Title: Three Imaginary Pieces
Description: STL #3: On Museum Going
Date: 16 July 2003
On Saturday, I went to an exhibit at the Austin Museum of Art called “Embracing the Present: The UBS Art Collection,” which features works from what was once the Paine Webber corporate art collection. If the pamphlet blurbings are honest, the former chairman started buying contemporary art to display at their Manhattan offices in order to convey to employees a company ethos of risk-taking and innovation. It’s grown to one of the most important corporate collections in the world, and holdings have recently been touring smaller museums. (I believe the last stop was Ft. Lauderdale; it's on the way to Phoenix.) I like to visit museums, and go several times a year, but I have a fundamental problem with them. Because I have such a poor memory, I don’t take much away from them. It takes repeated trips for me to really grasp a painting or sculpture, and I don't think I'm that unusual in this respect. For most of us, museum-going is a type of tourism (occasional and distracted, kind of like my reviews.) I have lived near enough Seattle’s Frye Museum to learn their permanent collection, but it takes time and repeated entry fees to really "read" a painting. I like books because I can own them, in more than one sense. I'm not in the position to physically own art, so frequently I’m left with imaginary works in my mind, partial reconstructions mixed with incorrect memories and constantly changing inventions. Even today, five days after the visit, I have only sketchy recollection of my favorite pieces in the UBS collection.
The first of these I want to talk about is a painting called “Chester’s Gambit” by Eric Fischl. I start with this painting because it made my own interpretive protocols apparent to me. The painting is not reproduced on his website or anywhere else I can find, so let me describe it to you, best as I recall. In the bottom right corner is a horse’s head of some kind (sculpted, it seems), a headless female torso (sculpted again), and an ancient bust of a bearded king. In the opposite corner, or a little out toward the center, are four people, looking at us: a young woman in a white gown, a middle-aged woman in simple clothes holding a baby with a paper crown, and a middle-aged man in a business suit who seems the very likeness of prosperity. There's yet another statue farther back in the corner, I think. The first thing I do with a representational painting, without thinking about it, is imagine the narrative implied by the scene. Is the woman a bride? Is the man her father, is she a trophy wife? If the latter, is the woman the maid? And to whom does the child belong? There are no answers to these questions, but in searching for clues you eventually start to consider the form of the painting. Our perspective is pushed into the corner of the room, looking over the sculptures. The horse head is strangely prominent. The horse suggests a knight in chess, and the moving at right angles, this horse might endanger either the queen in white or protect the king's bust. Is the painting simply an endgame? The dominant hue is a yellowish bronze, suggesting lateness in the day, though I can’t remember if there’s a window for the light to flow through. The game element doesn’t overwrite the potential narrative, but provides an nice route to thinking about form.
The next work I am re-imagining is a painting (of sorts) by David Salle, though I can’t remember the title. It’s actually a two part work, consisting of an oil-painting of a nude woman sitting on a chair, her legs pulled up under her on the seat, looking off toward the other half of the work: a shallow metal box painted with black house paint and perforated with a regular series of baseball-sized holes. Why this work sticks in my mind I’m not sure. There’s a nice color contrast between the pale green of the painting and the industrial black, sure. It let’s you use the words “juxtaposition” and “mixed-media” in one breath, which is always fun. Maybe what I like how it invokes the potential of art. It looks from the transparent to the impenetrable. I would like to go back to look at this work some more, but if I don't make it before the show leaves, I may never see it again.
Finally, a work I can remember the name of nor the artist’s name. It’s a sequence of small photographs (maybe two-inch square) of the interior of a studio: a chair by the window, a drafting table, maybe a telescoping lamp on the lip of the table. Each photo is labeled for a minute of the day, and the 60 photos of each hour are collected in a single frame. The hour/frames are hung eight across, in three rows, filling the wall of a room. Backing up far enough to take in the entire work, I was struck by the variation of color. Asymmetric swathes of yellow electric light bracket the sequence, which yield to whitening and darkening patterns of light and dark. It all sounds very mechanical, I know, and in fact the pictures must have been taken mechanically. Yet its effect, in suggesting the cumulative beauty latent moments of stillness, in creating complexity and scope out of simplicity and smallness, in not captured in mere description. And let me just say that in this one case at least I am sure I am not making that up.
The problem I have with museums is what they represent: the fact that art isn’t diffused through society. Few of us work in offices with non-kitsch, to say nothing of innovative work. Sadly, art is not an everyday thing--it's something you make an appointment with.
Books: Cheever (still); Best American Poetry 2002 (ed. Creeley) Appointment in Samarra; Dance of the Intellect by Perloff; Radiant Textuality by McGann
Music: revisiting Sonic Youth from 87-92 or so
Film/Video: My So-Called Life, Angel, Bamboozled