The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Artist
I cannot, I feel, have any regrets about my accomplishments. What comes from art will just come. I don’t feel any need to strive. - John N. Robinson
One of my favorite parts of working in an archive is the opportunity to immerse myself in other people’s worlds, to learn more about their stories and experiences. One such person I encountered recently was John N. Robinson, a native Washingtonian and dedicated artist. Featured in Volume II, Edition 2 of the Here at the Smithsonian production series, Robinson’s artwork documents not only the regional history of Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood’s growth and development, but also the personal history of his family, often featuring his wife, children, and grandparents. The episode features Robinson interacting with a group of fifth graders at the Anacostia Community Museum.
As I watched the video footage, I was struck by his dignity and gentle character, which is also conveyed to the viewer through his art. His style is one of celebration, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the beauty found in little things.
Born on February 18, 1912 in the Holy Hill community of Georgetown, Robinson was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death when he was only eight years old, his father having abandoned him and his four siblings not long after. Their grandmother, Anna Barton, took in laundry to help support the family. Robinson and his siblings would assist her by delivering the clothes around Georgetown. Robinson remembered his grandmother as a “warm, lovely person.” Her husband, Ignatius Barton, was a U.S. Army veteran and had been a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American war. Robinson described him as a kind man with a gruff exterior.
Robinson enjoyed doodling and sketching in his spare time - and sometimes while on the job. He had to leave junior high school to begin working, due to the family’s financial situation. His grandfather arranged a job for him, dusting automobiles at the garage where Barton was employed. It was while at this job that a chauffeur noticed Robinson’s sketches on a discarded time card and showed them to his sister, Elizabeth Thompson. She brought them to the attention of James Herring, art professor and founder of the Howard University art department. Recognizing Robinson’s talent, Herring arranged for Robinson to receive art instruction at Howard for a time, free of charge. Robinson studied under the tutelage of James Porter, though he wasn’t able to stay long-term, due to financial hardship.
When he was seventeen, Robinson’s grandparents moved to the Anacostia neighborhood of Garfield Park. His new next door neighbor was Gladys Washington, with whom he fell in love; they married in 1934. Together, they had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. It was also after moving to Garfield Park that Robinson began to devote more time to painting, including religious murals in community churches. Robinson went on to be employed in food service at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, eventually rising to management. He retired in 1970.
Outside of his family and community, Robinson didn’t gain much notoriety as an artist until later in life. In the 1940s, he displayed his work at Lafayette and Franklin Parks, through the Outdoor Art Fairs sponsored by the Times Herald. Later his work was featured at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, a haven for multicultural diversity and one of the first black-owned art galleries in America. He exhibited a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1976, at a time when few blacks were welcomed there, through a partnership with the Anacostia Community Museum. Another one-man show followed at the Anacostia Community Museum in 1983. Other exhibitions included ones at Howard University, the National Museum of Natural History, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Atlanta University, Xavier University, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Oxon Hill Public Library, and the Washington Project for the Arts.
On October 17, 1994, John Robinson passed away. A family man, he mused that perhaps he could have been more ambitious in promoting his art earlier in life, but he also recognized success is not just in material things, but sometimes is seen best in “the happiness of those we love.”
- Accession 00-132 - Office of Telecommunications, Productions, 1982-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- “Here, Look at Mine!” exhibition records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives
- John N. Robinson artist file, Smithsonian Libraries
As a young artist entering the contemporary art world, the opportunity to speak with an art collector or museum director is few and far between. An art collector like Joseph H. Hirshhorn has always played a crucial role in the development of artist careers, bridging the gap between the maker and the public institution. I am currently a graduate Master of Fine Arts student at the Maryland Institute College of Art participating in a Smithsonian Institution Archives Summer Internship Program to further my thesis investigation into different multimedia based technologies, and the means in which the apparatus shapes the way we create systems of documentation.
While digitizing the correspondence between Joseph H. Hirshhorn and many coveted artists during the 1960s and 1970s, it is made evident through the preservation of these paper documents that bonding relationships formed. Artists including Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, and Willem de Kooning share words with members of the Hirshhorn family that extend far beyond business relationships, and move towards a closeness to that of a friend or family member. These materials affirm a physical record over the years as both Hirshhorn and his disciples share all, from their daily dealings, to their most intimate and reflective thoughts, to their major life events. The ongoing conversations reveal Hirshhorn’s utmost reverence for artists and their lives.
During the digitization process there were numerous letters, postcards, and telegrams all filled with warm salutations, advice, and admiration for various art works. I came across a few unique letters and photographs to share with you. It seems Hirshhorn had a close bond specifically with Willem de Kooning as he notes in the letter on November 15, 1967 after an exhibition reception, “I guess it wasn’t enough for the reporter to hear me shout all over the place that you and Picasso are the greatest painters alive—.” Hirshhorn also shares correspondence with de Kooning’s only daughter Lisa de Kooning. Found above is a letter in child’s handwriting where Lisa thanks Hirshhorn for his gifts that encourage her love of animals. In the letter she draws a portrait, shown adjacent to a photograph of her pet horse Freddy. They later reunite their exchange as Lisa writes to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn on December 7, 1978 to include them in her organization of ASPCA Animals and Art benefit. Sifting through, I also came across a series of Kodak color still photographs from 1965 documenting the installation of Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture Two Discs, which is amongst the permanent collections at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Calder exchanges multiple letters with Joseph and Olga about travel plans filled with invitations to his home in Saché, France. Lastly, included is a brief letter between Marc Chagall and Hirshhorn about his inquiry for artworks. Hirshhorn was also a frequent guest in the Chagall home, as this snapshot of Chagall and German shepherd was captured during a leisurely afternoon with the Hirshhorn's and friends.
After exploring these artifacts, I began to ask myself if these close affinities could exist today. In the midst of the current art market environment saturated by digital content, concrete communication is often abstract and fleeting. It can take weeks to get an answer to a telephone call, and for email sometimes never as mailboxes fill up with thousands of messages that can prove overwhelming to answer. Digital correspondence is so immediate that it can often lack the nuance that adds to the character or intent of a conversation. The current generation communicates primarily through digital outlets. Email, text messaging, and social media definitely have their place, however do these electronic versions have the same meaning and impact as the hardcopies they replace? Can these modes of communication suffice in establishing gallery or museum representation to prolong a future in a fine art field? It is a pleasure to go back and read the development of these special relationships, the impact Hirshhorn had on the lives of the artists he supported, and at the same time allow contemporary artists to consider the importance of the means in which relationships are built within the current art world.
- Willem de Kooning at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Alexander Calder at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Marc Chagall at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Last week I caught an interesting and moving documentary on HBO, Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. By coincidence, just a few days earlier I was looking through our finding aid to the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers in the Smithsonian Archives collection. Hirshhorn had gained his fortune in the mining and oil industries, and also amassed a large art collection - the core of which became the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden that opened in 1974 as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The finding aid to Hirshhorn's papers listed a folder containing correspondence with Robert De Niro, and I wondered at the time, why would actor Robert De Niro be writing Joseph Hirshhorn?
As I started watching the documentary, it finally clicked that Hirshhorn's relationship was with Robert De Niro, Sr., part of the New York School of artists who had success in the 1940s and 1950s, but whose fortunes would soon fade in the 1960s and 1970s when Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism began to take center stage, and De Niro refused to change his artistic style and point of view.
The documentary is a son's tribute to his father and his father's art.
The De Niro/Hirshhorn correspondence echoes themes in the documentary and sheds additional light on De Niro Senior's financial struggles and his sometimes tumultuous relationship with art dealers and patrons.
- Record Unit 7449, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, c. 1926-1982 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Robert De Niro, Sr., artwork at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Using a combination of clever sculpting and well-timed strobes, artist, Takeshi Murata created what appears to be a perpetually melting sculpture. [via PetaPixel]
- Think you have a lot of data on your computer, tablet, or phone . . . the federal government has real big data that it needs to manage. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Librarians make lasting impacts on people and their respective organizations everyday, take library analyst Eilene Galloway, who helped launch the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [via The Library of Congress blog]
- When we think of the internet we tend to think of its invisibility and ever present nature around us, but it takes a real and substantial presence to make all that cloud computing and connectivity work. Timo Arnall, a designer and artist from London, takes a look at the machinery of the internet. [via Wired]
- In 1863, at the age of 48, Julia Margaret Cameron, received a camera as a gift. Her subsequent photographs are awesome! [via PetaPixel]
- This week saw the passing of two important and influential people: Author and poet, Maya Angelou, and designer, Massimo Vignelli. [via InfoDocket and Core77]
Time-based media art: artwork containing audiovisual components that rely on playback mechanisms or systems for decoding, and that are typically engaged with other elements as an installed, interactive and/or performed experience
In September 2013 I arrived at the Archives to commence the inaugural 9-month National Digital Stewardship Residency designed by the Library of Congress and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Directed at the curatorial and conservation obstacles time-based media art imposes on museum workflows, I was tasked with developing strategies for handling the digital assets that make up these kinds of works, with particular focus on how they might best be placed in a trustworthy digital repository environment.
Jenny Holzer’s For SAAM (Smithsonian American Art Museum), and Siebren Versteeg’s Neither There nor There (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) are just two examples of time-based media art that rely on digital assets to operate and that can be found in collections across the Smithsonian.
Through acquisition, installation, storage, and later re-installation, these works require technical evaluations and monitoring generally laid out in digital preservation strategies, which have not typically been cemented in museum procedures. At the same time, the variable, iterative, and subjective nature of these works necessitates the use of granular, yet scalable policies for describing, representing, and preserving their essential elements, behaviors, and variability. For these reasons, the standard assumptions surrounding documentation, authenticity, and custodial roles in the realm of digital preservation fall short of meeting the needs of time-based media art.
As part of my residency I am in conversation with curators, conservators, registrars, and gallery staff across the Smithsonian who have been participating in the Time-Based Media Art Working Group efforts. They have been looking internally and externally for resources and expertise in handling these types of works in order to fit the needs of their own collections. From these discussions I am developing higher-level procedures based upon preservation practices and current museum approaches.
It is important to note that the Smithsonian is particularly unique in this conversation, in that it represents a number of designated communities (units) with disparate collections, missions, and infrastructures.
With all of these things in mind, my ultimate goal is to produce baseline ingest, storage, and access policies for specific classes of time-based media artworks (web, video game, generative, etc.) with supplemental suggestions for the more granular, yet flexible guidelines based off variability and intended behaviors (installed, networked, performed, etc.). Through my deliverables I hope to add to the resources to be considered not only within the Smithsonian, but in other institutions collecting digital time-based media art as well.
Finally, since artists have and will continue to produce works using an assortment of both obsolete and emerging software, processes, and tools (whether intentional or not), it is necessary to remain flexible with regard to digital preservation approaches across museums. Priority should be placed on strategies that are adaptable, with the understanding that continued learning and collaboration will be essential in maintaining authenticity in the future re-creations of these works.
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