Skip to content Skip to navigation

ArtsWest Initiative

For Stanford Art Historian, An Intimate Reflection on Celebrated Relatives

Feb 15 2017

Posted In:

Art and Art History Professor Alexander Nemerov speaking about his aunt, the late photographer Diane Arbus, at a San Francisco gallery on Feb. 4.

Art and Art History Professor Alexander Nemerov speaking about his aunt, the late photographer Diane Arbus, at a San Francisco gallery on Feb. 4.  Photo: Ron Pritipaul
 

By Tia Schwab

Alexander Nemerov, scholar of American art, delivered an intimate reflection on the work of his aunt, photographer Diane Arbus, and father, poet Howard Nemerov, in a lecture at the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco on February 4th. Nemerov discussed the hidden dialogue between Diane and Howard’s work as well as his relationship to both artists as family and as an art historian.

Nemerov is the chair of Stanford University’s art and art history department and the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities. The sold-out event was a part of the Bill Lane Center for the American West’s new ArtsWest Initiative and was co-sponsored by Minnesota Street Project and the Fraenkel Gallery.

Silent Dialogues book cover

Nemerov based the lecture on his newest book, Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov, focusing on a series of untitled photographs taken by Arbus at a mental institution between 1969 and 1971. He paralleled the photographs with pieces from artists such as Pieter Bruegel, Norman Rockwell, Paul Feeley, and Johannes Vermeer.

The Untitled series depicts residents in many aspects of their day-to-day life, from sitting and holding each other, to jumping and playing on the lawn in swimsuits, to dressing as fairies and ghosts for Halloween. Each photo conveys a distinct mood and provides a different lens through which to view the residents.

Nemerov contrasted photographs taken in the schoolyard with those taken in the fields behind the school, comparing the safe, bordered, groomed yard and the endless and otherworldly field.

Nemerov accompanied his analysis of Arbus’ photographs with poetry by Howard Nemerov, interweaving the stories that both artists told through their work.

One such poem was The Beautiful Lawn Sprinkler:

What gives it power makes it change its mind
At each extreme, and lean its rising rain
Down low, first one and then the other way;
In which exchange humility and pride
Reverse, forgive, arise, and die again,
Wherefore it holds at both ends of the day
The rainbow in its scattering grains of spray.

Alex Nemerov and the audience at the Minnesota Street Project
Photo: Ron Pritipaul

Nemerov also spoke of the difficulty of engaging with the work of his late father and aunt as an art historian, especially as his aunt passed away very early in his life. According to Nemerov, it took a level of self-assurance he would not achieve until later in his career.

An audience member asked if it was ethical for Arbus to take photographs at a mental institution. Nemerov responded by arguing for the importance of art — that it often confronts us with something uncomfortable we might otherwise never experience, and in doing so, it reveals the world.

The next ArtsWest program is scheduled for the afternoon of May 10, featuring a series of presentations about John Steinbeck and the environment, organized by the former Stanford English Department Chair Gavin Jones.

Tia Schwab is a sophomore at Stanford University.

Learn more about the ArtsWest Initiative »

 

Recent ArtsWest News

Mar 18 2019 | Happenings, ArtsWest
The contributions of all four speakers contributed to the sense of Burning Man as a type of experimental art utopia for those seeking an alternative to purely capitalist pursuits.
Nov 20 2018 | Happenings, ArtsWest
On October 29, Lukas Felzmann discussed the evolution of his photography leading to his most recent book, Apophenia.
Aug 29 2018 | Stanford News Service | Happenings, ArtsWest
Communication Professor Fred Turner has been studying the role of art and countercultural movements – including the communal, participatory lifestyle celebrated at the annual Burning Man festival – that have had far-reaching influence in the workplace of tech firms. This October, he will present his scholarship for the Center’s ArtsWest Initiative.

 

Recent Center News

Jun 17 2019 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
The BLM moves forward with the one of the world’s largest solar developments on federal land near Las Vegas; an obscure global cactus trade blooms illegally in Arizona’s federal desertland; prison inmates return to the fields in numbers not seen since the Jim Crow era as immigration policies squeeze migrant labor for agriculture; mysterious barrels labeled with Agent Orange ingredients resurface from the bottom of a lake in Oregon, and other recent news from around the West.
Jun 14 2019 | Stanford News Service | Center News
The new normal for Western wildfires is abnormal, with increasingly bigger and more destructive blazes. Understanding the risks can help communities avert disaster.
Jun 4 2019 | ... & the West Blog
With new rules coming into effect, farmers and municipalities using groundwater must either find more water to support the aquifers or take cropland out of use. To ease the pain, engineers are looking to harness the torrential storms that sometimes blast across the Pacific Ocean and soak California.