December 2006

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A few more insights on beauty…

To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.

Santayana

When I think of Art, I think of Beauty. Beauty is the mystery of Life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.

Agnes Martin

Beauty? It seems to me that beauty is an example of what the philosophers call reification, to regard an abstraction as a thing. Beauty is a series of experiences. It is not a noun. People have experiences. If they feel an intense aesthetic pleasure, they take that experience and project it into the object. They experience the idea of beauty, but beauty in and of itself does not exist. Experiences are sorts of pleasure, that invoke verbs. In fact, beauty is only a mystified expression of our own emotion.

Louise Bourgeois

But for once I wasn’t thinking in words; I was hammered by the image. I couldn’t explain what the picture expressed, what I intuited from it. But that it spoke, I had no doubt.

Patricia Hampl, from Blue Arabesque

Patricia Hampl’s book delves into her life changing experience of encountering a painting by Matisse at the Chicago Art Institute.

Getting “hammered” by an image. How often does that happen anyway? There is the infamous “Uffizi Syndrome,” where visitors at the museum start to hyperventilate and feel faint. So medical personnel are kept on hand for just such occurrences.

As for me, I am on a perpetual mission to be hammered by something I see.

In James Elkins’ Pictures and Tears, he asks a large group of his art history and critic colleagues if they have ever cried in front of a painting. He was amazed by the responses. Some said yes, they had cried when they were younger, but not now. Most believed that it would be viewed as extremely unprofessional for them to exhibit that degree of emotionalism toward a work of art.

Perhaps. But maybe you just have to be of a certain stature to own up. In the Sydney Pollack documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Gehry talks about seeing a painting in a museum and how the floor fell out from underneath his feet. He was swept away by it and ended up using the same compositional structure of the painting as the foundation for one of his buildings.

icaweb.gifThe new ICA is the lastest museum version of the hit tune, “if you build it, they will come.” Bostonians have been waiting to fall in love with something architecturally new and exciting, (a population still recovering from earlier adventures in architecture that failed, like City Hall) so the ICA is awash with visitors. This “build it” phenom really began with the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao in 1997. Bilbaons were unprepared for their city to become a cultural pilgrimage site almost overnight. In the first year, 1.3 million people found their way to a slightly tarnished industrial town in Northern Spain, over 3 times the estimates. Since then the city has been transformed into a glammed up backdrop for that beguiling and overwhelming Gehry structure. (Philip Johnson once said he knew that the Bilbao Museum was the greatest contemporary building because you get teary when you go inside. My experience as well.)

The ICA, designed by Diller and Scofidio, does not have grandiose intentions, but it is a quiet gem with many qualities to commend and enjoy on repeated visits. And the work on display inside–unlike Bilbao–seems very well suited for the space. Thumbs up.

The whole idea of beauty was not embarrassing to me, as it was for a lot of people. Its one of the things that was encouraging about Rothko, that he didn’t seem to be embarrassed about it, either.

Brice Marden

The best book on the subject of beauty is still Uncontrollable Beauty, edited by Bill Beckley and David Shapiro, first published in 1997. Since it appeared and garnered so much attention, there have been a number of other volumes. But UB is still the best.

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Marden cuts the cord that still bound an artist like Jasper Johns to the literary underpinnings of nineteenth-century symbolism, without simultaneously destroying art’s ability to evoke natural forms. He jettisons story, myth, and illusion, and with them representation, composition, and spatial depth. What we are left with is paint, canvas, scale, shape, and brush stroke—but also, crucially, the possibility of allusion. “Nebraska” was inspired by the feelings Marden had when traveling through a landscape—not big feelings of awe or exaltation but something altogether gentler and more subdued, a consciousness and appreciation of the flat green farmlands and wide-open spaces. Modest and self-contained, “Nebraska” avoids the grandiloquence that characterized American landscape painting from Frederic Edwin Church to Clyfford Still.

Richard Dorment
New York Review of Books

The entire MOMA show knocked me out, but this painting was particularly heart stopping. And for the first time, my experience was actually enhanced by the show’s audio guide (never thought I would have a nice thing to say about those black hand helds glued to people’s ears that place one more layer of linearity between the viewer and the work…just put it down and LOOK!) But this guide consists primarily of Marden speaking about his work in that calm, unruffled voice. And his thoughts about Nebraska were illuminating. (BTW, the audio can be accessed from the MOMA website.)

My only complaint was verbalized by my friend Nancy Simonds who suggested that Nebraska really could have used its very own room. It’s so subtle that just about anything else is a distraction.

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Tyler Green writes:

As I walked through the Corcoran’s new permanent collection installation, I bumped into an old friend. Up on the second floor I found Anne Truitt, twice. One was magnificent: 1962′s Insurrection, a vertical plank, painted red on one vertical half and pink on the other.

Like all the best Truitts its beauty was a product of its subtlety. When Truitt entered her mature period in the 1960s, such subtlety was out and had been for a while. Abstract expressionism? (Glug glug.) Pop art? (Bam!) Subtlety was not something admired at the Cedar Bar.

That’s part of the genius of Truitt. She is the slow food of art; you have to stand in front of her painted sculptures, for a minute, maybe two, to feel what there is to see.

Anne is on my list of Caretakers of the Subtle. Of course there are many others. Truitt was insistent in her desire to not be positioned as a minimalist.

“I have never allowed myself, in my own hearing,” she told the Washington Post in 1987, “to be called a minimalist.”

I make things by hand, she’d say, a key difference between minimalism’s sleek absence of human touch and a pursuit of hand wrought subtlety.

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.

Robert Hughes