B and I finally made it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday, along with everyone else in town who wanted to go for free for First Sunday. It was crowded and somehow it felt like a hero’s journey to get there and back, but I’m glad we did. Some pieces, like the giant Chagall ballet backdrop, I remembered. Some pathways through the contemporary collection, some sculptures I had passed when I was shorter, following somebody else around. I loved a painting by Roberto Matta, The Bachelors Twenty Years Later, and then we walked over to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, and then the last, Étant donnés, laid bare behind a wooden door. All these questions about experiencing a museum space, moving from art to art, I the viewer / the digester / the reader / the meaning-maker, and the artist points to me / the artist / in my looking and looks back through the glass / the door / the slash mark.
Then we found a room I didn’t remember, Fifty Days At Iliam, a Homeric narrative stretched on canvas in long crayon lines. Was it at the museum when I was young? I don’t remember. I stared at The Fire That Consumes All Before It for a long time. That depth of red. It made me think of my Bubbe, and I no longer care if it makes me a cheesy person to continue writing and thinking and talking about my dead grandmother. She was the person I followed through the museum space. I was very sad in that room, and that’s the truth. Did she love that painting? I don’t know.
I can tell the story about how she set me going as a writer, how she made me love art, and those are true stories. But I realized yesterday that part of my sadness is that she died before I ever got to have real conversations with her about art. That’s the door I keep peering through.
I had two poems in the Nashville Review that went live yesterday, “Missives” and “A Remnant,” and they are both from Doors of New Jersey. That’s the whole book, doors / I keep peering through / pressed / as though they could open.
I just finished looking through the whole Film Stills book for the first time, and I kept thinking about linearity and the artist’s resistance to it through numbering and sequencing away from pattern, and the artist’s acquiescence to it through putting the work in a book with page numbers, a book that opens and closes and thus creates a passageway. I was always one of those kids who had to read the whole choose-your-own-adventure book. When you put something in an order I will keep it in order for you. So order and positioning are things that I take seriously, that have intonations and causality and speed and questions implicit in them. When I read your writing, I take those things into consideration, whether you intended this reading experience or not. When I enter a museum, I have to decide how to approach the rooms–what order, direction, walls first, central display first, main room first, side room first, far side to near side or vice versa, how long to linger. How much I would like to speak.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am thinking about the benefits of full disclosure. More specifically, I spent a good portion of my day wandering through galleries at the Hirshhorn and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (holy shit! Nam June Paik!). I am a lover of art, a lover of the experience of art, but I am kidding myself if I tell you I am not a lover of museum labels. Sure, I like knowing the name of the artist and the name of the work, but I’m really talking about the curator’s comments, the carefully constructed narrative that directs your experience:
Installed as a series, these works do not appear uniform as one might expect; instead, their differences are highlighted and thus together they create a visual cadence. Importantly, Jones’s paintings also perform an active role in shaping the sound in the gallery, thereby introducing a new function for painting. The final precise spacing between the panels is ultimately guided by both their acoustic and visual effects, with neither taking precedence over the other. [from “Directions,” accompanying Jennie C. Jones’s installed works, “Higher Resonance,” at the Hirshhorn]
Am I getting it? There are directions, and there is the idea of following. The stubborn in me wants to follow no one, and refuses to lead. The stubborn in me wants to make a pure experience, and believes in this possibility, but the stubborn in me hangs out with the rest of my body, watching as I gravitate toward labels, allowing an outside voice into my experience. But I know, in a small part of myself, that that voice knows something I don’t, that that voice has lived with the experience of this art longer than I have, that that voice does not discount my own voice or my own experience. The frame does not intrude on the experience, but is a part of the experience itself.
Stubborn is letting go. Stubborn has been preventing me from moving forward with this Paul Thek project–which, I am realizing, has more to do with me, personally, than I thought. I fear the “I” in my writing, the overbearing Voice of Knowledge, but nowadays Stubborn seems more like the overbearing Voice of Knowledge than I, quietly thinking, do. If I am going to curate, I, too, can be the body in the tomb, speaking, pointing, looking directly into the eyes of the reader. I think, in fact, I have to be.
[“palimpsest,” Ann Hamilton, Hirschhorn]