Author Archives: Adriana Sensenbrenner

Inspiration and Influence in the Age of Paul Klee

Adriana Sensenbrenner

Klee builds himself a little house of art in a realm somewhere between childhood’s innocence and everyman’s prospect of infinity. – Duncan Phillips c.1938


The following paper will explore the Phillips Collection exhibition on Paul Klee, titled “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee.” Klee was a Swiss-born artist whose paintings have inspired artists and painters in Europe and America. He aided in the cultural exchange or migration of European art ideas in America, where at the time American wartime and post-war generations were seeking new inspiration and new meaning after World War II. My analysis will seek to approach Paul Klee’s influence in terms of layers of reception within an invisible dialogic network to piece together the artist’s inspirations, influences, mentors and followers. What emerges is a fusion of styles, ideas and concepts that are all derived from a single source. Klee becomes one node within a network of nodes where such a network becomes visible within the walls of the Phillips.


Paul Klee’s exhibit in the Phillips collection can be used as a case to apply discovery methods to extrapolate how meaning and understanding emerges. Through layers of reception and the invisible functions of the museum itself, artist and artistic conversations converge becoming nodes within a larger dialogical framework. My paper will uncover each one of these layers; the institutional/ physical layer of the museum, Paul Klee’s network in Europe and America and the subconversations happening around primitivism and “child-like” art. Such affinities coupled with the personal life of Paul Klee and the importance of the museum as a mediating institution brings to life Paul Klee’s artistic career and work. The meaning behind Klee’s collection emerge through such nodes within a larger dialogic network of contexts and communities, piecing together an irreplaceable image of the 20st century “painter-poet”.


Georgian Revival House, the original look of the Phillips Museum


The Phillips Collection was founded by Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), the son of Major Duncan Phillips. He was close to his old brother Jim, whom he graduated from Yale in 1908. Duncan and Jim were both avid art collectors and writing extensively on art. Duncan published his first book “The Enchantment of Art” in 1914. A few years later in 1917, Duncan’s father and brother Jim died from influenza that left a lasting mark on Duncan (Phillips Collection). As a response, Duncan and his mother founded the museum, originally named the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery. Duncan married Majorie Acker in 1921 a few months before the museum opened. Both of them worked close together until Duncan’s death in 1966. The building itself has been renovated from the original Georgian Revival house to accommodate more galleries and office space. The large renovation and expansion project in 2006 opened more than 30,000 square feet of space to include not only galleries but also an auditorium, library, outdoor courtyard, art conservation studio and an expanded visitor entrance, shop and café (Phillips Collection).

Duncan Phillips and his wife Majorie Acker

Duncan first acquired Paul Klee back in 1930 with Klee’s masterpiece Tree Nursery (1929). Phillips became an avid collector of Klee shortly thereafter, assembling 13 of Klee’s finest works in oil and watercolor that spanned the artist’s career. The following two decades saw an ever- growing presence of Klee specifically at the Phillips, where Klee’s masterpieces became grouped into a central place in the collection creating the “Klee Room”.[1] After two solo exhibitions in ’38 and ’42, the Klee Room became a permanent residence to the painter’s masterpieces and persona. Serving as an abiding source of inspiration for American abstractionism, the Klee Room attracted American visitors and painters alike who sought to better understand the painter’s whose personal life was as eclectic as his paintings.

As tribute to the “painter-poet”, the Phillips Collection created an exhibition titled “Ten Americans: After Paul Klee” to explore the seminal role of the Swiss-born artist on the development of 20th-century American art. The exhibit explores how influential Paul Klee was on artistic figures in the American Abstract Expressionist and Color Field movements. Each of them adapted Klee’s art- either visually or ideologically- into their works of art. The ten Americans are as follows; William Baziotes, Gene Davis, Adolph Gottlieb, Norman Lewis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Jackson Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Each of them drew on Klee in their own way, without seeking to emulate or copy his style yet used him to create visible and invisible synergies. The exhibition highlights how influential one painter can be, creating waves not only in the United States but also in Europe. Such a transatlantic exchange illustrates the larger dialogic network in which Paul Klee was working in as an artist.

Paul Klee

Paul Klee was born in Switzerland in 1879 to a family of artists. With a father as a musician, Klee was musically inclined as a violinist but ultimately chose painting in 1898 and went to Munich to study. Among the first Klee’s works that formed an integral part of his creative work were his etchings in 1903-06, that combined various artistic movements into one; the technical precision of the German Renaissance with the linearity of Art Nouveau and mad fantasy of the Expressionists (Mansfield, p. 12). He was part of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group that was later dispersed from Germany’s entrance in World War I. However, his artwork and work persisted in the midst of the war. Klee was part of an exhibition 1912 called Galerie Der Strum by Herwarth Walden that survived only a few years. His formidable years were when he was a teacher at the Bauhaus in Dessau. As a teacher, Klee strengthened his “resolve to discover and elaborate rational systems for the creation of pictorial form. He recorded his theories in his copious notes and in publications of great significance for modern art, including his 1925 Bauhaus book, Pedagogical Sketchbook.” (Mansfield, p. 282). He re-examined his own paintings through a different perspective as a teacher. For example, he used arrows to indicate lines of force for his students arrows where such arrows began to creep into his work (Mansfield, p. 282).


Phillip’s Collection Space:  

Observing any of Paul Klee’s masterpieces requires an analysis of the exhibition itself, extrapolating the physical layer of the museum. According to O’Doherty, modern gallery space is “constructed along laws as rigorous as those of building a medieval church where the basic principle is that the outside world must not come in[..] walls are painted white.” (O’Doherty, p. 7). Understanding the inner workings of the gallery space can be found not within a history of art but within the history of religion. He refers to a modern gallery space as a “white cube”, a transitional device that ultimately embodies a Zen space that enables the modern work to have its purity and clarity. As soon as you enter the gallery space on the third floor, the walls are lined with an introductory piece of the exhibit- a piece on Paul Klee and the motivation behind creating the exhibition. Walking past the entrance of the exhibit, the walls are lined with all ten of the artist’s works, each grouped thematically. One such theme that I will further explore in this paper is the concept of primitivism and archaic signs and symbols creating a sort of universal language for all to interpret at their own will.


Architectural layout of the Phillips Collection

Indeed, the exhibitions are grouped with such themes in mind yet the themes are stagnant- one can impose their own ideas as to which piece goes in which thematic room, leaving room for the visitors’ imagination and ideas. Such ideas recall the teachings of Malraux’s musée imaginaire, an abstract, ideal meaning system that “generations implementations of the conceptual and ideological system that actual museums and art history books realize in their selections and structures of the organization and validation” (Irvine, p. 4). Malraux arranged photographic exemplars on the floor much in the same manner as the painting on the walls of the Phillips exhibition are arranged- they are arranged in a certain order to extrapolate a certain meaning, creating a visible “cultural encyclopedia” for all who visits (Irvine, p. 6). Yet anyone can impose their own meaning on Klee’s exhibition, creating a recursive interpretation and re-interpretation. As such, the exhibition highlights the dialogic principle of how meanings are un-finalized and contextually situated in ongoing social conversations or dialogues (Irvine, 5). The gallery space of Paul Klee becomes “the medium through which these ideas are manifested and proffered for discussion” creating an interface to explore their ideas of art, beauty and aesthetics (O’Doherty, p. 14). It becomes a pre-interpreted space where the visible and invisible converge. The visible as the space itself and the invisible as the experience that is already interpreted in this kind of interface.


Paul Klee’s Network:

Paul Klee’s work in conversation with artists from Europe and America adds to the already multiple nodes within a larger dialogic network surrounding the artist. His works pre- Bauhaus and during his Bauhaus years reflects Klee’s osmotic artistic ability; fusing together so many different artistic and musical approaches within his art work that put him in conversation with artists in Europe and America. In 1920 Walter Gropius invited Klee to join the staff of Bauhaus at Weimar, seeking to combine fine art and craft that would provide design models for industrial production. As Aichele aptly states, Klee’s work places the artist within a broad theoretical context that includes references to “one of the systems of color theory taught at the Bauhaus, to the basic principles of twelve-ton music (Kandinsky) and aspects of his teaching curriculum of recapitulation from previous completed exercises” (Aichele, p. 75).

Paul Klee, Kettledrummer (1940)

Wassily Kandinsky, Esquisse pour Autour du cercle, 1940. Oil on panel. 15 ½ x 23 ⅝ in.

Such an improvisatory approach to art puts into conversation his long-time friend and fellow Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky. He became Klee’s muse, influencing the artist through his musically inclined artwork. Klee internalized Kandinsky’s musical metaphors, such as the “note/chord”, as seen in his masterpiece Kettledrummer (1940). This painting reflects synergies in the traditions of Russian Suprematism, Constructivism, Dutch de Stijl as well as naturalistic observations. Klee’s improvisatory approach to art stems from his belief that music reached a flowering point in the 18th century, particularly in the polyphonic music of Mozart and Bach. He aspired for art to achieve the effect of polyphonic music, characterized by multiple voices or melodies played simultaneously (Mansfield, p. 284). Klee wanted to bring about the harmonious convergence of the architectonic and the poetic, emphasizing geometric structure and abstract form mainly influenced by Bauhaus’ constructivist mentality. His later works like the one above emphasized bold and free black linear patterns against a colored field, executed with “brutal simplicity, thickly painted on a rough background” (Mansfield, p. 284).

The 1930s and 40s proved an increasingly complex and dangerous political climate in Germany, where both artists were thrown in the crux of such turmoil. Both artists were dismissed from the Bauhaus and labelled “degenerate” artists by the new government. Unlike most German artists, Klee stayed in Germany and moved to Berlin (whereas artists such as Kandinsky fled to Paris). A few people played major roles in the cultural exchange of Paul Klee’s artworks with the American public. Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s Director, visited Berlin in the Weimar Period and was particularly interested in purchasing art later labeled “degenerative” by the Nazis (Deschmukh, p. 581).

Adolf Hitler, accompanied by Nazi commission members viewing the “Entartete Kunst” show on July 16, 1937. (Gardner, p. 765)

He was exposed to the works coming from the Bauhaus and more importantly, works of Paul Klee. Barr ended up mounting a major Klee show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930 that played a formidable role in the cultural transmission of Klee’s artworks in America. The exhibition “paved the way to a greater acceptance of modern German art for it had attracted favorable reviews and large number of visitors” who saw how different and new Klee’s works were (Deshmukh, p. 582). The art dealer Emmy “Galka” Scheyer also served as the sole American-based art dealer promoting the works of four painters of which includes Klee. She named the “Blue Four”, reminiscent of the group’s name Blaue Reiter, and espoused these artists works throughout California and organized exhibitions in the 1920s and 30s. Such exhibitions introduced west coast artist like Diego Rivera to Kandinsky and Klee who saw the greatness in Klee’s work and bought several of his works for his friend Frida Kahlo, citing how Klee’s work was “not for the same broad public that Rivera always had in mind” (p. 54).

Paul Klee’s Reception in America:

American audiences embraced Klee’s art due to its spirit of whimsy and childhood wonder- poised between the material world and the transcendence. To American artists, Klee “symbolized fluctuating and even apparently contradictory roles of the artist in the modern world; to be uniquely and only oneself, uncategorized, to be private and inward and to be open and accessible to the public” (Zentrum, p. 53).  Thus it is helpful to think of Klee’s influence in terms of conversations rather than styles. The output from the various conversations happening during this time do not have the same visual styles but rather seek to reveal a similar method, a shared attitude towards the artistic process. Such conversations piece together a dialogic framework that is visualized within the exhibition at the Phillips. Each painting is in some way in conversation with Klee’s artistry and artistic technique.

Norman Lewis, Untitled (1947)

Take for instance Norman Lewis’ Untitled (1947), the only African-American artist among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Lewis was very much concerned with how art shifted social engagement to the meta-political level, creating a canvas that is anti-hierarchical “asserting that the aesthetic of a specific African people has a status equal to that of dominant European modes such as social realism and expressionism.” (Craven, p, 515). He is using the same artistic techniques as Klee such as geometric forms of the point and line as well as color. For Klee, color “was a source of energy that carries an emotional element to it, establishing the mood of the painting” (Mansfield, p. 282). Lewis uses Klee’s notion of color to establish a dark yet powerful mood, with heavy notes of black that surround the edges of the canvas almost as if it is engulfing the lighter-toned colors and geometric forms in the center of the canvas. The overall look of the painting looks like a storm is coming, probably citing the upcoming civil rights movements in the 50s. Lewis is therefore using Klee’s artistic techniques to advance his sociopolitical agenda to reach the public, just as Klee is an embodiment of an accessible and public artist.



Making the Invisible, Visible: Automatism, Primitivism and Child-like Art

Such relations among artists like Klee and Lewis form a dialogical network of correspondences and relationships. Another such relationship, or “node” if you will, is that between Gottlieb and Klee that highlight the third layer of subconversations happening around primitivism and “child-like” art. Gottlieb first was in contact with Klee when he purchased the monograph Paul Klee that Hermann von Wedderkop published in 1920, where such works like Erection into the Air(1938). served Gottlieb as source of inspiration. Together with Rothko, Soloman, Bolotowsky and Graham (“The Ten” group), Gottlieb strove to create a certain “dogma” that combined differing avant-garde styles into a unique pictorial language where such merging is reminiscent in Paul Klee’s paintings (Zentrum, p. 23). Gottlieb’s other source of inspiration rests on various abstract forms developed from acquiring tribal art in the mid-1930s on. He sought to synthesize these trends that he saw in the tribal art with the art that was being discussed during this time. Above all was Klee’s late works like The Man of Confusion (1939) that Gottlieb drew off of to create masterpieces such as Seer (1950)(p. 24).


Paul Klee, The Man of Confusion (1939)

Adolf Gottlieb, The Seer (1950)

Gottlieb was able to learn from Klee how “mythological subject matter and characters could serve artists in describing contemporary phenomena as well as illustrating unconscious feelings, the “inner world” of one’s psyche” (p. 24).  There thus became a common thread between the artists, both seeking to consciously create something from the unconscious. Gottlieb sought primal images as a way to understand ancestral images that embody nature’s primal forms. He ultimately began to draw a biomorphic pictorial language inspired by these images that include fossils and other natural formations. As previously mentioned, the The Seer (1950) is one example of Gottlieb’s pictograph. A further analysis of this pictograph will extrapolate how both artists reference mythology together with signs and symbols. His masterpiece is an exemplar of how Gottlieb emphasized the primitive content of his pictograph by using colors derived from cave paintings and Native American art- gray, tan, black and clay-colored. The boldly drawn signs look almost totemic in nature, thickly applied on the canvas in broad strokes. They resemble hieroglyphs floating freely on the picture plane (Phillips Collection).

Such tribal art also looked childish, in the sense that they looked improvised. Klee was a firm believer in making the invisible, visible- coining the term “automatic drawing: as a way to draw without conscious control of the will to achieve free and direct expression (p. 27). Liberating the line is a creative process that would begin to draw like a child. Children, according to Klee, are like “the insane and ‘primitive’ peoples, had the “power to see”. He let the “pencil or brush lead him until the image began to emerge and of course, his conscious experience and skills came back into play in order to carry the first intuitive image to a satisfactory conclusion” (Mansfield, p. 282). Such a relationship between Klee and Gottlieb reinforces the dialogic process that characterizes Klee’s network.


Paul Klee’s work were sources of inspiration and awe for a whole range of American artists and painters alike, each contributing to the every growing network that has formed around the artist. Above all, Klee’s openness and versatility offered the artists a different way to express themselves on canvas, away from the classic artistic language of cubism and surrealism offered by their contemporaries. Klee became the ultimate anti-dogmatic artist that created a new kind of pictorial language based on the primal, unconscious, childlike mentality. He captured the zeitgeist of American artists, inspiring them to look beyond the conventional towards the genesis of art.



Aichele, K. Porter. “Paul Klee’s ‘Rhythmisches’: A Recapitulation of the Bauhaus Years.” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 57, no. 1, 1994, pp. 75–89. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery SpaceBerkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.

Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume II. 14th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2016. [Excerpts on the development of modernist traditions.]

Mansfield, Elizabeth. and H. H. Arnason. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. [Excerpts]

Irvine, Martin. “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Deshmukh, Marion F. “The Visual Arts and Cultural Migration in the 1930s and 1940s: A Literature Review.” Central European History, vol. 41, no. 4, 2008, pp. 569–604. JSTOR, JSTOR,

CRAVEN, DAVID. “ʺIntroduction,ʺ ʺAbstract Expressionism and Afro-American Marginalisation,ʺ and ʺDissent During the McCarthy Periodʺ.” Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, edited by Ellen G. Landau, Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 510–526. JSTOR,

Creative Pedagogies: Giving Visibility to Invisible Concepts

Alfred Barr’s example of a graphic visualization provided an interface to the main concepts and ideologies of the museums in the 1930s. The map or “infographic” design literature is a timeline approach to understand the relationships and concepts that surrounds “modern” art. Looking at graphic design makes me think of Dadaism, where the visual/ literary movement is very much backwards thinking in more ways than one. The movement essentially creates/ makes meaning out of meaningless gibberish, child-like talk that has no pretext.

The child-esque character also links back to Gotlieb and similar artists who also create child-like portraits of people. The idea of child-like art got me thinking of how children make meaning. At such a young age, how does one even begin to create a conceptual map?

I began reading some articles and case studies outside our weekly readings and came across a few articles on creative pedagogies; how they are the essence of meaning-making. Children make meaning from playing and interacting with art materials as precursor actions to learning how to read and write (McArdle, p. 1). The physical materials of paint brushes and colored pencils, physical interfaces if you will, change into graphic designs such Alfred Barr’s example. I believe we are going back to our child-like ways to create and build cognitive maps by interacting with physical graphics, visualizations, that reveal or provide access to invisible concepts, contexts and relationships. Indeed, the goal of designing an interpretive interface or visualization enables the interpreter to “discover what an arteface can mea by making the kinds of levels of symbolic relations and correspondences accessible by making interfaces with the interface” (Irvine, p. 2).










Irvine, Martin. From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces. 2017.

McArdle, Felicity; Wright, Susan. First Literacies: Art, Creativity, Play, Constructive Meaning-Making. 2014. 

Visionaries to Visions: Looking at the World through Rose Colored Lenses

I chose three photographs rather randomly and yet I have seen all of them before. The photograph made before 1940 (in black and white) is a portrait of Frederick Douglass taken with a Daguerrotype. The second photograph is a background photo-journalist/ documentary type photo of John Kennedy in Hyannis Port before getting interviews for CBS in September 1963. Finally, the recent personal snapshot photo is a photo of a landscape I took when I was vacationing with my family in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

The portrait of Frederick Douglass has a rather interesting background story to it.  The Onondaga Historical Association loaned the full-plated daguerreotype of Douglass to the River campus Libraries at the University of Rochester in April of 2016. The speculation around this photograph is precisely because the photo is rather odd- it’s a 61/2 by 81/2 inch which makes it the only known full-plated daguerreotype of Douglass, an escape slave who became one of the nation’s most prominent abolitionists (Empire Magazine). The photograph was taken at a convention held august 21 and 22 of 1850. Douglass is sitting at a table surrounded by other people. It is the only one of the nine known daguerreotypes of Douglass to be precisely dated. What interests me is how a former-slave could have been photographed this much during this time and how one was exposed or even possession of this new and expensive technology during this time. Douglass’ portrait is iconic and indexical in the sense that it represents the abolitionist in full detail, there is nothing left to the imagination. According to Empire Magazine, several things from this portrait stand out as “tokens”, specific to the time, place and material instances. For example, Douglass is glancing into the distance instead of directly looking at the camera- a portrait technique of the Boston studio was famed for. The critical focus of Douglass’ face is evidence of a specific kind of lens used by the Boston Studio because the lens is “positioned a little below center line so the camera is looking slightly up at Douglass” (Empire Magazine).

Kennedy’s photograph is much less manufactured, in the sense that there is no toying with the camera lens or making specific requests to have the camera angle a little to the left or right- it is a “true” photo- it takes everything as it is. It is a background snapshot, a behind the scenes kind of photo of Kennedy being interviewed by CBS Evening News Anchor Walter Cronkite to inaugurate the first half-hour nightly news broadcast in September 1963. The event itself is the first of its kind whereas Douglass’ photo is one out of 9 daguerrotypes- a replication rather than something revolutionary. The photo acts a symbol of the work it takes to put together an interview of this caliber- one famous news anchor with the president, a relationship that will soon die with the President’s demise only a few months later in Texas. The photo is not only symbolic but also a representation of an interface- there are different mediums at play in this one snapshot of a behind the scenes interview. There is the TV medium with the different cameras and recording devices that are transmitting the interview to the audiences into their living room and then there is someone taking the photo of these different mediums at play to create a snapshot; almost like someone taking a picture of a picture in a museum. There are different layers that are all in one “scene” so to speak. As such, this picture becomes a “type”, a genre that has been re-tokened into a different media.

My personal snapshot is doctored or manipulated like Douglass’ portrait. It is not a true presentation of, in this case, a landscape, but rather what I want the audience too see from the landscape. I increased the saturation of the photo and used the “mirror” function on Instagram to change the way people would see the picture (also on Instagram). I wanted to create a ‘trippy’ element to my photograph, much in the same way as Douglass’ portrait has certain aspects that are not true to what he looks like- his blazer that he is wearing looks grey (even though it’s black) and his white shirt looks bright white (because of the different lens that was used). Even though the photography also is manipulated, the lens is not the one that has done the manipulation but rather other settings are to blame for this seemingly mirror-like landscape of land and water. In “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image,” Irvine talks about the view of “the middle brow art form” where anyone with a photographic device can be a photographer. It becomes almost mundane for someone to alter a photo, post it on social media and wait for feedback in the ways of likes and comments (or none at all). Society is now dependent on people who post landscapes, brunches, social gatherings to create a kind of social anticipation or fever among audiences browsing the various social media platforms. Such photos become “cliches” or “stereotyped performances” where such performances become part of our ritualistic behaviors of posting something that you think people might like or looks pretty. It comes to a point where such postings are an after thought of the image itself- an the image is no longer the focal point of conversation but rather it’s the buzz of of the photos that takes precedence.



Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image” (intro essay).


Art in the Age of Immediacy

We are increasingly becoming dependent on reproductions through digital mediums to create meaning. Yet how do such reproductions become a means to mediate a full understanding of the context and creation of a certain thing?  Theories presented in Irvine, Bolter and Debray will provide a framework to understand how art and all forms of cultural expression can be represented in an interpretive framework or interface (Irvine). In Irvine’s Malraux and the Musee Imaginarie: (Meta)Mediation. Representation and Mediating Institutions, the theory of a musee imaginare becomes an abstract, ideal meaning-making system introduced by Malraux. The idea behind such a system governs the very essence of what makes a museum; the selection and arrangement of artifacts in some organizational way. Malraux has a rather political argument for the use of reproductions; to advance democratic principles. Museums become an interface to transmit some idea across, whether it be democratic principles for Malraux or a
“cultural encyclopedia” for Umberto Ecco (p. 6).

Bolter’s Introduction: The Double Logic of Remediation introduces the concept of the wire as the “ultimate mediating technology because the wire is designed to efface itself, to disappear from the user’s consciousness” (Bolter, p. 3). The author introduces the notion of a “double logic of remediation”, a culture’s contradictory imperitives for immediacy and hypermediacy (p. 5). The same idea can be applied to western visual representation. The examples that Bolter uses is a 17th century painting, photograph and computer system. They are all different in some capacity yet all attempts to achieve immediacy by ignoring or denying the presence of the medium and the act of mediation. They all seek to put the viewer in the same space as the objects viewed like in the case of the painting using atmospheric perspective for example. Such an illusionistic idea recalls the concepts presented in Debray’s Transmitting Culture where the author states that transmission is a “telecommunication in time”, “transmission takes its course through time, developing and changing as it goes” to make culture. In essence, is the author stating that anything could be transmitted through time without any boundaries? How does this play into the cultural component?

If I could try to tie all these readings together, it would go as follows. A musee imaginarie creates a certain message from the selection of the artifacts involved that transmit something through time about that specific artifact, creating something of cultural significance. Because everything is immediate and humans in this era crave immediacy, there needs to be some sort of way to organize and make meaning out of art and all forms of cultural expression. Art and cultural forms of expression can only be fully understandable if the theories surrounding them stay current with the times, with how the world has changed. One does not view a 17th century painting the same way now as they did when it was created. There is a shift in knowledge that arises with the advent of new technologies. As stated by Debray, “every major reshuffling of major reshuffling of technologies of the letter- in rough chronological order, means a corresponding change of saddle for the citizenry” (p. 23).


Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Régis Debray, Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Gottlieb, Gell and Boas: Towards Meaning-Making in Anthropology and Art

A few of the readings stood out to me this week; Visible Signs and De-BlackBoxing Meaning Making in Art and Visual Media.  Both unpack the signs and symbols used in everyday conversations to understand and deconstruct how communication works. Such a system becomes a visual language where such “signs and symbols are given and received with the same form of correlation among instances of patterns and meaning associations” (Irvine, p. 2). Explaining how such structures create meaning systems are not able to be observed but rather make possible everything that we can observe. It becomes a sort of “visual language” to understand the world around us through such codes.

These readings remind me of a class I took my second semester Junior year called Romantic Legacy of Anthropology class. We looked to German philosophy to understand the romantic impulses within the field of anthropology. Meaning-making is not only restricted to conversations and so forth but can be stretched to encompass culture. In class we talked about hwo culture is a meaning-making machine and is constantly creating meaning but nonetheless culture seems to take an internal nature and we experience such meaning within our minds. Anthropologists don’t have easy access to this system so to unlock such a process, they look towards operations and relations. Alfred Gells and Franz Boas, two social anthropologists, learned how to “de-blackbox”, if you will, primitive forms of art by creating indexical relationships of objects in the world for anthropologists to easily observe and understand them. Index is one of the three categories within the sign-making system; symbol, index and icon. They each stand in for an idea or represent something, for example and index could be smoke that stands in for fire but indexes the material existence of fire.

Keeping these concepts in mind, I was able to generate a list of research and interpretation questions for “Labyrinth #1 (1950)” by Adolph Gottlieb, a contemporary of Paul Klee. His work immediately reminds me of Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the way they are oriented and placed in relation to each other. Given such a comparison: Was Gottlieb exposed to Ancient Egyptian artwork while creating this piece? Does such a piece that is composed of various signs and symbols enter into a conversation with other cultural signs and symbols, say that of Ancient Egyptian culture?

Labyrinth (1950), Aldoph Gottlieb


A quick google search of the artist gave me more of a background into his intention of his works of art. Gottlieb would indeed introduce inventive symbols in this artwork yet if he “discovered that a symbol had a recognizable meaning within either Western or tribal art, he immediately removed it from his painting vocabulary as part of his quest for a collective unconscious.” He is thus intentionally filtering out signs and symbols to achieve a certain state of the sublime for his viewers. Yet does he accomplish such a task in his Labyrinth? Why is it called “Labyrinth”?

Speculation, Symbols and Space

In O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube” and Alexander’s “Museums in Motion”, both authors speculate on the concepts, ideas and values surrounding galleries and museums in general. Alexander states that a museum is a “shared cultural experience”, a “depository of curiosities” while O’Doherty likens galleries to sacred spaces, “constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church, where the outside world must not come in” (Alexander, p. 1, 3; O’Doherty, p. 7). Both authors highlight how the function of museums is nothing new to today’s world, where such spaces that housed objects of importance dates back to “greek temples with hoards of votive offerings” to “Egyptian tomb chambers” and even back to Paleolithic times where paintings graced the walls of Lascaux caves (Alexander, p. 2; O’Doherty, p. 8). Indeed the function of museums and galleries is to collection, conserve and research various items that are deemed culturally important and aesthetically pleasing. Yet such a description neglects the invisible function of museums to “secure financial stability, work that may involve local philanthropies, politicians or leaders or other cultural institutions” (Alexander, p. 10).

Alexander further extrapolates on the value of museums, citing the famous anthropologist Franz Boas to accentuate how museums circumscribe art and beauty as aesthetic entertainment to all those who are privy to enter such spaces (p. 11). Boas was working at the time when imperialists were collecting and cataloguing various “primitive” forms of art such as totems, ceremonial masks, pottery among other things. Yet such discoveries were not housed in a museum compared to famous masterpieces of the Renaissance. So how would Alexander define a museum when these art forms were “rejected” as art in the western sense? Were museums still considered depositories of curiosities? Shared cultural experiences? How does one value a system that looks at art through a western perspective?

O’Dohnerty looks at museums as a kind of tabula-rasa, where the “communal mind of our culture went through a significant shift that….leaves the slate wiped clean” (p.11). Reducing a gallery to a white cube looks to semiotics to make meaning of such a reduction. In my opinion, a white cube is anything you want it to be, creating an interface for a viewer or visitor to explore their ideas of art, beauty and aesthetics. As O’Doherty explains, “the object frequently becomes the medium through which these ideas are manifested and proffered for discussion” (p. 14). The concept of space and art can be seen in Morse’s Exhibition Gallery at the Louvre” where masterpieces are hung like modern-day wallpaper, creating a dynamic relationship between painting and the wall. How to define such a relationship with a “white cube” of space? Such an idea likens to “0.10” Zero Ten in St. Petersburg in 1915, where Malevich’s Black square hangs in the same place as would a traditional icon from the Orthodox Russian church would hang. How to describe the religiosity of space that Alexander and O’Doherty expounds upon when a mundane symbol such as the black square eclipses an icon? These questions and ideas changes the inherent function of museum and the value that we place in art and the “artworld” system as described by Professor Irvine.


Art, Movement and Space

After walking through the five rooms that comprised the Vermeer exhibit, I left feeling incomplete. The exhibit was largely focused on Vermeer’s competitors and those who influenced the 17th century dutch artist, with little attention on the artist himself and his works. Yet looking again through National Gallery of Art’s brochure, the exhibition’s website and Connect Vermeer (an interactive website dedicated to Vermeer and his contemporaries), the end-goal of the exhibition became a little bit more clearer to me. Such different forms of media presented by the museum provides an interface to observe a 17th century painter through a 21st century lens.

As Professor Irvine aptly states in our last class, interfaces are access points to a system of meaning , providing one with a method for asking questions where discovering “meaning” largely refers to “cultural meanings.” From an anthropological standpoint, I was able to better understand the relationship between Vermeer and his contemporaries by looking at the visitors of the exhibit. I observed the way they moved around the exhibit, in a circular way, reminding me of the way priests or monks circumambulate around churches as a form of prayer and devotion. The people are devoting their time and energy for such an exhibit to find meaning in the nine kinds of genre themes laid out by the exhibit’s curators. Some people walked across the room to look at two paintings side by side, whereas others followed the regular path of the exhibit. Others turned left at an entrance of a new room whereas some turned right. They created pathways that charted the way they interpreted the exhibit.

I sat down to take note of all these observations on various groups of peoples’ trajectories in the exhibit. It also got me thinking of space and the concept of space. Why the curators set up the exhibit in such a way? What ways did they incorporated various forms of media in all of the five rooms? Why did they do so? I believe that the physical space of the exhibit adds to the conceptual meaning of the exhibit, where such an intersection also forms a new interface, an interpretive apparatus that creates a touchstone for the viewer to think about art, genre painting and the connections or dissonances among Vermeer and his contemporaries.