Tamar Avishai, the MFA’s podcaster-in-residence and host of The Lonely Palette, has teamed up with the Museum to release episodes on artworks in our collections. On The Lonely Palette Avishai tells the stories behind artworks, one at a time, in an approachable and accessible style. Listen to the episodes in partnership with the MFA below. You can also access the episodes on your favorite podcast app.
Juno, late 1st B.C.
VOICE 1: When I was walking by the door, because I was just going to walk right by, and all of a sudden I turned and saw this and I had to come in and check it all out.
VOICE 2: I walked in and looked up and my jaw just dropped. This is one huge sculpture.
VOICE 3: Um, I see, like a ginormous, like, goddess.
VOICE 1: It's just imposing. I don't want to say in-your-face. I guess it...it's a woman, and it's power, and I had to see it.
VOICE 2: She's, like, maybe 20 feet tall. It amazes me that this is a woman, too. I don't know why, but I sort of expect men to be made into huge sculptures.
VOICE 4: I love the way her hair flows to. It's absolutely beautiful. It's very luscious, the locks of hair. It almost looks like serpents.
VOICE 2: Her hands are broken off. And I really, really wonder what her hand gestures are, because one of them would have been raised to, like, her neck or her face.
VOICE 5: And the face has a rather big nose for modern standards. And big eyes and luscious lips, I guess.
VOICE 2: She's got really powerful legs, which I guess you would if you were a goddess. One knee is slightly bent and, you know, that sort of classic casual posture.
VOICE 4: She's posed so naturally and so beautifully, and there's such an elegant nature to the way she's standing.
VOICE 2: I don't know whether she's, like, casually watching people die off in the distance or walking somewhere or what.
VOICE 3: She looks, like, smart. And also, like, yeah. Yeah, like, warlike, probably.
VOICE 4: My first reaction is how amazing it is that someone could even carve something like this out of such a big block of marble. I mean, it takes an enormous amount of time and dedication, and I think it's just amazing that one even has the patience to do that.
VOICE 5: It's very well-preserved. You can see the heton coming down. And normally, those are... I'm from Greece, and therefore it's kind of unfortunate that I get to see this here. I wish I could actually see it in Greece because we have a lot of much smaller broken ones of these. Like when you go to Greek museums, you do not get something well-preserved like this.
VOICE 6: I was looking at it from the artist point of view, actually thinking to get that kind of perspective and dimensions correctly with a human being, it it's it's remarkable to me like how... Where would they stand? Who would be modeling it? And what's really fascinating to me is the drape of the fabric.
VOICE 4: I'm really amazed by the ripple effects of her dress and how it, like, how it cascades down.
VOICE 2: She's draped with drapey clothes, you know, like, oh, I just threw this on this morning.
VOICE 4: It feels casual, almost, just the way it's wrapped around her. It almost reminds me of just like putting a bath towel on.
VOICE 6: It just floors me. You what kind of tools they would have to use to get those little teeny creases and folds just right. For the sculptor to actually sculpt something that looks see-through and it's all stone. It's remarkable. It's...it's truly remarkable. Right?
When I was in fifth grade, we had a unit on Greek myths. You know the way you remember some things from childhood so clearly that you close your eyes and you’re there? For some reason, that’s Greek mythology for me. We were all given a book, like a real, grown-up chapter book without pictures, on the gods and goddesses of Olympus, and it quickly became my favorite book. I read it so many times I memorized it. It’s missing a cover and the pages are all squiggly from dropping it in the bath. I couldn’t get enough of these jokers. These gods and goddesses, they were so deliciously awful to each other, and in ways that seemed so much more human than the omniscient know-it-all Jewish God I grew up with. Their insecurities and sex drives and jealousy all felt so relatable; they helped explain grown-ups and Melrose Place to me. And no one was more jealous than Hera, wife of Zeus, who I always thought was done a little dirty. All the other goddesses were given such iconic identities: Athena is the goddess of wisdom, Aphrodite the goddess of love, and so on, while Hera was… Zeus’ wife. The goddess of wife. It seemed like her entire existence was to resent her cheating husband, a kind of Helladic Carmela Soprano. I know technically she’s the queen of the gods, but I guess that always felt like a title more than a job. At the end of the day, she’s always attached to Zeus, the goddess of marriage, which again, considering she’s always being cheated on, feels kind of weak. My point is, there was never any Hera without Zeus. She’s always in his shadow. She’s never allowed to contain her own multitudes. To just be her.
Until now. Now, she’s the subject of our episode, completely undeniable, all 13 feet and six and a half tons of her, before you even count the pedestal. In fact, she’s the largest classical sculpture in North America, this colossal Roman statue of Juno. Juno, is, of course, the Roman name for Hera. It’s the same goddess, the same cheating husband, the same story. But when you stand in front of her in the newly installed, airy gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, it doesn’t feel like the same story. Because there’s no Zeus. She’s having her moment. And there is nothing about this sculpture that feels weak, no shadow it could possibly fit in.
When it comes to ancient art, and particularly the freestanding sculpture that most people would recognize, we have a lot of stories to explore, all nesting inside one another like a weathered marble turducken. We know who she is because we know the stories, that is, the myths. But then there’s the story of the moment of her creation, that is, her context, what inspired Roman artisans in the first century BCE to carve this woman and her drapery and her brooches and sandals out of Carrera marble, and most likely put her in a temple to worship her. And then there’s the story of the sculpture ever since: you don’t survive thousands of years without seeing some stuff, without needing some work done, and without that restoration having stories of its own – remember episodes 19 on the Guanyin Bodhisattva, and especially episode 36 on the Ecce Homo Monkey Christ fiasco, that the decision to restore an antique object is incredibly loaded and probably says more about the cultural moment of its restoration than the moment it’s being restored to. But I digress. All of these stories – the myths, the history, and the provenance and restoration – are present in this monumental sculpture. So let’s dive into them: first into the object itself and then its journey through time and space to bring us to our moment, today, where Juno finally rules the court that’s always been withheld from her.
So first, the history. You really can’t tell the story of Roman statues without understanding that they’re wholly indebted to the story of Greek statues, and you can’t talk about Greek statues without explaining the evolution of Greek art from the ninth to first century BCE. So without further ado, here is an insultingly brief history of freestanding Greco-Roman sculpture that would make any ancient Greek historian shatter his teacup with indignation. But here we go.
When you think about Greek sculpture, you probably have some really famous figures in your head, ones that you never realized you would recognize forever, either by sight or by name or by its cultural clout – figures like the discus thrower that always gets trotted out at the Olympics, or the famously armless Venus de Milo, or the writhing and snake-bitten Laocoon and his sons. These figures are all part of a long trajectory over hundreds of years of artisans learning to depict the human body, and from there, learning how to infuse those bodies with subtlety and emotional depth. It’s actually pretty powerful to watch these sculptures evolve, almost like that old evolution diagram of monkey becoming man. We’re watching Western art become itself in real time.
And Ancient Greek art defined itself early on by this evolution, in strong contrast with, for example, Ancient Egyptian art, which was based on a strong desire for continuity and permanence, and therefore stayed relatively consistent over 3000 years. Greek art, which developed during a comparatively much shorter time, only about 800 years, is nothing if not variable – you could hold up a geometric-period pot from 750 BCE against a Hellenistic sculpture from 200 BCE and have no idea they were from the same culture. But what did remain consistent throughout was a deep sense of history, storytelling, and an indispensable religious imagination, which lead to the abundance of sacred sites, sanctuaries, and temples across the region that were dedicated to the gods. Each site, each structure, was an independent space that was integrated into its natural surroundings, a unique entity that was part of a larger spiritual and geographic community. And the increasing artistic desire to depict the human body, itself so individual and so communal, undoubtedly reflected this.
So let’s fast forward through the really early stuff, which is mostly lots of pots – and again, ancient art historians, my sincere apologies, don’t at me – to arrive at the Archaic period, from around 600-480 BCE, which is famous first and foremost for the development of those column orders you had to memorize in middle school – say it with me: Doric, the most solid and stolid, Ionic, which, with its flat-top swirls at the top, is the most iconic (that’s how I remembered it), and Corinthian, with its, you know carved rosettes and acanthus leaves and stuff, which is the most elegant and decorated. Clearly this is when temple architecture really starts to take off, and with it, the sculptures both carved into the temple’s facades in elaborate friezes, and, for our purposes, the venerable freestanding sculptures of the gods inside. The Archaic period saw the flourishing of city-states on the mainland and Aegean islands, and pushed its capital, Athens, to the forefront both commercially and artistically. Artistic commissions thrived, and even those pots we neglected started to be signed by individual artists. It was kind of like the Renaissance before the Renaissance, if you want to truly twist up your brain.
The first freestanding sculptures from these periods weren’t actually mythological gods but their immortal deity attendants, called a kore if it depicted a female or a kouros if it’s a male. These figures acted as grave markers and lined the entries of temples, and are notable for their straight-backed stiffness, almost like they were modeled from an Egyptian hieroglyphic. They have their clenched fists at their sides, their one foot forward, and, often, a gentle, closed-mouthed smile. But even the kouroi started to evolve and soften as the years passed, less imprisoned by artistic convention and more individualized, so that by the time we reach the Classical Period in 480 BCE, it’s not so shocking to see the first sculptures that we really recognize as classically Greek, the foundation for the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century, which is, of course, the revival of antiquity, which is, of course, this. Classical Greek art, a period of really only 160 years, is characterized by humanism, rationalism, and idealism, by the notion that man is the measure of all things, that only the necessary need be captured, with nothing in excess, and that mathematical proportionality can lead to the rendering of an authentic human body. The frozen one-foot-forward of a kouros from 530 BCE evolves into a smooth, more lifelike and proportional Kritian Boy in 480 BCE, and from there into a perfectly weight-bearing contrapposto in Polykleitos’ Spear Bearer from 450 BCE. The Archaic smile disappears into the subtle planes of the human face; musculature slowly appears beneath the skin. When you see these three figures side-by-side, and you consider that this aesthetic evolution happened in only 80 years, honestly, it takes your breath away.
And so 450 BCE, and our Spear Bearer, begin the High Classical Period, around 450-400 BCE, and famous for everything you recognize: the Acropolis, the Parthenon, Athens v. Sparta, the heyday of the ancient Olympic games, the discus thrower and his stunning naturalism, carved by artists who now understood how to capture not just the body itself, but how it moves, its hard muscles and soft flesh and gently turned out foot, and the tension of the pregnant moment before the action. And it’s this tension, this emotional energy, where the body isn’t just a thing in a vacuum but a person responding to its world, that takes us into the late Classical period, from around 400-323 BCE, the period of Plato and Aristotle and the School of Athens, and then, into the Hellenistic period which began in 323 BCE with the death of Alexander the Great, who was, among other things, Aristotle’s most famous student. Alexander’s death left a vast conquered empire with virtually no leadership or administrative structure, ultimately leaving it to be divided into kingdoms amongst his generals, ushering in a period of pluralism, rather than cohesion, until its ultimate conquest by the Romans in 31 BCE. Yet the art of this period is remarkably consistent, in that it aimed to reject its predecessors, to be anti-Classical and far more individualized, humanistic, and, like human beings, highly emotional and dramatic. Gone are the aloof expressions, the charged moment before the action – consider the fact that while the discus thrower’s body is taut and ready, his face is as subdued as if it’s waiting in line at the post office. The Hellenistic period replaced this with richly flapping drapery, the soaring wind-whipped Nike of Samothrace, or the priest Laocoon’s face of utter agony as he and his sons are beset by venomous snakes. We’ve talked before about how so often in art history, the pendulum swings between intellectualism and emotionalism, between the moment of anticipation and the moment of action, between the head and the gut. We see this as Renaissance moves towards Baroque, as Cubism moves towards Expressionism, as Abstract Expressionism moves towards Minimalism. This, however, is the OG, Classical to Hellenistic, when we go from admiring the muscles and proportion of a Classical athlete to empathizing with a suffering father.
Okay, end of breakneck speed preamble to bring us to Rome, and to Juno. The hand-off of Greek culture, the conquered, to Roman culture, the conqueror, isn’t nearly as straightforward as you’d imagine. You’d think that Roman art would swallow Greek art whole, but remember, Roman art was itself just getting off the ground, and Greece exerted an enormously oversized influence on this nascent culture. Greek art, with its humanism and elegance, was, if I haven’t already convinced you, pretty powerful, beautiful stuff, so much so that the Roman poet Horace famously wrote that “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive.” In fact, the smooth snow-white marble Greek sculptures we’re so familiar with are actually replications, Roman copies of original Greek bronze sculptures. Yes indeed, any marble sculpture you’ve ever been taught as ancient Greek isn’t actually from that period at all, but a Roman copy after the fact. There are a few reasons for this – first logistical, after all, the original bronze was a highly valuable material for weaponry and any number of other uses, so best to melt them down and use them more practically, but second is artistic and cultural: the early Roman craze for Greek art was all but unquenchable. Everyone wanted a piece. So the sculptures were molded into plaster casts and then into hollow marble that could barely support the weight, hence the little supports and carved tree stumps you tend to see around the feet, and then replicated endlessly, often with heads swapped in and out.
But Roman artists didn’t just pick up the mantle of Greek art, they continued its evolution. The emotional realism so characteristic of Hellenistic sculpture continued to evolve into the Roman Republic and early Roman empire by way of these swapped-out heads, called busts, because they were so focused on the human face. Where Greek sculpture perfected the human body, Roman sculpture actually let it begin to age. An interest in meticulous realism, called Verism, captured those big noses and tiny eyes and wrinkles and warts. Verism allowed for a lack of physical perfection in favor of authenticity and individuality. And this also led to an interesting new development in this highly politically-charged period: propaganda. After all, if something seems accurate, you’re less inclined to question its ability to manipulate you. And so the specificity of a portrait generated its recognizability. A coin with the image of Julius Caesar became unmistakable. A diadem, or tiara, atop a head of curls was unequivocally the goddess Juno.
This Juno was most likely carved during the early Roman Empire, under the reign of Augustus and during the Pax Romana, a legacy of over 200 years, from 27 BCE to 180 CE, of stability, economic prosperity, and internal peace, a time of building at an unprecedented scale and complexity, incredible engineering, and great beauty. She was carved from a massive piece of Carrera marble, named for the many quarries in the North Central Italian city of Carrera, which would have tied in nicely with Augustus’s desire to decorate his city with all the white marble he could unearth – the Roman historian Suetonius wrote that “Augustus found Rome a city built in brick and left it one of marble.” And like Napoleon III’s Haussmannization of Paris, which we discussed in episode 7, you can imagine how brilliantly bright the city must have become, how elegant, and, especially, how opulent. And we see evidence of this desire for richness in Juno herself: we can, of course, only understand the gods in terms of our own human instincts and desires, and so Juno’s queenliness is indicated by the exact stuff we’d find valuable: the pressed cloth of her voluminous drapery, the buttons on her sleeves, the brooches fastening the cloak at her shoulders, even her sandals. All were universally recognizable indications of wealth.
But about that “universally-recognizable” part. There’s a somewhat sizable snag in the story, and I probably shouldn’t have waited this long to mention it. But the fact is that, after all this build-up, we can’t actually be sure that this was originally meant to be Juno and not simply some wealthy female figure, or a muse, maybe, or part of a larger group of colossal sculptures. Because, as I mentioned, heads often got swapped, and this head – as I said, unmistakably Juno because of the diadem – wasn’t the original. Those broken-off hands could have been holding a musical instrument, or a scroll, or any other number of objects that would have been as symbolic as the diadem. It’s the head that makes her Juno, and this head is a later addition. So…sorry for the bait and switch. But this does bring us to the final leg of our story, the sculpture ever since.
There’s a lot to her journey that brought her from then to now, enough that the MFA published a whole book about it – the research required to piece together her story is herculean, no ancient Greco-Roman pun intended – so we’re just going to touch on the greatest hits. While her early provenance from antiquity to the Baroque is a collection of muddy best guesses, she first appeared with confidence in 1633 in the inventory of an Italian cardinal, Cardinal Ludovisi, known for his family’s prized collection of antiquities. She would have presided over an avenue of Cyprus trees, then into a palace, in the 1730s she was sold to a Pope, then ceded to the French at the turn of the 19th century, then returned to Rome 20 years later. She would have been visited by Goethe, by Stendhal, by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, and most notably by the German art historian Johann Winkelmann, who essentially told the Ludovisis the value of what they had on their hands, and, with a tone you can almost hear, that her upper lip had been poorly restored. By the end of the 19th century, most of the Ludovisi collection had been purchased by the Italian government, the Ludovisi gardens became a construction site, and Charles F. Sprague, a US congressman and avid art collector in Brookline, Massachusetts, who was hard at work creating an Italian-themed garden, got a tip from his landscape architect that he had an in on a “big statue,” a “stunner,” whose availability was “a chance such as hardly ever occurs.” Finally, in 1904, after several complicated years that included bureaucratic red tape, issues with the Italian government, and Sprague’s death, twelve oxen pulled the statue down the driveway of Mrs. Sprague’s house, and Juno found her new home for the next century. She was then bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts and underwent an extraordinary restoration beginning in 2012, which included the removal of her 400 pound head, the fixing of her somewhat disfigured face – apparently a guest of the Sprague’s tried to climb the statue, causing the head to tumble and nose to break off, and honestly, after a few wine spritzers, who among us?) – and the general cleaning and restoring after five hundred years of garden life and exposure to the elements, and two thousand years of life on this planet, to arrive at this moment, in this gallery, with birdsong piped in to evoke the outside, the sun and mist and wind, where so much of her life had been spent.
So these are the stories that brought her to this point. And now it’s time for one more: the story we tell ourselves. What does Juno mean to us? Why do we put so much energy into tracing her origins, into knowing where she’s been and what she’s seen? And what does that say about our desire to understand our own origins? Even with all of this incredible research, there’s still quite a bit we take on faith. After all, so much of restoration and the study of antiquities in general amounts to extremely educated guesses. We think this how best to restore her. We think this is Juno. And if we decide that she is, then we think this is most accurate retelling of her historical story, so that she, queen that she is, can best tell her own, to explain Greek mythology to us, today. But we don’t have the proof, we don’t have Duchamp or Picasso taking pen to paper to write manifestos and explain exactly why their art looks like this, why it met its exact historical moment like this. Instead, we have history, which is to say, we have lots and lots of stories, and from them we carve and craft, we turn the marble into a larger picture of its context, and that picture into our understanding of the vast, endless expanse of the world before we arrived. And, like I said, we have faith: that humans then are like humans now, that all we’ve ever wanted was a world put into terms that we can understand. It’s why Greek artists carved sculptures that look like themselves. It’s why people before them told stories of gods and goddesses in their petty, human images. It’s why I, in fifth grade, used Greek myths to understand my own world, which included Melrose Place.
So think about this when you stand in front of this monumental sculpture, this stunner, at the culmination point of all of her stories, and ours. Think about us, the mortals on the ground, how much we know, and how little we know, and how it’s the combination of both that pretty much what makes up the entirety of human experience. And think about how we made her just to worship her: the captive, taking us captive, casting her own magnificent shadow, and presiding over us all.
Juno, late 1st B.C. Marble. Museum purchase with funds donated by George D. and Margo Behrakis.
Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as the Great Wave, about 1830–31
Anonymous interviewee 1: Okay, so, you have a huge wave, almost tsunami-like. It’s a deep blue, ringed with white. And the foam is coming up, and it’s engulfing the whole scene. It almost feels like it’s about to eat the small mountain in the background.
Anonymous interviewee 2: Um, so, what jumps out at me are actually the—they almost look like fingers on the wave, that they’re kind of overwhelming the boat, and like they’re—they seem like they’re about to like reach down and grab something.
Anonymous interviewee 1: Once you start looking closer, you see small boats that are just being eaten alive by this huge wave.
Anonymous interviewee 2: It’s a—it’s a violent image. And I think that kind of gets lost when people just see the wave, and it seems like a landscape. But there’s this human element to it, too.
Anonymous interviewee 3: Yeah. It’s a very specific moment. Um, had it been two seconds later, the wave would have crashed, and you wouldn’t even see these people.
Anonymous interviewee 4: They’re doing the right thing. If you encounter a big, scary wave, you have to fight your instincts and go straight at it.
Anonymous interviewee 5: My eye goes to the boat, the—the people in the boat, and that wave. And it just keeps my eye moving in a circle like it’s flat and three-dimensional. It is very static and very moving. Constantly moving. Like, doesn’t even seem…
Tamar Avishai: What are your hands doing right now?
Anonymous interviewee 5: Ah, they are flopping around like a wave. Churning, ah, into your microphone.
Anonymous interviewee 2: And, of course, then the blue. I mean, that’s just, your eye jumps to is that blue just pops when you see it in person in a way that it doesn’t pop when you see it on a tattoo [laughs].
Tamar Avishai: Or in the emoji.
Anonymous interviewee 2: Or in the emoji, for sure.
Anonymous interviewee 6: And you can even see, like, a—a mountain peak in the background, um, which almost blends in with the waves.
Anonymous interviewee 2: It’s hard to tell what’s wave and what’s mountain to me sometimes. The waves can look like a mountain. The mountain looks like a wave. So, it’s, you know, it makes you look at all these different layers of the image.
Anonymous interviewee 4: Is this a disaster in the making? Well, maybe. But I—I take, you know, Fuji there as kind of a good luck, uh, symbol.
Anonymous interviewee 1: It’s all encompassing and destroying everything, but also bringing life in that it’s ocean and rebirth.
Tamar Avishai: This is the sound my 6-month-old falls asleep to every night. It’s from a sound machine that’s designed to look like a jar full of fireflies, and has lots of soothing options—glockenspiel nursery songs, pattering rain—but I’ve never used any other sound but this. The others are too distracting. A good sound machine, I think, should carry you away. And I find that these ocean waves carry me, simultaneously so dramatic and gentle, the endless cycle of crest and resolve. I turn them on and sit nursing in the dim haze of a nightlight, I close my eyes, and I let the sound take me back to a vacation I went on with my dad and stepmom back in 2005, to a house they rented on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was the first time I’d ever slept near the ocean, and I was amazed each night by how intensely the pounding of the surf filled the space. I remember one night after they’d gone to bed, taking my journal outside to write about a heartbreak I was in the midst of, and then finally setting down my pen because it took too much effort to hear my thoughts over the sound of the waves. They were such noisy, insistent reminders of how vast and indifferent the ocean was. It’s too big to think about and too loud to think about anything else. So I just gave myself over to them; I let them white out my thoughts. I stood at the railing overlooking the beach, my head full of sound, watching the tide coming in, the tide pulling out, the moon overhead and reflected in the water, feeling the meditative succession of infinite agitation and release. Crest and resolve. I thought about that deck at the side of the ocean the night my son was born, the relentless waves of contractions, that moment of unbearable peak, that break, that relief. And it’s what I imagine happening to his little mind as he drifts off to sleep, maybe subconsciously reminded of the safety of that washing machine churn of life in utero. Baby’s first meditation: that gentle cycle, the roil, the quiet, his thoughts wiped away, carried off by the sound of the waves.
You’ve seen the Great Wave off Kanagawa, an Edo period ukiyo-e print by the master of the craft, Katsushika Hokusai, a million times, in a million different places. This iconic, instantly recognizable silhouette is plastered all over mugs and memes and mousepads and even has its own emoji. And this is how people have experienced this print for as long as it’s been around. It’s always been a print, one of many, and widely available to the masses. But, as we learned in episode 5 on Andy Warhol’s silkscreened electric chairs, the trade-off of being seen and reseen by everyone is that you stop being really seen for what you are. And we don’t see the Great Wave anymore for what it really is: an enormously powerful image of an enormously powerful thing. And if we stop for a moment and really look, there is so much happening in this print. There are the compositional elements that thrust you into the pure energy of the moment. There’s Japan’s relationship, both sacred and mundane, to everything depicted in the scene: Mt. Fuji, the fishing industry, Buddhism, the sea itself. And, not least of all, there’s the seismic splash that these prints made in the European art scene when Japan opened its borders in the middle of the 19th century. So let’s go through these points one at a time, and let’s take a pickaxe to the retaining wall of the image’s iconic familiarity and open a path for the history and visual energy of this great wave to come barreling through as nature intended: too big to think about and too loud to think about anything else.
And let’s start with origins of everything, that is, the sea itself. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ocean to Japan, as formative and fundamental to the country as oxygen. It’s said that Japan isn’t a small island nation so much as a nation of small islands—the Japanese archipelago is comprised of thousands of them, with a coastline that stretches more than 18,000 miles, and at no point anywhere in the country is a resident more than 93 miles from the sea. The ocean currents from the several bodies of water and the diversity of climates has made for some of the most varied and productive fishing in the world, which has made the fishing industry culturally and economically invaluable to Japan. And it was actually the fishing industry that gave rise to the merchant class that created the market for this very series of prints, which became the art of the middle class during this period known as the Edo period, from 1615 to 1868. The city of Edo, now present-day Tokyo, gave its name to a unique period of peace and prosperity in Japan, but at the expense of a rigid and repressive bureaucratic shogunate, or ruling government, which closed itself off from the rest of the world. The shogunate had originally divided Edo society into four distinct classes, with the Samurai officials ruling the roost at the top, followed by farmers, artisans, and then merchants at the bottom. But Edo’s increasingly mercantile economy, boosted by its lucrative fishing industry, meant that merchant wealth soon started to outpace Samurai wealth, and all of sudden, Japan had a thriving middle class who could read, write, and, for our purposes, fully immerse itself in the arts. Cities became thriving hotbeds of high and low culture, and nowhere was this more potent than in the capital city of Edo itself, which boasted the largest and most famous pleasure quarters, that is, centers of the best high and low culture money could buy, quarters that were known informally as ukiyo, or the “Floating World.”
The origins for this name, the Floating World, are rooted in the fact that Edo Japan was also deeply Buddhist. And if you know anything about Buddhism, you know that its fundamental conceit is the awareness of the transience of life, how we’re only here for a pretty short time before this world of ours, and our existence in it, floats away. But instead of dwelling on our earthly impermanence like a bunch of depressed nihilists, the residents of Edo instead chose the much more cheerful Dave Matthews Band way, to eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow they died. This philosophy permeated the Floating World quarters with a culture of excess, of geishas and merriment and popular entertainment. And occupied as they were by a cheap-art-loving middle class, the pleasure quarters begat the ukiyo-e print, the pictures of the floating world. These prints, which were woodblock illustrations that emphasized line, pure color, and distillation of form, illustrated the pleasure quarters, the geishas, and, as we’ll soon see, of iconic images of Japan herself, and were known for being hugely popular, cheaply produced, and inexpensive to buy. If you’re lucky enough to stand in front of an unframed print today, you’re instructed to hold your hand over your mouth lest your very breath risk damaging it, but at the time, it was colloquially said that you could purchase one for the same price as a double helping of noodles. They were mass-produced, mass-disseminated, hardly considered valuable, and hardly even considered art—that is, until two key players came along: Katsushika Hokusai and Commodore Matthew Perry.
First up, Hokusai. We talk a lot in the history of the arts about why we remember this or that artist, this or that composer, above all the others, and the fact of the matter is, there are just some that transcend their generations, and Hokusai was that kind of artist. Where woodblock prints were largely one block, just black and white, slowly artists began adding colors by hand and using multiple blocks to create subtlety and depth, and as these prints evolved, Hokusai, born in 1760 and already hugely famous by the time the Great Wave was printed, was, as I said, a master of the form. The print was one of a series titled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, an immensely popular series from 1830–33 that tapped into Japan’s closed-off and therefore extra-concentrated interest in themselves. Hokusai revolutionized the genre away from images of pure pleasure to images of everyday life, and soon became the go-to illustrator of “true Japan,” that is, images of iconic and recognizable Japanese sites that domestic tourists would buy as souvenirs. Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, and though mostly blocked by skyscrapers today, it would have been visible throughout Edo, giving it the aura of being simultaneously mundane and sublime, a sacred totem to the city. The series looks at the mountain from a variety of different perspectives and vantage points; many, like the famous print Red Fuji, that put it far more front and center than the Great Wave does, and were actually much more popular at the time because of it. the Great Wave was actually one of the final prints of the series, when Hokusai started to get a little creative in his placement, focusing more on the metaphor of the mountain than its physical prominence. We therefore see in the Great Wave a combination of elements that would have felt deeply familiar to its purchasers: the rarely-depicted social class of fisherman battling the wave, the raging sea itself, and, poking up its little head in the background, the spiritual anchor of Mount Fuji, caught just at the moment of closest resemblance to the wave in the foreground, the white-capped foam mirroring the iconic white mountain peak, the spitting spray of the water falling like snow.
Yet despite the quintessentially Japanese subject matter in the Great Wave, part of what makes it so revolutionary—and so visually powerful—is actually the way that Hokusai synthesized traditional Japanese aesthetics with his interest in Western art. While Edo was officially closed-off to the rest of the world, they still engaged in trade with the Dutch, some of whom smuggled European engravings into Japan, which then made their way to the hands of Japanese artists. And we can see, for example, how Western influence, specifically the use of linear perspective and deep, rich color, makes its way into Japanese art, to the point of overtaking it entirely, like in Kawahara Keiga’s print Dutch Personnel and Japanese Women Watching an Incoming Towed Dutch Sailing Ship, which, from its title to its horizon line, feels like somewhat half-hearted attempt at full-on copying Western aesthetics. But in Hokusai’s virtuosic hands, we see how these Western elements of linear perspective and color actually serve to greatly enhance the existing Japanese subject and style. This print isn’t the first time that Hokusai illustrated a crashing wave, as we can see from an earlier example from 1805, but it’s the first time it’s felt this immediate. In his earlier print, the viewer is stationed above, looking across at a high horizon and a schematic wave that looks like a giant swath of monochromatic fabric rising from the sea. It’s imposing, for sure, but the whole of the image feels a little flat and diagrammatic, more about the moment having happened than the moment actually happening.
In the Great Wave, however, the low horizon line and slightly recessed background, both conventions of Western art, bring us directly into the action, as though we’re looking on from an equally-doomed nearby fishing boat. Yet at the same time, like in traditional Japanese prints, the foreground and background are still relatively unmediated, still flattened and compressed, which pushes all of the energy of the moment forward, right into our faces, leaving us breathless. It’s like the image is built up from paper cutouts layered on top of each other, creating depth while still maintaining flatness, like a theater set, not something the Western eye is all that familiar with. And this combination of graphic, stylized Japanese form and urgent Western realism creates a scene that is both static and full of moving parts, drawing our attention to the immediacy of the subject being depicted, which extends far beyond a view of Mount Fuji: the ruthless, terrifying power of this wave, our human surrender to the magnitude of nature, not unlike the Western 19th-century Romanticism we explored through Turner’s Slave Ship in episode 18. The highest wave roils and lifts imposingly, like a child under a sheet, and descends like an attacking bear, its foam like claws, like a hundred individual hands threatening to drag under each of the fishermen in their boats, who themselves are nothing more than faceless peas in a sugar snap pod, hopelessly outmatched. And so much of the graphic vibrancy is indebted to the Prussian blue pigment, also a product of the West, which is so distinctively, intensely, beautifully blue. Prussian blue was one of the first modern synthetic pigments, developed in Berlin in the early 1700s and imported into Japan in the mid-19th century, and integrated into woodblock prints soon after, a long-lasting and relatively inexpensive game changer.
But another element that makes this cross-cultural aesthetic exchange so interesting is that it traversed right back in the other direction. Where Western conventions proved so effective in Japanese art, Japanese conventions played a powerfully influential role in Western art too. And this is where our “friend”—and put that in quotes if you must—Matthew Perry comes in. Commodore Perry was a highly decorated American naval officer who was largely responsible for opening up Edo Japan to the West in 1854. America was in hardcore manifest destiny expansion mode, looking to increase trade, and, it should be said, not unopposed to quote-unquote “taming” the noble Asian savage, and so Perry and his crew were therefore able, over a few years of cajoling and straight-up bullying, to overturn Japan’s 250 years of seclusion. And whatever conclusions can be drawn here in terms of the methods, the repercussions for our purposes are clear: Europe as a whole, and the French Impressionists in particular, got ahold of these prints, and collectively lost their minds.
And so began the era of Japan in Paris, when French artists went so gaga over these prints that some of the largest collections of them in the world were ultimately owned by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists and the first biography of Hokusai was actually published in France. And I should say at the outset that the Impressionist affinity for Japanese aesthetics, and what’s been labeled as Japonisme, the collective French craze for all things Japanese, are intertwined but also separate, depending where you draw the subtle distinction between authentic and inauthentic. In terms of the Japanese effect on Impressionist art, one of the first Japanese art objects to come to Paris was a sketchbook by Hokusai, which was passed around hungrily by French artists, who immediately began incorporating elements of his style into their work. And you can understand why Japanese art represented such lighting in a bottle for the avant-garde Impressionists, who were looking for an alternative to strict academic realism, and especially one that embraced this sense of immediacy. Their work therefore started taking on elements of pictorial flatness, diagonals, asymmetry, bold, shadowless colors, and the kind of creative use of negative space that allows an image to appear finished even a background is technically empty. Take, for example, Degas’s The Star, from 1878, who is planted off-center a similarly compressed, energetic composition on a diagonally-cut canvas. Or Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress, from 1890, which is so intentionally flattened and illustrated with such muted, monochromatic colors and such a crisp, graphic quality that you’d be forgiven for mistaking it with an actual ukiyo-e print. And whether or not the Great Wave was a direct inspiration for Claude Debussy’s cascading and moody La Mer, it appeared on the score’s cover when it was originally published in 1905, and the incredible photo of Debussy and Stravinsky posing with a print of the Great Wave in the background speaks for itself.
Of course, it could also speak to the entire phenomenon of Japonisme, again, that French craze for Japanese culture, which, however well-intentioned, is more akin to traditional definitions of post-colonial cultural appropriation than I think we’re entirely comfortable admitting. In 1867, the International Exposition in Paris mounted the first show of Japanese prints in Europe, opening the door for Japanese art, ceramics, kimonos, and fans to flood into Paris. And this is when we see a slightly less than authentic embrace of Japanese influence, artists exploring a fad and attempting to capture an aesthetic they don’t entirely understand. A famous example is Monet’s La Japonaise, where he paints his wife Camille in a kimono and a blonde wig and holding a fan the colors of the Tri Colore, clearly identifying the Japonisme phenomenon with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, while simultaneously trying to both capitalize on it and, to be sure, try his own hand at it. And while it is a rich, gorgeously painted kimono, you can’t help but be a little put off by his front-and-center placement of a blonde Caucasian woman literally clothed in a Samurai warrior, so coquettishly slipping this culture on, while the fans in the background drop around her like cherry blossoms.
And then we have the problematic example of Vincent van Gogh, who proclaimed, earnestly though somewhat superficially, that “all his art was influenced by Japan.” He found Japanese prints to be a literal breath of fresh air, pinning them to the walls of his studio, praising the images that “return us to nature,” and writing, “we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art without becoming much happier and more cheerful.” And we can see the evidence of his enthusiasm both in his depiction of his actual studio, plastered with prints, in the background of the portrait of his art dealer Julien Tanguy, and in his painted copies of Japanese prints, the most famous being his print of a plum orchard. And it’s in this homage to a print by Utagawa Hiroshige that we get the best sense of both Van Gogh’s love letter passion for Japanese aesthetic and the limitations of his understanding of the cafeteria-plucked elements. It’s a print that can only be described as pseudo-Japanese: overly flattened, accentuating the exoticized “primitive,” and, most cringe-ily, framed with Japanese characters that are completely made up and meaningless—an attempt at capturing something that is clearly so meaningful to Van Gogh, but amounting to gobbledygook to any actual, authentic custodian of this culture. It’s worth noting that when both Monet and Van Gogh painted work that was a little less on the Japanese nose, paintings like Monet’s Japanese Footbridge from 1899 and Van Gogh’s Almond Blossoms from 1890, does it feel like they’re actually getting it?
But the ethics of this kind of cross-cultural intention versus impact exchange can hardly be resolved here. A more productive takeaway, I think, is to acknowledge what these prints meant to the Western artists who cribbed from them, and what this one in particular means to us today. We have a saying in my songwriting circle that clichés are cliché for a reason, that everyone wouldn’t be so tempted to adopt them if they weren’t so achingly true. And I think there’s something to be said for why this print is so indelibly popular. Because it really is that powerful. And the source of its power, I think, comes from the very fact that an ocean wave is both a powerful object in itself and an extraordinarily powerful metaphor. In this print, we see the wave right at its moment of climax, the unbearable peak of the contraction, with the full knowledge that in the next moment of the narrative, it will break, swallowing these fishermen whole, and not even bat an eyelash. That’s powerful enough, that crest, that frozen moment of drama that, thanks its composition, will keep us perpetually on our toes and actively engaged. But there’s also the resolve, the fact of the wave as a relentless, unending reminder of impermanence, so impossibly big that it clears your mind of conscious thought, and maybe even reassuring in its infinite churn. And no one would have appreciated this better than the very Buddhists who would have foregone their double helping of noodles to purchase this print in real time.
Because to be a resident of the Floating World of Edo was to understand the larger implications of an ocean wave as a metaphor for the cycle of life, not just an opportunity for indulgence in pleasure quarters, but a philosophy you give yourself over to, and that’s impossible to grip onto with your mortal hands. They would have embraced the words of the 20th-century philosopher V. F. Gunaratna, who wrote in his book Buddhist Reflections on Death, “if you stand by the sea and watch how wave upon wave rises and falls, one wave merging into the next, one wave becoming another, you will appreciate that this entire world is also just that—becoming and becoming.” And they surely would have appreciated Chidi explaining the Buddhist philosophy of death to Eleanor in the beautifully gutting finale of The Good Place:
Chidi: Picture a wave. In the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there, you can see it, you know what it is, it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore, and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just … a different way for the water to be, for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean. Where it came from. And where it’s supposed to be.
Eleanor: Not bad, Buddhists.
Chidi: Not bad. None of this is bad.
Tamar Avishai: And this is what I find myself thinking about when I sit with my son before I lay him down in his crib, listening to the churn of the sea. And I hope he’s thinking about it too, in his own little way, as he falls asleep. This quiet, meditative moment of release—away from the memes and the mousepads, giving ourselves over to these great waves. The rushing in, the rushing out, too big to process, too loud to ignore, while gently, and powerfully, carrying us away.
Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as the Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), about 1830–31. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection.
Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98
Transcript for Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt Episode
VOICE 1: So in this quilt, I see 15 panels, five across, three down, and each panel has some sort of image, like maybe a story that it's telling.
VOICE 2: Each block tells its own story, and kind of seems like, maybe like a picture book. Each section.
VOICE 3: I see all the work that they did, all by hand that takes time and time, and to be a good one and be able to do it.
VOICE 1: It's squares, but they're not perfect. It's not perfect lines. It's sort of it looks very handmade and a little wavy, like the person didn't have a ruler.
VOICE 3: Looks like there might be a little bit of...lemme see...appliqué going on here, too. And I see some embroidery too, because those eyes are embroidered right there, right there, and right there. And that's also back stitching, which is part of embroidery. So this uses appliqué, embroidery and quilting techniques. So it does everything, a little bit of everything. It's amazing, actually. I'm a quilter myself, but this is amazing.
VOICE 4: And there's a lot of color, although it's kind of muted, except for the oranges, which are very bright. They are, like, these people in many of them that are doing little actions, and there are some birds and some other animals, and it's kind of childish drawings like child, like child shapes. It's very, very cool.
VOICE 5: You know, when they discovered drawings in caves? These are kind of like the drawings you see in the caves from early man, I think.
VOICE 6: So I see images of what I think are stories from the Bible. There's a person looks like falling off a boat, maybe being swallowed up by a whale, maybe that's a story of Jonah.
VOICE 1: One has two of each kind, which I think could be Noah's Ark.
VOICE 6: And then I see images of the three people on the cross.
VOICE 1: And in a lot of them, their arms are facing up, which makes me think of praising.
VOICE 7: And you see a number of figures that look like they have their hands raised to receive these sort of, I guess, lights that are coming down. And so it's a, for me, it's interesting to wonder if it's awe, if it's excitement, is it fear?
VOICE 8: I see a lot of things in it. I mean, what I see is slavery. I see, you know, such a lot of nice little things in that, as well. It's not all sad. It's happy as well. And I can't look through the eyes of a slave person who did this. So I'm just looking through it from my eyes, and that's all I see. I don't see all sad stuff. I see happy stuff too.
My husband and I never went on a honeymoon. I don’t know how many newlyweds have this same story: you put all this energy into the wedding, the logistical details, the, uh, personality management, and the idea of planning a whole other trip on top of it just feels impossible. We promised ourselves we’d get to it eventually, but bank accounts got drained, way led onto way, and it just never happened. So the following year, when it seemed like everyone we knew was getting married in every state in the country, we made a pledge to go. It’ll be like ten different minimoons, we told ourselves. Two days in San Francisco here, a night in Hartford there, a positive, yes let’s attitude, and maybe we’ll pick up a memento or two along the way to give the year of the minimoon its full honey meaning.
So fast forward to 6 months later, we’re in a country store in the middle of nowhere outside of Denver, Colorado, about to celebrate the nuptials of my husband’s parents’ friends’ daughter. And I’m standing in front of the most beautiful quilt I’ve ever seen. It’s white with green and teal interlocking rings, and it’s gripping me, and I’m doing everything I can to talk myself out of buying it. I mean, it’s expensive, it’s just a quilt. I can buy one anywhere without splurging. After all, it might get spilled on or loved a little too hard by our cat. And sure, it will look beautiful for a while, but inevitably I’ll stop seeing it.
And of course, we do these mental gymnastics when it comes to usable art, that is, craft. This is the dilemma of being confronted by a world where cheap utilitarian machine-made objects reign supreme, and separate themselves from the aesthetic decisions of individual, talented hands. This quilt, I had to explain to myself, is expensive because it’s handmade. Someone took the time to stitch all those little stitches. Someone chose that specific pattern, in this case, the double wedding ring pattern, to tell a story, to infuse that otherwise banal fabric with meaning. Why is this any different than a painter with a canvas or a sculptor with a chisel, other than the fact that I get to actually touch it? And more than that, use it, smell it, infuse it with my smell, my story?
Because obviously, we bought it. Double wedding ring pattern? Come on. And it’s our wedding quilt, our minimoons quilt, our memento of profound meaning. It’s been on our bed for the last six years, a cuddly home to our sleeping cat, then to our infant son. And what’s amazing is, I never actually stop seeing it. Like any piece of good art, even one that I snuggle under to watch Netflix on my phone, it never stops being evocative. And it never stops being meaningful.
But you can’t convince someone that craft is like that unless they’ve experienced it themselves. No one thinks that quilts, for example, or a museum exhibition about quilts will be as interesting or historically compelling as they actually are. So let’s start by looking at their role in the culture: scholars tend to point to quilt-making, and specifically quilt storytelling, as a distinctly American phenomenon. Quilts that are art objects run the gamut, like America itself, of identities, ethnicities, socioeconomic strata, and geography – that is, equally common to both rural and urban areas of the country. I mean, when a craft is passed down through the generations, it’s enormously egalitarian. And because they’re created to live in the most intimate spaces in people’s lives, they’re deeply personal and personalized. And this American, egalitarian, and intimate art form is perhaps no better expressed than in the Pictorial Quilt of Harriet Powers, one of the most exceptional objects you never realized was a part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s collection. It, along with the Bible Quilt, are the only two surviving quilts by Powers, and maybe one of the most famous and well-preserved examples of African American folk art and 19th century quilting. And yet, even with these kinds of superlatives, it isn’t so surprising that you’ve probably never heard of it: like I said, quilting, and the craft side of fiber art in general, tends to be overlooked. As we briefly talked about in episode 15, it’s largely been dismissed as “women’s work,” too utilitarian to be taken seriously as an art form. I mean, what other domestic tasks are we going to call art? Doing the dishes?
This attitude changed, mercifully, in the 1960s and 70s, when newly liberated women artists, and the work borne from their needles and thread, entered the mainstream. And with this liberation came the enormous power of what Ghanian fiber artist El Anatsui calls “the poverty of materials” – that is, the art of creating something valuable from what is essentially discarded scraps. In his case, it was the metal caps and the aluminum stripped from beer bottles, and in the case of 18th and 19th century quilters, it was the remnants of old clothes and other bits of used cloth, the detritus that, as Anatsui continues, “in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.”
And it’s these humble, reused materials, given new life as a means of conveying these rich and wonderful stories, that are the cornerstones of a quilt like this, and a life lived by Harriet Powers. The American novelist Alice Walker all but anticipates Anatsui’s words when she describes her first experience with Powers’ Bible Quilt, writing for Ms. Magazine in 1974, that despite the fact that “it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” And it’s a testament to Powers’ innate talent and vision as a quilter that her work was able to speak for her so clearly. She was a black woman born into slavery in Athens, Georgia in 1837, freed at the end of the Civil War and then newly oppressed by economic hardship, despite ultimately becoming a landowner. She was a mother to at least nine children, and an expert, self-taught seamstress, with a specific skill with what is known as applique – that is, sewing shapes and pictures of fabric onto a blocked patch of quilt – which not only referenced West African techniques, but, in her hands, became uniquely American.
And it should be said that the kind of appliqued quilt we’re talking about is a very specific kind of storytelling. The double wedding ring pattern of my minimoons quilt is something else: a recognizable motif, known throughout the quilting world and imbued with legible cultural significance, but, at the end of the day, is still just a repeating geometric pattern – if it tells a story, it’s the story of my cat, my marriage, my baby, my bedroom. But an appliqued quilt is created to tell a story all its own, before there’s any projected significance. Powers’ two surviving quilts, this Pictorial Quilt, as we’ll be discussing, and the Bible Quilt, which lives at the Smithsonian, are literally narratives, like a storyboard for a film, but without a clear narrative sequence: instead, we have fifteen densely appliqued squares depicting biblical scenes that speak to the intensity of Powers’ Christian faith, and her awareness of her current moment. And this is important, we’ll come back to it. The style, meanwhile, which emphasizes color, form, and contours over specific detail, share a kind of free-flowing, groundless steam of consciousness that call to mind the later paper cutouts of Matisse, or, as we’ll get into more later, the admittedly far more grotesque silhouettes of Kara Walker. There are clear references to the Old and New Testaments, to the stories of Job, of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Jonah and the whale, of figures on crucifixes, of the Book of Revelations. But we also see current events, as described by Powers herself: “Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895, a woman frozen in prayer.” Other squares depict natural phenomena from the more recent past: a meteor shower from 1833; a forest fire from 1780. And these scenes, side-by-side, reveal two things about Harriet Powers, which I’ve just alluded to: first, as Alice Walker inferred, she was a woman deeply committed to her own Christian faith – in Powers’ own words, her quilts intended to “preach the gospel in patchwork” – and secondly, she possessed an ability to tap into the modernity of her own moment, to recognize the inherent value of life as it was being lived, as seen through stories both contemporary and timeless.
And both of these elements, the timeless religious aspect and the contemporary moment, are reflected in the history of ownership of these two quilts, what curators call the provenance. It’s hardly surprising that the quilts have always had white owners, although as far as records tell us, they were owners who were deeply moved by the content, by the clear intensity of Powers’ vision. The Bible Quilt, which, true to its named contained exclusively biblical scenes, and was created around 1886, a decade before the Pictorial Quilt, was owned by Jennie Smith, an art teacher at a girls’ school, who had originally seen the quilt displayed at the Northeast Georgia Fair and was moved to offer Powers $10 for it, the equivalent of about $300 today, describing Powers’ style as “bold and rather on the impressionist’ order, while there is a naivete of expression that is delicious.” Powers refused to sell at any price, on the grounds that the quilt, the “darling offspring of my brain,” was too meaningful to part with, although she did end up eventually selling it to Smith for half that amount a few years later, when Powers fell into her own financial hardships.
It’s tempting to dismiss this story as a straight-up taking advantage of a power disparity, although to her credit, Jennie Smith did make an effort to keep this quilt publicly and politically visible, displaying it at the Negro Building of the Cotton States at the Atlanta International Exposition in 1895. It was an enormously popular exhibit that attracted almost a million visitors, and its popularity might very well have paved the way for the Pictorial Quilt’s commission. And it’s the provenance of the Pictorial Quilt that carries us into the 20th century still indebted to Powers’ original intent. Because the Pictorial Quilt, too, was highly regarded for the emotional authenticity of its religious content. It was most likely given as a gift at the appointment of the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall as president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1897. Hall had served on the board of trustees of Atlanta University, a university itself founded in 1865 with the intention of educating newly emancipated slaves, and Hall was one of several white Protestant ministers who sincerely intended to offer help and guidance to the black community at the time, however helpful it ultimately was. Still, there was no question in the minds of the “faculty ladies” who banded together to purchase the quilt for the occasion that a gift like this, created deep from the soul of an emancipated black seamstress, would be both deeply meaningful to Hall, and optically advantageous to his cause.
The quilt was proudly hung up in Hall’s summer residence in Westport, Massachusetts for more than 60 years – and, side note, imagine passing that every day on the way downstairs to the breakfast nook; you know they also never stopped seeing it. Hall’s son then approached the MFA to sell the quilt in 1960. And amazingly enough, even the museum, once it ultimately acquired the quilt a few years later, didn’t really know the value of what they now possessed, keeping it in storage for another decade until, as I said earlier, second-wave feminism introduced the world to the value of quilt-making, and the MFA realized it was sitting on a historical gold mine.
And it’s easy to see why a quilt like this was so poised to make a splash this moment of re-discovery, a double-whammy moment of early postmodern identity politics in the 1970s and the rise of outsider art. The phrase “outsider art” was coined in 1972, and refers to art by artists who are self-taught – we talked about it briefly in episode 36 in reference to Cecilia Gimenez, the Spanish hero who took it upon herself to restore that Ecce Homo fresco to its ahem present glory. But Gimenez aside, it’s an enormous disservice to think of outsider artists as bad artists, or the crudity of technique as inherently worse than that of artists trained in the finest art academies. On the contrary, there is a richness and an authenticity that can be found in artists who are first and foremost observers, who receive their training from “amateurs” passing techniques down through generations, the way that the best recipes come from grandmothers, not the Food Network. This lack of formal training shifts the emphasis towards intuition, towards the inherent emotional power of work that just needs to be created even if, in the case of Powers, the corners of the quilt don’t quite match up. And there are many examples of artists who intuitively create both narrative and abstract designs without the benefit of formal training – look no further than the quilters of Gee’s Bend in Alabama, a small, isolated hamlet just southwest of Selma, and home to some of the most extraordinary and important contributions to black visual culture in the country. Many current residents of the community can trace their ancestral lineage back to slavery, and then where freed slaves subsequently stayed as sharecroppers, all the way to the 1960s, when a quilting bee was birthed that eventually gained national attention for the artistry and historical and political significance of their quilts – which, as with Powers’ quilts, were made of found scraps of clothing and borrowed from both West African aesthetic traditions, and, uniquely, Native American aesthetic traditions. What’s especially striking about these quilts is that the lack of formal training meant that they had no constraints, no obligation to follow, for example, the strict double wedding ring pattern of my minimoons quilt, and so you end up with fiber art that’s truly, artistically imaginative, and maybe wouldn’t even be out of place alongside some of the most avant garde mid-century minimalist abstract paintings. Take, for example, the Bricklayer or Courthouse Steps quilt from 1955, attributed to sisters Creola and Georgianna Bennett Pettway. The pattern, called the Housetop or Log Cabin pattern, lines up strips of deep, vibrant red to create an hourglass shape that appears to recede into the horizon as starkly as Carmen Herrera’s color field painting that we looked at in episode 43. The patterning is as sophisticated and precise as anything you would expect from a formally-trained quilter, or a formally-trained abstract artist, and maybe even more evocative for its intuitive creativity. Not everyone can look at a bag of clothing scraps and create a design so clean, and so arresting.
And I should add that there’s another, more politically-charged element to the idea of the untrained, the crude, even the grotesque – a word that, depending on context, can run the table from simply distorted to truly monstrous. Once outside the formal rules, and once within one’s own subjective emotional landscape, a lot can be said through passionate, unconstrained narrative that sits outside formal convention, almost as though the outsiders to the art world can speak a more authentic kind of truth. As I alluded to earlier, it’s hard not to see the applique cutouts of Powers’ quilts and not see forward to Matisse, who basked in the joy of untrained non-western “naivete,” or, more brutally, to our current moment and the silhouettes of Kara Walker, whom we discussed briefly in episode 50. Walker’s work, like the MFA’s “The Rich Soil Down There,” has become almost synonymous with cutouts of deeply unsettling narratives that speak to the horrors of slavery. These scenes are comprised entirely or silhouettes, which makes you feel like you’re furtively spying on something horrifying from a distance from behind a scrim, scenes of blatant violence, forced sexual acts, unmoored bodily functions, an overall breaking down of societal norms into a shadowy bestial free-for-all that entirely subverts the staid portraiture we’re used to associating with early 19th century upper-class silhouettes. There is of course nothing so disturbing depicted in Powers’ quilts, nor would her Christian values or contemporary mores ever have let her entertain the idea of depicting such scenes, but it’s interesting to see Walker appropriate elements of this style to speak to those unspoken realities of Powers’ moment, and in language that would have been recognizable to the moment, in a grotesquely subversive way, as perhaps the moment demanded.
And I think maybe this is why stories, even on quilts we might not have ever noticed, or even bothered to consider art, are so important. Whether they are the stories sewn onto the fabric, or the stories acquired over the history of ownership, or the stories that are left untold in their moment, Harriet Powers understood the importance of telling them. And not just the stories from her faith, or of her moment, but the story of quilting itself, their narrative power, which she apparently talked about to “anyone who would listen.” And people did listen. She was a formidable presence, clearly not a woman afraid to live her truth – even the only known photograph of her shows her wearing a typically severe expression and a wonderfully whimsical apron, embroidered with the same style of applique that we see in her quilts. And the fact that she was known for this in her own day, given her circumstances, and the fact that her role in quilting history was later obscured and needed to be rediscovered when it was more politically convenient, her living fame really mattered. The fact that Powers wasn’t anonymous in her lifetime, writes the MFA curators, only adds to the importance of her work, and her own story. And this should encourage, even compel us, to stand in front of her quilts, her art, and see them, really see them, and never stop. I mean, as if we could.
The exhibition “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories,” which contains, among other exquisite textiles, both the Bible and the Pictorial quilts reunited at last, is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until January 17, 2022, and you can get tickets easily at mfa.org.
Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik.
Sugimoto Hiroshi, Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993, 1993
Transcript for Sugimoto Hiroshi, Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993 Episode
Hey, it’s Tamar. And if you’re like me, you’re at home right now, probably in your PJs, definitely saving lives as we all wait out these strange, dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there’s nothing like this moment in time to recognize that, more often than not, the most powerful art is the result of strange, dark days, whether in a larger chaotic world or in the stirring of an individual artist’s soul. This is the art that observes, that documents. This is the art of shared humanity, memory, nostalgia, and resilience. And while we can’t visit art museums right now, I’m partnering up with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to bring the art museum to you. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be going into the archives of both the MFA and The Lonely Palette to bring you the ultimate #MuseumFromHome experience, objects you can explore as you both reorganize your spice rack and reconsider the humanity, the memory, the nostalgia, and the resilience that you’re sharing with these artists, and with each other.
Please enjoy today’s episode, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993.
VOICE 1: First off, it’s obviously—these are images, black and white images, of, like, an old theater. Most of them look old, yeah. Kind of Baroque looking? But it’s almost kind of creepy? Because of the white glow from the center of the stage. And there’s no one sitting in the theater? So it’s almost kind of giving me kind of a horror movie feeling? [laughs] But at the same time, depending on how you look at it, it can be calm, calming, ‘cause it just looks very quiet. And peaceful.
VOICE 2: Kind of like anticipation, to me. You know, like, that feeling of waiting for something to start. That’s what I get.
VOICE 3: Excitement! Because it’s like, the theater is about to begin. You’re about to see exactly what’s going to happen.
VOICE 4: Yeah, you can see the architecture around the stage, the different carvings, and textures, and you can see a little bit of the seats, too, in the front row. They’re lit up in the light and it’s all coming from the front stage, and it creates a very moody feeling in the picture. You know, black and white photography, lots of darks, but the contrast, right around the stage—it’s bright white, and then right next to it is the deep blacks. And that just creates an interesting visual, it draws you eye right into the center of the photo.
VOICE 2: To me it feels kind of lonely. It’s a lonely, empty theater too, you know?
VOICE 5: Still and strange. And it’s almost, like, sad. These are, you know, they’re very elaborate, you know, kind of beautiful old theaters. And they’re empty. And dark. And there’s nothing on the screen.
VOICE 1: Because if you’re describing a cinema or a movie theater, you have a motion picture, you have a play, you have people acting, people moving. This is a blank screen, there’s no one in the theater, nothing is moving. It’s just almost, like, dead, except for this white screen that’s showing absolutely nothing.
VOICE 2: There’s almost like a, maybe like a nostalgic feeling?
VOICE 6: It was important, but now it could be obsolete.
VOICE 2: I feel like it has, like, some kind of importance to someone.
VOICE 7: When I first saw these, I thought that they might be windows onto God. Just because it’s blank, it’s white, it’s all kinds of light all mixed together. But the longer I looked at them, I thought, well, maybe it’s what I’ll see at the end of my life, when I’m flashing back and looking at the movie of my life. ‘Cause I’ll be the only one in the theater, and I’ll have the best seat in the house, and I’ll get to see it all.
I was on a bus one time, looking around, minding my own business, when I saw an ad for a local church. The ad was just this one quote. It was attributed to C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, and a well-known big-time Christian. It read: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” And I just fell in love with this quote immediately. I’m not a Christian—I’m not even a terribly observant Jew—but I worship at the altar of the written word, and man, is that a great line. It’s such a perfect, beautiful metaphor for understanding, innately, something large and abstract through what it brings into focus. You don’t need to understand the thing itself, maybe it’s not even understandable. But you understand what it lets you empirically experience, what it brings into your life. I don’t understand the nature of love, really, but by it I see the pink at the tips of my husband’s ears and my heart grows three sizes.
This image, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Byrd Theater in Richmond, makes me think of this quote. Because to dive into the photographs of this seventy-one-year-old Japanese photographer and architect is to take on this big, abstract thing through what it illuminates. For him, it’s not love, or God, but time. His work, over and over through many different series of photographs, all take on the nature of time; they all, in his words, “exposing time.” And it’s interesting to parse out the different kinds of time Sugimoto is talking about. It can be the infinite ripples of water in a quiet seascape or the sharp focus of fur on a prehistoric diorama. In other words, it can be time ongoing or a moment in time that has passed. For both, Sugimoto writes, “photographs function as a fossilization of time.” It’s a moment of stasis, of stillness. It’s capturing something so fleeting, you can’t actually capture it. Because the moment photographed will always be snatched, removed from its context, like grabbing a part off an assembly line. Whatever you do catch won’t really be it anymore. It becomes immediately outdated and functionally useless. It becomes a fossil. And yet, as we all remember from our childhood trips to natural history musuems, fossils are still invaluable. They’re relics of a time that has since passed. Like the pillars of Ancient Greek temples, or the sumptuous movie theaters from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
And if you couldn’t already tell, Sugimoto adores these theaters. As a little boy in Tokyo in the 1950s, he fell in love with them, with seeing movies with his mother, with the emotions evoked both from the films and from the magnificent little details of the architecture. Sugimoto’s most famous photo series is of these theaters, which this image is part of—since the 1970s, he’s captured more than 100 movie houses and drive-ins, all in this same format: a glowing white square in the center, like looking into a camera’s viewfinder, which provides the light to the razor-sharp detail of the theater that surrounds it. These photos are striking on their own, but they’re especially powerful grouped together, when you can see the different kinds of architectural details from theater to theater, and how the quality of the glowing light changes. The MFA hangs four of these small, intimate photographs, close enough together so that none seem isolated, or too small against the white walls. They’re hung in the first gallery of the exhibition Seeking Stillness, which is on view until September, but even if you can’t make it to exhibition itself—which I assume is the case for most of you—the name really says it all. The exhibition was created in anticipation of a motherlode loan of Rothkos from the National Gallery in DC, which comprise the final gallery of the show and which we’ve already discussed in episode 24. The MFA culled its permanent collection to find the objects that best prepared a visitor to walk into a room of Rothkos, the objects that create a sense of, well, stillness. The objects throughout the show are gently monochromatic, with no jarring textures or even color at all until you arrive at the Rothkos. They’re hung on creamy warm white walls with ample room to breathe, as breezy as wearing linen on a hot summer day. All of them evoke a meditative sense of stasis and reflection.
And yet, as Rothko has taught us, the act of reflection isn’t necessarily relaxing. Rather, it’s the first part of a two-step process: we seek an environment of stillness to better listen to our own internal noise, so that we can then take the next steps of processing that noise and arriving at a kind of internal stillness. Really, that’s what meditation is all about. And what makes this exhibition so powerful is that it is simply full of images of emptiness that we in turn fill up. Everywhere we look, from Agnes Martin to Edward Weston to Sugimoto to Rothko, there’s a representation of, essentially, nothing. And it turns out we humans are really bad when it comes to nothing. We need a something. We create narratives, it’s what we do. And it therefore takes an enormous amount of restraint, of quieting our own interiors, to approach this photograph and to allow our eyes to stare straight into a seemingly blank screen, like an abstract white painting, and simply let the calm glow warm up a very specific interior of a grand old-timey movie theater. But it’s worth the effort. Because this is how we best prepare ourselves to approach any of Sugimoto’s photographs, and to truly experience this fundamental tension he creates between the abstract and the specific—and from there, to truly appreciate how he captures time. But we’ll get there.
Of course, the tension between the abstract and the specific is a familiar one. We see this in 20th century art all the time, from Edward Hopper’s quiet narratives that are at once generalized and precise, to Roy Lichtenstein’s comic frames that are isolated from their stories. There’s no better way to describe something universally conceptual than through little details. And here, we’re looking at a photograph of a theater interior, and it’s incredibly, almost piercingly, sharp. Sugimoto uses an 8 x 10 inch large-format camera, all bellows and screens, like an accordion atop a tripod, and known for its exceptional precision. And by it, we see every detail—the fringe of the curtain, the arms of the chairs, the pudgy little columns of the balustrade, the illuminated exit signs. And this sharply-focused scene surrounds a glowing, ostensibly blank screen. So much detail surrounds so much nothing. But again, it’s the luminescent, empty screen that provides the light to see all of this exceptional detail, which in turn frames the emptiness of that luminescent screen. It's both an exquisite, highly-technical photograph of an interior and a deeply eerie portrait of a void, like looking into the white of an eye with no eyeball.
But the twist here is that it’s really not a blank screen at all. He opens up his camera shutter at the beginning of the movie, exposing the entirety of the film. In other words, this empty screen is actually the whole movie. The light that we’re seeing coming from the screen and lighting up the interior is really a long time-lapse of all 172,800 “after-images”, as Sugimoto calls them—all the light from the film condensed into one frame. And he learned to play with this light, to anticipate how it would affect the interiors. Different movie narratives, he discovered, give off different brightnesses. “If it’s an optimistic story,” he says, “I usually end up with a bright screen; if it’s a sad story, it’s a dark screen. The brightest movies are spaghetti Westerns because they’re all shot outside. But an occult movie? Very dark.”
And this photograph, which shows us the entire movie in one frame, is representative of the kind of unique artist Sugimoto really is. He’s an artistic oxymoron, delighting in giving blur as much sharpness as possible. He embodies both abstraction and specificity: as an architect, of course, he needs to be specific and precise—after all, no matter how beautiful a building is, its walls still need to be load-bearing; it still needs to be at least somewhat functional. But he also revels in the intangible world of ideas—he cites Picasso and Marcel Duchamp as his primary influences. Of course, architecture and Dada exist across a pretty artistic broad spectrum—I mean, no one would ever feel safe in a building designed by Duchamp. Yet Sugimoto seems to be able to bridge the two, all the while creating something in these photographs that is wholly his own. Look at what he accomplishes here: he has created an ingenuous light source to illuminate a darkened theater. The theater itself is a fossil, chock full of architectural details from another era, and magnificently captured because this light source is actually a condensed piece of time itself. Time, the most fleeting and invisible and powerful force that human beings can experience, is captured, even for just a moment, as a glowing, pulsing square that illuminates relics of the past.
These theaters, these relics of Hollywood’s golden age, are the most straightforward way that Sugimoto evokes time, because it’s a question of history and nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. In the days of watching Netflix on our phones in bed, it’s easy to overlook what an event it must have been to see these oversized movie stars on the oversized silver screens. By presenting these theaters in such sharp detail, it’s like he’s asking us to time travel, to place ourselves in the moment by placing ourselves in those plush velvet seats, which haven’t yet been blurred by a fading memory. “Look at Greece and the beautiful Parthenon,” Sugimoto once said. “It once was glorious, and now it’s in terrible condition. History is passing and we will not be forever. I can look out my window and watch New York City being built now. But maybe 500 years later, 1,000 year later, this might be ruins too.” And Sugimoto addresses this idea in his photos as well, these ruins. He has recently embarked on a new photo series, one that documents the decay of these grand movie palaces, many of which now sit abandoned and derelict. He shows films himself, bringing these theaters back to life with a white sheet for a screen, hung in front of a dilapidated background, like a bizarro version of the original photo series of pristine theaters—once monuments to the glory of the past, now victims of the very time he is attempting to capture. There’s an added layer we haven’t talked about yet, which is the fact that there’s an accepted sense of artificiality that comes part and parcel with Hollywood, but which we rarely consider part of photography. Of course, it’s nuts that we do this, that we harbor this delusion that photographs must be telling the truth, that they capture the world as it is, in contrast with a painter capturing the world through his or her hand. Photographs are just as easily manipulated, just as calculated, just as filtered through the eye of the photographer. We talked about this in depth when we looked at Henryk Ross’s Lodz Ghetto photographs in episode 20—this false idea that documentary is objective and storytelling is subjective, when they’re really two sides of the same coin. Sugimoto loved playing with the idea that photographs can lie, producing a series of photographs of dioramas from natural history museums—seemingly-authentic polar bears on ice flows that are as fake as a movie set. When it comes to the theater series, he’s quite vocal about superimposing this whole movie at once is a creative act of the artist, not in any way purporting to be telling the story of the film. The film is just a tool of the artist, same as the paper he prints the photo onto. “Usually a photographer hangs around and captures the moment,” he wrote, “but I created my own illusion that doesn’t exist in reality. It’s just my own imagination — but I get to make my imagination visible.”
Of course, he’s not the first artist who has tried to make time visible. Looking at Sugimoto’s artistic influences, we’re reminded of how many 19th and 20th century artists we’ve explored who have tried to capture time on a canvas. And interestingly, it’s almost always by rendering movement. After all, capturing movement is capturing time, because you’re articulating both the space and the trajectory between two moments. And also interestingly, we see the role that technology plays. The artists most fascinated with rendering time tended to be the most affected by how technology was changing both their day to day world and their art. They became obsessed with the idea of pinning down technology’s speed, with, of course, technology’s help—consider the invention of the camera and its role in allowing artists to capture their moments in real time. Take the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who, in the later 1870s, experiments with multiple cameras that capture a horse galloping, like the individual pages of a flip book. In the short run, he proves, unimpeachably, that there is a moment in a horse’s gait when all four legs are off the ground; in the long run, thanks to his quick shutter speeds, his sequence of shots sets the stage for moving pictures. Then Picasso comes along in the early 1910s with a painting like Portrait of a Woman, which, as we discussed in episode 6, riffs on these multiple images by turning them into cubes, piling them atop each other, and experimenting with a highly intellectual exercise of capturing multiple perspectives at once. This is, of course, Cubism, which operates on the assumption that if we’re going to capture all of these individual perspectives of a single woman, we’re capturing their shift across space and time, because we don’t just stand still; our perceptions move right along with us. Then along comes Duchamp, who takes these overlapping cubes and repurposes them by giving them a direction to go in. In his Nude Descending a Staircase from 1912, each cube represents a different facet of her musculature as she goes from the top of the stairs down to the bottom, as though leaving trails of her imprint on the air. And then, of course, our good friends the Futurists borrow this idea and further infuse this dynamism with speed and power, showing every movement at once as their figures stride across canvases. And then we come to the present, fast forward eighty, ninety, a hundred years, and look at this movie theater. After all, what is Sugimoto doing in with these screens if not showing us every movement at once? And this is how he exposes time.
Time. This slippery little minx. Why? Why time? Why is time such an irresistible subject matter for artists? What is the allure? I guess you could consider it a form of chasing the dragon—think about Monet trying to follow the light across the sky in a potentially unending series of haystacks. There’s something seductive about impossible pursuits. But I think we’re hung up on too many verbs, too much activity—all this chasing and following and pursuing. We’re never going to grasp it. Playing with time is like playing with a Chinese finger trap; it’s futile to try to force it. And remember, these Sugimoto photographs are about seeking stillness. And to that end, I think there’s something he really values about sitting in the moment, about feeling it as it flows through him like water, and then bearing witness to that experience. After all, when he isn’t photographing movie theaters and dioramas, he’s capturing seascapes—calm, meditative divisions of monochromatic blocks, dividing the canvas in two, the water and the horizon, the ripples in sharp focus in the midst of the most gentle, endless blur. I’ve had one of these photos as my desktop background all week, and, honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough. When you relax your eyes, the ripples of water give the sensation of moving, like you’re caught in an eternal moment of ripples, a placid boomerang of time passing, but they freeze up again if you stare directly at them. And after a little while of quieting your eyes, you notice that there’s a light in the middle of the water, like a lantern just below the surface, spreading its warmth from below. It’s actually the water reflecting the sun. But it doesn’t just sit glittering on the surface. Instead, it mutes its own presence, giving shadow to these infinite ripples, and gently illuminating everything else.
Sugimoto Hiroshi, Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993, 1993. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto.
Vincent van Gogh, Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888. Oil on canvas. Gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Reclining Nude, 1909
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Reclining Nude, 1909. Oil on canvas. Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund.
El Anatsui, Black River, 2009
El Anatsui, Black River, 2009. Aluminum, bottle caps and copper wire. Towles Fund for Contemporary Art, Robert L. Beal, Enid L. Beal and Bruce A. Beal Acquisition Fund, Henry and Lois Foster Contemporary Purchase Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, and funds donated by the Vance Wall Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, 1632
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, 1632. Oil on panel. Promised Gift of Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, in support of the Center for Netherlandish Art.
Frida Kahlo, Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), 1928
Frida Kahlo, Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), 1928. Oil on canvas. Charles H. Bayley Picture and Paintings Fund, William Francis Warden Fund, Sophie M. Friedman Fund, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund, Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund, Gift of Jessie H. Wilkinson—Jessie H. Wilkinson Fund, and Robert M. Rosenberg Family Fund. © 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Patty Chang, Melons (At a Loss), 1998
Patty Chang, Melons (At a Loss), 1998. Video. The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Courtesy of the artist.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Deer’s Skull with Pedernal, 1936
Georgia O’Keeffe, Deer's Skull with Pedernal, 1936. Oil on canvas. Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation. © 2020 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Louise Bourgeois, Pillar, 1949–50, cast 1990
Louise Bourgeois, Pillar, 1949–50, cast 1990. Hollow cast bronze, white and blue paint, stainless steel base. Gift of Michael J. Zinner, M.D., in loving memory of Rhonda Zinner. © 2020 The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde (#1), 1962
Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde (#1), 1962. Acrylic on canvas. Museum purchase with funds donated by Barbara L. and Theodore B. Alfond through The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. © Carmen Herrera.