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Museum visits

From an email I sent to a friend describing my birthday break in New York City:

First went to the David Smith show at the Guggenheim.The lower circle floors: early work of biomorphic vaguely surrealistic tabletop pieces (the NYRB reviewer of the DS show favorably described them as "European," and having something to do with Giaocometti, a non-obvious point). They were generally small and fussy, although the Hirshhorn DS chicken was included, a favorite of mine, which I'd photographed at the Hirshhorn a few years ago. And then a wonderful series of tall thin eloquent pieces called "Forgings," which I'd never seen face-to-face before. Some excellent ideas there: abstract in shape and profile, but with the naturalism of a hand-worked surface. There were also 3 or 4 Cubis, but they sat dead indoors against the studiously uniform warm white walls and florescent lighting; they belong outside as David Smith once powerfully wrote about stainless steel in the sun. The Voltri pieces were as wonderful as ever. DS's work is amazing but after all these years (I first saw his work at the 1969 Guggenheim show and also visited the leftovers at this studio near Lake George after his death), perhaps I've seen it all. So the current brilliant list: Smith's Cubis, Serra's Torqued Ellipses at Dia Beacon and Te Tuhirangi Contour (seen only in photographs) in New Zealand, and Judd's artillery sheds at Marfa, Texas.

The Guggenheim is a fine museum for showing sculptures (at least those under 10 feet tall); and it is wonderfully different, like the Barnes, from any other museum. Right now my favorite U.S. museums are the Nasher (Dallas), Guggenheim, Barnes, and Dia Beacon. Have not been to Kimbell yet.

Then to the Whitney Biennial. Oh no, or something like that: closed on Tuesdays!

The Whitney Biennial catalog, which I bought at the unclosed-on-Tuesdays Whitney bookstore, was filled with unpleasant, self-conscious work--often based on falsely ominous and falsely knowing photographs. I agree with some of the political stances, but anger is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of good art, and some of this artistic passion tends towards political naivete and therapeutic pouting. The anti-war posters, the several hundred posted outdoors at the Whitney, were pretty good; about one-third veered toward earnest commercial art posters, not art. Personal conclusion from catalog only: nothing much to learn, for my no doubt narrow interests, from the last 2 years of contemporary artwork at the Whitney. Am going the Art Fair in Basel this June so I'll have another look at contemporary work.

Then onwards to MOMA. Oh no, CLOSED ON TUESDAYS! Pre-trip, I confirmed that the Guggenheim was open Tuesdays but didn't check the Whitney and MOMA.

OK, back uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is always interesting. The pre 200BCE and the indeed the pre 2000BCE art is wonderful: abstract but with style, and unstereotyped at least my modern eyes, fresh, different. Then to the classical Greeks and Romans: beautiful, striking, glowing, but centered on an idealized representational (nonabstract) human bodies. On to the Renaissance: looked fussy and heroically show-off (elaborate hairdos cut with tortuous detail into marble) after the abstactions of early Greek and Roman, Assyrian, Egyptian. Then on to many fresh beautiful largely abstract pieces from Africa and the Far East. Saddest image: museum map of one of the "cradles of civilization," Mesopotamia, now in today's darkness. All sorts of fine abstract gestural shapes (again, to my eyes) in Chinese calligraphy; other Chinese work too stylized. Favorite works at the Met: small cylindrical stone seals (Sumerian, 3000BCE?), with good text-image integration, similar to the magnificent Assyrian royalty reliefs with writing all over the image in the bottom third. I followed my usual strategy of going to galleries at the Met that were largely unpopulated by visitors, in order to see quietly and without interruption. I learned that you can take photographs at the Met, as long as no flash. So next time to New York, I'm going to stay in a nearby hotel for 3 days and photograph abstract ideas at the Met like crazy. All told, thankful about Tuesday closings elsewhere.

Lunch at Tang Pavilion (home of one of my rare celebrity sightings in New York, Jasper Johns, a while back), then dinner at Shun Lee (about 8 years ago saw Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall there, who ate with forks not chopsticks, waiter showed us the AMEX slip for "Michael Jagger"). Tang Pavilion better, Shun Lee steamed "Chilean Sea Bass" (aka "Patagonian Tooth Fish") had stayed in the aquarium a bit too long, but Shun Lee's mapo dofu proved an excellent birthday treat.

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Museum visits on my birthday

Christopher Knight, art critic of the Los Angles Times, reviews the Whitney Biennial here. I thought better of the outdoor Peace Tower. Given Knight's review of the indoor show, I'm thankful for ultimate Whitney/Met switch.

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Museum visits on my birthday

Carol Vogel on the Met's website:

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Museum visits on my birthday

I, myself, live in New York and frequent the museum scene here. I do this because I am a museum studies graduate student. I noticed on your trip to New York museums you didn't stop into the "Museum of Congnitive Art", I'm guessing you didn't because it doesn't exist. Yet.

For the last few months, I've been putting a great amout of time into theorizing what a museum might look like if it concerned itself with the exhibition of 'sociological' information through graphic display and interpretation. In this example the objects to be collected would mainly be 2-D charts or graphs of scholarly research. What would be displayed are the 3-D renderings of the collected 2-D material. Visitors would be encouraged to engage with the 3-D renderings on a deeper level than simply "cognitive art". They would be asked to compare the represented data with their own lives, hopefully walking away with a highened understanding of the world in which they live.

Have you ever been approched by museums to display quantitative information? Or have you ever given thought to 'freeing' data from paper and computer screens to 3-D renderings?

I know the cylintracial stone seals you favored so much at the MET, I also am intrigued by them. Interestingly they are accompanied with their positive relief. I would compare the relief to 3-D renderings of 2-D graphic information. Much easier to see and allows for a greater appreciation of the original work.

Happy belated birthday!

*Note* If this response is never published, I would still appreciate a direct response. I was interested in this topic before being introduced to Mr. Tufte's work but find it quite helpful. I feel that some sort of personal dialogue would benefit my research greatly and hopefully be of interest to Mr. Tufte as well. Besides this forum, I see no other way to contact him directly.

-- Jean-Luc Howell (email)

The Museum of Cognitive Art

High-level conceptual redesigns of the classics are extremely difficult, often impossible, and usually an embarrassment. Classic displays have a completeness, coherence, integrity, and historical priority such that after-the-fact interventions are crude, merely technological marketing, and without the care and craft of the original. There are, for example, a plague of deeply stupid redesigns of Minard's French Invasion of Russia that diminish the original and, even more so, its redesigners.

The classics illustrate (1) analytical design at its best, (2) the universality of theoretical principles involved in displays of evidence, (3) why it is worth celebrating excellence in design. But the perfection of the classics (a perfection partly within their time) often forecloses redesign. Redesigns are impertinent and crude, as redesigners arrogantly imagine that they will improve upon Minard or Marey. I have sometimes minor, and only minor, interventions on the classics (more explicit scales of measurement, improvements in the quality of reproduction, more detailed sourcing, explanatory annotation, better modern data sources, higher data resolution).

In choosing templates for workaday graphical productions, it is worthwhile to look for excellent, conventional templates. Conventional templates immediately solve a lot of graphical reading problems for the viewer of the display. But the classics are often classics because they are off-the wall, unconventional, idiosyncratic, one-off, brilliant, historically original performances. Tinkering with Minard's Napoleon's March is no better than an artist tinkering with Picasso's Guernica.

My conception of the Museum of Cognitive Art is theoretical (a room of graphics conveying evidence about causality, or a room showing time-series for the last 2000 years, or a gallery showing color representing data, or another gallery showing changes in resolution from then until now), historical, and craft-oriented. Or something of an illustrated sociology of ideas room, as in David Kaiser's excellent book, Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics. One can almost already see a wonderful gallery on the history of Feynman diagrams curated by Kaiser; showing the physicality of the original publications would be a good supplement to the book.) And show originals of excellent work--Galileo's books and scientific notebooks, Playfair's original work, and, if possible the working methods behind great work (preliminary to final published versions). And I hope MOCA will be open on Tuesdays.

One reason that analytical design is such a wonderful field is that there are so many amazing displays over the last 6,000 years that can now be placed in the context of analytical design. Imagine that for the tens of thousands of years of painting and sculpture that there had never been an art historian or art analyst, and now you became the first historian or analyst. That's how I sometimes feel about analytical design.

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Museum visits on my birthday (and where was The Museum of Cognitive Art?)

In the essay Why Read the Classics, Italo Calvino takes his
reader through a dialectic on the classics:

  • We use the words "classics" for books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them

  • The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.

  • Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

  • The classics are the books that come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).

  • A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives much pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.

  • Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.

  • A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.

  • A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

  • A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.

More excerpts can be found at Emory if you can read them

-- Tchad (email)

I've visited the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently and pretty much agree with with Robert Smith assessments of the buildings here. MOMA's new sculpture garden seems like a corporate plaza compared to the cosy sanctuary of past times.

MOMA's art collection is stunning and for the first time I really appreciated contemporary art.

Bill Viola's 5-panel video art work at MOMA is amazing. The work provides mirror planes on the floor completely integrated into the work, an integration which solves a deeply difficult problem in art. It remains largely unsolved for sculpture: how to integrate piece-sized projection planes for shadows or reflections so that the planes are a coherent part of the work. I have good luck with some recent stainless steel bases that play with the light and shadows coming down onto the base. Integrated vertical projection planes are much more difficult, and probably have to be built directly into the work itself even though they have greater power a bit set off from the light-generating work itself.

-- Edward Tufte

Judd in the Tate

You can see some typically elegant Tate installations in this video tour of the 2004 Judd exhibition:

As I discovered to my delight when preparing a travel report last summer, the same museum has exemplary walk-throughs of their exhibitions. So I was able to retrace my steps in the Albers/Moholy-Nagy show here:

The only real flaw in the latter is the persistent presence of squares reading Image Not Available Due To Copyright Restrictions. If this isn't fair use, I don't know what is.

Graham Larkin

-- Graham Larkin (email)

A nice picture tour of "beautiful knowledge"

-- Daniel Meatte (email)

Threads relevant to Edward Tufte's work:

Seeing Around: New ET essay published

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