Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Modern Art

Here are some paintings we saw (some years ago, but I've just now dug up the photos) of paintings hanging in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Okay, so I'm a philistine. I have no culture. I just don't get it. Do you? If so,will you please educate me? What makes any of these as art, or qualifies it to hang in the National Gallery? Am I wrong to think these so-called artists are bamboozling the public, that this emperor has no clothes?

Untitled (I should think so!) by Mark Rothko. If I painted something very like this, would it be hung in any art gallery of note? Why or why not?

Lavender Mist by Jackson Pollock

Reconciliation Elegy by Robert Motherwell

First Station from The Stations of the Cross, by Barnett Newman

The only one of these I can remotely think of as art is the Pollock. Our tour guide explained to us how it was made. First, the "artist" laid the canvas on the floor, stood up on a ladder, and splattered paint randomly on the canvas. Then, he hung the canvas on the wall to be contemplated for a few days. Finally, he trimmed it in the way he felt was most artistic, only using a portion of the original work. So, although the result is rather pleasing to my eye, I don't see it as art, but more as craft.

I have a feeling that if mankind should survive that long, people 500 years from now will look back at the Twentieth Century, at our paintings, sculpture, poetry, novels, plays, and the cacophony that passes for music, and wonder what horrible thing ailed people back then.

P.S.) Staring at the enlargement (click to see it) of Newman's First Station, I have to admit to seeing a lot more in it than I first did. Maybe it's even theologically profound. MAYBE.


Anonymous said...

Ann Lamott has a very moving essay about her experience with Rothko's work--just to offer a little context, in the first sections of the essay she speaks about her sense of emotional displacement (from travel to Houston, from anxiety about her romantic relationship, and from having tried for a long time to push aside the emotions regarding the loss of her father) and then she describes her visit to the Rothko Chapel:

"But right at the point when I was feeling my most wild and mentally ill, we ended up at Houston's Mark Rothko Chapel. It is a small, ecumenical sanctuary designed by the great abstract expressionist, and it is a deeply sacred place; and it is very, very quiet. The man I love said it was like being inside the mind of someone whose eyes are closed while they're praying. There are giant Rothko canvasses on the walls, purple so dark that they almost seem black, and what at first seems flat, if intense, color soon appears to have images — Jesus, cave paintings — pushing through. It is one of the most exquisitely peaceful places I have ever been in my life. The silence was pristine, primordial.

Maybe silence springs from the same place in the universe where they — God? The Keebler elves? — make space and breath and appreciation. I felt in the chapel that I was resting in those places, resting in a kind of hammock; and that turned out to be my mistake. Because it turned out something was gaining on me, and it caught me there in all that stillness.

The man I love got up to go look at the art in the nearby museum, and I sat there for a few minutes trying to self-will him into coming back and keeping me company. "Come back!" I wanted to cry. "Don't go!" as if he were leaving on a freighter for Greenland, or crossing over from coma to death. I felt a terrible anxiety, a desire to sew myself to his pant leg so he would never leave, but I watched him walk away.

It was as quiet as a tomb in there, as quiet as outer space. I felt very agitated, like you would if someone put you in a sensory deprivation chamber after you'd had way too much caffeine. And then this thing started pushing out through me, from the same place where the Jesus thing and the cave painting thing were pushing out from. And I suddenly understood that the man I love WAS going to come back, but that he was never going to be able to come back enough because I finally got — I can hardly say it out loud — that my dad was dead.

I understood this in that moment, as if for the first time.

I understood it as if the woman at the front desk had handed me a phone, with someone on the other end notifying me out of the blue that my father had just died. It was so terrible, so stark and obviously true, that I felt like I might start keening. But I was suddenly no longer alone — a younger man came into the chapel just then, and sat down on the pillows provided for meditation. He closed his eyes, and crossed his long long legs in a sort of reform lotus position. I wanted to shake him roughly on the shoulder and tell him my father had just died. But I sat there breathing, totally stunned.

Now, some of you who have read my books know that my father actually died in l979, when I was 25, in our little family cabin on the Pacific coast, of brain cancer. He had brain cancer, and over a two-year period, he was transformed from a tall handsome brilliant writer — funny, political, musically devout if not gifted to a husk — to the sickest a person can be and still be alive. It was the end of the world; Nagasaki meets Old Yeller. My brothers and I and our friends took care of him. Luckily we were all still drinking at the time. We stuck together, and that was pretty great, to be together with my brothers in something so huge and devastating and beautiful. It was at once the worst possible death, for someone so young and cerebral as he; but also maybe the best possible death, to have lived with such love and commitment for your kids, then when you became sick, your kids want to do for you what you'd done for them so many years before.

I wrote a book about it, about my father's illness, where everything turned out a lot better than it did in real life, and it looks at the end of the book like he is going to live forever. I believed that he was immortalized in this book, by my having written it, and sold a draft while my father was still well enough to understand this news. It brought him great joy and pride as his life wound down to know I had found a niche in the publishing world.

He stopped breathing one night at our cabin after a couple of months in a coma. It was just about the most amazing thing I've ever seen, second only to the first glimpse of my newborn son. My father, my handsome father! I don't think I would have been more surprised if he'd suddenly changed races before my very eyes.

I cried a lot over the years, but I was always drunk or hungover, always on the way to one of those two states. Then I got all these books published, including the one where it looks like my dad is going to live forever, and along the way I had millions of social drinks, lots of drugs and men, a little fame, endless distractions and a lot of anesthesia. I'd cry in bars about losing my dad, but I'd also cry about having had to have our dog Lllewelyn put to sleep when I was l2. I walked into saloons in North Beach, feeling dewy with emotion, and people would say to each other, "Don't get her started on her father, or the dog."

Then I got sober and I started coming back to life, but early sobriety was like being someone with frostbitten limbs, who begins to feel real tingling in the fingers and toes, the kind of tingling where you wouldn't think, "Oh, wow, this is GREAT" Where instead, you'd look around very quietly, and think, "Uhhhh-oh." Then three years into sobriety, right when some serious thawing was underway, I got pregnant. My dad had been dead ten years when my son was born. And right around the time when I first started to feel pierced by the desire for my father and son to know each other, my best friend got sick. Two years later she died; and by then my dad had been dead for l3 years and my son was three and I was old and tired and had bigger fish to fry.

It was pretty confusing. The men with whom I was involved, whom I collectively always referred to as the police line-up of boyfriends, occasionally wondered out loud if some of my ferocious disappointment in them might really be old, unresolved dad stuff, and I would explain very nicely that, NO, I didn't have them mixed up with my father, because he was tall and handsome and kind, while they in fact were repellent, perhaps even vaguely Satanic.

And I always sort of assumed that one day I would really GET that my dad had died, but I assumed this with the same lack of urgency with which I believed that one day I would take up a musical instrument. I was not ready for it to happen, alone with a strange man meditating on the floor 20 feet away from me; was not ready to release my father's body bag to the proper authorities. But this is in fact what happened.

I kept looking around the chapel, at the sense of Jesus pushing through the purple-black canvas, the feel of cave paintings pushing through all that flat color, the sense of rhythmic labor. I felt like I was going to be crying for awhile, which proved to be true, and I felt like something inside me was becoming more permeable. The light in the Rothko Chapel was very beautiful, and the face of the man who was meditating was soft and rosy, like he was giving off the chapel's light. The thing about light is that it really isn't yours; it's what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness — if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself. The young man's legs were impossibly long and yet he continued to sit crosslegged, silent. I thought about my father's legs. My father had very long legs, too, and he loved to hike. I tried very hard to keep up with him when I was a child. That's how come I naturally walk so fast, and why I can walk forever."

And more about being moved by art and particularly by Rothko--from somebody's blog--

"Why do we cry at weddings or blush when unexpectedly praised in public? Part of the weirdness seems to lie in the outward manifestation of an internal feeling: the body exposes a mental state. And one can often be surprised by one's inability to control the exposure of what feels like a private experience. This may well be culturally and historically specific.

According to Tom Lutz's Crying (1999), the earliest written record of tears being shed is to be found on Canaanite clay tablets dating from the 14th century BC. These give us a picture of an ancient ritual in pre-Hebrew Canaan in which an entire tribe would remove themselves to the desert each spring to cry. The ritual lasted for several days and what began as moaning slowly became whimpering, then wailing, before arriving at full-blown hysterics and laughter. This then dissolved into giggles, at which point the participants were ready to resume everyday life.

But it isn't just the visible envelope of the emotion that seems to be out of control. It also applies to the interior agitation, which is at the core of any emotion, and which appears to be beyond conscious control. This involuntary aspect raises the question of whether or not art works prompt emotive states, and this is what James Elkins has investigated.

Elkins, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, has written a number of books on the visual arts, and is clearly an informed and sympathetic viewer. The New York Review of Books ran a small ad asking anyone who had cried in front of paintings to write to Elkins. He collected the responses (some of which appear in an appendix to the present book) and began reflecting on his own history of responding to art. He admits to never having cried in front of a painting - the closest he has come was when, at 13 or 14, he frequently visited the Frick Collection in New York and became mesmerised by Giovanni Bellini's St Francis in Ecstasy. There are touching pages describing the power of this image (some beautiful passages on its chromatic registers) and the fascination the young Elkins developed for the painting. But not a tear in sight.

Elkins decided to visit the Rothko Chapel in Houston, since, although "there is no survey to prove it ... it is likely that the majority of people who have wept over 20th-century paintings have done so in front of Rothko's". He booked a flight and went to see the octagonal room, which is dedicated as an interfaith church in a quiet neighbourhood of the city. The "paintings looked worn and flat and dull - like pots scrubbed too hard with steel wool. They were weak and frail, like that dusty black fabric that is stretched over old audio speakers." Boredom was one of his initial responses and after some time inspecting the large canvases he felt great fatigue.

The next morning he decided to talk to a number of the attendants and guards, some of whom had been at the chapel for a decade or more, and he also read through the visitors' books the chapel has kept since it was dedicated in 1972, which include more than 5000 entries. As one might expect, the comments he first noticed chimed with his own experience of being unmoved by the paintings, but soon enough he discovered evidence for his lachrymose theory. Many of the most deeply felt visits were recorded in very brief statements: "Once more I am moved - to tears"; "A religious experience that moves one to tears". Some aim for a more poetic touch: "Tears, a liquid embrace."

Elkins points out that Rothko's paintings are almost unique in 20th-century art in attempting to convey, or indeed construct, private religious experience. Rothko commented in 1957: "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them." And, according to Elkins, people have been weeping in galleries and museums ever since, when confronted by these darkly moving paintings."

I think that the Rothko pieces convey deep, raw, wordless emotion--interior states--
does this help at all?

Anonymous God Blogger

Anonymous said...

P.S. I think it helps to see the Rothko up close in person. But if it doesn't move you, it doesn't move you! It didn't move the author James Elkins, either, even though he spent a big chunk of his book recounting how it had moved other people! As they say, "Your mileage may vary," and if so, more power to you!

Anonymous God Blogger

orrologion said...

Modern art such as this is usually created with another piece, a school, another artist or prevailing -ism in mind.

For instance, in iconography I once heard that there was a regular movement between 'more realistic, proportional figures and a spiritualized elongation of figures. Rublev represents more the latter, the icon of Christ Pantocrator on Sinai the former. The move from one to the other is usually comment against the overemphasis of the other by contemporaries. The saints are too 'fleshy', so we 'idealize' their figures; the saints are too ethereal and 'unreal', let's make them more 'realistic'. This is all within the school and canon of Orthodox iconography.

Within modern art much the same can and has taken place. Picasso began as a typical, realistic painter of portraits and landscapes. The overemphasis on either Romantic realism or light and fluffy Impressionism drove him to consider other ways to 'see' - especially in light of the modern discoveries shaking the world at the time (Darwin, Freud, Einstein).

A documentary on Chuck Close (Ovation is a wonderful cable channel, if you get it) helped to explain this. He was studying art at the height of abstract expressionism, which was a protest against realism and other overly thought out -isms in art such as cubism. It was for immediacy, a return to the basic building blocks of art (color, texture, contrast) in an effort to effect the viewer emotionally, sensorily. The Rothko you posted is like this. Chuck Close, however, did the most dramatic thing possible, at the time: he did a realistic portrait. His most famous is his portrait of the composer Phillip Glass and his self-portrait. It's a giant, giant canvas with only Phillip's face. This was a revolutionary change in the perception of what 'serious art' could be, at that time.

They are often playing with our perceptions and expectations, both visual and cultural. They are challenging conventions, even conventions of conventionlessness. It is quite radical. It also plays to and reflects our modern obsession with 'fashion' and the 'new', our moorlessness and traditionlessness. You are right that our art will say something quite profound about our values, ourselves in the 20th Century. All art does this.

I will note one other thing that is interesting about Pollock. In mathematics' discovery of fractal geometry as the mathematical basis of so much in nature, someone did an analysis of Pollock's paintings and found that his seemingly random splattering of paint perfectly represented fractal geometry - he mimicked the most complex formulae undergirding nature nature, by hand (formulae they weren't even able to discover until computers became fast enough to crunch the millions of computations required to 'see' what they would create). To me, this is akin to the famous Renaissance artist's Euclidean proof of his own genius: he draw a perfect circle freehand. (I think it was Michaelangelo).

Personally, one of my favorite pieces of modern art is the famous 'found art' urinal by Duchamp. The way it is presented (in a museum, without urine, not the right side up) helps you to see the beauty of the design, the craftsmanship; it is an aesthetically beautiful object, but it is so easily overlooked and 'mistreated'. That also says something about how we go through life and treat the things of this world - and yet the piece is easily derided and disregarded as so much BS.

I have also often found that seeing reproductions of modern art in books or online does not do the pieces justice. I never liked Picasso or Pollock until I saw the originals at MoMA in NYC.

orrologion said...

Thanks for that selection from Ann Lamott. Beautiful. Ditto, also, to the variations of 'mileage' one gets. Any discussion of art and its power, value, etc. is like describing an old flame to someone who never knew them, or why you love your spouse, why they are beautiful, why rather uninteresting tidbits and idiosyncrasies are endearing. It's all subjective.

Grace said...

Here is something we agree on!

-C said...

I might agree with you about these pieces - I don't really get them. It seems that I often come across art that I don't understand - but it usually convicts me for my lack of understanding.

But because I don't understand them doesn't render them invalid, I don't think. They will speak clearly to others.

Tony-Allen said...

I think the problem is a lot of people look at Modern Art with traditional art in mind. Therefore, they look for something tangible. A Lady Butler piece, with identifiable characters, personalities, items, and solid objects, makes a lot more sense than a Kandinsky piece with floating orbs of color.

You have to therefore keep in mind that many art styles in the last 100 years or so were based on concepts rather than realistic reinterpretation. Italian Futurism, for example, is based on dynamism and motion, hence you'll find shapes intermingled with repeated patterns meant to convey action. Rayonism is likewise meant to interpret something piercing the scene.

The goals of expressionism and abstraction are easily identifiable if you understand artistic concepts such as color, composition, the conflict between positive and negative space, etc. Rothko, for example, dealt with emotional reactions from different colors, whereas Pollock dealt with space and color. Other artists find their artwork a more personal matter: Russian suprematists, for example, would spend hours painting a plain-colored square inside another plain-colored square because they found it both meditative and spiritual at the same time.

I'm actually a large fan of modern art because I'm interested in how the artist deals with these ideas and applies them. If people don't like them, however, I might suggest they get into Dada artists such as Marcel Duchamp. These men and women would often mock modern art while performing art themselves: Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase", for example, is a major satire of cubism and expressionism.