In this essay, I will share with you both some of my experiences as an NYU student coming from China and as an intern at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing and NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. In some cases, cultural differences are obvious. I treasure these two amazing intern experiences, which offered me precious knowledge of and understanding of how art museums operate.
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA)
The Ullens Center, which opened in 2007, was founded by Belgian art collector Guy Ullens, who has been supporting Chinese contemporary art since the 1980s. His collection included most established contemporary Chinese artists’ works. This was a golden time for Western art collectors to buy Chinese contemporary art at astonishingly low prices. At the time, China was still focusing on its socialist realism art tradition and showing little or no enthusiasm for avant-garde art. As a result, in its early years, the Chinese market for contemporary art was mostly dominated by Western capital. Another critical figure among those Western collectors was Uli Sigg, a Swiss media mogul who served as Ambassador to China in the late 1990s and who made a large donation of contemporary Chinese art to the Hong Kong-based M+ museum in 2012.
In 2009, Ullens began to auction his collection gradually, and he even made plans to sell UCCA’s collection. When I finally got the opportunity to intern there, the staff was just calming down from the unease of UCCA’s transaction: It was sold to a private equity company, Lunar Capital. This transfer of ownership was regarded as a milestone in the history of the Chinese art market, since it indicated the waning of Western power on the Chinese contemporary art market and the rise of Chinese collectors’ wealth and interest in contemporary art.
Me as docent (second from left) at UCCA, with Shaoqin Chen (third from right) and museum visitors
I first came to UCCA as a docent—the first step in my budding career in the art world. This seemly insignificant position actually forms a very important function at UCCA, which instigated the first successful attempt to build a volunteer docent system in a private art museum in China. UCCA’s docent program attracted a large number of art lovers, and its recruiting aim is always to improve its team’s vigor.
I made many friends during this period. Shaoqin Chen impressed me the most. She was over 70 years old, while the other docents were young, with most no older than 30. Mrs. Chen quickly became the star docent of UCCA. She approached her job with passion and plowed great effort into preparing her very effective talks. These always attracted additional audience members who just happened to be wandering through the venue. At the end of each of her guided tours, audience members always asked her for contact information to make an appointment for their next visit. Her pure love for art has, I believe, created an important foundation for me to continue my progress in the art world.
Following my time as a docent, my daily work at UCCA involved fundraising: developing prospective clients and maintaining the museum’s relationships with sponsors who provide financial support. It was my first experience in learning about this side of a non-profit institution’s operations. Apart from routine exhibitions, most Chinese art museums (as well as American) will rent their venue for commercial events. This is a profitable source of funding, and it enables museums to fully utilize their spaces to ease the pressure of high rent on their budget. I learned a lot from various co-workers in this process.
At some large institutions, staff turnover is high. Their reputations may endow beginners with an attractive CV page, yet limit their career development and salaries because of the institutions’ mighty negotiating power. For UCCA, if one wants to obtain a promotion, he or she may need to wait for years, and paths between departments are stagnant: one cannot change tracks once he or she is employed in a certain department. Therefore, during my three years’ association with UCCA, I often saw different fresh faces in the same position. Fortunately, my then-supervisor is still working there. She is a capable manager who has greatly helped to develop the institution.
Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Last year, I came to America to study Visual Arts Administration at NYU. I have been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity of interning at the Grey Art Gallery. Like the Ullens Center, the Grey was founded by a collector, in this case Abby Weed Grey, who collected modern Asian and Middle Eastern art in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many university museums in the U.S., the Grey focuses on art’s social contexts and views the museum as a laboratory for experimentation. On my very first day at the Grey, I already began to see the differences between museums in China and U.S. I was given a thick administrative handbook, The Grey Way, to help become familiar with some of the Grey’s office procedures, and I received a green intern handbook for my daily reference. This was brand new to me.
In China, I got the impression that people in the art world were the most casual types in society. There were no intern training process and formal rules for staff. If there was a rule, it was mostly transmitted orally rather than in writing. I’m guessing that this is because in China the art museum is viewed as a creativity-accumulated industry, so employers tend to not exert many limitations on their staff. But my experience at the Grey changed my thoughts on this. It is hard to say which style is better, but interning in America made me feel more efficient and service-oriented. I would like to bring this approach back to China in the future.
I also enjoyed the Grey’s pleasant working atmosphere. It has the advantage of small-scale institutions, where the office staff feels almost like a family. At the Grey, we often eat lunch together and share our desserts. Lunchtime is the best opportunity to get to know my colleagues better and to hear the news about happenings in our neighborhood and in the art world. In contrast, people in large institutions tend to mingle in smaller-sized subgroups, and relationships are more formal.
Me laying out artwork mock-ups in a scale model of the Grey, for our upcoming exhibition Modernisms
For me, working at a museum—whether in China or the U.S.—is almost like working at an amusement park. I’m able to take advantage of opportunities to participate in inspiring events, including lectures, film screenings, and so on. Working at both museums gave me an extra impetus to attend and to learn. And, importantly for me on a student budget, I saved a considerable amount of money, since many museum events are free of charge.
Of course, what I have touched upon here is just the tip of the iceberg. The art world’s multiple mysteries still lie ahead for me to explore. For a curious man, this is a great fortune—I look forward to exploring other dimensions of art’s universe—so novel, so attractive, and so mind-expanding.
Larry Luowei Zhang is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He expects to receive a M.A. in Visual Arts Administration from New York University in May 2020.
McDermott and McGough, “The Advent, 1932,” 1987, Oil on linen, Collection of Cary Leibowitz, New York
David McDermott and Peter McGough began working as a duo in 1980 after meeting in New York City. They became known for their blending of art and life through their all-encompassing interest in creative “time-travel.” Active in the East Village art scene of the 1980s, they created paintings, photographs, and films using old-fashioned materials and processes. Their work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 1987, 1991, and 1995. Today McDermott and McGough continue to create art collaboratively, splitting their time between Dublin (McDermott renounced his American citizenship and exiled himself to Ireland) and New York City.
Their painting, The Advent, 1932 of 1987 is included in the exhibition, Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989, currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery (April 24–July 20, 2019) and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (April 24–July 21, 2019). The exhibition examines art and activism in the 20 years after the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and highlights themes of visibility, commemoration, and the celebration of diverse identities. Leslie-Lohman features works mainly from the 1970s, while the Grey focuses on work from the 1980s.
McDermott and McGough’s The Advent, 1932 bridges two time periods, drawing from the artistic spirit of the late 19th and early 20th centuries while reflecting on the 1980s—the era of the AIDS crisis. Together the artists explore their interest in the past, often focusing on the gay subcultures of the Victorian period. This is also represented in the backdating of this work to 1932 and the artists’ “time experiments” in which they lived as Victorian dandies, complete with period-appropriate home décor and vintage appliances.
McDermott and McGough’s interest in challenging notions of time and chronology play out in The Advent, 1932 through its references to early 20th century abstraction and spiritualism, but also in its contemporary reflection on LGBTQ life. Dadaesque vowels dot the painting’s bright, concentric circles surrounding an image of Christ. Dark shards of brown and black break through the vibrant green tunnel of circles. The words “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit” transform the AIDS acronym into a memorial to friends, injecting a spiritual aura. The Advent, 1932 is thus a personal rumination on the passing of time, on mortality, and on the spirit’s infinite ability to live through art and memory.
In the Grey’s installation, The Advent, 1932 marks the transition between the Things Are Queer section and the AIDS and Activism section. Its deeply personal and contemplative representation of the AIDS crisis provides an intimate complement to the powerful activist posters on view nearby.
In 2017, a version of The Advent, 1932 was shown in New York at the artists’ installation Oscar Wilde Temple. Curated by Alison Gingeras, the Temple was unveiled in the Russell Chapel of the Church of the Village on the corner of West 13th Street and 7th Avenue (on view September 11 to December 2, 2017). It was envisioned as a secular space in honor of Oscar Wilde that would also commemorate more contemporary LGBTQ martyrs like Alan Turing, Harvey Milk, and Marsha P. Johnson. This church was chosen for its radically inclusive mission and its connection to Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People (PFLAG), a prominent ally organization that was founded there in 1973.
McDermott and McGough’s “Oscar Wilde Temple” installed at the Church of the Village in 2017. A Collaboration between McDermott & McGough, The LGBT Community Center of New York City, and The Church of the Village
Detail from “Oscar Wilde Temple”
Detail from “Oscar Wilde Temple” with “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit”
The main altar of the Temple was organized around a sculpture of Oscar Wilde on a pedestal inscribed with his prison number at Reading Gaol, C33. An overturned soapbox of the popular 19th century Fairy Soap was placed in front. Instead of the twelve Stations of the Cross found in many churches, the Temple featured seven paintings based on British newspaper illustrations depicting Wilde’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment. A secondary altar served as a memorial to those lost to AIDS with a variation of Advent, 1932 entitled Advent Infinite Divine Spirit, also from 1987. On another wall, accompanying the paintings honoring Turing, Milk, and Johnson were three works commemorating Brandon Teena, Xulhaz Mannan, and Sakia Gunn. The Oscar Wilde Temple celebrated Wilde as a forerunner of LGBTQ liberation and remembered those whose lives were taken by homophobia and AIDS. It simultaneously marked the progress made since the 19th century and acknowledged the prejudices that still persist today. The exhibition travelled to London, where it was on view at Studio Voltaire from October 3, 2018 to March 31, 2019.
Larkin, Daniel. “A Gleaming Shrine for Oscar Wilde.” Hyperallergic. November 28, 2017. Accessed June 21, 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/408549/shrine-for-oscar-wilde-david-mcdermott-and-peter-mcgough-church-of-the-village/
Loos, Ted. “For This Artist Duo, a Third Act: A Shrine to Oscar Wilde.” The New York Times. September 6, 2017. Accessed June 20, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/06/arts/design/oscar-wilde-temple-artists.html
“McDermott and McGough.” Accessed June 21, 2019. http://www.mcdermottandmcgough.com/
“The Oscar Wilde Temple.” Accessed June 20, 2019. https://www.oscarwildetemple.org/
“Oscar Wilde Temple.” The Church of the Village. Accessed June 21, 2019. https://www.churchofthevillage.org/oscar-wilde-temple
“Our Story.” PFLAG. Accessed June 21, 2019 https://pflag.org/our-story
Saga Beus is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She expects to receive an M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University in May 2020.
Greer Lankton, “Ellen and Freddie” (c. 1980s), Fabric, acrylic, wire, paint, glass, and matte medium. Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody
Located in the Things Are Queer section of Grey Art Gallery’s Art After Stonewall: 1969-1989 exhibition, Greer Lankton’s doll installation Ellen and Freddie is a reflection on the artist’s own identity and experiences. Born Greg Lankton in Flint, Michigan, she received gender reassignment surgery at age 21. Lankton’s other works on view in this exhibition, Coming Out of Surgery and the scrapbook Medical Magic, document her experiences with gender transformation and the medical system during this period.
Expanding upon her childhood hobby of making dolls, Lankton would become known for her emotionally-charged dolls and portraits that appear at once uncanny and glamorous. The external appearances of Lankton’s dolls demonstrate a refusal to blend in with social norms and beauty standards. Their bodies are slim, crooked, and elongated, while their colorful clothings and hairstyles appear gaudy and offbeat to the eyes of many viewers. Nevertheless, they capture our attention with their unique, undeniable charm.
Lankton described her dolls as having “[a]ll the normal problems that all of us have. Eating disorders, depression, they can’t get jobs, their apartment’s too small.” In her personal life, Lankton suffered from drug addiction and eating disorders. Through Ellen and Freddie, Lankton communicates and fosters empathy for universal individual sufferings. The two dolls, arranged so that one leans on the other, convey a sense of mutual understanding, affection, and support.
Personally, I find Ellen and Freddie a particularly moving work, as it embodies both a desire to be recognized and distinguished as one’s true self, and a need for love and human connections like everyone else. To some extent, this work epitomizes Lankton’s personal experience, as well as that of the larger ’80s queer community as they explored their identities in a post-Stonewall world.
Yunzhi Pan is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She expects to receive a B.S. in Media, Culture, and Communication and a B.A. in Art History from New York University in May 2021.
The emptiness of this closet seems to herald the victory of the LGBTQ movement: same-sex desire need no longer be kept secret. But does the stark emptiness lure us to go back in? Perhaps the outside world has mingled together with this space, so there is an ambiguity in regard to identity. Though created in 1989, this ambiguity enhanced by the absence of a door still reflects the current situation faced by the LGBTQ community. Despite superficial harmony, oppression and persecution are ongoing in corners one may not sense frequently. The 50 year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising reminds us not only of the effort paid by pioneering activists, but also the future we need to realize.
Larry Luowei Zhang is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He expects to receive a M.A. in Visual Arts Administration from New York University in May 2020.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s quick ascent to prominence in the 2020 presidential race demonstrates a remarkable progression for acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the U.S. What five decades ago began as a struggle for the most basic levels of toleration and decency has since expanded to an integration and “normalcy” that would have been unthinkable to even the most optimistic activist a mere two decades ago. The origins of the struggle and movement of the last fifty years—with all of its triumphs and setbacks—is well documented in the recently opened exhibition, Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989 at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, in nearby SoHo.
Rink Foto, White Night Riots, Gelatin Silver Print 1979. Courtesy of the artist
Of the works on display in the Grey’s portion of the exhibition, two images stand out in my mind as strong statements on how far LGBTQ rights and recognitions have come in America. Rink Foto’s White Night Riots, a black-and-white photograph from 1979, and the digital image of the artist collective ACT UP/Gran Fury’s installation of Let the Record Show… at the New Museum are both testaments to the uphill battle queers faced in the struggle for public awareness and representation. White Night Riots depicts the violent aftermath of Dan White’s lenient sentencing for the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was then the most prominent openly gay politician in America. ACT UP/Gran Fury’s Let the Record Show… on the other hand, publicly shames six religious and cultural leaders by displaying their busts above pedestals inscribed with their derogatory statements against those affected by AIDS. A seventh bust, Ronald Reagan, rests on a blank pedestal, calling attention to his years of silence in the face of the AIDS crisis. Taken together, these two works speak to obstacles faced by LGBTQ Americans seeking positions of power, and the discrimination against them by those in power.
ACT UP/Gran Fury, Let the Record Show…, New Museum installation 1987. Courtesy of Gran Fury
At the time of Let the Record Show’s window installation at the New Museum in 1987, America had a president who refused to acknowledge a health epidemic ravaging the country. Now, just over 30 years later, the country has an openly gay presidential candidate who has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Democratic Primary polls. How far Buttigieg makes it in the crowded field is yet to be seen in what are sure to be grueling months ahead—but this essay is not intended as an assessment of Buttigieg’s appeal as a presidential candidate. Rather, the fact that a man with a legally married husband is a viable candidate at all is a testament to the impressive successes of the gay rights movement and the struggle on the part of many of the artists in this exhibition.
For me, Art after Stonewall functions not just as a chronicle of the post-Stonewall movement, but also, in the context of the present, provides a useful point of comparison with the shifting place of LGBTQ Americans in the national consciousness. What began as a fight for visibility (“We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!”) now largely exists as a push for “normalcy.” In 2012, in my native Dallas during an outdoor installation-based show that is presented annually in the Downtown Arts District, I viewed The Gay Agenda, a performance art piece created by Randy Potts, the grandson of a well-known late televangelist from Oklahoma. Potts and his partner built a mockup of a living room on the sidewalk, and passersby could see the “gay agenda” in action. The pair engaged in such mundane activities as vacuuming, watching TV, playing cards, and so on. In contrast with many of the charged works in Art after Stonewall, the approach is not one of aggressive activism, but rather a desire to put a “normal face” to the lives of queer individuals in America. Such a development makes plain the movement of LGBTQ Americans from a fringe group, fighting for acknowledgement, to an increasingly integrated and visible part of the country’s daily life.
Jacob M. Robinson was an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He received a B.A. in Art History from New York University in May 2019.
Zilia Sánchez, Troyanas (Trojan Women), polyptych, from the series Módulos infinitos (Infinite Modules), 1967. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 71 ¾ × 54 × 9 ½ in., Collection of Laura Delaney Taft and John Taft, promised gift to Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Often as Art History students, we learn about frustrated artists who die without seeing their works being appreciated by the art community. Examples of this are Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, and Johannes Vermeer. Being “undiscovered” is a reality many artists face and must deal with throughout their careers. It is refreshing to see artists in a later stage of their lives being discovered and appreciated for their work. Zilia Sánchez is an example of this phenomenon. At age 93, she currently has her first solo exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, showcasing her 70-year career.
Zilia Sánchez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1926. After the revolution led by Fidel Castro, she fled Cuba for Europe, and later New York, finally landing in Puerto Rico, where she now lives and works. The exhibition, titled Soy Isla (I Am an Island), extends from her early days in Cuba to her more recent work done prior to Hurricane Maria, which devastated her studio in September 2017. Hurricane Maria destroyed the infrastructure of Puerto Rico, prompting much attention from the media. This has given rise to greater awareness of Puerto Rican artists, as they struggle to maintain their careers in an unstable country. In a way, it could be said that Hurricane Maria gave Sánchez the platform she needed to gain newfound international praise.
Extensive and impactful, the exhibition comprises a great number of works (around 60 pieces), that pour out to the neighboring galleries and stairwell. The evolution of Sánchez’s artistry is clear, spanning from drawings made in Cuba to her later—and best known—manipulated canvas paintings. Her central themes are the female body, mythology, and her relationship with the Caribbean. To produce many of her works, Sánchez inserts wooden beams into the painting skeletons and then places the canvas, creating protrusions that evoke beautiful feminine forms. Her works are large and heavy, and while their subject matter may appear light, they are flooded with metaphors about female empowerment and eroticism.
Zilia Sánchez, Amazonas (Amazons), from the series Topologías eróticas (Erotic Topologies), 1978. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 43 × 70 × 11 in., Princeton University Art Museum, NJ, Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund, 2014-53
Sánchez identifies as a queer woman, and appreciation of her work benefits from greater acceptance of LGBTQ Latina women today. Her work feels timely, modern, and approachable, enhancing its appeal. Soy Islais a testament to Sánchez’s sheer strength as an artist who established her career during a time of great political and social upheaval. Her art is purely the work of her imagination, and although she does not consider herself or her work political, her identity as a queer Cuban woman creating art about female identity in and of itself gives rise to political thought.
Recently, museums in the United States have presented retrospectives of Latin American female artists, including exhibitions of works by Tarsila do Amaral, Carmen Herrera, Frida Kahlo, and Lygia Pape. Sánchez’s inclusion in this sudden wave of attention is noted in Soy Isla. But in fact, she is no longer an isolated island surrounded by greater landmasses, but a participant in the wider world.
Soy Isla (I Am an Island)is on view until May 19, 2019 at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. The exhibition will travel to the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico (opens June 15) and to El Museo del Barrio, New York (opens November 20).
Carola Reyes Benítez is an undergraduate Art History student at the NYU College of Arts and Sciences, and an intern at the Grey Art Gallery.
We are delighted to kick off a new season of The Grey Area with an exciting interview with Dennis Geronimus, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at NYU. In addition to serving as professor and mentor to many students, including myself, he has authored numerous publications including Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006) and the upcoming Jacopo da Pontormo: Overcoming Nature, Yale University Press.
Dennis has curated a number of shows, including the blockbuster, Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence  which premiered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Uffizi in Florence. Dennis recently collaborated with our very own Lynn Gumpert, Director of the Grey Art Gallery, to curate Metamorphoses: Ovid According to Wally Reinhardt now on view at the Grey from January 9 April 6, 2019.
In this interview, Dennis reflects on the experience of curating the show with the artist present, his favorite works, and Renaissance artists inspired by Ovid. He also shares advice for the next generation of art historians and curators and a glimpse into his upcoming literary and curatorial projects.
-Reshma Persaud, Grey Art Gallery Intern
Behind the scenes of Metamaorphoses: Ovid According to Wally Reinhardt. From left to right: Dennis Geronimus, Lynn Gumpert, and Hannah Kate Simon, (June 2018)
Reshma Persaud: Can you walk us through how this show came to be, how you became involved?
Dennis Geronimus: Well, it was all a wonderful surprise. I entered the picture as recently as last winter, in January 2018. It was then that Lynn Gumpert, the Director of the Grey, got in touch with me and invited me to collaborate on the show. She knew that I was very interested in all things Ovidian – and she was certainly right! Needless to say, the two of us had a blast partnering on this exhibition, as it’s been an engrossing experience seeing the Metamorphoses reimagined and transformed through the eyes of a living, local artist. The exhibition is all the more gratifying as it is Wally Reinhardt’s first monographic show. It wasn’t until last May that I had the opportunity to meet Wally himself, at which time Lynn and I sat down with him for a wide-ranging conversation. This interview became part of the show’s accompanying catalogue, which I think is an excellent thing. Now, readers may not only admire Wally’s distinctive imagery but also hear his voice.
RP: What is/are your favorite work/s in the exhibition and what do you find most compelling about it/them?
DG: It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite. I have many. In any event, what I suspect will draw the public to Wally’s art is precisely its variety. Our exhibition features forty-nine works, drawn from all fifteen books of Ovid’s epic poem. The Pages span twenty-seven years of Wally’s career and it is important to note that the project is ongoing – it has become a constantly evolving project, without a definite end. Within this flow, Wally has experimented with different technical approaches, his media of choice changing from Prismacolor pencil, with some gouache, to predominantly gouache on Arches paper. Silver and gold gouache begin to make an appearance as well. The dimensions have grown, the Pages multiplying in number for each story. The smaller-scale Prismacolor Pages are riveting for their fine-grained detail and mosaic-like surfaces. I have a soft spot for the Polyphemus series, displayed on the final wall: a tale of a lovestruck and, here, lovable monster, told with particular tenderness by Wally. In other instances, we see Wally playing with formats in striking ways, as is the case with his Pluto and Proserpina and Orpheus and Eurydice pairings. Since both myths transport the reader (or, now, viewer) into the underworld, Wally’s shift to a vertical format is especially appropriate – also endowing Orpheus’s loss and longing with a mirroring effect. Eurydice becomes something of the bard’s spiritual “other half,” both so achingly close and so distant, forever out of reach. Perseus’s decapitation of the Minotaur, drawn from Book VIII of the Metamorphoses and arriving near the mid-point of our exhibition, is, to me, very characteristic of Wally’s artistic vision as a whole, as it combines violence with a touch of humor. And, finally, the ambitious Dionysus and Silenus “polyptychs,” one of which, with its signature red sail, begins the viewer’s entire odyssey on the title wall, are works of which I know Wally himself is very proud – and it’s a theme to which he’s returned time and again. In fact, if I had to choose a tutelary deity for Wally – if dogs and rabbits are his spirit animals – under whose sign he dreams and creates, it would be Dionysus!
Wally Reinhardt, Acis and Polyphemus, 1986. Prismacolor colored pencil and gouache on prepared Arches paper, 11 x 15 in. New York University Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2018.2.7
RP: For those of us who are lucky enough to take a Renaissance survey with you, we recognize some of the familiar motifs and themes used in the show. Can you elaborate on Renaissance artists who also took inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorpheses, giving their own creative spin on the narrative?
DG: There are far too many to mention here – and this is, in fact, one of the topics that Lynn, Wally and I discussed in our interview, published in the catalogue. Certainly, Piero di Cosimo, the subject of my first book and subsequent show at the National Gallery of Art, is one! But there is a host of other masters who were engaged in a very lively dialogue with Ovid: in Italy alone, the Pollaiuolo brothers, Botticelli, Mantegna, Leonardo in his fascination with the myth of Leda and the Swan, Michelangelo in his exquisite presentation drawings, Jacopo Pontormo (the subject of my current book project) and his student Agnolo Bronzino, as well as of course Giovanni Bellini, Dosso Dossi, Giorgione, and Titian in the Veneto. The designs adorning all sorts of household objects ranging from wedding chests and tapestries to ivory combs and maiolica ware spring to mind as well. The common thread—and this very much extends to Wally, too—is that all of the artists I’ve mentioned did not merely illustrate ancient legends. They interpreted them in their own idiom, refashioning the fables in their own personal ways – putting their idiosyncratic spin on the visual telling and so making them their own. The Metamorphoses is a poem that strikes so many emotional chords, by turns brutal and lyrical, cacophonous and meditative. Listen, I wish I could assign it for every course that I teach, no matter the subject matter, because its content is universal. It is also a text of great generosity, openness – inviting a great many readings. The possibilities are as rich and varied as the stories and their protagonists themselves.
Piero di Cosimo, The Forest Fire, c.1495-1505. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Wally Reinhardt, Diana & Aceton, 2005. Watercolor, gouache, Prismacolor colored pencil, graphite, and tape on prepared Arches paper, 18 x 44 in. New York University Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2018.2.43
RP: You’ve dedicated your career to studying the lives and oeuvre of artists, many of whom, lived centuries before us. Now in this show, the artist is present–what was that experience like for you?
DG: It was a special experience. As I mentioned earlier, this is an exhibition that has arrived late in Wally’s career. It is a recognition that was long due. Unlike Lynn, I don’t often have a chance to work with active artists. Most of my subjects have been dead for over five centuries! They live on through their visual legacy – and the words that we leave on the page about them. This often feels like a big and important responsibility. Working with – instead of just on – a living artist brings with it a different kind of responsibility, as I had the opportunity to hear from Wally directly about this working process, his inspiration, be it music, comics, everyday life in New York, his first visit to Rome and so on. In both cases, whether writing about Pontormo or Wally, you want to get it right! I’ve now had a chance to work with two contemporary artists in one year, something I’ve found very invigorating, as I’ve also written an introduction to the exhibition catalogue celebrating the work of a very interesting, gifted Danish artist, working in Tuscany, named Signe Kongsgaard Morgesen, whom I’ve known for many years. Both she and Wally privilege drawing, albeit it takes dramatically divergent forms in their works.
Wally Reinhardt and Dennis Geronimus (January 2019)
As it happens, my own experience in the visual arts began with making things rather than writing about them. From a very early age, as the son of two artists, all I did was draw and draw, if not from the imagination then illustrating whatever it was that I was reading or looking at, from Saint-Exupéry and Tolkien to novels by Alexandre Dumas … to Japanese ukiyo-e prints. So, having worked as often in the studio as I did in the library, before I began teaching, I felt like I could relate to Wally and, to some degree, communicate with him on the same wavelength – not only as an art historian, in other words, which can bring with it a certain distance or remove. I can only hope that Wally may have felt the same way!
RP: What advice do you have to offer for budding curators and art historians? What issues/topics do you wish to shed a light on through exhibitions?
DG: I suppose this goes back directly to my previous answer. I would say that the most important thing is to gain at least some experience in image-making. To experiment and wrestle with the trial-and-error process, to work with different kinds of supports, priming and painting or drawing media so as to better understand the potential and the limitations of each. What are the effects of black chalk as opposed to red, for example – of working on one particular type of paper in weight and grain versus another? The challenges and frustrations inherent in making an intaglio print. Failure is no less formative than the successes.
Wally Reinhardt, Drawing of Battle of Giants & Statues, 2009. Prismacolor colored pencil on prepared Arches paper, 18 x 55 in. New York University Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2018.2.52
In the case of Wally’s production, the opacity of gouache as opposed to standard watercolor creates a particular visual effect, for instance, and I think it’s important for anyone looking at or writing about his Pages to be sensitive to these kinds of technical choices – certainly, his decision to begin working with the grid was another pivotal moment of transition in his creative process. My other piece of advice would be to read – and to read voraciously. And by this I don’t mean art history so much as fiction and poetry. All sorts of connections and symmetries begin to emerge, leading to new understandings – to say nothing of that all-important and all-too-often rare thing, empathy.
RP: Speaking of the future, what literary or curatorial contributions can we expect from you?
DG: Who knows? I have so many projects I’m interested in, both in progress and longer in the works. Chances are, though, it will be on something uncanny and strange! As you know from having taken a couple of courses with me, I’m a big believer that there is a great deal to be learned from what the exceptions, rather than the rule, can tell us about the art of any period or place. In my own work, I’ve always been drawn to the unusual. I would like to think that it’s this – and our shared love of storytelling and animals – that brought Wally and me together.
Reshma D. Persaud is a Masters Degree Candidate in Visual Arts Administration at NYU Steinhardt, and an intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She currently works for NYU Development and Alumni Relations. It is her ultimate goal to direct a non-profit organization in support of the study of women artists and exhibition of their works, combining her passion for art history and accumulated work experience.
Landscapes after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime, on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery from April 17 to July 7, 2018, is curated by renowned artist and photographer Joel Sternfeld. Hoping to explore the contemporary definition “sublime” and to spark reflections on humans’ relationship with nature and the environment around us, Sternfeld brought together over sixty works of art from the Hall Art Foundation and the Hall family collections, ranging from paintings and sculptures to videos.
Mary Corse, “Untitled (Black Earth Series)” (1981), Glazed ceramic, Hall Collection.
At the Grey, every intern is encouraged to give gallery talks to visiting groups. When it came time for me to create my own list of favorite artworks in the exhibition, Mary Corse’s Untitled (Black Earth Series) from 1981 came immediately to mind. It is one of the most visually captivating artworks in the show. Made from glazed ceramic, the flat, X-shaped sculpture is attached to the wall at eyelevel. Its uneven yet shiny black surface, glowing with a rainbow iridescence, faithfully captures and reflects the environment around it, viewers included. Unlike most other works in Landscapes after Ruskin, however, it is not immediately clear how Corse’s sculpture relates to the theme of the show.
Ai Weiwei, “Oil Spills” (2006), Porcelain, size varies with installation. Photo: Nicholas Papananias
Corse’s work resonates with Ai Weiwei’s ceramic artwork Oil Spills—a floor piece installed nearby that evokes environmental pollution resulting from human activities. With a similar black, gleaming surface, Untitled resembles Oil Spills. In the context of this exhibition, it could easily be associated with the crude oil pollution that has been troubling people for the past decades. With careful inspection, however, Untitled is drastically different from Oil Spills. For one, Oil Spills is an installation, composed of multiple pieces of porcelain, while Untitled is a self-contained sculpture. The surface of Untitled, although less smooth, is more reflective, almost mirror-like. Oil Spills, with its irregular shapes, looks like puddles of oil on the floor, while Untitled maintains an uncommon yet regular X-shape. More importantly, the concepts behind these two artworks differ.
While Ai Weiwei is primarily concerned with political and environmental issues, Corse explores the physical effects of light. She has long been associated with the West Coast Light and Space Movement that arose in the 1960s and ’70s. This largely male-dominated movement concentrates on how perceptual elements like light and shape can influence viewing experiences. Corse is now recognized as a pioneer in this field. Luckily for us, her first solo museum exhibition, Mary Corse: A Survey in Light, is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until November 25, 2018. This exhibition tracks all five decades of her career, showing how her methods of working with light have changed over time.
The shadow of a man cast upon Corse’s “Untitled (White Inner Band, Beveled)” from 2011.
Visiting the Whitney’s exhibition was a real eye-opener. Seeing so many of her works hung together in the galleries was truly awesome. Mostly monochrome, her large, imposing paintings and sculptures harmonize with the museum’s white walls. As I walked by Untitled (White Multiple Inner Band), I could see light gliding across the surface of the painting, creating a silk-like texture. Since the beginning of her career, Corse has been fascinated with presenting actual light, not painted light, in her works. She went from using speckles of metal in her paintings to inserting indented bands to create a visual illusion of light, and later to employing glass microspheres and glazed tiles. Depending on the angles of incoming light and viewers’ positions, her artworks appear to change. For Corse, since nothing in the world is static, artworks should not be static either. In presenting works that respond to their environment, she allows them to be recreated by each member of the audience, offering them a personalized viewing experience. I managed to capture some of these special properties in a photo of a luminous painting with the shadow of a viewer cast upon it—but no photo can completely capture the magical effect of Corse’s works. Therefore I encourage you to visit the Grey Art Gallery and the Whitney Museum in person, to experience Corse’s artworks in all their fullness.
Returning to the Grey after my Whitney visit, I saw Untitled (Black Earth Series) in a new light. No longer does this work seem out of sync with the exhibition’s theme. Rather, the sculpture takes on a new definition. In encapsulating its surrounding environment through the effects of light, the work provides a new perspective for understanding Landscapes after Ruskin: we cannot be separated from the environment around us, for we are only complete when fully present in our environment.
 Alex Bacon, “Interview,” Mary Corse (Inventory Press, 2017), 153.
Curated by artist Joel Sternfeld and currently on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, Landscapes after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime is an intriguing experiment that explores the possibilities in representing landscape with over sixty artworks that range from the mid-nineteenth century to present. As the title indicates, many artworks from this exhibition engage with the landscape tradition. While older landscape paintings were often intended to impress viewers with their scenes of harmonious and magnificent nature and convey a sense of “sublime,” the sentiments and aims reflected in many contemporary artworks often differ or are, in some cases, completely subverted.
The new contemporary sensibility is demonstrated, for example, in Bulgarisches Haus (2001) by German artist Matthias Weischer. At first glance, the painting is an eerie daydream that teeters on the border between reality and fantasy: a plain, modern apartment house, oddly colored in bright orange and dark green, stands amid a curious combination of palm and cedar trees and various other species. There is no sign of location—except in the title that specifies Bulgaria—and no human figure appears. In the foreground, bushes of pink roses forcefully emerge and are dramatically truncated by the edge of the painting. Viewers, as if hiding behind these rose bushes, look furtively into this empty landscape. This brief invitation into the picture’s space is disrupted, however, by contradictions and impossibilities. Although the apartment house seems to occupy a three-dimensional space and the bushy terrain to recede into the distance, the grid-like marks, the unfinished sketches, and the dripping paint all point to a flat surface.
Viewed outside Landscapes after Ruskin, Bulgarisches Haus may not be considered a landscape painting at all. Indeed, in depicting banal, ordinary things in our contemporary environments such as a garage and an apartment house, the painting does not evoke nature, and it barely resembles the majestic scenes in older landscape paintings from those by Jacob van Ruisdael to J.M.W. Turner. A comparison of this painting with German Romantic landscapes painted by Caspar David Friedrich and C.G. Carus nearly two hundred years ago highlights our contemporary loss of an encompassing, awe-inspiring nature and our lack of spiritual attachment to natural surroundings and the land.
We also notice, upon closer inspection, that nothing in this “landscape” by Weischer is natural or depicts any real land. The apartment house looks like an empty shell, and the entire scene evokes a microscopic view of a housing model made of paper-mâché. Miscellaneous plants are randomly and illogically put together; their well-maintained forms and sharply trimmed shapes also imply human presence. However, in this man-made world, humans are absent. The only ones at the site are we, the viewers, and wherever we look in this superficial and fictive “landscape,” we see only ourselves, our own deeds, and their consequences.
However, it would be too boring to read simply moral lessons and environmental concerns into Weischer’s painting. Human transformation of nature began long ago, and how much of true nature was left by the time of Turner and Friedrich, who worked at the height of the Industrial Revolution? Yet for these romantic painters, nature, no matter idealized or fictional, still encapsulated the divine, harmonious order of God and conveyed the notion of “sublime,” which, as defined by Edmund Burke, can “excite the ideas of pain and danger” and “is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Such pious, ennobling sentiment and overwhelming awe have largely disappeared in our contemporary society. On the other hand, Weischer’s Bulgarisches Haus, although differing greatly from landscapes by the Romantic painters, contains something not entirely dissimilar. There is something unsettling and ominous lurking in this fantastic and slightly whimsical landscape. Although the popping colors, crisp lines, and geometric surfaces vaguely spark excitement, the microscopic landscape only reminds us of our banal, prosaic life. Perhaps this is the new “sublime” in our contemporary era: we fear not God but ourselves, and in superficial cheerfulness we find solitude and loneliness.
 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Idea of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: printed for R. and J. Dodsley, 1757), 13.
Luming Guan is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She received B.A. Summa cum Laude with high honors in Art History from New York University in May 2018.
Ai Weiwei, “Oil Spills” (2006), Porcelain, size varies with installation. Photo: Nicholas Papananias
Upon entering the Grey Art Gallery, visitors encounter what look like giant puddles of crude oil pooling on the wooden floor. Occasionally stepped upon by visitors who neglect to look down, the shiny black “oil” is actually a porcelain installation, Oil Spills (2006), by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.
Oil Spills is one of over sixty works in the Grey’s current exhibition, “Landscapes after Ruskin: Redefining the Sublime.” John Ruskin, a 19th-century English art critic, admired the beauties of nature and was a major champion of artist J.M.W. Turner, who once tied himself to a ship’s mast during a storm in order to experience the sublime. “Landscapes after Ruskin” sets its timeline in our Anthropocene, when humans are rarely in awe, and human activities have become a major geophysical force. Curated by artist and photographer Joel Sternfeld, who refers to himself as a “landscapist,” the exhibition explores the ever-changing relationship between humans and nature, even as the natural is becoming closely intertwined with the man-made.
As its title suggests, Oil Spills alludes to the noxious environmental pollution caused by human activities at sea. While the porcelain’s three-dimensionality evokes the heavy, sticky quality of crude oil, the crescent shape in the center sparks a surreal and uncanny feeling. Is that a reflection of the moon in the oil-contaminated sea? This ambiguous sickle-moon ties in with the exhibition’s theme: the moon, the pure and divine emblem of the nature that Ruskin cherished, is one with the oil spills.
A closer look at the medium Ai selected for Oil Spills reveals a deeper environmental concern. At first, using porcelain to imitate crude oil appears humorous, as porcelain’s smooth surface and delicate nature contrast markedly with the sticky, heavy appearance of crude oil. But in fact, the process of manufacturing porcelain—sculpting with gaolin clay, gazing and coloring, firing in a kiln, and putting on the finishing touch—is as harmful to the environment as crude oil. A special type of ceramics, porcelain can cause air pollution and is hazardous to human lungs. Ai created Oil Spills in Jingdezheng, China’s finest imperial porcelain manufacturing center since the Ming dynasty. While Jingdezheng is renowned for its exquisite porcelain art, its environmental problems remained unnoticed until Ai brought them into galleries and museums.
Ai Weiwei, “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger,” 2015. Consists of 3025 porcelain shards with tiger motif. Size varies with installation.
Ai’s interest in porcelain is longstanding. Since Ai is best known in the West for his anti-communist statements, his expertise in the art of porcelain is sometimes overshadowed: he is a master, both traditional and contemporary. Throughout his career, he has created numerous major artworks involving porcelain or other ceramics, including Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), He Xie (2011), Sunflower Seeds (2010), and Porcelain Rebar (2014), among others. Ai’s first solo exhibition in Turkey, “Ai Weiwei on Porcelain” in 2018, was a conclusive survey of over a hundred porcelain artworks. One of these incorporates over three thousand broken porcelain plates from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), underscoring Ai’s fervor in collecting porcelain. While recently Ai has hired skilled artisans from Jingdezheng to fabricate monumental porcelain installations, his early works demonstrate his hands-on expertise. For example, in Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo (1995; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Ai replicated an ancient earthenware jar from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C–A.D. 9), and marked it with a red Coca-Cola logo. While the logo points to issues in global consumerism, the ceramic jar speaks of Ai’s fine craftsmanship.
Among his other works, Sunflower Seeds, like Oil Spills, makes connections between porcelain and environmental pollution. A former member of the Student Friends Committee, Tamara Schechter, published a highly informative blog post on Sunflower Seeds on Grey’s blog. In that essay, she recounts the installation’s unforeseen aftermath: originally participatory, the installation had to be quarantined because visitors’ contact with the seeds generated toxic dust. As Schechter remarks, “the enforced distance imbues the work with a different kind of power, even if this wasn’t part of the artist’s original vision for the sculpture.” In other words, Ai’s original vision of an utopian land morphed into a dystopian space.
Reexamining Oil Spills within the context of Ai’s porcelain works, especially Sunflower Seeds, we learn that it is not merely a superfamily imitation of crude oil but shows the artist’s deeper concern for real-life problems.
 More information about the harzard of ceramic manufacturing can be found in Dr. Liao’s paper, “Ceramics manufacturing contributes to ambient silica air pollution and burden of lung disease,” 2015.
 The exhibition was opened at the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Sabanci University, Istanbul, September 12, 2017 – April 15, 2018. Hrag Vartanian, “Picturing Ai Weiwei in Istanbul,” Hyperallergic, January 5, 2018.
 Tamara E. Schechter, “Sunflower Seeds: Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern, London,” Grey Art Gallery blog post.
Liao, Chung-Min, et al. “Ceramics Manufacturing Contributes to Ambient Silica Air Pollution and Burden of Lung Disease.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 22, no. 19, 2015, pp. 15067–15079., doi:10.1007/s11356-015-4701-6.