the listener is to consider the impossible duration—but I encourage people to stay for a while. The longer they stay the more rewarding the experience. The remarkable sounds coaxed from these instruments uncannily and poignantly evoke the border passage.
Guillermo Galindo, Efigie, 2014, immigrant clothing, wood axis, strings, courtesy the artist
When—and how—did you begin creating musical instruments from found objects, Guillermo? My first instrument was an electro-mechanical device called MAIZ (corn) that I made in 2006, and it was built with personal objects from my daily life. It was then that I started calling my instruments “cyber-totemic sonic devices.” In 2011, I came up with the idea of using immigrants’ personal items instead of my own.
You use the term “visual music.” How do you define it? There are two intersecting answers to this question: By visual music I mean music that either evokes particular images, or that has a particular connection with a universe or closely related ideas.
My conception of “visual music” comes from what we call “program music,” which is the idea that music can transmit extra musical narratives by inviting the audience to associate the sounds or the mood of a certain composition with a set of moods, circumstances, or even a specific set of images or a story through memory and collective cultural associations. Romantic composers such as Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss, and, later, Alexander Scriabin, Modest Mussorgsky, and Claude Debussy experimented with the idea of program music. They wrote program music to evoke the feel and sublime message of particular stories, paintings, or poems. Later, program music morphed into what we know today as “film music.”
My other idea of visual music comes from music notation or the translations of otherwise “abstract symbols” in a page into actual music. Traditional Western music notation has evolved to the point that, in some cases, the performer reading and translating a musical score must navigate the limits between traditional music code and the interpretation of concepts through visual elements purposely placed in different parts of the page. Many twentieth- and twenty-first-century scores by authors such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, and Brian Eno use visual language similar to the one that painting, photography, and other visual arts use to convey their message.
You are a Mexican-born U.S. citizen, so you have the unique perspective of being from both sides of the border. How did this influence your creative approach for this project? There is a special “there is not here, here” moment when that “foreign” country where you have lived for many years finally becomes your home. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the middle of the intersection, trapped between two countries. We are finally able to see both their similarities and their contradictions. Richard and I found that neutral zone, a place with no walls where the exchange of ideas and dialogue can flow back and forth.
You built the sonic devices in this show. How did the structure of conventional instruments inform your creations? Human beings have been creating instruments for hundreds of thousands of years. There is extremely valuable information about musical instruments that we have gathered regarding acoustics, purpose, design, modes of playing, and quality of sound. My instrument building came from the knowledge and valuable concepts of many cultures.
You can almost hear the vast emptiness in some of Richard’s images. What part does silence play in your compositions? Silence is the essence of emptiness, the negative space that defines the figure in the visual arts. In Richard’s photographs, this is the landscape where living things exist or existed. In the case of music, silence is the empty space where sounds will soon be. Silence underlines the unsaid and the unknown. Both in music and in speech, silence is the space between sounds, the necessary pause to stop and reflect. Richard’s photographs provide the space to be filled with sound and to amplify their silence.
You recreated an effigy for the exhibition, one of several scarecrows in emigrant’s clothing that Richard found in an isolated canyon along the border with California. What do you suppose these figures are meant to symbolize or do? Neither Richard nor I know exactly what these figures symbolize. Perhaps it is better to leave it that way. But the position of the arms in these figures reminds me of the position one adopts when being searched. They also remind me of that technique one uses when confronting a dangerous animal in which one raises the arms in order to seem bigger.
How did the unknown experiences of those who lost these items, the “invisible victims of migration” you have called them, figure into your compositions and constructions? Each object tells an imaginary story. My instrument fabrication is something between forensic archeology and animistic spirituality. Each object is evidence of presence. Each instrument tells the story of the person it belonged to.
How do you characterize Richard’s photographs? For me, Richard’s photographs are huge symphonic landscapes of form, texture, and light. They entail a unique beauty that provides a comfortable space for environmental awareness and socio-political dialogue.
Do you have a favorite image by him in this exhibition? Why? There are several: I like the photograph Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona, where the undulating wall appears and disappears behind the hills as incomplete melodic contours. I was inspired by the desolation of his photograph Agua #16, Carrizo Creek, California for my composition “Skeletal Remains” and the score I call “lone tank.” I also chose his image (post and wire mesh fence) Douglas, Arizona to be in the Sonic Border room of the exhibit because it has this feeling of an uncertain, endless horizon in which anything can happen. The movement of the photograph drives us into that foggy place where everything tends to disappear.
Photographer Doris Ulmann came from an affluent white New York City family. She took teacher training with photographer Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School and subsequently studied psychology and law at Columbia University. She also studied photography with Clarence H. White, a founding member of the Photo-Secession movement known for teaching the Pictorialist style.
Ulmann collaborated with novelist Julia Peterkin on a book project titled Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: R.O. Ballou, 1933). The book focuses on the lives of former slaves and their descendants on a plantation in the Gullah coastal region of South Carolina. Peterkin, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Scarlet Sister Mary (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928), was born in South Carolina and raised by a black nursemaid who taught her the Gullah dialect. She married the heir to Lang Syne, a 2,000-acre cotton plantation, which became the setting for Roll, Jordan, Roll. Ulmann began photographing there in 1929.
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [People seated at church service], 1933, Photogravure
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Baptism], 1933, Photogravure
Roll, Jordan, Roll is titled after the spiritual written by English Methodist leader Charles Wesley in the 18th century which became well-known among slaves in the United States during the 19th century. Appropriated as a coded message for escape, by the end of the American Civil War it had become known through much of the eastern United States. In the 20th century it helped inspire the blues, and it remains a staple in gospel music.
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Girl standing in doorway], 1933, Photogravure
Doris Ulmann (1884-1934), [Two boys riding a mule], 1933, Photogravure
Roll, Jordan, Roll was illustrated with 90 photogravure plates made from Ulmann’s large-format negatives. Although they comprise an amazing ethnographic study, today Ulmann’s Pictorialist aesthetic seems a strange choice for making documentary images. The hazy, soft-focus photographs lend a sentimental, nostalgic impression that belies the underlying exploitative history of her subjects.
We never know who will enter our lives and make an indelible impact. One of my best friends, someone who has always been there for me, is a long-deceased ostensible curmudgeon, arguably one of America’s finest painters. He goes by the name of Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Today is his birthday and I want to pay tribute to him.
Homer was the subject of my graduate work, specifically his scenes of rescue at sea and their ties to boxing, bodybuilding, and the power of water. The painting Undertow, 1886, at the Clark Art Institute has long had significance to me in times of turmoil. I am proud to return to it time and again to see new things and to write about it. It never ceases to amaze, confuse, and inspire me.
Homer gets a bum rap for being isolated, not that outgoing, and a hermit. He moved to the shores of Prout’s Neck, Maine, seemingly to escape life and company. And yet, he loved his family greatly, particularly his brother Charles, and Prout’s was the family compound.
At the Amon Carter, we have this great painting, Crossing the Pasture, 1871-72,
that seems to celebrate the bond between two brothers. Homer painted it after the Civil War, which pitted brothers against each other. I can’t help but see it as a reflection of Winslow’s relationship with Charles as well as a turn to simpler times after the difficulties of all Homer must have seen as a war correspondent for Harper’s.
In his own words, Homer told his friend the printer Louis Prang, “I deny that I am a recluse as is generally understood by that term. Neither am I an unsociable hog.” He engaged in puns, beginning that letter with the joke “But what’s your hurry…said the King of Russia.” Get it? Though Homer put a sign outside his studio that warned of snakes and mice to deter visitors from dropping by, I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed his company. After all, who doesn’t like someone who’s hard to get, with a dry wit?
I don’t believe I am Homer’s only friend. In an attempt to see how his relationships could have resulted in cross pollination of artistic ideas, I even made him a Fakebook page that allows us to think about his art differently both as influenced by and as influential to his friends.
Though this friendship seems a bit one sided—Homer will never bring me soup when I’m sick or watch my cat—art historians get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from research and study. And part of what we strive to do is to bring these artists to life for our visitors.
So, to my friend Homer…a very happy birthday.
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
Because of the sheer size of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s collection and the nature of objects that can deteriorate with exposure to light, such as artworks on paper, only a small portion of the entire collection can be seen at any given time. In addition to artworks, the museum collections include photographic negatives, historical ephemera, library books, and archive materials—hundreds of thousands of individual items, all of which are cataloged and stored for long-term preservation.
As the senior photographer for the museum, I get to see many items that rarely see the light of day. To bring these “dark collections” to light, I’ve been charged with selecting such artworks from our vaults and presenting them on the museum’s Tumblr page—making them available for all to enjoy. Be sure to tune in to our Tumblr page, where there will be a new work presented each week. Here’s a bit of a primer—a couple of items from deep in the vaults that have a connection to each other.
Ralph R. Doubleday (1881-1958), Yakami [sic] Canutt Bulldogger Deluxe, early twentieth century, photographic postcard
The photographic postcard above by rodeo photographer Ralph R. Doubleday shows Yakima Canutt (1895–1986) posing in the rodeo ring. Canutt was known for bulldogging and bronc riding and won the saddle-bronc competition at the Fort Worth rodeo three years in a row from 1921 to 1923, probably around the time this undated photo was taken. He went on to a career as an actor, stuntman, and action film director.
Canutt was hired to ride and act in Hollywood westerns in 1923 and appeared in several silent films. But when the movies transitioned to sound around 1928, Canutt chose to specialize in action and stunt work. He met actor John Wayne while performing as his stunt double in 1932. The two became friends and worked on techniques for stunts and on-screen fighting. Canutt was the inspiration for Wayne's trademark mannerisms, his drawling enunciation, and hip-rolling walk. John Wayne said, "I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand."
Both men worked on John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach, which features Canutt's daring stunt work running across the horses' rigging to jump astride the lead horse and take control of the runaway team.
Screen shot of Yakima doubling John Wayne doing wagon team stunt from John Ford's Stagecoach, 1939
The museum collection includes this screen-printed poster for Stagecoach.
Unknown, Stagecoach, after 1939, screen print
Although Wayne had been acting in Hollywood for ten years, his performance in Stagecoach proved to be his breakthrough role, leading to a legendary career. Stagecoach is considered one of the most influential films ever made. Orson Welles argued that it was a perfect textbook of film-making and claimed to have watched it more than forty times in preparation for the making of Citizen Kane. . . . See you next week on Tumblr!
In my group of closest friends, I count many overachievers in the crafting and project-realization vein. For a still-life themed Halloween party a few years back, one among this crew sewed her own large clam shell out of shimmering fabric and lined it with an opalescent interior so that she could be an oyster on a half shell. I decided to take an easier route by emulating the trompe l’oeil masters of American painting, Harnett and Peto, with my own half-hearted attempt at their signature style of assembling paper goods on a painted wooden backdrop.
Compare the Amon Carter’s John F. Peto, A Closet Door, 1904-06, with my homage. Of course, my friend the oyster received all the congratulatory remarks.
In keeping with their reputations for preparedness, I suspect that most of the people I know have already assembled their Pinterest boards with costume ideas or have planned to make spooky breadsticks with painted almond fingernails as detached finger treats. For those of you more, shall we say, normal folks…we offer this inspirational guide to last minute Halloween costume ideas inspired by the Amon Carter’s collection. They are vetted by the least crafty among our staff.
Karl Struss, [Barbara Struss in costume], 1925
Putting a bag on your head or cutting eye holes in a sheet are the go-to costumes for uninspired people. In this case, you may put a bag on your head and tell people you are evoking the work of master photographer and cinematographer Karl Struss. Voila!
Supplies: paper bag, markers, scissors
Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939,
There are plenty of costume aficionados out there who will create their own versions of Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. Dare to be different with your own take on one of Wood’s other iconic works, Parson Weems’ Fable. George Washington’s head here is modeled after Gilbert Stuart’s rendition of the first president. It was once remarked that if George Washington were to come back to life, he better look like Stuart’s painted portrait or else he would go unrecognized!
Supplies: White shirt, blue pants, axe, white hair powder and black ribbon*
*May substitute with handmade George Washington mask using $1 bill and copier
Frederic Remington, The Sergeant, 1904
I personally find those people who paint themselves with metallic paint, stand still in public places, and then scare innocent pedestrians half to death by engaging in sudden movement highly terrifying, so feel free to skip the bronze face paint!
Supplies: floppy hat, neckerchief , fake mustache…if needed
William M. Harnett, Attention Company!, 1878
Though I wouldn’t be able to make an origami crane, I can certainly fold a paper hat. So can you! If you have forgotten how, there are many instructional Youtube videos.
Supplies: newspaper, broom handle, khaki coat, and some origami skills
William J. McCloskey, Wrapped Oranges, 1889
I have been known to call this painted rendition of the tissue paper used to protect oranges as they were shipped across the country “exuberant” for the way the flamboyant crinkled coverings make the oranges festive and celebratory. People will probably assume you are a cross between a pumpkin and a mummy, but you can clarify.
Supplies: orange clothing and tissue paper
If all else fails…might I suggest Thomas Eakins’ Swimming,1885? **
**The costume ideas in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is not responsible for the legal ramifications of copying dollar bills, nor does it endorse public nudity. This disclaimer is meant with good humor and is in no way legally proper. Happy Halloween!!!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator
When a song that we’ve heard on the radio gets stuck in our heads and we sing it all day long, we call it an ear worm. Sometimes art historians develop fixations on particular works of art that dwell in our psyches—posing riddles and conundrums. Should we call the phenomenon something more glamorous than a brain or eye worm?
I had the honor of fielding questions on Twitter for #AskaCurator day—an occasion in which curators all over the world respond to queries from the Twitterverse. An exchange with Waco’s Dr. Pepper Museum led to their interest in knowing whether we had any works in our collection featuring Dr. Pepper.
Alas, though Coke advertising figures prominently in city scenes by many of our well-known photographers, Dr. Pepper is not represented in our collection.
I did, however, stumble across this gem, which is the current subject of my fixation:
Artist unknown, Cold Soda Water from the Matthews Apparatus, 1800s, 1969.186
This nineteenth-century lithograph in our collection is emblematic of one of the reasons I love being an art historian. The whole thing seems pretty innocuous on first inspection, right? The ad is meant to communicate that the “Matthews Apparatus” can provide the coldest carbonated water in a highly pressurized tank. What happens when we try to put ourselves in the mindset of its original intended audience?
A little digging reveals that John Matthews (1808–1870) was the man heralded for the popularity of carbonated drinks in America. Known as the “Soda Fountain King,” Matthews patented his “apparatus for charging water with carbon dioxide gas” in 1832. Though others had preceded him, their devices were known to explode. Matthews incorporated a pressure valve that ensured his tanks were the safest. He was responsible for countertop dispensers used in pharmacy counters to provide beverages to the general consumer, water carts, room-sized tanks, bottling tables, the soda fountains themselves, and even the first flavorings. The tank was patented in 1872, and it says so in the print, so we can get a better idea of the date of this object. Barely visible in the jet of water coming from the larger canister is the Matthews company insignia of a cherub using a monkey wrench to defend the soda from a marauding bear. Fascinating!
Here’s what sticks in the art historian’s mind, though. I had the great privilege to study shipwreck imagery as a curatorial sidekick for the exhibition "Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A little knowledge turns this innocent ad into something quite scandalous.
A nineteenth-century person lived in fear of shipwreck. The seas were unpredictable, and for much of the century, lifesaving brigades were scarce. The biggest killer was hypothermia from being subjected to the frigid Atlantic. Imagery proliferated with frozen maidens in chemises who had perished from exposure. Shipwreck stories in popular periodicals were the major news stories of disaster of their time.
The one saving grace in the event of a wreck could be a rope shot from a canon-like device called a “Lyle gun” from shore to the sinking ship. The rope was used to bear a rescue mechanism that could ferry passengers one at a time to safety, if all went according to plan.
So, with that background information, can we see where the advertiser has gone wrong? Certainly, to herald the freezing nature of the water was in poor taste. Not to mention that in place of a lifeline shot from a shore crew we have a highly ineffectual pressurized stream of water! I suppose the print boldly conveys the distinctiveness of the Matthews apparatus—but yikes!
This is not the end of my pondering, however. The print in question entered our collection in 1969. I wondered what would have prompted its acquisition. Figuring it was part of a batch of prints purchased as a single lot, I wanted to try to ascertain what treasure our past curators were seeking when this print came aboard as a likely stowaway.
I think I have the answer.
This is our marvelous painting by Carl Wimar, showing the dramatic abduction of Daniel Boone’s daughter.
Carl Wimar (1828–1862), The Abduction of Boone's Daughter by the Indians, 1855–56, oil on canvas, 1965.1
In the same batch of purchases that included the Matthews apparatus picture, we find this advertising gem.
The Father of Waters, after 1855, chromolithograph, 1969.191
It’s a chromolithograph produced by Anheuser Busch in which Boone’s daughter is replaced by beer products. My art historical colleague Mark Thistlethwaite teaches a section of a course on inappropriate advertising in which this print plays a starring role. When I mentioned my shock at the impropriety of our Matthews soda ad, he told me about this Wimar riff. How amazing to discover that this was probably the Holy Grail that our curator sought all along, with the Matthews apparatus an unexpected bonus.
The good news is, now that I have shared all of this with you, I am likely finally ready to move on to the next brain worm…but maybe I’ll drink a refreshing beverage first and raise a grateful glass to Matthews!
Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator