Monthly Archives: February 2012

To: New York Times; Re: Henry O. Tanner Exhibition

To The Editor, Re: “An African-American Painter Who Tried to Transcend Race” Feb. 9, 2012)

Ken Johnson’s review of the major Henry O. Tanner retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is flawed by errors, misinformation, and passages of snide condescension.

Johnson writes that after 1894 Tanner made no paintings of African- American life. In fact, his formal portrait of Booker T. Washington was completed in 1917. He also made drawings of black servicemen during World War I.

Beyond painting blacks in America, Tanner spent considerable time in North Africa and Egypt producing vivid and complex paintings of architecture, street scenes, and the people of dark and light hue he saw there.

France has long recognized Tanner’s genius with awards and honors; his paintings are in collections at the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, and elsewhere.  Along with the religious scenes Mr. Johnson discusses, Tanner painted life in the French countryside and in seaside villages. He produced dozens of gorgeous paintings of Paris that study the play and power of light in scenes observed from dawn to midnight.

Johnson makes much of Tanner’s wish to escape American racism in moving to France, and of the way European critics addressed the work while their American counterparts emphasized the artist’s race. His superficial and dismissive review inclines Mr. Johnson to that outdated American camp. 

I hope the public will take the opportunity to enjoy and judge for itself this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. So far, the show has attracted a record number of visitors.



George Washington and the “Main Event”

By Louise Mirrer, New-York Historical Society

“Slavery,” historian James Oliver Horton wrote in 2006, “was not a sideshow in American history. It was the main event.” So why has a work by the African-American artist Fred Wilson — an installation piece that riffs on the topic by assembling authentic slave shackles, slave chains and Revolutionary-era icons — been such a sore point with critics?

Conceived especially for the New-York Historical Society, Wilson’s Liberty/Liberté was our unquestioned choice to be the first thing that visitors would see when they came into our renovated building. Our ground floor would now offer the first overview we have ever presented, in more than 200 years in operation, of the themes and collections of our Museum. Our building would now reveal these new galleries immediately to visitors, thanks to a glass-walled entrance lobby. And facing the visitors through the glass wall, as soon as they came in the door, would be this large, complex installation by Wilson, made entirely with objects from New-York Historical and from its resident Gilder Lehrman Collection.


What happened when we threw open the doors last November? Critics universally praised our ground-floor galleries — and complained about Wilson’s installation. Obviously, we had struck a raw nerve. To explain how, and why, let me tell you a little about the artist and what he has done.

Born in 1954, Fred Wilson is one of the best-known American artists of his generation. For the past twenty years, he has created engaging, thought-provoking artworks with the lightest touch imaginable by ingeniously reshuffling the objects he finds in the permanent collections of museums. He has been recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and in 2003 he represented the United States as our nation’s official artist at the Venice Biennale.

For New-York Historical, Wilson arranged his chosen objects on and around a large marble stand made with pedestals of varying heights. Among the pieces that Wilson assembled for Liberty/Liberté were two sculptures of George Washington (one showing him in the toga of an ancient Roman republican, the other in the garb of a Virginia gentleman farmer); a cigar-store figurine of an African-American man holding a red French liberty cap; a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte; a miniature portrait of Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture; a wrought-iron balustrade from Federal Hall in New York, where Washington was sworn in as the first President; chains, shackles and slave badges (the metal tags that were used to label enslaved African Americans with the crafts they practiced); and a tag bearing Sojourner Truth’s famous question, “Ain’t I a woman?”

What did our critics make of this assemblage? They voiced two main complaints: Wilson’s piece had no readily discernible meaning, and its meaning was far too obvious.

Liberty/Liberté is “enigmatic,” one critic wrote. “What is it about? Slavery? Tyranny? The Constitution? No clear answer is given to the puzzled onlooker.” Another critic thought he knew exactly what the piece meant — and didn’t like it. “In recent exhibitions,” he wrote, “the society has explored some troubling aspects of New York’s past, but the presentations were nuanced and enlarging. Here, though, we see only a placard. We want to think highly of our once-worshiped gods? Hypocrites, slave holders, oppressors!”

Because Wilson’s installations are in effect high-art Rorschach blots, these judgments tell us more, perhaps, about how touchy the topic of American slavery still is than about Liberty/Liberté. Could it possibly be that Wilson had something in mind other than the simple-minded intention to debunk and condemn? Could it also be possible to connect slavery, tyranny, and constitutional government — and that Wilson is doing just this in his work?

In fact, though, Wilson in Liberty/Liberté is doing nothing more than New-York Historical’s curators have done elsewhere throughout the galleries, or that researchers do every day in New-York Historical’s Library. Wilson has reached into the trove of evidence left to us by past centuries. He has selected; he has juxtaposed; and in so doing, he has given us one possible interpretation of what happened in history. Where Wilson differs from the others is that he leaves much of this interpretation to the viewers. In essence, we become the curators and researchers.

That’s why we believe Liberty/Liberté is really an ideal introduction to New-York Historical’s galleries. It has the potential to get everyone thinking like an historian. And that’s also why the criticism of Wilson’s installation is so interesting. When it comes to the “main event” in American history, our nerves are still very raw.


Some of you on another site know my righteous Curmudgeon Alerts on language, grammar, and usage. File this under issues having to do with my rants against The Help:

Waiting to board the first leg of a flight from Salt Lake City where Charlie and I had visited two of his elderly relatives and then spent a few days skiing with friends (C. skied; I hiked) an elderly African-American woman arrived at the boarding area in a wheelchair pushed by an airport staff person.

The woman in the wheelchair was heavyset, wearing a dark brown pants suit and a wig of similar color (both polyester) and dark sensible shoes. She held a sturdy cane. At one point we smiled and nodded (a generational courtesy I grew up with.)

The flight landed at the Ohio/Kentucky airport behind schedule. Concerned about making our connection to Boston, as soon as the aisle cleared for our row to exit I grabbed my coat, my handbag, and wheeling my carry-on behind me, all but sprinted to the front of the plane.

Because packing light sometimes means wearing heavier items to be able to close the suitcase, I had on a favorite colorful blue/green cable knit heavy sweater, blue jeans, and bright red felt Land’s End snow boots with thick soles.

As I reached the door, one of the FAs said something I didn’t totally catch as I rushed by (she really did have a Dixie drawl) but that ended in “… will be right there waiting for you.” Hoping she meant our connecting flight, I stopped, said “sorry, I didn’t quite hear…” and was told that my wheelchair would be right outside the door waiting for me (!)

I guess we really all do look alike. God bless the South.

P.S. I should be clear that it really was a fantastic and delightful week- – just couldn’t resist telling this All-American story.