As I walked around Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful white spirals in the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, I ducked into a special exhibition, Kandinsky At The Bauhaus, and… there it was, in all its orbular glory: Several Circles.
Like seeing the work of Klimt recently, experiencing Kandinsky in person was a deeply emotional experience. It forces a reset, a re-focus, a re-adjustment of perception, a realignment of attention, requests complete and utter presence, whispers for a magically pure blanket of silence. In the same breath, the work beckons, like a lover, to come closer, examine its velvet surfaces, its soft curves, its intricate, ovarian details, and slick, areola-like smoothness.
“The circle,” claimed Kandinsky, “is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”
In its magnificent, lidless, concentrated, and sensually concentric presence, I sat, mouth agape, staring at its hip-swirling dance of color, form, light, and texture. The fourth dimension indeed. There are few things that take me so directly there as painting and the written word.
I write, every day, in a real, actual journal, with a real, actual pen. It seems almost quaint. In this world of iPads and iPhones and digitalthisthatandtheother, writing in a journal seems fabulously oldy-world-y, and vaguely old-fashioned. It takes more time to write than type; this forces a stewing of thoughts, a quiet, patient consideration and re-consideration, one that ultimately transforms expressions and observations and perceptions into stained, messy, occasionally wine-spilled musings that melt, all over the pages, like soft, salt-water taffy slowly expiring on the tongue. ‘Do I like how this looks on the page?‘ becomes every bit as important as, ‘What am I trying to say again?’ and I’m often surprised at how much I miss my journal the times when I go out and forget it. I don’t always use it; it’s more an observational talisman that makes me look at things -and smell them, taste them, hear them, feel them – a little more closely.
This re-discovery of the joys of physical writing happened by chance. I was sent, not long after I moved to New York, a gorgeous red moleskine journal, by a friend and favorite journalist. It was both a congratulatory gift, and, I suspect, an acknowledgement, from writer to writer, of the fierce and passionate love we hold of words -particularly the tenuous, occasionally frustrating act of bringing them to life. This act, for me, involves a full engagement with the senses. I love things I can touch, things that I can be stained by, things that leave an impression on a page, that have a smell, a taste, a certain eye-catching color. It explains why I cook. It explains why I paint. It explains a lot.
So I was delighted to attend an event celebrating the tactile -recently. Called “Objectivity”, the event was held at Eyebeam, a digital art space on the west side of Manhattan. The event was part of A vocabulary of objects, a formal Moleskine event that saw workshop participants make their very own journals. On one side of the sprawling warehouse space, a massive piece of paper had been tacked onto a broad wall that dominated one side of the room. It had a mottled projection across it; black drafting pencils had been set out to encourage attendees to add their own markings. People were riotously, joyously drawing as they balanced glasses of prosecco and chatted. I added to the markings with a few wild lilies. I didn’t see one person texting or talking on a phone – only drawing, drinking, watching, creating, and connecting.
When the projection was turned off, and the lights came on, people stared in awe at the motley collection of markings, as the lines formed their own little colonies and empires across the vast expanse of manila. It was awfully refreshing, and even beautiful, to see people so intimately connected with the sensual act of drawing and making things,, and appreciating the after-effects. Is this the power of the sensual world? Are we coming full circle, back to the tangible arts? I pondered these questions as I wandered around and saw Moleskine’s designs for iPads and other digital gadgets. I was reminded of the re-ignition of interest in vinyl recordings, and how heartened I’d been at seeing contemporary albums proudly and prominently displayed at the front of record stores. This isn’t mere nostalgia or irony -this is the scratching at a more transcendent experience through earthly means, a knock-kn0ck-knockin’ on heaven’s door through the gates of dirt and mud and bruised knuckles, sharp needles and blood on the tracks.
And so, the Moleskin event At Eyebeam was a bit of heaven, here and now in New York City, 2011, amidst the hub-bub of technology and the joy of digital connectivity. Those have a place. So do the tangible arts. Being able to draw with total strangers felt like a strong reaffirmation of the vital role of the tangible in everyday life. Even as we ostensibly move further away from experiencing daily life with our five senses, at the same time, we move closer to it, taking pensive, tip-toe steps into that “fourth dimension” Kandinsky referred to. Can we make it? Can we commit? I freely admit to being addicted to the bonbons of modern life: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Soundcloud, Linked In … blogging. But I’m circling back to sensuality, being reminded, in tiny spiraling whispers, that I never left. That fourth dimension is beckoning me, to enter, and re-enter, again and again. I want to keep walking, I’m curious what I’ll find in the middle, on the outer rings, and along the way. Stained fingers? That…and a whole lot more.
The Guggenheim celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday by offering free admission to all visitors.
The online world got in the spirit, with “#Gugg50” hashtags popping up on related tweets; the physical world celebrated too, with the Empire State being bathed in red to celebrate this most beautiful of cultural anniversaries. For fifty years, the Guggenheim has contributed to the international dialogue on art, culture, life, and the connections therein. It’s inspired millions, and confused just about as many too. Over on my Facebook wall, there’s a comment beneath the link of the Guggenheim news story reminding those who weren’t aware (me) that Saturday evenings are pay-what-you-can at the Gugg; the poster has also added that he didn’t think the museum was “worth” the $18 admission price. No, I wanted to respond, because what’s in there is priceless.
Just like religion, we want a revelation from culture -a lightning bolt of genius, a flash of pizazz, something to wake us up and give us a knock in the knickers. At the same time, however, there’s a push-pull between the known and the known; we’re hungering after a purely transcendental experience, but in so doing, we don’t want to be confronted with things we don’t understand -things that might be bigger, wider, stronger and more formless than we’re comfortable with. We want culture to conform to our very individualized, and very personal, notions around art. But this isn’t what culture is about -sometimes it takes patience, persistence, and a change in perception to really see the value of something -and to recognize what’s priceless to us may be worthless to another, or, more frequently, vice-versa.
I was reminded of this watching Herb and Dorothy on PBS recently. The documentary, done via Independent Lens, is a fascinating look at Herb and Dorothy Vogel, two unassuming New Yorkers who wound up amassing one of the most important collections of modern art in history. Some of the pieces they collected were indeed, quite unusual. The documentary includes a hilarious old clip from 60 Minutes, featuring a befuddled Mike Wallace staring at one work (by Richard Tuttle), and exclaiming, in exaggeratedly serious-journo tones, “But it’s a piece of rope…” Dorothy and Herb patiently, excitedly, explain their love of the work -they’re not patronizing, but equally they’re unapologetic in their passion. They don’t justify why they love the work, or why they amassed so much of what many might consider to be idiotic, meaningless canvases filled with blobs, streaks, scribbles, or indeed, nothing at all. They love what they love, and for them, art doesn’t have a worth past their own personal experience; it, and their passion, requires no justification to anyone. That, to me, mirrors the spiritual experience versus the religious one; it’s what Karen Armstrong is on about in her new work, and it’s something many thinkers (and artists) through the ages have sought to grasp, even as it slips away: a vast, bigger-than-us unknowability that requires neither justification nor classification, only acceptance. The intersection between the profound and the profane is fine; the one between art and religion even finer. We hate accepting what we can’t understand, and we hate ascribing value to something we deem has none.
It was through their massive, near-obsessive collecting that the Vogels not only experienced and participated in a truly gargantuate cultural moment (however accidentally), they also formed meaningful relationships with the artists they bought from. This connectivity enlivens the collection, and indeed, changes our perception of it. The canvases, installations, and all else becomes a living body of relating and sharing; just as “the word is God,” so is, it would appear, whole collections that express cultural moments and impulses. Their value is past our reckoning. It’s perhaps for this reason that The Vogels eventually gave much of their work away. Yes, gave. They didn’t (don’t) believe in profiting from what they love, and wouldn’t take money for their own personal experiences with both the art and the person who made it. Worthless? Priceless? Go to the National Gallery and find out for yourself. And while you’re at it, start engaging -with dancers, singers, poets, painters, writers, performers -the ones whose work you don’t understand or may not even like. Start thinking. Start asking. And, to quote a past post of mine, start embracing the questions. The next time you’re at the Gugg (Saturday night or otherwise) remember those questions, and thank God you -and they -are there.