Sophisticated Art Lookers

During our birthday celebrations, which we do twice a year (for her birthday in July and for mine in September), my friend Sue and I spend the day wandering in a chosen NYC neighborhood (although for my last birthday she came out to Long Beach with her dog and we were able to enjoy adult beverages at a couple of my local watering holes) and we talk about EVERYTHING. We go off on tangents and then circle back an hour later; we never run out of topics of conversation, only the time to converse.  Being with Sue reminds me of how thoroughly enjoyable it can be to spend time with someone who loves and accepts you for who you are (as she herself accurately stated about the way I feel about her). I feel blessed that I have a lot of people in my life like that (who I unfortunately don’t get to spend enough time with) but Sue may be the best.

This past Sunday, for my 2015 birthday celebration, we wandered on the High Line, the new park in New York City built on the site of an abandoned elevated railroad track. It’s a great use of public space, and it must be very pretty in the spring and summer. [As an aside:  I read that there are folks in NYC who are trying to create a Lowline as well, which would potentially be set in an empty subterranean trolley station under the Lower East Side. [Jen Carlson, “Get a Taste of What the Lowline Will Be Like If It Ever Happens”, Gothamist, http://gothamist.com/2015/10/16/lowline_essex_lower_east_side.php#photo-1] While it sounds like an intriguing idea, and folks like Lena Dunham and Spike Jonze are holding events to raise funds for the project, my first concern when I read about it was that homeless people would take up residence there. On the High Line, it was only the smiling Hare Krishnas with their little gold calling cards.]  It was surprisingly crowded for an unseasonably cool day (we even wore gloves and scarves!), but when the sun came out from behind the clouds, it was a delightful stroll, with never-before-seen sightlines into construction sites and empty white apartment buildings, but also the Hudson River, some surprise pop-up artwork and the teeming cross-streets from 30th Street down to Gansevoort, which is where the new Whitney Museum of American Art is located.

First we had brunch at Bubby’s, which was worth the extended wait (but, you see, we don’t MIND waiting on line, because it’s just a different locale for our never-ending conversations). We shared giant pancakes and scrambled eggs, chicken sausage, bacon and hashbrowns; I sipped a Concord grape mimosa and Sue had a bloody Mary. (We also ended our day with decadent dessert from the Gansevoort Market, where we finally sat down for a spell and realized how tired we were from all the walking we’d done.)

During an earlier version of our nonstop discourses – I think it was the 2014 Sue birthday celebration, during which we had meandered through Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Park Slope (where we both used to live), visited friends and caught a Nick Cave concert in Prospect Park – we were talking about art and how some of it just is incomprehensible to me, even though it clearly has some value to SOMEONE. I said something along the lines of (admittedly while a little pleasantly buzzed), “I consider myself a sophisticated art looker . . . “ and the two of us cracked up at the simultaneous ignorance and accuracy that statement represented, in that I wasn’t even able to come up with a more literate way to describe someone who appreciates the visual arts than “art looker”! (I am proud to say that, while I am perhaps a better music listener than art looker, I have great love and appreciation for both art forms!)

Some of the pieces at the Whitney were prime examples of this. For instance, as soon as you get off the elevator on the 6th floor, there it is – a 5-x-5 foot solid black painted square, probably called “Untitled”. [It’s actually called “Abstract Painting”, by Ad Reinhardt. Evidently the significance is in the nuance and subtlety of the solid black, because if you look closely and deeply and long enough, there are supposedly modulations of the solid black, but hey – this is from a guy who painted ONLY black-on-black pieces for over a decade, until he finally died. And how do we know that the modulations aren’t just due to one’s eyes bugging out after staring at it so closely and deeply and long?] My first thoughts upon seeing this painting aren’t, “What does this evoke?” or “Where does it fit into the pantheon of American Art?” No, my first thoughts are “Why would someone paint this?” and “Why the hell is this even here?” To me it is just a waste of valuable wall space. Over by the windows, there was a clear glass box on a plexiglass platform. But why? I pointed out that there was dust on top of the box and the security lady told me in no uncertain terms to “step away from the art”. Otherwise I wondered, why is there a see-through empty box taking up space in a prestigious museum? I’m sure it’s significant – the meaning of emptiness, perhaps, or stripping “art” down to its most basic elements, or some such philoso-babble – who knows? It could have just been an empty display case, except that the security lady probably wouldn’t have gotten her knickers in a knot about my getting too close to that. (This particular piece, by Larry Bell, actually IS called “Untitled”.) I will never understand some art. The pretentiousness of it all (and of the people who trumpet its genius) – really!! It’s absolutely beyond me.

On the other hand, there was a multitude of intriguing and awe-inspiring pieces of art at the Whitney that I don’t need to “get” so much as they just touch something in me, and the talent of the artists is on full display. For example, there was the series of richly colored prints of scenes of Yosemite and the western U.S. by Japanese artist Chiura Obata, who had painstakingly recreated his own watercolor paintings using woodblock printing. The entire 8th floor was devoted to a retrospective of the work of artist Archibald Motley, whose vividly bright paintings appeared outwardly gleeful but had serious historical and social commentary depths. On the lower floors, we saw a triptych by Grant Wood called “Study for Breaking the Prairie” and I knew in some recess of my brain that Grant Wood had also painted “American Gothic”, and then Sue piped in, “I think it’s in a museum in Chicago.” According to the interwebs, we were right on both scores, which impressed even us.

My favorite floor was the 6th, which featured representative post-war work from the 1950s through the ‘70s. Some of it was powerful; some of it was whimsical and yet also thought-provoking. There was colorful and disturbing anti-war propaganda; Andy Warhol’s “Before & After, 4” depicting in bold graphic lines a rather necessary nose job; a short silent film (with tinkly piano soundtrack) by Helen Levitt called “In the Street” set in Spanish Harlem in the mid-1940’s on what looked like Halloween, featuring dirty, adorable children, many in costume, presumably belonging to the moms and grandmas who watched them while hanging out the brownstone windows and the grandpas who admonished them when they got too rambunctious but otherwise for the most part left alone to dance and run and tease and smack each other with what looked like nylon stockings filled with flour or construction dust.

There was a cool sculpture by someone named Marisol called “Women and Dog”, constructed from wood, plaster, acrylic, found objects and, notably, a taxidermic dog head and showing something different and unexpected from every angle, sharing gallery floor space with giant stuffed cigarette butts overflowing a platform standing in for an ashtray by Claes Oldenburg. And in a place of prominence on the 7th floor, amid paintings and photographs from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that were those decades’ depictions of the “celebrity culture” that manifests itself today as “reality TV” and paparazzi-fueled gossip magazines, was Alexander Calder’s “Circus” tableau, carefully constructed from found objects and sewn-together creatures, which almost looked like it should be played with rather than statically viewed in the round.

So, while I may not be able to refer intelligently to abstraction and expressionism and modernism and all that “sophisticated art looker” jargon, I at least have a basic “Art History 101” knowledge and a deep appreciation for the visual arts, in all its forms. Even if I can’t tell you what school the artist was part of or what genre the work represented, I know what sticks with me and I know what I like. But what I like even more than looking at art is talking endlessly about EVERYTHING – even overflowing into our thoughts on our respective train rides home, to be immediately texted or emailed sometimes for days afterward – to my friend Sue.

Me and Sue in NYC

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