The imagination is the vehicle of sensibility. Transported by imagination we attain life, life itself, which is absolute art.
What are your thoughts on Andy Warhol?
I kid, I kid. He never wanted you to have any thoughts on him. Seriously. He was completely and totally vapid. As empty as empty comes. But that was the point.
Who’s Andy Warhol? Thank you for asking, thank fuck, for asking. He’s that guy who painted the picture of the Campbell’s soup can. You may remember him more recently as the weirdo Burger King showed eating a hamburger in total silence during one of this year’s Superbowl ads. Burger King paid $5.25 mil for it. Andy’s dead, by the way, so they didn’t actually pay him. They paid his foundation. I know, I’m a little late the party. The Superbowl was already, like, 6 years ago.
Andy’s famous for saying that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, or rather, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” See, you know who he is, kinda. So what do you think? Are you still waiting for your 15 minutes? Are you wondering why you didn’t get famous for painting a picture of the Campbell’s soup can? I sound like a hater, right?
Once, Andy painted some canvases with a copper-based paint, then he invited a bunch of his famous friends over to piss on them (one of which might have been Madonna). Want to know how much one of those canvases sells for now? You don’t wanna know. Millions.
Anyway, here’s the part where I must, begrudgingly, tell you why he is so profoundly important to the art historical cannon. Andy is inarguably, and unequivocally, the father of the Pop Art movement. By romanticising an object as mundane as a can of soup, and by imbuing it with the aura of a real and true objet d’art Andy made it art. Yes, your two your old could do the same, however, Andy got there first, he did it better and he didn’t just do it with soup. He did it with an electric chair called “Ol’ Sparky”, with newspaper articles and with car crashes, with Elvis in a classic stick-em-up pose and with Mao Zedong, with the iconic photograph of a bloodied Jackie O as she watched Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as president on Air Force One. Andy is as prolific as his media is varied, from painting to film to print and back. He is a force majeure and there is simply no denying.
I think he’s lost his luster. Like they do with Disney movies, it’s time to put him back in the vault. His time is up and now, frankly, I’m bored. Andy is everywhere. He made a cameo in Austin Powers, and once on the Simpsons; maybe next they’ll carve his likeness on the moon.
Isn’t it true that distance makes the heart grow fonder? Or that rarity makes the diamond more valuable? It’s obvious, for the health of Andy’s market, which is positively sodden with his artwork, and for its longevity, that we should make him a little more scarce. I.e. put him in the vault; or whatever that artworld equivalent of the vault is. I’ll have to come up with that one myself, I suppose. Buried in an ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb seems like a good comparable.
Goodbye, but for 15 minutes . . .
There is something about the tactile surface of a painting that I love. Something so tangible and sexy in the way paint is built up, layered, made to stand out from its surface, as if it cannot be contained within the boundaries of two dimensional space. It feels almost like watching the artist work in front of you, watching them make decisions and marks and erasures, watching their arm arc to create a shape, it is positively intimate. Impasto. Im-PAS-to. Im-pas-TO. IM-pas-to. Even the word feels bouncy, like bubblegum in my mouth, like taffy-pulling, like peaks of whipped cream. That’s what that is called, the paint that has physical shape in which brushstrokes and palette knife scratches are visible. The word “impasto” is derived from the Italian word for “paste”, you get the idea. The Italians got it right.
I think this appreciation has a great deal to do with the fact that I am utterly incapable of putting brush to canvas and creating anything I like more than the blank, unmarked canvas itself. It’s true. I agonize over every brushstroke, dislike every gesture, am intrinsically unsuited to painting a picture. My inability to experiment, to get out of my own way and out of my own head has engendered within me an awe of those who are able.
I stumbled–I like the idea of stumbling, I feel like that’s how I learn about a number of artists these days, by forming no set itinerary or intention and just wandering until I literally trip on something that makes me pause–on Victoria Morton’s work at an art fair last year and immediately fell for her brushwork and for the large swaths and washes of rich color laid to suggest volume and shape. Some pictures are geometric, unstudied and unpracticed, others bear faint hints of figures and pointilist dots. I simultaneously admire and envy her ease with a brush.
Check out some of my favorites below, and be sure to visit her Insta for the latest. Victoria Morton is currently represented by Sadie Coles HQ in London.
I stopped reading the news.
I stopped checking Facebook. I asked my boyfriend to please stop with his near-constant updates of politics, shootings, mass casualty events. I can’t abide it anymore.
There’s too much sadness, too much madness, too much hatefulness for me to handle anymore. In a word, I am sad that kindness has been so neglected of late. Does anyone else feel this way? I’m not interested in preaching things about “loving thy neighbor”, in fact, I believe–as the reality of living in apartments in New York City has taught me–it’s completely acceptable to not love your neighbor at all. However, while not loving them, it’s still important to be decent to them.
Self-care is a thing now, do you guys know what that means? I just learned about it; you know that thing you do when you treat yourself to a donut, or maybe you spend another 10 minutes in the shower and just let the water stream down your face, or maybe it means you run and run and run. Whatever it means to you, it means you’ve taken a moment out of the world to take care of you. For me, it’s taking a nap, getting a pedicure, cooking. It’s kittens. And dogs. I’ve turned off all social media except for Instagram, where I seek out adorable videos of kittens losing their minds to the twitching of a string or dogs who practice CPR on their human handlers–the explore/discover feature has been really helpful in this endeavor. I try to get lost in these adorable feeds when things start to get me down. Recently, I started following a Great Dane named Kernel. His owner calls him “a clumsy lap cow”, which is all you really need to know, and while I watch his antics (no, for real, antics; this is a word I never use) I can ignore how truly frightening the world is becoming. I think that’s why Lil Bub, and Doug the Pug, and Juniper the Happiest Fox have enough followers to rival even the most popular of Kardashians (ugh, I don’t follow them). They make people happy.
Back in the day, pre-Instagram and Facebook, pre-cellphone, even, one of my all-time favorites, Keith Haring, was decorating New York with images of glowing babies and dancing dogs, friends holding hands and high-kicking and mothers holding babies, alien spaceships and hearts. So very many hearts. Haring was an artist who staunchly believed in making artwork accessible to everyone. He didn’t reserve his work for the ultra-rarefied world of the super wealthy, but also for children whose help he enlisted to paint murals and for whom he hosted art-making workshops. Haring recognized the power of these simplified images as a vehicle for happiness. Before I was using puppies on the internet as a serotonin-lift, he was leaving them on street corners and in subway stations in an attempt to completely subvert the traditional means of viewing artwork. Haring made an effort to create images that were simple and powerful at the same time, images which would mean something to any viewer, no matter the language they spoke or the lives they led–it was a phenomenon, a powerful phenomenon that gave the whole world entry to a museum or to a gallery through which they already had spent their entire lives moving.
The impulse to seek out what makes one happy isn’t a new development. Human beings are predisposed toward happiness. The only thing that’s changed is the means by which we access those things. Keith Haring painted murals and drew on subway advertisements, we use the internet and instagram.
If you happen to be in Japan, Haring has a show up at the Nakamura Collection in Kobuchizawa, for another two months. If you’re in New York, like I am, you can see his mural, Crack is Whack, along the FDR and in Harlem River Park where its lived since he painted it in 1986. For more info always, check out his foundation HERE.
When I picture the American Southwest I envision wide open expanses of scrub, interrupted occasionally by the odd canyon and accompanying rock formations, cacti and tumbleweed, bleached cow skulls and dessert roses. I envision all of the stereotypical dessert tropes, Wile E. Coyote hiding under a flat-topped mesa isn’t far off in the background. There are a number of things that have informed my impression of the Southwest–the old Roadrunner cartoons, photographs of my mother’s, taken long before my sister and I were born, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
I discovered Georgia at the Art Institute of Chicago. It truly felt like a discovery to me, because she was displayed above a somewhat forgotten staircase. To find her, one must first pass through many halls of Impressionism where Claude Monet’s world famous Water Lily paintings live, and through lots of rooms of dusty and tortured European depictions of “Christ on the Cross”; look for the bathrooms and there you’ll find her. Indeed, finding the piece is a journey, arriving at it akin to reaching a far off destination. Statistics say that it would take over 100 days, spending a mere 30 seconds with each artwork on view, to see every single thing at the Louvre in Paris. The Art Institute is a smaller museum, however, you can apply the same basic premise to its collections of work displayed. I had been to the Art Institute a number of times–starting at age eight–before coming across the piece when I was 12, which honestly feels a little unfair to Georgia, who donated it to the museum in 1983. Surely she could not have intended for it to be all but abandoned over a staircase when she gifted the work. Sky Above Clouds IV (1965) sprawls 24 feet wide and hangs 10 feet above your head over a marble staircase deep in the museum’s recesses. Thankfully, the stair has a skylight which lends the enormous canvas a subtle glow, all the same though the magnificent piece feels misplaced in its corner of the massive Art Institute.
I grew up in a household that emphasized the importance of art in everyday life. Both of my parents were creatives–my mother a commercial interior designer and my father an architect, who turned to artists to inspire their work. I was exposed to every kind of art possible at a young age, and I credit my parents with my love for art today. The feeling of “happening” upon Georgia’s painting in a stairwell is familiar because that is how much of her artwork made me feel; like I’d found something truly mythical, that spoke to my very soul. I understand how ironic that feeling is now, knowing what I do about Georgia’s work, her life, her fame–but as a child, I had no way of understanding that Georgia was not simply painting for me, and for me alone. When I looked at a painting of two calla lilies against a white background I could feel the velvet of their petals and I could smell the green of their stems. This was the first time in my life that I would reconcile a painted picture with my experiences, with my life. When I looked at that painting I was not only seeing the image on the page but also the vase of white calla lilies my mother had kept in her bathroom. For the first time, art was personal.
I’ve lived in New York for a number of years now, as such, I have a number of celebrity sightings under my belt. This is not boastful, it’s honest. Many, many actors call New York home, and many film here constantly. My initial curiosity at a Haddad’s film truck has turned to utter exasperation because they’ve blocked the whole goddamn street and I am stuck behind it in a cab with the meter ticking ever higher, my patience threading ever leaner, and my appointment growing ever more tardy. However, I was recently at a restaurant with a good friend when I noticed that the group sitting at the next table included Jake Gyllenhaal. I am no fan girl, but part of my aching, teenage heart still beats and so when I saw his dreamy blue eyes, I nearly swooned. I was thoroughly starstruck.
Rewind about 20 years to when I first saw Sky Above Clouds IV. Apply the same feeling of breathlessness, of admiration, of disbelief at finding something so extraordinary in a situation as ordinary as attending a museum, and that is exactly how I felt. I’m an art history nerd, I am more commonly starstruck by paintings I have studied extensively and admired from afar than I am by real celebrities. My visit to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495-1498) in Milan is the same as the next person’s chance encounter with Robert De Niro, or insert-your-favorite-celeb-here.
Take a look at Georgia’s depiction of soaring above the clouds and try to replicate that sensation for yourself. Imagine, next time you are in an airplane, that you are not trapped in a tin can that seems to defy physics and all logic, that your neighbor in the next row over is not attempting to cough up their left lung, and that you have more than six inches of personal space. Imagine, for a moment, the electric jolt that runs from wrist to fingertip when you are well and truly thrilled by something unexpected. Imagine that freedom.
Some years ago I suffered a devastating loss from which I thought I might never recover.
For a moment, the whole world stopped spinning on its axis, nothing made sense, everything lost its color, its taste, and I found that those things that had once mattered could not be borne. I found myself well and truly lost.
Enter Art is a Beating Drum . . .
I don't recall how, but I came across Bill Viola, described alternately as "a pioneer in the field of video-art" and as "one of today's leading contemporary artists". Shooting single channel videos that place emphasis on the human condition and the attendant emotions, Viola's videos are moving homages to life itself. For me, Viola encapsulated my grief, and found a way to express it meaningfully, more so than I felt I was capable at the time. He measured it, diagnosed it, and categorized it with little more than silence and a simple gesture.
I began to understand more fully than ever before that art could be the balm to heal my wounds. The literal and metaphysical salve for the feelings and emotions with which I continued to struggle. Art was the catalyst and antagonist that enabled me to feel fury and joy, despondence and hilarity. Plainly, it kept me company.
The most powerful examples gave me actual, physical and visceral feelings; they punched me in the gut, shook me from my stupor, and reminded me that like a rhythmic drumming my heart beat. I breathed. I lived.
Art is a Beating Drum is the truest expression of what that felt like for me. In the moments where I had forgotten how to breathe, and to rejoice, and to love, and to cry; art reminded me, like the ever present drumbeat of my heart. Art connected the disparate parts of me to each other and continues to do so. It is both primal and involuntary. So, Art is a Beating Drum was born to express and record those instance where I felt most keenly. To keep those instances alive and safe long after they had passed.
And to perhaps share them. . .
Graffiti has an adverse effect on the quality of life in various communities in the City of New York, creating an impression of disorder and chaos; and graffiti vandalism can be a precursor to more serious acts of crime and violence; and the damage caused by graffiti-related vandalism depreciates the value of the property it defaces and costs the City and property owners millions of dollars in clean-up expenses each year. - The Mayor of the City of New York’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force Executive Order
Recently, New York was graced by Banksy’s spray can. Banksy, tagger of international acclaim, world-renowned prankster, critic of government, and possibly, graffiti’s biggest sell-out, made his secret way to New York, broke the law, and left just as quickly as he came. In his wake, a 70-foot long mural depicting 365 hash marks and a portrait of Turkish artist, Zehra Dogan. Near the ground on the wall’s far right corner the phrase, “Free Zehra Dogan”.
Many are already familiar with Banksy’s work, but may not yet know it. Banksy, an alter ego to an as yet, anonymous English artist, has traveled the world and left a trail of oftentimes critical, sometimes irreverent, always thought-provoking imagery in his wake. He is best known for a spare style of artwork made using stencils and spray paint. He is, inarguably, the world’s most recognizable street artist and graffiti writer. Banksy is one of the first graffiti artists to have made the “successful” transition from street to gallery where his artworks have sold for as much as $1,000,000. As such, his imagery has transcended the art world in a way that very few others before him have–Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers–and can be found on anything from sneakers to posters, stickers to key chains. He has inspired legions of copycats and enraged scores of fellow graffiti writers. The long and short of it is that Banksy is notorious and has brought attention to artwork and to the art world that they are otherwise often not afforded.
I can’t recall what exactly drew me to street art, nor when I first experienced it. I do vividly remember documenting it on a trip to Paris when I was 16. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I couldn’t stop stopping for it, staring at it, admiring it. Growing up in Chicago I had always had experience with graffiti–tagging, scrawls written on the side of buildings that usually were all but indecipherable to me–but I had never known that graffiti could be art in its own right. I had no idea that it could extend beyond tags, nor that people would spend their time creating a piece of artwork worthy of preservation and protection outside, on the streets, with no guarantee of its future. I was stunned. Was I the only one to notice? Paris is a lot like New York in that its streets swarm with people unconscious of one another and of their surroundings, they are perpetually in a hurry. When I stopped to look at a piece people looked at me like the oddity, the tourist stopping in the middle of her tracks on the sidewalk, rather than at the extraordinary work I felt like I had uncovered.
Herein lies graffiti’s hidden virtue. Having spent years working in and out of galleries I recognize their tendency to isolate. Galleries sell commodities; many would argue that artwork is not intrinsic to human survival the way that food, clean water, and shelter is (I would argue otherwise, but I understand the rationale). Therefore, a gallery represents an already inaccessible and unnecessary expense that few can justify. Galleries serve the bourgeoisie, a class that invites scorn from those who do not belong. As such, they impart an aura of unattainability. Of hostility and hauteur, a place where protocol and behavior is not inherently obvious. All of this falls away when artwork is introduced to the streets where it is afforded new visibility.
On the Bowery Wall, located in downtown Manhattan on Houston street, Banksy has chosen to use his visibility for good. Just over a year ago Turkish artist Zehra Dogan was sentenced to two years, nine months, and twenty-two days imprisonment for painting and sharing an image of a Kurdish town, Nusaybin, decimated by the Turkish government’s bombs. Banksy’s image bears 365 hash marks, signifying the time she has spent imprisoned for exercising one of her basic human rights: free speech. The hash marks become prison bars, behind which Banksy has painted a portrait of Dogan; the final bar becomes a pencil, a simplified signal of the “crime” she has committed. Before visiting the wall myself I had never heard of Dogan, had never heard of the injustice she currently suffers. As soon as I got home, I researched her and found that in addition to being an artist, Dogan is a decorated journalist and a champion of women’s rights in Turkey. She hardly fits the criminal archetype. Banksy's done it. Awareness begins with a single person, and by having brought Dogan's story to me he has achieved his unspoken goal. And here, I further the process, by bringing Dogan's story to you.
Free Zehra Dogan.
Find additional information and resources HERE.
When I was a child I had a recurrent dream. I must have been very young, because I remember still feeling that adults were very big and I was very small. I don't recall much of the dream only that the adults in it used to appear with hugely distorted proportions–pin-sized heads on normal-sized, torsos swinging colossal arms around. I can clearly remember the perspective from which I viewed them as well; I was always looking up at them, as if from a bed, and they, in turn, seemed to peer down at me. I don’t recall being afraid, but I don’t think that I was amused either, just terribly confused at the “grownups'” very apparent disfiguration that no one other than myself appeared to notice.
When I discovered Louise Bonnet (b. 1970, Geneva) and her paintings, I was at first thoroughly charmed by them. I had been wandering through an art fair for the better part of the day and was beginning to feel “art sick”. Namely, I was hot, hungry, feeling completely overstimulated by the barrage of images and completely underwhelmed by their quality, and I was getting very, very bored. Simply put, I was thisclose to calling it quits. However, a booth bearing a single painting of Bonnet’s caught my eye. The painting, The Magician (2017), depicts a figure with comically overlarge and crazily unbalanced features, shrouded by a curtain of their own hair, stretching a piece of rope between two fingers. The image is fairly simplistic, but as I spent more time with it the veil of the painting’s humor began to fall away; behind it I found a representation of those same feelings I experienced in my childhood dreams. I felt neither fear nor amusement, horror nor entertainment, but prudent recognition of something I barely recognized myself. This is the space in which I believe art’s very essence lies, in the ability to speak to you or to a condition or to an experience in ways where speech falls short. The messaging behind an artwork does not itself need to be enlightening in order to succeed, it need only to speak to its viewer in a manner that could otherwise not be communicated.
Bonnet currently shows with Nino Mier Gallery in LA where an exhibition of her new work opens March 24.
. . I was kicked out of MoMA.
For those of you not familiar, the acronym MoMA stands for one of New York’s most revered contemporary art museums, the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA is truly one of the foremost institutions for contemporary art past, present, and future. It is home to one of the world’s most impressive permanent collections and to many, many exhibitions known for pushing boundaries, for championing artists, and for provoking thought and discussion. It’s also one of New York’s most crowded, suffocating, tourist-rife (I know, tourists make the world go ‘round, I know), blockbuster museums–in every sense of the word, does anyone remember their Tim Burton exhibition from a few years back?–in the world. As such, excursions to the museum must be carefully planned and strategized in order to maximize experience and minimize frustration. It is sometimes exhausting.
So, once upon a time I was kicked out.
Back when I was attending graduate school at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art we spent some time exploring artist intention. When an artist creates something, no matter how conceptual or polished or ambiguous, most, if not all artists, have an objective, an intention, as to how that piece is to be experienced. Some artists are very specific: “this painting is meant to evoke a feeling of awe, an experience of confusion, a sensation reminiscent of post-war America in South Dakota at 6:17pm.” Other artists prefer to leave interpretation entirely to their viewers, “there is no specific meaning attached to this piece, other than what you, a singular entity, experience of it.”
In December of 2009, Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, opened his first career-long retrospective at MoMA, no small feat. A solo exhibition at MoMA is a testament to an artist’s success, firmly cementing their place within the history of art. It is a platinum record, a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list, an olympic gold medal. Orozco’s work varies widely, from sculpture and performative work, to painting and found object assembly. His self-titled exhibition included the sculpture Mobile Matrix (2006), a real skeleton of a massive gray whale, excavated from Guerrero Negro in Baja, California, which he then covered over in thousands of concentric penciled circles. The exhibition also included manipulated currency, plane tickets, envelopes and more embellished with gold leaf and egg tempera. It included found objects representing readymade sculpture.
One such readymade, Empty Shoebox (1993), is simply that. A plain, white, unadorned and unlabeled shoebox, sitting in its lid, open and on the floor. Perhaps the exhibition’s most innocuous object, the shoebox provoked more simultaneous ire and admiration than any other piece in the show. MoMA is not a free museum, it charges admission, and nothing enrages people more than the belief that they have paid for something that did not deliver, or perhaps, did not exist in the first place. Something that is unchallenging, in effect, something that is ordinary. I understand, I too have been “victim” to artwork and exhibitions that appear to me to be an utter waste; a waste of time, resources, and ultimately attention. I have walked out of shows wondering what it was I was supposed to come away with, wondering what the actual point was.
Before I had learned anything about Orozco and his work, I likely would have felt the same bewilderment and disappointment at this unremarkable object placed within a context that insists all of its objects are extraordinary. In studying Orozco, I came to understand that the object, this shoebox, was not the actual artwork. The shoebox served as a vehicle for the concept of the artwork. On view here in Orozco’s retrospective is his concept, which is to say that the shoebox is not art, in and of itself. The shoebox serves to highlight the tension between viewed and viewer. We often walk into galleries and museums expecting to see ancient artifacts encased in glass, so precious that even a breath from our pedestrian mouths might serve to destroy the piece ever after. The shoebox is exactly that ancient artifact’s opposite. In fact, in a number of lectures given and conversations had, Orozco has stated that the shoebox’s purpose is to create confusion, to be picked up and puzzled over, to be moved, to be kicked across the room, to be ignored. Its rather obvious placement in a gallery in MoMA makes it impossible to ignore–really, what the hell is that thing doing there, is this a joke?
This is all very well and good, but to get to the point, I kicked the shoebox.
As a kid I was taught the “One Finger Rule”. My parents assumed that if I touched something with one finger I could not break it. When we went to museums or other people’s homes or stores, any place a kid could cause destruction, my sister and I would be sternly informed that the “One Finger Rule” was in effect and if we disobeyed, we would suffer consequences. Needless to say, I often disobeyed. Fast forward many years later, I still disobey. I am an adult with a very serious touching-that-thing-there-in-front-of-me-that-I-should-not-touch problem. I am the reason that museums and galleries employ those implacable, immovable guards. I should point out that I am well aware of the damage that can be caused by touching–chemical reactions caused by the oils of a fingerprint, microscopic shifts in pigment caused by a deliberate breath of air, aura removed by my brazen refusal to give the artwork its space–and of course, I care. My career in the art world has also taught me how to flout the rules safely (if, indeed, such a thing can exist). I know better, but I know how to do it right.
Back to the shoebox.
I read the transcript of one of those lectures Orozco had given in which he specifically tells his viewers to physically interact with his shoebox. In effect, Orozco had given me explicit permission to kick his shoebox. Walking into the exhibition and spying the shoebox felt like coming across an old familiar friend. “Shoebox! How are you?! It’s so great to see you!” I looked around the gallery for the usual “Do not Touch” signs and found that there were none. I tapped a guard on the shoulder and asked him if I might touch the shoebox and was instructed to, “read the sign”. I told him that there were no signs and asked him again. He again informed me to read the sign, which I again told him I could find no trace of. I asked him a third time if I could please touch the shoebox–by this point, his reluctance to answer the question should really have been answer enough for me, but I was being disagreeable and I admit it–and he did not answer me at all. I took this as my cue. I stepped back. I wound up. I soundly booted the box across the room. The aforementioned security guard appeared at my side and grabbed my upper arm and yanked me away from the box. He radioed to his other security guards, whom I assume radioed their superiors, while squeezing my arm and scolding me. I was indignant. “But I know that that is how the artist wants me to interact with his piece. SIR, I know this is what I’m supposed to do.” At this point, my entire class and several curious bystanders surrounded me and the flock of guards who were all furiously and alternately yelling at me and at each other. A classmate of mine, a former lawyer, began to try to defend me and my basic human rights by shouting legalese on top of the already rapidly escalating situation.
My story has already run much longer than it should have. I got carried away. Clearly, I got carried away–I was physically removed from the gallery and then from the museum by two security guards who each held one of my arms and unceremoniously escorted me outside. And that, friends, is how I got kicked out of out MoMA for “touching” the art.
I learned today that legendary sculptor, Claes Oldenburg, famous for his irreverence, his ability to subvert the mundane and elevate it, is an alumni of my high school. So is Nancy Reagan, by the way–I find the timing, like many moments in my life terribly, conveniently, coincidental.
I try to spend time each month wandering around New York's gallery neighborhoods to remain engaged with the goings on within, to scout for shows and talents that surprise me, to find artwork that speaks. Typically, I do not set an itinerary, I have no set plans, no specific places to be, I often happen on things, which is honestly the way I like to do things best.
Last week I happened upon Claes Oldenburg's Shelf Life at Pace Gallery. . . I know, I know, blockbuster artist, blockbuster gallery, how can one happen upon it, but I tend to keep my distance from blockbusters because I find that they offer little in the way of surprise. And I was surprised–surprised by how much I enjoyed the show and by the nostalgia that Oldenburg's shelf-sized assemblages awoke within me.
Growing up in Chicago I was fortunate to have had access to some of the world's foremost cultural institutions; chief among them the Art Institute of Chicago, which I insisted on visiting not because of the quality of the artwork therein, nor the importance of their private collection, but because of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Hidden away by the educational resources room and the bathrooms is a collection of 68 miniature rooms built and decorated to represent a series of different interiors of homes from the Western world.
The Thorne rooms kept me enthralled, no matter how many times I had been to see them, no matter how many minutes or hours I spent in their presence. I admit they still do today. I can recall pressing my nose to the glass behind which they were displayed to try and see into corners and behind doors, I could spend an entire day imagining the worlds contained within those tiny rooms–many of which are scarcely bigger than a foot in a half in any direction.
I felt twinges of that old curiosity walking through Oldenburg's Shelf Life. I delighted in the cameos made by some of his most famous piece–a mini version of his iconic Floor Burger, a minute and sketched version of the apple core sculpture that lives at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, a palm-sized, monochrome homage to the slice of blueberry pie that once sat on New York's Metropolitan Museum's roof. I was thrilled by their presence, a direct reference to the power of nostalgia as a tool to reach out and touch viewers through the vehicle of personal experience. Not unlike a paintbrush, or a blob of clay, nostalgia is a media unto itself that is powerful enough to connect viewers of all hearts and minds. It sounds crazy; how does a piece of crumpled up paper made to resemble a hamburger make one feel nostalgic for childhood? I answer that it does not, not the object itself, not the paper, not the hamburger, no, but the unit as a whole. Oldenburg's venture into the small-scale, in opposition to his career-long exploration of the monumental, could be too referential to his past work to stand on its own. I believe however, that that is where Oldenburg's "genius" lies, in taking that chance, and in speaking to my 8 year old self, using the smallest of gestures.