April 15, 2004
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by LINDA MITCHELL
VERY SIMPLE, LINDA. IF THE AVERAGE GUY CAN DO IT, it's not art,"
said Frank, loud enough for the staff in the Soho gallery to
overhear. His wife, Marge, shushed him, so Frank continued in
a stage whisper, nodding his head toward a smallish black and
pink abstract piece by an artist named Carroll Dunham. "You
see that painting right there? Your granddaughter [9 months old]
coulda painted that one."
It was our first day in Manhattan,
the beginning of a two-week visit with Marge and Frank, Bill's
sister and brother-in-law, and even though I wasn't all that
crazy about the painting myself, I valiantly defended the artist,
attempting to expand Frank's aesthetic horizons. I told him to
look more closely, to try to appreciate the simplicity of the
forms, the composition of the visual elements, the quality of
the paint, the elegant lines.
He pointed to a smear through
one of those elegant lines. "You know what I see when I
look at that?" he asked. "I see a mistake. I
see a guy who screwed up his painting and hung it up anyway.
Guess what he's doing right now? He's sittin' up in the Hamptons
laughin' at us."
Frank seems to think that the
more indecipherable the work is, the more commercial success
the artist enjoys. I tried to explain that very few artists ever
make money, but it was a tough sell -- after all, real estate
in Manhattan isn't exactly a bargain. "How do they pay their
rent?" he asked again and again, as we wandered from one
high-end gallery to another over the course of our visit. "Who
buys this junk?"
It was a good question. It was
clear nobody was trying to sell any of the work to us;
we were rarely even greeted at any of the galleries we visited,
let alone courted as potential customers. Well, unless you want
to count the big black poodle that followed us around the Janet
Borden Gallery licking our palms and the legs of our pants while
we studied Lee Friedlander's photographs.
I expected Frank to appreciate
the Friedlander show since it featured representational work,
but he still wasn't impressed. "Are you telling me an average
guy standing in that same spot couldn't have taken the same picture?"
It was Bill's turn to defend the work -- this photographer has
a long history as an artist, he explained. "So, you're saying
I should be impressed by the guy's name?" Frank asked,
rolling his eyes.
Since Frank has no background
in art, it would have been easy enough to dismiss his comments,
but to tell the truth, I got a kick out of his honesty. I even
came to envy his certainty about what is and what isn't "art"
these days, since I wasn't exactly bowled over by most of the
work I was seeing in all those galleries myself. Been there,
done that, I kept thinking. Derivative, repetitive, visually
I felt a little guilty. Here
I was in the art capital of the world, and I was finding more
visual inspiration by watching the people in the streets and
subways as they flowed in and out of buildings, traffic and trains,
than I was finding in the silent, white galleries.
It was time to hit the museums.
I knew from previous visits that I wouldn't be disappointed by
the Metropolitan, Frick and Brooklyn Museums, since they all
have world-class collections, but I also wanted to see more contemporary
work. Bill and I ventured uptown to the Guggenheim, which was
featuring an exhibit called "Singular Forms: Sometimes Repeated
-- Art From 1951 to the Present."
All I can say is, it's a good
thing Frank wasn't with us on that day. Some of the show's highlights
were: a 4-by-8-foot plywood panel leaning against a wall; three
double fluorescent tubes mounted across another wall; and seven
vertically hung white gessoed canvases. Obviously, none of these
pieces would have stood the test of Frank's "can the average
guy do it?" theory.
Here's a portion of the opening
paragraph from the exhibit's literature: "A reductive sensibility
pervades much of the avant-garde art of the 20th century. Spanning
from its earliest decades to the new millennium, a radical aesthetics
of formal clarity developed in tandem with the evolution of abstraction
At the heart of these movements toward an increasingly nonreferential,
elemental form was the desire to create a new, universal aesthetic
language." [italics mine]
OK. It seems to me that if you're
shooting for a universal aesthetic language, it would be helpful
if "the average guy" could understand it. While the
exhibit included lots of helpful narrative alongside each installation,
people can only read so much about "subversive rearticulations,"
"morphological investigations," and "coded referents,"
before their eyes start to glaze over.
I watched viewers glance at
the art, read the accompanying narrative, then move on in puzzled
silence, occasionally raising their eyebrows or shrugging their
shoulders at their spouses or children. Out of boredom, I took
out my notepad and started talking to people, asking for their
honest opinions about the work. Here are some of the responses:
"Well, it's different."
"It's kinda goofy." "Stupid." "I wouldn't
want it in my living room, if you get my drift." "I
don't know what to think." "At least the building is
interesting," said an architect from Belgium. "The
work in the exhibit doesn't -- live for me, you know what
I mean?" said his wife.
We also went to the Whitney
Museum's Biennial Exhibit, a much-anticipated "event"
in the art world every two years. According to the museum's literature,
the 2004 exhibit features "prominent artistic trends in
new intergenerational work by 108 artists and collaborative groups."
The participating artists were from all over the country and
represented a wide range of mediums -- paintings, drawings, photographs,
installations, assemblages, digital art, video productions and
so forth. As with the Guggenheim show, most of the art in the
Whitney exhibit depended on those accompanying explanations on
the walls to help the viewers "get it," although frankly,
I didn't appreciate those 28 identical black squares any more
by learning they were supposed to represent the artist's dark
studio when he woke up every morning.
We saved the Metropolitan Museum
for last and I immediately headed for the room in the European
wing where my favorite Van Gogh resides, a piece called "Wheat
Field with Cypresses." The painting is in a room with other
wonderful pieces of art, but the Van Gogh is so powerful, the
other paintings disappear into the walls. I sat on a bench and
studied the piece, watching the wheat fields sway in the wind
and the cypress trees grow, overcome by emotion. I watched other
viewers come into the room, generally gravitating to that painting
first, spending time, feasting their eyes. I never once saw anyone
read the narrative on the wall.
Now, it's obviously unfair to
compare any other work of art to a Van Gogh masterpiece, and,
unlike Frank, I won't pretend to have any easy definitions for
what constitutes "art" in the new millenium. But, personally,
I want more than cerebral exercises -- I want to be moved, touched,
inspired. I want art to live. Is that too much to ask?
Linda Mitchell can be reached
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