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Labeltalk: A Retrospective

Unknown (Roman); Head of a Warrior, ca. 300 C.E.; mosaic. Gift of Sir Henry Rawlinson through Dwight W. Marsh, Class of 1842, by exchange. (41.5.4)

History of Labeltalk
The Labeltalk series began in 1995 as an experiment in the interdisciplinary interpretation of art. Based on the premise that a work of art can have multiple meanings, depending on the perspective of the viewer, Labeltalk examines some of those meanings through the viewpoints of Williams College faculty members. The series was initiated with the support of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which was awarded to enhance the teaching role of the museum on the Williams College campus. The enthusiastic response to the first Labeltalk exhibition, from both the campus and local communities, led the museum to make Labeltalk an ongoing interdisciplinary exploration of art. (WCMA Press Release, 2004)

Labeltalk 1999 highlighted seven well-known 20th-century American photographs from the museum’s collection — including Ansel Adams’ Winter Sunrise and Philippe Halsman’s Portrait of Marilyn. For each photograph, one Williams College professor was asked to write a brief label text from the point of view or his or her discipline or scholarly interests, and in turn invite two others to also write about that same photograph. In all, there are texts from 21 faculty members representing 14 departments. (WCMA Press Release, 1999)

As part of the museum’s 75th anniversary celebration, Labeltalk 2001 highlighted the museum’s Asian collection and included art from Cambodia, China, India, and Japan. Eight of these works were selected for Labeltalk interpretation and had three labels written by Williams College professors representing 16 departments. For example, a Chinese scroll that depicts silk production – the cultivation of silk worms and the weaving and dying of cloth – was interpreted by professors of art history, economics, and history of science. The result was a fascinating interdisciplinary look that invited the viewer to consider both academic and personal interpretations of art. (WCMA Press Release, 2001)

Labeltalk 2004: Max Beckmann’s ‘Jahrmarkt’ featured one of Beckmann’s most compelling graphic works, Jahrmarkt (Annual Fair), created in 1921. The suite of ten rich drypoint prints employs a carnival theme as a means for exploring the human condition and begins with a self-portrait, where Beckmann poses as a circus barker beckoning viewers to the spectacle, and is followed by tightrope walkers, a tall man, musicians, and other circus entertainers. Jahrmarkt was interpreted by five Williams College professors through the lens of their particular disciplines: Annemarie Bean (theater), Steven B. Gerrard (philosophy), Mark Haxthausen (art history), Thomas A. Kohut (history), and Gail M. Newman (German). (WCMA Press Release, 2004)

Labeltalk 2009: Vik Muniz featured ten Memory Renderings from contemporary artist Vik Muniz’s 1989-2000 series “The Best of Life.”  Memory Renderings are photographs of drawings that Muniz (Brazilian, born 1961) drew from his recollection of a photograph printed in The Best of Life,” a book that featured iconic photographs from Life magazine between 1936 and 1972. Muniz photographed his drawings in soft focus to make them blurry and remove evidence of his hand. He also printed them through a half tone screen to simulate the pixilated quality of photographs published in a magazine–the format in which most people first encountered the images. The iconic images include soldiers raising the American flag in Iwo Jima, the student standing in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square, and John John saluting his father’s coffin. Thirteen professors from departments such as astronomy, theater, psychology, art, and economics participated in this Labeltalk. (WCMA Press Release, 2009)

Labeltalk 2011: Art of the Ancient World features seven objects selected from WCMA’s ancient collection, in order to demonstrate the breadth of eras, cultures, media, and subject matter that can be found in the collection. This focus on ancient art is particularly timely, since the museum recently received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to make digital images of the entire ancient art collection. Many of these objects are being made accessible to the public for the very first time through a web module that will be available online along with the rest of WCMA’s collection of nearly 13,000 objects. The museum worked with 19 professors at Williams that encompass 17 different departments, including American studies, anthropology, art, biology, classics, comparative literature, computer science, dance, English, history, mathematics, music, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and theatre. Labeltalk 2011 was organized by Elizabeth Gallerani, Coordinator of Mellon Academic Programs. (WCMA Press Release, 2011)

Above: Roman; Head of a Warrior, ca. 300 AD; mosaic. Gift of Sir Henry Rawlinson through Dwight W. Marsh, Class of 1842, by exchange (41.5.4).

2 Responses to Labeltalk: A Retrospective

  1. Artist in DC says:

    I love Labeltalk. Great stuff!!!

  2. American Flags says:

    The Best of “Life,” a book that featured iconic photographs from Life magazine between 1936 and 1972. Muniz photographed his drawings. One is the iconic image of the soldiers raising the American flag in Iwo Jima