I’m a believer in the power of Art-in-passing. You walk into a museum and they tell you it’s closing in 30 minutes? No problem! Art-in-passing is an exhilarating corollary to the history-heavy, over-referenced, know-it-all-ness of Art-in-depth. When your mind’s feeling nimble or you’re high on caffeine or there’s just no fucking time to put on your pretensions and sift for meaning in each museumified work, take solace in the fly-by. If a work of Art has beauty, you’ll see it – if it has truth, you’ll know it, luxury of time be damned!
In that spirit, here are the highlights from a quickie with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.
From a distance, de Kooning’s “Clamdigger” in the Sculpture Garden seems rebelliously out of place. The Rodin’s and Giacometti’s and Calder’s are all “finished”, ready to set sail. And there’s “Clamdigger”, like a bundle of nerves, shivering in the wind. I love it for that, for it’s drunken blurriness, it’s raw vulnerability. So much sculpture is Apollonian, alpha-male. “Clamdigger” flips it, forcing the medium to accept messiness – you know, life!
Inside the museum – which is free, which is amazing – we took the escalator down, directly into the sea of kisses that is Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips”. This could have been the whole experience, the whole reason to go – like the hot new roller-coaster at the Amusement Park – and I would have left satisfied. This painting in this setting gave me every thrill I seek: dramatic encounter, compare and contrast, largeness of scale, provoked-thought, collage-like recontextualization, visual wit, sarcasm, balance, beauty, and startling vitality in the creative spirit, still so present. While there are a handful of Artists I like more than Andy Warhol, I am forever impressed by how his work holds up in collections at museums. Everything about his art is disarming, like it’s still more hip than us, 50 years later. (If there was never an Andy Warhol, would anyone else have ever made huge silk-screens patterned with nothing but the mouth of the reigning pop starlet?) There was more “serious” art at the Hirshhorn but nothing even close to the dazzle and freshness of “Marilyn Monroe’s Lips”.
Warhol was also the subject of the other stand-out from the basement of the Hirshhorn, a smattered “Portrait of Andy Warhol” done by Julian Schnabel. If you’re painting Andy Warhol in the early 80’s, I suppose you’ve got to do something grand, and Schnabel knows it, painting the portrait on a huge swath of black velvet. Lush and exotic, the velvet shimmers on the wall and could easily swallow anything done to it, so Schnabel puts up his dukes and goes gory with pastels. Really, he paints Warhol like a de Kooning “Woman”, all whites and pinks and yellows and greens, paint thick as frosting, lines tendon-tight. Andy looks… chaotic, but in a conceptually complicit way. It makes me wonder if the velvet and the pastels weren’t Andy’s idea. What makes “Portrait of Andy Warhol” work is the strength of it’s boldness, ornamenting Andy with an erased-Pollock Christmas tree of paint-splatters that had to have been utterly risky against the velvet. This is a painting based in breaking rules, a sitting I’m sure they both got a kick out of. And good on them – it’s now the past…
Back up the escalator and up again, passing the level where Louise Bourgeois’ exhibit was being hung (placed? tethered?) and to the top floor where they showcase the main collection. First stop, a room full of Frank Stella and his dart-board geometries. Some famous pieces, most of which I’d seen before. But we didn’t stop to linger until “Concentric Squares”, his mid-60’s kaleidoscope of color tensions-and-releases. Though one painting, it’s side-by-side feel immediately evoked the Warhol duo we’d started with and made me feel again how much I like the experience of looking back and forth between two like-pieces, the relationship between them dissipating into the viewer’s relationship with them both. “Concentric Squares” is a feast for the eyes, a mix of color-theory, color-control, and the alternately intriguing and entrancing powers of pigment. After a minute, I could make out the patterns (ABCDEFEDCBA on the left and FEDCBABCDEF on the right), and after that, the imperfections (some smears and blotchy lines), but the whole experience of “Concentric Squares” was glowing pleasure, a gliding high.
From a room of Frank Stella’s to a room of Clyfford Still’s – and this is free entertainment! Clyfford Still is one of those artists – like Franz Kline and Mark Rothko – I’ve always felt comes off deceptively tame scaled-down for Art books. Seen out of context, the ripped shadows of his canvases seem pat, like he’s not sure whether to go more minimalist or more expressive and so settles for abbreviation and gesture. But in the high-ceilings of the Hirshhorn, Still’s canvases are like towers – massive, stunning, the ripped edges floating magnetically towards a destined peak. I stopped – not for long – in front of the majestic violet tones of “1950 M-No.1”. I was suddenly laying on the roof at night, watching clouds pass in a starless sky. I thought of how elegance can be imperfect, how simplicity has depth, how the history of art is made up as much of little things we notice as of grand ideas and transcendent visions. I could have spent all day – all week – in front of “1950 M-No.1”, but like a smile from a beautiful girl on the train that sends you reeling through the cinema of your life, all I had was the moment and all I could do was smile back.