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August 12, 2015

The Zen of Agnes Martin

Agnes Bernice Martin, Waters, 1962. Seattle Art Museum; seattleartmuseum.org. © 2008 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Bernice Martin, Waters, 1962, Seattle Art Museum. © 2008 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

To the pioneers of Minimalism, Agnes Martin’s grid paintings were an early source of inspiration. To the Abstract Expressionists, Martin was a peer, whose use of line to cover canvases from edge to edge was not a gesture of Minimal art, but an expression of the AbEx concept of “allover” painting. In her own words, her pale, meditative geometry harkened back to much older ideas. Her art, she claimed, should be recognized alongside that of the ancient’s— the Egyptians, Greeks, Coptics, and, most importantly, Chinese.

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May 4, 2015

Shopping paradise: Émile Zola and the world’s first department store

Eugène Atget, Bon Marche, 1926-27. George Eastman House

Eugène Atget, Bon Marche, 1926-27. George Eastman House

I recently came across the BBC adaptation of Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise and, as a self-confessed Francophile, couldn’t wait to begin watching it. A few episodes in, though, my enthusiasm dimmed when it became clear that the series didn’t faithfully follow the book. Zola’s novel is, at heart, an acerbic commentary on consumer culture, not a love story. Where Zola makes The Ladies’ Paradise, a department store, into a protagonist, the show instead relies on the budding romance between a shop girl and the store’s owner to drive it along. The Ladies’ Paradise is the backdrop of the story, but unfortunately not its focus.

Zola, often credited as one of the shrewdest observers of 19th-century French society, did not choose the department store arbitrarily as the setting for his novel. By the time he wrote The Ladies’ Paradise in the 1880s, the department store had become one of the most iconic features of modern Parisian life.

Gustave Eiffel; Louis Auguste Boileau, Le Bon Marché, 1876. Image and catalog data provided by Allan T. Kohl, Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Gustave Eiffel; Louis Auguste Boileau, Le Bon Marché, 1876. Image and catalog data provided by Allan T. Kohl, Minneapolis College of Art and Design

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October 30, 2014

Unwinding mummies

Mummy of Ukhhotep, Middle Kingdom

Egypt, Mummy of Ukhhotep, Middle Kingdom, ca. 1981-1802 B.C. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Come tomorrow evening, droves of miniature monsters will haunt our neighborhoods, jack-o-lantern-shaped candy bowls in tow. Amongst the groups of trick-or-treaters, though, one spooky creature will likely be absent: the mummy, which, despite being the star of many a horror film, never seems to be a Halloween costume favorite.

My guess as to why the mummy costume has never attained the cult status of, for example, the ghost is a purely pragmatic one. Dressing up as a mummy is a difficult task; cutting eyeholes into a white sheet is pretty straightforward. This is a fact that my own failed childhood attempt at dressing up as a mummy—which ended in my mother watching the rolls of gauze bandages she had dutifully wrapped around me immediately unravel—confirms.

An Egyptologist, however, might answer this question differently. For though the mummy of horror cinema is unrestful and vengeful, rising from the tomb to wreak havoc upon the living, in reality mummification was nothing more than a sophisticated burial ritual, meant to help lead the deceased to a peaceful afterlife.

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September 11, 2014

The many faces of Helen of Troy

Gavin Hamilton, Venus Presenting Helen to Paris, Museo di Roma. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.;www.artres.com; scalarchives.com, Rights (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

Gavin Hamilton, Venus Presenting Helen to Paris, Museo di Roma. Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.; www.artres.com; scalarchives.com, Rights (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?”

So asks the title character in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus upon seeing the radiant ghost of Helen of Troy. Marlowe was not the only artist to be captivated by Helen and her fabled beauty. Indeed, for millennia, painters, sculptors, poets and playwrights have been inspired by her story.

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August 19, 2014

Capital Gate: The Leaning Tower of Abu Dhabi

Often, it is the unconventional details that lend a building its sense of character. This is certainly true of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a monument striking for its tilt of approximately 4 degrees.

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Bonanno Pisano, Campanile (Leaning Tower), exterior, 1174-1350, Pisa, Italy. (c) 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y., artres.com, scalarchives.com

The tilt was even more pronounced before modern efforts at stabilization began, and by some accounts has reached 8-10 degrees in past centuries. But while stabilizing the tower has been important to its physical preservation, it may have negatively affected the church’s historical legacy. Since the Leaning Tower of Pisa was straightened out, several other buildings–mainly in Germany and Switzerland–have been vying for the slanted spotlight, as was humorously reported by the New York Times in 2012.

However, no attempt at dethroning Pisa as home to the farthest leaning building has been as bold as that of Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Starting in 2007, the city began work on the Capital Gate, which rises at an 18-degree westward lean–more than four times that of the Leaning Tower of Pisa–along the city’s waterfront.

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May 29, 2014

Reginald Marsh’s Coney Island

Reginald Marsh, Wonderland Circus, Sideshow Coney Island, 1930, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, a division of Florida State University. © 2008 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Reginald Marsh, Wonderland Circus, Sideshow Coney Island, 1930, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, a division of Florida State University. © 2008 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When the weather starts getting unbearable New Yorkers—Artstor staff included—flock to the boardwalks of Brooklyn’s Coney Island or Rockaway Beach in Queens.

This ritual is nothing new and was, in fact, one of the pet subjects of Reginald Marsh (1898 –1954), an American artist famous for his paintings of New York City in the ’20s and ’30s. His city scenes are remarkable for their palpable sense of movement—bodies walk or loiter on street corners, crowds swell as New York’s lights pulsate and glow in the background.

That Marsh’s canvases seem to vibrate is due not only to his staccato brush strokes and bright, reflective colors, but also to his choice of subject matter. Rather than portray New York City’s elite, Marsh turned to everyday people and entertainments. Favorite subjects included burlesque and Vaudeville performers, pedestrians and, yes, public beaches.

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January 21, 2015

Help improve Artstor at CAA 2015!

CAA2015logo_smAre you a faculty member or graduate student going to the College Art Association Annual Conference this year? You can help Artstor learn how to best meet your needs for teaching and research using digital images.

We will be leading two small focus groups during the CAA Conference in New York City, and we’re looking for faculty members and graduate-level students familiar with the Artstor Digital Library and its key features. The sessions will take place one block from the conference on Thursday, February 12th or Friday, February 13th, from 8 to 9 AM. A light breakfast will be served, and participants will receive a $100 honorarium for their time and input.

To register your interest for either one of the two focus groups, please fill out this brief survey to let us know who you are. Selected candidates will be notified by January 28 with the event address and more details.

Questions? Email: hannah.stamler[at]artstor.org.

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