This post is inspired by my list of favorite books, as I mentioned the Abstract Expressionists in my note about Bluebeard and thought I’d like to share why I like them so very much.
Generally, I love art, especially paintings. And the paintings I tend to love most are abstract. I have to thank an old boyfriend for this—he was a huge fan of Wassily Kandinsky, and had prints of his work in his apartment. I also have to thank the singer/songwriter Dar Williams, whose “Mark Rothko Song” brought me to check out his paintings. And weirdly, the show “Daria” which first exposed me to Jackson Pollock, and later the movie “Pollock” starring Ed Harris.
Yet, even after all of the above, I merely found abstract art “interesting”. Previously, I was more intrigued by Dali and Picasso, with their surrealism, and the impressionists. I especially loved Renoir. I am still drawn to any Renoir painting I see—I can be pulled from across a huge hall by a small painting of his—I think it’s the color. (The same reason I’ve never cared for Monet; his color always seems washed out to me). And I still find Dali and Picasso to be intriguing. But truly, the first time I saw these abstract artists’ works in person, I was simply staggered.
I visited the MOMA in New York in the winter of 2000, where they have a special exhibition of Kandinsky’s work. There are four panels, meant to represent the seasons, (called, I believe, “Four Seasons”, their formal names “Panels for Edwin R. Campbell #1-4), presented together. I couldn’t look away. I didn’t know which one to look at first, how to stop looking at that one to turn to the next—it was unlike any experience I’d ever had. I appreciate most paintings, even the sort of scary religious ones from the 16th and 17th centuries, but nothing I had ever felt when viewing any other paintings came close to the breathlessness I felt at looking at these Kandinsky works.
Since then, I have felt that same awe and reverence numerous times—but never so intensely as when I first visited the London Tate Gallery and walked into the room containing Jackson Pollock’s “Summertime”. I haven’t been able to find any good web images of the painting, mostly because it is nearly impossible to portray adequately. Here is the best I could find—
an actual photograph of the painting hanging in the museum. http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=12149
The painting itself is over 19 feet long, and about 32 inches high. It is without comparison my favorite painting of all time. It’s very difficult to explain why—except that the energy and emotion that the work conveys are simply overwhelming. Oftentimes, abstract expressionists stayed away from giving titles to their works, wishing the viewer to come to the art without any prior prejudice, but I cannot help but feel even if Pollock had refrained from naming this painting, the joy and energy of springtime would still have come through.
So much of Pollock’s work is dark, a reflection perhaps, of his own inner demons. But this one, it dances. It sings. It soars. I sat for literally an hour in the Tate just drinking this one painting in.
I have had similar feelings when viewing works by Mark Rothko. I show his work (along with Pollock’s) to my students when beginning our unit on Vonnegut’s “Bluebeard”, and invariably get a chorus of scornful “I could do that!”. To which I respond—oh, please do. If you can paint me something identical to one of these, I would be forever grateful to you. Of course, no one has. But again and again I hear the disdain in their voices when shown these ones—more so than even with Pollock (who many of them feel just flung some paint on the floor and called it a day). To be fair, though, while I never disregarded the paintings in quite that way, as I said before, I also never felt drawn to them until I saw one in person—photographs just do not do these paintings justice. It was during that same visit to the MOMA in 2000 when I rounded a corner and there it was-massive in size and drowning in color. I stopped. For a split second, I couldn’t breathe. I stood. I stared. I marveled.
I have also been fortunate enough to visit the London Tate three times in the last decade, and have spent a significant amount of the time allotted there in the Mark Rothko room—they have an entire room dedicated to (and indeed, built for) his paintings, which were specifically created to be exhibited together in just such a space. They are, in fact, not my favorites of his, but it is so seldom that I get to see one in person, that I take the opportunity when it arises. Here is what I would consider to be my favorite one:
No. 61 (Rust and Blue)
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Mostly, I think I like this specific one for the simple reason that I like blue. Though I also like the maroon-ish “rust” as well. And it’s just there—so beautiful and amazing. I haven’t gotten to see this one in person yet, but perhaps someday I’ll make it to LA, and while everyone else is touring famous persons’ homes, I’ll check out the Museum. It’s actually not that large for him—only 45 by 36 inches—but still, I think, breathtaking. Maybe if I ever get to see it in person I’ll change my mind, but I doubt it. In my experience, these sorts of paintings only get better in person.
I know I’m not alone in my love of these paintings, and I also know that an even larger number of people think I’m crazy—but I implore you—before you dismiss these artists, check out their work in person. If you still find them unappealing, I’m sorry I wasted your time, but if you get even a small fraction of the pleasure that I do out of them, it should be worth it.