Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Sunday, December 27, 2009
The windows are intoxicating. They are a rescue team that airlifts me out of my own mental quagmire only to drown me in a flood of fake pearls and plastic icicles. They are so secure in their superficiality, so joyously transparent in their purpose that there is absolutely no way I can hate them. They are icons of consumer lust and highbrow vanity, visceral eyegasms that are meant to steal thoughts and replace them with ohh-want-want-look-if-only’s. They are demons or fairies or gods or whatever else can bewitch you by showing you what you want—what you need—who you could become, while stoically restricting their world to a tiny glass box you can never enter. I need them. Blatant frivolity is my palate-cleanser.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Sorry for the hiatus. I’ve been busy renovating, and moving into, a new apartment. After 26 years in the same place we moved 15 feet up -- to the second floor. I was able to take one day off, however, to see the Duchamp exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before it ended on November 29th. The occasion for the exhibition was the 40th anniversary of the public unveiling of Étant donnés, Duchamp’s strange, creepy even, tableau that he worked on in secret for the last twenty years of his life.
I’ve seen it about a dozen times over the years and it still shocks me. Off to the side of the gallery where the Arensberg Collection is housed, is a small room with a scruffy carpet (more on that later). Against the far wall is a brick arch enclosing an old wooden door with two peep holes, grubby from 40 years of people’s faces pressing against it. What you see through the holes is a larger hole ripped out of black material that exposes a very realistic three dimensional tableau of a beautiful naked woman sprawled on some wild brush, lying spread eagle, and holding a glowing gas lamp up in the air. In the background is a woodsy landscape (reminiscent to me of landscapes in the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings, but not at all lyrical) with a realistically flowing waterfall -- all shown in bright daylight.
Her naked body, especially her vagina, is very much in your face, as it were! Whatever erotic feelings I had (she seems to be offering up her body) is much mitigated by the embarrassment of being a voyeur. How many works of art do that to you? The only one I can think of that came close was Courbet’s L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) exhibited last year in the Met’s Courbet retrospective, and that too was in a separate room off to the side. I suspect Duchamp was making a reference to this painting since the pose is very similar.
Courbet, Origin of the World, 1866
But, unlike the Courbet, Duchamp’s Étant donnés has a disconcerting, violent, undercurrent. The woman’s skin is mottled and bluish in places. Was she beaten? Is she dead? (Her skin looks more decayed than I remember -- has it changed over the years?) And her hairless vagina is deformed into two slits. Did someone do that to her?
So not only was I embarrassed looking at porn through a peep hole, and for being a voyeur, but I was made more uncomfortable because I was intruding on an intimate and disturbing mystery.
Traditional art is separate from, and different than, “real world” experiences; it’s in a frame, on a pedestal, behind the fourth wall, etc., i.e. it’s not real. One way to look at the history of modern art is a continual attempt to obtain for art the visceral power and presence of “real world” experience. Duchamp, more than any artist, explored the space between art and life. hence the significance of the carpet. I think it’s a device, like a frame, that separates Étant donnés from the larger gallery and eases the viewer’s entry into a meta-world mixture of art and life.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The “Cloisters” (An Allegory of Global Warming)
Rockefeller procured the Fuentiduena Apse, on loan from the dictator Franco’s Spain for 99 years. It was taken apart stone by stone, numbered and shipped Stateside to build a central part of a picturesque folly (The Cloisters) to house the oil baron turned philanthropist’s hoard of medieval art. It now sits on a promontory in one of the highest spots in uppermost Manhattan and the edifice is being rapidly eaten away by acid rain. Mid- Atlantic mugginess combined with car exhaust is doing a number on this church fragment, which came from Segovia, an arid region in Spain. The surface of its exterior roof- supporting corbels of saints and gargoyles is breaking down into calcium carbonate, as the polluted precipitation percolates out of the rough- hewn Spanish limestone. From coral unto stone unto dust shall it return. By the time the lease is up the shipping costs back to Spain should be greatly reduced.
So the oil (once thought medicinal and also sacred by Pennsylvanian Native Americans) that greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution and powered Ford’s combustion engine and auto-assembly lines, pays for an ancient chapel as supporting compensation to a Fascist dictator of a (then) devoutly Catholic country to recreate the Old in the New World. The spoils of European piety become a garden folly housing the Unicorn Tapestries on the Hudson. Ford’s motorcars exhaust emissions ultimately efface this conceit of conspicuous consumption: the mortification of the simulacra.
To partly atone for his sins (and to maintain a pristine fringe view of foliage from the Cloisters tower across the river to the top of the New Jersey Palisades) the philanthropist Rockefeller donated his land holdings there to become the Palisades Interstate Parkway, which brackets, ironically, a picturesque automobile drive up the Hudson towards West Point and Bear Mountain. I’ve often admired the neo- gothic stonework of the parkway’s over passes, build as directed by Craftsman- Style architects employing cadres of Depression Era WPA workers. In Rockefeller’s landscape issues of Commerce and Art, Global Warming and job creation are interlinked. Too bad the king couldn’t resist cornering that Unicorn, though. The allegory of purity despoiled in the tapestries says it all exquisitely.