Art is for everyone, it’s true. This column is firmly devoted to that ideal. In reality, though, there exists a continuum involving what types of artwork you can actually look at.
At one end of this continuum are public artworks — geometric sculptures and cherries on spoonbridges and generals on horseback — which are the easiest to find and easiest to experience. Anyone can walk up to the Mary Tyler Moore statue on Nicollet and take their photo with it, day or night, without special permissions of any kind. We could even call this the Mary Tyler Moore factor. The statue of Mary Richards is a perfect 10 on the MTM art accessibility scale. The Spoonbridge is maybe a 9.5, since there are hours when the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is closed. But Nicollet Mall is open 24 hours a day.
At the other end of the spectrum is artwork in private collections and studios, locked away in houses and not viewable without an invitation from the owner or the artist (or, in the extreme case of someone like Henry Darger, not viewable until the artist has died). In my apartment, for example, I have a graphite drawing depicting the six degrees of the late Whitney Houston to every major cultural figure of the postwar era, which I bought for $40 at a West Bank art space in 2008 or so. Short of emailing me to invite yourself over to see it, and making firm plans with me to do so, there’s unfortunately no way you could see that piece in person. It is a 1 on the MTM scale. If I die and it is accessioned by a Whitney Houston fanatic and sent into a climate-controlled art dungeon forever, it becomes a 0.
Most artwork in the world lies somewhere between those two. Roughly in descending order, from 10 to 0: outdoor public spaces, public museums, libraries, art galleries, retail stores, coffee shops, salons, bars, restaurants, alley murals, hospitals, offices, archives, private collections, and finally private homes. Each rung down, you need a more specialized sort of access to see the artwork, whether that access takes the form of an admission fee, a good reason to be there, social capital, or an intercessory of some kind.
Almost exactly in the middle — maybe roughly between a library and a hospital — is the university, and specifically for the purposes of this column, the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota is swimming with amazing artworks of all kinds, owned by the university but not stored away in the art holdings at the Weisman. Any building on campus is going to have paintings and prints galore that are generally located in public spaces.
I was reminded of this in the past week when my friend (and previous guest Stroller) Peter Schilling mentioned a painting he’d seen during a brief professional stint at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs several years ago. I decided to go find and it, and see what other Hubert H. Humphrey-themed artworks the building might have. I wasn’t disappointed at the range.
Again, the Humphrey School is probably a solid 5 on our MTM scale. At no point walking through the building looking around did I feel specifically unwelcome, but there is a lingering sense, wandering into offices and past administrative desks, that you don’t really belong there. I like taking The Stroll to places anyone can see, without needing special access, and the offices at the U generally fall into that category. A few people asked if they could help me find something. Once you say you’re looking for art, people tend to be very helpful and friendly. The great thing about the sort of artwork I was after is that, since the audience for it is so small and specialized, people tend to be very proud of it.
The portrait Peter had mentioned is located in the Global Policy Area, which is behind a locked door, so you have to ask permission. It is indeed a wonderful and unusual piece: What looks like a thangka, a traditional form of Chinese, Tibetan or Nepalese painting on silk depicting the life of the Buddha. Funny thing is, the central figure in the piece bears a very striking resemblance to a certain Minnesota senator and vice president. There are no didactics or signage accompanying the piece, and no one in the office knew much in the way of backstory. Is it a portrait of Humphrey, or an artwork presented to him when someone noted the resemblance? It’s a pretty witty piece, either way.
There is also some more excellent HHH-themed artwork in the office. A more conventional portrait is by Li Lin-Chia. Mr. Li was a Chinese artist who worked in both southeast China and Taiwan, and taught for many years during the ’60s and ’70s at St. John’s College in New York City. He traveled America giving demonstrations of traditional Chinese watercolor techniques, and created portraits of many prominent figures, including the king and queen of Thailand.
This piece is interesting for incorporating a Western-style portrait into the framework of a traditional Chinese painting. Humphrey’s face is tightly painted, in fleshy tones, the vice president guffawing one of his trademark guffaws, and looking off to the left. He stands in front of a traditionally rendered pine tree, standing over the trunk like a lectern. I especially like the way Li handled Humphrey’s coat — a black, watery shape, very simple but deftly handled in such a way that the mass and form of Humphrey’s body is suggested with little detail.
There’s also a watercolor painting in the office of three mountain goats, by Liu Ming Ts’ai and presented to Vice President Humphrey at some point in the mid-1960s. Liu was a 30-year-old Taiwanese journalist and teacher who, starting in 1963, traveled across the world by bicycle and bus, meeting people and collecting postmarked stamps from each city he visited. He shows up in a brief item in the Detroit Free-Press in April 1966, so he presumably made it to Washington, D.C., that year and presented this lovely painting to Humphrey. The Free-Press notes that Liu found our highways “too dangerous” for safe bicycle travel.
A photo of Liu, a handsome, smiling young man in a black fleece-lined leather jacket, accompanies the piece. Other than that notice, I can’t find much about Liu’s journey around the world. The fact that he was able to not only secure an audience of some kind with the vice president, but also present to him a gift that remains in the collection of the school, suggests that his travels must have rightfully achieved some degree of notoriety.
In the Student Affairs office nearby, there is what looks like a framed poster — a red and blue sign with a stopwatch, the face of which reads in white: “HHH THE HOUR OF HISTORY.” At first glance, from a distance, I’d thought maybe it was mass-produced poster by someone like Ben Shahn, a leftist graphic artist with a fluid hand. Upon closer examination, though, one finds it’s not a poster at all, but a plank of wood decorated with paint. One also sees it’s probably not the work of a professional artist, either. It’s a little too odd, a little too enthusiastic to be the work of a seasoned pro. Most likely it was held aloft at a rally, or placed on a roadside or airport during a campaign appearance. The stopwatch emphasizes the ticking-clock quality of Humphrey’s image as an almost prophetic figure in pre-New Left liberal circles. His speeches were strewn with references to time.
In his most famous — delivered to the 1948 Democratic Convention in support of a civil-rights plank in the party’s platform — he wound up to this still-famous cry: “The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Fifteen years later, with the ascension of LBJ and the adoption of a strong civil-rights plank in the Democratic Party platform, that “hour of history” seemed to have arrived.
Down in the basement, in room 55, the International Fellowships Program, there are two incredible gems — so remarkable I can barely believe they’re not highlighted more prominently. The coordinator of the Global Policy Area told me about them, and I’m glad she did, because otherwise I likely wouldn’t have seen them at all. One deals directly with Humphrey’s “sunshine of human rights” speech. It’s two drawings by the artist and civil-rights activist Tracy Sugarman, who died this past January in his hometown of Westport, Conn., at the age of 91.
They’re drawings with gray and white charcoal, on buff paper, of Humphrey. One depicts him sitting with LBJ, conferring. The other is Humphrey in 1948, then mayor of Minneapolis, taking the stand at the Democratic Convention and intoning his famous aforementioned “sunshine of human rights” speech. Sugarman was an illustrator, with a varied career that included everything from jazz album covers to action scenes of soldiers in battle and protestors marching (he was a Freedom Rider, working in the Deep South in the early 1960s and illustrating a memoir on the experience called “We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi”).
This portrait of Humphrey captures beautifully the tension and drama and heroism of that moment, Truman’s face on a banner receding into the background, Humphrey pushing forward his hand and opening his mouth to speak those words that half of the delegation didn’t want to hear into the microphones in front of him. The Humphrey School is full of wall graphics and interpretive displays portraying and explaining that famous moment, but they don’t quite capture the expansive, cinematic quality of the moment the way Sugarman’s piece does.
You might have to ask someone nearby if you’re allowed to see it — it’s in an office, in the basement, hanging near a cabinet over eye level — but it’ll be well worth your time and effort.