Putting Out the Wel­come Mat

American Fine Art Magazine - - In This Issue - By Jay E. Can­tor

It is just across the river. a brief train ride from Man­hat­tan and an easy stroll brings you to the Ne­wark (New Jersey) Mu­seum. I have been there on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions to see both spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions and the ever-ex­pand­ing per­ma­nent col­lec­tions. this time, my visit was for an exhibition that in­au­gu­rates the mu­seum’s new spe­cial exhibition gal­leries, part of a cam­paign to both re-or­ga­nize and re-imag­ine this jewel like in­sti­tu­tion. I also went to see the re­cently-re­tired chief cu­ra­tor, Ulysses Grant Di­etz, who has spent his en­tire and enor­mously pro­duc­tive pro­fes­sional ca­reer at this one in­sti­tu­tion. Dur­ing his 37-year ten­ure, first as cu­ra­tor of dec­o­ra­tive arts and sub­se­quently serv­ing as chief cu­ra­tor, Di­etz has pro­duced more than 113 ex­hi­bi­tions and in­stal­la­tions, 13 books and dozens of schol­arly ar­ti­cles and re­views. He has con­tin­ued to ex­plore new ter­ri­tory and to re-think the mu­seum’s goals and the ways the vis­i­tor will profit from their ex­pe­ri­ence.

The paint­ings exhibition The Rock­ies and The Alps: Bier­stadt, Calame, and the Ro­mance of the Moun­tains, co-cu­rated by Kather­ine Man­thorne and Tri­cia Laugh­lin Bloom, pairs the Swiss land­scapist Alexan­dre Calame (1810-1864), known prin­ci­pally for his Alpine works, with Al­bert Bier­stadt

(1830-1902), the Ger­man-amer­i­can painter whose Amer­i­can land­scapes were sem­i­nal in his adopted coun­try’s fa­mil­iar­iza­tion with the Western fron­tier. This exhibition is an­other ex­am­ple of the ex­pand­ing view of Amer­i­can art as in­ter­de­pen­dent with

Europe, cur­rently seen in ex­hi­bi­tions at the Metropolitan Mu­seum and Mil­wau­kee Art Mu­seum and dis­cussed in my last col­umn. It also un­der­scores the tran­si­tion of Ne­wark’s pre­sen­ta­tion of its sig­na­ture Amer­i­can paint­ings col­lec­tion from “Pic­tur­ing Amer­ica,” to the more en­gag­ing and ex­ploratory no­tion of “see­ing Amer­ica,” from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. The cur­rent exhibition pro­vides ev­i­dence of how the painter’s dis­cov­ery and ex­plo­ration of re­mote moun­tain­scapes is mir­rored by sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tions, ex­ten­sive record keep­ing, as well as am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional spec­i­men gath­er­ing. It also sug­gests the sig­nif­i­cant documentary pos­si­bil­i­ties of the then re­cently de­vel­oped (1839) pho­to­graphic pro­cesses. The rapid ex­pan­sion of re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy also served to lure am­a­teur ex­plor­ers and tourists into pre­vi­ously un­trav­eled ar­eas in search of novel and ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.the in­clu­sion of Voy­ages dans les Alpes, (1834) which pub­lished the late-18th cen­tury ex­plo­rations of the Swiss ge­ol­o­gist Ho­race-béné­dict de Saus­sure, is com­ple­mented by a pop­u­lar travel book by Karl Baedeker who be­gan pro­duc­ing his world­wide guides in 1827.Travel lec­tures be­came stan­dard fare for pop­u­lar pre­sen­ta­tion es­pe­cially af­ter the de­vel­op­ment of the magic lantern pro­jec­tions of glass plate slides. And it is worth re­mem­ber­ing that Mark Twain’s first suc­cess­ful best­selling book was a travel chron­i­cle In­no­cents Abroad (1868).

Though Bier­stadt painted his share of

Euro­pean land­scape, es­pe­cially dur­ing his stu­dent years (1853-1857) in Dus­sel­dorf, Ger­many, he early on dis­cov­ered the vis­ual glo­ries of the Amer­i­can West, first when he ac­com­pa­nied the Lan­der sur­vey­ing ex­pe­di­tion in 1859, and then in 1863 when he trav­elled to Yosemite. Once back in his Newyork stu­dio, he fab­ri­cated paint­ings based on the enor­mous vol­ume of color stud­ies and draw­ings he had made on site. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that while Calame’s Alpine scenes were reg­u­larly taken from within the rocky land­scape, of­ten fo­cus­ing on dra­matic and dizzy­ing heights, dark and loom­ing prospects and rush­ing river tor­rents, Bier­stadt’s Amer­i­can views are more scenic. The moun­tains rise in the dis­tance, sharply detailed and won­drous with­out be­ing threat­en­ing.the paint­ings are rhap­sodic and ad­mir­ing but are also as detailed and documentary as they are dra­matic.the pas­sion for detail, some­thing he shared with his most sig­nif­i­cant com­peti­tor, Fred­eric Church, was driven by both re­li­gious think­ing that found ev­i­dence of the divine in the nat­u­ral world, and the in­flu­ence of sci­en­tific in­quiry known through the ex­plo­rations and publi­ca­tions of the early-19th cen­tury nat­u­ral­ist Alexan­der von Hum­boldt. In Bier­stadt’s work, the act of record­ing, as with the doc­u­men­ta­tion of the ex­pe­di­tion he had joined, was also an act of declar­ing own­er­ship.there was a na­tional im­per­a­tive to truly stake a claim on its western do­min­ions.

This show pro­vides a poignant re­minder of how daunt­ing travel was be­fore the con­ve­nience of modern trans­porta­tion tech­nol­ogy. (It should also serve as a re­buke to those who find the quick trip to Ne­wark in­con­ve­nient.) Man­hat­tan­ites are cer­tainly spoiled by their own artis­tic riches and a cer­tain “we have it all” at­ti­tude.

But, as the re­cent re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the mu­seum and the cur­rent exhibition make clear, there is much to see in Ne­wark that is both vis­ually en­gag­ing and thought­fully pre­sented with the pub­lic in mind and ar­ranged dif­fer­ently from the tra­di­tional in­stal­la­tions at the Met and else­where. Sim­ply put, you can learn a great deal more about things you thought you knew.what is equally im­por­tant is that this at­ti­tude is not new. It was in­grained in the very foun­da­tions of the in­sti­tu­tion. One might ac­tu­ally say that the Ne­wark Mu­seum was born in the Rock­ies in the late 19th cen­tury,or at least on the mile-high plain that abuts them.the Den­ver Pub­lic Li­brary pro­vided the train­ing ground for John Cot­ton Dana (1856-1929), its first li­brar­ian, who served from 1889 to 1898. Dana, a na­tive of Wood­stock,ver­mont, with deep fam­ily roots in New Eng­land, aban­doned a le­gal ca­reer to be­come a pi­o­neer of sorts. Den­ver was al­ready an es­tab­lished city when Dana took charge of the li­brary, but it was in con­fig­ur­ing it as a ser­vice ori­ented and user-friendly in­sti­tu­tion that he honed his think­ing about the role of such in­sti­tu­tions and, by extension, of Amer­i­can mu­se­ums. In shap­ing the li­brary and its pro­grams, he sought to en­cour­age curiosity and sel­f­re­liance through the in­no­va­tion of open stacks. He en­vi­sioned the li­brary as an ac­tive cen­ter­piece for the com­mu­nity at large rather than the re­sort of the en­ti­tled few. He ex­panded his au­di­ence with an area de­voted to chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture and sought an at­mos­phere of open in­quiry rather than the hushed solem­nity that en­gen­dered an in­tim­i­dat­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

Af­ter­ward, in a brief ca­reer in Spring­field, Mas­sachusetts, as in Den­ver, he in­au­gu­rated an open plan for the li­brary. “Let the shelves be open, and the pub­lic ad­mit­ted to them, and let the open shelves strike the key­note of the whole ad­min­is­tra­tion.the whole li­brary should be per­me­ated with a cheer­ful and ac­com­mo­dat­ing at­mos­phere.”

He brought this strat­egy with him to Ne­wark, a vi­brant in­dus­trial city with di­verse man­u­fac­tur­ing and com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties and an emerg­ing metropolitan con­scious­ness.as in many ex­pand­ing ur­ban cen­ters, civic lead­ers en­vi­sioned the cul­tural fea­tures con­sid­ered req­ui­site em­blems of metropolitan life. For Dana, that meant ex­pand­ing the purview of the li­brary to in­clude exhibition rooms that would ul­ti­mately form the ba­sis of a pub­lic art

mu­seum.and for him, pub­lic meant ex­actly that. At the li­brary, he cre­ated a sec­tion of for­eign lan­guage books, rec­og­niz­ing the pres­ence and needs of im­mi­grant set­tlers who pro­vided the in­dus­trial work­force.at the other end of the spec­trum, he es­tab­lished the first-ever busi­ness branch of any li­brary. His in­no­va­tions did much to trans­form the li­brary world and he brought the same kind of novel think­ing when he fi­nally suc­ceeded, in 1909, in cre­at­ing in the li­brary a mul­ti­pur­pose mu­seum “for the re­cep­tion and exhibition of ar­ti­cles of art, science, his­tory and tech­nol­ogy, and for the en­cour­age­ment of the study of the arts and sci­ences.” (The Ne­wark Mu­seum to­day includes a plan­e­tar­ium and nat­u­ral science sec­tion in ad­di­tion to its art col­lec­tions.) It was with the found­ing in 1870 of the Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Bos­ton and the Metropolitan Mu­seum in New York that the fever for art mu­se­ums be­gan in earnest in Amer­ica. In the en­su­ing decades. a host of other cities es­tab­lished art mu­se­ums. Most ini­tially saw them as ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions since the avail­abil­ity of art col­lec­tions was lim­ited and the chance of ac­quir­ing great mas­ter­works seemed an im­pos­si­bil­ity. But with the enor­mous con­cen­tra­tion of pri­vate cap­i­tal amassed to­wards the end of the cen­tury, that changed dra­mat­i­cally. Art col­lec­tions flowed into the hands of the newly rich who stew­arded their mu­se­ums to­ward the same am­bi­tious goals. The pre­cious re­placed the prac­ti­cal and with the lo­ca­tion of most civic mu­se­ums in parks that were in­con­ve­niently lo­cated for ac­cess by the pub­lic, mu­se­ums seemed des­tined to serve only an en­fran­chised class.

Dana would have none of it. He railed against the mas­ter­work men­tal­ity and urged the lo­ca­tion of mu­se­ums in the cen­ter of town, not in re­mote park-like set­tings. In­stead of Old Masters, kept se­cure in pala­tial rooms that spoke of class and ex­clu­sion, he in­sisted that mu­se­ums be modern and wide-rang­ing in their col­lec­tions, and con­tem­po­rary in their de­sign. More im­por­tantly, he saw all works cre­ated by in­di­vid­u­als as art, al­low­ing no dis­tinc­tion be­tween paint­ing, pot­tery, meta work or any of the other hand­crafts—in­clud­ing even ma­chine-made in­dus­trial arts.

The mu­seum re­mained in the Ne­wark li­brary un­til its own pur­pose-built modern build­ing opened in 1926, only three years be­fore Dana’s death. From its ear­li­est days in the li­brary, it was home to trans­for­ma­tive dis­plays in­clud­ing an exhibition of 20 con­tem­po­rary amer­i­can artists in 1909, and in 1913 a rare one-man exhibition of work by the New Jersey mod­ernist Max We­ber. Dana felt Amer­i­can art should be a fo­cus of the mu­seum and while con­tem­po­rary ab­stract paint­ing eluded him per­son­ally, he en­dorsed it as a part of the mu­seum’s mis­sion to ex­pose his au­di­ence to a range of hu­man ex­pres­sions. Not sur­pris­ing then that he also pro­moted na­tive art from a va­ri­ety of cul­tures in­clud­ing African art and Chi­nese, Ja­panese and the pre­vi­ously un­her­alded ti­betan art, still a ma­jor fea­ture of the Ne­wark col­lec­tion. Arts pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered the prov­ince of ethno­g­ra­phers came un­der his lens and were pre­sented side by side with more tra­di­tional ar­eas of art mu­seum sur­veys.

More­over, his in­tent to im­prove the taste of ordinary cit­i­zens led to the as­sem­bling of an exhibition of ev­ery­day ob­jects of good de­sign that were cho­sen at lo­cal de­part­ment stores for prices from 10 cents to a dol­lar. when he mounted an exhibition of New Jersey clay prod­ucts in 1915, he in­cluded ev­ery­thing from Lenox china to plumb­ing fix­tures, all of which were im­por­tant prod­ucts of New Jersey stu­dios and work­shops. He ex­hib­ited modern pho­tog­ra­phy in 1911 and or­ga­nized a cir­cu­lat­ing exhibition of Modern Ger­man Ap­plied Arts, a sub­ject re­jected by the Metropolitan as be­ing too com­mer­cial. And while he didn’t live to see it, in 1930 Ne­wark mounted the first wide-rang­ing sur­vey of Amer­i­can folk art in a mu­seum con­text.

Ed­u­ca­tion and the en­rich­ment of ordinary lives were Dana’s mo­ti­vat­ing ideals and, in re­cent decades, that mis­sion has been en­er­gized by both the ad­min­is­tra­tion and the cu­ra­to­rial staffs.

A shin­ing star in this jour­ney has been Ulysses Grant Di­etz.

It would not have been sur­pris­ing if Ulysses ac­cepted the cu­ra­tor­ship of dec­o­ra­tive arts shortly af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Win­terthur pro­gram with the no­tion that it would be a step­ping stone. Im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors Ber­ry­tracy and J. Ste­wart John­son had moved on to grander roles at the Metropolitan and Brook­lyn mu­se­ums. Am­bi­tion might have been stim­u­lated by Ulysses own her­itage that in­cluded re­la­tion­ship with the Dupont’s of Win­terthur and the Root fam­ily of up­state New York, the re­gion of his own child­hood. Ed­ward Wales Root (son of prom­i­nent states­man and No­bel Prize lau­re­ate Elihu Root) who as­sem­bled one of the most im­por­tant early col­lec­tions of Amer­i­can mod­ernist art from Pren­der­gast to Pol­lock was his great un­cle. A pub­lic ser­vice im­per­a­tive and pro­fes­sional as­pi­ra­tion may equally trace to the ca­reer of his name­sake and great-great grand­fa­ther Ulysses S. Grant. But he was stim­u­lated by Ne­wark’s par­tic­u­lar agenda. By his own reck­on­ing, Ulysses backed into a new way of look­ing at the cu­ra­tor’s role when, a decade into his ten­ure in Ne­wark, he was charged with the ren­o­va­tion/ restora­tion of the 1885 Bal­lan­tine House. This down­town man­sion of Ne­wark beer baron, John Holme Bal­lan­tine, abut­ted the mu­seum build­ing and had long been uti­lized in part as of­fice space.a mu­seum ex­pan­sion fa­cil­i­tated of­fice re­lo­ca­tion and the po­ten­tial con­ver­sion of the sec­ond floor of the Bal­lan­tine House into much needed gallery space for the dec­o­ra­tive arts.the ques­tion of why the work­ing­class com­mu­nity of Ne­wark would find any­thing of in­ter­est in the fussy Gilded Age house in­te­ri­ors of a nou­veau riche 19th cen­tury busi­ness­man be­came a defin­ing ques­tion for Ulysses.with the in­put of lo­cal ed­u­ca­tors as well as ma­te­rial cul­ture col­leagues, the pro­ject was ap­proached from the back door rather than the front.that was not only the ac­cess route from the mu­seum but, more im­por­tantly, the way most trades­men and ser­vants would have en­coun­tered the house orig­i­nally.avoid­ing the “dec­o­ra­tive arts rut,” the in­stal­la­tion was aided pro­gram­mat­i­cally by a grant from the Lila Wal­lace Reader’s Digest Foun­da­tion whose “Col­lec­tions Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Ini­tia­tive” was aimed at un­der­served au­di­ences and re­quired re­cip­i­ents to “uti­lize col­lec­tions in a way that would for­ever change the way you op­er­ate as a mu­seum.”the Bal­lan­tine House was thus repo­si­tioned not as a house but as home, with all the lay­ers of func­tion, ser­vice and so­cial his­tory in­te­gral to the story. In­stead of con­sid­er­ing the con­tents as state­ments of taste, they were used to ex­plore what they could tell about the peo­ple who owned them.

Not that Ulysses has turned his back on lux­ury ob­jects.there were ma­jor la­cu­nae in the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion in­clud­ing ar­eas that were sig­nif­i­cant prod­ucts of New Jersey: sil­ver and jewelry, both of which Dana, with pro­le­tar­ian in­stinct, had largely ig­nored. Ne­wark was the ma­jor pro­ducer of gold jewelry in Amer­ica and the sil­ver work­shops of Tif­fany & Co. were based nearby.

While Ulysses has made wide-rang­ing and sig­nif­i­cant ac­qui­si­tions in many ar­eas of crafts and cul­tural di­ver­sity, he has also pur­sued a lay­ered ap­proach in pre­sent­ing the ma­te­rial. By jux­ta­po­si­tion and in­clu­sive­ness, his in­stal­la­tions plumb mean­ing, func­tion and use, not sim­ply aes­thetic ex­cel­lence. Jewelry cases re­flect the imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­ity of the artist-crafts­man, fo­cus­ing on the ma­te­ri­als used—from the types of stones and met­als to the use of glass, enamel and plas­tic. The sil­ver cases fo­cus not on maker and pe­riod but on the di­verse func­tions of sil­ver from re­li­gious and cer­e­mo­nial to daily use and its de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion through plat­ing and other tech­niques that made it more uni­ver­sally af­ford­able. I be­lieve Dana would have joined us in ap­plaud­ing Ulysses’ ac­com­plish­ments.

While his re­tire­ment has closed a door on a pro­duc­tive and distin­guished ca­reer, his fi­nal pro­ject was to over­see the re­open­ing of the mu­seum’s front door, once again an­nounc­ing to the com­mu­nity that they are wel­comed and in­vited to come in off the street rather than, as many mu­se­ums have more re­cently done by mak­ing the prin­ci­pal ac­cess from the park­ing lot.

The en­try in­stal­la­tions in­tro­duce the vis­i­tor the soul of the in­sti­tu­tion.they are first greeted by a joy­ous and col­or­ful mu­ral by Nige­rian born painter Odili Don­ald Odita. Re­flect­ing both his own back­ground and the mu­seum’s early com­mit­ment to African art, the mu­ral equally al­ludes to tra­di­tional colors and pat­terns of his an­ces­tral home­land. Be­yond this vestibule is a light-filled court­yard which now fea­tures three spe­cially com­mis­sioned works cre­ated by ce­ram­i­cist Molly Hatch which also pro­vide an in­dex to the mu­seum’s his­tor­i­cal di­ver­sity.the artist ar­ranged three mon­u­men­tal niches with hand­painted plates whose pat­terns are de­rived from sin­gle ob­jects in the col­lec­tion. Rep­re­sent­ing the African col­lec­tion, she uti­lized a pat­tern from an early-20th cen­tury wrap­ping cloth that Dana bought in 1928 from the Ivory Coast.a Qian­long vel­vet throne car­pet with an asym­met­ri­cal de­sign of cranes and pe­onies re­flects the strength of the Asian art col­lec­tions, and a Ber­gen County, New Jersey, jacquard cov­er­let pro­vided the mo­tif for the third panel in­stal­la­tion. These un­der­score the Ne­wark Mu­se­ums’ dual com­mit­ment to the his­toric and the con­tem­po­rary. Ac­cord­ing to Dana,“a good mu­seum at­tracts, en­ter­tains, arouses curiosity, leads to ques­tion­ing, and thus pro­motes learn­ing.” Ulysses Grant Di­etz has con­tin­ued to pur­sue that ideal and thus set an en­vi­able role model for the fu­ture.

Al­bert Bier­stadt (1830-1902), View in the Yosemite, 1864. Oil on pa­per mounted on can­vas, 25¼ x 19 in. Col­lec­tion of Al­ger­non A. Phillips, MD, Orange, NJ.

Al­bert Bier­stadt (1830-1902), Land­scape Study: Estes Park, Colorado, Morn­ing, ca. 1860. Oil on pa­per mounted on can­vas, 12¾ x 8¾ in. Col­lec­tion of Amy C. Liss.

The Bal­lan­tine House li­brary at the Ne­wark Mu­seum.

The Henry Blank “But­ter­fly Lady” brooch, 1904, which served as the cover im­age of the 1997 book and exhibition The Glit­ter & The Gold: Fash­ion­ing Amer­ica’s Jewelry.

Ulysses Grant Di­etz, re­cently re­tired chief cu­ra­tor of the Ne­wark Mu­seum.

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