Tuesday, August 24, 2010


The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is largely round. Round architecture is curiously inviting and wasteful since human beings lead lives surrounded by linear stuff -- tables, chairs, windows, etc. A round building bespeaks an imaginative 'waste' of space.

The inside of the main gallery spirals from top to bottom with art displayed against the walls. Thus, a visitor can take an elevator to the topmost point of the spiral and, in some cases, follow the historical route taken by the artist -- from oldest to youngest. Perhaps s/he began with realistic depictions and colors, then segued into more abstract representations, then went cubist, and then, perhaps dropped off the edge of the earth in some search for the essences of painting and art. In the end, the viewer may be left no longer looking at ladies in hoop skirts and gentlemen with starched shirt-fronts, but simply a few lines ... or just a plop of color.

Were the onlooker to begin at the end of his or her downward spiral, the art might seem to convey nothing at all. A blob of color and ... that's it. But what is it? Only a person who gets paid to sound informed could say for sure and that certainty would not necessarily mean a hell of a lot to someone who was not paid to talk up an artistic storm: It's just a blob, after all, or a couple of lines of color ... and there might be some irritation that the viewer paid good money to come and see this, this, this ... whatever the hell it is.

But starting at the top of the spiral, with all the ladies and gents depicted, you can sort of follow the mind that seeks the essence of things and hopes to portray them. Deeper and deeper the artist descends into simplicity until ... until ... until well, until there's a blank canvas. No one wants to pay 10-15 bucks to see a blank canvas and so, faut de mieux, there is 'art.'

I used to love the machinations of telling tales with a spiritual twist -- ordinary stuff that seemed to hum or pulse with mysteriousness ... with something not seen but sensed; something anyone might see and yet is not readily seen. Stories are neat that way, chugging along from here to there like some trans-continental railroad and yet it's not just the linear trip, the intent, the importance of the travel ... there are also all those magical sights to be seen. Yes, you are getting where you want to go, but on the way, the subtext stories and beauty spring up like dandelions.

Tales and stories are terrific. They are the ladies in hoop skirts and the gents in starched shirt-fronts. There they are along the river's edge, picnicking or lounging in a sun that is kept in check by demure and colorful parasols. There's Jesus as a carpenter and Buddha beneath the bo tree and the Bal Shem Tov waxing wise and the sufis dancing. The train chugs along, taking passengers on their determined routes and the stories oil the wheels, which nonetheless go clickety-clack, clickety-clack.

But little by little the tales run out of steam ... or seem to invite steamlessness. Look! There's a towering hemlock or some mica glistening on a cliff-face rock or a rattlesnake briefly seen whisper-slithering under a protective log. Isn't it all enough all by itself? Tales are wonderful, but the things themselves become somehow wonderful-er. Things don't have stories or meanings. They have 'is' or something quite a lot like it.

Japanese calligraphy elevates this observation to an art form, but as an art form, it is forced, like any artist, to recognize that calling it art or pretending it is actually a story, is too much.

And so we are left with a plop-blob on the canvas ... a not-terribly informative tale offering a smooth spiral into easy silence. Wonderful-er. Stories lose their savor where things are wonderful-er. Of course you can always find some twit who will ignite a story about how wonderful-er is implicitly more wonderful than something else and since there is no something else ... blah, blah, blah.

Tale-telling. I have loved it and still do to some extent. And I find plop-blob paintings as uninteresting as the next fellow. But somehow the stories and their usefulness dwindle and the way things are says it all. If you see it that way, fine. If you don't see it that way, fine. But elevations require more energy than I seem to have lately. Let others tell the stories. I like the breeze.


  1. for all the gentleness and non-judgementalness I see in you, I notice that you are a wonderful art critic.

  2. whoever said that art critics are supposed to criticise, anyways.