The Zen of the Zag

I live in Durham and often, on my way into or out of Raleigh, I dash into the NCMA’s West Building for 10 minutes to visit one specific piece of art—Louise Nevelson’s Black Zag CC (1964–71, added to in 1977). I think I make the guards nervous, striding past all the other work to get to it. It’s wonderful to have a state museum of art like the NCMA, to be able to develop a personal relationship with a work of art like this.

I’ve loved Nevelson since I was a kid, having seen her work in museums in Washington, D.C., particularly the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Nevelson’s balance of order and chaos—many different things contained within definite rectangles—always appealed to me. It seemed like a good way of thinking about aesthetic composition, history or politics, or even personal situations. Nevelson makes sense to me as a visualization of analytical thinking, which I equate to beauty.

Thank goodness Nevelson never used color. Black Zag CC is a uniform flat black. Her works are always monochrome—black, white, gold, even some clear Lucite. Color moves shadow into secondary consideration, and shadow is crucial to Nevelson’s boxes. Shadow conveys the tension between presentation and concealment, as well as whatever ambiguous intermediate levels she can establish between those poles. These are the compositional components of her sculpture, whether it’s freestanding or on the wall like this piece.

Black Zag CC comprises six rectangular areas, or boxes. Each is easily recognizable as a discrete element, although some protrude into or overlap the others slightly. But it’s not a tile game—you can’t imagine them rearranged. The particular box at the center must be the center box. This is a strictly composed work.

Still, I love how this piece divides neatly in several different ways according to how I choose to look at it. A modularity of vision, not of composition.

I can see it as having two parts. There’s the typecase on the right side, with its intense internal detail, largely presenting the shadows of its grid. So the rest of the piece becomes unified into one image, its convex faces reflecting light, conveying their flatness. The typecase seems like what’s inside all the other boxes, as if it’s been opened to reveal its inner workings. Only the very center of the work shows a compromise—a thin rectangular frame that echoes the fundamental unit of the typecase, floating atop a curved, 100 percent black depth.

Another way of seeing two parts is to concentrate on that central box. It images a camera, with the thin rectangular frame becoming the aperture and a set of vertical ribs in the shadows of the box becoming a large-format camera’s bellows. The five perimeter boxes almost become photographs of different subjects, spit out from the center like Polaroids.

From either of those dualities, I can then see the piece as having three parts. The complexity of the upper left area emerges as singular, with the protruding frame, the dangling, miniature column, and the secondary frame of a chair’s back. Certainly there are more levels behind even the chair back. It recedes almost infinitely.

And can I just say, I love the dangling miniature column. Is it the later “addition” to the work that the wall text mentions? I cannot get enough of the column. It bothers me that I can’t get down to its scale; I can’t get my vision in behind it to see what the back of it looks like. What a brilliant decision, to put a small dangling thing in this work, and to frame it so that it doesn’t simply protrude off the front and draw attention to itself as compositionally contrary to the rest of the work. It’s the only part of the work on the scale of one’s hand. Everything else is for the eye. But the column would fit neatly into your hand. You could carry it around. It wants touch, not gaze.

Once I am this far into the components of a few of the boxes, it’s easy enough to just decide to see all six boxes individually. The wonderful lower left box that looks like two vertical doors sliding open to allow a figure to step through. Its figure’s outline abstractly feminine—a skirt and a breast. The box captures a moment of excitement, a verge, an emergence, a single frame of a film. Then there’s the central lower box, playing organic leaf or frond forms across a background wall or lath. The play of curved line against straight line brings these two lower boxes together.

The central upper box becomes a cipher. It’s the least interesting box, on its own, but it anchors the others. They can seem to radiate out from it, since its two curves mimic a sun and a sky. Perhaps it’s a nod to landscape as the one underlying visual metaphor for all art.

Some of Nevelson’s body of work is overtly metaphorical or deals with gender norms, like Dawn’s Wedding Chapel. But I see this midcareer Black Zag CC as a sheer study in her compositional approach. How she decides to put this next to that, and how she builds different modes of correspondence between proximate things—the complexity just turns me on. It sounds stupid, but I get a little breathless sitting in front of it.

That complexity of thought, to me, is beauty. And it’s why I visit Black Zag CC whenever I can.

Chris Vitiello is an arts and performance writer based in Durham.

Image: Louise Nevelson, Black Zag CC, 1964–71, final addition 1977, painted wood construction with fabricated, found, and bought elements; wire and metal hardware; and Formica frame, H. 48 x W. 59 x D. 9 in., Purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)

Reality, Distorted

It’s the second day of my vacation in Venice, Italy. I pause for a minute and take it all in: the faint saltwater scent of the blue-green water in the canals, the chant of gondoliers beckoning “Gondole! Gondole!” to passersby, the elegant curves of Gothic windows in waterfront palaces. I make my way through colorful throngs of people in San Marco Square, past window shoppers and families posing for action shots with well-fed pigeons, and into a labyrinth of alleyways that eventually leads me to the Rialto Bridge.

Looking out across the Grand Canal, I’m reminded of two landscape paintings at the NCMA: Capriccio: The Rialto Bridge and The Church of S. Giorgio Maggiore (circa 1750) by Canaletto and Venice without Water, June 12, 1990 by Donald Sultan. Both depict the Rialto Bridge yet evoke completely different emotional responses. Canaletto painted a postcard-worthy fantasy to “sell” the city to visitors. His painting appears realistic, but the historic landmarks shown beside the bridge are actually located in different areas of Venice (think Photoshop, 1750s-style). North Carolina artist Donald Sultan takes a much different approach in his work. His foreboding, tar-splattered image of the Rialto Bridge (based on a 1990 newspaper photo of the bridge over a waterless canal) reads more like an environmental awareness PSA, showing us the barren wasteland that a city known for its beautiful canals could become if changes aren’t made to maintain its waterways. Read More »

Elvis Is in the Building (on loan!)

The king is here! Elvis I and II, a monumental work of art by Andy Warhol, has arrived for a visit from its home at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Elvis I and II is on view in West Building through April 7 (that includes January 8, Elvis’s birthday—plan to celebrate with us on Friday, January 11).

This loan is one in a series of paintings Warhol made by screen-printing the image of Elvis Presley 28 times onto a roll of silver-painted canvas in different combinations—singles, doubles, triples, and superimposed images. He created the work for a show at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963 and sent the entire roll of printed canvas with a set of variously sized stretchers to the gallery. He left it up to the gallery to cut the canvas to fit the stretchers, resulting in five single images, six superimposed images, and two diptychs of paired images, including this one. Melding high and low, Warhol used a mechanical silkscreening process to make these works, intentionally creating what he called “an assembly-line effect.” He presents Elvis life-size and dressed as a cowboy (from a publicity still for the 1960 movie Flaming Star) and multiplies his star power by four.

Image: Andy Warhol, Elvis I and II, 1963; 1964 (?), silkscreen ink and spray paint (silver canvas), silkscreen ink and acrylic (blue canvas) on linen, 208.3 x 208.3 cm (each of two panels), Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Gift from the Women’s Committee Fund, 1966, © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Don’t miss a special Art in the Evening celebrating Elvis I and II on Friday, January 11, at 6 pm.

Have You Heard? We Offer Audio Description

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Every day in our Museum, docents help visitors look closely at art. But how do they help someone with vision loss or blindness to look closely at those objects? Elizabeth Kahn, an NCMA docent, has worked with people who have vision loss. Museum Educator Diana Phillips asked her to tell about one of the methods she uses on her tours.

DP: What is audio description?

EK: Audio description is a technique designed to help people who are blind or have low vision to visualize the setting and action of stage performances, exhibits,and other arts and entertainment events. Audio description programs exist worldwide, and the prerecorded version known as “descriptive video” can be heard accompanying selected programs on television and specially formatted DVDs of films.

DP: How do you provide audio description for someone with vision loss who wants to look at a work of art?

EK: For the visual arts and exhibitions, specially trained describers begin by stating exactly “what is there” in a painting, sculpture installation, or display. The information is given in a very precise and organized way.

DP: How is that information different from what you might find on a gallery label?

EK: Audio description does not interpret the meaning of a work of art; nor does it give information about historical background, the artist’s life, or symbolism.

DP: So it just focuses on what is physically present?

EK: Yes, and for people who are blind, this description levels the playing field for a discussion of the meaning of the image. For people who have low vision, the description defines aspects of the image that may be unclear.

DP: Is there a difference between what a listener might hear in an audio description and what they might hear on an audio guide or cell phone tour?

EK: An audio guide program usually assumes that the listener sees the image discussed. On the other hand, audio description assumes that the listener cannot see the image or sees it imperfectly. If both were available, I would recommend that a visitor who has impaired vision listen to the audio description first, followed by the audio guide discussion.

Listen to Elizabeth Kahn’s audio description of the Jacob Lawrence painting Forward:

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You can also hear a reading of the gallery label, which offers more interpretive information about the work of art:

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Under the Iceberg: Planning a Student Exhibition

“The submerged bit of the museum is much more of an iceberg than [a] picture gallery.”—Neil MacGregor, director, British Museum

Would you believe that work on our exhibitions often starts years before you see the works on the wall? At the NCMA, as at the British Museum, there is more going on behind the scenes than you might expect. Our fall college exhibition, A Life, Still, offered one group of college students an opportunity to dive under the iceberg to see what happens behind an exhibition.

Months before the opening of the college exhibition (planned to complement the special exhibition Still-Life Masterpieces), Museum educators started collaborating with students and faculty at East Carolina University through “Under the Iceberg,” a program designed to give students a hands-on experience of planning and curating an exhibition. The development of A Life, Still included large- and small-scale projects, from deciding on the exhibition theme and marketing the call for submissions to selecting the final works and arranging them in a thoughtful visual narrative.

Read More »

Sir John, How Does Your Garden Grow?

This post is a followup to Great Scotts!, concerning the NCMA’s early British portrait collection.

Sir John Scott (1564–1616): Oxford-educated, knighted officer in the queen’s army, member of Parliament, knight of the shire … gardener?

Yes, Sir John Scott, whose portrait came into the NCMA’s collection in 1967, was a man’s man, busy with jousting, dueling, and fighting the Spanish, but apparently his real passion was his garden. He spent much of his fortune on it, even building a bridge for easier access across the Medway (a river inconveniently located in his backyard). Sir John’s 17th-century garden was no doubt a formal space, bent to the square and formal views of the times, and probably maintained by a small army of servants. The expense almost certainly added to his downfall. After his death much of his monumental manor house, Nettlestead Place, was pulled down, the salvaged building materials sold to pay his debts. Even the bridge was dismantled.

Read More »

Still-Life Memories of Sweden

We’re excited to have a new crop of Park Pictures along the greenway! As you may remember, three billboards, commissioned by the Museum to encourage visitors to actively explore the Museum Park, are installed twice a year along the paved walking trails. These large-scale outdoor pictures are created by artists from around the country and link art with the natural world.

This time around artist Lydia Anne McCarthy created three images in conjunction with the Still Life Masterpieces exhibition. McCarthy, a graduate of the UNC–Chapel Hill MFA program, spent the past year living and working in Sweden. Her desire to return to Sweden, to the people, culture, and landscape that she fell in love with, informs the billboards she created. The work is an homage to her time spent exploring the landscape, a manifestation of her desire to return, and a recognition of the impossibility of longing.
Read More »

And the Winner Is…

Getting in the spirit of Election Day, the NCMA Contemporaries threw a party in October to vote on—and celebrate—their latest group-funded purchase of art for the Museum. After months of Q&A sessions, debates, and deliberations, the young professionals group narrowed down the options to two works, with the help of our Curatorial Department. A photograph by Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl (2011), was the grand winner!

If Hank Willis Thomas is a familiar name for you, perhaps you remember him from our 2011 exhibition 30 Americans, which featured a roster of amazing African American contemporary artists. Thomas is a photographer whose primary interest involves linking race or racially charged images with advertising and popular culture. His correlations lead us, as viewers, to consider the present, as well as the past, in a new and sometimes shocking light. “Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of ‘black history’ as somehow separate from American history,” Thomas has said.

The Cotton Bowl presents a mirrored representation of a football player and a cotton picker—here, a post-slavery sharecropper. Nearly identical in pose and gaze, both men display the physical prowess necessary to perform their duties in agriculture and sports stardom. Yet as they are aligned, they face one other across their own invisible line of scrimmage, becoming tangible symbols of the struggle between current events and historical situations that some African Americans feel. Thomas often comments on African Americans in sports and the glory they can receive there, and the staggering economic differences between sports stars and their nonathlete peers.

What questions does The Cotton Bowl inspire about the economic positions of these characters? Is the football player in a better position than his sharecropping ancestor? And how does the play on words in the title—referring both to the classic college football bowl game and the protective covering for raw cotton before it is harvested—tie this image together?

Thomas creates images that are simultaneously accessible and symbolically loaded—and this one will bring lots of conversation and discussion to our galleries when it becomes part of the permanent collection. This is the first work by Thomas that the NCMA has acquired, and the Museum community thanks our Contemporaries for a great choice.

Image: Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, 2011, digital chromogenic print, 65 × 96 in., © 2012 Hank Willis Thomas

―Jennifer Dasal is associate curator of contemporary art at the NCMA.

New in the Gallery: Kehinde Wiley

The Museum’s newest acquisition of contemporary art is now on view in the Portrait Gallery of West Building. Amid the 18th- and 19th-century portraits of earls, cardinals, and kings, you will find Kehinde Wiley’s larger-than-life portrait of a contemporary woman, Judith and Holofernes, 2012.

Known for his monumental portraits of young black men, placed in historical poses and settings appropriated from Old Master paintings, Wiley critiques the racism of art history while also commenting on contemporary street culture and masculine identity. Reinventing classical portraiture and questioning who is represented in the portraits found in museums worldwide, Wiley states, “The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it.” Read More »

In the Gallery: Mickalene Thomas

Bold, glitzy, and exaggerated, Mickalene Thomas’s paintings reference 1970s-era popular culture, as well as a current celebrity culture that simultaneously romanticizes and stereotypes female beauty and power. Her subjects, such as the women featured in Three Graces, are empowered, emotive, and fearless. They know what they want—and are unafraid to acknowledge it to the viewer. Thomas formally emphasizes this self-assuredness through the brash colors and patterns that surround these women, as well as in their glamorous outfits and the commanding poses they strike. In her portraits she positions sensuality and beauty as positive attributes, tools of strength and power.

In this work Thomas has re-created the traditional image of the Three Graces, usually presented in art-historical iconography as three women, representing conventional values of charm, beauty, and creativity. Here the Graces are updated as modern African American women, dressed up and ready for a night out on the town.

Mickalene Thomas (artist site, @mickalenethomas)
American, born 1971
Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires
Rhinestone, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel
Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), 2011 (2011.10)