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Performance Art Is Traced to Whistler

November 20, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It wasn’t exactly an 1800s version of performance art _ one of those modern shows in which an actress coats herself in chocolate or some such _ but a well-known American artist was doing more than just hanging his paintings for viewers more than a century ago.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery is reproducing two such shows by painter James McNeill Whistler to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. The shows opened Thursday.

Whistler called his one-man London show of 1883: ``Arrangement in White and Yellow.″ He designed picture frames, furniture, flower arrangements, wall color and floor material, and a big cloth _ hung over a skylight _ which he shaped to cast just the shade of yellow he wanted to light his pictures. Whistler patented a later version of the hanging, which he called a velarium.

He hired a guard, dressed him in white and yellow, including yellow socks, and had him sell small catalogs at a shilling each _ $4 or $5 at today’s prices. It turned a neat profit for Whistler.

Critics were quick to dub the costumed guard ``the poached egg man.″

``We don’t know who he was,″ Kenneth John Myers, the Freer’s associate curator of American art, said of the guard. ``For our reproduction of the exhibit, we’ve hired an actor and made up a story for him. He’ll also lead some tours of the exhibits.″

The catalog, reprinted and available free at the Freer exhibit, includes bits of art criticism that Whistler called in a letter ``the silly drivel of the wise fools who write.″

A version of the show was assembled in New York and traveled to Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Detroit.

Whistler pioneered the practice of hanging pictures at eye level in a single horizontal row, with some space between them. The ``salon style,″ still to be seen in some old-fashioned collections, stacks paintings row on row up the walls, often with frame touching frame from floor to ceiling.

Samuel F. B. Morse, an earlier American painter as well as the inventor of the telegraph, did an interior view of the Louvre in Paris with five horizontal rows of pictures.

Whistler’s 1883 show consisted of 51 etchings. Copies of nearly all were found in the Freer’s Whistler collection, the world’s largest.

The following year Whistler mounted another show, calling it ``Arrangement in Flesh Color and Grey.″ He liked using titles borrowed from music, such as arrangement, nocturne and harmony. The official name of his best-known work, a portrait of his mother, is ``Arrangement in Black and Grey.″ It is not in the current show.

Whistler’s use of musical terms emphasized one of his favorite ideas: ``art for art’s sake,″ meaning that works of art are not just a reflection of nature, but should be objects of beauty in themselves like works for musical instruments. That idea made him grandfather of abstract artists since his time, whose work does not represent any recognizable object.

In the 1884 show he exhibited 67 oil paintings, water colors and pastels _ crayon drawings. The Freer Gallery, which is barred from either borrowing or lending art, found about half of the original exhibit in its own collection.

The Washington exhibits were put together with the cooperation of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va. They will be on view through April 4. Admission is free.


On the Net:

The Freer Gallery of Art: http://www.asia.si.edu/

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