Wednesday, February 10, 2016

More Ways of Seeing

"Ah, but is it art? That old, tediously repeated question whenever bricks are laid, beds disarranged, or lights go on and off. The artist, defensively, responds: "It's art because I am an artist and therefore whatever I do is art." The gallerist talks aesthetic code, which is either parroted or mocked by the usual rogues and rascals of the press. We should always agree with the artist, whatever we think of the work. Art isn't, can't be, a temple from which the incompetent, the charlatan, the chancer and the publicity-chaser should be excluded; art is more like a refugee camp where most are queuing for water with a plastic jerry-can in their hand. What we can say, though, as we face another interminable video-loop of a tiny stretch of the artist's own unremarkable life or a collaged wall of banal photographs, is: "Yes, of course it's art, of course, you're an artist, and your intentions are serious, I'm sure. It's just that this is very low-level stuff: try giving it more thought, originality, craft, imagination - interest, in a word."
                                   - Julian Barnes in Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art

I've read so much art criticism over the years; unfortunately, much of the language seems to have been deliberately chosen to obfuscate rather than illuminate. In contrast, the essays in English novelist Julian Barnes's latest book, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, epitomize for me what all art writing should be. Each chapter is a little gem, written in such a way as to make the reader want to run out and see the painting immediately. The book includes quite a few color reproductions of the art he discusses, but not all. It is the latter missing images that make you realize what a wonderful master of narrative and description Barnes is. Worth the price of admission alone is the first chapter about ThĂ©odore GĂ©ricault's The Raft of the Medusa, a detailed account of all possible - and all equally harrowing - scenarios of the disaster, with the added bonus of psychological and historical interpretations of both artist and image.

In the past week, I visited The Smart Museum of Art in Hyde Park, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, and the Art Institute of Chicago. In all three venues, there were many examples of art whose creators embodied Barnes's plea to "...give [the art] more thought, originality, craft, imagination - interest, in a word." Entering the Smart Museum was like stepping into the living area of a thoughtful, eclectic person's private collection, very intimate, and with art representing the best examples of a healthy spectrum of periods and places. My favorite pieces were the delicate Korean celadon bowls; an intaglio plate from Goya's The Disasters of War series; Arthur Dove and Milton Avery oil paintings; and Hans (Jean) Arp, Henry Moore, and Jacques Lipchitz sculptures (fortunately for the museum, the latter pieces were displayed in protective cases; otherwise, I would have been reprimanded for trying to touch them, they are that enticing).

The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) at Columbia College is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. From its collection of more than 14,000 objects, the curators chose 155 photographs to showcase highlights from the early 19th century to the present day. The two main galleries are filled with iconic images - Elliott Erwitt's haunting portrait entitled Jackie Kennedy at Funeral (1963), Sally Mann's controversial and moody photos of her children, Dorothea Lange's migrant woman and children, and Cindy Sherman's ur-selfies. In addition, there were classic images by Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Stieglitz, Eugene Atget, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and Carrie Mae Weems. The history of photography in two galleries. On the day I visited, there were two school groups taking a guided tour; my initial impulse was to leave because the spaces were overcrowded, but I'm glad I stayed and eavesdropped, taking advantage of the docents' valuable commentary. Like the Smart Museum (which is a teaching museum), this felt like a day that the MoCP also served in this capacity.

My last visit was to the Art Institute of Chicago. My friend and I wanted to see the recently donated Edlis/Neeson Collection that is now part of the museums' permanent collection on display in the Modern Wing. While there were some objects of great interest to me (the Jasper Johns Alphabet and oddly, the Xu Bing and Ai Wei Wei "found" paintings, Wu Street), the majority of the 44 pieces (by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol) did not thrill me as much as I'd hoped. While the museum benefits from this addition by filling in gaps in their Pop Art collection, I had hoped to see some new and exciting pieces. But perhaps I have overdosed on these artists over the years. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, many of these artists were original and interesting when they emerged on the scene. But as time goes by and their initial groundbreaking work no longer breaks ground, they are compelled to repeat themselves. I think this is the tragedy of any artist - once that artist has shown the world everything inside his/her head, how do they go about creating new things? Should they? What if they can't?