The New York Institute for the Humanities &
The Humanities Initiative at NYU wonder about
SATURDAY MAY 18, 2013
11:00 am till 6:00 pm
NYU’s Cantor Film Center, 36 East 8th Street
Free & Open to the Public
In his book Vermeer’s Family Secrets, originally published by Routledge in 2009, Cooper Union art history professor Benjamin Binstock proposed that several “problem paintings” in the Vermeer canon as currently understood, including four of them here in New York and two others at the National Gallery in Washington, might actually have been painted by his daughter, Maria, who he further identified as the model for the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Thus far, however, Binstock’s thesis has been met with thunderous silence in the art historical press—itself a fascinating response. But what if we were to take Binstock’s claims seriously, or at least allow them a fair hearing? (How might we go about doing so?) Beyond that, what if we in turn were to think about how such theories make their way through the art historical vetting process? How generally does scholarship evaluate such claims, and in turn how ought we evaluate how it does so? And how would our response to certain specific works (such as the National Gallery’s Girl with a Red Hat, which Binstock recasts as a self-portrait) change if Binstock were proven right?
By way of addressing such questions, the NYIH and its partner, the Humanities Initiative at NYU, will be convening an all-day symposium (a sort of book-end to the similar sort of conference convened twelve years ago to evaluate David Hockney’s controversial claim that Old Masters had been deploying optical devices in ways far more widespread than previously believed). Following a presentation of his theory by Professor Binstock himself, its contentions and implications will in turn be evaluated, sequentially, by panels of art historians and theorists; artists; and more generalized scholars; culminating in a concluding overview by the eminent Princeton cultural and intellectual historian Anthony Grafton.
Other participants will include art historians and theorists Linda Nochlin of the Institute for Fine Arts, Claudia Swan of Northwestern University, Ivan Gaskell of the Bard Graduate Center, and James Elkins of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago; artists Chuck Close,Vincent Desiderio, Gerri Davis and April Gornik; and generalists Rachel Cohen(author of A Chance Meeting and a forthcoming biography of Bernard Berenson), NYU Rilke scholar Ulrich Baer, philosopher of aesthetics Jonathan Gilmore (currently visiting at Columbia), and NYU neural scientist David Poeppel.
Presentation of a theory
Benjamin Binstock in conversation with Lawrence Weschler
Art historians & theorists respond
Martha Hollander, Ivan Gaskell, James Elkins
Chuck Close, Vincent Desiderio, Gerri Davis, April Gornik
Rachel Cohen, Jonathan Gilmore, Ulrich Baer, David Poeppel
About the Participants
Benjamin Binstock, a specialist in Renaissance and Baroque Art and art historical methodology, earned his PhD at Columbia University in 1997. He has written widely on Northern painting, particularly Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Carel Fabiritius, as well as Netherlandish painting, and has also translated and introduced texts by the great formalist scholar Aloïs Riegl. Binstock was a visiting member at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and the American Academy in Berlin, and has taught at Columbia University, New York University, the CUNY Graduate Center, and presently the Cooper Union. His theory about Vermeer’s daughter Maria, the occasion for today’s conference, is laid out in his bookVermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery and the Unknown Apprentice(Routledge, 2009).
Ulrich Baer, a professor of German and Comparative Literature, is Vice Provost for Arts, Humanities and Multicultural Affairs at NYU (prior to which he was vice provost for Globalization and Multicultural Affairs). He translated and edited Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters on Life; has written widely on trauma and modernity (as in his Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma); and most recently published a book of short stories, set in Shanghai,Beggar’s Chicken.
Chuck Close is a visual artist noted for his highly inventive techniques used to paint the human face, notably by way of large-scale, photo-based portrait paintings. He is also an accomplished printmaker and photographer whose work has been the subject of more than 200 solo exhibitions in more than 20 countries, including major retrospective exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Reina Sofia in Madrid. Although Mr. Close was paralyzed following a rare spinal artery collapse in 1988, he continues to paint using a brush-holding device strapped to his wrist and forearm. He was recently appointed by President Obama to serve on The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Rachel Cohen’s work can regularly be found in The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The New York Times, The Threepenny Review, The Believer, McSweeney’s and other publications. Her first book, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, a series of thirty-six linked essays about the encounters among thirty figures in American history during the long century from the civil war through the civil rights movement, won the PEN/Jerard Fund Award. Her new book, Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, is due out from the Yale University Press Jewish Lives Series in October of 2013. Cohen teaches creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College.
Gerri Davis studied architecture at the Cooper Union and started out working on the High Line and the interior of Alice Tully Hall with the firm of Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, before quitting to devote full time to painting, especially confoundingly reflected self-portraits, as in her recent show “Problems with Authority,” at the Bridge Gallery in New York.
Vincent Desiderio, a painter firmly planted in a figurative tradition that he at the same time has endeavored to problematize, is a senior critic both at this alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and at the New York Academy of Art. His work can be found in many important public collections, including The Metropolitan; the Guggenheim; the Hirshhorn; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. In 2005, Distributed Art Publishers published a major monograph devoted to his oeuvre, Vincent Desiderio: Paintings 1975-2005, with significant texts by Mia Fineman, Donald Kuspit, Barry Schwabsky, and Lawrence Weschler.
James Elkins, chair of the Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago has written prodigiously on the history and theory of images in art, science and nature, with titles ranging from What Painting Is, and Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? through The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing; On Pictures and the Words that Fail Them; Pictures and Tears (A History of People who Have Cried in Front of Painting); and, quite simply: How to Use Your Eyes. He says he has “stopped writing on art writing in order to concentrate on writing,” for starters on a book of experimental fiction, with images.
Ivan Gaskell is Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies at the Bard Graduate Center, New York. His work on material culture addresses intersections among history, art history, anthropology, and philosophy. His publications include Vermeer’s Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory, and Art Museums. He has curated numerous experimental exhibitions, most recently Tangible Things (with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) at Harvard, where he taught and curated from 1991-2011.
Jonathan Gilmore, a philosopher of art and aesthetics, is a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University (having previously taught at Yale and Princeton). He is the author of The Life of a Style: Beginnings and Endings in the Narrative History of Art and several articles on emotional responses to fiction, cognition and the imagination, ethics and aesthetics, freedom of expression, and twentieth-century European philosophy. His art criticism has appeared inArtforum, Art in America, ArtNews, Tema Celeste, and Modern Painters.
April Gornik, a painter whose work centers on the play of light in landscape, lives and works in New York City and in North Haven, Long Island. Her paintings are featured in the Metropolitan Museum; the Whitney Museum; the Museum of Modern Art; the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC; the Cincinnati Museum; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Modern Art Museum of Art of Fort Worth, and other major public and private collections. Her most recent one-person show was at the Dayton Art Institute in 2013.
Anthony Grafton, a veritable latter-day Magus, teaches European history at Princeton University, where he has been based since 1975, specializing in the intellectual history of the early modern (or, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, the late Sumerian). His books includeBring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation; Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship; Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science; and “I Have Always Loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and A Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship. His reviews and articles regularly appear inThe American Scholar, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement.
Linda Nochlin is the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Her book Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730-1970, published in 1972, was significant for introducing a feminist perspective to the field of art history and criticism. Nochlin’s other publications include Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848-1900, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1874-1904, and The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society.
David Poeppel is Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU, where he supervises research on language, speech, and hearing. Trained at MIT in cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience, he did his post-doctoral training at the University of California San Francisco where he focused on functional brain imaging. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lawrence Weschler, who is currently completing his twelfth and final year as director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, was for over twenty years (1981-2001) a staff writer at The New Yorker, where his work shuttled between political tragedies and cultural comedies. In addition to his most recent book, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative, his over fifteen other titles include Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (a life of artist Robert Irwin); True to Life (David Hockney); Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder; Boggs: A Comedy of Values; and, most pertinent to today’s proceedings, Vermeer in Bosnia (2004), in which he also insisted that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was obviously Vermeer’s daughter (any father of a daughter can tell that).
Vermeer, His Daughter, and their Paintings
Johannes Vermeer’s paintings are now famous for their purity of light, color harmonies, balanced compositions, subtle details, stillness, and timelessness, in Lawrence Gowing’s felicitous phrase, “a thin and perfect plume thrown up by the wave of Dutch painting at its crest,” and by extension, the crest of Western art. Yet what are we to make of Girl with a Red Hat, traditionally assigned to Vermeer, which violates all these visual principles through drastic light contrasts, jarring juxtapositions of colors and forms, animated and momentary tension, spontaneous virtuosity? In contrast to the perfectly rounded shapes and dissolved lines of Vermeer’s unsurpassed naturalism, here the emphasis is on the surface play of patches of paint, in the astounding red hat of indeterminate material, and the abstract pseudo-tapestry background. The composition also betrays surprising errors in the high white collar scraped away on the left, and skewed chair finials facing the wrong direction.
Similar infelicities, technical difficulties, and uncharacteristic approaches are evident in the related Girl with a Flute, the peculiarly distorted Portrait of a Woman, and less obviously in the complex compositions, Mistress and Maid, Girl Interrupted, and Woman with a Lute. A painting long excluded from Vermeer’s oeuvre, Girl at a Virginal, was only recently and lucratively rehabilitated as a Vermeer, despite sensible objections of several commentators. Authors have seen problems with each of these paintings, and sought to explain them in different ways, as forgeries, over-painted by another artist, unfinished, or poorly preserved. A more plausible explanation, briefly evoked but never pursued, to which we will return, was that one of Vermeer’s children might have become his apprentice. Yet these misfit paintings have never been addressed as a group, which together comprise a full fifth of Vermeer’s present oeuvre.
Vermeer’s oeuvre was never simply a given. Théophile Thoré only first “discovered” or recognized Vermeer’s exceptional genius in the mid nineteenth-century at the dawn of modern art history. He assembled the earliest oeuvre catalogue of Vermeer’s paintings, roughly half of which were not by him. In the century and a half since then scholars have mostly narrowed down and in a few cases added examples to constitute Vermeer’s current more or less accepted oeuvre of thirty-eight odd paintings. Yet despite countless monographs on the artist, his paintings have never been arranged in a coherent work-by-work chronological development. Why not?
Firstly, the task has not yet been performed for other artists. Art history is a conservative field, still evolving in this regard. Second, there are economic, cultural, institutional investments that discourage questioning the conventional consensus. Third, the questions are difficult to answer. The paintings currently assigned to Vermeer cannot be arranged in a coherent chronology. One can only do so after removing the misfit paintings, which likewise reveal their own consistent development, in a dialogue with Vermeer, increasingly borrowing and combining elements of his compositions, employing the same models, costumes, objects, and interiors, and influencing him in turn.
Another crucial piece of the puzzle involves Vermeer’s models, who have been seen as family members, but have never been addressed in a systematic way. His family models can help order his development, as well as his unknown follower’s. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (Fig. 1) can be identified as his eldest child Maria, also recognizable in the Girl with a Red Hat (Fig. 2), reversed in a mirror, that is, a self-portrait. Since Vermeer had no documented followers, this could only have been his child, and plausibly only his eldest Maria. If this reading is correct, Vermeer himself might have considered using his apprentice’s paintings to help defray his mounting debts, as the family ultimately did, with or without his approval, after his death in 1675 at age 42 of an apparent stroke brought on by a financial crisis. That would help explain the necessity of keeping his apprentice a family secret. We are still discovering Vermeer(s).