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The Arts Voyager, 4-12: Art like me
Ways of seeing: Ruth Asawa, John Howard Griffin, Charles M. Russell, 'Frank Artsmarter,' and the Medium and its Messengers

Ruth Asawa (b. 1926). Printed by Clifford Smith. "Pigeons on Cobblestones," 1965. Lithograph. ©1965 Ruth Asawa. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. 1965.200.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The very word 'museum' implies fixed, fossilized, crystalized. I thought I knew what 'museum' meant until I discovered the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which doesn't just not force-feed its visitors interpretations of the art within its walls, leaving their minds free to ramble at will, and doesn't just encourage associations with real life, but goes out of its way to foster debate even about its own intentions as a museum. Or so I discovered on a ramble in self-described "Cowtown"'s Cultural District Saturday that began with shifting through detritus looking for jewels in a cattle barn flea market and ended with watching a man selling off the detritus of the family home he could no longer afford to keep. Along the way I re-discovered an elemental San Francisco artist and personal art mentor, Ruth Asawa, saw cutting horses corner calves, and saw the man who changed his color to write "Black Like Me" and change hearts in America version 1961 in a different light, grace of a Fort Worth man losing his home in unemployment-straddled America version 2012.

As always, I began my own ramble at the Cowtown Flea Market which neighbors the Amon Carter Museum of American Art at the Will Rogers Center, this time scoring a back-up straw cowboy hat, this one high-domed, pointy-topped, and curved at the brims, with a magenta feather in the woven hat-band, for 50 cents. Then for twice that, cassettes by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and the Beach Boys. (The Williams was the revelation, with an Inidan-themed legend song, "Kaw-Liga," Hank gone tribal.) Then I moseyed over to the cutting horse competition at the Rogers Coliseum, where filigreed horses danced delicate quadrilles with the boxed-in bovines, and picked up a copy of the Lone Star Horse Report, where I learned that I could adopt a rescue horse named Chiquita from the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society for $100. (Interested parties click here to see Chiquita and other candidates.)

Whenever there's a horse competition at the Rogers, I'm always curious to see how many of those cowboys and cowgirls will make it over to the Amon Carter down the street to check the "Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell" exhibition, on view through May 13. So I ambled over to the Amon Carter, hoping to pass as a cow-puncher with my dark brown garage sale cowboy work-boots, snap-button short-sleeved silver shirt, red bandana, black Dickies work jeans, broad-brimmed straw cowboy hat with the longhorn on its orange band, back-up hat and, dangling and jingling from my wrist, the collars from my three departed cats to facsimilate the sound of spurs. An older cowboy was showing around a slightly younger cowboy and his eternally young cowgirl, whose grey-black hair fell in two braids over her plaid shirt and blue jeans. I sidled over to where they'd paused in front of "The Challenge No. 2," a tableau from 1898 in which two wild horses pitched heads against each other. I was able to catch only snippets of their conversation.

Charles Marion Russell, "The Challenge No. 2," 1898. Watercolor. Bob and Betsy Magness Collection, Denver Art Museum, 52.2005. From the exhibition "Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell," showing at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art through May 13, and at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana June 15 - September 15.

"Isn't that something?" said the younger cowboy, indicating the two horses. The older man, who like his friend wore glasses under his Stetson, was jolted into a memory. "When I lost the ranch during the draught in the 1990s, I started hiring out breakin' broncs. Now Bob, who was my neighbor, asked me to come over there and break a half a dozen of them in. After I was all done and he asked me 'How much?'; I told 'im I wasn't gonna charge 'im.... But there was one horse there that was unlike any I'd ever seen before, and I told him I wouldn't mind having that one. He was real muscled up top. You know these young cowboys, they flatten 'em out on the back by cross-breeding them, just because everybody does it." I lost some of the conversation, and picked it back up at, "He called me yesterday and invited me up next week. I'd invite you but it's not the kind of thing to bring guests to." Apparently 'Bob' was preparing to shoot some horses who were old or terminally ill, and was giving his friend a chance to pick up the horse he'd hankered after earlier. "Better than turning it over to the soap factory!" "Sounds like he's real old school!" said the other cowboy. "I didn't know they shot 'em any more. I guess he just wants to save money on the Vet!"

The two cowboys and the cowgirl wife moved on to Russell's "The Chaperone / Waiting," an 1897 watercolor of a young brave on a horse and a maiden fetching water or cleaning clothes in a pond, with an old squaw standing between them. "Now, this is just incredible," said the second cowboy, sweeping his palm over the receding landscape; because of his rustic, rough subject, Russell's is sometimes relegated to a second, lesser tier of artistic achievement, but make no mistake, his technique -- the means he used to accomplish effect -- was elaborate. Then the man's wife laughed, pointing to the chaperone. "Reminds me of our first date, at the drive-in. My grandmother came and insisted on sitting between us."

This is what art at its best does; it distills life, using technique to reflect it back in a way that doesn't just evoke physical recognition but resonates and stimulates emotionally, sensually, spiritually, or intellectually. And the living tableau I've just described is typical to the Amon Carter. At just about every other museum I've visited, be it the Louvre or the Met or MOMA, the majority of visitors seem to regard the objects like curious tourists in the presence of famous things, often whipping out their cameras to document to their friends that they were there, inserting themselves into the picture and leeching its fame. The Jocande, or Mona Lisa, is impossible to regard naked because of all the flashes distorting the picture. At the Amon Carter, whether they're cowboys seeing their own lives or those of their ancestors reflected, reel cowboys like me who want to know what it was like, or simply art passionates standing before an abstract painting from the New York School, the visitors linger and ponder. (For more on Russell, with more samples, see our recent feature on the exhibition, which moves to the C.M. Russell Museum in "Charlie"'s home of Great Falls, Montana, in June.)

From the exhibition "The Medium and Its Metaphors" at the Amon Carter: Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). "Dan with Rider (.064 Second), One Stride in 8 Phases (Left Lead)," ca. 1887. Collotype. Amon Carter Museum of American Art P1970.56.13.

The Amon Carter, though, doesn't just rest at evoking a bucolic past; it also provokes, demolishing the notion of a museum as a calcified preserve and making it vivid, a place not just to receive knowledge but question ideas. Before it became more recognized as collectible, with value on a par with the other graphic arts -- some single items at Christie's London's Photographic sale May 18 are expected to bring in as much as 90,000 pounds -- the Amon Carter started building a massive photography collection, and now has one of the most vast and varied in the world, with some images dating from the early 19th century. The collection doesn't just stay in the basement, available only to scholars who already know what to look for; the museum regularly rotates it in galleries in thematic shows full of enough mind-boggling historical gems to dazzle even a photo-head who has toured the finest galleries and caught the major photo exhibitions in Paris in New York over the past 17 years. On an earlier Saturday afternoon, there primarily to check out Ruth Asawa: Organic Meditations, a series of lithographs the California artist produced during a 1965 fellowship to John Wayne's (not that one) Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles (which matched artists with master printers), I climbed upstairs to check the latest such assemblage, "The Medium and the Message." I'm still trying to winnow down my requests to the press department so I can share some of the works with you here; on my return visit this past Saturday, I simply plopped down on a comfortable chair to browse through the books, mostly of critical essays, which the museum has displayed on a table in the middle of the exhibition.

The putative reason for this is that the essays contain some of the texts quoted on the walls, from the likes of Charles Baudelaire (who disdained the infant art as at best an auxiliary one) and Clement Greenberg, represented by an entire book of his critical essays. (This is yet another thing I love about this museum: As opposed to having docents who ram meaning down our throats, the Amon Carter leaves us with the choice of whether to avail ourselves of interpretative assistance, and even then, it's from brilliant and provocative art thinkers like Greenberg, among other things first champion of the post-war American abstract expressionists. There are docents, but the ones I've over-heard tend to concentrate on useful lore the books don't offer, as opposed to posing as art scholars.) The essay I opened up, by John Berger, went so far as to contradict the theorem proved by the Amon Carter's own mode d'emploie.

According to Berger, simply by placing art within the confines of a museum one presents it as something cordoned off or at least segregated as being privileged, which corrupts the experience of viewing the work nakedly, because of the presumption of esteem and value conferred by its being in a museum. On the other hand, says he, photography, unlike the other graphic arts, is less valuable because by nature a photograph is not unique, and thus photographs should not be prized as much as other art works which are unique copies. As far as the first contention, this is the opposite of the open spirit at the Amon Carter. It helps that admission is free 24/7, as decreed by its founder and namesake, a legendary Fort Worth newspaperman. But I think it's also that there's nothing imposing or austere about the way the art is presented. The wall text does not talk down to visitors. It's sophisticated, assuming a certain cognizance among them, be they cowboys, art history students, or middle-brow arts journalists. And, for those who want to up the intellectual ante, it provides opportunities such as the critical tomes placed at their disposition here (and in an ample library one security guard was eager to tell me about).

Ruth Asawa (b. 1926) Printed by Jurgen Fischer. "Umakichi," 1965. Lithograph. ©1965 Ruth Asawa. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1965.196. Umakichi was Asawa's father.

It's no accident that the first art one encounters these days in the main entree-way to the Amon Carter is the Ruth Asawa lithographs, on view through October 14 (and part of the museum's permanent collection). The artists that Asawa encountered when she and her family were interned in American prison camps during World War II didn't just launch her on an artistic life; they impressed on her the vitalness of art education. Ruth put this into practice in the mid-1960s at San Francisco's Alvarado Elementary School, where her children were students... as was I. Working with other parents, including my own, she created the Alvarado Arts program, which became the seed for the city's School of the Arts. Under Ruth's supervision, we created a mosaic which can still be seen in the schoolyard 40 years later. I made the school-bus. This hands-on, tactile experience took art out of Berger's citadel for me, making it human.

Those were heady times in San Francisco and across the United States. At the same time we were being taught art by a Japanese-American woman who had been imprisoned by her own country because of her ethnic ancestry, we could still hear, in 1970 (and in San Francisco), when a fight broke out between an African-American and a white child, cries of "A fight, a fight, a n*gger and a white!" In 1959, a white journalist from Mansfield, Texas, not far from Fort Worth, had done his best to foster empathy by getting a treatment to turn his skin black so he could pass as a black man traveling by Greyhound and hitch-hiking through the deep south, ultimately describing his experiences in "Black Like Me." After I left the Amon Carter Saturday, instead of heading down busy Montgomery, I turned up Hurley at the storefront with the large blue crop plane suspended over the parking lot to scour the neighborhood adjacent to the Cultural District for garage sales. Eventually, on Byers Avenue, I came upon a quaint but weathered single floor house with a man in shorts and medium-length grey hair, perhaps in his late '50s, sitting on its steps above the lawn and sidewalk, intently examining small snapshots. Next to him were enough odd artifacts for me to enquire, "You havin' a garage sale?"

The man nodded, barely looking up from the photographs. "I'm outta work so I gotta sell the house, and I've just been clearing it out. Some of this stuff I've never seen before. These are photos of my father from 1918. I even found one from 1879... What kind of stuff are you looking for?"

From the exhibition "The Medium and Its Metaphors" at the Amon Carter: Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916), "The Wreck of the Viscata," 1868. Albumen silver print. Amon Carter Museum of American Art. P1980.33.

"I dunno," I answered whimsically. "Art books.... French books.... Photo books."

"You like photos? I got something for you."

The man returned with a large black and white, encased in a dusty plain frame, of a middle-aged nun, complete with Flying Nun bonnet, sitting at a loom spinning, with spools of thread at her feet, and smiling at the camera.

"This is by John Howard Griffin," he said; indeed the print was signed by Griffin in pencil, indicating it was one of a limited edition. "You know who he was? He was a white man who passed as a black man to write about conditions in the South."

"Didn't he write 'Black Like Me'?" I asked. The book had been part of the canon growing up in San Francisco. (Empathy was a big part of the attempt to defeat racism in the 1960s; in 1968, when we were living in Fort Ross in rural Northern California, the principal and upper grade teacher of our little red school-house of 40 kids decided one week to conduct an experiment. One afternoon, he kept all the kids with brown eyes after school; the next, all the kids with blue eyes. That night, Mr. Cash was visited by the rancher fathers of some of the kids and told at rifle-point to get out of town. He did.)

"That's him," the out-of-work homeowner answered me. "This is from a series he did when he was touring the south of France in 1970." Next to his signature in pencil was scrawled "Toulouse." (In researching the photo later on the Internet, I learned that, after writing first-hand about racism in the South, Griffin went on to pen a biography of Thomas Merton, illustrated with his photos, and, in 1974, "Jacques Maritain: Homage in Words and Pictures," concerning the French theologian, and the book for which this photo must have been taken. The man only wanted $20, and I suppose if I was an investor in the art market as opposed to a reporter on it, it would have been a good investment, but when I buy art I buy for the pleasure the image gives me, and here, at least in my immediate impression, the associations with Toulouse and the renown of the artist were outweighed by the subject, as I have no hankering to have a French nun looking down at me from my wall. But, later, I regretted not asking the man how he came into possession of this particular signed photo -- did he know Griffin? -- and about what meaning it had for him.

As we got to talking, he told me, "Another artist from around here is holding his annual 50-cent auction later today, about 12 blocks up the street at the William Campbell Gallery." The man, it turned out, is Christopher Blay, an artist who bucks the art establishment, including by, in his guise as 'Frank Artsmarter,' hosting an annual auction where he sells off junk found at garage sales, with the bidding starting at 50 cents. "By hanging the art in a formal setting and by generating media attention, Blay is creating a market, generating value, where none existed before," wrote Anthony Mariani in the Fort Worth Weekly last week. "The same people scoffing at bad paintings in thrift stores are the same people shelling out cash for just-as-bad paintings at the auctions. 'You wouldn't pay eighty bucks for a painting at a thrift store,' Blay said. 'You pay ten bucks, and you feel like you're getting ripped off. But you go to a gallery and [the painting is] on a gallery wall, it's part of the system.' ...Blay ... isn't thumbing his nose at quality -- he understands traditional beauty and can distinguish a Monet or Picasso from Grandma's or Grandpa's painterly weekend endeavors. However, Blay believes that, frankly, a lot of contemporary art is cheap and easy. 'The only thing holding it against the wall isn't the nail but the art-historical context in the form of the giant portfolio that precedes [the artwork].'" For proof of this axiom, you need look no farther than our Home page, where, Sunday, we posted an image of a Baroque Easter Egg by Jeff Koons slated to be auctioned off by Christie's, which has estimated its value at 2.5 to 3.5 million pounds. Granted, a mere image can't fully reproduce the effect of the six-feet by six-feet steel actual object, but, if it was produced by Grandma and hauled out in front of the garage to be sold by Grandkid, would such value be imparted on it? It's the context "Jeff Koons" which imbues it with such astronomical monetary value.

"One couple came in to see the place but said they were looking for something turnkey," the man selling off history in front of the house on Byers Avenue related. "I told 'em they're not going to get turnkey for $100,000 for a place near the Cultural District and the museums."

I'd say it's better then near. His one-story place may not be as pristine as the museums along Gendy Street, but his showing me that one photo had so many layers of context and personal value: A signed photograph of a middle-aged sister of the cloth in Toulouse, working thread on a banal loom, a photograph taken by a man, Griffin, who sacrificed himself for empathy, literally painting himself black to tell the story of the Negro in America at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement; who then followed a renowned American hermit, Merton, and tried to tell his story; then returned to France -- where Griffin studied before the war, and even served as a medic for the Resistance -- to follow another servant of G-d, Maritain; a photo being sold for $20 by a man who can't afford to hang on to his father's home so he sits on his concrete steps pouring over 100-year-old photographs and selling off his meager wares so he can empty his home, while others can afford to lay out $5 million for a glittery 'baroque' egg to fill theirs. It's these personal resonances, affiliations, and associations that make for art both valuable and precious.

As for this arts voyager, having neither $20 to invest in the inscribed John Howard Griffin photo nor $100,000 in my pocket to buy the house, I settled for part of its history, plucking from a detritus of fishing paraphernalia -- for a buck apiece -- twin fishing knives encased in rulers: Each had a two-sided blade planted in one part of the ruler, with a sheathe in the other half. Slot the knife into the sheathe and you had a ruler with 12 inches on one side (with "For honest fishermen" inscribed in red), and 16 on the other ("For dishonest fishermen"), and on the two other sides: "Fishing knife / It floats!" And so did I, over the Trinity River and home.

Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), "Christmas Dinner for Men on the Trail," 1905. Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. 1961.100. From the exhibition "Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell," showing at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art through May 13, and at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana June 15 - September 15.

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