"The Edge of Visibility: Photographs by Adam Katseff," from the 2012 Stanford University MFA Thesis Show Catalogue by George Philip LeBourdais

For the photographer, who, by pushing me in the dark, has taught me to see so much.


6. Imagine you’re walking in the dark. You move in the compression of a warm, silent corridor of trees, whose black pine bodies rise high enough to block the light of a slim moon. There is a stretching out of hands in the blackness, and the expected yet still startling prick of unseen branches that draws you on, towards a sensation of terrible gravity. Vertigo arrives like a dull electric swell through your legs and stomach at the edge of a precipice; you kick a rock and listen for its clattering on a pale river bed below.

5. Refocus your eyes past your own squinting reflection in the glass, now, and things begin to emerge. Contours of rounded mountain peaks, an undulating snow drift, the black lattice of bare trees take form in the distance, seemingly far beyond the truculent flatness of the photograph its reflective, glossy shield. These photographs by Adam Katseff – images that obscure their photographic identity by shrouding their sacred descriptive force in uncertainty and darkness – deny us. They deny what we have come to expect from photographs, and from perception in general - a view of the world. They deny us, and that is frustrating.

4. Yet in that denial, there is revelation. If we muster the resolve to dwell in this darkness, this vacuum of vision, we begin to think. About blackness, perhaps, or about the hazy internal image we might have of the locations denoted by the titles of these photographs: Donner Lake, California; Franconia Notch, New Hampshire. Thinking, the philosopher Martin Heidegger believed, is a resignation to the world around you, a bodily presence of whole openness that allows for what he called the “Unconcealment of Being.” Walking through his beloved Black Forest in southwest Germany, Heidegger imagined that it was the duty of humans to be Thinking, in order to allow the truth of the world to reveal itself.[i]

3. To think truly and in full presence is not an easy thing, no less than daring to push your artwork to the edge of visibility. During the time that Adam developed these photographs, he and I spoke often about them, about what he hoped they would accomplish, and about how others had responded to the experience of seeing them. I wasn’t at all surprised when he said that people found the images just a bit too dark, that he needed to give the viewer just a little bit more to look at, something – anything – to hold on to. A quick survey of his earlier work, going back to haunting contact prints from his 8x10 view-camera negatives, testifies to Adam’s technical virtuosity, and his gift for summoning, in his own words, “the spirituality and deep historical time” latent in the land. So then why, the resistance of his reviewers seemed to ask, would you hide your craft, and, by extension, the presence of the artwork itself, behind a veil of printing ink? Why, then, do you push us into darkness?

2. I told Adam this resistance proved he was doing something uncommon, even important.[ii] Denying our easy understanding, forcing us to dwell in thought, as Heidegger would say, is the gift of this darkness, one that reaches towards what the philosopher identified as the fundamental nature of the work of art: “the truth of being setting itself to work.” The work of art, Heidegger wrote, “is not the reproduction of some particular entity that happens to be present at any given time; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the thing’s general essence.”[iii]

1. Adam called me (illegally, I reminded him) as he sped across the arid wilderness of California, stopping often to photograph a jagged sweep of the Sierra Nevada range and the curious contrast of black and white islands in Mono Lake. That he would take these masterfully exposed negatives upon his return and then print them so dark, effacing the details and contrasts that form these more or less familiar landscapes, is a kind of reproduction of essence, a nod to the knowledge of geologic time and to the existence of places that exist but in which we are not currently present. We think back to the terrors that the Donner Party suffered around that lake; we imagine the exultation of the first travelers and painters felt while moving through the dramatic cliffs of Franconia Notch. Barely visible photographic landscapes – more than the hidden tonal complexity of, say, Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings – become vessels for the light of our imagination to fill in its features, delving into the deep pools of memory and history that we all hold within ourselves.

0. I met Adam at Stanford shortly after we had both arrived in California. We had both driven across the country, charting the thrill of visiting National Parks and the hushed discovery of the unforeseen places that offered a singular experience of nature and wilderness. We had both drawn inspiration from the state of Maine, which encapsulated the coast of my childhood home and the lakes he had grown to love. We had both devoted years to photography (he was far better at it, of course, but I had some good stories). We had both decided, on that day, as on many others since, to wear a vest with buttons. We realized that we had a lot to talk about, and many walks in the woods to share.

-1. It’s easy to pigeonhole someone so enthusiastic about Henry David Thoreau, boiled wool, and photographs of Yosemite Valley from the 1860s as an old-timey romantic. Don’t let me mislead you; Adam would have been right at home if he had been born in the nineteenth century (I know because I feel that way about myself quite often, too). But despite the gazing-into-the-past sensation that crystallizes in his photographs, as a contemporary artist Adam creates work that speaks forcefully about our collective present. “The contemporary,” Giorgio Agamben poignantly wrote, “is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.”[iv]

-2. Adam’s recent photographs of the night sky emblematized this notion of drawing lines in the obscurity of the present. Setting his camera in his backyard in Palo Alto and aiming it directly upward, he made all-night-long exposures, opening the lens shutter just after dusk and closing it just before dawn. Inscribed on the negatives were not only celestial bodies, but also the lights that attend modern life: a dull gray haze from the traffic on nearby highway 101 reflected on nighttime clouds, while planes issuing from and returning to the SFO or San Jose airports ghosted their presence through lines created by their navigation lights. Such photographs do our dream work for us[v]; they trace stars and cars while we sleep, before the past dark of night yields to the present light of morning.

-3. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin had linked stars directly with the language of photography, a language with a syntax of oppositions between dark and light, past and present, death and life, reading and writing, knowledge and representation.[vi] He viewed the astrologer as a reader of constellations, which represent, through their ancient myths and always-present inspirations, the excitement of knowledge. Though they might indicate flights that had passed one another at great distance or at different times, or the remote glow of stars traversing the night sky, lines arc and intersect on the flatness of Adam’s photographs, compressing time and space into simple, geometric marks. It is as if an astrologer with white pencils and dark paper triangulated our view from earth with a ruler and a compass.

-4. Another series of photographs, this one capturing the life of flame, further conjures to Benjamin’s tropes of cycles and time, in particular the fleeting passage of the present into the past. “The true picture of the past flits by,” Benjamin wrote. “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”[vii] I remember Adam’s long process of experimentation with this work: a variety of materials to ignite, volumes between “too much” and “waaaay to much” lighter fluid, slower and slower film speeds, and the rise from spotted and round into rigid and vertical compositions. I like to think that the process of creation itself had become purified in this incinerated work, leaving only incandescent pillars to glow through a fire as it is born, blooms, and dies. And I think that like Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, this writing itself needed to flicker between the forms of essay, fragment, note. This is, after all, just one of many stories I could write about these images.

-5. Looking at his most recent photographs – hermetic models of rooms stripped bare of fixtures and color – I think of carte blanche, a new apartment, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and Emerson: “Fast, almost too fast for the wistful curiosity of the parents, studious of the witchcraft of curls and dimple and broken words, the little talker grows to be a boy. He walks daily among wonders; fire, light, darkness, the moon, the stars, the furniture of the house…and the new knowledge is taken up into the life of to-day and becomes the means of more. The blowing rose is a new event; the garden full of flowers is Eden over again to the small Adam; the rain, the ice, the frost, make epochs in his life.”[viii]

-6. Imagine you’re walking in the dark. The space – the home of your childhood – begins to take form not through the strain of your eyes, but rather in the resurgence of memory. With eyes closed, you fall back on the subtle pressure of your hand reaching for a corner of the wall, on the number of steps it takes to reach the door, on the angle of your arm as you reach to push it open. The dark space becomes illuminated by memory, flash-bulb white and barren and gridded in the register of your small body, now grown so big into your bright present.



[i] See Martin Heidegger, Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977).

[ii] My inspiration here flows from the wellspring of German Romanticism, namely its latter-day lodestones Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, but by extension the foundational writing of Emmanuel Kant and J.B. Fichte. If my gestures in their direction bring the reader any clarity, it is thanks to the guidance of Professor Sepp Gumbrecht, whose Stanford MTL seminar in the fall of 2011 helped me to crystallize these ideas. See also Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[iii] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 36, 37.

[iv] Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), 44.

[v] The saliency of a Freudian interpretation occurred to me many times during the development of this text: the subconscious reverie in the darkness in these photographs, the familiar but strange doubling of the viewer in the reflective glaze that protects their fragile surfaces, the play between the secret (Geheimnis) and the uncanny (Unheimlich). Yet the “analysis” quotient of this psychoanalytic view would sterilize the richness of presence that I feel these photographs enable. Better, then, to let Freud keep his uncanny secrets.

[vi] I owe this explication to Eduardo Cadava, whose sensitive dialectical phrasing of Benjamin’s photographic concepts required only my small realignments to satisfy the particular parallelism of meanings I wanted to construct. Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 26–30.

[vii] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 255, Thesis V.

[viii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Chester Noyes Greenough (New York: Hearst’s international library, 1914), 276.


Published in Never odd or even: Stanford University 2012 MFA thesis exhibition : Andrew Chapman, Yvette Deas, Rhonda Holberton, Adam Katseff, Yulia Pinkusevich. Stanford, California: Stanford University Department of Art & Art History, 2012: pp. 27-32.


Stanford art history scholar explores nature and culture in frost and forests by George Philip LeBourdais

Stanford Report, April 14, 2015

George Philip LeBourdais, a doctoral student in Stanford's Department of Art & Art History, applies his research on Arctic artistry and ecology to curate an exhibition on how trees inform human judgment and imagination. The exhibition opens April 15 at the Cantor Arts Center.


As this planet orbits the sun, drawing its inhabitants closer to Earth Day, a Stanford graduate student plots a course for museum-goers that will bring them face-to-face with the surprisingly human elements of nature.

A doctoral candidate in Stanford's Department of Art & Art History, George Philip LeBourdais has partnered with the Cantor Arts Center to present the exhibition Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees in the museum's Lynn Krywick Gibbons Gallery, opening April 15.  

The exhibition gathers an eclectic range of artwork that spans thousands of years from the museum's collections, including a sixth-century Egyptian medallion, a lukasa memory board from the Republic of Congo and a lithograph of a tree colored in by young Leland Stanford Jr.

LeBourdais organized this new exhibit to investigate "the tree-like structures of knowledge that help us make sense of the world by providing visual models that teach basic ideas like growth and connection," citing the idea of the "family tree" as a popular example of the concept.

Arboreal Architecture serves as a natural extension of LeBourdais' ongoing scholarship to explore, from an art historical perspective, the line between nature and culture as both "chasm" and "bridge."

LeBourdais is studying the photography, painting and travelogues of William Bradford, the renowned 19th-century marine painter and photographer. He is primarily researching the visual odyssey captured in Bradford's book The Arctic Regions, Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Exhibition to Greenland.

To LeBourdais, ice excels as a primeval subject for artists to reflect the needs and challenges of humankind. His dissertation posits that icy landscapes, especially as represented by Bradford, "became ciphers for addressing crucial issues of the late 19th century, including race and slavery, the speed of industrial capitalism and the effect of one social being upon another."

LeBourdais said he sees Bradford's visual work as a multi-layered representation of international cultural and natural dynamics. For instance, as a Quaker and an abolitionist, Bradford's direction of the photographs taken of Greenland Inuit peoples and their white Danish colonizers demonstrates to LeBourdais a "consciousness of domestic issues [of slavery and racism] and the search for instructive parallels."

Similarly, while LeBourdais acknowledged that scientist Ernst Haeckel was the first to coin the exact term for the"pivotal and subversive notion" of "ecology" in 1866, the art history scholar said he believes that ecological ideas in America stemmed from the work of artists like Bradford and writers like Henry David Thoreau, who made the aesthetics of ice accessible in ways they had not been before.

LeBourdais said he hopes his research will encourage audiences and museum visitors to see ecological ideas that are at the core of making art.

As both the exhibit and LeBourdais' scholarship aim to demonstrate, understanding the historical dialectics between nature and culture plays a major role in shaping modern humanity's self-awareness, as well as its inclination to preserve or abandon nature's monuments.

Idealization of the Arctic

LeBourdais described Bradford as the protagonist in the story his research tells.

At a time when peers ventured into the wilds to make a profit from government-sponsored claim-staking and cartography, Bradford organized the first expedition to Labrador and Western Greenland solely for the purposes of art.

Not only an artist but also an adroit socialite, Bradford convinced a New York financier to fund the expedition and the creation of a sketch-and-photograph book that became The Arctic Regions. Bradford was promised $150,000, which in 1869 was a sum equal to millions in today's currency.

LeBourdais has examined multiple copies of the book as part of his research. Each is a hefty gilded tome, measuring over two feet across ­– four feet when unfolded.

Images include landscape photos of snow-blanketed coastlines, glaciers and icebergs as well as portraits of native Greenlanders and Danish colonists at work and in ceremonies.

LeBourdais said he sees the The Arctic Regions as a "survey, trying to give people an accurate representation of the arctic as a space, with real inhabitants, strange landscapes, local fauna – the bite of reality."

It also represents a pinnacle of accomplishment in photographic persuasion: "The historical prick of feeling that this camera, this negative, was in front of something that once was and is no more … that sort of evidentiary power, contested and imperfect though it is … really shaped the Arctic for both Americans now, and certainly for Americans back in the 19th century, as photography continues to do for us today," LeBourdais explained.

Art from Bradford's expedition earned him international requests for exhibitions and substantial support from no less than England's Queen Victoria, laying the groundwork for a novel political and public idealization of the Arctic.

Just as Bradford pioneered photography as a core medium for representing the Arctic, his artistry distinctively primed audiences to embrace the nascent ideologies of ecology and conservation, LeBourdais said.

Ice as primeval subject

LeBourdais began honing his academic focus with his master's thesis on 19th- century Alpine photography, specifically the first photographically documented ascent of Mont Blanc in 1860. He felt drawn to research this expedition due to the combined romance of early photography and exploration of the wildest frontiers.

Detailing the camera technology employed by Alpine teams, LeBourdais noted, "The cameras themselves were huge wooden contraptions. The negatives were enormous glass plates. The emulsions were chemicals that had to be boiled up at high altitudes – extremely flammable things. All these had to be carried by teams, beasts of burden."

The photographs from this snow-blanketed scenery that include people form stark silhouettes, "in a sense, creat[ing] a void – where the human figure should be, there's a pool of dark negative space."

This visual paradox further spurred LeBourdais to research how and why the representation of ice and the Arctic uniquely pushes creators and viewers of art to determine where they stand against the vast backdrop of nature.

In addition to the traditional tactics of delving into archives and exploring maritime museum collections, LeBourdais uses modern technology to conduct his research. Google's Ngram Viewer tracks public awareness of the Arctic by measuring the incidences of words like "iceberg" and "glacier" in Google's database of the written word. During the late 19th century Arctic expeditions, a spike in icy word usage followed each expedition. LeBourdais added each crossover to his collection of evidence supporting the Arctic's power to harness national enthusiasm.

As it happens, the man who founded LeBourdais' current campus was himself a keen enthusiast of Bradford's work. "Bradford's paintings for railroad tycoons like Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford demonstrate his patrons' interest in scenes that perform the mastery of human industry over nature, however exaggerated and tenuous that mastery often was," LeBourdais said.

In support of the project, LeBourdais was awarded a Mellon Curatorial Research Assistantship, part of the Cantor Center's Mellon Foundation grant to enhance the training of doctoral students in Stanford's Department of Art & Art History.

 LeBourdais previously co-curated the 2014 exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums at the Cantor Arts Center. 

Arboreal Architecture: A Visual History of Trees will be on view at the Cantor Art Center until July 20, 2015


An Activated Sense of Place: Diebenkorn at the de Young by George Philip LeBourdais

Stanford University didn’t yet have a school of Humanities and Sciences when Richard Diebenkorn arrived as a freshman in 1940, but the young San Franciscan had come to study the arts. How strange that decision sounds today.

The sunny thrum of engineering and entrepreneurship that defines Stanford now were still young when Diebenkorn arrived on campus. A key painter in the Abstract Expressionist and Bay Area Figurative Movements in the 1950s and 60s, he was also the subject of a major exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco this summer.

One might not expect the some 130 works featured in the exhibition, created between 1953 and 1966, when the artist lived in Berkeley, to look the way they do: big, bold and bright apportions of paint. There is a consistent diagonal jag to the works, from lower left to upper right, that often evoke streets or sunsets in the chalky mix of asphalt and ocean tones. Abstract painting with Californian consideration. “Be careful,” says number 10 on his list of Notes to myself on beginning a painting, “only in a perverse way.”

He had, after all, studied with Professor Daniel Mendelowitz, a talented draughtsman whose legacy of precision lives in one of the premier introductory textbooks to drawing. During his first two years at the university he fell deep into a world of studies in history, literature and poetry. Classical music, too, was a revelation for the eighteen-year-old, and the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn seem to have sparked his intellectual and aesthetic maturity; the beginning of his adult life, of his career.

His life, though, like so many of that generation, was interrupted by the war. In 1943, two years after the Hoover Tower was built, a year following the move of the Division of Graphic Arts from the Education Department to the newly founded School of Humanities, and a year before his own graduation, Diebenkorn joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He served for the next two years, but still found occasion to visit major museum collections of modern art while stationed on the east coast.

Like so many artists of his generation, knowledge of the war, as well as his return to the progressive artistic community in the Bay Area in 1946, pushed him away from figurative painting. He quickly demonstrated gifts in a non-representation, Abstract Expressionist mode of painting, earning a faculty appointment at the California School of Fine Arts and a solo-exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1948. This show announced Diebenkorn’s arrival as a talented Young Turk, and Stanford’s decision to award him his B.A. in 1949 must have seemed long overdue.


Though he began working in the East Bay in 1955, meeting for weekly drawing groups with fellow painters Elmer Bischoff and David Park, lessons learned from Stanford pulled him away from abstraction.. “Essentially what I did was what I had done at Stanford,” he recalled about Chabot Valley, generally regarded as his first figural work: “get in the car and go out and look for something that looked like it might make a good painting.” [1]

The story testifies to the importance of the Bay Area landscape for the artist’s work. An activated sense of place, a sense of moving and feeling through his surroundings, is present in this painting and those from the dry, sunny fall of 1955, before the floods of December. The “rush of painting” he describes from that year reveal the excitement he felt in the move away from the Abstract Expressionist style. The series of black and white figure studies from around that time demonstrates a growing freedom of movement while finding balance in form and color.

An airy freedom seems secured by the end of his time in Berkeley. In a 1967 work, Seated Figure with Hat (top of page), we see a woman sitting in profile, eyes hidden by the brim of a deep straw sun hat. Her hand, no more than a feathery smear between her peach skin and her fuchsia skirt, holds the scraped outline of glass. The brushwork is erratic in direction but insistent in pressure, revealing the dark blue layer behind a streaked yellow background. Her pose recalls the neat geometries of Diebenkorn’s earlier work, and the vacant, drifting psychology of many of his faceless figures.

The DeYoung show concluded with the enormous Window, another painting from 1967, measuring 92 by 80 inches. It was loaned by the Iris and B. Gerald Center for Visual Arts at Stanford, a gift Mr. and Mrs. Diebenkorn (and an anonymous donor) gave to the museum in 1969. It poses an empty folding chair at the lower right, looking out through the olive-gray frame of a large open window. Outside, a solid blue sky presses down on the roofline of houses with white walls and rare windows, but you’re pulled towards a bright band of matte orange that fills up the lower half of the window frame. Like the terracotta roofs at Stanford, the band – the wall, one assumes, of an adjacent building – appears plain but noble, well-formed, sturdy. It commands some kind of contemplation, a command doubled by the inviting empty chair. Window will return to the Cantor Arts Center next year. You should go to see it, whether you’ve come to Stanford to study engineering, entrepreneurship, or the arts. You may find it a kind of revelation.

[1] Susan Larsen, interview with Richard Diebenkorn, May 1, 1985, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C., cited in Diebenkorn, Richard, Timothy Anglin Burgard, Steven A. Nash, and Emma Acker, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 (San Francisco: Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, 2013), p.231.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: The Mauritshuis at the de Young by George Philip LeBourdais

Stanford Arts Review, February 21, 2013


Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant seeking good pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went his way, and sold all that he had, and bought it. – Matthew 13:45

Kaart, kous en kan maken menig arm man. (Card [gambling], stocking [women] and jug [drinking] make many a man poor.) – Dutch Proverb

It may be winter in San Francisco, but, on February 7, I was still surprised to stumble upon a frigid scene in Golden Gate Park, where a humble waterside homestead stood, hemmed heavily with viscous white snow. The grayness surrounding it affirmed the season’s cold heart, making the warm colors of sun suffusing clouds overhead little more than a distant promise of warmer times to come. Standing at center, a solitary tree slumped under the weight of its frosty covering.

Of course, this wasn’t San Francisco itself, but the scene of a small winter landscape painting by Dutch artist Jacob van Ruisdael, the first work I encountered in the special exhibition space of the de Young Museum. It’s currently host to a pair of nested shows of seventeenth century art: Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis Museum of Art, and Rembrandt’s Century, both on view from January 26th to June 7th.


The first of these exhibitions comprises 35 paintings – including the titular masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) – on loan from the Mauritshuis Royal Portrait Gallery, a Baroque-era palace recently acquired by the Dutch state and currently undergoing renovation. A hallway connecting galleries in the de Young details the Mauritshuis’ expansion plans, including a wall-sized photo of the canal where the Gallery perches in The Hague. Like so many great works of art in today’s museum culture, Vermeer’s Girl gets to travel only when her own digs are under construction.

In fact, this is the first time in three decades that a collection of Dutch masterworks has left its home for so long, spending last summer and fall in Japan and the next two years in the United States. The show moves next to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta before concluding its American tour at the Frick Collection in New York in January 2014.

Rare trips by Vermeer’s bewitching Girl, who last visited this country for a Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1995, flash light on historical and modern issues that cloak this exhibition. Taking a step back from the paintings themselves pushes the viewer towards both the broadest and most needling of questions: Why do we value creative originality? Why do we pour so much money into beautiful things? Who’s that girl?

Although art historians confidently attribute only 37 extant paintings to Vermeer, these works of art frame perhaps the most important artistic legacy of the Dutch master, a contribution that is philosophical rather than material in kind. Let me pause to put that number in perspective. While it may seem like quite a few masterpieces for someone to paint in a lifetime, Vermeer worked during the Dutch Golden Age, a century when the seven united provinces of the Netherlands experienced unprecedented mercantile wealth and expansion. An average home in a prosperous city like Haarlem, Antwerp or Leiden often boasted several hundred paintings on its own. Walls were sometimes hardly visible.

Amidst this surge of artwork, it might not be surprising, then, that history forgot Vermeer for nearly two hundred years. When his calming and luminous talents were rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, an appetite for more work grew. Han van Meegeren, an adequate and respectable Dutch painter born in 1889, recognized this demand for the Golden Age painters that he had emulated during the course of his career. He then quietly forged paintings so similar in subject and substance to original Vermeers that he was able to launder and sell them for immense sums (up to $4 million by today’s standards) to discerning collectors ranging from American industrialist Andrew Mellon to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

Van Meegeren’s fraud remains a defining trauma for art in the modern age, and many entertaining accounts of this scandal pose the crucial questions it raised. If a work of art possesses enough brilliance to convince experts that it’s “original,” why should a “copy” cost only a fraction of the price, and earn less than a fraction of the admiration? Why are covers of great songs subject to laws of copyright and intellectual property if imitation is, as we’re told, the greatest form of flattery?

Obvious answers to these questions might be branded “economic,” and another painting on display in the exhibition further reveals how markets molded the Dutch Republic. While a painting of a teeming merchant fleet might provide a convincing image of its thriving economy, a vase of flowers is a better vessel for both the literal and symbolic orders of beauty that inspired art in the Golden Age.

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), one of three key female masters of this era, painted her Vase of Flowers around the turn of 1700. Like so many other intricate studies of flowers she produced during her long career (during which she also found time to have ten children), the detail of this painting is jaw-dropping. One could spend all day exploring its vivid complexity.

Two particular passages of paint deserve an hour of gazing themselves: a tiger-striped tulip at left center and a diaphanous pink carnation that coyly turns away from us in the middle of the canvas. Stretching exuberantly, the tulip writhes and yawns in arcs that show its orange stripes to advantage. One petal almost seems to wave, calling you to look. Like so many other flowers on this canvas, the carnation is a triumph of trompe l’oeil illusionism – let us defy any painter today to do it so well! – but its weathering of all the years since Ruysch painted it makes it especially remarkable. The paint of an orange chrysanthemum beside it, though no less excellently rendered, has fared far worse, even after the conservation and cleaning the painting was treated to as part of its exhibition travels.

Setting this pair apart from the others evinces the ongoing critical tug-of-war that stretches seventeenth-century Dutch art between a pure “art of describing” and a densely layered iconography of symbolic meanings. For instance, are we meant to gape, as I did, at the virtuosic ruffles and contours of petals on the carnation, or should we remind ourselves that historically they symbolize betrothal within Flemish wedding customs? Are the carmine flares on the tulip intended as an exercise in description, simultaneously exalting nature, artistic craft, and aesthetic perception as the privileged pastimes of a financially thriving culture? Or do they bring a cultural wink to the canvas by resembling the infamous Semper Augustus, a white tulip with red splotches that Dutch flower fanatics of the period venerated as the most beautiful bloom of all time?

Green thumbs and Michael Pollan devotees often delight in citing the “Tulip Mania” that titillated Holland in the sixteen hundreds as capitalism’s first market bubble, long before frontier land speculation in antebellum America or more-recent sub-prime mortgage lending. The frenzy culminated with a flower dubbed “Semper Augustus” in 1637, which sold for the same price as townhouses on the Grand Canal in Amsterdam. In today’s currency, a single bulb from this flower would earn $15 million.

When you compare this impressive figure with the original auction price of Girl with a Pearl Earring, the confusion of aesthetic beauty with market forces draws you back into philosophical questions about the value of creativity and authorship. Vermeer’s name was not visible on the painting when it sold at auction in 1881 for the pittance of 2 guilders and 30 cents, but given his minor reputation in his native Delft during his lifetime, one can’t assume a signature would have made up the difference between the $150 its sale would garner by equivalency today and the priceless pride and admiration it brings.

The girl in that painting greets you, almost as an afterthought, as you enter the penultimate room of the exhibition. She’s on a dark sea-gray altar of sorts, with architectural molding. The lighting, or maybe the glass protecting the painting, makes her as pale but tonally brighter than I remember; she seems to glow. Seeing her see you – in person, I implore you, not through the static and distorted reproductions we see on screens – leaves little wonder how the painting recently inspired anovel and a predictably-romanticized Hollywood film. Wall text reprises a traditional comparison, that she’s “The Dutch Mona Lisa,” but that’s sort of like saying Brigitte Bardot is the French Marilyn Monroe, or that Harvard is the Stanford of the East. Some metaphors are made for their own sake rather than for the revealing alignment of facts or the elegant folding of meanings.


Her calm is smartly broken with a ruckus in the adjacent room, where a large genre painting – a so-called “scene of everyday life” – by Jan Steen (1626-1679) reminds us that Vermeer’s hushed and well-lit interiors could easily hold some drunken mischief.  Steen’s work is titled “As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young” (1668-1670) – and if you haven’t shared this review on social media, consider this your best chance (and worst pun) to do so.

Directly preceding the room holding Girl with a Pearl Earring, a deep umber wall compliments the dusky tones in a loosely-painted Portrait of an Elderly Man (1667) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). One of the last works attributed to Rembrandt, the portrait shows a man with remarkable “facingness,” to borrow a term from one notable art historian. It is as if you’ve joined him in his dark, warm (possibly boozy) apartment, and he sits looking at you with a vaguely interrogative stare. “Well? What next?” he seems to ask.

The forthcoming review of the second and connected exhibition, Rembrandt’s Century, pursues that question.



Mining the Museum, Curating California, Pinning Down Public Memory by George Philip LeBourdais

August 24, 2012


On a balmy spring day in Palo Alto, one of my fellow art historians gloomily contemplated the contemporary usage of the word “curate.” What passes for “curating” today, she lamented? Often a sporadic relationship between a tumblr account and dramatic photography culled from a fashion magazine, designer’s website, or lust-worthy food blog.

My research this summer for the Bill Lane Center in downtown San Francisco at the California Historical Society (CHS) thus arrived like a breath of fresh air, even while I shuffled through low-lit underground vaults poring over old books, paintings, and photographs. In fact, “Curating California,” an ongoing project that Jon Christensen, Executive Director of the Bill Lane Center, conceived in collaboration with Anthea Hartig, the inspiring Director of CHS, demands that we refresh our understanding of the term:

Curate, in its nominative form, means one who cares for the development of souls, reminding us that a central mission of “curators” should be preserving things that help us understand our collective past and might positively affect our growth as social beings. Curating, in that sense, means caring about community.

The archive of the state historical society – indeed, the institution itself – is the product of care. It represents the material gifts of citizens to a common repository. It safeguards the flame of collective memory. Next year, we will rekindle many forgotten memories with a regional celebration: the Year of the Bay, a commemoration of the bay area’s history, geography, and maritime culture, coinciding with America’s Cup sailing races in and around the Golden Gate.

In addition to community programming throughout San Francisco Bay, CHS will mount an exhibition in its galleries at 678 Mission Street that will combine historical objects with interactive media sponsored by an Andrew W. Mellon Grant to the Stanford Spatial and Literary Labs.



Jon and Anthea invited me, as an art historian studying the collective identities formed around land and seascapes, to enter the CHS vaults in order to uncover hidden events and unspoken histories that have transpired in the San Francisco Bay. With essential guidance from the wonderful CHS staff, I explored many classes of objects – general’s golden watches, large paintings by small girls, foreign ships’ logs and ledgers, and architectural plans – in search of themes and threads that would help to weave a richer understanding of our relationship with the Bay.

In the spirit of artist Fred Wilson’s watershed “Mining the Museum” exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, I was looking for episodes in the environmental history of the area. How did pictures and books express implicit attitudes towards the Bay? Selecting a range of related topics – for example, tourism, industry, transportation, and sport – I compiled an exhibition checklist of objects, like a striking suite of cyanotype photographs of Navy ship launches from Mare Island in 1899, that will appear in the show next spring.

These images will also be incorporated into an online interface via History Pin – a Google Maps program that geo-references historical photographs – allowing the public to review old pictures, comment on times past, and add new images that show how the place they live has changed. Embracing the tech wave that has swept over the region, the project aims to curate California along with the community that cares for it.