Category Archives: Uncategorized

Collection highlight: Albergo pensione centrale, Siena

As well chronicled in the Getty Research Institute publication Meyer Schapiro abroad: letters to Lillian and travel notebooks, Schapiro spent the year of 1926 traveling abroad in Europe and the Near East.


While he kept extensive records of his travels in notebooks and diaries, Schapiro was also inspired to draw on found material. As evinced in this drawing found in the archive, Schapiro was so taken by drawing that even a business card for his hotel room was not spared.


Could this have been drawn en plein aire in Siena? Or was it done back in his room at the pensione?


One may never know exactly, but it certainly gives a nice glimpse into his artistic practice as one that was inspired as it was inspiring.

Meyer Schapiro and Naive Art

While primarily known as a scholar of medieval and modern art, Meyer Schapiro was also interested in artists and art movements outside of these two genres. In this regard, Meyer Schapiro wrote about "naive painting" in the unpublished outline titled "Significance of modern naive painting" and his writing on this genre is as topical as it is intriguing.

The term "naive" art has etymological roots with "outsider" and "self-taught" art, and, indeed, these terms have been conflated with each other. While each term has its set of socio-cultural issues (whether they be art historical, museological, sociological, economical, or racial), naive, outsider, and self-taught art have deep roots in the art historical canon, even while the genre itself spirals in and out of the canonical orbit constructed from an Anglo-European art historical framework.

The conflation of these terms stems from their mutual affinity in describing  artists who were not formally trained, but relied on their own social, cultural, psychological, and ethnic resources to execute their art practices.

That Schapiro was writing on naive art in the 1940s and 1950s is quite a revelation. For it was in those years when this genre of art was waning in popularity due to the rise of another nascent and emerging genre, Abstract Expressionism.

The history of self-taught art in the United States is rife with compellingly contradictory trajectories.  Self-taught art can be art historically traced to artisanal folk traditions in the United States (primarily from New England), to European art historical scholarship on art and psychiatry (from the likes of Hans Prinzhorn whom Schapiro was in correspondence with in the 1930s), and, finally, to self taught "primitive" artists as articulated by the author Sidney Janis in the publication They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century.

Janis’s publication also had an accompanying exhibition of the same name that was mounted at the Marie Harriman Gallery in Manhattan from February9 through March 7, 1942. Schapiro may have attended this exhibition, as his archive includes a copy of the Harriman Gallery brochure which is pictured above at right.

The history of "naive art" highlights a portrait of American identity between the World Wars: one that eschewed the tastes of the upper class for a populist (and popular) narrative that was thought to resound with the public, especially in times of economic distress due to the Depression and to social unrest because of World War I and world tensions leading to World War II.

For a compelling look into this genre during the wars, see Galerie St. Etienne’s essay for the exhibition "They Taught Themselves : American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars."  (Notice the shift in terms from "naive" to "self-taught" in the exhibition title compared to Janis’s original publication.)

As Abstract Expressionism became the leading cultural identity for a victorious America after World War II, the self-taught genre became marginalized. It wasn’t until the 1960s onward that the genre became to be appreciated again by the likes of collector Herbert Hemphill for its strong aesthetic and cultural significance.

Schapiro’s writing on naive art is astonishing for celebrating its highly visionary and personal quality beholden to the artist, an emphasis that would become the genres leading theoretical axis in the 1970s to the present. Schapiro would write:

Modern naive, home-made painting presupposes the general change in painting to an art of personal experience and perceptions. The domestic painter discovers this not through contact with artists, but through the pictures themselves; the fact that he sees so many landscapes and intimate scenes and beautiful girls permits him to identify painting with his own desires and images. The relation between painting and fantasy of perception is more direct than in literature, where the command of language requires a long cultivation and symbolic method, the painter who represents a beautiful landscape or woman recreates the stimulus or the object of desire, its dreamed of colors and shapes.

While Schapiro’s writing on naive art went unpublished, it is uncanny in that it reveals how scholars and gatekeepers would reconceptualize the genre thirty years later.  Schapiro positions these artists, whom he terms "domestic painters" as visionaries.

Modern naive, home-made painting presupposes the general change in painting to an art of personal experience and perceptions. The domestic painter discovers this not thru contact with artists, but thru the pictures themselves; the fact that he sees so many landscapes and intimate scenes and beautiful girls permits him to identify painting with his own desires and images. The relation between painting and fantasy or perception is more direct than literature, where the command of language requires a long cultivation and symbolic method; the paitner who represents a beautiful landscape or woman recreates the stimulus or the object of desire, its dreamed of colors and shapes.

In this regard, for Schapiro, "naive painting" is "image painting" and "not abstraction or automatism or collage or expressionist formalism. "

Schapiro also touches on another controversial topic for scholars of the genre: its position and relation to modern and contemporary art.

As Schapiro writes:

Why are there no important naive artists before Rousseau? Have they been lost because of lack of interest in their work? Are the American domestic painters of the 18th and 19th centuries comparable to the modern naive artists? One must be cautious in answering these questions, since the material has never been collected properly; and what has been exhibited is judged mainly from the viewpoint of modern art.

That the works by naive artists are to be viewed from outside the viewpoint of modern art, or seen under a different lens altogether as Schapiro highlights, is one that underlines these works as created outside the modernist canon.

In retrospect, however, and as the etymology of the terms "naive," "primitive," "self-taught," and "outsider" art have demonstrated, these genres have a lineage that was part of the "modernist" canon itself in that, as definitions, they were constructed to clarify each other as descriptive terms to understand the practices of artists during a given historical time.

By bringing into relief the process of looking at these works, one can sense Schapiro’s keen call to perceive and look closely, differently, and with pleasurable scrutiny at this genre, all ideas that he sought to bring to the art historical discipline.

In this vein, Schapiro would move the chronological axis of self-taught art further back in time when he writes:

Is there any other period in which painters are self-taught? Perhaps in the middle ages, in the monasteries or scriptoria, which produced much home-made painting and ornament and perhaps stone-work. Then, as today, painting was cultivated as a private or personal evocation, as a marginal activity.

A compelling idea from a consummate medievalist.


The Americans, Robert Frank, and Meyer Schapiro

In anticipation of this weeks exhibition opening of “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I thought it a good moment to shed light on Meyer Schapiro’s role in helping Robert Frank with that particular photographic project, “The Americans.”

In the mid-1950s, Frank would travel throughout the United States to document the everyday life of Americans and would later publish those images as a publication: first in France in 1958 and then in the United States in 1959. The publication first premiered in France due to its raw and unflinching portrayal of an America that was a ethnically, socially, and economically diverse. It was as visually stunning as it was sociologically revealing, a combination that made The Americans an unrivaled artistic phenomenon. Jack Kerouac, then in his prime as a contemporary writer, wrote the introduction to the book and further cemented the publication as cutting edge.

For the publication’s 50th anniversary, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. organized the exhibit that will premiere at the Metropolitan this week. It later traveled to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. I viewed the exhibit in D.C. and was stunned by Frank’s project as a whole and the process involved in getting it published. At that time, I wasn’t aware of Schapiro’s role in Frank’s project, as the exhibition didn’t mention his name directly (although the exhibition’s publication certainly does).

In 1955, Frank applied for the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a fellowship to “photograph freely throughout the United States” and “make a broad voluminous picture record of things American.”

For the application, Frank asked photographers Walker Evans and Edward Steichen to write a recommendation. He also turned to Meyer Schapiro, albeit in a hasty manner.

In a letter from October 24, 1954, Frank would write to Schapiro: “A few days ago I have sent in an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have given your name as a reference. I have meant to call you and ask your permission. I am sorry that I have not done that and I only hope that I am not too optimistic when I ask for permission of a ‘fait accompli.'”

Two years later, Frank’s fellowship was renewed by the Guggenheim to continue his work on what would become The Americans and he would write Schapiro an appreciative letter: “I am very happy to write to you that I have been given a renewal of my Guggenheim Fellowship. This will permit me to conclude my project. Upon my return to New York I will be pleased to show you the results.”

Meyer Schapiro would show up in Frank’s oeuvre under the title “New York Photographs.” The picture, to your left, was taken in 1954, the same year as Frank’s application to the Guggenheim Fellowship, and was exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City in 1979 alongside “The Americans.”

For a nice overview of Frank’s journey in publishing The Americans, visit this site created by the National Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition “Looking In.”

Support the arts

Looking at this postcard sent by John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Meyer Schapiro, I can’t help but think of supporting the arts. In processing his correspondence, a portrait of Schapiro surfaces as a man who made every attempt to aid academics, artists, writers, and cultural workers.

For example, during the ensuing years of World War II, Schapiro worked emphatically to help Jewish German academics leave the rising intolerance of Germany. Intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno and Siegfried Kracauer would write to Schapiro knowing of his unconditional support in this matter.

Other artists, such as Maya Deren with the Creative Film Foundation, would also personally seek Schapiro’s assistance knowing of his uncompromised support of the arts. In another instance, Allan Kaprow would write to Schapiro seeking advice on art theory.

Indeed, Schapiro’s broad interests and knowledge of the arts made him a magnet of sorts in New York City’s cultural and artistic worlds. He also lived in a period that bridged Modernism with that of the Post-Modern and he never flinched when the tides turned.

Supporting the arts and artists is especially poignant in these dire economic times. Many cultural institutions are facing major cutbacks due to the sting of the economic meltdown. Artists themselves are also experiencing a harrowing loss in patronage, as collectors are tightening their purse strings.

Support comes in many forms that are not only financial (even though the ease of liquidity surely helps). It is showing support in visiting galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions that you mean to but never have time to or attending screenings at film organizations and viewing art works that support the work of emerging artists.

You can also volunteer at arts organizations too. In conjunction with President Barack Obama’s “United We Serve” campaign, Americans for the Arts is highlighting the work of volunteers at arts organizations.

Participatory action in the arts is not just confined to relational aesthetics, it is making a concerted effort to support cultural organizations that make the arts thrive for the current generation and those to come.


To bridge this blog with the project’s microblog on Twitter (@SchapiroArchive), I have started a new follow with the hashtag #ObscureArtHistorian.

This follow is dedicated to those art historians that are not as famously known as others. The follow is also an homage to one of the most useful on-line art historical reference resources, The Dictionary of Art Historians.

Maintained by Duke University and managed by Lee Sorensen, the Dictionary is a phenomenal listing of art historians that have shaped the discipline. Each entry not only includes standard birth place and date ranges, but a well written biography.
According to their website:

The Dictionary of Art Historians began in the fall of 1986 by indexing the historians cited in Eugene Kleinbauer’s Research Guide to the History of Western Art (1982) and his Modern Perspectives in Western Art History (1971), neither of which possessed an extensive index. Heinrich Dilly’s Kunstgeschichte als Institution (1979) and some of Kultermann’s Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte (1966), [the latter then only available in German] were added. The project remained dormant for a few years in card file format. In the interim, a myriad of art historiographies appeared or were reprinted. In 1996, a student input the card project into an electronic form.

As I come across art historians Meyer Schapiro was acquainted with, I’ll post a follow with a link to that historians biography from the Dictionary of Art Historians. In doing so, I hope to shed light on individual art historians that have worked towards cultivating new thoughts and ideas on art history.

For those who may be perplexed by all this Twitter-talk, hashtag’ s are a “community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets.” You can follow hashtags at websites like #hashtags.

So follow me on Twitter as I delve into the world of art history and encounter art historians who have forged the discipline’s path.

Postcard from the edge

Without a doubt, Salvador Dalí’s visual landscapes are as wild as they are hypnotic. The image on this postcard sent by Dalí to Meyer Schapiro is of Cadaqués, a fishing village in Catalonia, Spain that Dalí visited regularly throughout his life. Not unlike the artist’s own work, the postcard image has a distilled quality reminiscent of Dalí’s surreal landscapes.

The postcard was sent by Dalí to Schapiro in 1935, a year after the artist was introduced to American art circles by the dealer Julian Levy and where Schapiro may have met the artist. Dalí’s debut exhibition in New York included the now famous and iconic painting The Persistence of Memory, which the Museum of Modern Art in New York holds in its permanent collection.

Trying my best at deciphering his script, it seems Dalí wrote to Schapiro about his forthcoming trip to Paris and the possibility that the two might be able to meet when Dalí arrives in the city of lights. Schapiro did in fact travel to Europe in the 1930s, but it was later in the decade in 1939 right before World War II began. On that trip, Schapiro met another intriguing fellow, a man who believed in the power of popular culture, Walter Benjamin.

Cézanne and Beyond

The well reviewed exhibition Cézanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art closes this weekend. Throughout his life, Meyer Schapiro would write about Cézanne as a man who exemplified the artistic struggle–a struggle that defined the inner pathos of man and his quest to represent that personal journey itself. In a 1959 essay “Cézanne,” Schapiro writes:

Cézanne’s masterliness includes, besides the control of the canvas in its complexity and novelty, the ordering of his own life an an artist. His art has a unique quality of ripeness and continuous growth. While concentrating on his own problems-problems he had set himself and not taken from a school or leader-he was capable of an astonishing variety. This variety rests on the openness of his sensitive spirit. He admitted to the canvas a great span of perception and mood, greater than that of his Impressionist friends.

Another artist close to Schapiro’s reading on Cézanne is Vincent van Gogh. Schapiro’s well known rebuttal to Martin Heidegger about van Gogh’s boots strikes a similar tone in juxtaposing the artist and his art work with his very own lived experience.

For more information on the Philadelphia exhibit, click here.