Andy & Marcel

By the time I met Andy Warhol the person had been so overshadowed by the persona that it was tough to remember what a shatteringly great artist he actually was.  This was 1984, and the Brillo Boxes, the Campbell's soup cans, the silk screened Jackie O's had long since become part of the backdrop of popular culture.  He was a cultural figure, but did anybody really think of him as an artist still capable of great work?  It seemed impossible to disentangle his influence from his celebrity.  (It occurs to me that this was also the time when Bob Dylan was considered a washed up hasbeen, respected for having done a few great albums twenty years earlier, but no longer capable of doing anything significant.)

The Warhol museum is a great corrective to this benighted view.  My visit there ten years ago was one of those world shifting art experiences that I've never quite gotten over (like the Whistler Retrospective at NGA in the mid-eighties, or seeing Ellis & Branford Marsalis together at Blues Alley in '96).   Going again was the one thing I was determined not to miss on last week's trip to Pittsburgh.

The current exhibit, "Twisted Pair", twines Warhol's work with that of Marcel Duchamp.  An inspired coupling, and the curators clearly had a lot of fun putting it together.  From the faces of some of the folks in the museum, they've clearly not lost their capacity to shock.  But mostly what's revealed from seeing so much of their work together -- some of it very familiar to me and some of it very new -- is how they shared a deep sense of joy in the world, wonder and respect for its mystery.  Neither would flinch from the harsh uglinesses of life, but they combat the darkness with a wicked, tender sense of humor. 

It appears that they may have met twice -- Duchamp, no longer active as an artist (practically no one knew that he was still working on the astonishing Etant donnes), but some sort of godlike figure to the younger generations; Andy coming into his own as the enfant terrible of pop art, but very much a fanboy when it came to the Frenchman.  Duchamp's few recorded remarks on Warhol's work are glowing and generous. 

Fittingly, the exhibition "catalog" is a tabloid newspaper.  They would have loved being in this show together.

On the way to the museum, I walked along the river, after crossing the Fort Duquesne bridge, then curved around PNC park, where people were just starting to get to the ticket windows for the Pirates' game that night against Houston (they lost that one, but won the next two).  City workers were starting to unload the barricades to block off sections of the street, and the beer trucks were unloading at Firewater's and Mullen's Bar & Grill where the faithful would be gathering after the game.  I walked another block past Finnigan's Wake, and one more to The Warhol.   I don't know the story of how the museum came to be in that location, but I'm sure Andy would've approved.


Collecting

If ever there was an argument to be made for a museum being a living, breathing, growing work of art in itself, it's the current show at the Phillips Collection.   Thursdays they have extended hours, so I stopped in after my PNAS meeting.

The Phillips Collects: Degas to Diebenkorn is a selection of new works added to the collection over the past decade.  It includes significant pieces by artists that have been well represented in the past, such as Degas, Avery, Calder, and Klee, as well as many pieces by artists entering the collection for the first time -- photographs by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans being particularly noteworthy.  I was especially pleased to see the selection of Christenberry photographs, sculptures and drawings -- I've become very fond of Christenberry, who was born in Tuscaloosa and whose work is deeply rooted in the terrain and modern history of Alabama. 

The show effectively makes the case that the spirit that led Duncan Phillips to start his museum with a marvelously eclectic approach to collecting is alive and well in the current leadership.  One gets the impression that every single piece brings with it a joy and delight in the appreciation of the work.  No matter how serious or tumultuous the emotions that the piece itself may draw forth, its presence in the collection comes about because it is loved and the people who are in a position to do so are determined to share it with the world.

The eclecticism is one of the hallmarks of the Phillips.  MoMA, in New York, has suffered nearly half a century of identity crisis, trying to figure out what its purpose is as a museum of "modern art" when the era so defined is now decades in the past.  They continue to have spectacular collections and wonderful shows, but they carry the heavy weight of being MoMA, so there is a ponderousness and solemnity that is simply absent at the Phillips.  One goes to MoMA to be edified; one goes to the Phillips to feel more alive.

I rarely use the audioguides that are so popular in museums now.  I really don't want someone chattering in my ear, telling me what I'm supposed to be seeing.  Whether it's work by someone I'm familiar with, or work that is completely new to me, I'd just as soon trust my own experience of it.  If I want to find out more about it, I'll do that later.  But I was intrigued by the way the Phillips handled it -- instead of handing out audioguides (or renting them for five or ten bucks), several of the pieces had a note for "cell phone guides".  Call this number, and then punch in the number of the piece and you get a recording about it -- sometimes by Jay Gates, the director of the museum, sometimes by the collector who donated the piece, sometimes by the artist (Susan Rothenberg, for example, whose 60-second description of how some works lead to other works was absolutely delightful).   I only listened to a couple but it seemed to me a marvelously innovative and unobtrusive way to deal with the issue.

I don't really do collecting myself.  I believe that I have everything that Jim Harrison has published, and everything by Seamus Heaney.  I've got most of Coltrane and Jarrett and Charles Lloyd.  But I don't need every edition and every new compilation.  All of the artwork that we have scattered around the house we have because we fell in love with certain things,  so that the juxtaposition of  the Whistler etchings with the drawings of the relatively unknown Wisconsin painter Joann Kindt simply delights.

I lack the collector's temperament.  Some years ago, I was at a conference reception at a small museum and upon entering the reception, everyone was asked to fill out a name tag describing what they collected.  I guess the assumption was that being librarians we all must have a collection of something.  I was stumped for a bit, and then I wrote down, "Museums".

So today, since I'm taking a vacation day, I'm going to spend time with my collection -- I'll check out the new Kogod Courtyard at NMAA, and stop in to see the Whistlers at the Freer.   The spectacular exhibit of Japanese paintings that I saw last December has one more week at the Sackler, so I want to take another stroll through that, and then I'll continue up the mall to the National Museum of the American Indian and then walk through the National Gallery.

By that point, I'll be as full of emotion and wonder as I can handle, so I'll do what I always do after a museum day in DC, and stop at the Old Ebbitt Grill for oysters.  I'll sit at the bar, thinking about what I've seen, knowing that once again I've been changed a little, and I'll be grateful to live in a place and a time where there is magic all around me.


Roomful of Whistlers

I had enough time between working in the hotel room in the morning and the start of the MLA Board meeting in the afternoon to walk down to the Art Institute for lunch.  The last several times I've been they've had one small room in the Rice building devoted to his work.   Yesterday it contained an excellent cross-section of etchings and paintings from across his career -- if you knew nothing at all about Whistler, spending an hour in there would give you a very good notion of his evolution as an artist and the principle themes of his work.  Whoever is curating that room is doing a superb job -- although I still get annoyed at the obsessive emphasis by art historians on his "art for art's sake" esthetic.  (The descriptive panels at the Freer and NGA annoy me in the same way).   All one needs to do is spend a little time studying the faces in some of his portraits and etchings to see that he was interested in much more than just harmonious arrangements of line and color.  For all of his idiosyncratic posturing and prickliness as a person, he is one of the most utterly humane and sensitive artists of the last two centuries.

The board meeting is off to a good start.  I think there is a good bit of excitement among the board members about the prospects for doing more with the new technology tools.  The MLANET redesign is up, the social networking taskforce is off and running, and there are some intriguing ideas in the works for making annual meeting participation available to members remotely.   During the discussion of the business plan (i.e., what can we actually afford to get done), Mark (MLA pres) said, "my ambitions for this stuff are limitless."  I think most of us feel that way, but we are always hampered by being a small association with a modest budget.  Nonetheless, the will on the part of the board and headquarters staff is clearly there, so I'm optimistic that we'll make some useful steps this year.


Understanding Rothko

In 1984, with the long legal battle over Rothko's estate finally settled, the NGA mounted a huge show of his work on paper.  I'd been a fan for some time, and could hardly wait to see it.  What I remember the most about that show, which I saw several times during its run, is wandering through gallery after gallery, empty of other people.  Unlike most of the blockbuster shows that NGA puts on (the Modigliani retrospective, for example, from around that same time), the Rothko show was not popular.

But in 1984, fourteen years after his death, and a full thirty-five after the artistic breakthrough that gave rise to his mature work, Rothko wasn't very popular anywhere, despite his critical reputation.  It baffled me, because I found the pictures to be tremendously powerful and rich with emotion, and I couldn't figure out why most people who could be found strolling through the big museums thought his work either not worth a look at all, or, even more puzzling, deeply offensive.  Tourists, making the obligatory rounds, would become angry seeing these big glowing pictures.  More than once I saw parents nearly drag their kids out of a gallery of Rothko paintings, as if fearful that the work would do some damage. 

Over time, these perceptions change, and in recent years it has become much more common for me to see people sitting contemplatively in front of his work, taking the time (Rothko's work requires time) to become absorbed in it.  At some point in the last twenty years, whatever was so frightening about it has melted away.

And so it was that at the Tate Modern a couple of weeks ago, the room holding the Seagram Murals was crowded on a Friday afternoon.  What a difference from the very first time I saw those paintings, when I spent over an hour with them at the NGA in the late eighties, and in that time, scarcely two or three people stayed for more than a moment.      At the Tate, the benches were full and there were people standing in twos and threes in front of the work, whispering to each other, pointing things out and turning from one to another to see the relationships and to take in the whole.   As we were leaving the museum to walk along the Thames to the Archduke Winebar, I stopped in one more time, and saw two small children, with their parents, sitting on the floor with paper and crayons, the parents beaming at the kids, looking from their drawings back to the huge murals hanging on the walls.

The Tate Modern itself has taken some criticism for being too popular.  The guide on our boat up to Greenwich the next day had great fun, as we floated past, pointing out that the collection included a pile of bricks, a smashed up car, and a room with a light bulb that kept turning on and off.  He mentioned that it was free to get in -- otherwise no one would bother -- but that he'd heard it was ten quid to get out.  I was amused.  Fifteen years ago I suppose he'd've been talking in the same derisive tone about that room full of big purple squares.



Rilke Would Have Loved It

I woke Saturday morning wanting most of all to see some Whistlers.  I'd ended Friday night the same way I'd ended  the night before -- up the block from my hotel, sitting at Al Tiramisu's bar sipping grappa with Luigi, under Adriana's watchful eye.  A little grappa goes a very long way, and I was cautious, but Luigi loves the stuff as I do, and he's always got something new to try.  So when I rose to consciousness, and called down for my pot of coffee, I still had a bit of a pleasant buzz around the ears.  And I knew the best thing for me was to spend an hour with Jimmy Whistler.

Friday had been a very long, and quite wonderful day, and frankly, I wasn't sure what my energy level for the rest of Saturday would be.  I'd come to DC strictly on holiday, for the express purpose of seeing the completed expansion of the Phillips Collection, and the newly (and finally!) reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I'd taken a late flight on Thursday, so that I could put in a full work day, and it was after 10:00 when I got to the hotel and considerably later when I got back from Al Tiramisu.   But I'd gotten up eager to get into my day and cleared my head with a long, brisk walk through Georgetown, and then a light lunch of mussels and frites at Bistrot du Coin.  I'd spent hours at the Phillips, thrilled with what they'd done, making repeated stops in the renovated Rothko Room.  Then I'd walked down to American Art for a brief overview before heading back into Georgetown for supper at Bistro Francais, and then ending up for that grappa nightcap with Luigi.  Like I said, a long and wonderful day.

I had a ticket for the Saturday evening performance of Richard III, and I knew I wanted to spend some hours at American Art, and I really wanted to try to pace myself -- but I needed to see some Whistlers.  Ever since that revelatory retrospective back in the late eighties (one of the few art exhibitions that I can truly say changed my life), he's been among my pantheon of painters (the others being Goya, Daumier, and Rothko), and I knew exactly where to go.  For several years now, the Freer has devoted their long lower gallery to rotating exhibits of small Whistler works.  I wasn't sure what was currently up, but I knew I'd love it and that it would fill me with that sense of astonishment and wonder and delight that Whistler always gives me.

It turned out to be a series of his small oils, most of them from the 1880s.  These are remarkable pictures, mostly seascapes, punctuated by some wonderful urban scenes.  I've been looking closely at Whistler paintings for most of my adult life, and even the ones that I know well leave me breathless, thinking, "How does he do that?  How, in such tiny spaces, with just a handful of confident, seemingly careless, brushstrokes, does he evoke whole worlds and the deep and complicated hearts of the people who live in them?"  As usual, the placards emphasize that Whistler was all about art for art's sake and was only concerned with composition and color and line.  I suppose it's true to a point, but it's also an excessively academic way of looking at the work.  He is among the most deeply human painters I know, and to claim that in a painting like the little red glove, for example, all he cares about is composition, is to willfully ignore the life that he has put into that young girl's eyes.  Sometimes art historians annoy me to tears.

After filling myself up for awhile with those paintings, I was ready for some lunch before continuing on to the major event of the afternoon (I had another french bistro in mind, of course), but wanted to take a quick stroll through the rest of the Freer first, and that's when I came across the most unexpected revelation of the entire trip --  Gwyn Hanssen Pigott's  Parades.   I'd never heard of Pigott, but she turns out to be a well known Australian ceramicist, who, in her own work, arranges her pieces in very precise still lifes, so that the relationships of one to another creates a whole that is much more than the individual pieces.  She was invited into the Freer's ceramic storerooms to see what she might do out of their collection.  I find the results absolutely astonishing.  Because she was looking at the pieces from the standpoint of an artist, looking to create a new work from what she found, she wasn't interested in provenance or history or type of piece (all of that stuff that the art historians dote on), but on how the forms could relate to each other.  The beauty of what she has accomplished brought me to tears.  (The online exhibition is useful, by the way, but it doesn't give a hint of how powerful the arrangements are in real life).

I walked out of the Freer about noon and headed across the mall, feeling, quite literally, as if my feet were barely touching the ground.  That hour or so would've been worth the trip to DC all by itself, and my Saturday was barely underway.  As it turned out, it wouldn't end until some fifteen hours later, when I'd walked back to my hotel from the Dubliner,  after a long talk with the bartender Joel and the guitar player Conor Malone, but that, as they say, is another story...


 


Josie Loves Barney -- Matthew Barney

I've read about a researcher who did a series of experiments to determine how long it takes for your eyes to adjust to a Rothko painting -- 35 seconds minimum, which is actually a long time for the typical museum goer to stand in front of a piece.  But if you get up fairly close to one of those magnificent late fifties or early sixties pictures, so that it encompasses your entire field of vision, and gaze at it, the colors begin to unfold and ripple in an amazingly sensual way.  What might appear, from a casual glance, as flat sheets of color, become deep and luminous and rich. 

So when I saw one of those big pictures at SFMOMA, I rolled Josie up to it in her stroller and crouched down next to her to tell her some stories about the magnificent Mark Rothko.  She pointed into it, in the way that she does when she's intrigued with something, and grinned.  Dimly, I heard a voice chattering about Rothko's early years and his lessons with Albers, and gradually realized that the docent had brought the tour group up behind us and was just off to my left continuing with her tour, while the group was arranged semi-circularly around Josie and I.  We moved on.

I wasn't at all sure how Josephine would take to the museum.  When we've been out walking the streets (her in her stroller), she takes everything in very seriously and will then see something that makes her point and laugh and kick her legs with delight.  Whether she'd see things that affected her that way in the museum, I didn't know, but I want her to grow up feeling that going to museums and looking at unfamiliar things and finding out what intrigues and inspires you about them is just a very normal thing for people to do, in the same way that reading books and listening to music and behaving well in restaurants are already part of her daily experience.

She liked the Rothko, and a few others of the big expressionist paintings on the 2nd floor, but what really set her off was when we went up to the 4th floor for the big Matthew Barney exhibit.   I was carrying her at this point so that she'd have a better view, and as soon as we came around the corner from the elevators to see the first of the large sculptures that comprise Drawing Restraint 9 she started pointing and squirming and squealing with delight.  I let her lead us through the rooms by her pointing, and we spent quite a bit of time there.  I have no idea what she found so intriguing in those big shapes, but she was quite clear about which ones she liked.

Today I think we'll walk over to North Beach.  I want to stop by the City Lights Bookstore and let her pick out something.  We've been to the farmer's market at the Ferry building, and seen the sea lions (which she loves to imitate).  Friday evening we'll do an Alcatraz tour.   I suppose it's doubtful that she'll actually remember any of this as she gets older, but we're still trying to give her the full San Francisco experience.


Ready To Head Home

It seems marvelously emblematic of our time of transition that in most of the hotels I stayed in across Mississippi and Texas I couldn't get a cell phone signal (and didn't have a phone in the room), but perched on the side of a mountain at a Forest Service campsite outside of Ruidoso, New Mexico, my signal came in strong and clear.  I sat outside my tent on a beautiful evening, watching the sun set over the Sierra Blanca mountains, sipping a glass of french wine, chatting with Lynn about our days.

The campsite was only five miles out of town, but four of those miles were rough gravel washboard road ascending from 6,900 to 9,000 feet.  Not remote in the way that my favorite campsites have been, but rustic enough to keep the RVs away.     Only three of the sixteen sites were taken, so we each had plenty of room to spread out and pretend that the others were miles away.  I had my battery powered iPod speakers playing Keith Jarrett, and wrote in my journal until dusk.  When it became too dark to see, I moved everything into the tent, turned on the lantern, and read until I was too sleepy.

The birds woke me at dawn, and I felt rested and happy.   I sat outside and wrote another long letter to Lynn, wrote some in my journal, tried unsuccessfully to identify the birdsongs, watched the colors change on the mountain opposite as the sun came up.

I don't spend much time at 9,000 feet and I'd gotten pretty winded the night before setting up my tent.  It took a moment of vertigo to remind me to take it easy, and I'd taken a break to sit and call Lynn.  So I took my time breaking camp, doing just a few things at a time, and then sitting for a bit before doing some more.  By 11:00 or so, I was packed up and made my way back down to the highway and on to Santa Fe.

Now I'm sitting on the patio of my hotel, watching the storm clouds come in from the mountains, as they did yesterday.  I've spent the day in museums and galleries, and it was sunny and hot, so the drama of a bit of storm is welcome.

The exhibitions at the O'Keeffe, and the Museum of Fine Arts were quite wonderful, but the standout (not surprisingly) was the show at the Institute of American Indian Arts.  That's been one of my very favorite museums anywhere ever since I came across it on my first road trip to Santa Fe many years ago.  There's an edginess to the work there, an insistence on pushing boundaries and challenging influences that makes every exhibit electrifying.  Whether the work is by the longtime masters, or this year's students, there's a passionate belief that art matters, that images and sounds and poetry and color are what you need to make sense of your self and your place.  I always come out of there feeling richer in spirit and stronger in intention -- more capable of walking my own way through the world.

After the experience of those three museums, it was tough for the work at Canyon Road to measure up.  Don't get me wrong -- the experience of 200 or so galleries, clustered along a pretty little street, full of interesting architecture, is a wonderful way to spend some hours.    I saw many, many delightful things -- but there were very few that moved me in that quivering, deep way that the work that I admire (and need) the most does.  But I was pretty intrigued by the Nes pastels at Hahn Ross,  and there were many pieces (those tapestries!) at the Klaudia Marr gallery that I would have welcomed spending a good bit of time with. 

It was nearing 2:00, and I was ready for a break, so I stopped for lunch and more writing time.  Another good day.  But it's been a dozen days, and that's about my limit.   Time to head home.


Morning Tour of the Chinati Foundation

I thought that I knew what to expect when we went into the first building at the Chinati Foundation to see Donald Judd’s aluminum box installation.  There were half a dozen of us, along with our guide, Amelia, an art student from San Antonio.  I’m familiar with some of Judd's other work from museums, and I’ve seen pictures of this particular setting.  Pictures don’t come close.  It’s not about aluminum, it’s not about repetition.  It’s about light and space and endless variation.  For the first time I really understood the affinity that Judd had for the neon sculptures of his friend Dan Flavin.  Judd was using the aluminum boxes to sculpt with light, just as Flavin was doing the same with light directly. 

The sides of the buildings are floor to roof glass, so the spaces are flooded with natural light (and on a sunny July day here in far west Texas, that is a lot of light!), and the reflections pick up all the variations of color from the landscape surrounding us.  To be immersed in that space is to be in a spiritual realm, contemplative, remote from day-to-day concerns, and yet very much a part of this world (just outside a pair of rabbits playing, and a little further out a family of deer -- the three fauns prancing around some of Judd's concrete installations in high spirits, while from time to time one of the adults nips at their heels).  It was one of the most remarkable artistic experiences I’ve ever had.

Marfa itself is a kick.  The main street leads from the highway three blocks up to the courthouse building, a wonderfully beautiful and ornate structure.  My hotel, in all its 1930s grandeur, is on one side of the street, facing the old Palace Opera House on the other.  In the lobby is a display dedicated to those exciting days when the cast of Giant hung out here while filming.  Scattered about the town are a dozen art galleries – I walked into one and was treated to a dozen or so pieces from Andy Warhol’s Last Supper series – the last major work he completed before he died.

Tucked into an old corner gas station is the Pizza Foundation, where I had lunch – big slices of excellent pizza with a great Greek salad.  Bring your own beer and wine.

The weather is better here than it was in Clarksdale, or my first couple of stops in Texas.  Upper eighties instead of upper nineties, and much dryer, so walking slowly around town is much more tolerable than it was trying to move around a few days ago.   The Chinati mountains in the distance are quite beautiful.  An awareness of the great spaces around us pervades everything. 

I can't quite get over the sense of quiet and calm.  At the moment, I'm sitting in the Marfa Book Company with a glass of wine and a good wireless connection, watching the shadows slowly lengthen.  Lucinda Williams sings softly in the background.  I've done a little email -- the library is never far from my mind -- but mostly I'm trying to give my mind space to come to a stop, to take in the beauty of the vast landscape around me, to move very slowly and to pay close attention to everything that is here.  The challenge is to be in this moment, and not constantly fretting about what needs to come next or what I don't have enough time to get to.  So far, I'm doing a  pretty good job.

This evening, dinner at Jett's Grill.  A new novel to start reading.  Tomorrow, the afternoon tour of the Chinati Foundation.



Phoenix Art Museum

The collections at the Phoenix Art Museum are modest, but still quite nice for a small museum.  The "Constructing New Berlin" exhibit is quite excellent -- a fascinating range of photography, painting, sculpture, film, & installations.  Most of the stuff was done in the past five years, and it's designed to make the case for post-wall Berlin's rise as a major center for the arts.  They do a good job of making a compelling case.

Not surprising, given where we are, is the strength of the Western collection.  Along with representative works from some of the "big" names that one would associate with Western US painting (e.g., Remington, Moran, Beirstadt, etc.) there were quite a number of contemporary works that extend the themes & thoughts & ideas of those artists into the 21st century.

The most delightful part of my visit, however, was coming upon the "Ullman Center -- the Art of Philip Curtis" which has just opened.  Curtis was a local artist and one of the founders of the museum.  He died in 2000, and this space just opened to give a permanent home for some of his stuff, which I liked very much.  Somewhat surreal, but wonderfully playful.  I was completely unfamiliar with his work, but I would definitely like to run across more.

All in all, a great way to spend an hour before having lunch and getting back to the hotel for the first Board of Directors session.  MJ thinks that that we're going to get through the rest of the agenda by noon, and if that happens it gives me a few extra hours that I didn't expect to have.  With a little luck, I'll be able to get over to the Heard Museum.


National Museum of the American Indian

The NMAI has an aggressive agenda. Those who imagined that walking through it would be an experience akin to the American Indian galleries of some mid-level midwestern museum, perhaps coupled with a touring exhibit of woven baskets, are in for something different altogether. Everything about the museum is gathered around one idea – that American Indians are here now, a vibrant 21st century conglomeration of cultures, that are bonded together by the iniquities of the past but are determined to come out of the shadow in which they’ve been relegated and take their rightful place among the many ethnicities making up this mulicultural world.

The exhibits of “old stuff” – dolls, and projectile points, and beaded objects and all – are in wall cases near the corridors; lots of objects, crammed into the cases, making an eerie echo of the kinds of anthropological displays of yesteryear. While the objects in them may be delightful and exemplary in themselves, the display makes an ironic statement about the way those objects have always been shown. The themed exhibits, designed with considerable input from the tribes represented, are very Smithsonian in style – obsessed with their educational mission, and their “all objects are of equal interest” approach to the minutiae of daily life. The crowds were so thick that is was difficult to judge how effective they are. And since I come to this with considerably more background knowledge and awareness than most people, it’s impossible for me to adequately gauge the impact that it might have on someone whose awareness of Indians is shaped only by the movies (where the only Indians are 19th century Comanche, Apache, Kiowa and Sioux), and television (where they are simply absent).

I think they’ve done a fine job. If there are a few rough edges, that’s to be expected. Over the next decades, they’ll shift and adapt and learn different ways to tell the same and more stories. The most important thing, is that they are invisible no more.