Coining Liberty: The Origins of the US Dollar

1794dollar

A 1794 US silver dollar that sold for over ten million dollars in 2013 is going a European tour this spring, where it will be displayed alongside an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. More information about the exhibition can be found here and the itinerary is as follows.

Prague: February 9-11
Warsaw: February 16-18 
Tallinn: February 22-23
Helsinki: February 25-26
Stockholm: Feb 29-March 1
Oslo: March 3-6
Dublin: March 12-13
London: March 18-20

 

The tour was organized by the Samlerhuset Group, which also published a fine volume on “the rise of the dollar” that I contributed an essay and the introduction for.

rise of the dollar
Today of course the United States dollar is recognized and valued around the world, but this contemporary power has obscured its humble origins. The first silver dollars struck at the newfound mint in Philadelphia in late 1794 were modeled on Spanish silver coins that were the dominant form of currency in circulation at the time. The equipment was so inadequate and the government reserves of silver were so small, that only seventeen hundred or so coins were produced, many of them weakly struck. Still, the coin was significant in the sense that it affirmed American independence. Thomas Jefferson famously intoned that “Coinage is peculiarly an Attribute of Sovereignty. To transfer its exercise to another country, is to submit it to another sovereign.” The iconography of the coin, and indeed its very existence, was a material reflection of the revolutionary spirit upon which the United States was founded. Check out the catalogue for the full story of the origin of this seminal coin.

The Armory Exhibition at 100

Archives of American Art
Archives of American Art

The centennial of the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better know as simply the Armory Show, has prompted a renewed wave of interest and a number of competing exhibitions about what many regard as the most important event in the history of American art. A full list of exhibitions and related publications can be found here, but perhaps the most prominent of these shows is the New-York Historical Society’s Armory Show at 100, which runs through February 23, 2014. I had the opportunity to visit when I was in New York City last week, and I must say that I came away rather disappointed (though the accompanying website is useful). Although the NYHS was able to get some fantastic material on loan for the exhibition, the overall interpretation was creaky and its organization was at times simply confusing.

First and foremost, it is not clear where the exhibition actually starts, with a small gallery of material about “Organizing the Armory Show” and a hallway full of contextual information about New York City in the early twentieth-century awkwardly positioned before the main gallery (I am still not sure if I was meant to go through these before or after the art). Whatever the case, the central gallery includes some 100 works drawn from over thirteen hundred pieces that appeared in the 1913 exhibition. One thing that is made very clear from the beginning is the overall theme, which promises “Modern Art & Revolution,” but much of what follows belies this bold promise and the conflation of politics and aesthetics is problematic throughout. The NYHS exhibition is roughly structured along the same lines as the original show, but the very truncated wall texts deal in such generalities that it is sometimes difficult to get a strong sense of either the historical exhibition or the contemporary interpretation being proposed.

Archives of American Art
Archives of American Art

One salutary feature of the present exhibition is its fidelity to representing the wide range of art works that appeared in the Armory Show, much of which was neither revolutionary nor particularly modern. The American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and French Symbolist Odilon Redon (18401-1916) were among the most well-represented and received artists, and neither are particularly well-known today.

Terra Foundation for American Art
Terra Foundation for American Art

My favorite paintings in the exhibition (and it is almost entirely paintings) were those by what I would call the American avant-garde. George Bellows’ The Circus, Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion, Arthur B. Davies’ Line of Mountains, and John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar are all wonderful paintings by artists identified with the so-called Ashcan School. All of these artists were also “revolutionary” and “modern” in their own way, but the framing of the exhibition is so narrowly focused on celebrating an ostensibly sui generis European modernism that it effectively marginalizes innovative American art. Indeed, this was something that many American artists bemoaned about the the Armory Show at the time, so I suppose it is only proper that this current exhibition similarly elevates the European artists over their supposedly hidebound American counterparts. In short, the NYHS exhibition does not do American artists any favors, and all the Armory Show’s complications and contradictions are elided in favor of the shibboleth that the “new” European art revolutionized American culture in one fell swoop.

One noteworthy section positioned amidst the transition to the vaunted European works is a selection of prints by a variety of artists, ranging from John Marin and Stuart Davies to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch. These delightful prints suggest a much more complementary relationship between European and American art than is elsewhere acknowledged.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Still, in arriving at the exhibition’s version of Gallery I, the infamous “Chamber of Horrors” that featured Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, it is easy to see why some visitors found these works so surprising in 1913. The NYHS was able to borrow an impressive array of what was regarded as the more sensational art in the Armory Show, but it is of course impossible to resurrect the shock of the new with what are now canonical works. Count me as skeptical that “everyone” was so stunned by these artworks. Recent scholarship suggests that the response to the Armory Show by critics, artists, and the public was much more complicated than the conventional narrative suggests. Moreover, one of the most tired tropes in cultural history and criticism is the idea that X (film, book, album) shocked the world and/or changed everything. As J.M. Mancini, Christine Stansell, and many others make clear, this supposed cultural and aesthetic revolution had a much longer trajectory.

To be fair, some of these complications are addressed around the edges of exhibition, and I can appreciate why the curators stay so focused on the conventional, if flawed, interpretation of the Armory Show to give the exhibition a certain clarity. But other decisions seem less defensible. The end of the main gallery contains a mixed bag of material that confusingly includes some works from J.P. Morgan’s collection in an apparent effort to show that not all contemporary collectors were interested in modern art, which hardly seems surprising. There are also a smattering of works that do not convincingly address the legacy of the Armory Show in American art, though it is a subject that gets more satisfying treatment in the historical materials displayed in the hall adjacent to the main gallery. I really wish that an effort had been made to integrate the very useful and important contextual material in this hall that both sets the scene and explores the legacy of the Armory Show with the actual art. It would have made for a much more coherent interpretation and introduced a level of dynamism that the simple recreation of the original show in smaller form lacked. Of the other ancillary room on “Organizing the Armory Show,” the less said the better about this text-heavy and generally uninteresting display. In sum, I feel like what the Armory Show at 100 needed was to find a better angle, one that would have integrated the Armory Show art with the other materials into a larger story about the development of American modernism. All of that said, the NYHS has assembled a truly wonderful collection of art, and it is well worth a visit. I should also note that the museum has another exhibition open downstairs called Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America, which has a rather more satisfying and focused interpretative line and some really excellent portraits so be sure to check that out as well.

Some final notes. The accompanying catalogue, which has a great roster of contributors, undoubtedly deals with some of the complications and criticisms of the exhibition that I offered above, but its size and price ($65!) precluded me from getting a good look. I will update when I do! There are also some great resources online about the Armory Show for those interested. Beyond the aforementioned New-York Historical Society website accompanying the exhibition, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art has a good collection of primary sources here, and the Art Institute Chicago’s has a neat site here about the Armory Show’s sojourn to the Midwest.

 

Tintype Revival

Last week I went for a photography session at the Penumbra Tintype Portait Studio, which is a project of the Center for Alternative Photography. There seems to have been something of a tintype revival of late, and I was interested in learning more about the process. Tintypes, or ferrotypes as they were sometimes known, were a form of wet plate photography that became very popular in the 1860s. The production process was much simpler and cheaper than other forms of photography and the resulting image was much more durable. Tintype was actually a misnomer as the traditional plates were actually thin sheets of iron. The Penumbra studio used a reproduction camera equipped with a Gascoigne and Charconnet Petzval lens, and the quarter-plate (3 ¼” x 4 ¼”) we had taken was made of aluminum.

The process itself is relatively straightforward. First, the camera is set up and focused on the subjects. In a darkroom, the plate is wet with thin layer of collodion and then is deposited in a silver nitrate bath. It is light sensitive when removed so it is put in a light-proof plate holder and brought out to the waiting camera. Traditionally, the sitters would have to remain still while the plate was exposed for several seconds, but at the studio modern flash/strobes are used for a more or less instant exposure. The plate is then taken back to the darkroom where a developer is poured on and the image somewhat ethereally emerges before being immersed in a bath for final processing. After drying, the plate is coated with a varnish and you’re all set. Early on, portraits were often placed in fancy cases, but cheaper cardboard and paper frames became more common as the century progressed. The New York Times has a useful slideshow of the overall process here. As you might imagine, the nature of the process and the chemicals involved make it a very inexact art, but even our failed portraits looked pretty cool. Below are a classic Civil War-era tintype of an unidentified soldier and a companion, and then our modern-day portrait.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Because they were so cheap and durable, tintypes were a popular mode of street photography well into the twentieth century. There is a nice shot in the Walker Evans archive of a vendor working a New York City corner circa 1933-34.

PH3978
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Along with a revival of the practice, there have been a number of recent publications and exhibitions about tintypes, though I would still recommend The American Tintype as the best starting point for further inquiry.

Update: The Metropolitan Museum of Art just opened a new exhibition, “Photography and the Civil War,” which speaks to the power and popularity of tintypes at that time.

Shop Life at the Tenement Museum

I finally had a chance to take the new “Shop Life” tour at the always interesting Tenement Museum this past weekend. It shifts the story from the diverse lot of immigrant families that lived on the upper-floors to the long line of businesses that occupied the basement rooms at 97 Orchard Street. The poster below, a calculated bit of ‘pro-lager’ publicity mounted by German Americans against temperance advocates, now stands in the front window.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

As this rather entertaining image suggests, the north half of the basement has been made up like a German saloon that was run by John and Caroline Schneider in the 1870s and 1880s. The interpretation centers on the role that beer saloons played in German immigrant life, and the room is neatly constructed and filled with period artifacts. The musical instruments hanging on the wall were interesting. I had not really thought that smaller saloons would feature live music, but it makes sense given the vibrancy of German musical culture (for those so inclined, Jessica Gienow-Hecht’s book Sound Diplomacy is an excellent study of music as an important avenue of cross-cultural exchange between the United States and Germany). A door at the back of the front saloon leads to the family’s living quarters, where the Schneiders, their son, and a serving girl resided. A nice touch is a faux membership certificate for the Improved Order of Red Men, which depending on your view was either a patriotic fraternal organization or a rowdy drinking club for working-class men. It was symbolic of the complex and ongoing negotiations that immigrants engaged in as they tried to preserve something of their culture and heritage while also adapting to American life.

shoplife100Years_slideshow01
Tenement Museum

The tour next heads into the other half of the basement, where museum workers discovered older living quarters and some twenty layers of wallpaper on the walls. We were shown some artifacts and a list of the dozens of businesses that occupied the building from 1863 through the 1980s, which ran the gamut from a butcher shop to a hosiery. The historical businesses were a fascinating index of the changing neighborhood, and this point was driven home during the final stop of the tour, one that I found particularly enlivening. After a short presentation, we were invited to pick objects from different eras off the store’s shelves and place them on a series of computerized tables with small handsets. The table then told the story of that particular object and provided interactive supplementary information in the form of historical photographs, sound and video clips, and the like. This was really cool I have to say. My object was a cocktail shaker from the 1930s when the space was occupied by a jobbing or auction house. Being able to handle the object myself really added something beyond the usual static physical and digital displays at museums. Moreover, the digital content was both good and easy to access. My only complaint would be that because of what I presume to be the technologically necessary texture on the table, the images were not of the highest resolution. While different institutions would obviously face a variety of different constraints, this system of allowing visitors to handle and learn about particular objects using a physical/digital interface seems like a very promising model for museums moving forward. In short, even if you are already familiar with the upstairs tours, the new “Shop Life” tour is well worth the visit.

George Catlin at the National Portrait Gallery

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits opens today at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It’s the first major exhibition of the painter’s work in Britain since he unceremoniously fled the country in 1852 after having been incarcerated for debt in Queen’s Bench Prison. Catlin was a showman and artist who toured around the United States and Europe with his famed “Indian Gallery,” a spectacular display of materials gathered and produced during five separate journeys around the American West in the 1830s. “Catlin’s North American Indian Gallery” was comprised of a mix of portraits and artifacts, which were later supplemented with live performances by both costumed whites and actual Iowa and Ojibwa Indians. His show opened at London’s Egyptian Hall in 1840, and the popular acclaim it garnered sustained Catlin for almost a decade, during which he also made several tours of the Continent.

Advertisement from The Era newspaper, 1840
Advertisement from The Era newspaper, 1840

Ultimately a combination of bad luck and simple mismanagement doomed the venture and forced him to make an ignominious retreat back to the United States. Catlin was a pioneer of the ethnographic entertainment business, and his work laid down a template of sorts that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show would so successfully exploit during its late nineteenth century European tours. I have written a full review for The World of Interiors that I don’t want to step on here, but I’ll link to it when it is published. Suffice it to say, the Indian Gallery raises some fascinating and complicated issues about representation, commerce, and colonialism that the exhibition does a good job of addressing. The curators, Stephanie Pratt and Joan Carpenter Troccoli, have also produced a fine catalogue that probes the lasting cultural legacy of Catlin’s work.

National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery

Walt Kuhn’s Majorette

Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) was a painter perhaps best remembered for organizing the Armory Show of 1913, which introduced avant-garde European art to the American public. Kuhn was also a lover of the circus and the theatre and in the 1920s began to somewhat obsessively paint portraits of circus performers and showgirls. He was eventually institutionalized in the late 1940s, but produced a truly stunning body of work, a sampling of which is now on display at the DC Moore gallery. The exhibition, Walt Kuhn: American Modern, runs through March 16 and the assorted works powerfully demonstrate his simple and affective style. I was of course particularly interested in Kuhn’s circus work and among the paintings are a few wonderful portraits of circus “girls,” as they were known in contemporary show business parlance. Among this group is one simply known as “Woman in a Majorette Costume,” from 1944.

DC Moore Gallery
DC Moore Gallery

The sitter is not identified, but it might actually be Katherine “Kitty” Clark, who joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1938, and served as a majorette for the circus through the 1940s. Clark was a skillful performer who at different times appeared in equestrian, aerial, and animal acts. She was also a renowned beauty and frequently appeared in the show’s advertising. Below is a 1941 poster produced by the studio of Norman Bel Geddes that was used by the circus throughout the decade with minor variations. It was actually designed by George Howe (you can see his initials between the elephant’s hind legs), who worked with Geddes, and shows Clark kicking up in her majorette uniform. Whether or not she was the model for this particular painting is of course questionable, but she certainly bears a passing resemblance to the woman.

Collection of Matthew Wittmann
Collection of Matthew Wittmann

Whatever the case, I highly recommend the exhibition. The Armory Show has unfortunately overshadowed Kuhn’s career as an artist, but hopefully this exhibition will give him increased recognition as a modernist American painter of real import.

NYPL Lunch Hour Exhibition

A new exhibition at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building explores the relationship between the city, food, and modernity. I’ll write a fuller review when I have a moment, but this generally excellent exhibition ably chronicles the evolution of the midday meal in New York City with some wonderful printed materials and a few genuinely compelling objects. The digital version of the exhibition is here.