We recently had an invitation from our friends Jonathan and Penny to join them in New York City for an extended weekend. They were on holiday from Sydney, where we’d gotten to know them a decade ago (how time flies!) and this was their first trip to the USA since we’d met. Since our lovely little Southern backwater doesn’t have much in the way of culture to entice visitors from abroad, the notion of meeting in the metropolis, where we could all indulge our taste for the arts, seemed like a brilliant idea, And so it turned out to be.
We spent the bulk of our time together in two museums: the Modern and the Frick. Our first day in the Modern was spent largely in two special exhibitions that were a fair contrast in themselves. With some time to kill before our ticketed entry to the Matisse show of The Cutouts, we wandered through a retrospective of the work of Robert Gober. Gober is a contemporary American sculptor whose work edges over into the installation genre in often surreal ways. On entering the galleries, this was one of the first works we encountered:
Things got stranger and more unsettling along the way. There was a room full of sculptures that resembled disused sinks (I have vague memories of seeing these in a Whitney Biennial many years ago). Then came a room that was entirely vertiginous. Tall walls were completely covered in pale wallpaper; given the direction from which I entered I quickly absorbed the images imprinted on the paper: alternating visions of a lynched black man and a sleeping white man. Turning around, I was almost knocked off balance by the site of an empty white wedding gown standing in the middle of the room. In combination with the soaring walls, the effect was quite nearly staggering. By the time I noticed the bags of kitty litter leaned against the walls at seemingly random distances from one another I was well and truly disoriented.
Here’s Gober’s own gloss on the installation, Untitled 1989-96:
The painful imagery depicted on the wallpaper in this 1989 installation was meant as a reminder of fact– the ugly and unforgettable reality of the United States’ history. By putting this image onto endlessly repeating wallpaper, I made an attempt to say, metaphorically, that this was not an isolated event and that in ways it has become our background.
The sculptures of bags of cat litter are the link between the violent imagery and the wedding dress, the metaphorical fulcrum. Cat litter both absorbs the stench of excrement (the wallpaper) and it allows for domestic intimacy (think diapers). It is also a reminder of the sacred vows that whose who wear the dress profess– to care for the body of loved ones ‘in sickness and in health, til death do us part.’”The sculpture of the empty wedding dress is a vase waiting to be filled. It represents the supposed white purity that often triggered or justified the violence depicted on the walls. It also represents a vessel that is ready to be filled with all of the optimistic hopes and dreams of marriage. And to many Americans, Gay Americans (an estimated 10 percent of our population), it is a reminder of equality denied.
Another room combined several works—a wallpaper called Forest, another Untitled pair of legs, and a large Cigar—to equally disorienting effect. The hairy candles emerging from the waxy, hairy legs summoned up associations of concentration camp horrors in a physically unsettling way. The rich, kaleidoscopic forest imagery added vertigo to the unpleasant evocations, and the cigar would have been strange enough in its own right. But it was made even stranger by the man standing almost atop it, nearly straddling one of its tapered ends.
He was quite tall, well over six feet, with short-cropped dark hair and an unblinking gaze. His hands were clasped in front of him. His black suit and open-necked white shirt were impeccable. He almost looked like a museum guard, but he looked even more like a Secret Service agent; and of course, he looked more like a sculpture than either. After a few minutes we moved on to the next gallery and speculated in whispers. Jonathan returned to the Forest gallery and pluckily asked the man if he were part of the art work itself. He tersely replied, “No.” After a few more whispered consultations, Jonathan went back once more and asked if he were a guard, and this time the answer was “Yes.” We left somehow feeling not the much wiser, but all the more intrigued.
All too soon we had to make our way up to the sixth floor for the Matisse show. On entering the galleries my first reaction was that this was going to be an even more challenging experience than Gober, if for different reasons. For starters, of course, even though it was a Thursday afternoon and entry was strictly controlled, the halls were packed tight and getting a good look at any single work was not easy. But once I settled into the rhythm of shuffling from wall to wall, another problem presented itself.
Matisse’s cutouts must be the most recognizable and often reproduced of his works, and themselves among the most reproduced of early Modernism. Even when I was vouchsafed the space to look at them, I was confronted with the problem of how to actually see them. Eventually I settled into a routine of examining the physicality of them. The one aspect of these works that is impossible to grasp in reproductions in the fact that there are composed of numerous pieces of painted paper glued beside and atop one another. Here and there an edge curls away from the underlying mount; in other cases the paper is deliberately pinched. Once I started to look at the quite literal composition of a work, the more conventional sense of seeing the composition—the piece of art—became far easier. I could truly see the work for the first time, dissociated from the sight and memory of innumerable reproductions.
Take the Blue Nude, for example. She is the denizen of untold college dorm rooms, and graces the walls of office cubicles and their coffee mugs without count. She is the quintessential calendar pin-up girl. I’ve always admired the smoothness of the curves, the way you can almost follow the artist’s scissors as he loops around the image. The combination of flat image and voluptuousness, enhanced by the smooth blue hue, has always seemed to me the height of assured artistic achievement. What a rude surprise it was, then, to approach the piece and see the roughness of the pasted join between her breasts and torso, the patchwork of her assemblage revealed, the angularity of the cuts along her upper arms. How delirious to discover she has three sisters!
Most of the cutouts don’t share the relaxed ease of these women. As in the famous illustrations for Jazz, the pop with activity and color, each a frenetic ensemble of exploding shapes and high-contrast hues. Especially in the final rooms of the exhibition where enormous vegetal murals like The Parakeet and the Mermaid or the Large Decoration with Masks consume entire walls with their unrelenting rhythms, the effect can be more than overwhelming.
As anyone familiar with the physics of traffic flows through museums knows, crowds invariably thin out in the ultimate galleries and if here the art remained wildly busy for the most part, the halls themselves quieted. And so it was with real delight that I came across what was undoubtedly my favorite work, Acanthus.
I was taken at first by the serenity of the work, especially in comparison to others that surrounded me. The large expanses of white space left in the composition offered welcome relief from the busy murals nearby. The pencil lines, barely visible in the upper right of this reproduction, gave another sense of the process of creation, much like the details in Blue Nude had, but here with the smooth assurance that I was expecting from the cut outs as a group.
As I sat looking at the picture I was drawn to the play of primary colors across the descending left-to-right axis of the composition. My eye began to play with the way that the secondary hues, the orange and greens, were laid out in relation to those primaries, the way that the yellow interacted with the various shades of green and the color triangle formed by the yellow, orange, and red. But why was that blue down in the corner, so far away from its green?
And then, suddenly, the subject of the picture snapped into view (for I hadn’t read the label on the wall) and I saw the floral imagery for what it was for the first time. There were the green leaves, with the yellow lifting out to an unseen fall of sunlight, the red and orange blossoms, and there, in the corner, shaded from the full play of light, that mysterious, anchoring blue-shadowed club of leaves? blossoms? I was doubly delighted to find representation suddenly emerging from what appeared at first to me to be an abstract arrangement of share and color. Perhaps I’m the only one who took so long to tumble to the “picture,” but somehow it seemed fitting to me that abstraction took pride of place in my viewing of the work. The experience foregrounded for me again Matisse’s craft, his artistry. And I walked away from the exhibition well pleased that we had taken the time to visit.