Sunday, May 27, 2018

Alan Bean 1932-2018

Alan Bean in his painting studio, photo courtesy Smithsonian
Alan Bean has died. He was the fourth man to walk on the moon and he was also a painter.

I fondly remember him calling me with focused questions about color mixing. (Link to SoundCloud file).

Many people recall him as being a kindly gentleman, and he certainly was, but he also had a test-pilot's tenacious insistence on understanding a subject thoroughly, as if his life depended on it.

In my conversations with him, I took the opportunity to ask him about what shadows look like on the moon. He said that from a scientific perspective they really were black (except for reflected light), and the surface of the moon was full of grays. But from his artist's perspective, he wanted to introduce more color into his painting to convey the feeling, as well as the optics, of the experience.

He had to be careful during his time at NASA not to talk too much about such things. He didn't want to sound too much like a dreamy artist, or they would have dropped him from the program. As he completed his mission on the Moon, he was observing and recording it in his mind, and after his return to earth he pursued a successful career as a painter.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Project Iceworm

In the 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers undertook a project to build a secret scientific and military base under the ice in Greenland.

The official story was that it was a base camp for scientific research under the name Camp Century, big enough to hold 200 residents.

But there was a top secret component that wasn't revealed until later: a planned base for nuclear missiles called "Project Iceworm." A vintage film shows how they built it.

(Link to YouTube)

What the planners didn't anticipate was that glacial ice is in constant motion, and any trenches or tunnels would eventually fill themselves in, trapping all the building materials and toxic waste under the ice, where it remains abandoned today.
Read more
NPR: Melting ice in Greenland could expose serious pollutants from buried army base. 
Exploring Greenland: Science and Technology in Cold War Settings

Friday, May 25, 2018

Mansudae Art Studio

North Korea has been in the news, but most of what we hear is about denuclearization, summit meetings, and sanctions. But we don't hear much about the art and artists there.

Women Looking at the New Salt Harvest.
The dream career for an artist in North Korea is to be a member of Mansudae Art Studio, where about 1000 hand-picked artists paint a range of images: official portraits, history lessons, and pictures for the tourist trade.

Members of the reigning Kim dynasty may only be portrayed by the artists from Mansudae Art Studio, and they must be shown smiling in heroic leadership poses. The style of the art resembles the art from Communist China during the Mao era.

Photo from Color Magazine
Young artists who follow the path of success in art begin at age nine at specialty art schools, painting set subjects. If they pass a series of examinations, they make it into a class of 150 students at the central art academy of Pyongyang, and hopefully qualify to join Mansudae.

Women pilots in North Korea. One holds a model airplane
A typical artist paints 30 paintings per year, working four days a week. The 5th day is reserved for community service.

The artists don't all paint oil canvases of political scenes. They also paint misty mountain landscapes in traditional ink wash. There are also artists who specialize in pottery, other traditional crafts, and sculpture.

Monument de la Renaissance Africaine,
created by sculptors from North Korea
Some of the sculptors from Mansudae have worked for African countries to create gigantic monuments.

Some American museums have been interested in collecting North Korean artwork, but because of the trade embargo, it's very difficult to acquire them.

Read more online:
Wikipedia: Mansudae Art Studio
Met Museum: Diamond Mountains: A Conversation with Curator Soyoung Lee
Colors Magazine: Official Portraiture in North Korea is made by one studio

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Cubist Nightmares in Comics

Newspaper comics came of age during the same time that modern art made its appearance, and the comic artists took notice.

In 1916, just a few years after the Armory Show, Penny Ross portrays "a Cubist Nightmare in the Studio of Monsieur Paul Vincent Cezanne Van Gogen Ganguin."


In Polly and Her Pals (1929) by Cliff Sterrett, Paw accidentally tries on his wife's glasses, with disorienting results. 

Uncle Walt and Skeezix visit an art museum and find out what it's like to walk around in Modernist paintings, as portrayed in Gasoline Alley (1930) by Frank King.

Bill Watterson continued the tradition decades later in Calvin and Hobbes.
You can find these pages and more in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

American Enthusiasm, 1895

When Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1900) came to America, he taught students and he wrote music. He wrote The New World Symphony based on the inspiration he received here.

In 1895 he wrote an essay for Harpers magazine characterizing the music and the people of the young nation. He said: "The two American traits which most impress the foreign observer, I find, are the unbounded patriotism and capacity for enthusiasm of most Americans."

"Nothing better pleases the average American, especially the American youth, than to be able to say that this or that building, this or that new patent appliance, is the finest or grandest in the world."

"This, of course, is due to that other trait - enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of most Americans for all things new is apparently without limit. It is the essence of what is called "push" - American push."

"Every day I meet with this quality in my pupils. They are unwilling to stop at anything. In the matters relating to their art they are inquisitive to a degree that they want to go to the bottom of all things at once."

He wrote this essay during the 1890s, the decade of bicycles. Electricity and the telegraph were newly invented, and comics, animation, jazz, movies, automobiles and airplanes were soon to arrive. The enthusiasm and inquisitiveness he described were at the root of an incredible era of invention and discovery.

But, let's remember, many of those inventions were followed by less desirable outcomes that no one could have predicted, such as suburbia and the world wars. And we can't forget that women didn't have the vote, and racial and ethnic minorities didn't have equal opportunities.

Perhaps Dvořák would have been pleased to see his symphony performed by such a diverse orchestra (this was the first performance that came up on a Google search).

But I wonder what Dvořák would make of the zeitgeist of our arts culture now? Have we lost some of that enthusiasm and confidence? Have we become jaded, cautious, and cynical?

Antonin Dvorak's essay "Music in America"

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

How do we look at architecture?

Where do we put our attention when we look at a building? 

Here's a photograph of a Civil-War-era field hospital with an eye-tracking heat map overlaid. It shows that observers pay the most attention (red and yellow areas) to direct human presence.

There's a figure standing in the doorway, and a group of other figures to the left. The interest in the upper windows appears to be a search strategy for finding other people, or at least for learning about human presence indirectly. No one looks at the ground, the trees, or the chimney.

What if no people appear in the photograph? How do we respond to the purely abstract elements of architecture on their own terms? Here are two photos of a building, one with the side windows removed by Photoshop.

Researchers Ann Sussman and Janice Ward have discovered from such studies that "People ignore blank facades. People don’t tend to look at big blank things, or featureless facades, or architecture with four-sides of repetitive glass."

They also observed that "buildings with punched windows or symmetrical areas of high contrast perennially caught the eye, and those without, did not."
Eye tracking of Civil War photos
Here's What You Can Learn About Architecture from Tracking People's Eye Movements