Saturday, October 29, 2011

One day, four works of art

A few nights ago, I had a dream where I was floating and diving underwater like a dolphin and—as when swimming in real life—I never wanted to stop.

Yesterday I had an art day like that: long, solitary experiences with four very different kinds of work that invited endless immersion.  Whenever, as happens all too frequently, I start to wonder why I’m in this field, I can look back on this day and remember why.

Photo: courtesy MoMA.
Willem de Kooning, Pirate (Untitled II), 1981
Oil on canvas
7' 4" x 6' 4 3/4" (223.4 x 194.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund, 1982
© 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I got to MoMA early to see the de Kooning exhibition again, this time on my own, and went straight to the back in advance of the hoards with their walkie-talkies. Except for the guard, I was alone in front of de Kooning’s Pirate (Untitled II), and the longer I stood there, the more it revealed to me. The experience was so animated it was like watching TV, only better. After about twenty minutes the guard, an older black man, came up and said, quietly, “Looks as if you like that painting.” I asked him how he felt about it, seeing it day after day—did it hold up?—and he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I told him how much I love the wispy late work, as opposed to the ones with looping closed lines, which feel static and tight. The guard pointed out that they were the very last ones de Kooning painted, and suggested that perhaps by then the artist’s mind really was gone. He showed me the area he liked best, a wall of somewhat earlier large abstractions that reminded him of Lee Krasner, and told me, proudly, that he’d worked at MoMA for more than twenty years.

Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011
JANET CARDIFF (Canadian, b. 1957)
The Forty Part Motet (2001)
Reworking of “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui”(1575), by
Thomas Tallis
40-track sound recording (14:00 minutes), 40 speakers
Dimensions variable
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and
Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Rolf Hoffmann, 2002

I could have stopped there, completely fulfilled, but instead I took the E out to PS 1 (only two stops from MoMA). While I’ll do almost anything to avoid 9/11 nostalgia, Sasha Frere-Jones, in a recent New Yorker article, mentioned the Janet Cardiff sound installation from 2001, The Forty-Part Motet, which is part of PS 1's September 11 exhibition, and I was eager to experience it. Frere-Jones wrote:

Cardiff re-created the performance of a forty-member choir, each singer emerging through a separate speaker, performing the 1573 Thomas Tallis piece “Spem in alium.” In eleven minutes, it uses a stunning variety of overlapping, interlocking parts, as deft in its repetition as anything Steve Reich has done. The interplay of the voices is also moving—I have rarely visited the work and not seen people crying within minutes.

I’ve been a fan of Cardiff's ever since the percussive piece she and George Bures Miller installed in 2006 at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, which gets my all-time favorite award for site-specific art (read my review here). Happily The Forty-Part Motet lived up to my expectations—was exalted and exhalting. I could have just as easily been in Canterbury Cathedral during Evensong, but there’s also something about the anonymity of the experience that makes it surprisingly personal. While I was there, two young women were inspired to dance, but attempting to photograph them (with their permission), I was sharply remonstrated by the guard—an action that was jarring and surprisingly upsetting in the way it pierced a euphoric moment. Something like that would never have happened in Europe, I thought, especially in England where museum attendants can be sensitive to the point of being apologetic. So I left the room and came back again later when—with the exception of a different guard who lurked quietly in the corner, absorbed in his cell phone—I was able to listen to the whole thing again, this time completely alone.
Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011.
JAMES TURRELL (American, b. 1943)
Meeting (1986)
Interior fluorescent light and open sky
Room: 259 x 279 ½ inches (657.9 x 709.3 cm);
portal: 157 x 177 inches (398.8 x 449.6 cm)
Long-term installation, MoMA PS1, Long Island City,
New York

Where I went to recuperate was James Turrell’s Meeting (1986), unexpectedly open in the early afternoon where, for more than a half hour, I was alone in one of my favorite places in the world. At one point a man opened the door, stuck his head in, and immediately left, having had his fill—but that was all. The sky “ceiling” was picturesquely blue and wisped with clouds on that sunny day, while soft, cool breezes wafted about the room. Perfect.

Photo: courtesy MoMA, PS 1
BARBARA KRUGER (American, b. 1945)
Untitled (Questions) (1991)
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl
66 3/16 x 92 5/8 x 2 1/2 inches (168.1 x 235.3 x 6.4 cm)
Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for
Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New
York.

On my way out of the September 11 exhibition I passed this piece from 1991 by Barbara Kruger. While I didn’t spend half an hour communing with it, it’s stayed with me, as it seems particularly relevant to the present time. If I haven’t posted lately, it’s because I’ve been caught up in the issues around Occupy Wall Street, without quite knowing how to process them as far as my blog was concerned. With the mainstream press reporting so little in the beginning, Facebook became my news source. Suddenly I was grateful that I’d accepted as “friends” over 1,000 people I don’t know, and their links to video footage, news reports from outside the country, and on-the-spot commentary, was riveting, inspiring, and disturbing.  The actions of the police, in one scary videotaped scene after another—especially in Oakland—are unconscionable. If this were China, we’d be appalled. Why do we accept it as business-as-usual in a country that gives lip service to free speech and human rights? Now that it’s turned on us in a big way, we can see what the black community has known all along, that police forces are often made up of people who are excited by violence, who can’t wait to use their authority against such dire threats as Citibank customers endeavoring to close their accounts, or Naomi Wolf in her evening dress (an event that made the headlines in The Guardian, which I subscribe to online, but was significantly left out of the New York Times). Not to speak of the group that's most armed and dangerous: nurses.

I’m just enough of a Quaker, an idealist—and an American—to believe, like Marine veteran Sergeant Shamar Thomas in the now-famous video where he successfully talks down a bunch of cops, that the police should be protecting our Constitutional right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  Is that really so far-fetched?

2 comments:

tackad said...

I'm not taking sides on the OW thing. Just wanted to caution you - remember how in the olden days they said photos don't lie ?
We know differently now and also, each side presents it's own propaganda. (Imagine if the only news you got was from listening to rush linbaugh !!??)

As for all of the rest of your post, thank you for sharing. You let me experience a few things that could only be dreamed about.
Thanks

Carol Diehl said...

Thank you for your comment!

I do think that there is a distinction to be made, however. Limbaugh is opinion. What I have had access to on FB is actual footage, which the mainstream media finally had to acknowledge because it was so widely circulated on the Internet that they couldn't ignore it.