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Art Beat

April 15, 2004


The average guy


[photo of Frank in art gallery]"IT'S 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 boring.

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 via




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