Richard Avedon at the Cantor Museum

The Cantor Art Museum on the Stanford University campus is one of my favorite art museums. It’s not as big or as prestigious as the de Young Museum or the Legion of Honor, but unlike the other museums, it has the feel of being curated by an enthusiastic art professor, hoping to get his students energized about the interconnectedness of art. It has a broad range of art, from Egyptian artifacts and ethnic African carvings to classical European art and California Expressionism. It has a fabulous Rodin sculpture garden (as well as a gallery of Rodin inside) and modern art that’s interesting but not challenging, just the way I like it.

In particular, you’ll find modern works “hidden” within the older art that inspired them. For instance, on this visit, a modernist wood sculpture which looked like a stack of canoes was standing quietly in the Oceania section, and the Asia gallery now had a wall of contemporary Chinese art facing its past in the form of a large reclining Buddha looking at it.

The museum’s special exhibits tend to complement the special exhibits at other area museums. Right now, the museum’s major exhibit is “In the American West” a series of portraits by fashion-photographer-turned- photography-artist Richard Avedon. They’re stark photographs taken during the early 1980s of a variety of lower middle class and underclass people living in the Rocky Mountain and Sierras regions. This is a good representative picture from the exhibit (via the Cantor site):


The exhibit plaques made a big deal of how it shattered the stereotype of the glamorous West, and how the first critics of the exhibit thought his choices for subjects were unrealistic, too. I thought that assessment was elistist. First of all, I have no idea what glamor anyone ever saw in the West, and if Avedon’s pictures showed anything any differently than it had been seen before. In fact, Avedon’s pictures of the rough and gritty Western laborers are exactly a look fetishized by one gay subculture. And secondly, the people in the photographs, particularly the girls, looked an awful lot like the people I went to public school with. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew in the pictures.

But then, Neil, like the elitist critics, also doesn’t know from lower middle class. He thought the pictures were all weird, and that Avedon “must have liked tragiedies.” And to be fair, I didn’t relate in the same way to the Gordon Parks photographs upstairs. He took pictures of abject poverty in Harlem and Brazil, and I don’t know that world.

Along the lines of their photography exhibit theme, the Cantor museum found a hands-on reconstruction of a zoopraxiscope, kind of an early movie camera. After pressing a button to turn on the light, Neil and Kelly took turns rotating a wheel in order to see a galloping horse. The pictures were taken by Edward Muybridge, for–guess who–Leland Stanford’s commission. Meanwhile, next to a small Monet painting, I found a pamphlet someone had presumably left behind. In curiousity, I picked it up: It advertised a current exhibit “The Unknown Monet” at the Royal Academy in London, England.

London is a heckuva long way from Palo Alto. Who had left that pamphlet behind and why? Obviously someone had recently been to London and then come to the Cantor Museum. Was the pamphlet there to inspire Monet lovers to book a trip to England post-haste? Or was it there to mock us, as in nyah-nyah, you may have one obscure Monet to display, but we have a lot more. I was tempted to take the pamphlet, but I left it there to perplex the next person to come along and notice it.

Outside the museum, caterpillars were out in force. I was grossed out when I paid for the parking and had to be careful not to touch any of them as I put my coins in:


By the time we came out, the caterpillars had crept to my car, much to Neil’s horror. One of them even tried to hitch a ride with us. The Stanford web site said they’re moth caterpillars and they try to control them with (ugh) wasps. Personally, I’ll be glad when the caterpillar season is over.

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