museum

Bringing Yourself to Art

"The Artist is Present" A viewer sitting with Marina Abramovic at MoMA - New York

Performance art is a difficult art media to understand — one which people may be less comfortable with or familiar with, than say visual art. Marina Abramovic, perhaps one of the most well-known performance artists who began her work with the emergence of the form in the 1970’s and ’80’s, is exhibiting at MoMA in a work entitled “The Artist is Present”.

In this work, she simply sits in a chair. Across from her is an empty chair in which viewers can sit for as long as they like. Some viewers sit for 5 minutes, some sit all day. A camera crew is present to photograph these viewers, many of whom are very emotional; some cry and others show extreme anguish). This is striking. What can possibly be so interesting about Marina’s face, her hair, her body, her expression?

It appears that she takes on a luminescence, that she somehow is able to look through the viewer. In interacting with others, we usually have their full attention — there is engagement. This performance art seems to keep the art on display and the viewer distanced, yet I wonder if Marina’s movements or changing facial expressions reflect the viewer’s response? After all, aren’t they also reacting to the piece and being photographed as the art? In essence, is the viewer actually part of the art? And is the title of her show “The Artist is Present” yet another clue that may allude to the viewer also being the artist?

The photos that the photographer has taken of these viewers are surely fascinating to look at, and cause me to wonder if indeed they will, in the future, be an accompanying piece to any writeup or essay on this exhibition, where the viewer is artist…

You never know who you’ll meet in a gallery…

This morning I downloaded all of my weekly podcasts for this week, and in the afternoon, while in the jacuzzi at the gym (which provides the perfect environment for a soak, a sweat, and a listen-to of all of my ~30 minute New Yorker Fiction podcasts) I heard something that so strikingly paralleled my novella, Degrees of Freedom, I couldn’t help but crank up the iPod. Chang-Rae Lee (author of “Daisy”) read Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” or, in English, “Art and Terror” and discussed it with The New Yorkers fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. (Right-click here to download).

Theme, theme, theme. This is what Degrees of Freedom and “Baader-Meinhof” have in common. They both chronicle the chance meeting of a man and a woman in an art gallery; the woman sitting there staring at an art piece; the man sauntering in; both of them wondering about the other; both sizing up the other; both challenging each other to assess the paintings, and life, and everything else, even death…

But the relationships turn quite different corners.

How they vary is what really fascinated me. First, in DeLillo’s piece, the characters are staring at pieces of photography illustrating the terrors of the Holocaust and the rope burns and anguished faces of death, while in Degrees of Freedom, Pietri and Marguerite stare at the Spanish masters. Beautiful works. Works in Mannerism. Works where the artists mask every blemish. Works where creamy, buttery skin is sacrosanct. Where the subjects you’d swear have had Botox. Jewels drip. Puppies sit on laps.

The two works are also written from different points of view. Degrees of Freedom is written from the perspective of Pietri, a Maltese professor who is visiting his daughter in Seville, Spain, who meets Marguerite, a former art professor who is partially blind.  And in Delillo’s work, the two aimless protagonists have neither a job nor, it seems, much of a direction in life.

While I kept my characters largely within the art museum, in discussions that alternated between children and the merits of a Seville orange versus a Maltese fig, Delillo takes his characters out of the museum. But they take the photography with them, it seems, as they are forever changed by these horrific pieces. They seem less secure, less bounded by their relationship. In fact, once they leave the museum, their hours-old relationship falls apart. Undoubtedly, the photography in the museum changed Delillo’s characters,  shook them into walking zombies as they left the museum, rendered them unaccountable for their actions, unsure, not tethered to anything other than shock at how vile humanity can be. Pietri and Marguerite took the paintings to heart too, but they used the Spanish painters — Zurbaran, Murillo — as a connection, as a charged force that brought them together. Their relationship proved to be boundless.

You never know who you will meet in an art gallery. Regardless, it could be a while ride.

According To The National Gallery of Art…

Part of the Berlin Wall at DC's Newseum

Two weekends ago, we headed down to DC to visit family and celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday — a birthday, that was, of course, celebrated in the most magical way: a Tinkerbell Art party! After our group’s six kids (amongst a throng of 30!) tromped through the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art to attend the “Stories In Art” program, they descended on lunch in a Tinkerbell Fairyland (well, the NGA cafe). I’m not sure what aspect of the partaaaay the kids liked most:

  • Listening to “Matthew’s Dream” — the story of Matthew the mouse, who discovers that he can see the world through art, and decides that his life mission is to become an artist
  • Walking through the galleries with the docent to discuss the art on walls (“What title should we give this painting [by Pollock]?” asked the docent. “CRAZY!” squealed one daughter. “And what do these squiggly lines look like?” the docent asked. “WORMS!” yelled the other daughter)
  • Creating their own Pollock drip painting (that took 3 days to dry)
  • Or devouring the rich, dense, chocolate raspberry ganache cake with Tinkerbell on top?

I think the most powerful part of the weekend was visiting one particular gallery in the Newseum. The 911 exhibit was fascinating, as it included the remains of the radio tower that stood on the top of World Trade Center Tower 2 and fell in a heap of twisted metal that eventually found its way to the museum. But it was the exhibit on Communism and Journalism that really moved me. While you stared at pictures of people hiding in the hood of a car to cross from East to West Berlin — basically people doing incredible things to get to freedom — several chunks of the Berlin wall towered above and behind you. All graffitied.

Pretty intense. Tinkerbell should have worked some magic to make that wall come down long before it did.

Open Your Eyes! It’s Proust on Art…

The Silver Goblet
Musee du Louvre, Paris

I’m in the midst of one of Alain de Botton’s erudite and vastly introspective essays on life — this one’s titled “How Proust Can Change Your Life“. In this barely 200-page book, de Botton relays a Proustian essay that details how Proust set out to “restore a smile on the face of a gloomy… young man”. This young man was lamenting how ugly and banal his surroundings were: the mundane scene of his mother doing her knitting, a cat curled up in the windowsill, unfolded laundry in a basket. The young man longed to visit the Louvre, where he could “feast his eyes” on gilded paintings and magnanimous sculptures to take away his gloom.

But Proust had plans for this young man.

Instead of writing into the plot that the young man finds happiness meandering through the great halls of the Louvre in the halls of richly ornamented works, Proust surrounded the young man in a tiny room with the  simple works of Jean Baptiste-Chardin.

Jean Baptiste-Chardin didn’t paint queens or palaces or riches. He painted ordinary things: milk jugs, bowls of fruit, coffeepots, loaves of bread. But, the outcome — however simplistic the subject — was extraordinary.

Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was as pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality… There was a harmony, too, between objects: in one canvas, almost a friendship between the reddish colors of a hearthrug, a needle box, and a skein of wool.

With subdued colors and mellow lighting, Chardin’s work celebrates the beauty of commonplace subjects, with intimacy and domesticity.

Take that, young man! Look around you. The world is rich, wondrous, beautiful. Just open your eyes.

Chasing Art

Vermeer, The Concert

The Concert, Vermeer
Taken from the Dutch Room gallery in the Stewart museum in 1990

Will we ever recover all of the great art that’s been lost over time? Sometimes I’m drop-jaw about what sometimes can happen to art. How can people be so clumsy as to “fall into a Picasso” at an art museum, which is what just happened on Friday with “The Actor” at the Met. All this art being dropped, shredded (Sotheby’s in London), thrown out for trash (immpressionist paintings in Manhatten), cannonized by a wrecking ball (the Netherlands), tripped over by a shoelace into a Ming vase (UK), or knocked to the floor to smithereens by an errant elbow (Tavern on the Green), is giving me anxiety!

And how about all of the art that’s been stolen? I just finished reading “The Heist”, a great read on the heist of the Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, et al. at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston in 1990. So many people went on the hunt, but all leads have run dry. There are many eccentricities about the Gardner museum and the case that make it unique — that per her will, all of the art remain on the walls as it was in Gardner’s time, that the thieves may not have discriminated which art they chose to take (several of the most expensive pieces were left untouched), etc. etc. It’s a fascinating romp, complete with the Boston mafia and the IRA. Interested in a moderately fascinating read? Check out the FBI’s Art Crime Team website: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/arttheft/northamerica/us/notices.htm.

I’m surprised that people seem to be so good-humored about these travesties (at least that’s the way the press spins it), but then again, we’ve got some great artists now creating some great art. Not that it will replace, but it will make up for what we’ve lost in a different way.

At the Intersection of a Museum and a Book: Orhan Pamuk

One of my favorite authors, Orhan Pamuk, has a new book hot off the presses The Museum of  Innocence. To complement the book, he is opening a museum. I’m not positive, but this seems the first time such a thing has been done. Here’s a description from the UK’s Guardian:

 The Museum of Innocence… contains a locator map for his museum, and a free entrance ticket. The actual museum, in an Ottoman-style house along a stretch of antique shops in hilly Cukurcuma, will hold Istanbul ephemera that Pamuk gathered for inspiration while writing his Proustian … epic of lost love. … He told me his “museum of the everyday”, which holds everything from ferry tickets and women’s hair clips to a quince grinder, would have a display for each of the novel’s 83 chapters.’

Pamuk describes the relationship of the museum and novel: “The museum is not an illustration of the novel and the novel is not an explanation of the museum. They are two representations of one single story perhaps.”

Pamuk’s other literary ventures have been laced with art, including My Name Is Red, which details the murder of a miniaturist painter in the Ottoman Empire. And I thought his breathtaking descriptions of Istanbul in his memoir Istanbul (which details his life growing up in the Turkish city) were poetic and extremely visual, like landscapes launching off of the pages into your lap. Also, according to the New York Review of Books, “As a young man, his great hope was to become a painter, and he started, he notes wryly, by producing imitations of Monet and Sisley and Pissarro…” It seems Pamuk turned from copying the masters to absorbing himself in the awe of everyday people and life and painted a verbal canvas.

I’m thinking Turkey might be the country we indulge ourselves in next summer, and if so, this is one museum I’m not going to miss!

Gauguin’s Gals

Joys of BrittanyThe Cleveland Museum of Art is hosting “Gauguin: Paris 1889”, featuring a recreation of the “radical independent exhibition that Gauguin organized (and shamelessly self-promoted) on the grounds of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris”.

It was unbelievable.

The exhibition is only exhibiting in two places — Cleveland and Amsterdam — hence the CMA’s insanely awesome marketing: “The man shunned civilization. (So it’s only appropriate that he’s making just one US stop.)”.

What struck me about this exhibit is Gauguin’s sensitivity to the people he saw and painted, much moreso than Van Gogh (and they lived in Arles together, painting for several months). Although I think that Van Gogh’s portraits and subjects are richer, more intense, electrifying, I think that Gauguin had a better way conveying people and their moods, and well, the reality of their lives. In this exhibition, the innocense and movement in his subjects (specifically his primary subject matters in this exhibition, which were the Breton girls dancing and the woman with red hair in the waves) is arresting, and I have thought about these anonymous people over and over again since I saw the exhibit last weekend. And so they are striking in a different way than Van Gogh’s studies.

In this exhibit, Gauguin’s oils, chalks, sculptures, and wood carvings all run central to two themes: his life in Brittany and life in Tahiti. And he keeps dabbing a brilliant red/orange to make a tiny splash on each composition (a single carnation on each of the Brittony girls ‘dresses; the vibrant red hair on the girl in the waves). We walk through daily life in Brittany — largely seen through children’s eyes, and the series aptly named “Voipini Suite: Joys of Brittany” — but we also see very deep, intellectual themes running through, particularly with the violent green waves and the woman thrust in them. Her body takes up the entire picture, so that the viewer feels almost caught up in the waves with her. In the end, when he was in Tahiti, he created a self-portrait with his face very dark (disturbance, insecurity), and in far in the background, off to the sides, are a small white cloth (indicating the white Brittany hats of the women and children there) and a red swath of paint (indicating the woman’s vibrant red hair). In this exhibition, Gauguin came full circle with his themes and his work.

In the waves