Monday, August 03, 2009

Notes on a Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago's New Modern Wing

Astonished by energy and romanticism and above all the color in the Cy
Twombly exhibit. Revising my notions of "late work."

Abstract gardens and landscapes with gestural inscriptions (often the date or the town in Italy, Gaeta, where Twombly spends much of his time) very moving.

Wooden sculpture: base is an old case of Johnny Walker with the Walker logo upside-down: two wooden blades like oars upthrust from white plaster box. Compressed image of the Odyssey, to my mind: the sailor walking inland to where the sea is unknown.

Mysterious simultaneity of formal restraint and baroqur excess in these paintings. Streaks of paint the dominant motif: inscriptions of verticality, gravity, time. So often the ghost of letterforms, spermatazoa, calligraphy.

Huge horizontal canvas of white peony blotches and dark green streaked stems on a light green background with haiku over each flower in quavery script. I like "From the heart / of the peony / a summer / bee". After the coolness of that painting the red and yellow peonies on the next wall are a shock, blazing out with exuberant vulgarity: ketchup and mustard, horrorshow streaks of blood. One particular haiku is featured on all three peony paintings displayed here, by Takarai Kikaku: "AH! The Peonies / For which / Kusonoki / Took off his Armour". The curator's note points out the diminished inserted first "R" in the last word so as to pun on "amour."

Most suggestive for me the paintings from the last series on display, "III Notes from Salalah," which feature white scriptlike "pseudo-writing" (Twombly's word) over dark green backgrounds, blackboard like save for the omnipresent streaking of the white paint. One really seems to lead off with the French "le." Dazzled by the sheer scale of paintings produced by a man in his late seventies and early eighties.

Now Gerhard Richter. I will never cease my simpleminded amazement at visual artists' ability to think through/in elementary forms and gestures: verticality, horizontality, mass, line. Add color to the mix and the emotional temperature rises. Add representation and the mix perpetually threatens to thicken into the para-visual, but wavers back again into form. Memorable paintings oscillate and hum with the viewer's mental activity, spurred from pure form to applied and back again.

A lot of people take photographs, though this is not allowed. Most don't bother to disable the little "click" their digital cameras are programmed to emit. Do they just not know? Whenever I try to snap a pic I get caught: if I didn't know it wasn't allowed I'd probably get away with it more.

The same thing always happens to me in musuems: I begin alive with curiosity and come to focus intently on the work of one, two, perhaps three artists. Then my energy flags, I start to think about lunch, and the artworks blur into sensation, which means cooler and more conceptual works lose my attention and the hottest works--because of
their color or eroticism or intensity of subject matter--seize it for a moment before lassitude again descends.

A de Chirico I'd not seen before: "The Eventuality of Destiny," a 1927 oil that references the Three Graces (and/or Picasso's Desmoiselles) in which various parts of three nude women's bodies appear in diffferent styles and on different picture planes. Not used to seeing him depict the figure, as opposed to the enigmatic cityscapes he's
famous for. Iconic. One woman's head, in profile, nearly black and white (the rest of the painting is alive with color) looks like the head on a Roman coin: it compresses in itself the lonely feeling his other paintings radiate.

The familiarity of Chagall's "White Crucifixion" protects me until I notice the despairing mother trying to shelter her child at the bottom of the canvas. Tears.

And then to turn aside and behold the Chicago skyline through a scrim, with the silver curls of the Pritzker Pavilion like a shiny birthday present.

There is a weight and gravity to the European artworks, even the most playful, antihetical to the antic spirit of even the most monumental American art on the floor below.

The piercing perfectly circular red hole at the center of Magritte's "The Banquet" (1958). Impossible domestication of the irruptive Real.

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