Tuesday, June 2, 2009

All That Dang Modern Art an Stuff

Last Night I saw a wonderful documentary on the Sundance Channel: Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World. I had seen some of Martin's paintings before, but had no particular reaction to them other than bewilderment, and I knew nothing of her biography. But I was fascinated, charmed... I'm searching for a stronger word... I was really captivated as Martin spoke. She talked about growing up in rural Saskatchewan and Vancouver, then living and painting in Taos and New York. Some of the things she said seemed a little weird to me, like that she had been married hundreds of times before, had hundreds of kids, in previous lives, and so had been fine with a more solitary life this time around. Some of it made a great deal of sense to me, like her advice not to worry about other people's mistakes, because your own will furnish you with plenty of material for learning. But everything she said was fascinating. And there was something very gentle and soothing about her voice and her manner. She talked about rejecting the prevailing way of life which relies on intellect and aggression, and instead emptying one's mind and awaiting inspiration.

My immediate family, when I was growing up, was not particularly receptive to modern art. By modern I mean Impressionism and everything after. Not that we were particularly attuned to painting and sculpture before Impressionism. We were more up on music, all genres, classical, folk, pop, jazz, there we were a little more caught up. There was usually at least one keyboard instrument in the house at any given time. At times there were lots of different instruments in the house.

But not very many paintings or prints, and very little that by any stretch of the imagination could be called sculpture. So what little I know about that sort of thing I've picked up elsewhere. When I was 19 years old I had a roommate for a short period of time who was a pretty accomplished draftsman and painter. He explained to me, drawing with various colored markers as he spoke, how abstraction can come out of representation. When I was in my 20's, I was tearing illustrations out of some magazines and taping them up on my wall for decoration, and I saw a picture of a painting by Matisse, and I looked at it and wondered what the fuss was about. I taped it onto the wall alongside pictures of models and movie stars and cars and such, to see whether it would grow on me. It did, and that in turn opened my mind to other artists. I had already become interested in the Impressionists, and in the superstar artists of the '80's, Sherman and Longo and Salle and Schnabel. Especially Schnabel. Some people snicker at Schnabel. I don't care. I suspect he doesn't either. He's grandiose, which means he's aiming for great things and willing to miss badly now and then for the sake of the chance of great success. Well, Hell, I don't know what Schnabel is aiming for and shouldn't speak for him. All I wanted to say was: let 'em snicker, who cares.

Some art I like right away, like that of Schnabel and Pollock, some artists have taken me awhile, like Matisse and Van Gogh, some I'm still working on, like Martin and Donald Judd, with whom Martin was exhibited decades ago -- mistakenly, she said in the documentary on Sundance, because she was not a minimalist. Minimalists, she said, did not display their emotions in their art, she did.

I suppose my writing is not minimalist. Other than that I approach things much differently than did Agnes Martin, who died in 2004 at the age of 92. I am ego-driven, I am concerned with facts. Or with the attempt to closely approximate facts.

And I suppose I haven't put as much distance between myself and my family on the subject of art as I sometimes like to think. As much as I deride the wholesale way they dismiss modern genres, as enthusiastically as I like so many painters and sculptors of the 20th and 21st centuries, I haven't completely extinguished within myself the suspicion we all felt in my childhood home when we saw art we didn't understand, the fear that someone was just pulling our leg. (Sometimes, of course, modern artists are pulling the public's collective leg, but not as often, and not at all as crudely as we thought, as some of them still think.)

I want to understand everything, although I understand that I never will, that I shouldn't even want to, that it's absurd, a mania. There's a ravenousness to my curiosity sometimes. I wonder where I got that. I don't see it in any of my blood relatives. They're better off not sharing that with me, there is no doubt.

But I try to urge them to keep an open mind when it comes to all that dang weird modern art. I seem to have no talent for making interesting pictures and objects, so I talk them up instead.

There was a stand-up comedian who had a half-hour special on Comedy Central recently, who was that guy? I'm sorry I don't remember his name. I didn't recognize him, I only caught the last few minutes of his special, but I loved what I saw. And I especially loved the way he ended his set: his last words were, "Less killing! More art! Less killing! More art!" He said it twice, like that.

I like it so much, I'll say it again: Less killing! More art!

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