Category Archives: art

It’s Complicated

These days when people people ask me what I’ve been up to, the answers can get quite convoluted. So in the absence of a FaceBook account here’s a sampling of some recent projects, and just enough back story to make it seem coherent.

Followers of this site will be familiar with my researches into the Marshall McLuhan fonds, work that some intrepid Berliners have recently revived by marrying a poor quality lecture video to the hundreds of images that were the crux of the original presentation. The result is the Hybrid Lecture Player.

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We’re currently seeking support to go deeper (and go public) with this project. The hope is to make each image into a virtual slide down a documentary rabbit hole, for those who choose to explore. We were met with enthusiastic interest in recent conversations with the McLuhan family, and the Berliners have piqued the interest of universities in Europe and the US. All of this international attention may be enough to win the eventual support of Canadian institutions, including the LAC whose new director says he wants to revive the exhibitions and programming that have been conspicuously absent in recent years. With luck the promised exhibitions will expand beyond war and hockey.

In addition to that archival work I’m getting back into museums, by way of the academy and the internet. I’ve researched, catalogued, taught and curated in museums for much of my career, which took a downturn in summer 2011 when I was one of five curators laid off from the struggling National Gallery of Canada. The abolition of my position as Curator of International (i.e. non-Canadian) Art brought the total to seventy lost positions by the time I was out of the picture. That’s a conservative estimate, since it doesn’t count moribund positions like the curatorship of Modern Art, a role that I subsumed a few years prior to that. I found it rewarding to acquire 20thC works such as a unique Warhol print donated by a couple in Toronto and this crazy thing which I found at auction and paid for with repatriation monies from Heritage Canada.

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I also developed a deep respect for minimalist art while creating a glorious gallery for Judd, Andre and Flavin works that has since been dismantled. Continue reading

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Blueprint for Counter Education Redivivus

I just received word that Paul Cronin, Rob Giampietro, Adam Michaels and Jeffrey T. Schnapp received a generous Graham Foundation grant for an exhibition analyzing and completing the inimitable Blueprint for Counter Education by Maurice R. Stein and Larry Miller, from which I quoted in this recent post. At the time I was writing a last-minute letter of support for the grant proposal, which I reckon it’s now safe to share with a new image and a few links. The fact that it fits 18 of my 30 subject tags indicates the project’s richness and its closeness to my heart! The Chicago-based Graham Foundation Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts is a wonderful institution that supported my first and last translation effort in the late ’90s.

Maurice R. Stein, Larry Miller & Marshall Henrichs; Blueprint for Counter Education, 1970, New York. Photo: Project Projects.

Maurice R. Stein, Larry Miller & Marshall Henrichs; Blueprint for Counter Education, 1970, New York. Photo: Project Projects.

23 January 2014 Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing in support of the project Blueprint for (a Media Archeology of) Counter Education, as presented to the Graham Foundation’s “Production and Presentation” grant category by Jeffrey Schnapp, Adam Michaels and Rob Giampietro. The proposed project as a natural successor to Schnapp and Michaels’ triumphant The Electric Information Age Book (TEAIB), an experiment intimately linked to the Blueprint project in form and subject matter. The book TEAIB defines the parameters of a short-lived and largely forgotten type of publication, variously described as the kinetic paperback, the inventory book and the experimental paperback. Beginning with The Medium is the Massage—the groundbreaking 1967 book written by Marshall McLuhan, designed by Quentin Fiore and ‘produced’ by Jerome Agel—these revolutionary little books rewrite the rules of style, layout and distribution. They also declare the irrelevance of divisions between highbrow and lowbrow, art and advertising, word and image, and (most crucially) form and content. This complicated mix of moves perfectly embodies McLuhan’s observation that the medium is the message. Continue reading

Borges, Duchamp and I

Mark O’Connell’s recent New Yorker blog review of two new books on Jorge Luis Borges opens by sensitively praising the Argentine master’s literary talents, and closes by deeming him politically incorrect. One big problem, in O’Connell’s eyes, is Borges’s failure to adequately appreciate women writers. Without letting us in on the joke, the critic informs us that he “laughed out loud” upon reading Borges’ remark that Emily Dickinson was “the most passionate of all women who have attempted writing.” Perhaps it’s the word “attempt” that O’Connell expects his reader to find so laugable. And perhaps he doesn’t fully grasp Borges’ understanding that this is no insult, since any communication is but an essaie.

As a lead-up to a second fit of pique O’Connell recounts the following conversation from 1980: Continue reading

Meditations on a Landscape by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


Prospectus Tibertinus

(Click image to enlarge, and again for more detail.)

From the vault, here’s a tiny essay written back in September 1995, my first week at Harvard, for a graduate seminar with the brilliant Joseph Leo Koerner–a class that ended up being my real introduction to both Marshall McLuhan and my design mentor Edward Tufte. The brooding mood of the piece, and maybe even the choice of subject in the Sackler Museum exhibition, is indebted to the Coltrane Orgy playing on WHRB while I wrote it. Before long I’d be writing conventional catalogue entries on a number of neglected 17thC French landscape prints for an exhibition at the Boston MFA. None of those works approached the sheer weirdness of this ca. 1555 etching/engraving by Jan and Lucas Duetecum after a design by Bruegel.

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Carl van Mander writes that Pieter Bruegel was said to have swallowed up the Alps and spit them out as pictures after returning from Italy to the Netherlands. Looking at the image in front of us, it is tempting to think that the artist disgorged the half-digested mountains into a riverbed near Tivoli and sketched the following scene as a souvenir of the gruesome event. Of course we don’t have to adopt the metaphor of coughed-up cud when trying to describe this picture. We can imagine instead that the vast belly of the earth has been sliced open, exposing her pungent, pulsating entrails. Like the tiny animal forms dotting the left-hand horizon, the spilled-guts metaphor recalls a secret buried deep within this same Roman landscape: namely the bones of a thousand sacrificial sheep sliced open by ancient diviners seeking knowledge of nature’s inner workings. Continue reading