All posts in “SAM Book Club”

SAM Staff Reads: Kusama’s Turbulent Garden

Yayoi Kusama’s visual art output is prolific, but did you know that she was also a writer? Beyond penning her autobiography, Infinity Net, in 2002 she is also the author of Hustler’s Grotto (1992), a collection of three novellas written between 1983 and 1992, and various books of poetry. Stay tuned to this blog series for a focus on Violet Obsession (1998), a collection of Kusama’s poems paired with images of her performative work including her Happenings and her activations of her Infinity Mirror Rooms. We’ve invited SAM staff to spend some time with Kusama’s poems and select a piece that speaks to them. We’ll be sharing selections from Violet Obsession alongside the musings and inspirations of SAM Staff. The exhibition, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is on view at SAM through September 10.

SAM’s Copywriter and Content Strategist, and an author in her own right, Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, gets things started with with her thoughts on one of the more light-hearted poems in the collection.

TURBULENT GARDEN (AT THE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL)

it’s a breeding ground of stray cats here
parent cats have mated with their children to produce children
brothers have mated with sisters to produce children
and now the place is teeming with cats
when beams of the crescent moon fell upon the garden
the cats ate that moon
stars adhered one by one to the garden
the cats played with the stars
it’s a garden of cats
where no one dies and the numbers only multiply

it’s an exceedingly strange
cat way of calculating
all the leaves from the treetops       fell upon the cats
when the lonely winter comes
the shadows of cats just keep on increasing
they’re playing with one another
in the deathless garden
the rotting tails of fish accumulate
left over rice too is put aside
things human beings have contributed

they’re all disfigured cats
some with only half a tail
some with an ear torn off
some lame
not one complete cat in the lot

No one appears to have died
it’s even more turbulent on windy days
“meow, meow”—they run around
busy f***ing
they leap about
I’m glad I’m not a cat
I wasn’t born a cat
because I’m not really fond of all that f***ing

(1983)

– Yayoi Kusama

For me, the first appeal of this poem is the repetition. Kusama’s concerns with reproduction ad infinitum are clearly linked with breeding in this poem in a way that a work like Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field only implies. But in this poem, as in her visual work, what she reproduces is imagery, not just words (though the refrain of “cats” does reverberate throughout). Disfigured cats nibbling on a sliver of moon or batting around stars, never dying and endlessly multiplying are the fish tails and rice (rather than meat and potatoes) of the poem. But, it’s the turn that occurs at the end, when Kusama interjects in the first person, that lifts the poem above a landscape of feral felines into a psychological setting, all too fitting given the subtitle of the poem. We are taken directly into Kusama’s self proclaimed issues with sex at the end of this poem in a straightforward way. In her autobiography she talks at length about her fear of the phallus as the impetus to creating the soft sculptures that have appeared often in her work: in frames on wall, on furniture and boats, and in her Infinity Mirror Room. In contrast to the sheer volume of this motif in her visual work, her quick mention of being glad she’s not a cat allows the poem to be a playful menagerie in some undying garden, only lightly touched by human influence.

I think immediately of Turtle, my childhood cat. For weeks my brother almost had me convinced that she was a robot, until I saw her give birth. My father found her on a construction site in Manhattan on his walk home from work. She must have already been pregnant when he brought her into our tiny apartment. A few weeks later my parents pulled me out of elementary school in the middle of the day to come witness the birth of two kittens. Turtle caused another kind of issue at school: inquiries as to if everything was OK at home in response to the large and numerous scratches on my arms. Turtle didn’t take to domesticity and ran away within the year. We eventually gave her kittens to a neighbor. Turtle might not have liked being a mother, but she taught me how to climb trees.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Copywriter & Content Strategist

Source: Kusama, Yayoi. Violet Obsession. Translated by Hisako Ifshin and Ralph F. McCarthy with Leza Lowitz. Edited by Alexandra Munro. Berkeley, CA: Wandering Mind Books, 1998.
Illustration: Natali Wiseman.

 

 

 

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SAM Book Club: Seven Days in the Art World

Welcome back, book lovers! Today we’re here to discuss Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World.

When I introduced this book here last month, I said it sounded like a whirlwind. Boy, did Thornton deliver. In what reads like part ethnography, part investigative journalism, part gossip column, the book flies around the world to relay some of the most high-drama, large-personality, and high-stakes scenes of the art world.

The picture Thornton paints is one of extremes. She didn’t just visit an artist studio: she visited Takashi Murakami’s massive international operation on the day he unveiled one of his most ambitious sculptures to date. She didn’t just go to a fair: she went to one of the highest-attended fairs in the world during the height of the art market. She didn’t just attend an MFA crit class: she sat in on Michael Asher’s legendary marathon session at CalArts, known for going longer than the average crit by a good ten hours.

It makes sense why she would choose these particular days and moments: extremes are fun. They make for fast-paced, engaging reading. But when taken all at once they hardly paint a, shall we say, realistic picture of what working in the art world is like for most people. What would Seven Days in the Art World be like if Thornton had interviewed the typical, instead of the extreme? An afternoon of returning phone calls and writing emails in a cramped office? A long string of meetings? No one wants to read that—so who can blame Thornton for choosing to highlight the days and players she did?

The other extreme that was impossible not to notice was the art market itself—and the moment in which Thornton was writing about it. In the author’s note she states that she conducted her research between November 2004 and June 2007; the book was published in November 2008. In other words, the book looks at the time period when the art market was growing to ever more staggering, unsustainable heights—and it hit the stands after that bubble burst, right in the middle of the financial crisis of Fall 2008. From the moment it hit readers’ hands, Seven Days in the Art World was a strange mix of the contemporary and the historical, highlighting a world that in some ways are timeless, and in others had already ceased to exist.

So, did I recognize the art world I inhabit in these pages? Sometimes. The events and spectacles Thornton details are certainly there, even if they’re fewer and farther between than Seven Days in the Art World would suggest. Mostly I recognized my art world in this quote from Artforum publisher Charles Guarino: “It’s the place where I found the most kindred spirits—enough oddball, overeducated, anachronistic, anarchic people to make me happy.” Amen to that, and shout out to my fellow oddballs for making this job so fun.

Because ultimately those of us who work in the art world do it because we love it. Not just the high-stakes, high-drama affairs, but the actual work of it. The long meetings and endless emails may not be fun to read about, but in the day-to-day they contribute to something we all care deeply about. So whether you’re writing, exhibiting, studying, or making art—or doing any of the countless other things that contribute to and support it—a hat tip to you, and to many happy days in the art world.

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

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SAM Book Club: Up Next – Seven Days in the Art World

Welcome back book lovers! We return with the fourth edition of SAM Book Club. For those new to the series, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog a month later to discuss in the comments.

This month we’ll be venturing into nonfiction territory with Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton. Acting as a kind of tour-guide extraordinaire, Thornton leads her readers through seven arenas which contribute to the multi-faceted world of contemporary art: Christie’s auction house; an MFA crit session; the Basel Art Fair; the prestigious Turner Prize; the offices of Artforum; artist Takashi Murakami’s studio; and the Venice Biennale. Sounds like a whirlwind to me.

Visit your local library and pick up a copy, and let’s dive in together. Meet me back here on Wednesday, March 22 to discuss Seven Days in the Art World!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman
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SAM Book Club: The Sculptor

Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Scott McCloud’s graphic novel, The Sculptor.

The premise of this book had me intrigued: sculptor David Smith (no, not that David Smith) is struggling. His work isn’t selling, he’s having a major creative roadblock, he’s burnt all of his bridges, and he’s behind on rent—an almost literal starving artist. Desperate to gain recognition for his work, he makes a deal with Death (disguised, in a detail I loved, as his deceased great-uncle) to be able to mold any material with his hands into anything he can imagine. The catch is that David will die after just 200 days, a trade-off he is immediately willing to make—until he falls in love shortly after making the deal. Cue existential crisis.

I will admit that there were some things about this book that didn’t work for me. I could’ve gone for a bit more irony and a bit less angst, and a whole lot less self-pitying from David. And as for his love-interest, Meg—to me, she was more clichéd fantasy than well-rounded character. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl who descends from the heavens like an angel (literally) to dedicate her life (and death) to helping our male hero get over himself, realize his full potential, and live a happy remainder of his life. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that frankly bores me to tears.

But the central question still hooked me: what would you sacrifice for your work? At a much smaller and, let’s say, less permanent scale, we all make those decisions all the time. We trade off time with family and loved ones for time in the studio, or in rehearsal, or with an unfinished manuscript, or with whatever that work that gets you out of bed happens to be. And we do it gladly, because the work is worth it. But when does it stop being worth it? How much is too much to give? We’ve all been there, making those hard choices.

What really interested me about David’s trade-off was not the extremity of it, but the fact that even the ultimate sacrifice was not enough for him. David doesn’t only want to have the skills and room to make his art: he wants to be recognized for it, to be celebrated and immortalized. He makes a massive group of stone sculptures practically overnight—an incredible feat—and is devastated when they are not well-received by his gallerist friend. He achieves some anonymous, Banksy-like fame for his street sculptures, but is only truly happy with them when he learns they’re selling for half a million dollars. He learns towards the end of his 200 days that a collector has been trying to contact him to buy his work, and he laments “all those wasted days.” But were those days really wasted? Only if the goal is the final sale, the external recognition of talent. But if the goal is the process and act of making art, then that time doing the work is not ill-spent.

Ultimately, the most satisfying part of The Sculptor for me was the artwork itself. McCloud literally wrote the book on comics, and is clearly a master of the medium. The graphic novels that resonate most with me are the ones that use artwork to tell stories that words just can’t touch: the indescribable horrors of genocide in Art Spiegelman’s Maus; the terror and banality of a tumultuous adolescence in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; or the infinite history of a single corner of the earth, as in Richard McGuire’s Here. The Sculptor had many such moments for me, but the one that stands out the most was the beautiful and complex multi-page spread in which we see David’s life flash before his eyes, milliseconds before his death. The ability to both compress and stretch time onto a single page, to relay all the mundane joys and sorrows of a single life, to paint a full narrative without using a single word—that is a gift worth sacrificing for.

What did you think of The Sculptor? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman.
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SAM Book Club: Up Next – The Sculptor

Welcome back, book lovers! We return with the third edition of SAM Book Club. For those new to the series, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog to discuss in the comments.

I promised in the first installment of SAM Book Club that we’d be mixing up the genres in our reading, and I’m here to make good on that promise. This month we’ll be reading Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor. McCloud’s protagonist is a struggling artist who makes a deal with Death to be able to mold any material into anything he can imagine—in exchange for his own life after just 200 days. Author Neil Gaiman described it as “the best graphic novel I’ve read in years. It’s about art and love and why we keep on trying.” If that doesn’t sound like something you want to sink into on a rainy Seattle day, I don’t know what does.

Visit your local library and pick up a copy, and let’s fall into an artful book about art together. Meet me back here on Wednesday, November 23 to discuss The Sculptor!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman.

 

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SAM Book Club: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Welcome back to SAM Book Club! Today we’re here to discuss Dominic Smith’s newest novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

This is a book that’s hard to describe succinctly. In 1637 Amsterdam, artist Sara de Vos diverges from her training as a still-life painter to paint the landscape At the Edge of a Wood, an enigmatic work she makes as she mourns her daughter’s death. In 1957 Manhattan, the painting is stolen from the home of Marty de Groot, whose family has owned the work for 300 years. And in 2000 Sydney, renowned art historian Ellie Shipley is curating an exhibition of 17th century female Dutch artists when she learns that two versions of At the Edge of a Wood are traveling to her gallery: the original, and the forgery that she herself painted in 1957. Is your head spinning yet?

As difficult as it is to make an elevator pitch of the book’s plot, the three storylines mesh fairly seamlessly as Smith swerves between them—and as they begin to crash into each other. Although they are separated by centuries, the lives of the three main characters become intimately interwoven as they orbit around the painting.

In fact, I said there are three main characters, but you could make a case for four: Sara, Marty, Ellie, and At the Edge of a Wood. The painting itself has a presence, a personality, an impact on the events taking place. It certainly has a gravitational pull on the hapless artist, collector, and curator.

Harder to pinpoint than the plot itself is the category this book fits into. It could be considered a mystery, but the question of who stole the painting is answered on the book jacket. Some of the chapters read like historical fiction, but there’s a definite lean towards “fiction” over “history.” And I suppose there is a romantic relationship subplot, but it reads as more of a dysfunctional cat-and-mouse game than anything else to me. The easiest is to lump it with the seemingly ever-growing category of “art heist book”—think Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming, and B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger*—but even that feels unsatisfying: the heist is hoisted in chapter one. What now?

Which brings me back to those four main characters. I think this is ultimately a book that is driven by characters, by relationships, and by the things we do to make, maintain, or break them. And ultimately it hinges not on relationships between people (although there is plenty of material there to armchair psychoanalyze), but on the relationship between people and objects. Or, I should say, one object, that fourth character which is the planet to Sara, Marty, and Ellie’s moons.

I suspect many of us have had a love affair with an art object: a work that moves you, that stays with you for years, that changes the way you think and maybe even changes the direction of your life. Isn’t that what drives us to art museums? The close encounter with art objects, and the chance to let them teach and inspire you?

But for the three human characters in the novel, the relationship with At the Edge of a Wood is anything but healthy. For Sara, painting it is an act of mourning she is driven to complete, as if it will assuage her grief or extend the too-short life of her daughter. For Marty, even as he seeks to reclaim the painting he suspects it has been a bad luck charm, blaming it for generations of ill health and unhappiness. And as for Ellie: what kind of self-destructive act is it to write a book about the very painting she forged, to spend a career shedding light on that one work, and to literally invite the crimes of her past to her doorstep? That is some serious projection of personal issues onto someone (or something) else.

As the plot thickens so do these issues until—they release. Sara finds happiness and love; Marty lives a long and happy (enough) life; and Ellie lets go of her demons, or they let go of her. And all three are able to rekindle a healthy relationship—a spark of new romance—with the object that inspired it all to begin with.

What did you think of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? Tell us in the comments, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

*See what I did there? Bonus books to tide you over until the next SAM Book Club installment! You’re welcome.

Photo: Natali Wiseman
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SAM Book Club: Up Next – The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Welcome back book lovers! It’s time to announce this quarter’s read for SAM Book Club.

For those who missed our inaugural installation of this new virtual club, here’s how it works: Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. We’ll announce the book about a month before the book club date so that you can get your hands on a copy and read along. We’ll meet back here on the blog a month later to discuss in the comments.

This month we’ll be reading The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith. The publisher describes this newly-released novel as “a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth.” I mean, can you resist?

Pick up a copy, take it to the beach, or the pool—or wherever these sunny summer days are calling you—and meet me back here on August 25 to discuss The Last Painting of Sara de Vos!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

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SAM Book Club: I Am Madame X

Welcome back to the inaugural edition of SAM Book Club! Today we’re discussing Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X, and the woman behind John Singer Sargent’s most infamous portrait.

It probably comes as no surprise that Sargent’s 1884 portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau caused, as they say, a stir. With a neckline that would be classified as a “deep plunge” even by today’s standards, Madame Gautreau’s 19th-century little black dress spoke clearly and unapologetically to the sitter’s sensuality. When you add her bluish-pale skin, the originally dangling shoulder strap, and—most scandalous of all—her wedding ring, you get a picture of a brash, vain, and sexual (married) woman living a century before her time.

Diliberto does an excellent job of capturing (or perhaps reconstructing) this personality. A work of historical fiction in the guise of a memoir, I Am Madame X is told in Virginie’s voice—a particularly poignant approach since her voice, and indeed even her name, had for so long been removed from the portrait. Diliberto relays some of her subject’s frustration and anger at this erasure, in a prologue narrated by the fictional curator Richard Merriweather:

“[Sargent] still calls it Portrait of Madame ***, just as it was titled at the Salon, or simply, Portrait. And he always requests that your name not be communicated to the newspapers. Isn’t that amusing?”

Virginie wasn’t amused at all. In fact, she was furious. “Don’t I have a name?” she cried, rising out of her chair. . . . “If Sargent had any honor, he would call my picture Portrait of Virginie Avegno Gautreau. After all, it is my picture as much as his.”

It was the claim over her own representation that so struck me in reading this passage, and which I returned to over and over throughout the book. Of all the many relationships Virginie has throughout the novel—with her family, with Sargent, with her ill-fated romances—it is the relationship with her physical self that the rest of the narrative hinges on. Her beauty is her calling card, profession, and meal ticket all wrapped up in one, and she cultivates it accordingly. True, much of this is imposed on her by external pressures, most notably her mother (let’s take a minute to remember that dear old mom made Virginie ingest poison to make her skin paler. Parents, amiright?). But ultimately Virginie’s self-determination to secure her status as Most Beautiful Woman in Paris drives much of the novel’s plot. The clothes must be flattering; the hair must be hennaed; and the skin must be near-deathly pale.

Which makes Sargent’s removal of her name from this carefully constructed image—much less the public’s decrying it as ugly—such a twist of the knife. If her whole reputation, persona, even sense of self-empowerment, is tied to her physical appearance, what does it mean to take that identification away?

At the end of the novel Virginie muses about how “everything was changed”, but what really struck me was how much seemed to be the same. The racial and social hierarchies of post-belle époque France and postbellum Louisiana are still very much in play. Virginie has a happy relationship with her daughter, but the girl’s “grand society” marriage to a successful man is still celebrated as a great achievement, exactly as Virginie’s own mother wished for her. And, in the estimation of the prologue’s narrator, “though her figure had become matronly, her finely lined face was still beautiful”—the ultimate “she looks great (for her age).” Everything has changed and everything is the same.

Well, not quite everything: Virginie has reclaimed her representation. She is Madame X.

What did you think of I Am Madame X? Do you agree that her physical appearance was essential to her identity? Did you think she changed by the end of the novel? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for the announcement of next quarter’s book!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

Photo: Natali Wiseman
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Hey, we’re starting an art book club!

SAM staff members tend to be avid book lovers, and when we’re not talking about art, you’ll likely find us talking about books. The books we’re reading now, the books on hold at the library, and the books we stayed up too late last night finishing. The books we couldn’t put down, and the books we just… couldn’t get through. We compare reading lists, meet in lunchtime book clubs, and make mass trips to the library to pick up the next haul. And yet, we still can’t seem to get enough—so I’m bringin’ it to the internet, to talk about books with you.

Introducing: SAM Book Club. Once a quarter, I’ll be selecting a book about art to talk about here on SAM Blog. Fiction or nonfiction, old or new—it’s all fair game! About a month before each SAM Book Club post we’ll let you know what we’re reading this quarter so you can get a copy and read along, then meet back here to discuss it in the comments.

To inaugurate SAM Book Club, we’ll be reading I Am Madame X, by Gioia Diliberto—the fictionalized account of Virginie Gautreau, the stunning subject of John Singer Sargent’s painting, Portrait of Madame X (1883-4). I’m looking forward to learning about the rule-breaking, scandal-raising, modern woman behind Sargent’s most infamous work, and her life in belle époque Paris. So, dear readers, hit up your local library, grab a copy, and meet me back here on May 24 to talk about I Am Madame X!

Happy reading!

—Carrie Dedon, Curatorial Assistant, Modern & Contemporary Art

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