Curator Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt on “Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary”

Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt is an internationally renowned curator and scholar of Spanish art. She’s organized important exhibitions, published several books and articles, and lectured around the world on major Spanish artists like Murillo, Velázquez, and Goya, as well as work by lesser-known and unknown artists working in the Americas. She’s curated the Blanton’s exhibition Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South America, which is on view through June 14 and which will re-open on June 20 with a new rotation of eight different paintings. Adam Bennett, the Blanton’s manager of public programs, spoke with Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt recently about the exhibition, which she’ll be discussing at the Blanton this Thursday evening at 6:30.

Our Lady of the Pillar

Unidentified Artist, Peru, possibly Lima, Our Lady of the Pillar with a Franciscan and a Dominican Monk, 17th century, Oil on canvas, The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection, 2004.1

Q: You have a very diverse background—how did you come to be interested in South American colonial paintings?

A: I was drawn to working with Spanish colonial art through a long series of life events: first, when I was a child, we lived in the the Caribbean and in Mexico. So Hispanic culture generally has always been a little bit of my own. I grew up with it and I spoke Spanish. When my family moved back to the US and I went to college, I majored in Spanish literature. And then I went on and got a masters degree in comparative literature, which was concentrated on Spanish and French theatre of the 17th century.

And then, a big leap: I got married, had children, and when my children went to school, I went to graduate school in art history. And at that point I decided that my background suited me to Spanish art. So that became my field of research and work for a couple of decades, and it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I had two new opportunities: one working with a private collector, and one working on a major exhibition with the Philadelphia Museum of Art [the exhibition Journeys to New Worlds] on Spanish colonial art. And so these two new projects allowed me to dive in and reinvent myself in a way.

There are many overlaps with what I knew about art in Spain, but it’s new and different, and it’s such an open field—I’ve stuck with it and I’m still enjoying it very much.

Q: You were doing graduate studies in Spanish literature at the same time that the Latin American Boom writers were flourishing [especially Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar]. Were you interested in that movement in contemporary Latin American literature?

A: Yes, but my undergraduate degree was in the Spanish literature of the golden age: Cervantes and Lope de Vega. In the US at that time, contemporary Latin American literature wasn’t such a big deal: people didn’t know very much about it. I love modern and contemporary Latin American literature, even extending up to the novels of someone like Junot Díaz, but that wasn’t part of my academic background—it’s just something else that I’m interested in. The academic study of contemporary Latin American literature would have to wait for someone from a generation younger than me.

By Jiuguang Wang (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Basilica del Pilar by Jiuguang Wang.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Spain License.

Q: Among the works in the exhibition at the Blanton, can you point to one that stands out among others in the genre?

A: The most idiosyncratic work on view at the Blanton right now is Our Lady of the Pillar with a Franciscan and a Dominican Monk. Our Lady of the Pillar is a devotion in Zaragoza, Spain, but it’s really internationally Hispanic at this point in time because Our Lady of the Pillar is the patroness of the national day of Spain, the Día de la Raza. So she has come from being a local cult to being an international figure, very much admired today.

This particular work of art is so interesting because the painting shows the sculpture as it appears, and not in a narrative context. She’s actually appearing on a pillar and saying, “I want a church built here in my honor.” And that’s the great Basílica del Pilar today, which I’ll talk about on Thursday. So I think what interests me most about this painting is that it is so unique: in Spanish colonial art, a lot of images are repeated, but this image of the pillar is one that really stands alone.

Make sure to stop by the Blanton this Thursday, May 21 at 6:30pm to learn more about the Basilica del Pilar and Spanish-Colonial painting from Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt.

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Social Iconography and Graphics in Mexican and Chicano Art

The bilingual exhibition All the Signs are (T)Here: Social Iconography in Mexican and Chicano Art from Collections at The University of Texas at Austin emerges from my research this year as the Mellon Curatorial Fellow of Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art at the Blanton. As a Mellon Fellow, I sought to learn more about Mexican and Chicano works because they reflect a part of the Latin American populous that resides in Austin and in the United States.

Protest/Strike Sign, available upon special request, from the archives of the Benson Latin American Collection, from the series Historical Present, 2014 Archival inkjet print Housed at the Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, part of John L. Warfield Collection for African and African American Studies

Protest/Strike Sign, available upon special request, from the archives of the Benson Latin American Collection, from the series Historical Present, 2014, Archival inkjet print, Housed at the Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, part of John L. Warfield Collection for African and African American Studies

One of the many fortuitous discoveries during my research was Ricky Yanas’s 2014 Protest/Strike Sign, Available upon Special Request, From the Archives of the Benson Latin American Collection. The photograph tells a Texan Chicano narrative that also interweaves various other Chicano histories. The work depicts a sign used in the 1971 Austin Chicano Huelga, a strike staged by predominantly Mexican American workers in Austin, Texas. California-based civil rights leader César Chávez led the strike—which was part of the ultimately successful effort to gain bargaining rights with the strikers’ employer, Economy Furniture Company. The photograph not only succinctly outlines the historical and political context of Chicano history, it also plays upon art historical references: the clean lines of the sign’s handle and the dark molding along the floor divide the image into distinct planes reminiscent of geometric abstraction and minimalism. The black floorboard visually extends the sign to form an inverted cross, evocative of the Christian symbol of humility.

I discovered the artworks featured in my exhibition while reviewing The University of Texas at Austin’s collections as part of my curatorial research. All the works I included are drawn from those research collections, like Yanas’ photograph of a sign held in the archives of UT’s Benson Library. His work was exhibited at the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Art in the exhibition at the exhibition Historical Present curated by Rose Salseda. The photograph is now part of the Warfield Collection.

Installation shot of All the Signs are (T)Here: Social Iconography in Mexican and Chicano Art from Collections at The University of Texas at Austin

Installation shot of All the Signs are (T)Here: Social Iconography in Mexican and Chicano Art from Collections at The University of Texas at Austin

All the Signs are (T)Here makes connections between Chicano histories (Texan, Texican, and otherwise) as well as between Mexican and Chicano histories.  In most museum shows, these artistic practices have been narrated and exhibited separately. The exhibition at the Blanton, however, explores relationships between their shared histories. From mural movements to print workshops, Mexican and Chicano art is known for its emphasis on legible graphic communication as well as its social and political aims. All the Signs are (T)Here brings together a range of expressions—including many works reflecting upon or participating in popular and material culture—featuring the work of artists who playfully rework the tropes of these legacies. It considers the ‘graphic’ both in terms of graphic design—the way finding systems from exit signs to gendered symbols indicating which bathroom to use—and graphic content: images which depict violence or sex in ways that disturb. The exhibition considers the various ways artists use the sign, from social justice endeavors to formalist pursuits, as a flexible social directive that invites interpretation from the audience. The works on view deal with historical moments ranging from the post-revolutionary reforms of 1920s Mexico, to the undeclared Guerra sucia (Dirty War) in the 1960s and 1970s, to the workers rights and UndocuQueer movement in 20th century and contemporary Texas.

Manuel Felguérez

Manuel Felguérez, Signo convexo, 1975, Painted metal, 10 in. x 12 3/8 in. x 11 1/2 in., Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1975.

The exhibition also features examples from the Benson Collection, including a Guided Meditation and reading from the book Borderlands/La Frontera by its author, Gloria Anzaldúa courtesy of the Gloria Anzaldúa Trust and Puro Chingon Collective. In addition to these collections, the show also features work from the Blanton’s collection by artists Pedro Friedeberg, Francisco Dosamantes, Manuel Felguerez (pictured here), Alfredo Zalce, and Anton Vidokle. [2] Also on view is a screen print by Patssi Valdez that is part of the promised gift to the Blanton of more than 350 Self Help Graphics collection prints from Gilberto Cárdenas.

A showcase of the Mexican and Chicano resources at UT’s research institutions, All the Signs are (T)Here features works that reflect upon key historical moments of possibility and change. I will lead a gallery tour of the exhibition on May 21 and look forward to continuing the conversation about these works and UT’s Mexican and Chicano communities.

Alexis Salas is a PhD candidate in Art and Art History at UT Austin, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art at the Blanton. She received her BA in History of Art and Spanish from Amherst College and her MA in Art History from the University of Chicago. Alexis also studied at Universität der Künste Berlin and at the California Institute of the Arts prior to working toward her PhD. Salas has been a recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship, the DAAD Fellowship, and several awards to conduct research, teach, and lecture in Latin America, Europe and North America. Her research interests concern socially engaged art practices and the social role of the artist.

[1] Independent of my research, the forthcoming book The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin, edited by Andrée Bober will explore UT’s holdings.

[2] Blanton visitors may remember Anton Vidokle’s 2003 Nuevo [New] which the museum featured in its permanent collection exhibition for several years. M Manuel Felguérez’ 1975 Signo convexo [Convex Sign] was exhibited in the 1970s at what was then called the University Art Museum.

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Bearing Witness to Awe: Some Final Thoughts on Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Blanton

Jack Whitten

Jack Whitten, King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968, Oil on canvas, Collection of the artist, courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York

A few weeks ago, a visitor came up to me after I had finished leading a tour of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Blanton. He overheard me speaking in detail about Jack Whitten’s King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), a large painting that teeters delicately between abstraction and figuration, bearing a fiery hot palette, and made after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. He trailed our tour group in the last few galleries of the show, which is often the case with viewers who are curious enough to want to know more.

The man extended his hand, a smile on his face. He pulled me over to the ‘Beloved Community’ gallery, which is filled with black-and-white images of the communities directly involved or affected by the Civil Rights Movement—a Richard Avedon photo of Julian Bond marching with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Danny Lyon’s iconic image of Bob Dylan singing to a group of African Americans behind a SNCC office in Greenwood, Mississippi; official White House photos by Yoichi Okamoto of LBJ having tea with MLK in the Oval Office. He said it was his favorite gallery in the show. Not for the black-and-white photos, however, but rather for the colorful Romare Bearden collage at its center.

Romare Bearden

Evan Garza giving a Perspectives Talk in front of Romare Bearden’s work in Witness

“Growing up in North Carolina in the sixties, my parents always told me about Romare Bearden. They would show me images of his work in books so that I would know he was important—that black artists could be famous… I have never seen his work in person until now.”

He was beaming from cheek to cheek, his head turning back and forth between my face and those rendered in Bearden’s collage. The sound of Nina Simone’s fierce, impassioned singing bled in from the next gallery as we spoke about the work. He stood there with his arms crossed, shaking his head from time to time, as if in disbelief. The man had waited his whole life to see this artist’s work, and now he was finally standing in front of it. His eyes were full and wet when he thanked me, before walking slowly into the next gallery, following the sound of Nina’s piano and her pleas for peace.



This was one of my favorite moments during Witness—when the impact of these artworks, and the tumultuous period they came out of, became fully realized for the viewer in front of my eyes. And there were dozens more like this—more moments than I can count. Last week a high school student wearing a #BlackLivesMatter shirt chased me down in the Blanton atrium to tell me the show was “really cool.” What I find to be even cooler is that a museum can be a safe space for visitors of all kinds to safely and elegantly unpack and digest some of the most difficult issues of the day. A leader of the Austin chapter of the Black MBA Association reminded me Friday that, “we cannot know where we’re going unless we know where we have already been.”

Charles White

Charles White, Awaken from the Unknowing, 1961, Charcoal on paper, 30.7 x 55.5 in., Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon Family Collection

Witness has been a transformative exhibition for the Blanton, and for months our visitors have been tweeting at us with #WitnessVoices and sharing their experience of race and beauty in contemporary American culture. Visitors with lived experiences of discrimination in the 1960s have passed through our galleries next to wide-eyed elementary school kids with questions about the nature of injustice, each just as moved and as curious. And with the Blanton’s new major gift of 20 works by artist Charles White, scholarship on his work and American art from the African diaspora will continue to flourish at the University of Texas well after Witness has come and gone.

On that note: Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties closes in less than a week, on view through Sunday, May 10. If you haven’t had a chance to see this exhibition of important and groundbreaking work, now is the time!

Evan Garza
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Managing Curator, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

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Art as a Way of Seeing: Two Works by Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro, Colombia Coca-Cola, 2010, enamel on tin, edition 10/11, Susman Collection, 2014. Photo by Milli Apelgren.

If you chose to escape the SXSW revelry last month with a visit to the Blanton, you may have happened upon the installation of two new works in the museum’s Klein Gallery. Both are recent acquisitions created by the Colombian artist Antonio Caro.

The first is a painting on tin, in which the name of the artist’s native country is depicted in one of the most iconic typefaces in the world.

Across the gallery, a row of sixteen hand-painted posters wraps high along one wall to another, spelling in bold block letters “Aquí no cabe el arte,” or “Art does not fit here.” (One can’t help but wonder whether the work, in light of its positioning, is site-specific.)

Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro, Aquí no cabe el arte (Art Does Not Fit Here), 1972-2014, acrylic paint on paper, edition 2/2, Susman Collection, 2014. Photo by Milli Apelgren.

On the contrary, Caro has been making and remaking series of work like Aquí no cabe el arte and Colombia Coca-Cola since the early 1970s, when he became one of the first Colombian artists to engage with ideas as his principal subject. In Caro’s practice, material and technique are always second to meaning. His media of choice often include materials that are inexpensive and close at hand, like salt, sand, natural dyes, and cardboard.

At the same time, Caro’s use of format and poor materials is purposeful. His works often evoke popular advertisements and signs of protest and recycle old motifs. Such strategies are intended to dispel the notion of artistic aura and originality. In a 1974 interview, the artist explained, “People think that art is something mystical, something outside of the everyday. There are people that assign it metaphysical, transcendental value. Not me. I think of art as a way of seeing.”

Caro’s use, repetition, and subversion of popular logos stems from his experience working at an ad agency as a young artist. There he learned how an image, like a missile, could be used to “hit the target” of people’s desires. Colombia Coca-Cola harnesses the ubiquity of the Coca-Cola logo, historically treated as a signifier of U.S. capitalism, to call into question the distance between the producer and the consumer. Unlike in modern ads, the handmade quality of the painting (note the absence of a dot over the “i”) points to an invisible agent guiding our consumption of popular imagery.

Antonio Caro

Antonio Caro, Aquí no cabe el arte (detail)

Similarly, Aquí no cabe el arte [Art does not fit here] exemplifies Caro’s ability to use simple means to convey a complex web of meanings. Originally conceived for Colombia’s National Salon of 1972, this work refers, on one level, to that venue, which was being boycotted by a number of artists at the time. But the tongue-in-cheek snub gives way to a pointed reflection on the chaotic political situation in Colombia. Beneath each letter of the banner, Caro inscribed the name of a slain university student or indigenous activist and the year and location of the protest in which he or she was killed. Interpreted as a whole, the work questions the place of art and the art institution in the midst of national trauma.

The installation of these two works by Antonio Caro continues the Blanton’s history of collecting and displaying postwar conceptual art from South America. Visit the Blanton now through July to experience it for yourself.

Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American Art.

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Paper and Performance: The Bent Page

Everyday life is full of paper objects—a dollar bill, a utility bill, a receipt; each of these evoke a range of senses from dread to desire or delight. These objects all participate in different hierarchies: we attribute more value to a birth certificate, say, than to a 49-cent stamp or a grocery list.

U.S. Department of Labor Declaration of Intention for Pietro Anania, May 31, 1928. Image courtesy

U.S. Department of Labor Declaration of Intention for Pietro Anania, May 31, 1928. Image courtesy

In the digital age, sometimes paper’s scarcity is the thing that generates its value. Here’s a scan of my great-grandfather’s immigration papers that I found catalogued on this week. Subscribers to the site are willing to pay a premium subscription fee in order to see, on paper (even if it’s actually an image of paper), how their identity connects with the past. In this case the paper is a certain kind of performance—it implies age, validity, authenticity.

Inspired by this range of dynamics, I began planning my exhibition Paper and Performance: The Bent Page, which opens April 25. The show’s main argument is that paper isn’t just a surface for drawing or planning; it is a medium that does specific kinds of work and reveals and performs things for the viewer. The show notes the spike in artists’ use of paper in the 1960s and 1970s, when Xerox technology was first introduced and social theories about behavior and communication were widely studied. In this period writers like Erving Goffman were proposing that all social interactions, including private gestures, were performances—a theory that has gained currency in contemporary life.

The show continues up to the present, a time when we see our culture as fundamentally paperless. Like my great-grandfather’s Declaration of Intention, paper elicits a certain sense of gravity in the present moment, but the material also feels weighty and cumbersome. The show demonstrates how paper often disrupts or weighs down our relationship to information in contemporary life, and how it generates unexpected moments of connection, longing, or mourning.

Channa Horwitz

Channa Horwitz, Sonakinatography I: Varied Movement for Multi Media, 1969. Ink and colored pencil on paper, 18 x 13 ½ inches. LeWitt Collection, Chester, CT.

My research gained ground from a trip to the private collection of artist Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) in Chester, Connecticut. LeWitt constantly bought and traded work with his friends. Many artists like Channa Horwitz (1932–2013) became acquainted with LeWitt through this habit of exchanging art. As a result, LeWitt amassed a collection of thousands of works over his lifetime. He traded everything imaginable: postcards, sketches, artists’ books, snapshots and paper objects.

One such object was Horwitz’s Sonakinatography I: Varied Movement for Multi Media, 1969, a musical performance score on gridded graph paper. Traded to LeWitt after Horwitz met the artist in Los Angeles in the early 70s, this small 18-by-13 1/2 -inch work is an amazing example of paper as an “in between” medium, part sketch, part score, and part artwork. (Many of these scores, including this one, were never performed and are shown instead as stand-alone works of art.) We can imagine LeWitt standing in front of it attempting to decode its geometric symbols like some kind of medieval codex. The gridded page doesn’t just invite engagement; it demands it.

Constantina Zavitsanos

Constantina Zavitsanos, I would prefer not to, 2013. Printer paper and C-clamp. Collection of the artist; image courtesy Constantina Zavitsanos.

The reverse is true of Constantina Zavitsanos’ sculpture I would prefer not to (2013), which consists of three years’ worth of the artist’s student loan debt printed out hour-by-hour. At almost 1000 pages long, the work is bound with a clamp so that viewers in the gallery can page through it like a book; however, it’s a book that no one really wants to read. It inspires the same behavior that most of us feel when we see a bill: we want to turn away, to put it aside; anything to get past the heaviness that the paper document implies. (Even the work’s title refers to an act of refusal: it takes its name from a line in Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, in which a bureaucratic worker begins refusing to do the writing that he’s been hired to do, saying instead that he “would prefer not to.”) The sculpture is the remains of a performance that the artist herself executed during her residency at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 2013, when she began printing out her calculated debt every day. She recalls, “I started thinking about the work in the same way [Minimalist sculptors in the late ‘60s] did: what do I have a lot of? Carl Andre had a lot of bricks. Donald Judd had a lot of aluminum. I had a lot of debt.”

After visiting Paper and Performance: The Bent Page, you may find yourself going through your mail, sifting through shoeboxes of letters, or perusing old photographs with new eyes as these networks and lives of paper become visible. The material may take on an added gravity or levity. If you’re just curious about your own historical documents, though, you’re in luck: has a fourteen-day trial subscription, so you can search unencumbered by real paper.

Katie Anania is a PhD candidate in art and art history at UT Austin, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton. Her dissertation, “Tracing Difference: Drawing, Intimacy and Privacy in New York Studio Practice, 1963-1979″, examines new drawing strategies among downtown New York artists in light of changing approaches to identity and “personal space”. The project has received awards from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, the Getty Research Institute, the Pittsburgh Foundation, and Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University. 

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Art and Evidence of the Civil Rights Movement

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, Malcolm X Holding up Black Muslim Newspaper, Chicago, Illinois, 1963, Gelatin silver print, 15 1/2 x 18 3/4 in., The Gordon Parks Foundation, Purchase, New York, EL113.060. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a particularly turbulent chapter in American history. It was the product of social inequality, was motivated by hope and justice, and took place in tandem with a quickly growing media culture. Black-and-white pictures of protestors attacked by dogs in the Birmingham race riots, footage of President Kennedy’s assassination on live television, and images of helicopters full of American men in Vietnam flooded television screens and newspaper pages. It was the dawn of modern American media culture; sensational images of turmoil landed front and center on a scale like never before.

These images would provide the evidence of a growing shift in American ideals, and serve as documents of the legacy of injustice that plagued American men and women of color. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the power of images, and often tipped off photojournalists when he and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) members were planning a protest. White photographer James ‘Spider’ Martin was there in Selma, Alabama on what would be deemed Bloody Sunday, and documented now infamous images of violence and police brutality. He stayed to photograph marchers from Selma to Montgomery, and his archive of photographs of this watershed moment in the fight for voting rights is an important body of work.

Sam Gilliam

Installation view: Sam Gilliam, Red April, 1970, Acrylic on canvas, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, Gift of The Longview Foundation and Museum purchase, 1971.11

Artists also responded fervently. Washington D.C. painter Sam Gilliam witnessed the riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination from the windows of his studio, and painted a body of work in response. Other black painters like Jack Whitten produced abstracted compositions in charred palettes or hot fields of color. White artists like Jim Dine, Mark di Suvero, and May Stevens, whose practice would be forever changed by Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington, also contributed in significant ways to the art-making discourse surrounding segregation, discrimination, and violence against African Americans.

Join me and Don E. Carleton, director of the Briscoe Center for American History, this Wednesday, April 8 at 6pm for “Perspectives: Art and Evidence of the Civil Rights Movement” at the LBJ Presidential Library, a conversation moderated by LBJ Library Director, Mark Updegrove. Don and I will present and discuss works included in the LBJ Library exhibition March to Freedom, organized in collaboration with the Briscoe Center, and Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, organized by the Brooklyn Museum and on view at the Blanton until May 10.

More details are available here. We hope you’ll join us!

Evan Garza
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

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Meerkat vs. Periscope: Which App Comes out on Top?

koven 8:22 AM
Hey, is Evan’s perspectives talk today? We should Meerkat it if so.

Those two sentences sent on Slack from Koven Smith, the Blanton’s Director of Digital Adaptation, set off a frantic 4 hours on what had been a normal work day in March. With the launch of Meerkat, a live-streaming video service through your phone, the online world was abuzz about this new piece of technology that had been developed in only eight weeks. Meerkat had taken South by Southwest by storm here in Austin a week before, so it seemed only natural to see if it would work as a way to broadcast tours given in our galleries. Shortly after I received the message from Koven, we discovered that Periscope, Twitter’s similar-but-different live streaming app, had launched that very morning. An embarrassment of streaming riches! Which app should we use?

The answer was obvious: we would stream assistant curator Evan Garza’s talk on Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties on both apps simultaneously. Boom.

Meerkat (L) and Periscope (R) during live broadcasts. Photo via The Guardian

Meerkat (L) and Periscope (R) during live broadcasts. Photo via The Guardian

Koven and I spent the morning playing around with each app and testing our (private) WiFi strength in the galleries. Our first attempts at broadcasting inside of Witness went well, without any connectivity issues. When we moved back to Koven’s office to test the desktop versions of each app, we discovered that commenting in Meerkat, currently, is tied to twitter—anything you say in a comment while watching a live-stream is sent to your twitter account, while Periscope’s comments function only within the app without being published elsewhere (for now). During the course of our testing, Koven and I made a new friend through Periscope—@bizpaul, who stumbled on our broadcast by accident, became enamored with Koven’s Ray Bans, and helped us try out a few features from across the pond. Thanks, Paul!

Koven: This was some pretty seat-of-our-pants testing, since the only way we could really test the two apps was just to stream them live and hope that not too many people were watching us. However, Periscope was so new at that point that a bunch of people were just watching any and all streams coming across the wire, including our test. This meant people were tuning in to experience Alie and I saying things like, “hey, see what happens when you landscape-orient the camera,” or “there seems to be about a five-second delay between the desktop stream and the stream on the app.” Thrills! This testing was really important, though, because it did help us to figure out that the two apps treat camera orientation differently, which I don’t think we would have known otherwise.

Once we committed to broadcasting Evan’s talk to our (hopefully present) audience, we needed to figure out logistics. Koven was Team Meerkat, while I manned the helm of Periscope—each of us would broadcast from our respective apps at the same time, delivering the same content but through different platforms. After talking to Evan and making sure he was okay with his tour being broadcast to millions hundreds a handful of internet strangers, away we went to the galleries, hoping that our experiment more or less worked the way we had hoped.

Long story short: it did.


Periscope’s post-stream analytics

Both apps broadcasted the entire 47 minute tour without any hiccups in network connectivity. After some (kind of aggressive) outreach on my part to fellow museum social media and tech people, we ended up with roughly 10 viewers on Meerkat, and 5 on Periscope, with the latter giving a clean analytics breakdown of retention rate, total viewers, time watched, and duration.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Holding an iPhone to your chest for 45 minutes while trying to keep the feed steady leaves your arms feeling like you just powerlifted in the Olympics. If you’re planning to broadcast something as long as a tour or a talk, it would be wise to invest in a tripod or have someone on hand to take over when your arms inevitably fail you.
  • It was difficult to film the tour without being disturbing/distracting to the real bodies standing next to you. To get a clear shot, I had to stand close to Evan, but that often meant blocking someone’s view of the art. I also waited until the tour had moved on to another artwork before zooming in for detail shots, which was a bit of an inconvenience for online viewers. Evan has a great speaking voice, but if you have a quieter lecturer, you’ll need to move in closer to get clear audio—which would probably be even more annoying for your real-life tour companions.
  • Text commenting in Periscope was non-existent. As the broadcaster, I had no way to interact with my viewers outside of speaking directly to them through the phone, which I tried to do in whispers between stops on the tour. Meerkat allows the person filming to type comments back to their audience (which, FYI, also post on Twitter), which I would have appreciated. Based on feedback from our viewers, it seemed that people liked the comments on Meerkat better—they remained on the screen so you could scroll back through them, while Periscope’s disappeared if you happened to look away for a second, with no way to see them again.

Koven: I found that I don’t really have a good eye for framing a shot in real-time; I was constantly settling for shots that had both Evan and the artwork he was discussing in them instead of something a little more dynamic. For all its informality, I did feel that a skilled cinematographer could really make this format sing in a way that I couldn’t. I did really enjoy the text commenting in Meerkat; I was able to respond in real time to people commenting on the stream (though I think my video got a little shaky while I was trying to thumb-type on my phone).


Screenshot from our Meerkat stream, with my hands and Periscope in the foreground—so meta! Photo via Chris Alexander.

One thing that I did wonder as we were filming in the galleries: was our filming sending a conflicting message to our visitors, since visitor photography is not allowed in Witness? When visitors walk up to the front desk, they’re shown two separate signs that say photography is prohibited in Witness; when they get to the exhibition entrance, there is another stanchion with the same message, followed by yet another placard as they pass through the entrance with a red X over a camera image. Was it frustrating for tour participants to see staff members filming the tour when they couldn’t take out their phones to snap a photo of the artwork? Full disclosure: if I was the visitor, I would have been annoyed. Even though the allowance of photography within the exhibition was out of our hands, I have to wonder whether efforts to bring the show to a wider audience through live-streaming risks alienating the visitors we already have.

Koven: This was definitely problematic, and I’ll be honest that this dissonance between our “no photos” policy and having two staff members stand there with camera phones was not clear to me until Mary Myers, who is responsible for most of the Blanton’s amazing video work pointed it out. This is where the lo-fi nature of both Meerkat and Periscope worked to our disadvantage–if Alie and I were both using big official-looking cameras rather than our camera phones, this dissonance wouldn’t have been as egregious.

Overall, though, both apps did exactly what they advertised: delivered live-streaming to people around the world with very little setup on the broadcaster’s end. For organizations with few staff resources and a little (or non-existent) budget, I can see both apps being invaluable to creating content without a lot of overhead.

Koven: Personally, I think if we were to do this again (which is almost certain), we would probably schedule a special gallery talk just for live streaming, where it would be easier to control for variables like sound and positioning. There was also something strangely intimate about both apps, and I think doing a live stream while the Museum is closed would accentuate this intimacy even more. I also had several people watching the Meerkat stream ask me (via comments) to move closer to a particular artwork, or to zoom in on details. This sort of thing would be much easier to do if I didn’t have to stay out of the way of other visitors.

So: team Meerkat or team Periscope? Further efforts will probably tell us more, but from our initial test I have to go with Periscope: commenting features aside, museum colleagues reported that it worked seamlessly on desktop and mobile, the user interface was cleaner than Meerkat, and it has the weight of Twitter to help it improve now that it’s out in the real world. However, changes are coming to both apps now that Meerkat raised an initial round of funding, so don’t count out this startup just yet. It will be interesting to see how museums use this new technology to bring their programs to a wider audience—and which app they’ll use to do it.

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Okay Mountain reunites at the Blanton Museum of Art

IMG_6624On a recent trip to Dallas, I checked into the DoubleTree Hotel and was promptly offered a warm chocolate chip cookie. The service was excellent from the cookie onward but as I wheeled my suitcase through the lobby, I couldn’t help but to notice that the interior décor felt standardized; I could just as easily have been in any other city in the United States or staying at another chain. There was a Starbucks in the lobby, a gift shop selling postcards and forgotten toiletries, an ATM and vending machine near the elevator, and the requisite outdated beige hall carpeting with a diamond pattern likely chosen to hide stains. But my favorite detail was the rack card display hawking local attractions: as much a staple of certain hotels as the buffet breakfast.

IMG_1845We just acquired Okay Mountain’s Roadside Attractions at the Blanton, a work that playfully riffs on these rack card stands. Okay Mountain’s nod to these stands is filled with irreverent humor, but what struck me in the hotel lobby is how funny the “real” rack cards often are. Some advertise the customary attractions—the zoo, local museums, outlet shopping malls, and in Dallas’s case, competing JFK Tours—while others offer somewhat eccentric activities: for example, Ripley’s Enchanted Mirror Maze in Grand Prairie, where “The Selfie Possibilities are Endless.” Competing for the tourist’s attention, the flyers are busily designed and zealously overuse exclamation points. Cheesy slogans are embraced without any of the irony that Okay Mountain brings to its counterpart.

Roadside Attractions, 2012, Birch plywood, Masonite and printed brochures, ed. 1/3. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase with funds provided by The Mark and Hilarie Moore Family Trust in memory of Timothy A. Fallon, 2014

Roadside Attractions, 2012, Birch plywood, Masonite and printed brochures, ed. 1/3. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase with funds provided by The Mark and Hilarie Moore Family Trust in memory of Timothy A. Fallon, 2014

For their work, the members of Okay Mountain designed 100 different rack cards that mimic and mock the campy tone and dense mishmash of styles often found in brochures. The cards—all of which are available for museum visitors to take—hawk activities that range from obscure and irreverent to the absurd: “Quiltin’ the Colorado!” (quilting and rafting tours); “Enjoy the Majesty of Mt. Rushmore without leaving the state!” (a half-scale version of the monument); “Visit the Second Largest Night Court Museum!” Other brochures possess a more biting humor that hints at the kind of ignorance and prejudice that can also be found in every state: for example, “The Vaguely African Museum” or “Crew Cut Clan” (haircuts designed like Klansmen hoods.) A few of the flyers refer to actual, offbeat local attractions. The Tabernacle of Trash, for example, depicts the Cathedral of Junk, an installation where a man has turned castoffs into a castle in his backyard.

Detail of brochure, Roadside Attractions, 2012

Detail of brochure, Roadside Attractions, 2012

Although the work is unapologetically humorous and at times even deliberately crude, it also captures a distinctly American spirit—a combination of brazen self-promotion, local pride, and a do-it-yourself attitude. Like other works by the group, Roadside Attractions plays on the conventions and absurdities of contemporary consumer culture. In the digital age we live in, where ads are tailored to consumers in sophisticated ways, these rack cards feel decidedly old-fashioned, even a little sweet, in spite of their low-cost look. They belong somewhere along a continuum of vernacular roadside attractions that includes billboards, misspelled menus, door-to-door solicitations, and funny local business signs (my personal Austin favorite: El Arroyo on West 5th Street).

soy milkFrom 2006-2010, the artist-run, alternative gallery space OKAY MOUNTAIN, presented several exhibitions each year highlighting local, national and international artists. What began as weekly collaborative drawing sessions during staff meetings, developed into a wide range of aesthetic projects and the formation of an artist collective—Okay Mountain. The nine members—who are now spread out across seven different cities in the US—only spend time all together when they are on the road, traveling to install and de-install shows. The hotels they stayed in became their de facto studios, in the case of Roadside Attractions, a source of inspiration.

All nine members will be at the Blanton Museum’s auditorium on Saturday, April 4 at 2pm to speak with me about their work and practice. This is the first time that all nine of them will speak together about their work in Austin.

The collective will also create a mural in downtown Austin. The Blanton has commissioned Okay Mountain to paint a mural as part of the Frank Public Art Wall. Installation will take place March 29-30 and will culminate with an opening reception at Frank (4th & Colorado) on Wednesday, April 15 from 6-9pm.

In the spirit of Roadside Attractions: Join us for any and all events! Good times and fun guaranteed!!!!!!

Veronica Roberts is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton.

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A Conversation with Christina Coleman

photo 4Ever since she graduated from UCLA in 200­6, University of Texas at Austin MFA grad Christina Coleman has been exploring themes surrounding portraiture, skin and hair. The Austin-based artist has shown her work at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, grayDUCK Gallery in Austin, and the John L. Warfield Center’s Isese Gallery and Visual Arts Center at UT Austin. Coleman recently installed Christina Coleman: A Spatial Continuum in Black at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, on view until April 7th. She spoke with Amethyst Beaver, Curatorial Assistant in Modern and Contemporary Art, about her experience growing up in Los Angeles, her love of David Hammons’ work, and her interest in hair.

Amethyst Beaver: To start, could you tell me a little bit about your personal history?

Christina Coleman: I have a younger brother and a sister and I am from L.A. originally. I was born there and I grew up in mid-city. It’s literally right in the center of L.A. proper, so it is twenty minutes to Hollywood, the beach, South Central, downtown. It was really cool growing up in LA. I really like that city, even still. It’s very diverse, even though it is a separated diverseness. There are signs throughout the city that say “Little Ethiopia,” “Little Armenia,” and “Thai town.” I lived in L.A. for most of my life, all the way through college. After graduating, I went to Pinggu, China, which is a small city about an hour and a half east of Beijing. I lived there for two years and then came back to the states and shortly after I moved to Austin, Texas where I now live.

AB: How did you start making art?

CC: I came into art making through my dad. He would take me and my brother and sister to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] every Friday to hear jazz.

A: They had a jazz concert every Friday at LACMA? 

C: Yeah, they would invite bands to come and play there. We were little—elementary school or junior high—and we didn’t like jazz, so we would just run around outside and wander in the gift shop and stuff. We kind of looked at the art. But for the most part, we were wandering around looking at the people.

A: You were just being kids. 

C: Yeah, and I think that growing up in that environment made it more comfortable for us to be in galleries in the first place. My dad started taking us to a gallery in old town Pasadena so we got used to looking at art. I can still remember some paintings from that time. For me museums and galleries were never associated with being boring or quiet. My dad would usually take us to opening receptions and there would always be a lot of people talking, drinking, and having a good time.

 A: When did you start making art?

CC: On Saturdays, during my last year in junior high, my dad took us to these art classes at the Watts Towers Art Center. Cal Arts had this community arts partnership program (CAP) and basically grad students from Cal Arts would come to different inner cities in L.A. and teach art to high school and junior high kids. I took mostly animation classes. I really enjoyed them.

A: It is so neat that they would offer those classes.

C: Yeah and it was free! (Laughter) That’s really how I got started in art, my dad bringing me up around it. He had friends who were painters. His friend, Bernard Stanely Hoyes, is a well-known painter in LA. I just grew up in—

A: —An arts friendly environment?

C: Yeah! (Laughter) it wasn’t the type of environment where I was told, “you’re not going to do art” (Laughter) I also attended Fairfax High School, which had a visual arts magnet program, so I was making art there as well.

A: You went to UCLA’s visual arts program for undergrad. What was that like?

CC: The UCLA program treated the students as independent. It was a non-traditional art education. I really liked it. It was structured so that there was only a beginning and an advanced class. Most of the time the classes were really focused on your ideas. Most classes began with “you have X amount of assignments. What are your ideas? Lets talk about them, then you can carry them out.” Then we would just do critiques. Being at UCLA really opened up my mind about what art was.

A: What do you mean exactly?

CC: Before I went to UCLA, art was only one kind of thing for me. Art was Picasso or Rembrandt. And I really like Rembrandt. LOVE Rembrandt. Gosh that guy could paint. (Laughter) But art was only portraiture or landscape. I had these very traditional ideas of what art was. And I remember one time, thinking to myself, “if someone asked me why I painted this painting, I wouldn’t be able to tell them.” I would not be able to give some kind of explanation and that really bothered me on a subconscious level.

A: Were there any artists you were looking to at that time? 

CC: At UCLA, some of the departments had their own small libraries—the sculpture department had a little library in their space and I remember looking through books and that was when I first came across a David Hammons’ work. I saw his piece, his public sculpture, Higher Goals, and that blew my mind! (Laughter) I thought, “oh my gosh, wait, art can be political and social, it can relate to other things.” (Laughter)

A: When you graduated from UCLA, were you thinking that you wanted to go to grad school in studio art? Did you take some time off?

CC: I took two years off. When I finished undergrad, I knew that I wanted to go to grad school, but also I knew that I wasn’t ready to go. A professor hinted that to me. (Laughter). At the time I had wanted to go to grad school because I knew that I wanted to make better work and school would have the facilities to help me do that.

A: What did you do with your time off?

CC: I did this very strange thing and I moved to Beijing, China (Laughter). It wasn’t strange to me. (Laughter)

A: I don’t think it sounds strange. I think it sounds great.

CC: My friends were like, “What? What are you doing?” I had gone to China one summer through an exchange program to teach English. So when I decided to go there, I thought I would teach English and make artwork. I only intended to go for one year but I ended up staying there for two and I would have stayed longer, but my sister was graduating from college, so I came back for her graduation.

A: Looking back, do you think your experience in China influenced your work? What kind of imagery emerged?

CC: One thing that I took from my time in China that really filters into my practice now—although I didn’t realize it at the time—is an interest in large structures that exist in my surrounding environment and make me aware of my physical body in space. When I was living in Pinggu, I saw large smoke stacks, mountains, and giant inflatable arches everywhere throughout the city and its neighboring small towns. All of these have become and are still becoming imagery in my work.


Arch, 2012 Installation view at grayDUCK Gallery, Austin, TX, 2013

AB: What are these inflatable arches?

CC: In China, there is a form of advertising where stores will put giant inflatable arches in front of the entrance. The arches usually have a slogan or a word on it and a lot of times they are colorful, either green or red or blue and sometimes there will be many of them. They are huge, and you have to walk through them to enter the store. I was fascinated by those arches. That is where my work, Arch came from. After I came back to the states and started making work I realized that the structures I was interested in—like these arches—were simple in form and that these forms lent themselves toward metaphor. Much of my work now incorporates metaphor and simplicity of form.

A: Could you tell me more about your sculpture, Arch?

CC: To me, an arch is something that you pass through, almost like a portal. That’s why I really choose that form. It reminded me of how I felt going under the inflatable arches in China. I would stare up and look at them, hypnotized. I have experienced a similar feeling when looking at certain hairstyles. I was inspired to create a sculpture that embodied that same feeling and visually represented the hairstyle using the form of the arch. Since repetition lends itself to hypnosis I felt it appropriate to use many braids.

Arch, 2012 Installation view at grayDUCK Gallery, Austin, TX, 2013

Arch, 2012 Installation view at grayDUCK Gallery, Austin, TX, 2013

A: You used hair extensions and braided them?

CC: Yeah, I went to beauty supply stores and I bought synthetic braiding hair. A couple different ideas went into this piece. I was thinking about synthetic hair and exoticism of hair as it relates to difference or otherness. Thinking about animals in a way, if that makes sense.

A: It does. I’ve heard people say, “I hate it when someone asks, ‘can I touch your hair?’” Is that where you’re coming from? 

CC: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I remember when I was in the subway in Beijing and I had given the women my ticket and I was going down the stairs and then all of a sudden I hear, “Hey,” and I thought, “What’d I do now?” I went back up the stairs to her and she just reaches out her hand and touches my hair. I didn’t really mind—I was more concerned about trying to catch my subway train. Arch is really coming out of that kind of personal circumstance. I was also thinking about how other hairstyles, thickness, and textures of hair can be exoticized. You begin to be seen as other or different or fantastic in a way.

A: I have seen images of this work shown a couple different ways. This large arch is put together from two pieces right?

CC: I change the work every time I show it and I like that about it. I am planning on showing it as two separate arches. They become these creatures on the ground. I really like that about them. I like how the hair hangs—it becomes moss-like, or fur-like, like an animal.

A: Hair, hair care, hair products and hair politics seem to be really important themes in your work.

CC: Yes, these are important themes in my work. My work is always in some way about my experience, identity, and perspective as a black woman. For me hair is a significant part of this. I use hair to address many topics such as empowerment, freedom, maturation, beauty, pain, and more. In my personal hair care journey the key question I started to ask myself in college was, “Why do I have to straighten my hair? Why can’t I just wear it natural?” I was thinking about beauty being equated with process and alteration, versus beauty equated with a natural look.

When I was at UT, Dr. Cherise Smith [Associate professor of Art History and Director of the Warfield Center for African and African Diaspora studies] gave me the article “Black Style/Hair Politics,” by Kobena Mercer.

When I read Mercer’s text I gravitated toward his discussion of the Afro because he challenged the idea of what natural is. Mercer made the argument that the Afro, a visual marker of social solidarity during the 1960s, was a socially constructed hairstyle. No one just wakes up with their hair in an Afro. The Afro is in fact a style—you have to maintain it, manicure it, cultivate it, run your hands through it. It has gone through some kind of process. During that time, black people were interested in their “African roots” and were trying to make connections between the Afro and Africa. Mercer asserted that there were no African cultures that were wearing Afros or a style similar to it. It was interesting because it really got me thinking about what natural means.

My aunt grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. She said that she really wanted to wear an Afro, but her hair couldn’t actually do it—her hair would lay down flat. I think that’s an interesting thing too—that hairstyle was a visual representation of solidarity for African American people yet, my aunt’s experience also reveals the complexities that are involved within the politics of black hair.

A: When did you start working with hair gel? Were you working on the hair gel works and comb works simultaneously?

Floating Afro

Floating Afro (African Essence, Eco Styler, Ampro Pro Styl, Lusti Professional), 2013, Hair gel on paper

CC: These hair gel paintings began as an accident. I wanted to make prints of combs, but not in the traditional sense of a print. I was thinking about what material I could use that is hair-like that was going to give me a print I could emboss the comb in. I realized hair gel could do that. I took the gel with my hand and spread it on the paper and then I pressed the comb into it. When it dried, I removed the comb and the impression of the come was left on the paper. I began to see that the gel would make these patterns in the paper. I was really getting into the patterning and I thought that was a happy accident.

I then became interested in using the gel to make imagery that was associated with the ground or earth or the body. I didn’t want them to look realistically like a body, but to have the sense of a body. I really wanted them to read as skin. I’ve never owned a car; I always take the bus everywhere. I’ll look at people on the bus and some people’s bodies have a lot of history. I think that was filtering into my work subconsciously—I was thinking about how bodies have scars.

A: I can see that the gel has been applied very thickly in some areas.

CC: The thickness of the gel affects the drying time of how fast the paper will absorb it and affects the patterning. When I was working on that piece, I actually put it outside because I wanted to experiment to see if it would dry faster. It happened to rain a little—a light, misty rain—then when I brought it back in, I noticed that all the little spots were there. I didn’t really expect that to happen. It’s tricky working with the gel, it always does something that you don’t expect it to do. Going back to the idea of skin—the hair gel works are almost not even paper anymore. They become fabric-like, especially the large ones. I really like the relationship that whatever material the gel is on—canvas or paper—the gel is absorbed into it. It’s like our skin, it absorbs things.

Untitled (Eco Styler, African Essence, Softee, Ampro Pro Styl), 2013, Hair gel on paper

Untitled (Eco Styler, African Essence, Softee, Ampro Pro Styl), 2013, Hair gel on paper

A: How did you choose to use these hair gels?

CC: These are all gels that black women use. I was specific about that, initially. I was influenced by David Hammons’ works where he substitutes an object for a body part like he did when he created works where stones and shovels stand in as heads. Similarly, for me, the hair gel in its various shades of brown becomes a substitute for black skin.

A: What about the comb? How does that manifest in your work?

CC: For me, the comb was associated with this daily ritual of combing out my hair, and it was always a struggle. I have a complex relationship to the comb—I see it as something more than a grooming tool.

 Staff #4, 2011, Synthetic braiding hair, hair elastic with plastic balls, plastic barrettes, steel pole

Staff #4, 2011, Synthetic braiding hair, hair elastic with plastic balls, plastic barrettes, steel pole

AB: Is that what you were thinking about with the Staff and Spear series? How do these relate to Variations on the Pick?

CC: Yes, the hair staffs and spears stem from that idea. A staff is essentially an appendage. One uses it to protect him or herself. It is also an object that one can lean on for support. It marks and claims space every time it makes contact with the ground. By decorating the staffs with synthetic hair, barrettes and other materials, I give them agency; they become objects of empowerment. When I began making the spears I decided to cut a comb at an angle so that the teeth became sharp like a weapon. I have a relationship to combs in that they are tools that sometimes cause pain. I felt that making spears—and therefore weapons—was fitting for the comb.

Interestingly enough, once I locked my hair, I didn’t have to use a comb anymore. It was then that I began to make the small sculptures that were Variations on the Pick. For these sculptures I continued working with the same idea of repurposing the comb as a weapon but I also expanded this concept, thinking about the comb based on its physical form. In many of them I have stripped the teeth so that they are functionless in terms of being able to comb a person’s hair. Some of them are humorous in that way.

Variation on the Pick #1, 2014, Earthenware casting slip, ceramic glaze

Variation on the Pick #1, 2014, Earthenware casting slip, ceramic glaze

AB: Switching gears—Did you like the UT program?

CC: I did, it was great. Like I said, it was such a contrast to my UCLA experience. It was a completely different kind of ideology. I had never had a studio before going to UT, so I had this huge painting studio. A lot of professors really promoted a studio practice of a lot of making—a lot, lot, lot of making. They emphasized that the work would come about through the act of producing.

It was really good for me to work with [former UT professor] Michael Ray Charles. I consider him my mentor. He was very crucial for me in the program, because he provided a very approachable support. If I had a question I could talk to him about it, I would just call him up. And a lot of the professors were like that. I think they’re very open to spending time with students, really working with us. Margot Sawyer was really supportive. My work had become sculptural so it was really good to have her opinion.

That’s one thing about UT, I didn’t expect there to be a community of black artists and academics, but there really is. Not that I was looking for it, you know, it was just a nice surprise. When I was an undergrad, I think it was me and one other black girl in our class. I think there were eighty people in our class when I came in that year. You get used to it. I mean my dad would take us to galleries when we were little and we were the only black people there usually. There was something really nice about having that community here at UT. I will definitely say that it was one of the things that made it a positive experience. It’s also nice to see other black artist communities in Texas as well. You have the Otabenga Jones Collective in Houston.

Jamal Cyrus, Eroding Witness 7a, 2014, Laser-cut papyrus, ed. ½,

Jamal Cyrus, Eroding Witness 7a, 2014, Laser-cut papyrus, ed. ½, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of Jeanne and Michael Klein

A: The Blanton actually just acquired a work by Jamal Cyrus, a member of the Otabenga Jones Collective.

CC: Ahhh, you did?! I love his work. That’s so cool.

A: We’re super excited about it. Do you remember the first time you came to the Blanton?

CC: Yeah, the first time I came to the Blanton was during the Desire show in 2010. I went to the conversation that Marilyn Minter and Glenn Ligon had with [former Blanton curator] Annette DiMeo Carlozzi.

AB: That sounds like an amazing talk. You will have to come and see the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the 1960s. Knowing your love of David Hammons’ work, there is a piece in there that I think you will love. 

CC: I am looking forward to checking it out soon.

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The Great Museum Selfie Stick Ban of 2015, or This Post Is Search Engine Optimized

Selfie Stick

Obligatory shot of random people using a selfie stick. Photo by Flickr user simbiosc

It’s possible, though unlikely, that you’ve managed to make it through the last few weeks without hearing about the biggest news story in museums, a slowly unfolding epic tale that has been reported breathlessly moment by moment by news outlets both big and small. A story that is so important that even museums who aren’t yet involved are being asked to weigh in. You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out, gentle reader, because you are living through The Great Museum Selfie Stick Ban of 2015.

Just think! Years from now, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren stories of how, in 2015, museums around the world collectively said “enough!” and banished selfie sticks to the Land of Wind and Ghosts. They will listen in rapt attention, marveling at sepia-toned tales of the era before The Ban in which hundreds of museum visitors a day wandered around brandishing selfie sticks openly and wantonly. You will chuckle to yourself, thinking how little we knew back then. We used to be able to go into a museum, of all places, and take photos of ourselves from three feet away with sticks? Why didn’t we just go ahead and smoke cigarettes on airplanes while we were at it?

So, yeah. We here in the museum world have been dealing with the media’s fascination with our recent prohibitions of selfie sticks for a few weeks now. It seems that nearly every day yet another museum announces that it is banning the dreaded selfie stick, and nearly every day a new article dutifully appears in some publication reporting about said museum’s prohibition of the popular self-expression object/practical device/signifier of cultural decay. This story refuses to die. A full accounting of the number of articles on The Ban might lead one to believe that this is the most important issue facing museums at this moment, or at least that selfie sticks were somehow pervasive in museums before The Ban took effect.

Blanton Visitor

A Blanton visitor recording a performance in the atrium—shockingly, no selfie sticks were involved. © Blanton Museum of Art

Neither is the case, of course. If there is a real story here, it is that at the same time The Ban is sweeping across the museum world, many museums are actually liberalizing their photography policies. Here at the Blanton, prohibiting selfie sticks was almost an afterthought, added in at the last minute after several weeks of discussion about loosening up our own policies. We already prohibited tripods, monopods, and other pointy things, so we had a de facto selfie stick ban in place anyway. I honestly don’t know, when we began to play our part in The Ban, if we had actually ever even seen anyone try to use a selfie stick in the galleries. We were mostly focused on making sure we were allowing our visitors the maximum amount of expression while still ensuring the long-term safety of the objects in our care. The real story, for us, was not “we’re banning selfie sticks” but rather “visitors can take more photos and videos than ever before.”

But “museums liberalizing photography policies” isn’t a great story for the media, because that story doesn’t make conspicuous use of the popular search term “selfie.”

I seriously doubt that any of the reporters covering The Ban truly think this is big news. But they (and their editors) do know that any article with the word “selfie” in the title is likely to have waaaaay more page views than an article that doesn’t. And page views and clicks are what matter—the actual story being told is largely irrelevant. It didn’t matter if the real story was “museums are finally allowing photography,” because the hook that would get users to click the link was the word “selfie,” and that’s the quote-unquote angle most of the media went with. (Though I give much credit to the New York Times for providing some real context in their coverage of The Ban.)

I recognize that optimizing content to maximize search engine hits is Just How The Media Works Now, and that complaining about it is effectively the “get off my lawn” of the Twenty-Tens. I accept that. But watching The Ban somehow turn into a big story, despite there being virtually no story to tell, worried me. It has long been my contention that a museum that doesn’t appear in search results for a given topic is effectively not an authority on that topic, no matter how many experts it may employ. And seeing how the story of The Ban grew made me realize how difficult appearing in search results is going to be for museums.

Fundamentally, I think it would be wrong to ask a curator here at the Blanton to re-write his or her essay in listicle form just so we can get all the likes. The way that museums produce content just isn’t geared for Search Engine Optimization. But at the same time, this non-optimized content we produce is having a harder and harder time finding an audience organically. And by not attempting to show up in search results, we’re effectively making a decision to give up on using our online presence as a means of reaching people we wouldn’t—or couldn’t—reach otherwise.

There’s got to be a middle way here, and I don’t yet know what that is. I see promise in Google’s possible move towards using facts as a way to rank search results, but museums (art museums, anyway) rarely traffic in the kinds of facts that could be added to Google’s Knowledge Vault. So I don’t know how much of a difference that will make if and when Google moves in that direction. I certainly think there’s value in playing the long game and sticking to our guns, hoping that great content will win in the end. But I don’t know—by the time it does (if it does), will museums still have a place on the Internet?

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Discover the Blanton at Explore UT

eut_logo_large[1][1]This Saturday, March 7 marks the 16th annual “Biggest Open House in Texas,” Explore UT. During Explore UT, the public is invited to the UT Austin campus to learn more about the university’s goals, programs, and resources. Across the 40 Acres, visitors will find special events and activities spanning all genres and interests for everyone from early learners, to prospective students, to adults. Explore UT is a great opportunity to discover how campus communities work together and how learning extends beyond the classroom.

There is no better place for discovery to begin than at the Blanton Museum of Art. Throughout the year, classes across disciplines visit the Blanton because it provides unique opportunities for creative, participatory study alongside works of art from Old Master paintings to contemporary sculpture, and beyond. At Explore UT, the Blanton offers interactive activities that encourage curiosity and imagination through a variety of media.

This year, the powerful exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties coincides with Explore UT, and our activities focus on amplifying the diverse voices of our visitors. As UT President Bill Powers says in his introduction to Explore UT: “We like to say ‘What starts here changes the world’.” Through thoughtful art-making and creative writing, we want to inspire our visitors to be brave, be honest, and be empowered!

Inside the museum, in addition to our special exhibitions and galleries, there are two activities that challenge our visitors’ ideas of expression. The first, which will take place in the atrium, is inspired by the Race Card Project, which asks visitors to condense their thoughts about identity, experiences, and beliefs into just six words. Next, visitors can ‘post’ their card to magnetic boards to create a community forum that others can respond to. The second indoor activity takes place upstairs on the Blanton’s mezzanine, and is called Art of Gold. Inspired by Lawdy Mama, a work by artist Barkley Hendricks in the Witness exhibition, and the way gold is used symbolically throughout art history, this activity invites visitors to create photo-portraits of themselves surrounded by gold.

Button in commemoration of MLK Jr. after his assassination. From the personal collection of Jo Freeman, activist.

Button in commemoration of MLK Jr. after his assassination. From the personal collection of Jo Freeman, activist.

The Blanton will also offer two outdoor activities, both tied directly to activist and protest traditions used by the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement. Under the loggia, guests can create buttons using words and images that convey a message—making creative use of a 2” circle! In the plaza ,another tradition is upheld in the form of placards. Visitors can write a message on a large board and hold it up proudly in view of the Texas State Capitol building.

We encourage our visitors to share their photos, thoughts, and comments using the hashtag #WitnessVoices, at any time during the event. Who knows, maybe your post will inspire someone else to make a change, take a stand, and make their voice heard!

Elizabeth Srsic is a first year MA student in the Art History Department at the University of Texas, specializing in Medieval art. She is the Graduate Fellow for Family and Community Programs at the Blanton.

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B scene: Art and Soul

B scene: Art and SoulExpress yourself at B scene: Art and Soul this Friday, March 6! We’ll be celebrating our newest exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, and enjoying the inspiring music that was born of the era. This powerful exhibition consists of approximately 100 pieces representing 66 artists’ views of the struggle for civil rights. After taking in the art, express your own creativity through an art-making project: visitors are invited to take part in the creation of a unique collage in response the theme “Art and Soul”. Contribute to the large group mural, or create a smaller piece to take home.

Soul SupportersNot sure what to wear? Take a cue from our musical guests and get ready to groove! Local Austin band The Soul Supporters will take the stage to share their authentic take on early soul, R & B and blues from the heart. With a stinging guitar and breathtaking, gospel-tinged vocal harmonies, the band builds on the legacy of Austin’s classic female blues singers like Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli and Marica Ball with incredible vocals that must be heard. Influenced by early artists like The Ikettes, Sugar Pie DeSanto, and Ruth Brown, the band formulates its own non-commercialized concoction of “retro-soul” with its old-school inspired originals.

Lawdy Mama

Barkley Hendricks
Lawdy Mama, 1969
Oil and gold leaf on canvas
53 3/4 x 36 1/4 inches
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Afterwards, DJ Mahogany Dane will spin her favorite R&B classics to get you in the groove. She is excited to be playing the music that her parents love so much and that she remembers listening to when she was young. Whether you watched Soul Train yourself, or whether you would only be able to see it on You Tube, come enjoy the hippest trip in Austin.

When you need a break from the dance floor, snack on a variety of bites and drinks. Austinite Hoover Alexander has been cooking in East Austin for more than fifteen years, and a sampling of Hoovers Cooking will be available for purchase, with southern style cuisine to satisfy your cravings for an authentic snack. Wash it down with beverages from the cash bar including our specialty drink, Electric Lemonade.

Members are invited to experience the exclusive Member Lounge, which will feature a surprise treat, light bites, and comfy seating. Not a member? Join today!

Tours of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties will take place at 6:30pm, 7:00pm, and 7:30pm. Please note that all of the Blanton’s galleries will close at 9:00pm, but the party will live on until 10:00pm!

We’d like to give a special shout out to our B scene: Art and Soul media sponsor Austin360.

B scene: Art and Soul is FREE for members/ $12 general public. Tickets are available online or at the door. To learn more about B scene, visit our website.

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Beyond All Reason: Goya and his Disparates

One of my joys as a Mellon fellow has been researching the prints of Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Produced after the artist’s fiftieth birthday, Goya’s four mature etching series are emblematic of his technical mastery and inventiveness. The first series, Los Caprichos (1797-99), is exemplary of the artist’s satirical social criticism. Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810-20) followed Caprichos, expressing the artist’s anguish at the events of the Peninsular War and its aftermath. Shifting subject matter, Goya’s La Tauromaquia (1815-16) series then portrayed the history of bullfighting as an Iberian ritual played out between humankind, nature, and fate.


Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Disparate general [General Folly], plate 9 from Los Proverbios, circa 1816-1824, 13 1/4 in. x 19 3/4 in., Etching and burnished aquatint, The Teaching Collection of Marvin Vexler, ’48, 1994,

Having spent many hours with these series—all worthy of careful consideration—it is Goya’s next series, Los Disparates (1816-24), that most captures my interest. And it is that series which I wish to explore here. The twenty-two works that make up Disparates date to after the war but before the artist’s move to Bordeaux in 1824. Goya did not publish the series during his lifetime. Instead, in 1864 The Royal Academy of San Fernando produced an edition, issued under the title Los Proverbios, from the eighteen plates in their possession. Because of this appellation, scholars long sought to match the works with common sayings. Proofs discovered in the twentieth century, however, bore titles in the artist’s hand, all beginning with the word disparates (follies/ absurdities). With that revelation, the works’ meaning suddenly appeared incomprehensible. Difficultly in deciphering the series likely contributed to the comparable lack of attention, relative to its predecessors, that the series has received ever since.

Los Disparates teems with uncanny chimeras: beings at once familiar and unfamiliar. Recognizable things also inhabit the prints—cats, horses, people in sacks, soldiers, etcetera. Nonetheless, any promise of clear symbolic meaning that these things might offer is empty. Such strangeness is not unique in Goya’s output. Painted on the walls of the artist’s Madrid home (Quinta del sordo), around the same time that the artist etched Disparates, Goya’s “Black Paintings” are equally difficult to understand. Unlike those paintings, however, Goya made Disparates in a reproducible and distributable medium. For me, this suggests an important question: who did Goya make Disparates for, and what ideas did he hope to impart to that audience?

Rather than trying to discover hidden meanings in the symbolism of Disparates —a futile task, I believe—I want to consider Goya’s space. More to the point, I have been thinking recently about Goya’s backgrounds. Throughout the series, Goya typically places his action against (or in) an amorphous darkness, as with Disparate General, or else in a realm falling from light into obscurity and emptiness.

In our daily lives, background is a relative thing that supports the way we see the world. Physically near or distant, it is always that which shifts always away from our focus, acting as a substrate for reality as well as a part of it. The laptop in front of me, for instance, stands out as a form only because my mind separates it from everything else that I call background. To put it simply, without background there is no foreground.

Giorgio Ghisi

Giorgio Ghisi, The School of Athens, after Raphael, 1550, 20 3/16 in. x 16 1/8 in., Engraving, The R. E. Lewis Memorial Study Collection, 2010.

In order for the world to appear as something stable and intelligible, our mind makes use of such systematic arrangements. Were we to experience the world in its specificity, nothing would make sense. A river flows, constantly renewed, different from moment to moment, and yet we recognize it as the same entity across expanses of time. We represent things with names and generalized ideas of their forms. Similarly, we unconsciously organize the space around us. In art, this basic need to regulate our world through representation becomes most obvious. Humanity has invented countless methods for organizing space: hierarchal registers, the upturned and flattened space of Japanese prints, the geometries of Renaissance perspective where paintings became windows, the abstracted spaces of maps, and many others.

When I look at Giorgio Ghisi’s School of Athens after Raphael (1550), I feel as if I could climb those steps and pass under those archways. The perspectival method that produces this space is a convention. Background here is a diffuse spatial symbol, reliant upon a vanishing point—a mathematical twinkling star. Every diagonal line in the print relates to an invisible point of convergence, like railroad tracks receding into the distance and meeting on the horizon. The artifice of Ghisi’s space functions only if the viewer possesses the prerequisite understanding of such coded space. By contrast, the darkness of Disparates severs the tether of that old logic. Goya sets us adrift. His vanishing point fills the world.

Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, Casting the Runes , 1951, Oil tempera with gold metallic paint on wood, 0 3/16 x 17 7/8 in., © 2014 Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Shifting from the Renaissance to the modern era, what other comparisons might we make? A German contemporary of Goya, the Romantic poet Novalis wrote, “I turn away from the light to the holy, inexpressible mysterious night.” This same nocturnal womb would later haunt the Surrealists. It emerges clearly in Casting the Runes, 1951, by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). Like Disparates, Carrington’s painting dispenses with perspectival space. Her boundless twilight-green ground supports a cast of uncanny beings. This darkness is a magical field where irrationalism speaks, and where dream and wakefulness might be reconciled.

In contrast to Carrington’s work, I suggest that Goya’s backgrounds in Disparates can be read as negations of rationalism, bereft of the Surrealist optimism for reconciliation. If Goya’s artwork retains any conceptual residue of the renaissance painting as window, it now opens onto madness and the failure of reason. Goya witnessed firsthand the challenges to the Spanish Enlightenment, ranging from abuses of power to the superstition, intellectual conservatism, and jingoism of the masses. And while the Bourbon monarchs managed halting reforms, the war caused this to falter and cease. Goya’s experiences surely shook his belief in the idea of human perfectibility under reason. After all, unreason had brutalized Spain in the name of Napoleon, France, and enlightened principle.

Nevertheless, I do not read Disparates as mere catharsis. The “Black Paintings” might have been that, but these were prints, meant to reach out into the world. It seems to me that Goya had a purpose in setting his Disparates in non-places, evacuated of coherent, rational meaning. By doing so, he revealed the unknowable void beneath civilization and world. With Disparates, Goya stood upon the threshold of the world, showing it the reflection of its essential, underlying madness.

I say “essential” because the artist knew that the formless night is equally generative and destructive. It is the primordial material from which reason and light first emerged, and it is the only background against which the rational mind can discern itself. Still, it is troubling. In glimpses of the borderless night, did Goya recognize the dissolution of all that we are? Was he unwilling or unable to forget (as we habitually do) that such darkness persists, a leviathan just beyond every limit of reason? Writer Georges Bataille once mused, “The philosopher through his discourse . . . ‘mirrors the empty sky’ with less honesty than the madman. . . .” Goya—who painted the inhabitants of Spanish asylums—might have added that since the madman’s irrational honesty is unintelligible from this side of reason, art is left to bridge the gulf, communicating the most difficult truths.

Douglas Cushing earned his BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design and his MA in art history at the University of Texas at Austin. His master’s thesis, written under the supervision of Linda Dalrymple Henderson, examines Marcel Duchamp’s relationship with the writings of the Comte de Lautréamont. Douglas is currently a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin working on exchanges between art and literature in the avant-garde. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Prints and Drawings, and European Paintings at the Blanton Museum of Art.

For further reading:

Bataille, Georges. “Nietzsche’s Madness.” Trans. Annette Michelson. October, special issue: George Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-knowing. Vol 36 (1986): 42-55.

Breton, André. Manifestos of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969.

Fort, Ilene Susan, Teresa, Dawn Ades, and Terri Geis. In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012.

Michel Foucault, History of Madness. Trans. Jonathan Murphy. London: Routledge, 2006.

Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment. Exh. Cat. edited by Alfonso E. Pérez Sánchez and Eleanor A. Sayre. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1989.

Harris, Tomás. Goya: Engravings and Lithographs. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1964.

Herr, Richard. The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Hughes, Robert. Goya. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

La Tauromaquia: Goya, Picasso and the Bullfight, Exh. Cat. edited by Verna Curtis and Selma Holo. Milwaukee Art Museum, 1985.

Paquette, Gabriel B. Enlightenment, Governance, and Reform in Spain and Its Empire, 1759-1808. New York: Plagrave Macmillan, 2008.

Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso E., and Julián Gállego. Goya: The Complete Etchings and Lithographs. New York: Prestel, 1995.

Schulz, Andrew. “Moors and the Bullfight: History and National Identity on Goya’s Tauromaquia.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 90, No. 1 (June, 2008): 195-217.

Tomlinson, Janis A. Francisco Goya Y Lucientes, 1746-1828. London: Phaidon, 1994.

Tomlinson, Janis A. “Francisco José Goya y Lucientes: Approaching Los Disparates.” Romance Quarterly, Vol. 54m No. 1 (2007): 3-8.

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To Be Young, Gifted and Black: The Civil Rights Legacy of Nina Simone

Nina Simone, 1969. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

Nina Simone, 1969. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

They called her the “High Priestess of Soul.” Her voice was so rich, so anguished, and hypnotic that she could fill you—completely overwhelm you—with the spirit of pride and unparalleled struggle. There was inextricable power in the music of Nina Simone. She became the voice of a generation of African Americans fighting for equality in the face of segregation, discrimination, violence, and death in the American South of the 1960s, and her legacy continues to this day.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon to a North Carolina Methodist minister and a handyman preacher, Nina Simone came to prominence in jazz bars of Atlantic City, transforming popular tunes of the 1950s into unique jazz and blues renditions. Following her first records in the late 1950s, her 1959 remake of “I Loves You Porgy,” taken from George Gershwin’s famous opera “Porgy and Bess,” was a Top 10 hit and introduced television audiences to her mastery of the piano and her exquisite, arresting vocals.

While she was at first apprehensive about speaking out on issues of discrimination and black struggle, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama overwhelmed Simone so deeply that her music would never be the same. The tone and cadence of her lyrics shifted, her attitude and confidence was impassioned like never before, and, rather than angry, her vocals became deeply anguished.

Songs like “Old Jim Crow” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” were authored at the height of civil rights turmoil in America. “Mississippi Goddam,” which was written in response to the Birmingham church bombing, is featured in a dedicated gallery in the Blanton’s current exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties. Jarring images of blacks being hosed, clubbed, and attacked by dogs frequently made the covers of national newspapers at the time. Simone did not wait for the gavel of justice to swing down on her black brothers and sisters before she spoke out, nor did she wait for the clarity and judgment of historical hindsight. She channeled her frustration into jazz and blues anthems dripping with beauty, rage, and self-identified pride.

“My job,” she said in an interview, “is to somehow make [black people] curious enough, or persuade them, by hook or crook, to get them more aware of themselves and where they came from and what they are into and what is already there, and just bring it out. This is what compels me to compel them. And I will do it by whatever means is necessary.”

The Black Power Movement picked up speed in the late 1960s, as did the early rumblings of the fight for gender equality. Black pride began to engulf African American communities across the country, from Harlem to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which had survived nearly a week of race riots in 1965. The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, or “the Black Woodstock” as it would come to be known, set the stage for a new cultural movement in America, where black musicians and artists of the African diaspora could rally their voices and share art and music with the black masses. Simone’s performance of a new song, “Revolution,” named after the Beatles hit, reinforced the real revolution at stake for blacks in America.

For every lyric about lynchings and the struggle for equality, Simone would write another about freedom and black pride, reinforcing her belief that African American men and women should know the beauty of their blackness. Overcome by the power of a photograph of American playwright and writer Lorraine Hansberry, Simone was inspired to write the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” named for a play produced by Hansberry at the time. The lyrics are some of Simone’s most captivating and proud.

In this clip that follows, which includes a live performance at Morehouse College in 1970—the same university in Atlanta where Dr. Martin Luther King was once a professor, and where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded—Simone speaks of the power of photography to captivate, and the inspiration behind the song. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” became one of the most triumphant anthems of the black pride movement in the 1970s. Nina Simone, who died in 2003, leaves behind an extraordinary and unparalleled musical legacy, the likes of which may not be seen for some time.

Evan Garza
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Blanton Museum of Art

Nina Simone’s 1965 performance of “Mississippi Goddam,” first aired on Dutch TV, is featured in the Blanton exhibition “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties”, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, and on view at the Blanton through May 10. 


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Five Highlights from La línea continua

The Blanton’s special exhibition La línea continua: The Judy and Charles Tate Collection of Latin American Art closes this Sunday, February 15. The exhibition features highlights from the Tate collection, the latest contribution to the museum’s holdings in modern and contemporary Latin American art. If you only have half an hour to peruse the show over the next week, here are five objects you shouldn’t miss:

Do AmaralTarsila do Amaral
Barco [Ship], 1924
Ink on paper

Tarsila do Amaral’s Barco is easy to overlook. At slightly under five-by-eight inches, it’s the smallest work in the exhibition. But within the simple, elegant composition is a metaphor central to the modern Brazilian experience. Do Amaral made the drawing in 1924 as a trial illustration for the writer (and her partner) Oswald de Andrade’s Pau Brasil manifesto. The manifesto contrasts the technology and academism of modern Brazil with the region’s wild landscape and indigenous past. Do Amaral’s response combines the modern with the tropical: a steamship set against a single horizon line with a palm tree. Through the use of local iconography, Do Amaral continued formulating theories of Brazilian identity over the next several years, leaving an indelible mark on her country’s culture and Latin American art history.

TamayoRufino Tamayo (Mexico)
El astrónomo [The Astronomer], 1957

Nearby, you will find an evocative, large-scale painting by Rufino Tamayo, one of the most celebrated Mexican artists of the twentieth century. El astrónomo is among a series of depictions of the cosmos that the artist made beginning in the mid-1940s. In the painting, a simplified geometric figure gazes upward in contemplation at the luminous night sky that surrounds him. The image reflects Tamayo’s interest in the ancient Mesoamerican practice of sky gazing, an affinity rooted in part in the artist’s own indigenous Zapotec ancestry. The influence of Olmec and other Pre-Columbian figuration is also visible in the geometric features of the figure. Tamayo absorbed the lessons of Pre-Columbian artisans as a draftsman at Mexico’s National Museum of Archaeology in the 1920s.

GurvichJosé Gurvich (Uruguay)
Naturaleza muerta construida en celestes [Constructed Still Life in Azures], 1958

Though José Gurvich was a devoted disciple of the Uruguayan artist and theorist Joaquín Torres-García, much of his work fuses the lessons of the maestro with his own eclectic style. This is evident in his 1958 naturaleza muerta, or still life, which consists of a dense grid of rectangles that house symbols and words, some of which are painted over sections of lace. We can identify the sliver of a clock, a bottle labeled “house wine,” a vase, a broom, the word “yerba” (shorthand for the popular South American beverage yerba mate), as well as various cooking and dining implements. The composition clearly relates to the signature style of Torres-García, who used a grid of pictograms to convey his vision of a timeless and universal human spirit. However, the local references, incorporation of words, and use of lace as a collage element all point to Gurvich’s affinity for Cubism.

deCastroWillys de Castro (Brazil)
Pluriobjeto [Pluriobject], 1977-1983

Along with several other Brazilian artists in the exhibition, Willys de Castro belonged to the Rio de Janeiro-based Neoconcrete group, which formed in the late 1950s. The Neoconcrete artists sought to make objects that invited viewer participation– an aspect absent from the cool geometric abstraction of Brazilian concrete art. This sculpture marks Castro’s return in the late 1970s to Neoconcrete ideals. Combining shifting planes, industrial textures, and reflective surfaces, the work invites the viewer to move around it and experience it from different perspectives. In this way, every viewer’s experience with the sculpture is unique.

DeiraErnesto Deira (Argentina)
La edad de la razón [The Age of Reason], 1963

As geometric abstraction came to dominate the Argentine art scene in the late 1940s and 1950s, some artists chose to go in a different direction. The painter Ernesto Deira took his inspiration from European Expressionism and Old Masters like Francisco de Goya, using a limited, bold palette to depict imagined figures and traumatic events. In 1961, he joined Otra Figuración [Other Figuration], a group of like-minded artists committed to liberating the figure in painting. In La edad de la razón, Deira employs some of the group’s key stylistic strategies: a gestural, expressive brushstroke, strong primary colors, and the distortion of the figure. The work takes its name from British-American revolutionary Thomas Paine’s polemical text challenging institutionalized religion – a detail that is in line with the disruptive quality of the image.

Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American art.

For more information about the exhibition, please visit our website.

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Art on the Edge: Austin’s Newest Black Tie Affair

Blanton 2013 GalaSince moving to its two-building complex in 2006, the Blanton Museum has dazzled art supporters from San Antonio to Dallas to New York City and back, with their biennial galas, which fund the Blanton’s exhibitions and programs in service to both residents and visitors to our beloved city. This year’s Gala, Off the Wall, will be no different, honoring University of Texas President Bill Powers and pulling together art lovers from all over the country. This year however, adds a new element to the event, the Art on the Edge after-party. It’s been my honor to be part of the planning of this event, created for the younger generation of Blanton supporters, and as we enter our final week of preparation, I want to thank you in advance for your attendance and give you an idea of what to expect this Saturday…

Blanton 2013 GalaThis year the Blanton has given the Art on the Edge after-party its own new personality. This event is a chic, younger and fresher approach to engaging with arts lovers. It will not only give guests the opportunity to get a preview of the upcoming exhibition, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, but also gives them the opportunity to dance the night away with every generation of Blanton supporters. The event features DJ Mel and live music by the Memphis Train Revue, an award winning Motown cover band that incorporates popular music as well as classic party favorites, so expect to be showing off your best moves with tunes from Michael Jackson and Huey Lewis, as well as your current favorites. Mix and mingle with other black-tie clad attendees and let loose for photo booth pics, lite bites by Word of Mouth catering, drinks from Real Ale Brewing and of course signature cocktails from Austin’s very own Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

Blanton 2013 GalaThis is only the second year the after-party has been open to the public, bringing in a new generation of supporters from the Austin community. Young professionals and seasoned leaders alike have signed up to be a part of the inaugural host committee in an effort to establish the Art on the Edge party as a staple among Austin’s ongoing arts fundraising events. The Blanton offers an amazing permanent collection, one that I used to visit frequently as an undergrad studying Art History when it was housed at the Archer M. Huntington Gallery located at the Harry Ransom Center! They’ve come a long way since then. Support from the community for events like this continues to give the Blanton the opportunity to bring a wealth of education and rich exhibitions to the Austin community. We hope you will join us this weekend in support of establishing a new staple event for the museum’s fundraising initiatives. Come be a part of a lively and dynamic group and share in a fantastic evening in support of the Austin arts community.

Tickets are available until Saturday, February 7 at 12PM or until we sell out, whichever comes first. So go ahead and get yours to secure your admission to what will be one of the best parties of the year! Visit our website to purchase your tickets and get more details.

Special thanks to our 2015 Host Committee: A.J. Bingham, Alexandra Beck, Samantha and Stuart Bernstein, Rachel Charlesworth, Meghan and Stephen Elwell, Lindsey Gehrig, Shaady Ghadessy, Emily House, Laura Villagran Johnson, Yvette Ruiz, Kevin Smothers, Ryan Steed and Taylor Terkel.

Kate PerezKate Perez is the inaugural host committee chair for the Art on the Edge Gala after-party.  She works for Cisco systems managing global marketing campaigns and is currently in her last semester as a student at the McCombs School of Business pursuing her Executive MBA. Over the past few years she has been involved in a variety of arts and philanthropic organizations in the Austin community including Ballet Austin, Symphony BATS, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, Greenlights 501 Council, Texas Conference for Women and Leadership Austin.  Kate is a graduate of UT Austin with a B.A. in Economics. She and her husband Hector were just married in September of last year

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Growing up at the Blanton

Augustus “Gus” Swanson has grown up at the Blanton. Literally. His father, Chris, began visiting the museum with the child when Gus was just a few months old, and they’ve faithfully returned nearly every Thursday for four and a half years.

Baby Gus with "his" plaster cast statue of Augustus

Baby Augustus meeting the statue Augustus

What originally started as a way to meet his wife for lunch near where she worked has developed into a tradition. “We’ve missed a handful of weeks over the years, but otherwise it is a staple of our weekly activities,” said Chris, when we tagged along with the pair a few weeks ago. Arriving at the Visitor Services Desk, Gus immediately broke into a big smile, greeting staff members who knew him by name. Chris noted that Gus has probably spent more time with some of the Blanton staff members than he has with some of his extended family. Even though the family had bought a Blanton membership and could visit for free on any day, Chris stressed the “value in consistency” of coming on Thursdays, noting that the rest of Gus’s week was fairly unscheduled. Once the greetings were over with, Gus bounded up the atrium steps, eager to show us around the museum.

Chris and Gus in front of Elysium

Chris and Gus in front of Elysium

Our first stop was Hans Hofmann’s Elysium, one of Gus’s favorite paintings in the collection. Chris remarked that as a baby, the abstract paintings were Gus’s favorites because of the bright colors. But now as a four and a half year old, Gus likes to re-title the paintings and make up his own stories about the artwork. When asked what he’d title the Hofmann painting, Gus paused and thought for a minute before replying, “Grass, Water, Volcano, and Sun.” As we continued around the museum, Gus threw out other titles for various works of art and made astute observations. He spent a few minutes in front of Tavares Strachan’s Constellation (Child-Panchem Lama)examining the many different photos that make up the child’s face. After studying the artwork, Gus asked his father how many faces were in the piece; Chris took the opportunity to read the wall label to Gus, and the pair spent time looking closely at the numbered photos, with Gus searching to find the next number in the sequence. In another section of the museum, while sitting on the floor in front of Alfredo Hlito’s Formas en el plano, Gus offered up that the artwork reminded him of an atom.


Alfredo Hlito, Formas en el plano [Forms on the Plane], 1949, Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 23 5/8 in.

After we expressed surprise that Gus knew about atoms, Chris said that many artworks in the collection functioned as ways to further discussions the pair had started at home. Science, math, and reading were all topics of conversation that could be teased out of the artworks in the galleries. Approaching Cildo Meireles‘ Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals), Gus sat on the paving stones and grabbed a handful of pennies, diligently counting and sorting them, as Chris prompted him with basic math questions: “If we have 500 pennies and take away 10, how many pennies do we have left?” Gus’s answer wasn’t exactly right on his first try, but come on—he’s only four years old!

Gus and Chris don’t always visit by themselves, however. On occasion, they’ll bring friends and other people to explore the museum with. A common fear we hear from parents with small children is that they’re nervous their child will break the rules, or touch the artwork. Gus very rarely has to be reminded how to act because he “grew up in the museum,” says Chris as we watch Gus plop down in front of a sculpture in La línea continua, studying the slightly rotating artwork carefully. “We’ve discussed a little bit how it’s important to not touch the paintings, but Gus watches me and models his behavior after what I’m doing,” says Chris. “He’s been doing it for so long, he knows how to act.” Case in point, when one of Gus’s friends accompanied the pair on a visit and was having an issue with volume, Gus told his friend he needed to be quieter.

Chris and Gus

Chris and Gus

When asked if Gus ever got bored with seeing the same art every week, Chris brought up the rotating exhibitions as a source of new material to talk about. One of Gus’s favorite exhibitions was In the Company of Cats and Dogs, on view last summer. In our epic showdown of felines vs. canines, Gus came specifically to see the former. “He liked seeing all the cats” and finding them in the exhibition, said Chris.

After about 40 minutes, Gus was starting to climb on the gallery benches instead of taking us around to artworks, and we began to walk back down the atrium stairs to leave. Chris says that normally their visits last only 20 – 40 minutes—because they come each week, there’s no need to rush or try and fit everything in. Seeing the museum through a child’s eyes was a refreshing departure from the average museum visit; Gus himself summed it up best when we asked him what he liked about a painting as we were wandering around in the galleries:

“I don’t know, but there’s something that makes it so good.”

Alie Cline is the Digital Content Strategist at the Blanton and holds BAs in Art History and English from the University of Texas at Austin. You can find her online as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media profiles, or on Twitter at @aliecline.

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Demonstrations of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Artworks of the 1960s

Jack Whitten

Jack Whitten, King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968, Oil on canvas, 67 7/8 x 51 3/4 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York Image: Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York, © 2015 Jack Whitten/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

It took fifteen years from the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to create the federal holiday of Martin Luther King Day. First introduced as legislation by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) in 1968 following Dr. King’s assassination, Martin Luther King Day would not be adopted by all 50 states, in some form or another, for a staggering 25 years. Many states rejected the holiday; others chose to acknowledge the entire Civil Rights Movement rather than celebrating one individual every third Monday in January, near Dr. King’s birthday on January 15. Not only does this make clear the effectiveness of Congress (or lack thereof), but it also gives us a sense of the difficulty of progress in a post-Civil Rights era America—a notion that is particularly salient today. At stake was nothing more than celebrating, on a national level, the valiant efforts and legacy of an African American leader.

Given his profound presence on the front lines in the fight for civil rights, the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. profoundly influenced works produced by artists of the 1960s. The Blanton’s upcoming presentation of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (on view February 15-May 10) organized by the Brooklyn Museum, attests to King’s impact on art of the 1960s and beyond. Dr. King had an indelible effect on artist Jack Whitten (b. 1939, Bessemer, AL), who met the reverend in 1957 at a local church in Montgomery, Alabama in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott. Whitten, who has produced several works dedicated to Dr. King, was later present at the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, and for Dr. King’s famed, impromptu “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963. Dr. King’s powerful words find echoes in Whitten’s painting King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968 (on view in Witness), in which abstracted faces appear and disappear among strokes of intense, varying hues. Each quickly rendered face in the work ceases to be defined by any one color, but rather “by the content of their character.”[i]

Joe Overstreet

Joe Overstreet, Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, Collection of the artist, courtesy of Kenkeleba Gallery, New York

Artist Joe Overstreet (b. 1933, Conehatta, MS), whose vast breadth of work is both experimental and socio-political in nature, spent time in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village the morning after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The park’s Temperance Fountain and its stone canopy, pillars, and circular foundation became the inspiration for Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace, 1968, a large-scale oil on shaped canvas. The dynamism of form in the painting, which broke from the tradition of simple, four-sided pictures, along with its colors and title, suggest a bright air of possibility in the wake of such a devastating loss, when justice faith, and hope seemed all but lost in the fight for civil rights.

Peace, however, was an aspiration and a wish, and one that remains elusive today as well in the aftermath of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and throughout the United States. It is easy to forget when standing in front of hopeful, colorful paintings like these that they were produced in the face of hatred, brutal violence, discrimination, and death. Dr. King’s assassination followed centuries of slavery, lynchings, legalized segregation, social and political impoverishment, and countless generations of institutionalized racism and discrimination.

Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam, Red April, 1970, Acrylic on canvas, 110 x 160 inches, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, Gift of The Longview Foundation and Museum purchase, 1971.11

Washington, D.C. artist Sam Gilliam understood this well. Gilliam (b. 1933, Tupelo, MS), an abstract painter associated with the Washington Color School that formed in D.C. in the late 1950s, adopted color as the main subject of his work. In moving away from figurative imagery, Gilliam insisted the viewer focus on the power of color. In Red April, 1970, stains of hot pink acrylic and splattered skeins of red paint—marks typical of Gilliam and Color Field painting—gain symbolic resonance when viewed in light of this work’s title, which references Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Gilliam witnessed the riots that followed King’s assassination from his studio on U Street in D.C., and subsequently embarked on a series of works inspired by the civil rights leader.

May Stevens

May Stevens, Honor Roll, 1963, Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 36 x 1 inches, Courtesy RYAN LEE, New York

Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement also had a pronounced effect on countless individuals who were not of color. American artists like Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Mark di Suvero (b. 1933, Shanghai, China), whose brother Hank worked as a civil rights lawyer, frequently donated works to the benefit exhibitions of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Jim Dine (b. 1935, Cincinnati, OH), who also gifted benefit works to CORE, attached a porcelain sink to a canvas in Black Bathroom #2, 1962, possibly signaling the messy state of affairs in the segregated South. King also had a particularly lasting effect on May Stevens, (b. 1924, Quincy, MA) a white painter from Massachusetts who also credits her passion for the Civil Rights Movement to her friendship with artist Charles White (1918 – 1979). In 1963, the same year as King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, Stevens created Honor Roll, an oil painting that honors by name the seven young African American students who were among the first to attempt to integrate schools in the American South. Honor Roll imparts academic commendation of a mournful sort, recognizing African American men and women who faced tremendous hardship, danger, and often death, in the pursuit of the right to an education.

We went to Washington every year to protest,” Stevens says of her time during the Civil Rights Movement. “… I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963. We had taken off our shoes and had put our feet in the reflecting pool on the mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that hot summer day…The silence of thousands of people listening was terribly moving. At that moment we were all envisioning the kind of future that he envisioned, where all children would be equal. His conviction, his vision, was like manna to starving souls.”[ii]

Artworks like these reveal the impact of Dr. King’s arduous fight for equality, which continues to be felt much further than the limits of the legislation it galvanized.

Evan Garza
Blanton Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

The works described here will each be featured in the forthcoming exhibition, “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” opening at the Blanton Museum of February 15. For more information, visit

[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered these famous words in his March on Washington speech in 1963. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

[ii] Patricia Hills, “May Stevens: In Conversation,” in May Stevens. (San Francisco, Pomegranate, 2005): 29

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What the heck does a social media manager actually do?

Blanton Museum of Art Sand Mandala 01.13.2013“I get paid to be on Facebook.”

This is normally how I introduce my job to new people. Admittedly, it’s a statement designed to be provocative. Shock, awe, horror—these are all responses I’ve encountered. Almost everyone uses Facebook these days, from your high school friend who just got engaged, to your weird aunt inviting you to play “Candy Crush Saga.” But how is Facebook used for brands as opposed to individuals?

This is where social media managers (or in my case, Digital Content Strategists) come in. By now you’ve seen the flood of advertising that invades your newsfeed, from local businesses to global brands. These ads are often annoying, invasive, and sometimes creepy—how does Facebook know you were looking to buy a new washing machine? If I do my job right, the posts you see from the Blanton on Facebook won’t be any of those things. Maybe you’ll come across one about an exhibition that’s closing soon, and reminded you to dash in before the last day. Maybe you stumble across a music program that you can catch on your lunch break. When I say I get paid to be on Facebook, what I really mean is I get paid to make the Blanton relevant to you and your interests, in between all the other digital noise that you encounter online.

Blanton Museum of Art Sand Mandala 01.13.2013As the Blanton’s Digital Content Strategist, I am in charge of all the Blanton’s social media profiles, as well as our Blog, website, and other places we exist online. If you see a post online from the Blanton, I wrote it (and probably spent way too long trying to make it fit into 140 characters for Twitter). Currently, the Blanton posts regularly to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+, and Snapchat, in addition to weekly blogs. The bulk of my time is spent brainstorming, writing, finding images for, and posting all the content you see from the Blanton. Each network has its own personality, and I alter the tone of voice the Blanton writes in to fit our different profiles.

Facebook is our “local” network. 70% of our 18,000+ followers on Facebook live in Texas, and of that, 85% live in Austin. This means that I post a lot of events, volunteer opportunities, and programs that are held at the museum, knowing the audience is local. Twitter is a more global audience, so I tend to share news articles and other art-world happenings—that way, someone who lives in England and is interested in art can still interact with the Blanton and find us useful, even if they haven’t visited the museum. Twitter is also a great platform for conversation. On Third Thursdays, I regularly get questions from people asking what kind of pizza is on the menu for our happy hour wine and pizza special. I’ll run down to the café, talk to the chefs, then come back up to my office to reply. I love seeing people tweet about their experiences at the museum. Our recent exhibition, Brain Trash, was well received, and getting comments from visitors online always makes my (and the curators’!) day.

A post on the Blanton's instagram for #MusBuilding

A post on the Blanton’s instagram for #MusBuilding

Instagram, an image-based platform, is used to share photos of exhibitions and behind-the-scenes happenings at the museum. Even without a formal photography background, I try my best to compose and edit shots to make them aesthetically pleasing—the Gallery Assistants have gotten used to me spending 30 minutes or more in the museum, trying to capture the perfect photo on my iPhone. This oftentimes involves contorting myself into weird positions, laying on the floor, or standing still for 10 minutes to get just the right video (if you work in social media, you literally cannot have any shame). Once I’m back at my desk, I spend at least an hour going through photos taken on Instagram at the Blanton, commenting on great posts, sharing information, or responding to people’s experiences—for anyone passing my desk, it looks like I’m goofing off on my phone, but I swear I’m working!

By far my favorite platform to post on is the Blanton’s Snapchat, which I’ve written about previously for the Blanton blog. A mobile app where users can send disappearing photos to each other, Snapchat lets me be playful and “caption” works of art in the museum in a 21st century voice. Sometimes the best way to break up a monotonous work day is to wander around the galleries and try to image what Karen from Mean Girls would say if she was a painting from the 1600s.

superbowlOf course, just like any job, there are a lot of boring parts. I routinely look at and update spreadsheets with analytics—for example, how many people visited the museum website in a month, the most popular pages, how many times an exhibition hashtag was used—which guides my posting strategy. If a Facebook post I thought was going to be well-received wasn’t (or vice-versa!), I try to figure out why things didn’t go as planned. Social media is extremely ephemeral, so being able to change your strategy and revise what isn’t working is an important part of the job. It’s also important to be able to respond to real-time events. During last year’s Super Bowl, the Red Hot Chili Peppers played at halftime. Coincidentally, we just happened to have an ancient Andean bowl with chili peppers on display for our exhibition Between Mountains and Sea. Watching the halftime show, I made the connection and fired off a tweet—to this day I consider it one of my shining moments.

So if you’re at the Blanton wandering through the galleries and have your phone handy, share your experience in a tweet or Instagram and tag @blantonmuseum. If I’m at my desk, you should get a favorite or a like from the museum right away—and now you’ll know who clicked the button.

Alie Cline is the Digital Content Strategist at the Blanton and holds BAs in Art History and English from the University of Texas at Austin. You can find her online as the voice behind all the Blanton’s social media profiles, or on Twitter at @aliecline.

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Volunteering Provides Insights for Career Choices

Volunteers at the BlantonVolunteers at the Blanton have a variety of opportunities to see first-hand what it takes to run an art museum. Currently, there are nearly 60 university students from UT and other Austin-area colleges and universities who are exploring options for museum careers by helping us operate the Blanton on a daily basis. If museum work is something that interests you, spending time at the Blanton will help you learn what our various departments do, what individual staff members work on, and how it all comes together for an exhibition opening or day-to-day school tours.

Volunteer jobs are often as simple as providing visitors with information or monitoring galleries during parties and events. Even though they are easy to do, we couldn’t run the museum’s programs and events without this extra help. In exchange, volunteers get to experience the programs, events, films, lectures, etc. and learn more about how we do what we do. It’s like having an appointment twice a month to come to the museum and catch up on the latest exhibitions while helping us keep things lively and engaging for various audiences.

One story of a current volunteer involves an early decision to pursue a career as a curator. As a high school student, being a museum curator seemed like a fascinating career journey that would combine complex ideas, travel, visual creativity, administration of projects, and working with high level donors. After several years of helping in various routine jobs around the museum, this volunteer is still at the Blanton and now a junior at UT. After a summer on a Fulbright scholarship to Russia she is back again, this time for a different type of volunteer job. She will be helping in the Prints and Drawings department with research and background work on various works of art and exhibitions. She is one step closer to her dream and also to finding out if this is the career path for her.

FiftyFest_IMG_4812Something great about volunteering that might seem to be a bummer at first glance is finding out you DON’T want to work at a museum. I recently heard from a summer intern who let me know that her experience here was very valuable. She learned about the museum and the various career opportunities in general that a museum offers and decided that these careers were not a perfect fit for her. She says now that it helped her so much to rule those possibilities out of her career journey.   She wrote:

I know it has been a while, but I just wanted to thank you for giving me such a positive internship experience. Although I’ve decided to pursue another career path in art, I really think my time at the Blanton gave me the push towards assessing my professional strengths and interests. Because it was my first internship, I might have been too anxious to really appreciate the time you took to explain things to me. I have had a few more internships since then and have learned that not all places properly mentor their interns let alone engage with them. I know this e-mail seems quite out of the blue, but I’ve just been thinking about my experiences lately and wanted to share some of my thoughts.

Having worked in art museums for over 16 years, I know that I enjoy the culture, staff members and visual stimulation that this environment provides. If you know someone who is considering a museum career, encourage them to spend time in a museum on the other side of the information desk. It will help them to imagine if museums are a good fit for their career or not. Every personality and every set of skills can be utilized at a museum. It’s more about the type of work we do that may stand the test of time and feel like the right fit.

Martha Bradshaw joined the Blanton in 2005, where she has been Manager of Visitor and Volunteer Services for almost ten years. For information about volunteering at the Blanton, email Martha at

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Decoding the Details: Oil Field Girls

Decoding the Details is a four-part blog series investigating works in the Blanton’s permanent collection. Each post will focus on a single work of art and explore the importance of details that many might not notice at first glance. When we delve into an object’s unassuming elements or look beyond what is immediately apparent, we often discover something unexpected and come away with a greater connection to both the work and the world from which it came. 

Sarah Celentano is the fall 2014 PR & Marketing intern at the Blanton. She is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art & Art History and specializes in the art of the Middle Ages. In the second post for her blog series, she takes a close look at Jerry Bywaters’s Oil Field Girls, on view in the Blanton’s galleries.

Jerry Bywaters

Jerry Bywaters, Oil Field Girls, 1940, oil on canvas, 29 5/8 in. x 24 1/2 in., Michener Acquisitions Fund, 1984.

Jerry Bywaters’s Oil Field Girls is a work of incredible moral complexity. We see two women standing on the roadside. One wears a black dress that clings to her body. Her black heels, necklace, and the feathered hat covering her blonde hair suggest a life of luxury, but her situation tells us otherwise. Her companion appears more demure, with a bow in her dark hair and wearing a yellow skirt and a belted white blouse. The red of her belt is picked up in the bracelet at her right wrist and her western-style boots. She holds her white hat in her hands, and we notice a suitcase and hatbox at her feet. Upon closer inspection, we see that both women have brightly painted cheeks and lips, and heavily made-up eyes. Their exaggeratedly long legs and tightly fitting clothing give them an imposing presence.

Many scholars believe that the women are meant to be prostitutes. But if this is the case, Bywaters reserves judgment. He presents the women as a fascinating convergence of power, drive, and desperation. In fact, Bywaters himself said that he intended to create a work of “sympathetic caricature.” The women look into the distance in anticipation, waiting for someone, or anyone, to take them away from where they currently are. Once we look at the landscape, we can see why: pulling our gaze down the winding road are white posts and a traffic sign warning us of a curve ahead (perhaps one of many “dangerous curves” depicted here). We move past a sign for Jax beer, the ramshackle Joe’s Garage, and ultimately into burning oil fields where a growing plume of smoke stretches across the sky and behind the women’s heads, acting as a frame.

Jerry BywatersSome of us may have found ourselves on desolate roads much like the one depicted here. Bywaters in fact developed his idea for this painting while driving through West Texas. Yet, embedded in the recognizable landscape are symbolic elements that infuse the scene with additional meaning: on the left side of the road, hanging on the storefront of Joe’s Garage is a sign that reads “666,” a number often associated with demonic forces. Among discarded tires on the far right side of the painting is an abandoned piece of machinery with “Jesus Saves” scrawled across it, barely visible behind a sign for Hattie’s Hut, a honky-tonk where truckers are invited to enjoy the “dine and dance” on offer.

Jerry BywatersWhat are we to make of these contrasting references to heaven and hell? Is Bywaters commenting on the irony of industrialism? How the hellishness of the oil fields coexists with messages of Christian morality? That people eagerly await the Last Judgment as the sky above them burns? What role do the two women have here? Does the stark contrast of their clothing—dark on the left, light on the right—serve as an additional sign of the opposing forces at play? It is interesting that they are looking for travelers headed towards the oil fields—and therefore towards 666—intentionally moving beyond any hope of being saved. They seem to stand at the mouth of hell, waiting for a traveler to take them past salvation to the point of no return. That “Jesus Saves” is so obscured by a honky-tonk sign perhaps suggests that such promises of deliverance are overpowered by a new message of materialism in the wake of the Texas oil boom, illustrated by the billboards that have sprouted along the roadside.

When we delve into the details of Bywaters’s painting, we see that his landscape is as much a character as the two women. The natural world “speaks” in this work, telling us of a land altered by industry and the courage of those who would enter such a place. The two women, giantesses on the West Texas roadside, perhaps symbolize the spirit needed under such new circumstances. In abandoning the gentle comforts of traditional life, where Jesus saves, and choosing to venture into the unknown, where potential encounters with darker forces await, they demonstrate the resilience and sheer nerve required to survive in a transformed world.


Francine Carraro. Jerry Bywaters: A Life in Art. Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1994.

Jerry Bywaters. Letter to Tammy Fuller Gest. 14 December 1984.

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Brain Trash from James Drake That’s Not On View

Somewhere in a white studio a connection is being drawn among the denizens of Dante’s Inferno, Melville’s salt-encrusted metaphysicians of the oceans, the mathematical physicists of the destructive energy of infinitesimal matter, extinct melancholic and non-systematic essayists in prose and paint, fanatical taxonomists and unifiers of natural and unnatural history, and those susceptible to the illusion of knowing through seeing with their insatiate desire to bind within a single life the limitless infusoria of the imagination. Such, it seems, is the studio of James Drake.

Madison, Wisconsin & Santa Fe, New Mexico

James Drake at work in his studio. Photo by Eric Swanson.

James Drake at work in his studio. Photo by Eric Swanson.

So begins the catalog text for the unique publication that accompanies the Blanton’s exhibition, James Drake: Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash). The Blanton’s video introduction to the artist in his studio, screening now in the galleries, shows us traces of this wealth of ideas and information that Drake draws from: books, books and more books stacked and shelved all throughout the white space to which Dr. Krakauer alludes.

As you might imagine from seeing his drawings, the artist is a voracious consumer of great culture, drawing inspiration from literature, films, and music in equal measure. So we asked him to tell us some of his favorites and, as befits a man who filled a space with 1,242 drawings, his annotated list is ambitious! “These books, movies, and songs have been a significant part of my life for years and are always lurking in the back of my mind,” he said. Check out the great works below and gather a few ideas of your own to add to your bucket list of things to read, watch and hear in 2015:


Especially non-fiction: science, history, biography

The Bible
Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey
Dante, The Divine Comedy
John Milton, Paradise Lost and Regained
All of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Edgar Allan Poe
Franz Kafka, The Trial
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov
James Joyce, Ulysses and the short story, Araby
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian


All Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan (there is even a nude scene in one – unbelievable for that time)
A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando, the greatest male actor of all time, and Tennessee Williams – need I say more
Ben Hur: great Cecil B. DeMille spectacle
Bird of Paradise: pure romantic schmaltz – but I love it
Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a new era of film making, truly ground breaking
The Creature from the Black Lagoon: my favorite monster movie – underwater swimming scenes – wonderful
The Color Purple: I watch this every Christmas Eve for some reason – always moves me to tears
The Deer Hunter: an absolutely great, great movie – profound and moving – especially for someone who was in the military during the Vietnam War
Dr Zhivago: my favorite love story – had a crush on Julie Christie for years
East of Eden: John Steinbeck – a great writer and James Dean – the coolest actor that ever lived
Elmer Gantry: great acting by Burt Lancaster – a critique of religious fundamentalism at the beginning
Giant: James Dean again and Elizabeth Taylor – wonderful, especially for a kid from West Texas – I love it when James Dean strikes oil and says to Bic, “I’m a rich ‘un, I’m a rich boy now.”
The Godfather: One of my top five movies ever made
God’s Little Acre: In black and white with the most powerful and lusty sex scene ever filmed, and they don’t even take their clothes off
The Hustler: another B&W film with Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, and Piper Laurie – seedy, gritty, and what a real pool hall looks and feels like – I worked my way through Art School in L.A. in a pool hall named Mr. Pockets – I related to everything in that movie
The Right Stuff: related it to the “art world,” same dynamics
Shane:  “Come back Shane” Woody Allen said it was the most perfect movie ever made
Somebody Up There Likes Me: Paul Newman comes from the mean streets of NYC (Little Italy) to become middleweight champion of the world (Rocky Graziano), very inspirational for me
Taxi Driver: also one of my top five movies ever made
To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee – when Scout says “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.” I absolutely sob every time I hear that passage. By the way my sister Pi was exactly like Scout in every way: she looked like Scout as a little girl (even the same haircut), personality, and inquisitive mind
The Last Picture Show: My family came from a small town in West Texas (my mother’s side). Roaring Springs, that was the same – including the people
Midnight Cowboy: West Texas, naive, Andy Warhol, New York in the seventies, and of course Ratso Rizzo
Night of the Hunter: directed by Charles Laughton and universally panned – what a shame for a truly great movie and a great actor, Robert Mitchum. I can’t listen to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” without seeing that movie in my mind
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah’s realistic, gritty, bloody, and incredibly groundbreaking movie. Forever changed the face of movies and what an audience will accept. Hundreds of copycats try to capture that reality. The best western ever made
The Yearling: we were all yearlings at one time


Puccini and Verdi, especially Madame Butterfly
Blind Willie Johnson
Bob Dylan
Bobby Blue Bland
Bob Seger
Edith Piaf
The Fleetwoods, Mr. Blue
Fleetwood Mac
Dean Martin
Jeff Beck
Jimi Hendrix
Johnny Cash
Laura Nero
Lucinda Williams
Luciano Pavarotti
Martha and the Vandellas
Marvin Gaye
Mile Davis
Muddy Waters
Neil Young
Patsy Cline
Roy Orbison
Sam Cooke
Sarah Vaughan
Sons of the Pioneers
Smokey Robinson
Steve Earle
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Tammy Wynette
Tanya Tucker
Tim Buckley
Townes Van Zandt
Van Morrison
Hank Williams

James Drake: Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash) is on view through January 4, 2015. For more information about the exhibition, please visit our website.

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Stories on Building a Collection

Cao Fei

Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006, Single channel color video with sound, Promised gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2007.

It was mid-afternoon and I was already woozy from too-much-information. My eyes, on autopilot, scanned the packed room one more time as I marched down row after row of booths, looking for visual connection. Wait, what was that? The man on the high-up monitor floated above the crowds, body focused in precise, graceful movements as he passed through the aisles of some kind of empty manufacturing lab. I was mesmerized by his gestures, his dance completely at odds with his own surroundings, yet even more so with mine, the frenzied scene of Art Basel Miami Beach. The images transported me; all hubbub disappeared as I stood closer, intent on that screen. What followed was 20 looped minutes of one of the best contemporary art videos I had ever seen: Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia, made a few months earlier in spring 2006 by one of China’s rising art stars.

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, Curator at Large

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, Curator at Large

It happened to be (dear friend, museum supporter, and art collector extraordinaire) Jeanne Klein’s birthday and, after taking a deep breath, I called her and asked if she and Mickey (ditto the above) wanted to mark it by purchasing the video for the museum. (Cheeky me!) At my insistent request, the good folks at Lombard-Freid Gallery had put it “on hold” for us for just a few hours so that I could try to wrangle some funds with which to purchase it. And by the end of the day, after flight-controlling a flurry of phone calls to Mickey and Jeanne and the gallery director, who was at that point at one of those late-night South Beach dinners that follows the day’s sales (as was I, probably just a few blocks away with an Austin entourage), the deal was clinched and the last available copy of Cao Fei’s editioned work was procured. During the following year, Whose Utopia would be featured in the Carnegie International, both the Lyon and Istanbul Biennials, and several other important contemporary art exhibitions, even as it entered the collections of a few enviable museums worldwide, including the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and ours.

How do the works of art in the Blanton’s contemporary collection get here? I had the pleasure and privilege of leading that process from 1996 until roughly 2013, with a few meaningful additions since. Now our astute curator of modern and contemporary art, Veronica Roberts, leads that charge. As collection curators we’re often asked which are our favorite works: an impossible question, because the potential replies are so various. (It’s like being asked to choose a favorite child.) But on the occasion of my retirement from the museum, I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite acquisition stories, like the one above.

What made that acquisition so special? So many factors, here are just a few:

  • Whose Utopia’s unexpectedly poignant window onto one of the most complex social issues of our times—the individual in relationship to the newly globalized economy.
  • I’m grateful for the nimble, always passionate commitment of our patrons, especially the Kleins, who repeatedly put their faith in our judgment and regularly help the museum acquire important works for the collection. “For the students,” as Mickey and Jeanne like to say. (See La linea continua, our current exhibition of works in the Judy and Charles Tate Collection for another superb example of collection-building assistance.)
  • And of course, there’s no surpassing the urgency of the discovery scenario itself: the thrill of first encounter with the artist’s masterful storytelling; the split-second yet highly choreographed negotiations that lead to the financial deal; the unplanned but hugely fortuitous acquisition of the very last available copy of what would later become one of the most sought after works of 2006. Curators, especially contemporary curators, have to be on constant alert for opportunities to build collections that will stand the test of time. That was a day when I felt like I’d done a really good job!

Most visitors to our impressive collection galleries probably don’t know that the Blanton does not have recurring funds for acquisitions. We curators spend much of our time cultivating gifts—bringing selected works to patrons who might find them compelling enough to buy for us, and building relationships that might yield gifts from already established private collections. However we can, we search for cash: our colleagues and we write grants to foundations that sometimes make funds available for museum purchases, and we frequently steward affinity groups whose membership dues help us buy works of art directly. Only the most well endowed museums have ample budgets for curators to spend on acquisitions, though even for those lucky institutions and their staffs, the prices of today’s art market can still stun and surprise.

Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson, Dawn’s Presence – Two Columns, painted wood, 116 in. x 67 in. x 31 in., Purchase as a gift in memory of Laura Lee Scurlock Blanton by her children, 2005.

Curatorial vigilance and resourcefulness aside, occasionally an amazing, unforeseen opportunity occurs; one of mine came during the year preceding the opening of our new building in 2006. The children of Jack Blanton Sr., the museum’s new namesake (what a wonderful man he was!), had offered, through their family foundation, to underwrite a “major acquisition” that would bolster the modern and contemporary collection. Such a boon! For several months I searched high and low, calling art dealers I knew and trusted in Texas, New York, Los Angeles, Cologne, and London, trying to find something special that would befit the unique occasion and fill a gap—any one of many!—in our still-forming collection. Sculpture was a great love of Jack’s and his late wife, Laura Lee, and we certainly needed three-dimensional works to complement our fine paintings and prints, so that seemed the best focus for my search. Further, I knew the work should be beautiful and timeless. But the circumstance of how the final selection transpired is, in my mind, forever tied to a precise, historical moment: On the morning that Al Gore conceded the presidency to George W. Bush (I saw the televised press conference at my Southwest Airlines gate), I flew to Houston to make my presentation to the Blantons at River Oaks Country Club; our director, Jessie Hite, was already there. I don’t think any of us had slept well the previous night; the weight of our national fate hung heavy over all. An elderly cabdriver and I talked politics as we drove over from Hobby, and I arrived with a mind appropriately clear on life’s priorities. How can publicly held works of art help enrich our lives? By communicating values that are necessary and true. I had assembled images of a dozen masterworks from around the world to show the family group, each extraordinary and potentially transformative for the museum’s collection. At the end of a brunch that I certainly did not eat, the Blantons made possible the purchase of not one, but two exceptional sculptures: In honor of Laura Lee, Louise Nevelson’s Dawn’s Presence—Two Columns, 1969-75, and in honor of Jack, Richard Long’s Summer Circle, 1991. These two majestic sculptures are on view in our collection galleries today, standing among our most prized works, embodying the fine spirits of those they honor.

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer, Sternenfall [Falling Stars], Mixed media on canvas, 183 in. x 208 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Martin, Jr., 2009.

Sometimes works of art find their way to us through moments of pure serendipity. Acquiring Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall,1998,—first on long-term loan, and ultimately as a full gift to the collection—felt like that (even though transporting the work requires two 18-wheelers, so there’s nothing spontaneous about it!). Back in 1999, when we still showed our collection on the first two floors of the Ransom Center, I called a former colleague, an art dealer from New Orleans with whom I hadn’t been in touch for several years. For the life of me I can’t recall what small matter led me to call her that day, I don’t actually spend much time on the phone and prefer to catch up with colleagues face to face during my frequent travels. But, I called Donna Rosen that day and we chatted, filling each other in on our respective, comparatively new cities—New York for her, Austin for me. As soon as I reminded her of my current position, she got quiet and said, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I’ve been working with new collectors in Austin who’ve just bought a large painting that’s too big for their home and they need a place to loan it until they can create just the right space for it. It’s an Anselm Kiefer, and I was just about to call the Fort Worth Modern to see if they might want to house it, given their interest in the artist and proximity to Austin.” “We’ll take it,” I said as calmly as I could. I’d seen the painting abroad, and knew it was magnificent. What Donna didn’t know at the time was that neither did the Blanton have a likely space to show such a monumental construction (more than 15 feet tall and 17 feet wide). But our new building was in the planning stages and that was our moment, so it was a phenomenal thrill to grab it, so to speak. (We ended up showing the Kiefer in the stairwell of the Huntington space at the Ransom Center until it took its rightful pride of place in the new building. And the owners generously gave it to us as a full gift at that time, recognizing its power and that it needed to be shared with the public.) Hard to believe but it’s actually true that Luis Jimenez’s Progress II, 1976, another knockout work of art on view in the second floor galleries, came to us in a similarly serendipitous manner. I loved hearing composer Graham Reynolds say awhile back that those are his two favorite works in the collection.

Oliver Herring

Oliver Herring, Patrick, 2004, Foam core, museum board, digital c-print photographs, and polystyrene, 42 in. x 18 in. x 27 1/2 in., Partial and pledged gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2005.

Miraculous days aside, the bulk of my collection-building time was spent constantly canvassing works of art by emerging artists in their studios, in gallery and museum exhibitions, and starting in about 2000, at art fairs (though most all curators will complain about the fairs as venues for seeing and considering art). Some advantages—and the very real excitement—of this labor-intensive search for the relatively unknown are that early work is often expressive of artists’ formative ideas, the prices are more affordable at the early stages, and if we choose well, we establish our institutional acuity and heighten our reputation in the field, enabling more partnerships with donors and colleagues. Two of the many contemporary masterworks that came to our collection that way include Emily Jacir’s From Texas with love, 2002 and Oliver Herring’s Patrick, 2004. Other great works arrived through exhibition projects, like the signature works we own by Fabian Marcaccio, Paul Chan, and Matthew Day Jackson.

David Reed

David Reed, #476, 2001, Oil and alkyd on linen canvas, 34 3/16 in. x 110 1/4 in., Michener Acquisitions Fund, 2002.

And sometimes the long working relationship a curator builds with an artist leads to an institutional determination to add a significant work of theirs to the collection; case in point, our brilliant abstract painting by David Reed. David accepted my invitation to serve as a visiting scholar in the collection of modern and contemporary paintings after we got a grant from the Henry S. Luce Foundation for an extended study of the Michener Collection holdings. I went to his studio several times over those years to see his new works before they were shipped out to solo exhibitions in Europe. In those days David’s studio was in downtown Manhattan, on the edge of Chinatown, and my most unforgettable visit to see new works in formation was directly preceded by the tragedy of 9/11. I recall being stopped for identification by police officers on my way to meet with him that early October evening; the haze of particulates from the implosions were still floating in the air, lending the whole neighborhood a surreal, anxious air. #476 was the work that I felt compelled to select from the many he was working on: its saturated greens and pale pinks reminded me of new life, even as we all struggled to make sense of the carnage nearby. Art works that way. It’s been a privilege to spend my days at the Blanton engaged with such matters.

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, Curator at Large

The Blanton announced the retirement of curator Annette DiMeo Carlozzi at the end of this month. Annette joined the Blanton in 1996 as the museum’s first curator of modern and contemporary art and served thereafter as the director of curatorial affairs, deputy director of art and programs, and most recently, as curator at large. She has played a critical role in helping to build the Blanton’s contemporary art collection and program. Annette has been a leader at the Blanton and within the art community for many years. The museum’s diverse audiences have all benefitted from her passionate and thoughtful approach to engaging with art and her dedication to the visitor experience. She leaves behind a wonderful legacy at the museum. To read more about Annette’s tenure at the Blanton, please visit our website.

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The Blanton’s Holiday Gift Guide

Visit the Blanton Museum Shop this holiday season to find unique gifts for everyone on your shopping list. From handcrafted jewelry and accessories to whimsical games and contemporary home décor, the Museum Shop offers a variety of specialty items that range from playful, out-of-the-ordinary stocking stuffers to timeless gifts for someone special. Museum Shop Manager Justin O’Connor shares some of her favorite gift ideas:

7_bellroy-whsd-cocoa-bellroywebsite-10_2.1401257422Bellroy Wallets: These beautifully crafted leather wallets are from a company in Australia that almost feels like family. They not only focus on quality, function and design but are also passionate about the environment and their carbon footprint. My husband and I are both proud Bellroy wallet owners, I carry the Slim Sleeve in Blue Steel and he carries the Note Sleeve in Java. $54.95-$129.95

mellisaborrellMelissa Borrell: I discovered Melissa during the East Austin Studio Tours and fell in love with with both her jewelry and her larger than life paper sculptures. Her Pop Out jewelry line is one of my favorites, not only because it looks great, but because it has an element of interaction and surprise. There’s just something fun about popping the forms out of their metal card and deciding where you want to attach the chain or ear hooks. An added bonus is how easily they slip into a card and can be mailed! $34-$55

Sunflowers_Collage_grandeHotSox: Socks are this year’s “it” accessory! There is nothing more fun and surprising than a bright, bold sock peeking out from underneath a pair of slacks. Choose from a wide array of famous art masterpieces designs in both men’s and women’s sizes. $8-$12

hands-rattle-300-2-e1394040333406innerSpirit Rattles by J Davis Studios: The perfect gift for the person who has everything. Handmade in Alpine, Texas they capture the free spirit of West Texas. Each shaker comes in a gift box with a story card to inspire the receiver. $28


Sabre Paris Cutlery: Add sparkle to your holiday table with a selection of Sabre cutlery and serving ware. Made just outside of Paris, these little gems make a great hostess gift or stocking stuffer. Available in teaspoons, cake servers, bread knifes and salad serving sets. $6-$36

giftboxBlanton Membership: A membership is an artistic, eye opening, and personally moving experience that can be enjoyed for an entire year. When you purchase a gift membership for a loved one, they will enjoy unlimited free museum admission, a 10% discount at the Museum Shop (plus an additional 10% off during several Double Discount Shopping Days throughout the year), a 10% discount at the Blanton Café, invitations to Members-only tours, Members’ discounts for classes and special events, FREE admission to B scene, the Blanton’s after-hours art party, and a subscription to the Blanton’s newsletter, Articulate. Purchase your gift in person at the Visitor Services Desk and receive a gift box with a Blanton magnet and 2 guest passes!* Memberships can also be purchased online, or by calling (512) 471-0236.

This is just the tip of the iceberg! Stop in and we will be happy to help you find the right gift for everyone on your list.

*Please Note: Due to the University Holiday Schedule, membership cards will not be mailed after December 17. After December 17, all gifts must be purchased in person at the museum during regular hours.

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Decoding the Details: Madonna and Child with Angels

Decoding the Details is a four-part blog series investigating works in the Blanton’s permanent collection. Each post will focus on a single work of art and explore the importance of details that many might not notice at first glance. When we delve into an object’s unassuming elements or look beyond what is immediately apparent, we often discover something unexpected and come away with a greater connection to both the work and the world from which it came.

Sarah Celentano is the fall 2014 PR & Marketing intern at the Blanton. She is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art & Art History and specializes in the art of the Middle Ages. In this inaugural post for her blog series, she takes a close look at Giovanni dal Ponte’s Madonna and Child with Angels, on view in the Blanton’s European art galleries.

Madonna and Child with Angels 1410s 15th century 88.3 cm x 57.8 cm (34 3/4 in. x 22 3/4 in.)

Giovanni dal Ponte, Madonna and Child with Angels. 1410s, tempera and tooled gold leaf on panel, 88.3 cm x 57.8 cm (34 3/4 in. x 22 3/4 in.), bequest of Jack G. Taylor, 1991.

Giovanni dal Ponte was a Florentine painter who worked primarily in the first third of the fifteenth century. A number of frescoes and altarpieces attributed to him survive. Although he worked in a time when his contemporaries were moving toward Renaissance painting techniques, dal Ponte maintains a medieval approach to his subject here. This does not mean that dal Ponte was ignorant of new developments in style; the shading around the Virgin’s and Child’s faces shows that he did attempt to create an illusion of three-dimensional space and therefore was very aware of the artistic movement of his own time. However, the gold leaf on the panel and the punchwork patterns in Christ’s and the Virgin’s halos show continued inspiration from earlier Byzantine works, and the floral motifs on the Virgin’s dress and the cloth of honor seem to float over these fabrics rather than conforming to their folds. This work suggests a greater interest in conveying the idea of power rather than naturalistic representation. This approach to images, one that is ultimately concerned with concepts rather than formal issues, is also apparent in the objects associated with Christ in dal Ponte’s painting.

We learn from the label for the Madonna and Child with Angels that the finch that the Christ Child holds and the coral necklace around his neck are symbols of his Passion—his suffering and eventual death on the cross. But why might a bird and a branch of coral symbolize these things? What is the connection?

Madonna and ChildThe finch had been associated with Christ’s Passion since appearing in the Etymologiae (Etymologies), a collection of learning from all disciplines that was compiled Isidore of Seville (died 636 CE). According to Isidore, the goldfinch survived on a diet of thorns and thistles (Etymologiae Bk. XII). For this reason, the finch came to be associated with Christ’s Crown of Thorns, and therefore his Passion. Dal Ponte has depicted the finch in Christ’s hand with outstretched wings, almost as if the bird is replicating the way that Christ’s arms will eventually stretch out on the cross. The bird’s head also inclines towards its chest in a way that recalls images of the dead crucified Christ. According to later medieval legend, the red markings on the finch’s head derive from Christ’s blood, which splashed on the finch’s head as it pulled a thorn from the Crown of Thorns.

Interestingly, the finch may have another layer of meaning that relates even more specifically to dal Ponte’s particular time and place. Since the early medieval period, the finch was thought to have the gift of healing sight. It was said that a finch could cure a person’s disease just by looking at him or her. Since dal Ponte lived in a time still rocked by the Black Death, the bubonic plague that wiped out a third of the population of Europe by the 1350s, the altarpiece featuring this painting likely offered solace to those who saw it. Thus, the Christ Child presents us with a symbol not only of his eventual suffering and sacrifice, but also the healing power—presented here in both physical and spiritual terms—of that sacrifice.

The coral in Christ’s hand also speaks to both his death and his role as savior while referring to a widespread medieval tradition. Like the finch, coral was thought to have protective abilities. The ancient Romans believed that red coral grew from the blood of Medusa and could ward off harmful powers. The association of red coral with blood and protective abilities persisted into the Middle Ages, however instead of Medusa’s blood it was now associated with the blood of Christ and its saving powers. Coral necklaces were popular jewelry for children in the medieval period, and, in addition to their protective qualities, they were also valued and used as teething rings. Dal Ponte’s Christ Child therefore wears the symbol of his sacrifice and the protection it ensures, but also appears as a typical baby of the fifteenth century.

Madonna and ChildWe also might ask why the angels have rainbow-colored wings. Their wings aren’t pure white, like what many of us think of when we imagine angel wings. Instead, they’re multicolored like peacock feathers. This is in fact what they are meant to be. Like the coral and finch, the peacock was another part of the natural world that held great symbolic meaning for medieval and Renaissance people. This bird was a symbol of eternal life, and people associated the “eyes” of its feathers with the all-seeing power of angels. For these reasons, medieval and Renaissance painters would often depict angels with peacock-feather wings.

When we focus on the seemingly minor details in this work, we come away with a fuller understanding of how powerfully dal Ponte addresses his fifteenth century audience. In understanding the significance of the various components in this painting and the uneasy time in which it was created, we discover layers of meaning that enhance our experience of the work.


Amulets.” The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

“Coral.” The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art. Ed. Gerald W.R. Ward. Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Gill, Meredith G. Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae. Trans. W. M. Lindsay. Oxford University Press, 1911. Print.

Signs and Symbols: The Goldfinch. The Fitzwilliam Museum, n.d. Web. 17 November 2014.

Werness, Hope B. Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. Print.

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