Wednesday, February 23, 2005

(I like) Sugar in my Coffee and Color in my Art

Last night, I had dinner with these terrific women, and two out of three of our significant others.

Lots of teaching stories were told, along with snorting laughter. Some how-you-met stories were told. New York City was discussed. How-you-got-into-blogging came up. Ethiopian food was eaten. Some of us went out for Italian desserts afterwards. Oh, fabulous!


It is so different not being able to sleep on a Tuesday night in the middle of vacation than it is on a Tuesday night when you have to get up before six the next day.


My roommate and I went to the newly-re-opened MOMA this morning. She was decidedly unimpressed by the curation, especially of the photography exhibit, but I am easier to please. There were some choices they made in how to display the work - such as the way they handled Robert Frank's "The Americans" - which made it hard to actually SEE any individual piece. I'm sure she'll blog more about this. What made the so-so curation an even greater shame was that on the rare occasions when they provided a few paragraphs of background on an artist, his/her work, and the context in which it was made, the curators did a really good job of avoiding art-jargon and providing helpful clues to seeing more in the works.

I feel lucky to have had an education - beginning in high school - that included the basics of art history - Greek, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Hudson River School (because I grew up in Western Massachusetts), Impressionism, and at least a taste of everything after. Although at the time my classmates and I found learning the titles and artists and symbols for dozens of paintings a unique form of torture, it took very little time before I began to appreciate the hours that went into making sure we knew a bit about who influenced whom, threads running through art from the Greeks through the present day, etc. I also feel lucky that my teachers allowed - actually, encouraged - me and my classmates to have our own opinions.

I recently came across a postcard of Odilon Redon's Evocation of the Butterflies. At some point in high school, my humanities teacher had us read a couple of essays written in response to specific works of art. Then we had to choose a piece and write a response of our own. The essays we read were wildly creative and opinionated. I found a Redon's painting and hated it, and that's what I wrote. I felt that by painting them against a muddy orange background, he had frozen the butterflies, removed the life from them, and that's exactly what I wrote, though I believe I was far more overwrought in my style! I bought the postcard last week, because I want to remember that piece, and because now I happen to like it.

The only way to relate to art is to know a bit about the past and to form an opinion. I think.

I like color. I'd rather see a Miro or Klee than one of those grey-brown cubist paintings about industrialization. I like simple stuff like Mark Rothko, and there's another artist whose name I forget who paints large canvases with large areas of one color cut by cracks of other colors - they look almost like enormous landscapes viewed from above.

Today I discovered that I very much like the photographs of Andreas Gursky - they are large, colorful, full of sharp detail - but when you step back, they are also abstract. We saw a beautiful photograph of the Rhine that passed the "living room test" - I'd love to have that on my wall. It's pretty without being precious or dull. Not every good or interesting or even beautiful piece of art passes the living room test, naturally, but it's something I often think of in museums, because I still think one of the purposes of art is to be beautiful.

I laughed when I saw people taking large black-and-white posters off a pile, rolling them up, and carrying them around the museum. I laughed because I recognized them instantly; P. has one which he picked up months ago, probably at MOMA, and it is basically a series of photographs and facts about dozens of people who were murdered. Doesn't pass the living room test, that's for sure, yet everyone reflexively picks one up because it's art and it's free. That, probably more than the poster itself, is what the piece is about. I will post a photograph later showing what happens to the posters once people bother to really SEE them.

Most modern sculpture doesn't interest me. I like the stuff that's easy-to-like (and when I say that I don't mean to make the work sound less meaningful in any way): Calder, for example. A lot of the rest is very weird - I don't know what to make of it, but it's not the good kind of confusion that I might learn from, it's just huh? I discovered Flashlight III by Jasper Johns today, which is basically a bronze (?) sculpture of a perfectly ordinary flashlight. I laughed out loud... I'm not sure I can explain the joke; you just have to see it (it's similar to this one). Modern art is often at its best when it is funny - I think the modern critique of society can use humor to great advantage. That's why I liked Ray Johnson's work, too: the little jokes.

We overheard a mother asking her children and their friends, "Now, what would you call this one? What name would you give it? Do you like it?" They were maybe 8 or 9 years old. Those kids will turn out all right, I think, because they won't be afraid of art, and they won't be afraid of having an opinion. They'll be comfortable in museums, familiar with some important pieces of art, and they won't have learned it all by rote.

After leaving the MOMA, we had a quick lunch and headed to the nearby Dahesh Museum. I'd never been there, in fact, I had never even heard of it until NPR started advertising an exhibit there called "First Seen." It's a fascinating exhibit, the first photographs - daguerreotypes, etc. - taken by amateurs and professionals alike, showing people from all over the world. It makes you ask a lot of questions about colonialism, but what really amazed me was how detailed and crisp some of the photographs are, especially when you consider the complicated processes used to create them. My roommate explained that that was because they used large negatives, often glass plates, so a lot of information in the form of light would be captured.

Now I have "museum body": my vertebrae are squished, my leg muscles are tight, my neck is all outta whack.


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