On Art & Museums

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Last I year I finally became a member of several art museums around New York City: the International Center of Photography, Guggenheim, MoMA (which includes PS1), and Whitney. I say “finally” because it’s something I planned to do when I first moved here nearly 25 years ago but just never got around to actually doing.

I’m no art buff. At least not in the conventional sense. I enjoy art. I find it interesting and often inspirational. Sometimes it’s even enlightening. But I don’t do the audio tours of the exhibits. I rarely attend the lectures. And often times I won’t even read the exhibit descriptions, favoring instead to let the art speak for itself. As I once told a perplexed museum staffer, “I’m here to enjoy the art, not learn about it.”

Tapping the Treasures
DSC_0010Whenever I travel to other cities, I tend to check out a few museums during my stay. I’ve found some great ones over the years, like the Deutsches Museum in Munich and the Kunsthaus in Zurich. I even dug the Getty in Los Angeles, though more for the setting than the art. And then there’s Amsterdam, a city with as many museums as my own. A few of my favorites include FoAm, Huis Marseille, and the Van Gogh Museum.

But I rarely spent time in any of New York City’s world-class collection of museums. For starters, they are always around, so it’s easy to put off a visit when there’s so much else to do. But the real obstacle, I’ve found, is the price of admission. Most of the major museums in New York charge between $14 to $25, even for locals. Yes, the Metropolitan Museum of Art only has a “suggested donation,” albeit $25, but my mother was so damn cheap that I never could stoop to paying anything less. Though I did recently attend the New Museum’s free night (Thursdays from 7:00-9:00 PM) to see if it is a museum I might be interested in joining (it was not).

When you become a member of a museum, though, there is no admission charge. And suddenly you are incentivized by your tax-deductible investment ($75-85 for the basic individual membership) to visit the museum. Plus, you start receiving mailings alerting you to new exhibits and events – reasons to repeatedly visit the museum and, therefore, make the most of your investment. Yes, folks, even art has a ROI.

For example, by not having to pay admission, most of my memberships paid for themselves within 4-5 months. Though the International Center of Photography rotates their exhibits so infrequently that becoming a member will actually cost you more than paying the regular admission fee (and their idea of membership events are high-priced classes or book signings which require you to purchase the book through them at a hefty mark-up). By the way, why is it the International Center of Photography and not the International Center for Photography? Is it really the center of all things photography, or a center dedicated to photography?

Tapping the Pleasures
IMG_0561As you can probably tell from the above list, I have a fondness for modern art. Though I often think so much of it is nothing more than a brilliant scam perpetrated upon the art community. And maybe that’s part of the appeal. The idea that I could take a giant white canvas, mark a black dot just left of center, sell it to a collector for several thousand dollars, and see it hung in a prestigious museum as my “commentary on the Democratic Party at the dawn of the 21st century” is nothing short of hysterical. It warms my proverbial cockles.

But I do enjoy most of it. And I do like museums – the solitude in the middle of a bustling city, and the feel of a well-designed place. And that latter fact cannot be under-estimated. Museums tend to give architects a little more freedom – a chance to really shine. And therefore you usually end up with a structure that’s as artistic as much of the art it holds.

Turrell at the Guggenheim
DSC_0005The Guggenheim is an excellent example of how innovative architecture enhances the art experience. And the recent James Turrell show not only takes that to a new level with the marriage of the space and the art, but it is also a good example of my love/laugh relationship with art. I have already visited the exhibition three times, which is unusual for me. The first time was at night, as part of members-only preview (yet another perk). The only real piece that impressed me was the massive transformation of the museum’s famed rotunda, the centerpiece of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.

Turrell closed it off from the spiraling galleries and created a series of progressively smaller open ovals all the way up to the ceiling skylight. These are then illuminated with colored lights, slowly migrating from one deep color to the next. Words cannot do it justice. It must be experienced.

I took numerous photos of this massive piece with my Mesolithic-model iPhone, but I wanted to come back and try to capture it with my Nikon 35mm. Plus, there was one Turrell exhibit up on the 5th floor that I had not seen because there was a line (in general, I try to avoid lines).

IMG_0544So a few weeks later I got up early on a Sunday morning for another member preview, thinking that most folks would have already seen it – or prefer to sleep in on a Sunday morning. Fortunately the line was considerably shorter, but the piece itself was a disappointment.

They only let a handful of people in at a time into this dark room. At the far end, there was a brownish/greyish rectangle on the wall. Sort of blank canvas. To the right of it, two lights shined against the side wall. And to the left of it, another light shined against that side wall.

As I stared at it, the wall on which the rectangle was hung seemed to distance itself from me, as if extending into a corridor with the rectangle acting as a window onto something, though I wasn’t sure what. I decided to imagine it was the ocean. That illusion – which proved to be about as exciting as one of those “hidden image” paintings in the mall – was hard to maintain because I was not alone in that room. I was with other people…museum people.

Museum People
IMG_0545People who go to museums tend to fit into three categories. There are those, like me, who go to see and, when possible, experience the art. We generally keep quiet and respect the space of others, doing our best to avoid blocking anyone’s sightlines.

Then there are those who go to be seen. They are always talking, but never about the art. They go to museums because they feel obligated to do so, because it makes them feel cultured or cool.

Finally you’ve got the museum nerds. These people are also talking, always talking, trying their best to impress anyone they can with their knowledge about the piece, the artist, the exhibition, or art in general. It’s as if they are jealous of the art, and demand that we focus our attention on them instead.

Naturally, I had all three types in that room with me at the Guggenheim. There were those who had waited on line only to stare at their smartphone screens in the corner, oblivious to the work at hand. And there were others happy to step right in front of me, blocking my view while barking out insipid questions or sharing vapid observations in the dark. Once again, jealous of the attention the art is receiving, they did their best to say “look at me…look at me.”

I made my way back down to the first floor, to once again gaze up at the gradual light show in the rotunda. I managed to take a few photos with my Nikon before the security guard suddenly decided that photography was forbidden (a ban which is still being enforced) and laying on the floor was also forbidden (a padded mat has since been installed so that people may recline in approved areas). The guard’s decisions occurred at the same time the museum opened to the public, leading me to believe that membership may have more privileges than I realized.

The Torture of Talkers
IMG_0547I’m compelled to note that the Guggenheim guards are far better than those at the Whitney. In fact, the Whitney gets my pick for the worst security guards. They have a tendency to talk loudly amongst themselves, often griping about something at the museum while standing right in front of a piece of art you’d really like to see.

Of course, the chatty guards are nothing compared to the gabby attendees. As I already mentioned, there are plenty of people who insist on stealing the spotlight from the art on the walls. And then you have your people who only visit the museum to check it off their to-do lists. They end up chatting about anything but the art, as if their time in the museum was just another chore like shopping for groceries.

And watching Turrell’s light show in the Guggenheim rotunda invariably showcases one of the more annoying human intrusions. When the lights become a deep blue, you can be sure the little old lady sitting next to you will turn to her husband, silently enduring this repeated offense, and say “look, it’s turning blue” as if he, and the rest of us, hadn’t been able to see that. This, of course, goes on for every color change until you get up and leave (or, with the surprising cooperation of her husband, drag the old lady across the street to a desolate spot in Central Park and bury her, alive, in a shallow grave while she repeatedly exclaims, “look, I’m being covered in dirt!”).

Appreciating Art
IMG_0512I do understand that some people feel the need to “understand” the art. Though I prefer to experience it and, if possible, enjoy it first and foremost. Understanding is secondary. And if I don’t immediately “get” what the artist is trying to convey, then that’s not my problem – it’s the artist’s. But it seems that, in our ADD society, people are obsessed with analyzing art instead of simply appreciating it.

Look, I don’t care why Natalie Portman is beautiful. I don’t need an analysis of her symmetric features or well-crafted genetic code. I don’t need to know the how and why. I am just thankful that she is, and that I have an opportunity to gaze upon her and experience and enjoy that beauty every now and then. Others unfortunately can’t seem to enjoy such beauty, as they are too busy tearing it apart for meticulous study. Crazy.

Sounding Off at MoMA
IMG_0508I recently attended a members-only preview of MoMA’s Soundings exhibit. It’s an exhibit in which sound plays a key – arguably even predominant – role. Yet when I attended the preview – remember, these people are members…veteran museum goers – there seemed to be absolutely no inclination to curb the talking and give the sounds their rightful priority. And we’re not talking whispers but rather full-blown New Yorker conversations.

Whatever happened to whispering in museums? That’s how I was raised. Do they still whisper in libraries, or has our individual narcissism invaded that space as well? The movies certainly seem to have abandoned their no-talking policy. This summer I paid $13.50 to listen to morons trying to figure out the plot of Pain & Gain. Serves me right, I guess.

To help alleviate some of the annoying banter I’ve detailed here, the Guggenheim is actually offering members a chance to enjoy the Turrell exhibit on “quiet nights.” For an extra $15, you and 59 other members can view the exhibit in a chatter-free environment for an hour. I’m tempted to shell out the additional fee, but I doubt that people will actually be able to shut their yaps. I give it three minutes before someone turns to the person next to them and says, “it’s so nice being here when no one else is talking.” Idiots.

Stop and Smell the Art
IMG_0484Back at the MoMA Soundings exhibit, one piece – which, like many in the exhibition, was blocked off from the others in a separate enclosure – featured a Mondrian painting and a series of digital tones broadcast through small speakers. Some young guys came into the enclosure, following their upheld cell phone cameras to record videos of what they could be experiencing first-hand, and immediately started to whine about how they were not sure what the piece meant, what it was about. “I don’t get it.” Dude, put away the camera. Shut your mouth. Look. Listen. And if you still don’t get it – assuming that there is something to get, and that it even needs to be gotten – then read the caption by the entrance that explains it. Douchzilla!

When I returned to the Guggenheim for that Sunday morning preview, to take in Turrell’s rotunda light show for a second time, it seemed like something was off. Several of the colors, most noticeably the green, weren’t nearly as deep or as rich as before. My guess is that the natural light from the skylight (it had been dark when I first experienced it) was washing out some of the colors.

So when MoMA offered another members-only preview at night, I pounced on the opportunity. In fact, I waited until just before sunset to make my way over to the museum. And by that time, on a Friday night, the crowds were quite thin, especially since the exhibit had already been open for some time.

Temporary Analysis
IMG_0490Given that it was my third time around, curiosity got the better of me and I started to track the pattern of the lights. Over the course of 20 minutes, the rotunda shifted through the following colors: teal, sea green, black, red, orange, tangerine, yellow, gray, lavender, grape, purple, cobalt blue, blue, midnight blue, black, and then white. During the next 15 minutes, I saw gray, ginger ale, yellow, orange, blood orange, red, pink, plum, lavender, grape, purple, deep purple, gray, white, gold, lemon lime, yellow, and black.

Not only could I not discern a consistent pattern, but the various colors and shades of colors did not appear to be consistent either. So I quickly abandoned my attempted analysis and nabbed a spot on the floor to simply enjoy the rest of the show. I spent a good hour and a half staring up at Turrell’s light display. Not only was it beautiful, but it was also mesmerizing. The colors start to play tricks on your eyes. That night, I even dreamt about it. Amazing.

I’ll close this piece near where I started it. I am no art aficionado. If you go to museums to make yourself appear cultured, then I thank you for your support. And if you spend your time in museums thoroughly studying, deconstructing, and analyzing every aspect of the art, well, more power to you. All I ask is that you do so quietly, with abundant respect for fellow museum goers.

Art, like life, is what you make of it. And just as you hopefully would be reluctant to take life away from others, I hope you will be just as reluctant to take away our art – and our opportunity to appreciate it – as well.

“The purpose of art is to inform and delight.” – Horace