The Lonely Palette Podcast
Tamar Avishai, the MFA’s podcaster-in-residence and host of The Lonely Palette, has teamed up with the Museum to release episodes on artworks in our collections. On The Lonely Palette Avishai tells the stories behind artworks, one at a time, in an approachable and accessible style. Listen to the episodes in partnership with the MFA below. You can also access the episodes on your favorite podcast app.
Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98
Transcript for Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt Episode
Transcript for Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt Episode
VOICE 1: So in this quilt, I see 15 panels, five across, three down, and each panel has some sort of image, like maybe a story that it's telling.
VOICE 2: Each block tells its own story, and kind of seems like, maybe like a picture book. Each section.
VOICE 3: I see all the work that they did, all by hand that takes time and time, and to be a good one and be able to do it.
VOICE 1: It's squares, but they're not perfect. It's not perfect lines. It's sort of it looks very handmade and a little wavy, like the person didn't have a ruler.
VOICE 3: Looks like there might be a little bit of...lemme see...appliqué going on here, too. And I see some embroidery too, because those eyes are embroidered right there, right there, and right there. And that's also back stitching, which is part of embroidery. So this uses appliqué, embroidery and quilting techniques. So it does everything, a little bit of everything. It's amazing, actually. I'm a quilter myself, but this is amazing.
VOICE 4: And there's a lot of color, although it's kind of muted, except for the oranges, which are very bright. They are, like, these people in many of them that are doing little actions, and there are some birds and some other animals, and it's kind of childish drawings like child, like child shapes. It's very, very cool.
VOICE 5: You know, when they discovered drawings in caves? These are kind of like the drawings you see in the caves from early man, I think.
VOICE 6: So I see images of what I think are stories from the Bible. There's a person looks like falling off a boat, maybe being swallowed up by a whale, maybe that's a story of Jonah.
VOICE 1: One has two of each kind, which I think could be Noah's Ark.
VOICE 6: And then I see images of the three people on the cross.
VOICE 1: And in a lot of them, their arms are facing up, which makes me think of praising.
VOICE 7: And you see a number of figures that look like they have their hands raised to receive these sort of, I guess, lights that are coming down. And so it's a, for me, it's interesting to wonder if it's awe, if it's excitement, is it fear?
VOICE 8: I see a lot of things in it. I mean, what I see is slavery. I see, you know, such a lot of nice little things in that, as well. It's not all sad. It's happy as well. And I can't look through the eyes of a slave person who did this. So I'm just looking through it from my eyes, and that's all I see. I don't see all sad stuff. I see happy stuff too.
My husband and I never went on a honeymoon. I don’t know how many newlyweds have this same story: you put all this energy into the wedding, the logistical details, the, uh, personality management, and the idea of planning a whole other trip on top of it just feels impossible. We promised ourselves we’d get to it eventually, but bank accounts got drained, way led onto way, and it just never happened. So the following year, when it seemed like everyone we knew was getting married in every state in the country, we made a pledge to go. It’ll be like ten different minimoons, we told ourselves. Two days in San Francisco here, a night in Hartford there, a positive, yes let’s attitude, and maybe we’ll pick up a memento or two along the way to give the year of the minimoon its full honey meaning.
So fast forward to 6 months later, we’re in a country store in the middle of nowhere outside of Denver, Colorado, about to celebrate the nuptials of my husband’s parents’ friends’ daughter. And I’m standing in front of the most beautiful quilt I’ve ever seen. It’s white with green and teal interlocking rings, and it’s gripping me, and I’m doing everything I can to talk myself out of buying it. I mean, it’s expensive, it’s just a quilt. I can buy one anywhere without splurging. After all, it might get spilled on or loved a little too hard by our cat. And sure, it will look beautiful for a while, but inevitably I’ll stop seeing it.
And of course, we do these mental gymnastics when it comes to usable art, that is, craft. This is the dilemma of being confronted by a world where cheap utilitarian machine-made objects reign supreme, and separate themselves from the aesthetic decisions of individual, talented hands. This quilt, I had to explain to myself, is expensive because it’s handmade. Someone took the time to stitch all those little stitches. Someone chose that specific pattern, in this case, the double wedding ring pattern, to tell a story, to infuse that otherwise banal fabric with meaning. Why is this any different than a painter with a canvas or a sculptor with a chisel, other than the fact that I get to actually touch it? And more than that, use it, smell it, infuse it with my smell, my story?
Because obviously, we bought it. Double wedding ring pattern? Come on. And it’s our wedding quilt, our minimoons quilt, our memento of profound meaning. It’s been on our bed for the last six years, a cuddly home to our sleeping cat, then to our infant son. And what’s amazing is, I never actually stop seeing it. Like any piece of good art, even one that I snuggle under to watch Netflix on my phone, it never stops being evocative. And it never stops being meaningful.
But you can’t convince someone that craft is like that unless they’ve experienced it themselves. No one thinks that quilts, for example, or a museum exhibition about quilts will be as interesting or historically compelling as they actually are. So let’s start by looking at their role in the culture: scholars tend to point to quilt-making, and specifically quilt storytelling, as a distinctly American phenomenon. Quilts that are art objects run the gamut, like America itself, of identities, ethnicities, socioeconomic strata, and geography – that is, equally common to both rural and urban areas of the country. I mean, when a craft is passed down through the generations, it’s enormously egalitarian. And because they’re created to live in the most intimate spaces in people’s lives, they’re deeply personal and personalized. And this American, egalitarian, and intimate art form is perhaps no better expressed than in the Pictorial Quilt of Harriet Powers, one of the most exceptional objects you never realized was a part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s collection. It, along with the Bible Quilt, are the only two surviving quilts by Powers, and maybe one of the most famous and well-preserved examples of African American folk art and 19th century quilting. And yet, even with these kinds of superlatives, it isn’t so surprising that you’ve probably never heard of it: like I said, quilting, and the craft side of fiber art in general, tends to be overlooked. As we briefly talked about in episode 15, it’s largely been dismissed as “women’s work,” too utilitarian to be taken seriously as an art form. I mean, what other domestic tasks are we going to call art? Doing the dishes?
This attitude changed, mercifully, in the 1960s and 70s, when newly liberated women artists, and the work borne from their needles and thread, entered the mainstream. And with this liberation came the enormous power of what Ghanian fiber artist El Anatsui calls “the poverty of materials” – that is, the art of creating something valuable from what is essentially discarded scraps. In his case, it was the metal caps and the aluminum stripped from beer bottles, and in the case of 18th and 19th century quilters, it was the remnants of old clothes and other bits of used cloth, the detritus that, as Anatsui continues, “in no way precludes the telling of rich and wonderful stories.”
And it’s these humble, reused materials, given new life as a means of conveying these rich and wonderful stories, that are the cornerstones of a quilt like this, and a life lived by Harriet Powers. The American novelist Alice Walker all but anticipates Anatsui’s words when she describes her first experience with Powers’ Bible Quilt, writing for Ms. Magazine in 1974, that despite the fact that “it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” And it’s a testament to Powers’ innate talent and vision as a quilter that her work was able to speak for her so clearly. She was a black woman born into slavery in Athens, Georgia in 1837, freed at the end of the Civil War and then newly oppressed by economic hardship, despite ultimately becoming a landowner. She was a mother to at least nine children, and an expert, self-taught seamstress, with a specific skill with what is known as applique – that is, sewing shapes and pictures of fabric onto a blocked patch of quilt – which not only referenced West African techniques, but, in her hands, became uniquely American.
And it should be said that the kind of appliqued quilt we’re talking about is a very specific kind of storytelling. The double wedding ring pattern of my minimoons quilt is something else: a recognizable motif, known throughout the quilting world and imbued with legible cultural significance, but, at the end of the day, is still just a repeating geometric pattern – if it tells a story, it’s the story of my cat, my marriage, my baby, my bedroom. But an appliqued quilt is created to tell a story all its own, before there’s any projected significance. Powers’ two surviving quilts, this Pictorial Quilt, as we’ll be discussing, and the Bible Quilt, which lives at the Smithsonian, are literally narratives, like a storyboard for a film, but without a clear narrative sequence: instead, we have fifteen densely appliqued squares depicting biblical scenes that speak to the intensity of Powers’ Christian faith, and her awareness of her current moment. And this is important, we’ll come back to it. The style, meanwhile, which emphasizes color, form, and contours over specific detail, share a kind of free-flowing, groundless steam of consciousness that call to mind the later paper cutouts of Matisse, or, as we’ll get into more later, the admittedly far more grotesque silhouettes of Kara Walker. There are clear references to the Old and New Testaments, to the stories of Job, of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Jonah and the whale, of figures on crucifixes, of the Book of Revelations. But we also see current events, as described by Powers herself: “Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895, a woman frozen in prayer.” Other squares depict natural phenomena from the more recent past: a meteor shower from 1833; a forest fire from 1780. And these scenes, side-by-side, reveal two things about Harriet Powers, which I’ve just alluded to: first, as Alice Walker inferred, she was a woman deeply committed to her own Christian faith – in Powers’ own words, her quilts intended to “preach the gospel in patchwork” – and secondly, she possessed an ability to tap into the modernity of her own moment, to recognize the inherent value of life as it was being lived, as seen through stories both contemporary and timeless.
And both of these elements, the timeless religious aspect and the contemporary moment, are reflected in the history of ownership of these two quilts, what curators call the provenance. It’s hardly surprising that the quilts have always had white owners, although as far as records tell us, they were owners who were deeply moved by the content, by the clear intensity of Powers’ vision. The Bible Quilt, which, true to its named contained exclusively biblical scenes, and was created around 1886, a decade before the Pictorial Quilt, was owned by Jennie Smith, an art teacher at a girls’ school, who had originally seen the quilt displayed at the Northeast Georgia Fair and was moved to offer Powers $10 for it, the equivalent of about $300 today, describing Powers’ style as “bold and rather on the impressionist’ order, while there is a naivete of expression that is delicious.” Powers refused to sell at any price, on the grounds that the quilt, the “darling offspring of my brain,” was too meaningful to part with, although she did end up eventually selling it to Smith for half that amount a few years later, when Powers fell into her own financial hardships.
It’s tempting to dismiss this story as a straight-up taking advantage of a power disparity, although to her credit, Jennie Smith did make an effort to keep this quilt publicly and politically visible, displaying it at the Negro Building of the Cotton States at the Atlanta International Exposition in 1895. It was an enormously popular exhibit that attracted almost a million visitors, and its popularity might very well have paved the way for the Pictorial Quilt’s commission. And it’s the provenance of the Pictorial Quilt that carries us into the 20th century still indebted to Powers’ original intent. Because the Pictorial Quilt, too, was highly regarded for the emotional authenticity of its religious content. It was most likely given as a gift at the appointment of the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall as president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1897. Hall had served on the board of trustees of Atlanta University, a university itself founded in 1865 with the intention of educating newly emancipated slaves, and Hall was one of several white Protestant ministers who sincerely intended to offer help and guidance to the black community at the time, however helpful it ultimately was. Still, there was no question in the minds of the “faculty ladies” who banded together to purchase the quilt for the occasion that a gift like this, created deep from the soul of an emancipated black seamstress, would be both deeply meaningful to Hall, and optically advantageous to his cause.
The quilt was proudly hung up in Hall’s summer residence in Westport, Massachusetts for more than 60 years – and, side note, imagine passing that every day on the way downstairs to the breakfast nook; you know they also never stopped seeing it. Hall’s son then approached the MFA to sell the quilt in 1960. And amazingly enough, even the museum, once it ultimately acquired the quilt a few years later, didn’t really know the value of what they now possessed, keeping it in storage for another decade until, as I said earlier, second-wave feminism introduced the world to the value of quilt-making, and the MFA realized it was sitting on a historical gold mine.
And it’s easy to see why a quilt like this was so poised to make a splash this moment of re-discovery, a double-whammy moment of early postmodern identity politics in the 1970s and the rise of outsider art. The phrase “outsider art” was coined in 1972, and refers to art by artists who are self-taught – we talked about it briefly in episode 36 in reference to Cecilia Gimenez, the Spanish hero who took it upon herself to restore that Ecce Homo fresco to its ahem present glory. But Gimenez aside, it’s an enormous disservice to think of outsider artists as bad artists, or the crudity of technique as inherently worse than that of artists trained in the finest art academies. On the contrary, there is a richness and an authenticity that can be found in artists who are first and foremost observers, who receive their training from “amateurs” passing techniques down through generations, the way that the best recipes come from grandmothers, not the Food Network. This lack of formal training shifts the emphasis towards intuition, towards the inherent emotional power of work that just needs to be created even if, in the case of Powers, the corners of the quilt don’t quite match up. And there are many examples of artists who intuitively create both narrative and abstract designs without the benefit of formal training – look no further than the quilters of Gee’s Bend in Alabama, a small, isolated hamlet just southwest of Selma, and home to some of the most extraordinary and important contributions to black visual culture in the country. Many current residents of the community can trace their ancestral lineage back to slavery, and then where freed slaves subsequently stayed as sharecroppers, all the way to the 1960s, when a quilting bee was birthed that eventually gained national attention for the artistry and historical and political significance of their quilts – which, as with Powers’ quilts, were made of found scraps of clothing and borrowed from both West African aesthetic traditions, and, uniquely, Native American aesthetic traditions. What’s especially striking about these quilts is that the lack of formal training meant that they had no constraints, no obligation to follow, for example, the strict double wedding ring pattern of my minimoons quilt, and so you end up with fiber art that’s truly, artistically imaginative, and maybe wouldn’t even be out of place alongside some of the most avant garde mid-century minimalist abstract paintings. Take, for example, the Bricklayer or Courthouse Steps quilt from 1955, attributed to sisters Creola and Georgianna Bennett Pettway. The pattern, called the Housetop or Log Cabin pattern, lines up strips of deep, vibrant red to create an hourglass shape that appears to recede into the horizon as starkly as Carmen Herrera’s color field painting that we looked at in episode 43. The patterning is as sophisticated and precise as anything you would expect from a formally-trained quilter, or a formally-trained abstract artist, and maybe even more evocative for its intuitive creativity. Not everyone can look at a bag of clothing scraps and create a design so clean, and so arresting.
And I should add that there’s another, more politically-charged element to the idea of the untrained, the crude, even the grotesque – a word that, depending on context, can run the table from simply distorted to truly monstrous. Once outside the formal rules, and once within one’s own subjective emotional landscape, a lot can be said through passionate, unconstrained narrative that sits outside formal convention, almost as though the outsiders to the art world can speak a more authentic kind of truth. As I alluded to earlier, it’s hard not to see the applique cutouts of Powers’ quilts and not see forward to Matisse, who basked in the joy of untrained non-western “naivete,” or, more brutally, to our current moment and the silhouettes of Kara Walker, whom we discussed briefly in episode 50. Walker’s work, like the MFA’s “The Rich Soil Down There,” has become almost synonymous with cutouts of deeply unsettling narratives that speak to the horrors of slavery. These scenes are comprised entirely or silhouettes, which makes you feel like you’re furtively spying on something horrifying from a distance from behind a scrim, scenes of blatant violence, forced sexual acts, unmoored bodily functions, an overall breaking down of societal norms into a shadowy bestial free-for-all that entirely subverts the staid portraiture we’re used to associating with early 19th century upper-class silhouettes. There is of course nothing so disturbing depicted in Powers’ quilts, nor would her Christian values or contemporary mores ever have let her entertain the idea of depicting such scenes, but it’s interesting to see Walker appropriate elements of this style to speak to those unspoken realities of Powers’ moment, and in language that would have been recognizable to the moment, in a grotesquely subversive way, as perhaps the moment demanded.
And I think maybe this is why stories, even on quilts we might not have ever noticed, or even bothered to consider art, are so important. Whether they are the stories sewn onto the fabric, or the stories acquired over the history of ownership, or the stories that are left untold in their moment, Harriet Powers understood the importance of telling them. And not just the stories from her faith, or of her moment, but the story of quilting itself, their narrative power, which she apparently talked about to “anyone who would listen.” And people did listen. She was a formidable presence, clearly not a woman afraid to live her truth – even the only known photograph of her shows her wearing a typically severe expression and a wonderfully whimsical apron, embroidered with the same style of applique that we see in her quilts. And the fact that she was known for this in her own day, given her circumstances, and the fact that her role in quilting history was later obscured and needed to be rediscovered when it was more politically convenient, her living fame really mattered. The fact that Powers wasn’t anonymous in her lifetime, writes the MFA curators, only adds to the importance of her work, and her own story. And this should encourage, even compel us, to stand in front of her quilts, her art, and see them, really see them, and never stop. I mean, as if we could.
The exhibition “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories,” which contains, among other exquisite textiles, both the Bible and the Pictorial quilts reunited at last, is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until January 17, 2022, and you can get tickets easily at mfa.org.
Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik.
Sugimoto Hiroshi, Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993, 1993
Transcript for Sugimoto Hiroshi, Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993 Episode
Transcript for Sugimoto Hiroshi, Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993 Episode
Hey, it’s Tamar. And if you’re like me, you’re at home right now, probably in your PJs, definitely saving lives as we all wait out these strange, dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there’s nothing like this moment in time to recognize that, more often than not, the most powerful art is the result of strange, dark days, whether in a larger chaotic world or in the stirring of an individual artist’s soul. This is the art that observes, that documents. This is the art of shared humanity, memory, nostalgia, and resilience. And while we can’t visit art museums right now, I’m partnering up with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to bring the art museum to you. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be going into the archives of both the MFA and The Lonely Palette to bring you the ultimate #MuseumFromHome experience, objects you can explore as you both reorganize your spice rack and reconsider the humanity, the memory, the nostalgia, and the resilience that you’re sharing with these artists, and with each other.
Please enjoy today’s episode, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993.
VOICE 1: First off, it’s obviously—these are images, black and white images, of, like, an old theater. Most of them look old, yeah. Kind of Baroque looking? But it’s almost kind of creepy? Because of the white glow from the center of the stage. And there’s no one sitting in the theater? So it’s almost kind of giving me kind of a horror movie feeling? [laughs] But at the same time, depending on how you look at it, it can be calm, calming, ‘cause it just looks very quiet. And peaceful.
VOICE 2: Kind of like anticipation, to me. You know, like, that feeling of waiting for something to start. That’s what I get.
VOICE 3: Excitement! Because it’s like, the theater is about to begin. You’re about to see exactly what’s going to happen.
VOICE 4: Yeah, you can see the architecture around the stage, the different carvings, and textures, and you can see a little bit of the seats, too, in the front row. They’re lit up in the light and it’s all coming from the front stage, and it creates a very moody feeling in the picture. You know, black and white photography, lots of darks, but the contrast, right around the stage—it’s bright white, and then right next to it is the deep blacks. And that just creates an interesting visual, it draws you eye right into the center of the photo.
VOICE 2: To me it feels kind of lonely. It’s a lonely, empty theater too, you know?
VOICE 5: Still and strange. And it’s almost, like, sad. These are, you know, they’re very elaborate, you know, kind of beautiful old theaters. And they’re empty. And dark. And there’s nothing on the screen.
VOICE 1: Because if you’re describing a cinema or a movie theater, you have a motion picture, you have a play, you have people acting, people moving. This is a blank screen, there’s no one in the theater, nothing is moving. It’s just almost, like, dead, except for this white screen that’s showing absolutely nothing.
VOICE 2: There’s almost like a, maybe like a nostalgic feeling?
VOICE 6: It was important, but now it could be obsolete.
VOICE 2: I feel like it has, like, some kind of importance to someone.
VOICE 7: When I first saw these, I thought that they might be windows onto God. Just because it’s blank, it’s white, it’s all kinds of light all mixed together. But the longer I looked at them, I thought, well, maybe it’s what I’ll see at the end of my life, when I’m flashing back and looking at the movie of my life. ‘Cause I’ll be the only one in the theater, and I’ll have the best seat in the house, and I’ll get to see it all.
I was on a bus one time, looking around, minding my own business, when I saw an ad for a local church. The ad was just this one quote. It was attributed to C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, and a well-known big-time Christian. It read: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” And I just fell in love with this quote immediately. I’m not a Christian—I’m not even a terribly observant Jew—but I worship at the altar of the written word, and man, is that a great line. It’s such a perfect, beautiful metaphor for understanding, innately, something large and abstract through what it brings into focus. You don’t need to understand the thing itself, maybe it’s not even understandable. But you understand what it lets you empirically experience, what it brings into your life. I don’t understand the nature of love, really, but by it I see the pink at the tips of my husband’s ears and my heart grows three sizes.
This image, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Byrd Theater in Richmond, makes me think of this quote. Because to dive into the photographs of this seventy-one-year-old Japanese photographer and architect is to take on this big, abstract thing through what it illuminates. For him, it’s not love, or God, but time. His work, over and over through many different series of photographs, all take on the nature of time; they all, in his words, “exposing time.” And it’s interesting to parse out the different kinds of time Sugimoto is talking about. It can be the infinite ripples of water in a quiet seascape or the sharp focus of fur on a prehistoric diorama. In other words, it can be time ongoing or a moment in time that has passed. For both, Sugimoto writes, “photographs function as a fossilization of time.” It’s a moment of stasis, of stillness. It’s capturing something so fleeting, you can’t actually capture it. Because the moment photographed will always be snatched, removed from its context, like grabbing a part off an assembly line. Whatever you do catch won’t really be it anymore. It becomes immediately outdated and functionally useless. It becomes a fossil. And yet, as we all remember from our childhood trips to natural history musuems, fossils are still invaluable. They’re relics of a time that has since passed. Like the pillars of Ancient Greek temples, or the sumptuous movie theaters from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
And if you couldn’t already tell, Sugimoto adores these theaters. As a little boy in Tokyo in the 1950s, he fell in love with them, with seeing movies with his mother, with the emotions evoked both from the films and from the magnificent little details of the architecture. Sugimoto’s most famous photo series is of these theaters, which this image is part of—since the 1970s, he’s captured more than 100 movie houses and drive-ins, all in this same format: a glowing white square in the center, like looking into a camera’s viewfinder, which provides the light to the razor-sharp detail of the theater that surrounds it. These photos are striking on their own, but they’re especially powerful grouped together, when you can see the different kinds of architectural details from theater to theater, and how the quality of the glowing light changes. The MFA hangs four of these small, intimate photographs, close enough together so that none seem isolated, or too small against the white walls. They’re hung in the first gallery of the exhibition Seeking Stillness, which is on view until September, but even if you can’t make it to exhibition itself—which I assume is the case for most of you—the name really says it all. The exhibition was created in anticipation of a motherlode loan of Rothkos from the National Gallery in DC, which comprise the final gallery of the show and which we’ve already discussed in episode 24. The MFA culled its permanent collection to find the objects that best prepared a visitor to walk into a room of Rothkos, the objects that create a sense of, well, stillness. The objects throughout the show are gently monochromatic, with no jarring textures or even color at all until you arrive at the Rothkos. They’re hung on creamy warm white walls with ample room to breathe, as breezy as wearing linen on a hot summer day. All of them evoke a meditative sense of stasis and reflection.
And yet, as Rothko has taught us, the act of reflection isn’t necessarily relaxing. Rather, it’s the first part of a two-step process: we seek an environment of stillness to better listen to our own internal noise, so that we can then take the next steps of processing that noise and arriving at a kind of internal stillness. Really, that’s what meditation is all about. And what makes this exhibition so powerful is that it is simply full of images of emptiness that we in turn fill up. Everywhere we look, from Agnes Martin to Edward Weston to Sugimoto to Rothko, there’s a representation of, essentially, nothing. And it turns out we humans are really bad when it comes to nothing. We need a something. We create narratives, it’s what we do. And it therefore takes an enormous amount of restraint, of quieting our own interiors, to approach this photograph and to allow our eyes to stare straight into a seemingly blank screen, like an abstract white painting, and simply let the calm glow warm up a very specific interior of a grand old-timey movie theater. But it’s worth the effort. Because this is how we best prepare ourselves to approach any of Sugimoto’s photographs, and to truly experience this fundamental tension he creates between the abstract and the specific—and from there, to truly appreciate how he captures time. But we’ll get there.
Of course, the tension between the abstract and the specific is a familiar one. We see this in 20th century art all the time, from Edward Hopper’s quiet narratives that are at once generalized and precise, to Roy Lichtenstein’s comic frames that are isolated from their stories. There’s no better way to describe something universally conceptual than through little details. And here, we’re looking at a photograph of a theater interior, and it’s incredibly, almost piercingly, sharp. Sugimoto uses an 8 x 10 inch large-format camera, all bellows and screens, like an accordion atop a tripod, and known for its exceptional precision. And by it, we see every detail—the fringe of the curtain, the arms of the chairs, the pudgy little columns of the balustrade, the illuminated exit signs. And this sharply-focused scene surrounds a glowing, ostensibly blank screen. So much detail surrounds so much nothing. But again, it’s the luminescent, empty screen that provides the light to see all of this exceptional detail, which in turn frames the emptiness of that luminescent screen. It's both an exquisite, highly-technical photograph of an interior and a deeply eerie portrait of a void, like looking into the white of an eye with no eyeball.
But the twist here is that it’s really not a blank screen at all. He opens up his camera shutter at the beginning of the movie, exposing the entirety of the film. In other words, this empty screen is actually the whole movie. The light that we’re seeing coming from the screen and lighting up the interior is really a long time-lapse of all 172,800 “after-images”, as Sugimoto calls them—all the light from the film condensed into one frame. And he learned to play with this light, to anticipate how it would affect the interiors. Different movie narratives, he discovered, give off different brightnesses. “If it’s an optimistic story,” he says, “I usually end up with a bright screen; if it’s a sad story, it’s a dark screen. The brightest movies are spaghetti Westerns because they’re all shot outside. But an occult movie? Very dark.”
And this photograph, which shows us the entire movie in one frame, is representative of the kind of unique artist Sugimoto really is. He’s an artistic oxymoron, delighting in giving blur as much sharpness as possible. He embodies both abstraction and specificity: as an architect, of course, he needs to be specific and precise—after all, no matter how beautiful a building is, its walls still need to be load-bearing; it still needs to be at least somewhat functional. But he also revels in the intangible world of ideas—he cites Picasso and Marcel Duchamp as his primary influences. Of course, architecture and Dada exist across a pretty artistic broad spectrum—I mean, no one would ever feel safe in a building designed by Duchamp. Yet Sugimoto seems to be able to bridge the two, all the while creating something in these photographs that is wholly his own. Look at what he accomplishes here: he has created an ingenuous light source to illuminate a darkened theater. The theater itself is a fossil, chock full of architectural details from another era, and magnificently captured because this light source is actually a condensed piece of time itself. Time, the most fleeting and invisible and powerful force that human beings can experience, is captured, even for just a moment, as a glowing, pulsing square that illuminates relics of the past.
These theaters, these relics of Hollywood’s golden age, are the most straightforward way that Sugimoto evokes time, because it’s a question of history and nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. In the days of watching Netflix on our phones in bed, it’s easy to overlook what an event it must have been to see these oversized movie stars on the oversized silver screens. By presenting these theaters in such sharp detail, it’s like he’s asking us to time travel, to place ourselves in the moment by placing ourselves in those plush velvet seats, which haven’t yet been blurred by a fading memory. “Look at Greece and the beautiful Parthenon,” Sugimoto once said. “It once was glorious, and now it’s in terrible condition. History is passing and we will not be forever. I can look out my window and watch New York City being built now. But maybe 500 years later, 1,000 year later, this might be ruins too.” And Sugimoto addresses this idea in his photos as well, these ruins. He has recently embarked on a new photo series, one that documents the decay of these grand movie palaces, many of which now sit abandoned and derelict. He shows films himself, bringing these theaters back to life with a white sheet for a screen, hung in front of a dilapidated background, like a bizarro version of the original photo series of pristine theaters—once monuments to the glory of the past, now victims of the very time he is attempting to capture. There’s an added layer we haven’t talked about yet, which is the fact that there’s an accepted sense of artificiality that comes part and parcel with Hollywood, but which we rarely consider part of photography. Of course, it’s nuts that we do this, that we harbor this delusion that photographs must be telling the truth, that they capture the world as it is, in contrast with a painter capturing the world through his or her hand. Photographs are just as easily manipulated, just as calculated, just as filtered through the eye of the photographer. We talked about this in depth when we looked at Henryk Ross’s Lodz Ghetto photographs in episode 20—this false idea that documentary is objective and storytelling is subjective, when they’re really two sides of the same coin. Sugimoto loved playing with the idea that photographs can lie, producing a series of photographs of dioramas from natural history museums—seemingly-authentic polar bears on ice flows that are as fake as a movie set. When it comes to the theater series, he’s quite vocal about superimposing this whole movie at once is a creative act of the artist, not in any way purporting to be telling the story of the film. The film is just a tool of the artist, same as the paper he prints the photo onto. “Usually a photographer hangs around and captures the moment,” he wrote, “but I created my own illusion that doesn’t exist in reality. It’s just my own imagination — but I get to make my imagination visible.”
Of course, he’s not the first artist who has tried to make time visible. Looking at Sugimoto’s artistic influences, we’re reminded of how many 19th and 20th century artists we’ve explored who have tried to capture time on a canvas. And interestingly, it’s almost always by rendering movement. After all, capturing movement is capturing time, because you’re articulating both the space and the trajectory between two moments. And also interestingly, we see the role that technology plays. The artists most fascinated with rendering time tended to be the most affected by how technology was changing both their day to day world and their art. They became obsessed with the idea of pinning down technology’s speed, with, of course, technology’s help—consider the invention of the camera and its role in allowing artists to capture their moments in real time. Take the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who, in the later 1870s, experiments with multiple cameras that capture a horse galloping, like the individual pages of a flip book. In the short run, he proves, unimpeachably, that there is a moment in a horse’s gait when all four legs are off the ground; in the long run, thanks to his quick shutter speeds, his sequence of shots sets the stage for moving pictures. Then Picasso comes along in the early 1910s with a painting like Portrait of a Woman, which, as we discussed in episode 6, riffs on these multiple images by turning them into cubes, piling them atop each other, and experimenting with a highly intellectual exercise of capturing multiple perspectives at once. This is, of course, Cubism, which operates on the assumption that if we’re going to capture all of these individual perspectives of a single woman, we’re capturing their shift across space and time, because we don’t just stand still; our perceptions move right along with us. Then along comes Duchamp, who takes these overlapping cubes and repurposes them by giving them a direction to go in. In his Nude Descending a Staircase from 1912, each cube represents a different facet of her musculature as she goes from the top of the stairs down to the bottom, as though leaving trails of her imprint on the air. And then, of course, our good friends the Futurists borrow this idea and further infuse this dynamism with speed and power, showing every movement at once as their figures stride across canvases. And then we come to the present, fast forward eighty, ninety, a hundred years, and look at this movie theater. After all, what is Sugimoto doing in with these screens if not showing us every movement at once? And this is how he exposes time.
Time. This slippery little minx. Why? Why time? Why is time such an irresistible subject matter for artists? What is the allure? I guess you could consider it a form of chasing the dragon—think about Monet trying to follow the light across the sky in a potentially unending series of haystacks. There’s something seductive about impossible pursuits. But I think we’re hung up on too many verbs, too much activity—all this chasing and following and pursuing. We’re never going to grasp it. Playing with time is like playing with a Chinese finger trap; it’s futile to try to force it. And remember, these Sugimoto photographs are about seeking stillness. And to that end, I think there’s something he really values about sitting in the moment, about feeling it as it flows through him like water, and then bearing witness to that experience. After all, when he isn’t photographing movie theaters and dioramas, he’s capturing seascapes—calm, meditative divisions of monochromatic blocks, dividing the canvas in two, the water and the horizon, the ripples in sharp focus in the midst of the most gentle, endless blur. I’ve had one of these photos as my desktop background all week, and, honestly, I can’t recommend it highly enough. When you relax your eyes, the ripples of water give the sensation of moving, like you’re caught in an eternal moment of ripples, a placid boomerang of time passing, but they freeze up again if you stare directly at them. And after a little while of quieting your eyes, you notice that there’s a light in the middle of the water, like a lantern just below the surface, spreading its warmth from below. It’s actually the water reflecting the sun. But it doesn’t just sit glittering on the surface. Instead, it mutes its own presence, giving shadow to these infinite ripples, and gently illuminating everything else.
Sugimoto Hiroshi, Byrd Theater, Richmond, 1993, 1993. Photograph, gelatin silver print. Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto.
Vincent van Gogh, Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888. Oil on canvas. Gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Reclining Nude, 1909
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Reclining Nude, 1909. Oil on canvas. Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund.
El Anatsui, Black River, 2009
El Anatsui, Black River, 2009. Aluminum, bottle caps and copper wire. Towles Fund for Contemporary Art, Robert L. Beal, Enid L. Beal and Bruce A. Beal Acquisition Fund, Henry and Lois Foster Contemporary Purchase Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, and funds donated by the Vance Wall Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, 1632
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, 1632. Oil on panel. Promised Gift of Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, in support of the Center for Netherlandish Art.
Frida Kahlo, Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), 1928
Frida Kahlo, Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), 1928. Oil on canvas. Charles H. Bayley Picture and Paintings Fund, William Francis Warden Fund, Sophie M. Friedman Fund, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund, Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund, Gift of Jessie H. Wilkinson—Jessie H. Wilkinson Fund, and Robert M. Rosenberg Family Fund. © 2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Patty Chang, Melons (At a Loss), 1998
Patty Chang, Melons (At a Loss), 1998. Video. The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. Courtesy of the artist.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Deer’s Skull with Pedernal, 1936
Georgia O’Keeffe, Deer's Skull with Pedernal, 1936. Oil on canvas. Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation. © 2020 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Louise Bourgeois, Pillar, 1949–50, cast 1990
Louise Bourgeois, Pillar, 1949–50, cast 1990. Hollow cast bronze, white and blue paint, stainless steel base. Gift of Michael J. Zinner, M.D., in loving memory of Rhonda Zinner. © 2020 The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde (#1), 1962
Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde (#1), 1962. Acrylic on canvas. Museum purchase with funds donated by Barbara L. and Theodore B. Alfond through The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection. © Carmen Herrera.