Several years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art posted on its website a series of slideshow videos highlighting individual works in its voluminous collections. It was an eclectic selection, ranging from major European paintings to small Japanese netsuke. Once a week, a Met curator from the featured department guided the viewer into an up-close examination of the work, often employing lighting and camera angles that were far more revealing than what could be seen in a vitrine or on the gallery wall. The perspective was that of the curator: informative and detailed, but somewhat bloodless. Still, it was a brilliant use of the Web to “visit” the museum.
In March, the Met introduced a follow-up series, The Artist Project, which employs the same format but offers a much more engaging perspective. Over the course of this year, 100 artists (not curators, art critics or art historians) will face off with a single painting, photograph, sculpture, art object or gallery space and explain how it has influenced his or her own work — why it “rocks their world,” as series director Christopher Noey says — and has enduring value for all of us.
Stefanie Waldek of Architectural Digest observes:
The results, like the artists appointed to the project, are varied: Deborah Kass picked Athenian vases; Xu Bing selected Jean-François Millet’s Autumn: Haystacks; Tom Sachs chose the Shaker Retiring Room; and Mickalene Thomas selected photographs by Seydou Keïta. “We wanted an array of voices as diverse as our collections and our audience,” Noey says.
It’s almost axiomatic to say that most artists are reluctant to talk about their work, and especially to “explain” it. However, if this new online series is any indication, this same reluctance does not hold when artists are talking about other artists’ works. Using the techniques of voiceover and detailed photographic scrutiny, as well as photos of the guest artist in the gallery, these 100 contemporary artists who work in many different media will each highlight a single work; this will be presented in five online “seasons,” each featuring 20 artists. Some of the participants are icons, like the California conceptual artist John Baldessari (who hates that moniker), who examines the impasto paint and cartoony graphics of Philip Guston’s Stationary Figure.
Baldessari notes that he has been fascinated with Guston since high school, particularly with the macabre humor in Guston’s late paintings of boots, cigars, light bulbs, and even hooded Klansmen riding in jalopies. (Guston’s lifelong style of switching between figuration and abstraction is, in the latter, employed in a conscious effort to “deskill” himself.) Baldessari says, “I identify with his courage. It’s one of the things I always emphasize: don’t be a virtuoso, and don’t be a show-off.” Baldessari’s personal reflection not only give us a window into the work itself, but also reveals much about his own preoccupations — as do all of these encounters.
Here is a trailer for the 20 videos featured in Season 1. If you like, they will continue on autoplay. At the time of this blog posting there are 42 artist videos in rotation.
The guides of The Artist Project do not limit themselves to the traditional “fine arts.” In one of the early videos, composer Cory Arcangel talks about the mechanics of the plucked harpsichord and how its unchanging dynamic range (regardless of key pressure) makes it a kind of machine. The instrument becomes, for Arcangel, an aesthetic object of his chosen profession — the restoration and preservation of obsolete technology. Presenting a musical instrument as an “obsolete” but endearing machine affords a surprising take on this 300-year-old instrument.
Painter George Condo examines the late Monet painting The Path Through the Irises from several dozen perspectives, from an extreme close-up of a blob of paint that looks to have simply fallen onto the canvas, to viewing the canvas in long shot from an adjacent gallery.
He marvels at how the tonality and structure of the painting remains intact regardless of the viewer’s vantage point.
Large-format architectural photographer Robert Polidori mesmerizes us with his own fixation on the young saint’s blazing eyes in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting of Joan of Arc.
Often noted as a photographer of empty rooms, Polidori dives into the Pre-Raphaelite busyness of the richly detailed painting and the haunted figure amidst the landscape.
Conversely, sculptor Tom Sachs takes us inside the spare furnishings of the Shaker Retiring Room of the Met’s American Wing.
“Everything is there for a purpose,” Sachs says as we see several dozen angles on the room’s furnishings, stopping to focus on the detailed craftsmanship in “humble” pine chairs and tables …
… and a rhythmic-patterned floor weaving extolling the Shaker dictum “To work is to pray.”
Mickalene Thomas, an African-American painter/photographer/filmmaker, looks at the black-and-white full-figure portraits of Mali photographer Seydou Keita. Thomas, who often works in abstraction, is riveted by the elaborate cloth figurations in Keita’s photos of women dressed for a night out or church, as well as the tonal gray-scale subtlety of his dark-suited male figures.
One of the delights of the Thomas video is the detail showing the photographer and his view camera reflected in an auto’s dark fender:
Every one of these encounters is a surprise. The works shown represent many departments in the Met, and the photos of the artists standing in the galleries, in front of the art, gives the video a sense of immediacy. But even beyond these formal elements, what is most rewarding is hearing these articulate men and women discussing why and how an individual work of art inhabits their consciousness. Their reflections cut deeply into the heart of what we all hope to experience as we stand in front of any artwork in a one-on-one encounter. As we are given anecdotal details about the artist and his or her life, it’s layered with the intersection of the work and the artist’s perspective in a kind of simultaneous double exposure.
One of the most intriguing encounters presented so far features Zarina Hashmi, who hesitates to call herself an artist, preferring simply “teacher.” Though Muslim, Hashmi has limited ability to read Arabic calligraphy (mainly, she knows the alphabet), but she loses herself in the patterns of the sensuous Arabic texts whether they are in ink or carved stone.
Hers is perhaps the purest encounter of all these artists because her perspective is free of narrative or interpretation, relying only on visual immediacy and intimacy.
Each of these slideshow videos is about three minutes long, which is about as long as most museum visitors pause to look at any single work of art. Whatever you do, don’t hesitate to click on one that you think will not interest you. They all will grab you. Besides, how much of a commitment is it to spend three minutes with an artist who has devoted his or her time and energy to telling you about one single work of art that so enthralls?