As we celebrate the birthday of the greatest country in the world, I suspect that many of my readers may have the day off. You may well be sitting around the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and nothing particular to do until it’s time to head out for a swim or a hike, before going to a barbecue followed by the local fireworks display later this evening. So while you savor the deliciousness of freedom, we’ll take a look at some of the past week’s art news stories that have a particularly American flavor to them – just like burgers and hot dogs right off the backyard grill.
One shining moment of American pride that’s on the minds of many at the moment is the approaching anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, an event which took place almost 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969. As part of the commemorations, NASA recently restored and reopened the original mission control room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, to resemble as closely as possible what the room looked like on the day. From period sports jackets hanging on coat racks, to cups of coffee sitting perilously close to primitive computer systems, it looks like something out of a nerd version of “Mad Men”. As of this month, visitors touring the Center will now be able to step back in time to this major moment in history, and see this life-sized time capsule for themselves.
Meanwhile, for those who aspire to own something from the actual landing, on July 18th Christie’s New York will be auctioning off the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Timeline. The book contains the full trajectory for the portion of the mission that involved the Eagle lunar module, serving as a kind of itinerary/survival guide for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It went to and from the Moon with the astronauts, and it even contains some lunar dust within its pages. To give you some sense of the volume’s historic importance, Christie’s notes that, shortly after landing on the lunar surface, “[Buzz] Aldrin had written Eagle’s coordinates in the Sea of Tranquility on page 10 of the book — the first writing by a human being on a celestial body other than Earth.”
The pre-sale estimate on the Timeline is $7-9 million, but don’t be surprised if it goes for considerably more than that. No, this isn’t a beautifully illustrated or bound volume, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it’s a work of art. Yet for what it represents, as an object of American and indeed human achievement, whose humble appearance bears no relation to its true value, it’s a good example of how even the most mundane of objects can, with the passage of time, come to hold tremendous significance and indeed tremendous worth for both private collectors and public institutions alike. Here’s hoping it ends up in a museum and not in the grandiose lair of the next Bond villain.
And now on to some other art news, in brief.
In follow up to my recent piece in The Federalist, regarding (among other things) efforts to disassociate the name of the Sackler family from various art institutions, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has declined Senator Jeff Merkley’s request that the late Arthur Sackler’s name be removed from the Smithsonian museum of Asian art that bears his name. Secretary Lonnie Bunch, in his letter to Senator Merkley, explained that the Smithsonian is legally bound to keep Mr. Sackler’s name affixed to the museum, under the terms of the gift that was made back in the 1980’s, and reiterated the fact that the philanthropist had nothing to do with the development or marketing of OxyContin, a drug created years after his death which is now the subject of heightened criticism and scrutiny. Interestingly however, notwithstanding the allusion to Mr. Sackler predeceasing the present dispute, it appears that the Smithsonian must have already considered if there was a way that they could remove the Sackler name, long before the Senator’s request, since Secretary Bunch noted in his letter that “the Sackler issue has been under examination at the institution for some time.”
It has emerged that the buyer of the purported Caravaggio “Judith and Holofernes”, which was pulled from auction last week following a substantial offer, is former Blackstone Group chairman J. Tomlinson Hill. Mr. Hill is a major collector, and opened his own museum/foundation in New York earlier this year to house his art collection. Until now, his most famous art world coup was purchasing Pontormo’s “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap” (1530), after an unsuccessful attempt by the British government to prevent the painting from leaving the UK, but that particular fight is not yet over. No word yet on whether a similar quagmire will engulf the exit of the Caravaggio from France to (presumably) its new home in Manhattan.
For those of my readers who find themselves in The Hamptons this summer, take a break one day from the water and head to the East Hampton Historical Society, for an intimate look at the lofe and work of one of America’s greatest 19th century landscape painters, Thomas Moran (1837-1926). First, there’s a new exhibition on Moran’s first – but not his last – visit to the Rocky Mountains and points west in 1871, including paintings, sketches, notebooks, and photographs, which played a crucial role in convincing both the public and government officials that Yellowstone needed to be protected as a national park, rather than developed for commercial use of its resources. The grandeur of the images which Moran created, as part of a movement that included other significant American landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, helped lead the way to a greater appreciation of the wildness of the American landscape, the idea of “the West” in the American popular imagination, and ultimately to the creation of the National Parks system. After touring the exhibition, you can stroll down to Moran’s home and quirky, Queen Anne style studio, which was built to his own design largely using salvaged materials from demolished New York City buildings. “Thomas Moran Discovers the American West” is at the East Hampton Historical Society through November 9th.