BACK TO THE FUTURE: ANDREW TALLON’S VISION

Eyes that see, persons with knowledge, they must be allowed to construct the new world. — Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White.1

This exhibition celebrates a series of color photographs of the Vassar College Art Library, arguably the first modern interior in the United States on an academic campus, restored in 2007- 2008 by a New York based firm known for its conscientious restoration of important historic landmarks, Platt, Byard, Dovell, White. Andrew Tallon, who taught the History of Art at Vassar College from 2007 until his untimely death in 2018, took the photographs in the summer of 2016 to illustrate a monograph on John McAndrew, the scholar-architect responsible for the library’s original 1937 design. This monograph took shape around a scholarly study of McAndrew’s modernism written by the architectural historian Mardges Bacon.2

Preservation and its historical objective is a project of the future as well as the past. The restorers of John McAndrew’s Art Library understood this implicitly. One of the two architects on the project, the late Paul Spencer Byard, stated this principle as follows:

There is in a sense no such thing as “preservation”…. Every act of preservation is inescapably an act of renewal by the light of a later time. 3

Even what we know as the modern demands this historical treatment. It cannot not be envisioned without it. Every new work involves temporal exchange, because, as Byard points out:

Each new work of art is supported and enriched by its sources and its cultural and physical contexts. . . . In each creative act the old and the new are inextricably entwined and inescapably beholden to each other. 4

In a word, the new depends on the old for its existence, even as the old requires the new for its apprehension. Acts of historical enquiry and historic preservation are therefore not mere acts of nostalgia; they derive their energy from our urgency to creatively envision solutions to the confrontations of the present and future in juxtaposition to what has gone before. The instrument of the photograph, so relentless in showing us a present that slips into the past as soon as the shutter is snapped, thus shows us in the same moment the past as it enters and builds itself into the present.

Andrew Tallon’s deep familiarity with Gothic architecture made him cognizant of the dialect of old and new even in the practices of medieval builders. During his initial visit to Vassar he lectured on successive medieval renovations to particular buttresses of Notre Dame of Paris, each buttress building on observations about the strengths and weaknesses of the earlier designs.

Superb historian and photographer that he was, it comes as nosurprise to us that Andrew Tallon’s photography of a quintessentially modernist architectural space envisions this space as both an artifact of a bygone era of design (“modernism”) and a creative field that holds the promise of a future with endless potential. No less “historic” than the Gothic structures Tallon was so skilled at documenting, these photographs of John McAndrew’s own vision of the space of the future, a space whose restoration was based on both photographic records and scientific research, illuminate the pure form within which the future of art and architectural history at Vassar unfolds. For McAndrew, the modernist revolution was in color. An essential design element that Tallon’s photographs hone in on are the color schemes, which McAndrew modeled on Le Corbusier’s purist color palette and his own insight that color could be deployed in the design of a study space in order to offset illustrative materials as well as maximize illumination. The colors were thus meant to subdivide these materials and give the eye one wall at a time to consume so that, in the words of a contemporary member of the art department, the color effect would thus reduce “the inevitable fatigue of the very powers of attention we try to evoke.” 5

While preservation is not a matter of fixing past forms in amber, a certain attentive regard for these forms which comes through study and understanding will lead to a willingness to spend time with and engage them. Imagination cannot exist without memory any more than memory can exist without imagination. So it is no coincidence that so many of the individuals who have created and recreated the beautiful and functional learning space documented in Andrew’s photographs should be known for their work in historic preservation. This includes John McAndrew himself, who late in his career helped to found the Save Venice organization after the 1966 flood. Paul S. Byard and Charles A. Platt have worked as architects on projects to preserve major New York monuments including Carnegie Hall, the Cooper Union Foundation Building, the New York Historical Society, and the Park Avenue Armory. They have also directed or served on the boards of the New York Landmarks Conservancy and the Municipal Art Society, and Paul Byard’s legal background was instrumental in the Supreme Court case that saved Grand Central Terminal. As educators, both men helped to formulate, and taught in, the the historic preservation studio architecture program at Columbia University. Andrew Tallon was a founder of the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, an organization established to collect funds for the maintenance and restoration of the great cathedral that was a chief object of his research. In recent months that research has become an international media story as it becomes apparent that it will be critical to the effort to restore the cathedral after the catastrophic fire of April 15.

 

Architectural historians in Vassar’s Art Department have been scholars rooted in medieval and Renaissance studies who taught and wrote about contemporary design. In addition to his work as an architect, McAndrew, an expert in Venetian architecture, made an immense contribution in a series of exhibitions he organized as curator of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. These exhibitions shaped public opinion during the critical period when European modernism was being introduced to North America. His successors over the following 80 years at Vassar College, Richard Krautheimer, John Coolidge, Wolfgang Lotz, Richard Pommer, and Nicholas Adams, were historical specialists as well as participants, through teaching and scholarship, in the architecture of their own times: past and present infused one another in their work.

Le Corbusier’s “persons with knowledge” who have “eyes that see,” to whom the future should be entrusted, are endowed with the ability to construct a new world out of the old. Like John McAndrew, an educator who used his architectural talent to create a new kind of learning space for students, Andrew Tallon was known at Vassar from the day he arrived as an innovator in methodologies for visualizing and communicating architectural forms and ideas, particularly with digital media. Arriving in the Art Department just as digital images were taking the place of 35mm slides, Tallon was instrumental in the Department’s acquisition of state-of-the-art digital projection equipment for its classrooms that made the use of digital images for teaching truly viable, and he led a fundamental change in the way visual information is communicated in teaching. His groundbreaking exhibition at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in 2012, Space, Time, and Narrative: Mapping Gothic France, presented the museum-going public with a demonstration of the potential of new media to alter space, and succeeded at something all architectural exhibits strive for but rarely achieve, a sensory experience in a museum setting of the physical spaces these exhibits purport to represent. Employing phased, overlapping digital images and high-resolution projectors, the exhibition truly transformed the space of the museum into something other than what we knew it as, and evoked in a stunning way a visual and visceral sense of the dramatic light-and-color-filled Gothic interiors with which Andrew was so familiar. Andrew’s Tallon’s vision was informed by deep historical understanding, drew on his creative talents as an experimenter with new media, and was employed self-reflexively to create new spaces for teaching and learning. In these photographs he draws our attention to table tops, natural light, color, and stairways that form the passages of the process of study. The photographs appear as material emblems of this process, of the virtuous circle of recollection and experiment, of the conversation that takes place between the document and the work of art, that is recreated by the seeing eyes of all the scholars and artists, past and future, who pass through our portals who are our, and his, enduring legacy.

—Thomas Hill, April 2019

 

Notes:

1. (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), 5.

2. John McAndrew’s Modernist Vision: From the Vassar College Art Library to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ed. by Mardges Bacon (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018).

3. Byard, Paul Spencer, The Architecture of Additions (New York:
Norton, 1998), 182.

4. Byard, 17.

5. Agnes Claflin, “The Art Department in New Quarters,” Vassar Alumnae Magazine, Vol. 23, no. 6 (July 1, 1938) reproduced in Bacon, 10.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Geological Illustration from Catastrophism to the Anthropocene

An Exhibition at the Vassar College Art Library

October 5 to December 20, 2018

Our exhibit begins with the 1697 English edition of Thomas Burnet’s Theory of the Earth, opened to an engraved image of a view of the Earth at the receding of the waters of the great Deluge described in Genesis 6-9, showing a tiny Noah’s Ark grounded on Mount Ararat at the center, and, according to the author’s theory, Earth’s newly formed continents and mountain chains just visible under the waves.  As an example of illustration we would consider the image today to be more fanciful than scientific, based on scriptural sources, since we believe today that most familiar landforms developed through time very gradually and not by catastrophes and cataclysms, divinely caused or natural, such as floods and volcanoes. The image, however, is emblematic of a number of natural histories illustrated by contemporary interpreters of the science and history of our planet, including the artists whose works appear elsewhere in this exhibit.

Detail of an illustration concerning the composition of the crust in the Paris’ basin, from Cuvier’s and Brongniart’s study.

Noah’s Ark, whose etymology (Old English ærc, from Latin arca, chest) describes a closed box or tabernacle (as in the Ark of the Covenant), denotes as well a box for keeping records. It is related to our word “archive,” and is symbolic of the impulse toward archivism that characterizes so many of the books displayed here. George Cuvier, the founder of paleontology, for instance, in his own Theory of the Earth (1818) presents the Earth itself as an archive of ancient activity as well as of living and extinct life forms, organized temporally in layered strata, which binds geologic science through the fossil record to biological history.

Eurypterus (sea scorpion) fossil. Courtesy Scott Warthin Museum of Geology and Natural History, Vassar College

The ark of the Earth itself therefore transports and discloses to us across great spans of time information about events and species that time and the Earth have both swallowed up, including, as Darwin would eventually surmise, our own ancestry.

The close alliance between artistic illustration and geologic theory and documentation examined in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center exhibition Past Time: Geology in European and American Art, which this exhibit accompanies, was facilitated from the middle of the Nineteenth Century, as was all scientific recording, with the invention of photography and the adoption of the photographic document.  George Shattuck, a Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at Vassar College at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, bolstered his own geologic exploration and teaching by becoming an early adept and proponent of this medium, deployed here for educational purposes in his photographic guide, Geological Rambles Near Vassar College, (1907). Besides his use of photography as an archival medium, Shattuck’s descriptive rambles signal another feature embodied in Burnet’s account of Noah’s Ark, that of the “story” in “natural history,” or the use of narrative for recording past events. Most of the remaining artists’ books in our own “ark” (our Art Library exhibit case was originally designed for displaying scientific specimens) investigate both types of documentary media: storytelling and the photograph.

 

Most prominent here for examples of itinerant narrative and photography both are the publications of the British artist Richard Long, whose work is comprised of photographic and sculptural records of his own rambles across landscapes and his interventions therein. Eight of his books are exhibited here along the bottom of the exhibit case (1984-2001).

Long is keenly interested in the role of human activity on the memorial record of the Earth, and he may be viewed as an early interpreter of the concept of a new era characterized by human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, designated popularly as the Anthropocene.  

 

Other artists here whose works examine the tools of narrative and photographic documentation include Swiss-born Jelena Martinovic’s historically-inclined tribute to mountaineers, Bold Climbers (2016),

Belfast-born Maria Fusco’s myth-tinged book documenting the building of the Cruachan Power Station, Master Rock (2015),

Michelle Stuart’s fanciful history of a California inhabited only by women, The Fall (1976),

and the Norwegian artist Kurt Johannessen’s talismanic and anthropomorphizing Steiner (2002), who recites stories not about rocks but to rocks.

Like Johannessen’s Steiner, Luke Stettner’s artist’s book History Database (2016) is an archive that blurs the distinction between the living or once-living, and non-living aspects of the geologic record. Like Martinovic, Fusco, and Stuart, Stettner employs archival photographs and illustrations, along with new photography, drawings, pictograms and photocopies to tell a larger story about mortality, documentation, and deep time.

Most interesting in her exploration of the Earth, archives, narrative, and photography, in her work Duskdust (2016), the Berlin-born artist Susanne Kriemann creates documents from the material of the Earth itself in the stark light of what is sometimes referred to as the “bunker archaeology” of the Anthropocene.  Her silk screens incorporate paper made from ground limestone from the abandoned quarry on the Swedish island of Gotland she investigates, while her photographs capture the natural light of the quarry at various times of day, relating these by association to narrative texts and archival materials, including old photographs.

Not all of our contemporary illustrative interpreters of the Earth are photographers.  The graphic (from the Greek graphos, to write, carve, or dig) artist Rodger Binyone’s colorful artist’s book MAGMA:  Dynamo Conflagration No. 10 (2015), is a fanciful narrative based loosely on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (very loosely), about a Canadian volcanist and her assistant’s quest, aided by a mole rat, into the Earth’s core in search of a special neon-red Icelandic magma.

Brooklyn-based Sibba Hartunian’s books Volcanoes and Mountains are colorful multiples issued and sold inexpensively in small numbers, produced through environmentally-friendly risograph printing (employing a soy-based gelatin), enlisting the artist’s process in limiting the disruption done to the Earth by human intervention.

Also addressing the damaging effects of humanity on the Earth characteristic of the Anthropocene is Etienne Turpin’s An Anarchist Introduction to the Anthropocene (2015), which brings to bear a narrative asserting the “centrality of militant labor as a force capable of transforming the nature of cities, the culture of America, and the geologic deep-time marked by the Anthropocene.”

Positive approaches to our relationship with the Earth are also apparent in certain institutional or governmental competitive projects that meld earth science and art.  These are represented here by the NOAAs (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Western Regional Center at Sand Point, Washington in the land art featured in Five Artists at NOAA: A Casebook on Art in Public Places (1985);

and EOS (Earth Observatory Singapore: Art Projects 2010-2013: Six Projects Inspired by Earth Science (2014).

Finally, in her acclaimed Queens Museum exhibition of last year, Wandering Lake (2017), documented in her artist book of the same name, Patty Chang offers a geologic, archival, and photographic meditation on the loss of her father and the birth of her son.  Her thoughts are interwoven with a narrative inspired by the Swedish geographer and travel writer Sven Hedin, who tells a story about a migrating lake in the Gobi desert.  A story of powerlessness, Chang’s statement has more to do with the function of art as a vehicle for mourning the present than its imagined role in making things better in the future.  As a counterpart to the image we opened with of Noah’s Ark grounded upon the rock of Mount Ararat, the exhibit ends with the hard place of an emblematic photograph by Chang of another beached boat as she hopelessly scrubs its barnacled hull.

Checklist
Books in the Exhibition arranged by publication year:

Burnett, Thomas. The Theory of the Earth: containing an account of the original of the Earth, and of all the general changes which it hath already undergone or is to undergo till the Consummation of all things. Third Edition. – London: R.N., 1697. Loaned from the collection of Prof. Jill Schneiderman.

Cuvier, Jean Leopold Nicholas Frederick Cuvier, Baron. Essay on the Theory of the Earth with Mineralogical Notes and an Account of Cuvier’s Geological Discoveries by Professor Jameson, to added Observations on the Geology of North America. Illustrated by Samuel L. Mitchell. – New York: Kirk & Mercein, 1818. Loaned from the collection of Prof. Jill Schneiderman.

Shattuck, GeorgeBurbank. Geological Rambles Near Vassar College. -Poughkeepsie: The Vassar College Press, 1907. Loaned from the collection of Prof. Jill Schneiderman.

Stuart, Michelle. The Fall. – New York: Printed Matter, 1976.

Long, Richard. Aggie Weston’s. No. 16. – London: Coracle Press, 1979.

Long, Richard. Richard Long. – Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven, 1979.

Long, Richard. Postcards 1968-1982. — Paris: Union à Paris, 1984.

Long, Richard. Richard Long. – Fonds Regional d’Art Contemporain Aquitaine, 1985.

United States. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Five Artists at NOAA: A Casebook on Art in Public Places.— Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1985.

Long, Richard. Neanderthal Line, White Water Circle. — Dusseldorf: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1994.

Long, Richard. Richard Long. — Dusseldorf: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1994.

Long, Richard. Mountains and Waters. – New York: Braziller, 2001.

Johannessen, Kurt. Steinar. — Bergen: Zeth Forlag, 2002.

Turpin, Etienne. An Anarchist Introduction to the Anthropocene. – Brooklyn: Etienne Turpin, 2013.

EOS Earth Observatory Singapore. ART Projects 2010-2013: Six Art Projects Inspired by Earth Science. — Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2014.

Binyone, Rodger. MAGMA: Dynamo Conflagration No. 10. – Philadelphia, 2015.

Fusco, Maria. Master Rock. – London: Artangel, 2015.

Hartunian, Sibba. Mountains. – Sibba Hartunian, 2016.

Hartunian, Sibba. Volcanoes. – Sibba Hartunian, 2016.

Kriemann, Susanne. Duskdust. – Berling: Sternberg Press, 2016.

Martinovic, Jelena. Bold Climbers. – Lausanne: Cordyceps Press, 2016.

Stettner, Luke. History Database. – SPBH Editions, 2016.

Chang, Patty. Wandering Lake. – New York: Queens Museum, 2017.

Curated by Thomas E. Hill, Art Librarian

Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 2018.

Media Studies Installations in the Art Library

Sofía Benitez. Still from the video “Stand By Me”.

On the evening of May 4, 2018 a group of five graduating seniors under the advisorships of Professors Heesok Chang and Molly Nesbit in Vassar’s Media Studies Program presented multimedia installations as part of their theses requirements in Van Ingen Hall: in the Art Library Stacks and the  former Visual Resources Library.  Projects were presented by Sophia Benitez, Delphine Douglas, Lena Redford, Joseph Simon and Sixing Xu.  These multimedia micro-utopias variously consisted of sounds, still and moving projections onto flat surfaces and objects, screen images, and texts, intentionally contextualized by the physical spaces in which they were exhibited such as the Art Library study carrels.  Visitors were presented with a map locating each installation, and the presenters were available at their installations for comments and questions.  A lively audience consisted of curious students, faculty, and people who had come to campus especially to see the exhibition/happening.  The projects were co-investigative: where media were deployed as self-interrogating research-objects to examine concepts of subjectivity and interactivity in a fluid universe shaped by digital experiences. Collective areas of inquiry included the impact of the digital image on art and life, time and history, friendship and relationships, embodiment and gender, space and boundaries. Drawing energy from their surroundings, the projects were activated by the space of the library, and in turn activated the library space in a charged circuit of meaningful, self-reflective, and creative harmonies, resonating with one another in a  collective effort where the the library was shown to offer new and progressive possibilities of embodiment and habitation.

Images

Heesok Chang, Molly Nesbit, and exhibit visitors viewing a video by Joseph Simon

Joseph Simon, Sixing Xu, Delphine Douglas and Sofía Beritez view Sixing Xu’s installation in Carrel 17 of Stack III of the Art Library

Still from Delphine Douglas’s video “Beyond the Speculum” installed in Carrel 29 of Stack II of the Art Library

Art Librarian Thomas Hill visiting Sixing Xu’s Installation in Stack III of the Art Library

Projections from Sixing Xu’s installation in Stack III of the Art Library

VIdeo Still from “Movement Three” by Sophía Beritez

Artist Antoine Robinson experiencing Sixing Xu’s installation in Stack III of the Art Library

Videos

—  Video of visitors to Sixing Xu’s installation in Stack III of the Art Library

 

—  Video from Delphine Douglas’s installation

 

—  Video of combined projects by Joseph Simon, Sophía Beritez, and Lena Redford installed in the Screening Room of the old Visual Resources Library in Taylor Hall