09 November 2009

Amble With Me Along the Annals of Abstract Art (or at least, to Chicago and back)

I'll warn you up-front: This is going to be a meandering post.

It starts with two trips and ends with any number of destinations, depending on you.

Confused yet? Don't worry, you will be.

It won't cost you a dime, but you'll have to pay with your whole life.

And--oh yeah, I almost forgot: You won't know what most of it means.
Now, try to keep up.

My husband Chris and I just returned from a mini-vacation in Chicago. We took in a show, some live jazz, a windy tour of the windy city from the open top of a double-decker bus and a museum. To be specific, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was within walking distance of our hotel. Much of the museum's art is of the installation variety, in addition to a photography gallery and a Calder exhibit.

Calder excepted, I have to say, most of the art was, to me, unremarkable, though the museum store was cool. I'd accompanied Chris on another Chicago trip about a month prior, at which time I checked out the new modern art wing at the Art Institute of Chicago while he attended a conference. I love the Impressionists collection there--the enormous scale of Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day and Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Degas' ballerinas, Monet's haystacks and waterlilies, Renoir's rosy-cheeked women and children, and Gauguin's exotic Tahitian ones with the open faces.

But on this visit, after a brief sweep by my favorites, I concentrated on what came after Impressionism.

In a book group a few weeks before the first trip, where we were discussing The Great Man, a work of fiction with art as a subtext, we talked about how baffling abstract art can be. Jackson Pollock was mentioned in the book as a contemporary of the fictional artist who'd died, and so we discussed Pollock's spatter-and-drip method of painting. One woman said that seeing an actual Pollock painting was quite different from seeing a picture of one because of the texture created by the layering of paint. That made sense. The institute had several Pollock paintings. I wanted to see for myself.

I have to admit, I didn't come out of the museum--on either trip--understanding much more about modern art than when I went in. I wasn't moved by the particular Pollock drip painting I saw, though I did respond to one from his pre-drip period. What did the paintings mean or my responses to them? I have no idea. I just liked some images better than others and the colors and how the artist positioned them.

I also saw a de Kooning I liked. Then there was this incredible cast sculpture of a massive, fallen tree that impacted me probably for many of the same reasons I like the Caillebotte and Seurat: It was as large as life.

I saw some scary stuff, too. Most particularly, a disturbing film of a clown in a public bathroom stall, staring up into the camera, obviously straining to leave something behind. I'm not sure what the artist was getting at, and I can't say I even agree that one was art, but then, what do I know?

This weekend at a family dinner Chris and I were telling his mom and our adult daughter about our trip and the museum. Okay, I admit it--we were laughing at some of the art, some of the weird books and paraphernalia on sale in the museum store, and even at some of the patrons who stared ever so intently at a frame in which we saw nothing.

I then mentioned the clown film. My mother-in-law, with great disgust, said, "Art is different things to different people." (So far, minus the disgust, I was with her. But then she added,) "That's why I never go to museums." She was so emphatic and serious that the rest of us couldn't help but bust out laughing.

There's a scene in the movie Far From Heaven where Cathy and Raymond, characters played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert, chat in front of a Miro painting at a gallery opening. "So what's your opinion on modern art?" Raymond inquires.

"It's hard to put into words, really," Cathy replies. "I just know what I care for and what I don't." She points to the Miro. "Like this...I don't know why, but I just adore it. The feeling it gives. I know that sounds terribly vague."

"No. No actually, it confirms something I've always wondered about modern art--abstract art," Raymond answers. "That perhaps it's just picking up where religious art left off, somehow trying to show you divinity. The modern artist just pares it down to the basic elements of shape and color. But when you look at that Miro, you feel it just the same."

Of course, the painting is a pretext for an affair the two will have, complicated by the fact that Cathy is white and Raymond is black, and the film takes place in the 1950s, hence the title.

Without getting into a discussion about Miro or the movie or 50s morality--or even the interesting coincidence that a Miro sculpture happens to grace a plaza in Chicago (that's it, at right)--Raymond and Cathy have it right. A work of art--whether visual, performed or written--is meant to evoke a feeling response. The images in abstract art often emerge from the unconscious and so do pick up where religious art left off in the sense that the drive to create and to express our unique self possesses an element of the divine.

I can even cut the clown video some slack in this respect. Maybe the artist was trying to say something about our repulsion with our own bodily functions. Clowns try to get us to laugh at ourselves, so this fits.

But is it art?

Does it matter?

What is important is that Cathy and Raymond in the movie were drawn toward what they didn't fully comprehend--including their attraction to each other--instead of steering clear.

I've become more interested in modern art in the last few years from using posters of abstract paintings as prompts in my writing workshops, where they always elicit fantastic responses, as varied as the images and the people who view them. I like it that everyone is attracted to something different or sees something different in the same painting.

And most artists would be delighted at the enthusiasm of responses. As a writer, I always hope readers find something in my words that even I didn't know was there. I like to be surprised by what my unconscious has done when my back was turned. It's part of the reason I'm documenting my writing journey on this blog.

All these ramblings of mine are trying to say something about creating a place, a sacred place. I judged an elementary school writing contest a few years back and the assigned topic was to write about a special place. The essay I chose as the winner came from a fifth-grader who wrote about her inner life, rather than a park or soccer field or church. Her choice made her essay stand out.

But the really neat thing--at least I think so--is that the outer places are really meant to lead us to the inner ones. They are like the posters I use for writing prompts. Like the paintings in the museum. But first we have to sign on for the trip.

And this is why I go to museums or anywhere I haven't been before: Because I want to keep finding new places inside myself, and I'm always looking for the vehicles to take me there. This last time the literal vehicle was a switch too--we took the train instead of driving, something neither of us had ever done before. It saved us no time, but it gave us a whole new place from which to explore Chicago and ourselves.

I don't have to know what art "means." In fact, the mystery makes for part of the fun. In Indianapolis, where I write from, the Spirit & Place Festival every November is dedicated to that very concept. Events are chosen and scheduled with an eye toward bringing people and ideas together for dialog. This year the theme is, coincidentally, "inspiring places," and it's clear from reading the list of programs that inner places are among the inspiring destinations the planners had in mind. It's also clear they realize that the outer places inspire us because of something inside us reacting to them. It's like two lovers finding each other again after many years of separation--the heart beats faster.

Something like that did happen on my latest museum jaunt, though it wasn't in the galleries. At the entrance to the museum store were two racks of postcards, all black-and-white photographs of women from various times and places, all from a Library of Congress collection. I thought they would make great writing prompts, so I picked out a half-dozen and asked the cashier the price. "Oh, those are free," he replied.

"Free?!" My mouth gaped, and my heart thumped against my rib cage. "So I can have as many as I want?"

"Well, yes," he said. "Take what you like." My zeal scared him a little.

"One of each? Can I have one of each? I'm a writing teacher. I use them for prompts. I'll make good use of them, I promise."

By that point, I was sure he must be considering whether to buzz security. But he smiled indulgently instead and said, "Knock yourself out."

I left the museum with 113 fabulous, free, photographic writing prompts, worth well over $100, let alone the $12 admission. Like the images inside museums do for patrons, these postcards will take people who attend my workshops to new places inside themselves. It was like he'd given me a bag of seeds to scatter!

I'm glad I took this trip. I'm glad I visited this inspiring place. There's no telling where I will go inside myself as a result. You came this far with me; congratulations for hanging in there! Now, keep going on your own. The path is already there, even if you can't see it. Follow what you feel.

1 comment:

  1. I agree about art being about the feelings it evokes (at least for me). When asked what I like, I always say, "Bright colors, diagonal composition, and a sense of movement." I'm not sure why this resonates with me so much. My best guess it that it seem free and energetic and optimistic.

    Sweet deal on the postcards! I hope I can be at the workshop where they get put to use. :)