Leaving the tiny but expensive apartment on east 90th, I walked west, glancing down the always impressive Park Avenue, making my way to the Guggenheim on 5th Avenue. A fairly short line and I was in, senior discount, $18. Normally one stands at that point in the atrium, the spiral walkway there to take you past whatever show is hanging. Or take the elevators to start at the top — the last exhibit I saw here was abstraction from the 50s, with stand-out, drop-dead DeKoonings.
This time James Turrell has commandeered the space, masterly and expensively sealing off the atrium with what appear to be six unblemished slightly concave sections, resembling the inside of a gigantic Japanese rice paper lantern. There is a specially constructed circular area of seating, allowing you to lean back and enjoy the subtle lighted surface overhead reaching up to the skylight. For a long time it was a light yellow. When nothing happened beyond my own perception (plenty, I know, the point of much of Turrell’s work) I moved on up the ramp. Before I had gotten far the color changed dramatically to a rich blue violet. Now I realized it had to be projected light. At the top of the third level there seemed to be a scrim of some kind, filtering the upper levels but I was never sure it wasn’t just on my eyeball.
Going up the spiral walkway I was soon behind the finely crafted temporary walls of the installation, sort of backstage. I asked one of the guards if I was looking at sheetrock but she didn’t didn’t know. I was hesitant to touch it since touching the art always gets you yelled at and it had that rice paper look of fragility. There were other Turrell works, the first a tall narrow opening bright with natural light in an otherwise unlit room. A security guard stationed nearby seemed part of the exhibit, the whole long space being subdued and otherwise empty. Along the way you could duck into an exhibit of Kandinsky which I found as engaging as the Turrell. The alcoves along the Frank Loyd Wright spiral were freshly painted a muted yellow and since there were no paintings hanging where one expects Chagalls and Frankenthallers, Raushenbergs or Johns, the space became charged with the central focus of Turrell’s art, the act of seeing. I haven’t heard the artist address this but the act of perception is not but a step from the state of being, the focus of much art since the Impressionists.
Many of the Turrell works in this show could be illustrations for psychology text books where perceptual set-ups trick you into seeing what is not there, or the reverse of what is there. The Lichenstein “house” outside the High Museum in Atlanta is a Pop Art version that depends on the viewer moving to get the dynamic effect. Turrell controls the light in a space, usually dimming it and projecting bright shapes into a corner, which from a certain angle take on the appearance of a floating cube. I heard Turrell speak at the High Museum once. He was showing a slide of a piece he did in the Whitney Museum and I was embarrassed to realize I had peeked into that room, thought it empty and moved on. On another occasion I saw a piece that appeared to be a rectangular opening in the wall. You were peering into a very ambiguous space, no way to tell how deep or even if it was really an opening. It was baffling how he achieved that effect. The guy has one of those minds that can assimilate science and utilize optical physics to create puzzling and complex pieces.
As you ascend the spiral walkway you come upon a sign indicating a wait-time of as much as 45 minutes. I spent twenty minutes waiting to get in a darkened room that a guard allowed about 8 people to enter at a time. On the far wall was a horizontal rectangle flanked by low lights. An inside guard wouldn’t allow me to get close to it so I wasn’t sure whether it was an opening or a mounted flat plane. I stood there waiting for something to happen, aware that in staring at the dark space I was automatically trying to interpret and there was some movement I’m sure attributable to my eyes. In the main space I kept thinking I was seeing a scrim of some kind across the top of the third layer, giving a soft-focus to the further layers but I really couldn’t tell if this was on my eye or in the space. If in the space it was very impressively done. That is a very large space to hang something without creating folds or other imperfections that catch the light and so reveal themselves. With the room experience I felt rather let down. I wanted to mime yawning for those in line, considerably longer now, when I left for I really wouldn’t recommend much waiting for that piece. But I shyly left it alone. The piece was about perception but more interesting to me were the conversations I heard around me in the line, the dynamics of strangers meeting that I half attended to as I read out of the book I carry for just such occasions. Many others of course “read” from their iPhones. Someone from Arizona talked his way into cutting the line, saying his son had gone in and hadn’t come out. The couple behind me happened also to be from Arizona so the three of them explored commonalities. The line-cutter being not so skilled at listening as talking, kept interrupting the woman who had a slight stutter which facilitated his narcissism.
Being a painter myself I found the Kandinsky show appealing. Turrell is a sculptor and sculpture, according to one artist, is defined as, “what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting”. I forget what wit said that. For all of Turrell’s genius with materials and scientific understanding I found myself thinking that I’ve seen more interesting light shows at Rock concerts on youtube, Phish for example. Gorsch, what a Philistine!
I ended my Guggenheim sojourn by finding a seat at the atrium base, experiencing the meditative state one more time and then heading for the Metropolitan Museum of Art just down the road. I made immediately for the modern wing, walked into a room and looked to see who would be first catch my eye. Not surprisingly, Picasso. But there were plenty of others before my legs started telling me to head on back to my daughter’s apartment. Paul Klee for example, more Kandinsky, Matisse, the lush and wonderful Modigliani.
I took a quick look at a current exhibit of Civil War photographs and paintings. I was surprised to learn that the famous Brady actually took very few of the photos he is known for. I was always frustrated by my family’s early photos. There were usually a few people posing with great space all around, giving little sense of the people. Whoever took the photos had no sense of composition or portraiture and this is true of many of the civil war pictures. They were documenting momentous historical events but seemed to think it was enough to simple point and shoot. One notorious and macabre shutter-bug though posed bodies into tableau, sometimes using the same bodies in different scenes. I had just reviewed a Civil War book called Shiloh (see blog – tfthinkspeak.blogspot.com) so was expecting to see some of the horror I had read about. Aside from some close ups of Lincoln, Sherman, Grant etc; it was easy to skim the show. Well, photos do capture a moment in history but you have to work to get to that when the photography is primitive. Not so the paintings, Homer standing out here. Many of the works were contemporary with rather than scenes of the war but, so claims the curator, registered the ominous rumblings of war indirectly.
Passing through the Egyptian section I was fascinated to see Klee-like doodling on one of those bibs they put on their sarcophagi. Slowed only briefly though I made it to the (north) American Wing, wanting to see that huge Washington Crossing the Delaware. Speaking of sculpture I’m always interested in the way sculptors of busts create an intriguing illusion. By making what look like drilled holes with a little wedge for pupils, when you look at those eyes and step slowly back the eyes, at a certain distance, spring into an animated, “alive” state, that is quite impressive. I never heard this referred to in all the Art History nor studio courses I had in Art School but just stumbled upon it in the Boston Museum in 2001. This was just a month after 9/11 when the plane was eerily, scantily occupied and Logan Airport was still suffering the malevolent stain of those confused and/or used “operatives”.
Anyway, I spotted a room, just past the Gilbert Stuart Washington portrait, with Sargent, Eakins, Chase and Whistler, a grouping of their full length society portraits, each exquisite and individual in their style. The full length portrait was almost always twice as high as wide and noticing this led me to do a series of full length fictional portraits that were three times high as wide that carried on, intermittently, from 1986 to about 2000 (see www.thinkspeak.net). But that’s just an aside. I went on to see Delaware and in the same room, some grand George Inness paintings and a spectacular view of an Indian village on a river below towering majestic mountains. This painting by Bierstadt is full of presumably authentic detail and supremely exaggerated terrain, a sort of composite of grandeur to dazzle the eastern market of the time. And this was about the time my legs started their complaining so, past the Egyptian stuff again and I stepped outside into a pouring rain.
Some productive writing in the morning then, after my shoes had dried, a streets-of-New-York walk to the Met again. This time I inquire about a Valesquez I saw promoted as on loan. I was given a map of an area covering European Painting 1250-1800. On the way to the Valesquez I got stopped by my old friend, Tiepolo. His drawing remains on the painting in the form of a dancing arabesque line that has always captivated me. The face in Valesquez’s portrait is fine but the figure seems hurried. Later I see some Valesquez in the permanent collection that is way better, or consistent, not just excellent in the face. I notice the area is divided between Spanish, Italian and French on the one side and English, Dutch, German on the other. I go pretty rapidly through the medieval stuff, though I do love those landscape backgrounds and the portraits, both for their historicity and painterliness. I think of Hockney’s book that claims that portrait painters of this period began to use projection and lens and it is a convincing argument, the later stuff being quite realistic, photo-like, not in color but in accuracy of depiction. I float through, high on this stuff, lingering over whatever stops me … two oval works by Tiepolo, figures on clouds surrounded by a gold leaf sky; LaTour and Carravagio, Titian, a beautiful portrait of Michelangelo by one of his students, very abstract, the head and hand rendered precisely but the figure and background only suggested. There’s an impressive, large painting by an Italian woman i’ve never heard of and whose name I misplaced. It depicts a woman fainting in the act of petitioning royalty, quite an unheard of thing in the day, not the fainting, the petitioning by a woman … just as the painting by a woman of the time was quite rare.
I slip off to find a cafe and coffee, write in the ol’ journal and return for the English, Dutch, German side. Knocked out immediately by a Bruegel, one of the four-season works, then a follower of Bosch. I took a course in grad school on 17th Century Dutch Art so these are old buds here. There’s a painting by Michiel Sweerts called Clothing the Naked, of a remarkably rendered man compassionately handing a homeless and clothesless person a white garment. The artist had a reputation as a kind and caring individual and he, toward the end of his life, traveled to India and served the poor. The work reminds me of a scene I witnessed on North Avenue in Atlanta. I was driving by in heavy traffic and only glimpsed it but a black man was ministering to a homeless white man who was so touched he was sobbing. The black man was holding him by the shoulders and gently comforting. It was biblical tableau, I tell ya.
Next I came upon a painting I had noted in the past but still it happily delighted me. By Joachim Wtewael it is oil on copper, about the size of a piece of typing paper but filled with such painstaking detail and sensitive skill it could make you cry. It’s called The Golden Age. Figures fill and cavort in about every space in an expertly lit and composed landscape, all nude, genitals carefully covered except in the case of a few children. There is nothing erotic or hedonistic about the nudity, a utopia described in seductive color. The great thing I discovered, the Met has just about every work on their website. I wanted to show my daughter this painting and I found I could call it up by searching the artist.
Other artists of note in this collection are Van Dyke, Ruebens, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hals, Ruisdale, Vermeer and, pinnacle of civilization for me that day, Rembrandt. I’ve never appreciated him so much as with this visit, he just glows with incredible refinement and depth. Oh, I was looking at a Ruebens and a man at the next painting was so excited he had to drag me over to share it with him. And it was worth sharing … a “sketch” of a swirling crowded scene, a Rubens trademark, people, some mounted on masterly drawn horses, sketchy and unfinished, the central area being colored so that it faded off into the muted monochrome of the rest, It had that potent feel that is so hard to describe and it resembled a shallow relief in its dark and light treatment.
Noticing it was 4pm, I still had maybe an hour so I headed over to see the Cezannes, passing up the crowded Punk Fashion show with not much hesitation. There are marvelous Van Goghs of course, and Picassos to knock your socks off but Cezanne, another of those monumental individuals who somehow seemed to see into the heart of things and gave us a glimpse in the work they left.
Ah, a breathtaking two days. And to top off my visit I wrote a song on the bus to LaGuardia, Keep It Goin, the words tumbling into my notebook from the stop-motion reality assembling for me out the window.