Tuesday, July 26, 2016

No Fork No Knife On The Way To Meet The Elephant

No Fork No Knife

Airplanes were being hijacked in this era for any number of reasons; greed, political statements, etc.  Signs were not yet posted warning of possible consequences for making jokes or comments.  I don’t know if it was common practice at the time, but  airline security was at the gate, as I boarded this particular flight, and not at the head of the concourse.

Irv, my supervisor on the art handling crew at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and I were flying to Los Angeles to pack  J. Paul Getty’s collection for an exhibition at our museum. After we had both gone through the metal detector and were on the jet-way,  Irv tapped me on the shoulder and showed me something he had forgotten to leave at home; a fist full of keys.  He said he was surprised that the metal detector hadn’t sounded an alarm.  I stared at this wad of keys and mentioned that someone could have a derringer smaller than that. Oh, me and my big mouth!  We were about to file  into the plane and a stewardess must have heard my remark.  I didn’t know anyone else heard what I said, but she did.  No sooner was I settled  in my seat and thumbing through the in-flight magazine when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a group of people stopped in the aisle next to me and an outstretched finger pointed directly at me.  “He’s the one! He’s the one who said he had a gun!”

Oh, my lord!  I gathered my belongings was escorted off the plane.   One federal marshal took notes about my responses to his questions, while his partner rifled through my stuff.  Both could see that I had nothing to threaten the flight crew or passengers with.  So, I was allowed to go back on the plane and start my journey to the land of the palm trees. Fortunately I was detained only a few minutes and the departure slightly delayed. I sat down. No one was in my row. The plane took off and after a while a meal was served to everyone but me.  Eventually, a stewardess brought a meal and leaned over to tell me that the captain would have police  meet me at the gate if I gave the crew any trouble.  I tried to assure her that this was all a misunderstanding.   She wanted me to be have no misunderstanding of their intentions.  I tried to smile and eat this meal I has just so warmly presented.  Something was odd about the tray and its contents.  The napkin was rolled but not shrink wrapped.  The food was all crackers and bread.  Inside the napkin was a plastic spoon. Nothing hard, sharp, or hot. No fork. No knife.  Nothing to use as a weapon if I attempted to take over the plane.  You have to be on your guard against people how make unnecessary comments about the size of a set of keys!  I probably even looked like a trouble maker.  I had on a jacket and tie, after all I was going to J. Paul Getty’s estate upon landing.

Midway through the flight a guy came over and sat next to me. I think he said his name was Peter, but I can’t be sure.  He and his friends had been watching the entire incident with increasing curiosity and wondered what was going on.  So, I told him about the keys and my off hand remark and what had happened to that point.  I even showed him a page in the in-flight magazine with an advertisement for derringers, which are actually hats. (The firearm known as a derringer was a personal defense weapon capable of firing one shot and designed to fit inside a derringer hat.) We spent a pleasant time and he said he and his friends knew what it was like to be hassled.   He said he was with a band called Chicago and they had performed in St. Paul the night before.  I didn’t know at the time to get his autograph for my little sister, who was a big fan of the group.  As he got up to leave he noticed the meal tray , “So, they gave you a plastic spoon, too?”

In two more weeks I would save both of  J. Paul Getty's Elephants.

It Turned Out She Was A Bed Wetter

The Bed Wetter

So often I awake from a dream holding a fully formed story to transcribe. This story gift state is especially common when I fly or ride a train.

Yes, when not writing, I doze on planes. I am not certain the influences or suggestions that cause these odd tales. But today I did not dream. Instead, I was influenced by my layover destination, where I would catch the final leg of my journey from Paris to Colorado Springs. Minneapolis is where I would clear US Customs.

Minneapolis is the venue for so many of my real-life adventures. I had neglected writing about Minneapolis, a city that brings a lost part of my life to the surface.

It was way back in time that I lived there. This is where I had my own apartment, first real job, and was truly on my own. Here, I found my first long term relationship. My brother, who came to visit while I lived there, decided to go to school at the university. He lives there still. There are people who matter to me in Minneapolis. Some would appreciate if this stopover at the airport were much longer. There are others who might want the plane to fly past. There are those who don't remember me as much as I don't remember them. In this last two groups are a bank teller, a weaver, and the bed wetter.

Moving beyond the borders of the state of Michigan was daunting. It was conceptual space, that world beyond the one defined by gigantic bodies of water. I suppose an element that made Minnesota a viable place to relocate was that it called itself the land of ten thousand lakes. I laughed that these Minnesota puddles were considered lakes.
But here was a place that seemed to have artists and promised to be familiar enough, because of the relationship to water, and exotic because it was simply new to me. The multiple cultural institutions sold me on at very least, a visit.

I had grown up with a fear of the outside world. It was a shock to even go as far away
as a hundred miles from home to Ann Arbor, to attend college. During that time in Ann Arbor and my short trips to Chicago, I discovered the world extended further than expected. That trip to Chicago did not prove lethal.

Beyond the words upon Minnesota car tags: LAND OF 10,000 LAKES, my other reasons for selecting Minneapolis were equally unscientific. It was a city. It had cultural institutions. It was close enough to Michigan that I could quickly return home if necessary. Also, I was armed with the names of two people who were part of the arts structure in Minneapolis. Neither of these people had I ever met. I had not even seen photographs or either and we had never been in contact. The single connection was both had worked at the University of Michigan Art Museum and knew the staff I had worked with the past two years, while a student.

One was an artist, the other a curator. The artist had the position I was preparing to leave, one of exhibition designer and preparator. He had switched fields latterly, becoming a theatrical set designer at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. By the time I found my way to Minneapolis, he had already moved on to Broadway. I didn't know it, but my connections were already reduced to one.

The remaining contact was currently assistant director and chief curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Just to demonstrate how unprepared I was, I only knew his name and where he worked. I had not sent a letter of introduction or made any attempt to inform him that I would like to talk with him. I had no written resume. I did not know where the museum was located and had no plan further that to fly to Minneapolis and explore. I was a complete fool. I bumped around until fate smiled at the silly boy and thought: how refreshing to see such a rube! I shock myself at how oblivious I was. Blind luck is just chance.

So, on a whim, I flew, took a bus from the airport and bought a map. As is my preference today, I like to explore on foot. Map in hand, I set out to get a taste of this strange city. I had heard from more worldly friends, at school, that a good way to meet the locals and stretch your funds was to stay at a youth hostel. So, after strolling for a few hours I began searching for a the hostel. I spied a natural food store and knew it would be the ideal place to ask directions. Plus, I was already hungry. I could pickup something to eat, not having eaten since the airport in Detroit.

Once in the store, I saw noting to eat that didn't need preparation. This was not Whole Foods, where on may browse at the salad bar. The definition of natural foods was rough and simple: mainly dried peas, beans, brown rice, fertilized eggs, and withered carrots caked with dirt. I had to wait. Probably the youth hostel had food. I bought nothing, asking directions for the place to stay for the night.

I should have been worried, since the clerk said I was already at the meeting place, the food store. He told me to hang out in front and a guy would come by shortly and gather the folks needing a place to crash for the night. Not having previously stayed in a youth hostel, I didn't realize that this was going to be a different adventure. This was a pick up point, not for a youth hostel, but for housing the homeless. How was I to know?

Two people were waiting under the streetlight. Evening had already fallen enough to trigger the lights. Most people, in the comfort of their own homes, were sitting down to dinner under the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs. Three people stood waiting for a man with a beard who would be driving a Volkswagen van.

A car slid over to the curb and a hippie with a beard opened the doors to what could be called a customized antique. It was no Volkswagen van. He couldn't drive the van. It was out of gas. Again, I should have run away, but here was adventure giving me a full grin, complete with missing teeth. The car had been hand-painted, probably with brush and roller, not just on the outside. I didn't know anyone who had used LSD, but if I had to guess, the person who painted the car had. It was evident the windows had not been rolled down or masked while the car was slathered in its inharmonious, crashing kaleidoscopic, rainbow of paint. The Naugahyde seats had been reupholstered after the paint nightmare. Doubtless the upholstery needed more than the torn patchwork of old army blankets that had been duct taped and stapled to cover the missing zones of padding, nauga, and protruding springs. We drove to places I had not walked earlier. So, it was more exploring, of sorts, but I could see little, except through patches where paint had been scratched away, through the car windows. Outside there seemed to be greater distances between the cones of security offered by street lamps.

The driver stopped a couple times, told us to wait. He went into darkened houses and returned, saying nothing, just driving on. He entertained us with his life story. About how he was a tattoo artist and there wasn't enough business for him in New Orleans, so he followed some girl back home to Minnesota. Her family kicked him out after a few days. He was staying in a couple of places, but they were both full tonight. He was looking for a new, "honey", so he said.

He told us that most people thought he had a New York accent, but it was a true, authentic New Orleans accent. He was friends with this or that famous musician or fighter or someone or other; all names that meant nothing. The two others in the backseat with me seemed not to even hear him. They were tuned out, almost dazed.

I guessed they were as hungry as I. I still kept the hope there would be food at the hostel. It had not occurred that the stops he was making were to try the doors and windows on darkened, vacant houses. He was going to deposit us in the first house he could find that we could enter. None of this entered my mind. I imagined he was stopping at other pick-up points, gathering others to ferry to my imaginary youth hostel.

Found a "crash pad" was what he said, then he used his large flashlight to illuminate our way into the house. This is where we could "crash". More like trashed. At this point, I just let the adventure keep on running, thinking this wasn't as horrific as it seemed. But, it was. This was an abandoned house, with no electricity or furnishings. The walls seemed to have been decorated by the same genius who painted the soon-to-vanish car. Trash was every where, seemingly there were path-like lines between piles of crap. In the center of one room, likely a study when the former residents lived here, was a pile of rags. The other male, who had shared the back seat of the car ride with, laid claim to this mound with a simple "night", closing the door. In another trash-strewn room was a filthy mattress. It had a clear border around it, making it seem almost like a sacred object or an altar. The driver said, you two can have this room. He turned, with his flashlight and ran to his car. That was the last I saw of him, until many years later when the interest in body-art became part of popular culture. But, that is another tale.
Apparently he became a skin guru. I could picture him, even without the beard.

The mattress was visible only by moonlight. As there were no pillows or sheets, which probably had been relocated to the pile of rags that the third person had claimed. One could still see the discoloration of the ticking. Stains that would fascinate those who give Rorschach tests were too visible. I flipped the mattress over and the verso was only somewhat better. A visible cloud of dust, as the bed flipped over into the floor, caused us both to choke.

So, the adventure was coming into focus for me. The girl in the room was part of this adventure, but a highly awkward element. She said nothing, just as in the car, moving with no awareness that a world was swirling around her. No expression visited her face. She had to have a face. I had no idea if she was sixteen or twenty or forty. Her skinny body was under layers of clothing, which considering the temperature outside, was more than excessive. I carried a backpack. She apparently wore everything on her body. I would say she looked like an exhausted zombie.
We said nothing. She could have felt no more aghast than I that we would share the same mattress. I looked around the room and there was no better option than to share.

What does one do before going to sleep, even if you have had no supper? One goes to the bathroom. That was a mistake my nose had already warmed me of. The bathroom was non functional. We were not the first to have needed to use the toilet, sink, or tub. The moonlight only confirmed what the smell had warned. They were brimming with waste. I closed the bathroom door and found the kitchen sink to be in the same condition. The open windows allowed fresh air into the house.

Had I had my wits, and not been both hungry and tired, I should have walked out and found myself on the map. Instead, the adventure progressed.

Without a word between us, it was clear that she had that side of the mattress and I had the other. The girl and I had curled up on distant shores of a not large enough island, floating in a sea of refuse. Judging from a distance, we might also be viewed as disposable. I clung to the edge for fear of bumping against her. Doubtless she would have the same idea. Neither of us removed any clothing and I made sure to wrap the strap of my backpack so it wouldn't walk away. I lay on my back. I tried to sleep. My nose had long since adjusted to the stench, like a scale that has registered a tare weight. The aroma had not diminished, it was just accepted as nothing new or dangerous. My nose warned me. If I wasn't going to act on the warning, it was my choice. My nose would reset its calibrations.

From the next room came deep snoring, like chains slowly being pulled up a set of wooden stairs. Near my head the soft wheeze of someone with an obstruction, a respiratory illness, or just a wet snore. She had fallen asleep. I continued to struggle with this experience, this negatively pointed adventure. But, I must have drifted off, at least a little.

What I thought was a vivid dream startled me. I stood up and the sounds from my dream were explained by the beams of the flashlights twisting through the moonlit space between the adjacent buildings, the sound of gravel under the feet of more than one person running down an alley, and the shock of gunshots that were not from a television. Outside this house people were being chased and shots were fired. There were no sirens and no red flashing lights, no helicopters with spotlights. I was a spectator and once I realized that bullets were flying, I got back down on the mattress and covered my head. This time I know I fell asleep.
It wasn't more gunshots that caused me to stir. The guy who dropped us off hadn't returned with food, which is exactly what I had been dreaming about. It also wasn't the first rays of sunlight turning the sky an apricot pink. It was a fresh scent and the strange warmth of my finger tips. My hand, resting toward the center of the mattress was on a pool of liquid. This liquid was not mine.

The urine was hers. I pulled my hand out of this warm bath, wiping my wet and warm fingers upon my dry side of the ticking as I stood and prepared to take action.

I hadn't thought about that girl in all these years. She was part of my adventure until now, a prop, a bit player with no lines. She only had that soft, sick sound in her throat.
What was her view of that night? What kind of an adventure was it for her? That night? The next night?

The life up to that night? Does her bed wetting define her outside my tale? Was it a onetime accident? Or did she piss the bed even when she could pee before bedtime? Was she a run away? Why was she waiting for a place to "crash"? What was and is her life like? Is she even alive today? Did she find a better life, or as I did, a nicer place to sleep the very next day?

Did she have money to spend on a good breakfast and a restaurant bathroom where she might wash up, remove her urine soaked clothing, discarding it in a dumpster behind the eatery and switch to fresh clothing from her backpack? Oh, that's right. She didn't have a backpack. I did. Everything she had, she wore.

She lay there either actually asleep or too embarrassed by wetting the bed to pretend to notice me getting out of the place and restarting my life.

I am sure I couldn't have changed anything by doing anything differently. But, if I could have, I would have wanted to know this quiet person who shared the bed was as OK as she could be, under the circumstances. If sharing a meal or giving her a few bucks would have helped, I would have liked to think that is what I would do. But, I didn't. I extracted myself from a negative adventure and she inadvertently gifted me a story about a bed wetter.

She must have felt terrible about her situation, walking until she could clean herself and launder her clothing. Mortified would probably be more descriptive of her feelings. She couldn't be a zombie all the time.

I tiptoed out the door, like a one-night-stand lover, leaving before daybreak. The map may not have saved my life, but it did help me find civilization. It lead me to a saner and safer adventure.

After a good breakfast and chance to freshen up, I found my way to the museum, where I asked if the man-who-I -had-yet-to-meet was in? I introduced myself using the magic names of the people we knew in common.

We sat in his very nice office and talked about Ann Arbor. We talked about the people we knew. He asked what I was doing in Minneapolis? I did not relate my recent adventure or how I hadn't really slept.

He told me my timing was perfect, but that I was over-qualified, with my experience working at the museum in Ann Arbor. He would like to hire me immediately. Could he arrange for meals and a place to stay while in town? Could he offer assistance in making moving arrangements?

I accepted all his offers except for the one about food. I had heard of a place called Becky's and I wanted to go there myself.

So, here I am on a flight that will take me through Minneapolis, a place as changed as I am. A place where I had adventures, where I once lived. A place where some people know me and lots don't. Where a handful might be happy to see me. Where some people know my artworks and others my stories.

I suppose there could be a few people who would not expect to see me, ever again.
They would have no memory of the ancient past or might recall a narrative so vastly different than mine. I might as well be talking to a Rorschach stain on a mattress.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Boy Who Didn't Want to be Museum Director

The Boy Who Didn't Want to be Museum Director

Charles Sawyer, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art,  saw and heard how much I enjoyed working at the museum.  I did love working in the museum. There were things I was interested in inside those doors and more tucked away behind closed doors.  I had regular hours at the museum, but often stayed well beyond the time just to find something else new.  Not only did I get to touch artworks, frame them, hang them, but also to meet famous artists.  I thought meeting famous people, such as the Photographer Margaret Bourke-White and  Shoji Hamada, were more than enough payment for my time in the building.  Hamada, a Japanese cultural treasure, and renowned ceramist was a delight to behold as he asked to not only see, but touch the objects he wanted to experience in the museums collection. I understood the touching part deeply.  Touching adds another dimension.  Margaret Bourke-White was no longer the woman who dared to crawl out on steel beams to take another picture.  I helped her climb the stairs in the museum. She was at that point in time a fragile princess.

I think Charles Sawyer must have misread my enthusiasm and love for being in the museum, once I entered grad school and continued to not only work at the museum, but take the Museum Studies course. Within weeks of the start of the course, in which we developed an exhibition on the influence of Chinoiserie, he pulled me into his office and told me he had named me as a candidate for the directorship of the Pontiac Art Center.  I did not know what to say.  I was shocked and unprepared.  I never gave him any indication that I had an interest in running a museum or an art center.  Still, youngster that I was, I allowed myself to be interviewed by the board of the Pontiac Art Center.  It was an experience I would never wish to repeat.  I wanted only to be an artist, not a diplomat,  fundraiser, or any of the activities the board were looking for.  They never had to ask me if I would accept the position, fortunately.

In any case, had they asked and I was crazy enough to agree to take the position, the Vietnam War was going on and my number had been called.  Amidst the turmoil of the war and breaking up with my first serious girlfriend, I dropped out of graduate school.  At that point, after meeting with my local Draft Board, and a strong desire to leave the state of Michigan; I moved to Minneapolis and dove into working with an amazing number of influential people at the Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts.

A few years later, after I had moved on to Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum, I once again saw Charles Sawyer.  There was a meeting of the board of the Intermuseum Conservation Association, which was housed twenty yards from my office, at the college.  Doctor Sawyer remained more convinced I should climb the ladder and took some time from his visit to make suggestions of how I might make myself  a strong candidate.  I always liked Charles Sawyer, but honestly, he never once looked at my artwork.  Both he and Paul Grigault, the curator who hired me in Ann Arbor,  had told me how they had started out as artists but put their own art away to become who they became.  I do wish either man might have seen my work.  I am sure they would smile to know that my art in the collection of the museum in which I so enjoyed working.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

How Rembrandt and Nina Prepared Me to See Drips On Pollock's Paintings

How Rembrandt and Nina Prepared Me to See Drips On Pollock's Paintings

I believe part what prepared me to notice the stray drips in Pollocks paintings was my fascination with Al Hirschfeld's  caricatures which appeared every Sunday in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times.
Another component was my exposure to the Rembrandt Research Project. 

Each Sunday I looked forward to see how many times the name of Hirschfeld's daughter, Nina, was hidden in his caricature.  The number next to his signature indicated the number of times Nina could be found.
I was good at it and it was fun. Finding Nina was a game.  In a black and white line drawing certain areas would be prime NINA hiding places, week after week.  Any type of hair and fold in clothing were where I
would search first.

In looking for over splatter on Pollocks, the lowest portion of the painting is worth a good look.

As an undergraduate and as a MFA candidate, I worked part time at the art museum at the University of Michigan.  When I left Ann Arbor, I was hired by the chief curator of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts as an art handler.  That curator was Sam Sachs. In my job I performed the standard activities of caring for, hanging, framing, and transporting artworks.  I was sent to Malibu to pack the Getty collection
for exhibition in Minneapolis while the Getty villa was constructed.  Of greater significance; I accompanied, observed, and assisted a small group of Dutch researchers who came to examine The Minneapolis Institute of Arts  Rembrandt. I was simply a facilitator and an observer; removing the painting from the wall and taking off the frame.  I stayed with them the entirety of their visit.  They looked at the Rembrandt in ways that prepared me to see artworks differently.  These conservators looked past imagery into how the paint was layered. 

In Minneapolis I spent more time than expected in the conservation laboratory.   This familiarity with the lab helped introduce me to many more people when I moved to the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. I was hired to replace Del Spurlock, who had been the museum technician, but was transitioning to full time at the Intermuseum Conservation Association, housed in the same building.

My office and workshop were down the corridor from the ICA lab. Naturally, especially since we took coffee breaks together, I got to know Dick Buck, Ross Merrill, Marigene Butler, Marty Radecki,  John Bertalan, Anne Clapp, and many of the interns.   I spent hours and hours looking at paintings under raking light.

It was this interest in looking at paintings from an angle that entertained and informed me for years.  I was most fascinated, in particular, with the color choices of Matisse and Klimt, how they refined their color choices.  Each opportunity to study their paintings  brought fresh insights, as both artists left clues and clear indications of how their paintings evolved. 
It was that one day at MoMA in 2003 that I finished a up close visit with a favorite Matisse, that I turned to find a  nine foot tall by eighteen foot wide canvas and I wondered if Jackson Pollock had anything to share.
I was willing to guess the answer was a no.

That day I found seven pink drips that did not belong on One: Number 31, 1950.  I wondered what this was about.  The next day I visited the Met, with similar amazement.

Al Hirschfeld always put a number next to his name, broadcasting how many times he has hidden his daughters name. Jackson Pollock left no tell tale number.

October 17, 2015  Sandy Kinnee

Once one finds Nina hidden in a drawing it is difficult to resist looking for more.  My own daughter and collaborator on the Pollock study, Lauren,  can't see a Pollock without scanning for possible over splatter.
She has a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts and worked, as an undergraduate at the Yale University Art Gallery.  She currently teaches at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

I am an artist, not a conservator.  I was a museum professional at three museums.  During those years I had the good fortune to work with and spend time with a great many people in the art world: Richard Spear, Ellen Johnson, Gerry Kamrowski, Marvin Eisenberg, Roger Mandel, Roger Berkowitz, Dan Flavin, Clement Greenberg, Irving Sandler, Alice Neel, Richard Serra, Dorthea Rockburne; all of whom influenced me.

Taking A Bullet For Art

Taking A Bullet For Art

The idea that a Secret Service agent would willingly take a bullet for the President seems odd to most people.  That anyone might do likewise for an artwork seems much more bizarre.  Strange, yes, but true.  It’s been done.  I have done it.

My first week at the University of Michigan set me onto the path headed toward a “bullet”.  I dressed differently from the majority of art students; a clean white lab coat with a radioactivity badge, a dress shirt and tie.  Milton Cohen noticed me and asked me to put up a display of student work in the main corridor, outside the department office.  As I pounded tacks into the wall a head popped  around the corner of the department office and withdrew.  A minute later the department secretary emerged from the office and approached me.  I thought I was going to be asked to be quiet. Instead she said that the art museum had just called and wanted me to come over as soon as possible.
That was a puzzlement.  How would they know me and what did they want?  They didn’t.  The department secretary had taken the request and I was the first student she could find.  I finished hanging the little display and walked across the Law school diag to the museum.. The University of Michigan Museum of Art occupies a building known as Alumni Memorial Hall, across from the Student Union.  It was only a block and a half from Art and Design. 

I had been inside the museum before and knew there were two moderate size galleries on the entry level and two more of a similar size upstairs, with a third larger space toward the front of the building.  I asked the museum guard where to find the main office. When I identified myself as having been sent over from the art department, I was immediately directed to go upstairs and talk with the gentleman in the front gallery.  I was still clueless, but maybe they needed to a part time student assistant.  Just a hunch.  It would beat a part time job washing dishes on North Campus.  There was one  person in the gallery when I walked in, it had to be him.  He looked to be about sixty years old, smelled of what I later identified as sandalwood, and greeted me with a french accent.  At least it sounded slightly french to my untuned ears.  His suit was brown, his tie blue. His name was Paul Grigault.

He seemed to know why I was there.  He had two questions for me; “Could I use a hammer?  Certainly, I grew up the son of a carpenter.  “When could I start?”  Start what?  “Start working for the museum as an exhibition assistant; hanging paintings, handling artworks, etc.” Sure, I said.  I could report immediately after class tomorrow.

So, I did.  I worked along side a wonderful man, Carlos Clark.  Carlos belonged to an older world of the museum world, a craftsman not an artist.  Museums needed workers who were skilled at painting walls, building exhibition cases, driving nails, and doing a whole range of jobs within the museum.
Knowing about and caring for art were not always in the job description.  Over my ten years in the museum world, I found this evolving toward more art school graduates handling artwork.  Carlos came to work for the museum after having been a furniture maker.  He had built the beautiful cases in the galleries.  He was a truly wonderful person and craftsman.    His comfort around power tools benefited me directly.  Shortly after starting to work at the museum I had to cut a few inches off a sculpture base.  I was using the table saw and had successfully completed the task, except for a scrap of wood dancing next to the spinning blade.  I elected to flick the wood away, rather than have it chucked across the room by the action of the saw blade.  Only thing wrong, my finger was caught and blood splattered everywhere..  I was horrified at the sight of my blood.  Carlos was there in a flash and placed his body between me and my finger.  He performed the necessary first aid.  I was now embarrassed by my stupidity.  Carlos showed me the scars on his fingers. Carlos showed me how to hang and secure a painting, build and pack a crate, and so much more.  He was a mentor on the non art side of museum work.

Ignorance of the importance and value of the art one is handling can be a wise thing, so long as equal care and respect are given to all works.  However, in another museum I witnessed the actions of a particular art handler.  He was moving individual objects from a case to a cart.  Everything was fine until a curator came on the scene and advised the handler to pay special attention to one certain piece.  He told the worker that this piece was worth thousands.  Immediately the worker became nervous.  His hands started to shake and he had to go have a cigarette.  He couldn’t lift the piece.

The range of skills required of a good museum technician is rather broad.  The job description for a position at a small museum might include: Must be able to transport all manner and weights of art works from the very minute to over a ton.  Needs to be capable of building crating for the safe shipment of all types of art.  Skills must include a demonstrated craftsmanship level in finished carpentry and painting.  Will be expected to fabricate sculpture bases, install paintings and sculptures, and work with security systems.

Knowledge of proper care and storage is top priority.  A good background in studio and art history is required. 

A good art handler knows little things like how to pick up a piece of paper without bending the fibers.  It is an invisible skill.  A lot of people would pick up a piece of paper by lifting one or two corners, buckling or causing a dimple to appear where the fibers are being stressed.  The fibers are microscopically broken and repeated mishandling can eventually lead to a “dog eared” piece of paper.  The correct lifting and moving of a piece of paper involves supporting diagonal corners with the four fingers below the paper and the thumbs on top applying minimal friction or pressure.

Experience is probably the best teacher an art handler can have. An art handler will learn how to be prepared for possible consequences and how to back out of a dangerous situation or deal with it if an outcome allows only two choices, such as when a hydraulic lift is failing and you have to choose to take a bullet to keep a nearly 2000 year old sculpture from being shattered or jumping back to avoid being personally injured.

Captive Audience: Clement Greenberg and Dan Flavin

Captive Audiences

While in California, packing J. Paul Getty’s art collection for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I rented a new model that Chevrolet was just introducing; the Chevy Vega. I could have rented anything, since I was given enough money to rent a full size car. While I crated the Getty paintings I stayed at the Santa Ynes Inn, a few miles away from the Getty Ranch.  The Vega shuttled me back and forth.  Because each painting’s original shipping  crate was stored in a barn-like structure, I didn’t have to construct any new boxes.  That shortened to task considerably and I found that I was done two days early.  That allowed me time to explore California a little in my rental car, as far south as San Diego and Chula Vista.    I suppose it proves I have no knowledge or taste in vehicles that I bought  myself  a Vega immediately upon I accepting the position of museum technician at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. I paid twelve hundred bucks for a brand new, little scarlet Vega. What I really wanted was a van so I could haul art and materials.  A real van would have cost a significant amount more.  This Vega was called a panel truck, something between a van and a station wagon.  But it really looked more like a partially finished car, just lacking major amenities. 
There were no side windows behind the driver and no radio.  There was no rear seat and only a vacant pit where the passenger seat would usually be located. I got a deal on the car/van because of the absent seat.  My guess is I saved a hundred dollars or more without that seat. This  wasn’t a no frills vehicle, it was transportation devise with no creature comforts at all.  Also, as there was no passenger seat, there was obviously no seat belt for any potential rider, either.  I invested three dollars in a couple of old red velvet cushions at a Goodwill shop, one to sit on and the other as a back rest,  in the event I ever had a passenger.  The two cushions were low,  allowing the rider to have a dogs-eye view out the side window. Anyone who sat at that height would have an upward angle shot of the tree tops and sky through the windshield.  It was like sitting on the floor at the dinner table, while the host sits in a chair.

Ellen Johnson was a well known modern art historian at Oberlin College and  had many friends in the Art World.  Visitors to the museum and college were frequent. The list of guests could have served as an abridged Art World Who’s Who for the sixties and seventies.  Just to name a few, there were Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd, Miriam Shapiro, and Alice Neel.  That gives a teeny tiny glimpse of the range of Ellen’s  friends.   Sometimes when Ellen had a guest, I’d be asked to make the trip to the airport to either pick up or drop off a visitor. I had some interesting passengers.  Most seemed to find the peril and perspective at least novel. Most riders commented on the unique vantage point. Perhaps I should have been professionally aggressive with my captive audiences and let them know that I was an artist and wanted them to look at what I was doing. I imagine if they were uncomfortable with the seating that I could really have made it the trip from Hell! But I actually just wanted to make their ride pleasant and talk about the art matters of the day.

Neither Richard Spear, who was the Director of the museum, nor Ellen Johnson ever rode in my car.
I’m not certain they ever looked inside the vehicle.  Therefore, I don’t think they realized what an odd trip it might be for anyone they sent me to pick up at the Cleveland airport.  They simply knew I had a car and would gladly pick up visitors.  Some visitors never rode in my car.  They’ll never know what they missed.  Others survived the journey by closing their eyes, digging in, and treating it like a bad taxi ride.  Hey, I’ve had bad taxi rides in Rome and lived to talk about them or taxi ride in Baltimore  where I could have sworn there was a deceased passenger hidden under the seat. I do have some fond memories of those daring enough or unfortunate to have been subjected to my hour long  red cushion ride with their eyes wide open. 

Clement Greenberg and Dan Flavin were two riders who stand out.  Dan Flavin  was robust
and as close to being a roly poly guy as you might imagine.  He arrived at the airport the morning the world found out about Picasso’s passing.  We talked about Picasso.  Flavin said he thought Picasso had died long before. Neither one of us was a Picasso fan , but it was THE art news of the moment. He didn’t have too much to say about Picasso, but we both admitted that Picasso’s passing made the day significant.  I knew he  had a job as a museum guard long ago, so we compared notes on museums.  He was easy to talk  with.  Of greatest interest to me, he talked about his personal life and how he functioned as an artist, parent, and citizen.  As a matter of fact, our visit went well beyond the ride from the airport.  I spent the better part of the day with him sharing the museum’s extensive pressed glass collection. The collection was in storage, behind wooden panels and protected by plate glass.  So, I spent the better part of the day removing panels and opening cases.  To my surprise he had a deep knowledge and interest in nineteenth century glass and its conservation problems.  He pointed out to me the pieces which had changed color, due to over exposure to sunlight.  I had not considered that glass could be photosensitive. To this day I do not know if he had another reason for flying to Cleveland that day.  The museum did not own a piece by Flavin and I don’t think he gave a talk.  He appeared to be there just to look at the glasses.  He also talked of how the people in his day to day life didn’t know, and didn’t have to know, that he was an artist.  His life as an artist did not overlap with or conflict with his identity as a parent.  He told me that most people who knew him saw him as a dad who goes to ball games, attends PTA, and is somewhat politically active in the community.

That way of living seemed fine and reasonable.  Dan Flavin didn’t want to set himself off from other people by wearing an artist’s identity.  He said he had a job to do and a life to live and he wanted to get the most out of it he could.  So, spending the day examining old glass goblets brought him joy and I’m very glad I was there to share it.

Clement Greenberg said he hadn’t been feeling well and was fairly low key.  I suppose I had read something into his being so quite that would best be blamed on his health and not, as I had thought when I met him, due to the personal attacks he was under at the time. 
There was a great deal being said about Greenberg “ruining” David Smith’s sculptures.  I certainly knew enough to avoid talking with him about that controversy.  From this distance, it would have been nice to actually know what he thought and why.    From high in the driver’s seat, looking down on this soft spoken man, I had a perspective not found in books. This wasn’t the pushy, mean person he was sometimes portrayed as.  He didn’t even ask if he could smoke a cigarette in my car, which I assumed he might.  I seem to recall that he said he’d given up smoking and drinking. Here was an elder statesman who clung to the sides of his velvet seat and spoke  about Picasso’s death and what it is to outlive that which  you are remembered for.  I enjoyed our all too brief conversation about art, life, death, and legacy.   He said, wait a few decades for the dust to settle, then you’ll start to understand the legacy.

It wasn’t long afterward that I traded in my little Vega for one with a real  passenger seat and a fold down one in the back.  A ride anywhere in that passenger seat was generic.