One of the most satisfying experiences we can have with art is that first face-to-face encounter with a previously unfamiliar work: a painting, a sculpture, a photograph that stops us in our tracks. In this age of Instagram, Snapchat and selfies, it seems difficult to conceive of an image as anything other than ephemeral or disposable, much less something that actually arrests our forward progress.
Several years ago, when the upper-floor Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries of the Musée d’Orsay were being renovated, many of its late 19th century masterpieces were squeezed chockablock into the corridors of the Grand Salon galleries, walls that were normally stacked with heroic scaled canvases and sculptures.
I was there on a visit, standing in a narrow corridor and trying to look at one of Pointillist painter George Seurat’s most famous works, The Circus, a canvas whose riot of juxtaposed dots of color challenges the viewer’s eye — dabs of paint as proto-pixels. Perhaps that’s why a pre-teen boy, a digital native for sure, doubled back to the painting after walking past it in tow with his dad. The boy closely examined the paint’s deeply layered texture, his eyes moving back and forth across the canvas, totally oblivious to me or anyone else. Realizing his son had not kept up with him, the father returned, took the boy by the hand and pulled him away, saying, “Come on, Joey, we have a poster of that one at home.”
I grew up in a family that neither read much nor looked at art, though my father, in his later years, became obsessed with Van Gogh and even took up Sunday painting in the Dutch artist’s style. I used to lament that I had to discover the world of great books, art and music pretty much on my own. But seeing this boy’s spontaneous experience with art cut short by his harried father, who was clicking off his walkthrough of the d’Orsay’s masterpieces, made me realize what an accidental gift my family had given me: I discovered worlds of perception and beauty on my own initiative, rather than having others’ ideas imposed from without. Those early discoveries of Cezanne, Giacometti and Edward Curtis linger with me. Even today, whenever I enter an art museum, I feel an anticipatory rise in blood pressure. It’s a visceral sensation, one that just can’t be had with any cyber experience, or even by closely examining glossy art books that feature splendid reproductions.
Some of that same pulse-racing excitement is reflected by the eclectic array of artists in the Metropolitan Museum’s yearlong Web series The Artist Project, which marries an artist with a single work of art from a diverse array of media. A different artist narrates each three-minute segment, discussing the work’s importance as an exemplar of his or her own aesthetic values. Many of the artist narrators are not A-list celebrities of the art world; rather, they have been chosen because of their clarity of thought and insightful, passionate advocacy of a single work — a work that sometimes isn’t even in the same style or medium as his or her own. What you experience in each three-minute journey is a deeper understanding of not only the work itself, but also, more importantly, the sensual and mental connections the artist makes to it. These videos are not art-historical exegeses; they are windows into the act of creative perception. (When The Artist Project began last spring, I wrote about it here.)
I had lots of anticipation for the series as it unspooled, but few expectations about how diverse the featured artists and their selections would be. Every few days now, when I receive an email notice of a new post, I can’t wait to watch it. Watching these short encounters is definitely addictive. It is the personal, often autobiographical connection each artist makes to the selected work that draws you in deeper.
Some pairings of artist and work are easy to understand, such as the German photographer Thomas Demand’s choice of the Gubbio Studio, a late 15th century Italian wood-inlay room, an installation analogous to his own paper-and-cardboard tabletop-size constructions. Demand’s detailed analysis of the studio’s perspective is a window into how he creates his own art:
Caledonia Curry, known as “Swoon,” describes a much more visceral encounter with Daumier’s painting The Third Class Carriage, creating an immediacy that can’t help but remind me of that boy standing before the Seurat painting in the Musée d’Orsay. Swoon gets inside Daumier’s empathic human portrait of poverty in this work, a painting that “strikes the flint” of her own heart:
Dia Batal, a secular Lebanese graphic artist, stands before a single tile scroll high above a doorway in the Met’s Islamic art galleries. The work she studies is the entry panel to a Syrian mosque, one that, in light of the horror show in Syria today, might not even exist were it not for the enclave of the museum. Batal moves beyond the functional message of the Arabic text to a consideration of the anonymous artist who actually made the tile panel:
I think of the similarly anonymous artists of the great European church sculptures documented by my friend Raymond Cauchetier in his three-decade photographic odyssey, an amazing catalog of figures often barely visible on high columns and capitals.
Arlene Shechet talks about the delights in walking the Met’s rooms with no explicit goal in mind, surrendering herself to the passing moments, stopping at anything that catches her attention. She talks of returning often to an 8”-tall bronze sculpture of a veiled, masked woman alive with the rhythms of a dancer:
Like Shechet, whenever I visit the Met, one of my first stops is at the vitrines of early Greek Cycladic sculpture. One piece haunts me. Though its form is hieratic, static, with none of the dynamics of the figure Shechet examines, it is, for me, a timeless avatar of tranquility in a world of chaos and flux:
Dana Schutz does not shy away from the unsettling, even “psychotic” impression created by the ambiguities and sexual irresolutions of many of Balthus’ paintings. Looking into the spatial perspective of The Mountain with Schutz, I find a kind of safe place with this young woman, who can both define and accept the “tension” inherent in the Swiss painter’s pubescent fixations. Shutz’s open analysis of Balthus’ work lends a woman’s informed perspective. This is another gift of The Artist Project: seeing a work of art through someone’s eyes that are so different from mine.
It would be difficult to imagine a selection for Shelia Pepe’s segment that is more alien to her own work than the medieval armor hall, a multi-story sky-lit space with a militantly masculine, four-figured equestrian display on a slight dais in the gallery’s center. Pepe creates soft, porous, open (even room-sized) installations of crocheted cloth materials. She is a self-defined lesbian artist whose works are “site-specific installations of web-like structure crocheted from domestic and industrial material.”
Pepe embraces the extreme difference of these hard, severe metal figures from her own softly pliable installations. (One thinks also of the art of Eva Hesse.) Pepe’s connection to this aggressively male combat armor is in her consideration of the detailed construction of the different media. She concludes her video by saying, “I'm looking for, even in the hardest edges, a craftsman's relationship to the object that they're making.”
The Met’s armor hall is another of those magical spaces, like the Gubbio Studio, that can only be featured in a museum of grand scale. The Met is so grand, in fact, that it recently opened a new branch a few blocks across town at the Marcel Breuer Brutalist building at Madison Avenue and 75th Street. (The building was renovated after the Whitney Museum moved downtown.)
Thinking of the huge Met gallery given to European armor, I can’t help but think of an adjacent, dark and somewhat claustrophobic one that houses Japanese medieval armor and kabutos, objects that we associate with Japanese Jidaigeki movies or derivative models from Star Wars.
Another unlikely dialogue between artists would seem to be between the American Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell and the Chinese calligrapher Wenda Gu. However, Gu’s analysis of Motherwell’s Lyric Suite of ink figures on paper reflects its close fraternity with classical Chinese ink landscapes.
These pairings of contemporary artists with sometimes centuries-old art become a compelling argument for the timelessness of the artistic experience in ways that cannot be matched by any academic approach. Technology changes, materials change, but the human vision that continues to make art remains singular and timeless.
The Met recently launched the fifth season of the The Artist Project. Here is the teaser:
When this season wraps in June, the project will include 120 videos about art in the Met’s collections, works spanning five millennia of creation. If you have not yet begun the journey, you can start with the first season here:
To subscribe to the series, visit the Met's website, activate one of the teasers and then scroll down to the bottom of the page to enter your email address.
These videos are no substitute for going to museums in person, but how often do we have such companionable colleagues in tow when we do that?