Author Archives: Helene Grabow

About Helene Grabow

Helene Grabow is the Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Contemporary Art. After graduating from Carleton College in 1992 with a degree in Political Science, Helene entered the corporate finance field, where she worked for over a decade. Upon arriving in Baltimore, she became a BMA docent and discovered her passion for art. She volunteered as a docent from 1998 until 2008, when she began working in her current capacity fulltime. Outside of the museum, Helene enjoys studying French language and culture and volunteering for her alma mater.

A local icon

When I first moved to Baltimore from Chicago, the questions most often posed by friends were regarding John Waters and the depiction of Baltimore in his films. At the time, the references were lost on me, but it didn’t take long for me to discover that the renowned director, celebrated for campy and at times raunchy films set in his hometown, is synonymous with the city.

Prior to the BMA’s Campaign for Art, the Museum’s collection included just one work by Waters. Dorothy Malone’s Collar, a photomontage from 1996, is a quintessential example of Waters’ early foray into appropriation art. The work, which resembles a horizontal photo strip, begins with an image of an eponymous title screen followed by nine stills of actress Dorothy Malone sporting her signature upturned collar. The artist obtained each image by scouring hours of film, pausing the movie, and taking a picture of the frozen scene on his television screen. The format proved a natural means for Waters to share his sharp observation, wit, and love of film with an expanded audience.

John Waters. John Jr.. 2009. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, BMA 2010.13. © John Waters, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

John Waters. John Jr.. 2009. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, BMA 2010.13. © John Waters, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

In 2010, contemporary photography collectors Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker gave the Museum John Jr., 2009. Once again, Waters found inspiration in another artist’s work. The source is a pastel portrait by a respected Baltimore portraitist who was commissioned by Waters’ parents to capture the artist as a boy. Waters took a picture of the pastel and manipulated it ever so slightly by using Photoshop to add a hint of the trademark pencil mustache that he has worn for most of his adult life. Through this simple gesture the artist unites his juvenile and mature selves. Considering the resulting image, it is just as easy to imagine that Waters was a precocious child as it is to see that the child in him lives on.

John Waters. Kiddie Flamingos. 2014. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Max Stern Trust Fund; gift of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art; Alice and Franklin Cooley Fund; and purchased as the gift of an Anonymous Donor, BMA 2015.85. © John Waters, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

John Waters. Kiddie Flamingos. 2014. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Max Stern Trust Fund; gift of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art; Alice and Franklin Cooley Fund; and purchased as the gift of an Anonymous Donor, BMA 2015.85. © John Waters, Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery

In 2015 a donation from the BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art facilitated the acquisition of one of Waters’ most recent works, Kiddie Flamingos, 2014. Like Dorothy Malone’s Collar and John Jr., the work grew out of another artwork—the artist’s notorious film Pink Flamingos, 1972. The movie, which put Waters on the map as “The Pope of Trash,” quickly became a cult classic and continues to shock viewers. In Kiddie Flamingos, children perform a table reading of Waters’ adaptation of Pink Flamingos for a general audience. Seated in front of a backdrop featuring a trailer home, the kids wear clothing, wigs, and accessories that evoke the unforgettable characters of the original film. Waters’ distinctive voice delivers stage directions off camera while the children earnestly perform their roles in this remake of the battle for the title of “the filthiest people alive.” Those who have seen the original film will recognize that, though purged of its obscenity, the new script artfully alludes to the indelible scenes that make Pink Flamingos scandalous to this day.

John Waters’ reputation precedes him and in many circles he is regarded as the face of Baltimore. It is a fitting tribute to the local icon that two of his works joined the BMA’s collection through the Museum’s Campaign for Art.

John Jr. is on view through May 8, 2016 in New Arrivals: Maryland Artists.
Kiddie Flamingos will be running on a continuous loop in the Museum’s Black Box from September 21, 2016 to January 22, 2017.

 

BMA Voices: Finding an escape with Felix Gonzalez‑Torres

Felix Gonzalez Torres. "Untitled" (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Water). 1995. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1995.73. © The Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation

Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant, finds an escape from the hectic pace of life in Felix Gonzalez‑Torres’ “Untitled” (Water), 1995.

To learn more about this piece, see The five artworks you can touch at the BMA!

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: “What makes this art, rather than compost?”

Zoe Leonard. Untitled (detail). 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard. Untitled (detail). 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant, delves into art history to shed light on Zoe Leonard’s Untitled, 1999-2000.

Zoe Leonard. Untitled. 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard. Untitled. 1999-2000. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Katherine Hardiman, Baltimore, BMA 2000.154a g. © Zoe Leonard

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

 

BMA Voices: The importance of looking beyond first impressions

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1976. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased in Honor of Edith Ferry Hooper, Trustee of The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1957 1995, and President of the Board of Trustees, 1973 1975, with funds contributed by her Friends, BMA 1976.49. Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1976. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased in Honor of Edith Ferry Hooper, Trustee of The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1957 1995, and President of the Board of Trustees, 1973 1975, with funds contributed by her Friends, BMA 1976.49. Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant

“Which work of art do you believe least belongs in these galleries?” It was 1998, and I had just begun training to become a BMA docent when this question was posed to me. Before we had an introduction to the contemporary collection, my docent class was set free in the Contemporary Wing with the assignment of choosing the work of art that we felt least belonged in the Museum. After setting off to explore the galleries, the group reconvened to share our answers.

When my turn came, I told the group that I had selected Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1976. I cringe when I think of it, but I clearly recall saying that I felt his plywood box looked like something that belonged on a construction site or a playground but not in an art museum. After each of us had shared our opinion, the instructor turned the tables on us. The assignment for the week was to research our chosen object and prepare a five-minute presentation designed to convince our classmates of the importance of the artist and the object.

Once I began my research, I soon learned that Judd was a seminal artist in the development of Minimalist art and is considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. Although he was trained as a painter during the peak of Abstract Expressionism, Judd was driven by a desire to create a new art form that was free of both illusion (images of things) and allusion (references to thoughts and feelings). Judd soon abandoned painting for the creation of non-referential, three-dimensional, geometric forms. “Actual space,” he wrote, “is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”

In order to avoid any connotation associated with traditional sculptural materials such as bronze and marble and to eliminate any sign of the artist’s hand, he opted for industrial materials like plywood, anodized aluminum, and steel. He eventually took the step of turning to professional fabricators for production. This radical act shifted the emphasis of art-making from craft to concept. Finally, he placed the finished three-dimensional work directly on the floor or hung it on the wall and, in doing so, took the revolutionary act of freeing sculptures from pedestals and platforms. Judd believed his works defied the categories of painting and sculpture and referred to them as “specific objects.”

Through my research, I came to have great appreciation for the theoretical advances of Minimalism and the ground breaking role that Judd played in its development, both as an artist and critic. Approaching the Museum’s Untitled, 1976, with this new understanding, I became absorbed in the act of looking, and I was surprised to find that the plywood that had originally repelled me now mesmerized me with the beautiful waves of its wood grain. As I walked around the work, I was continually intrigued by the dynamic relationship between my body, the box, and the space around me.

I like to think that the presentation I made to my fellow docents helped open their minds to the power of Minimalism. (I even went so far as to have a carpenter build a miniature replica of the work.) Whatever the case, this assignment was the most important lesson of my docent training, not only because it prompted my profound appreciation of Judd’s work and the Museum’s remarkable collection of Minimalist art, but also because it serves as a reminder about the importance of looking beyond first impressions.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

BMA Voices: Mickalene Thomas’ “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires”, 2010.

Mickalene Thomas. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires. 2010. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Collectors Circle Fund for Art by African Americans, and Roger M. Dalsheimer Photograph Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2010.36. © Mickalene Thomas, courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

Mickalene Thomas. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires. 2010. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Collectors Circle Fund for Art by African Americans, and Roger M. Dalsheimer Photograph Acquisitions Endowment, BMA 2010.36. © Mickalene Thomas, courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant

It’s hard to say whether my initial interest in Mickalene Thomas’ Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010, stemmed from my passion for art history or my guilty pleasure of flipping through style magazines. On the one hand, the work’s play on the iconic painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, by French artist Edouard Manet undoubtedly intrigued me. On the other hand, I cannot deny that I would have been attracted by the saturated color, striking motifs, and stylized models that lend the photograph the air of a fashion spread.

Manet’s painting, long considered a touchtone of modernism, features two fully clothed men picnicking with a nude woman and therefore has often been critiqued for its placement of the female model in a subservient position to the male artist. In her dramatic reinterpretation of the painting, Mickalene Thomas replaces the members of Manet’s luncheon party, all of whom are white, with three chicly dressed, African American women. Gone is the vulnerable, naked woman and in her place are women whose confident poses and arresting gazes suggest that they are engaging the viewer on their own terms. Interestingly, the inspiration for the 70s-style dresses, accessories, and hairstyles comes from Thomas’ mother, who was a model and served as her muse. At the same time that the photograph critiques Manet’s famous painting and the art historical canon, it also serves as a reminder that there are still many contemporary fashion editorials that could be similarly updated through the incorporation of women of color.

These glamorous women could stop passersby in their tracks, and in fact the photograph served as the starting point for a large-scale, three-panel painting encrusted with rhinestones—a commission by New York’s Museum of Modern Art—that was meant to do just that. Thomas shot the photograph in MoMA’s sculpture garden, and managed to position one of the sculptural reliefs from Matisse’s series The Backs as a stand-in for the bathing woman in the background of Manet’s painting. Thomas has explained that the placement of the sculpture was fortuitous but it was not without intent and its presence in the image serves as a symbol of Thomas’ arrival at MoMA, a pantheon of modern and contemporary artists. When the photograph is hanging in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing, the detail provides a special link to the BMA’s exceptional collection of works by Matisse.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.