Emily Ferguson

Daniel Johnston: 1961 – 2019

The eternal optimism of a fractured mind

Cult favorite musician and songwriter Daniel Johnston died at 58 Wednesday at his home in Waller, Tex., just outside Houston. Johnston was known throughout the '90s and aughts as a unique, no-frills voice whose earnest lyrics were compared to the style of William Blake.

Real Americans

Review: 'Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing' at the Frist Art Museum

When I walked into the "Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing" exhibit at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, I entered a pristinely curated history book. The black-and-white photographs hanging neatly on the walls provide the museum's visitors with an account of history by the people who lived it. There are ex-slaves and their children still working in fields under direction of white plantation owners, with dusty faces gnarled from sun; migrant workers in the Dust Bowl whose hands are sun-burnt and calloused from field work, standing by their underfed children; somnolent stares from across a segregated taproom; and wet eyes of Americans entering internment camps at the dawn of the Second World War.

The Chimerical Mind of Miro

Review: 'Miro: Birth of the World' at the Museum of Modern Art

Joan Miro enjoyed no closer relationship than that between his mind and his canvas. The painter was placid and reticent even to those who knew him well; he could sit with friends for hours without saying a word. Miro kept his studio as tidy as a doll's house, scrubbing himself head to toe after carefully cleaning his brushes and lining up his tubes of paint when he completed a long day of work. He then donned his neat clothes, which echoed his background as a Catalan peasant but still a member of an elite Parisian arts scene.

One Exhibit to Rule Them All

Review: 'Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth' at The Morgan Library & Museum

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's fantasy world Middle-earth had been decades in the making before The Hobbit was published in 1937. An orphan by age 12, Tolkien cradled a pure, child-like imagination his whole life. He began creating the language of his Elves when he was a teenager, he illustrated fantasy worlds in striking watercolor paintings that would influence his vision for Middle-earth's landscapes, and he began writing lore for the nascent world in a unique, arabesque script that closely resembled that of his deceased mother. Until May 12, these manuscripts, paintings, and other personal items of the author are on view at the Morgan Library in New York City, in its captivating exhibit "Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth." It has drawn crowds of fans eager to see the genesis of The Lord of the Rings—last century's most influential and beloved fantasy series described by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis as "a lightning bolt from a clear sky."

Finding the Essence of Art

Review: Constantin Brancusi Sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art

Watching two people argue about art is like watching two people try to ice-skate uphill. It happens often at the New York Museum of Modern Art, where visitors can tend to bring friends whose interest in abstract art is weakened by seeing abstract art. The MOMA has reignited debates about aesthetics and art with its Constantin Brancusi Sculptures exhibit, which arranges 11 sculptures that have never before been exhibited together. Brancusi (1876-1957) knew his abstract sculptures and those of his friends—Marcel DuChamp was one of them—would not always be welcomed by critics, but he couldn't have known that his work would also lead the United States to reconsider what its law constituted as "art."

Colors of a Life

Review: "Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist" at the Barnes Foundation

Berthe Morisot was the only woman to show paintings at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. She first exhibited her work at the Paris Salon in 1864, at 23 years old, after studying under Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. And one year after her death from pneumonia in 1895, a tribute retrospective was held for her at the Durand-Ruel gallery, with her peers (and fans) Degas and Renoir curating her works. Now, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has a retrospective of Morisot, titled "Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist," that runs until Jan. 14. The title of the exhibit makes one well aware that the artist's gender had as much of an effect on the way she was viewed in her own life as she is viewed currently. It is still important, however, to judge a painting on the skill of the painter and the effect of the painting itself, rather than the struggles the painter faced to produce it.

Warhol’s Endless 15 Minutes

Review: 'Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again' at the Whitney Museum of American Art

"Andy Warhol is like the Beatles," a family friend said to me. "It doesn't matter whether you like them or not." They are such large presences on the cultural landscape that they seem impervious to criticism. We were strolling through the sprawling exhibit "Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, open until March 31. Warhol, like the Beatles, was a cultural phenomenon, omnipresent in his place in time, and he still manages to hold unwavering relevance 31 years after his death. Time itself has much to do with not only his art but his posthumous popularity, considering our continuing interest in the raucous '60s, '70s, and '80s—decades he ruled over with mystifying endurance and celebrity. The Whitney provides a startling abundance of his work, but its younger visitors will learn little about the man or his life. Warhol is turning mythic.

Corot’s Immortal Women

Review: 'Corot: Women' at the National Gallery

The 20th century German theologian Karl Barth once said that woman "is in her whole existence an appeal to the kindness of man." Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) saw in women something more—a side of them undefined by the male gaze—and captured this in his portraits of women that can be seen in the National Gallery's exhibit "Corot: Women," open until Dec. 31. Perhaps this is because his stalwart mother provided the primary source of income for his family with a substantial dowry and her successful milliner shops in Paris. From his early years, he recognized that some women could seize a sense of independence that many were denied. His portraits of women convey dignity and strength, not a Barthian fantasy of seduction or feudal delicacy.

The Great Commission

Review: 'Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future' at the Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is selling ouija boards, tarot cards, and a beginner's guide to astrology "for the modern mystic." The occasion for such oddities in a prestigious art museum's gift shop is the Guggenheim's latest retrospective exhibit, Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, which is open until April 23. The Guggenheim stipulates that the Swedish artist and spiritualist was the true pioneer of the peak abstract movement, which is normally attributed to Kandinsky or Mondrian. It is a fair argument: Af Klint (1862-1944) made radically abstract paintings a decade before Kandinsky strayed from representational work. But she left specific instructions that her paintings never be shown until 20 years after she died. The world wasn't ready for them—at least, that's what her spirit guides told her.