Van Vleck Curator of Prints, Chazen Museum of Art
In s3e3, Ann Shafer and Ben Levy talk with James Wehn, Van Vleck Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, about prints, museums, curatorial work, and Israel van Meckenem.
Episode photo by Eric Baillies
Platemark is produced by Ann Shafer
Series one co-host: Ben Levy
Series two co-host: Tru Ludwig
Theme music: Michael Diamond
Audio mixing and troubleshooting: Dan Fury, Extension Audio
James Wehn: Israhel van Meckenem was the most prolific printmaker in Europe during the 15th century, the first to really use his identity as a brand on his prints. And the paradox is, he copied almost everything from other artists, I started to investigate what was the copy culture prior to the emergence of print technology. And the reality is that for centuries and centuries, everything had to be copied. If you wanted to book copy, you had to do it by hand. And if you wanted that image repeated, you had to copy it. And also pedagogically, as an apprentice in a workshop. Okay, copy this work by the master, learn to draw. So, I wanted to investigate how copy culture meets this ability to replicate images, distribute images, and market images, and then what happens to change culture, to create concepts about authenticity, originality, what's a copy, what isn't a copy, what's okay to copy, what's not okay.
Ann Shafer: Welcome to Platemark. This is series three, in which Ben Levy and I are interviewing the many colorful characters that make up the print ecosystem. It's acting like an archive of sorts. We felt like there were many voices that needed to be heard and get down on tape. So, we're doing it. We're going to interview curators and artists, print shop owners, Master printers, gallerists, dealers, you name it, we're going to do it. Today we have an interview with James Wehn. He is the Van Vleck curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Ben and I were in Madison in March 2022 to interview Paula Panczenko and her husband Russell Panczenko as a part of the programming of the Southern Graphics Council International’s conference. We had the opportunity to sit down not only with Paula and Russell but also with James and also the master printers at Tandem Press. I hope you enjoy the conversation. It's always fascinating to talk to another curator, for me. James is a wonderful curator and has deep and abiding interest in early German prints. His dissertation was on Israhel van Meckenem. But as happens in museum collections, especially if there's a large print collection, one becomes a real generalist. So, let's see what he has to say. Buckle up, here we go.
JW: It has struck me working on the exhibition Pressing Innovation: Printing Fine Art in the Upper Midwest, and also just being at the Southern Graphics Council International conference, just how important relationships are. So much is accomplished and learned through relationships. And printmaking seems to be an art that really fosters collaboration and a transfer of knowledge, technical skills. What is this medium? How do you achieve this particular aesthetic effect? How do you do this, and that is something I've really observed is true of printmaking.
AS: I always liken the Print Council of which you're a member, and I was before I stepped out, the print curators all know each other where there's no painting group equivalent of curators. So I knew that I could call you the Chazen and say, Hey, do you have an impression of whatever. And it was just a much more collegial…I just think it works better.
JW: Do you think some of it might be the multiplicity of prints and that I might have an impression in my collection here at the Chazen? And you might have one in Baltimore? Cleveland has one, you know, and that fosters some connection as well.
AS: Well, for sure, yeah, we can speak the same language about the same images, right.
Ben Levy: And that's true. But historically, there's also that network you're talking about with people. I could own something and I could be attracted to a work of art for one reason, and so could you for a completely different reason. And then there's this wonderful, unseen network. We’re drawn to the same thing. It's not. It's not that that notion of like, well, I have it and the fact that I have it means that you don't have it. That that notion is completely broken, that we could all have things. And museums can have things all across the world, all for various reasons. And if we all pool that psychic energy and all of those reasons for liking something together, what a rich experience of one shared thing could be.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. And I think… It just struck me while you were talking, Ben, that it's not just that we all might have knowledge of these multiples in different collections or different locations, but then it becomes also about the differences between them, like this impression was printed at this time by this master printer. This one is from outside that edition, it was printed the next year for an expo, you know, things like that, that really are part of understanding the history of that object and that matrix and that image. I think makes it super, super fascinating.
AS: Well, it's so well suited to people to love details. Right? Ya gotta keep track of all those extra printings,
AS: You know, I gotta write everything down, right?
AS: For our audience, tell us who you are and tell us a little bit about you and what you're doing here.
JW: Yeah, my name is James Wehn. I'm the Van Vleck curator of works on paper at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I'm responsible for prints, drawings, photographs, and anything that's on a paper support, for any region, and all time periods. I've definitely been learning to become a generalist in some sense of the word.
AS: Do you all have an active study room situation with the students?
JW: We do. Yeah, we have a very active study room. We like to say that the Chazen is the university's largest arts classroom and the study room for prints, drawings, and photographs is a big part of that. We serve art students, studio artists, there art history department, language students that are coming from English Lit, sometimes German language speaking classes. A number of different groups use the prints, drawings, and photographs collections.
AS: How does it work with… If a professor says, Dr. Wehn, can I see all of your Picassos from 19-- whatever? Do you talk to the class about it? Or does the professor need to be prepared?
JW: It depends on the situation. We have a study room assistant, a student employed to help manage the study room. So, they field inquiries through a study room email. That professor might know exactly what objects they want to see and show their class. And they might have a lesson plan that they want to use with those objects. That student assistant might help them create a list based on their interests, navigating what's available, maybe on the themes that they're interested in. And sometimes professors do ask for a curatorial presence like me to come into the room and talk about watercolors or German Expressionists prints, for example. When I'm available, I will certainly join the class. And that's really interesting for me, because at the Chazen, when we're looking to acquire new works of art, we want to acquire good things for the collection as a museum, but we also want to acquire things that we know will be useful in classes because our mission is to first and foremost support the students and faculty of the university.
AS: That was a thing when we were proposing acquisitions in Baltimore. Inevitably, when you were in front of the committee of mostly trustees and collectors, there would be somebody who'd say, Well, why should we get that if it's just going to sit in a drawer? And I'd roll out the speech about being useful in many ways. It never failed.
JW: I love listening to faculty teach from objects because they bring in these perspectives that I might not have ever considered. Different points from the histories that they're relevant within or the contexts and so participating in a class really helps me to understand how the objects might be useful.
AS: Yeah, you must have a mental—you probably have one written down now knowing you—of the top five things that you lack in the collection, that would be awesome. Like you don't have all four Disgracers or something.
JW: We do have all four Disgracers. From the history of print, we can pretty much step through the history of European and American printmaking. We have objects that represent important developmental moments. We're strongest in contemporary work, in part because we have the Tandem [Press] archive, and they work with phenomenal contemporary artists. And every time they edition a print, the archive impression comes to Chazen, which I love. We have also a number of smaller collections that had been given to the museum over the years. For example, I was just looking at prints from the Mark and Helen Hooper collection. They were Wisconsin collectors in the I guess 60s 70s, and they gave their collection of prints to the Chazen and it is really heavy in Atelier 17. So they were acquiring prints by Hayter, Gail Singer, George Ball, right in the moment they were being created. And so so that is a strength that we have this nice group of prints from Atelier 17. I was just looking through them with Ron Rumford, actually, who's in town for the conference.
AS: Listeners will know that Ben and I did a lot of research on Hayter and have no lack of love for Atelier 17 things, so you're singing our song.
JW: I thought it might be.
BL: Well, going back a ways, one of the things that we definitely talk about a lot is in these different roles within the print ecosystem, they'll sometimes different roles or kind of talk to each other, curators and dealers and collectors. But you know, the makers and the curators don't necessarily interact as much as one would assume they do. And so I was curious if you might bring us back a little bit to how you wound up in print, how you wound up in curatorial.
JW: Sure, yeah. I actually have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater, which I got at Webster University in St. Louis, and then moved to Minneapolis and worked for a couple of years performing at the Children's Theatre Company. After that job finished, I was still performing as essentially a freelance performer, but I had to have a day job. So I ended up as a temp working for what at the time was American Express Financial Advisors. I was hired to be an administrative assistant, became an analyst, eventually became a director, had a staff of eight working in technology and finance, and suddenly realized, I'm working for what's basically a credit card company in a financial institution that I never really planned to have this career. And I had the means to travel, to go to museums, I found I was taking a lot of photographs in art museums. And I thought, you know, I really like how things are installed in a gallery. I'd like to do that. Now I have all this project management experience, I think I could probably get a job doing this. How complicated can it be? So I started investigating what jobs were available at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and there were some available, but it clearly stated I needed a Master's degree in art history, at least, or a PhD. And so I took some evening seminars at the University of St. Thomas just to see if I would like art history. And the first course I took—and I wasn't even seeking a degree at this point.
AS: And not in prints.
JW: Not in prints. I was signed up for Northern Renaissance and Baroque art because I had seen, you know, some Van Eyck paintings and I kind of liked those, and Bosch. It seems really cool. And one of the assignments was to create a theoretical exhibition using prints by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn. I didn't even know that this was a thing, right? I didn't even really know that prints existed.
AS: No one ever said to you, come up and see my etchings?
JW: No, I grew up in northern Wisconsin. I don't think there were any etchings there. Not that I knew of anyway. But I was thrilled because this was exactly what I wanted to do. Right? I wanted to install things in galleries. And so to have an opportunity to practice this with a theoretical exhibition was exactly what I thought would be perfect for me. That's where I learned about prints. And then we were using prints from the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art. The curator there, Joanna Reiling Lindell, then invited me to have an intership. So I was really able to work for the first time with a collection of prints. They are really, really strong in Dürer and Rembrandt, which is why the theoretical exhibition was kind of based on that group. And then Tom Rassieur came to be the head of prints and drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He paid a visit to Thrivent to look at the Rembrandts. He's a Rembrandt prints specialist. And that was the first time I really got to look at Rembrandt prints with a Rembrandt print scholar, curator, expert.
BL: And this was all still... Were you seeking a degree at that point?
JW: Yeah, by that time, I think I had decided to leave American Express and pursue the master's degree at the University of St. Thomas. I finished my degree. Tom had invited me to be a guest curator for an exhibition at the Institute of Art and suggested because there was a large exhibition of Titian paintings coming from the National Gallery of Scotland, that they wanted to have a Venice on paper exhibition that would be in conversation with the paintings. And so I got to work on that drawing from the Minneapolis collection.
AS: Because they also have a substantial collection.
JW: Phenomenal. Yeah, yeah, really wonderful collection. And so that was my first opportunity to create an exhibition with Tom's mentorship for an important regional museum. Then I was hoping I might get a job there. And Tom said, you know, you really should try to go to the East Coast and work in East Coast museums, and I think you'd really benefit from that experience. And so he recommended me for the fellowship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in prints and drawings and photographs there. So I spent two years as the Margaret Mainwaring Curatorial Fellow, and then pretty much realized that if I wanted to land the sorts of curatorial jobs that I thought I wanted, a PhD would probably benefit me. Because I came to art history come from a roundabout way, I felt that I really needed more training in kind of academic art history. And then I was accepted into the Case Western Reserve joint doctoral program with the Cleveland Museum of Art. And that afforded me an internship at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I was a Mellon fellow and had a pre doctoral fellowship then at the Cleveland Museum of Art as well, and got to work on several exhibitions there. And fortunately, I think that experience combined with the degree helped me get the job here at the Chazen Museum of Art. So I graduated in 2019, in May. And I already had the job here and moved to start in Madison in June of 2019.
AS: So you're pretty fresh here?
JW: Yeah, still, yeah. Especially because I worked about nine months, and we went into lockdown because of COVID-19. And now we're back in the office and open but it is, yeah, it still feels pretty new.
AS: What was the first project you did here?
JW: The first project I did was a rotation of prints on one of the mezzanines where we have some gallery space that we frequently rotate works on paper. And while I was at Cleveland, I had the opportunity to acquire a Gail Singer print. The Cleveland Museum of Art had no prints by Gail Singer, but this print was at the Cleveland print fair, I acquired it from Dolan Maxwell for the Cleveland Museum of Art. And I started going through the collection here, trying to figure out, you know, what was in the Chazen’s collection, and I came across seven Gail Singers. I was like, wait, I know who this is. And why do we have so many here in Madison. And that's how I came to understand a little bit about the history of Hooper collection. But the first thing I did, some of them had never been mounted, just a folder of works on paper.
AS: Bazillions of those at the Baltimore Museum still in folders.
JW: Still here too. But I said let's get these matted and let's put them up. It was fun.
AS: Yeah, we did a lot of acquiring towards a Hayter project. Mostly Hayter but other artists also because we did have some pretty big gaps to fill like Lasansky and you know, things like that.
JW: Yeah, we were a little weak in Lasansky here, I have to say. I'm trying to close that gap.
AS: Right. We had no Gail Singers. Amazing.
JW: She's phenomenal colorist. Just really embraces bright yellow with lime green and purple. Red on red on red. Yeah, it's quite interesting.
AS: That's cool. But your true love is Israhel van Meckenem, right?
JW: Yeah. Well, I kind of started learning the history of prints and got stuck and…
AS: You got stuck right away!
JW: I know, I’m stuck in the late 15th century. I did my dissertation on Israhel van Meckenem. Yeah.
BL: What was the first experience you had with him?
JW: Well, it would have been at the Thrivent Collection.
AS: Oh, it wasn’t in class or something?
JW: I was already familiar with him because the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art had several Schongauers, and Israhel van Meckenems, Daniel Hopfer—I already knew about him—and of course, Albrecht Dürer.
AS: Why Meckenem and not Schongauer?
JW: That really came out during the time that I was prepping for my qualifying exams. And I was reading… So my major exam was in, I like to joke it's in flat German art of the 15th and 16th century so not sculpture, but paintings, drawings, and prints of German speaking lands. And then my minor was prints from the same period, Italian and Netherlandish. So I got to have a pretty good scope of…
AS: Those are the major centers.
JW: Yeah, those are the majors centers for printmaking in the 15th and 16th centuries. France is kind of excluded in that, but it just kind of came out in the conversations I was having with my advisor, Catherine Scallen. I think I was complaining that I felt like Israhel van Meckenem was getting a bad rap because he's the first, well, he was the most prolific printmaker in Europe during the 15th century. Probably the first to sign his name on the print, and certainly the first to really use his name, his identity as a brand on his prints. And the paradox is he copied almost everything that he printed from other artists. Or he would find elements in broadsides and he would copy those into an engraving. Maybe we could say he's upscaling it from sort of, you know, mediocre woodcut and a broadside to like pretty lux engraving. But he copied everything. And so there's this inherent paradox. Here we have someone who's signing their name, which we think in modern times think that that's the author of the image. And yet he wasn't really the author of the image. So I started to really investigate that and tried to understand well, what was the copy culture prior to the emergence of print technology, which allowed the multiplication of the images. And the reality is that for centuries and centuries, everything had to be copied. If you wanted to a book, copy, you had to do it by hand. And if you wanted another, that image repeated, you had to copy it. And also pedagogically, as an apprentice in a workshop, okay, copy this, learn to draw, copy this work by the master, and then just the workshop model requires a lot of copying. And we know that transferring and drawing to a plate involves some degree of drawing and copying and tracing, or however that might happen to get that matrix going. So I wanted to just really investigate how copy culture meets this ability to replicate images, distribute images, market images, with a brand like as Israhel van Meckenem or A.D. for Albrecht Dürer. And then what happens to change culture, to create concepts about authenticity, originality, what's a copy, what isn't a copy, what's okay to copy, what's not okay. And we know from cases with Albrecht Dürer, he detested copyists and had at least one lawsuit known and documented in Nuremberg, another one recounted by Vasari in Venice. But in both those cases, the artist who was copying Albrecht Dürer’s prints and signing them A.D. was told, well, you can copy them, you just can't put A.D. So what that tells us is it was really the labor and the materials that were valued and not the intellectual capital of the image, the creation of that image was not valued as highly. So
AS: In the north, though. The Italians were more interested in named artists, don't you think?
JW: I think that that was probably true. They were more interested in named artists, but there was a lot of copying.
JW: In Italy as well. I mean, Michelangelo, I don't think anyone knows of a print that he made, and yet many, many, many prints were made copying his work. I don't know that he cared.
AS: I would think it'd be the notion of Hey, it's gonna get my design, my design, out there, right? Or, no.
JW: Well, that's certainly what Raphael wanted to do. Collaborating with MarcAntonio Raimondi. I think it's murkier with Michelangelo.
AS: Yeah, I don't know.
BL: On that point, we also have talked previously about the the nature of the education versus the nature of the jobs and how that's oftentimes a major moment of transition for an individual for for you or I. And so what was the thing before this was a dissertation? An incredibly, lengthy, deep dive into one very particular thing. And suddenly, you now are dealing with contemporary photographs, you're dealing with ukiyo-e woodblock prints, you know, you're dealing with this whole scope. How, how was that for you?
JW: It's been good. It's been interesting. I've learned a lot. But it has been a challenge because I am not able to investigate as deeply the objects that that I come across for a rotation.
AS: I kind of loved skipping around because you could deep dive, sort of, but then you could move on.
JW: Yeah, that's true. Like, my favorite... People sometimes ask me well, what's your favorite print? And I always joke, it's the last one I was researching.
AS: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. When I worked at the National Gallery, I had one specific John Ruskin watercolor that was my retirement gift. And you know, in my mind, right? That was the thing I was going to take. Have you found your retirement gift yet?
JW: Hmmm. Well, I think that Albrecht Dürer’s Nemesis might be worth grabbing.
AS: That is some impression you guys have. Where did it come from?
JW: That was acquired around the time that the Elvhjem Art Center was being developed in the early 60s. Yeah, in anticipation of the opening of the museum. But it belongs in the museum, not in my apartment.
AS: Well, there is that.
JW: Yeah, I have a small collection of prints. I used to, you know, fancy myself a little bit of a print collector, but I soon realized the more I knew about prints, the less I could afford. So I sort of stopped at some point.
AS: Were you doing the early Meckenem sort of things?
JW: No, no, I don't have anything quite that early. But I've stopped and now I'm starting to think about, well, this probably would be good in a museum.
AS: I used to think that, but now I’m not sure.
JW: About the earliest thing I have right now, I think, are a couple impressions of Hans Burgkmair’s etching Mercury, Venus and Cupid, because I did a deep research project on that. And I would find them on the market. And they might have a watermark that I wanted to see, and I didn't want them to disappear into the world where I wouldn't know where they were. So I have a couple.
BL: What other art historian could have that same kind of research experience? You know, if you're dealing with, you're not going to get a fresco on eBay, right?
JW: That's true. That's true. That was another interesting thing about trends is how they can have meaning for individuals. And they are more affordable, in some cases, for people that have.
BL: I'm curious to circle back again, when you were first realizing that in your travels that you are starting to notice how things were installed. Maybe this is just speaking for myself, but like, literally until I met Ann, I never really thought too much about how the art got on the walls.
AS: Much less than wrote the thing.
BL: Yeah, much less who wrote any of the labels or anything? Did you always know that that job existed?
JW: I think it occurred to me because I was going to a lot of art museums for the first time in my life. And I was really interested in how a sculpture interacted with the painting that was nearby.
AS: You were a natural born curator.
JW: Or how a sculpture, you know, were perhaps like how a sculpture was framed by the architecture of the gallery. But that's not how I knew I had to, you know, pursue art history because there were, you know, relationships that had context.
AS: We've done our origin stories already. But I had an internship at the Whitney during college and, you know, day two, I'm sitting in Barbara Haskell's office, and I was like, this is it. And I never looked back. I mean, I never really… Once I realized that that was an actual job. That people could really work with the artist’s estate, and put the things on the wall. The show looks great. The catalog is beautiful. This is what I want.
JW: It feels good, doesn't it? When everything one has been planning is actually physically installed. One can see how it looks.
AS: It’s the best.
JW: I think the best is creeping visitors in the gallery. I like to go in and pretend to be a visitor and see if I can, well, and notice what people are looking at. And then also see if I can overhear what people are saying about the art. I love that.
BL: Are there any any that you specifically recall? And overheard conversations that stayed with you?
JW: Yeah, there's one that I love because it was when I was doing the Venice on Paper exhibition. There was a print by Otto Bacher of sailboats in Venice, and Tom would look through my proposed checklist and he helped me ultimately make the decision. But he looked at this one, and he said, you know, and and know, you could probably cut this one from the show. Because, I mean, it's amongst some beautiful Whistlers. And Otto Bacher and Whistler were together in Venice. So it had some, you know, historical context, but maybe not the finest print in the show. On the last day of the exhibition, a woman was looking at the show with her son, and she told her son, this is my favorite one. And I loved that. Because I thought… I felt a little validated. Yeah, like Venice has a lagoon around it. There's a lot of sailboats, this is the only one that really shows us those sailboats. So why not included it and it ended up being someone's favorite. So that's why I like hearing how people respond. And I'm regularly surprised what people gravitate to or really stare at. It might not be the thing I would pick. But that's the great thing about art is it offers everyone an opportunity to look and have an experience.
AS: Or as we like to tell artists, you can’t control what people are going to love about your or not love, you know? Yeah, everybody has their own agency. Should somebody want to get in touch with you or follow you on the… Are you active on the Instas?
JW: I have been active on Instagram and Facebook.
AS: Works on paper Wednesdays.
JW: Yeah, I haven't. I haven't done post. Yeah, so our media specialist here at the Chazen, we're getting a new one, and I had gone on hiatus because of the exhibition catalogue I was writing. So it might come back.
AS: They were fun.
JW: Yeah. Thank you. Works on paper Wehnsdays. So there's still some posts out there one could find.
AS: Yes, that's true. Yeah, and a nice variety.
JW: But you can also… I think, oh, was it hashtag works on paper wehnsday?
AS: Yeah, probably. Yeah. Wehn W E HN.
JW: Yeah, the pun on my name. And I resisted that for a long time.
AS: I thought it was great.
JW: It was the editor’s idea, and I was like, hmmm. But it’s catchy.
AS: It’s our job and our desire to make things accessible. However we get to that, let’s do it.
JW: Let me see, I’m going to give you the proper handle. James Wehn and the hashtag is… Oh, it’s not #worksonpaperwehnsday, it’s #vanvleckcurator.
AS: Oh, right! #vanvleckcurator. Alright. Everyone’s going to follow it now.
JW: I hope.
AS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
JW: Thank you for having me.
AS: It’s been a joy.