Seeking Refuge: Twombly, Flavin, and Picasso
The stress of Contemporary Art Month has been creeping up on me. It has been a fantastic, crazy, last few weeks. Beginning with a successful Seven Minutes in Heaven 2013 and continuing with a great inaugural opening of PS102, a new gallery space located inside a business, where I am now curating exhibitions monthly. In between all of this, I have been working on some new work for my open studio tour coming up in a few days, as well as slowly thinking of what I want to exhibit for another upcoming show I will be having in July. If I can get my work together. There is always something to work on, always something to think about. Since March is Contemporary Art Month, it has been my busiest time of the year for the last couple of years. But this year, I have never taken on this many projects. It’s enough to drive a girl mad. Despite the fact that I have a huge load of work, I decide to get out of town. There’s a lot on my mind and I feel like I need a change of scenery. I haven’t left town for no reason in quite a while. Well, isn’t my sanity the best reason? Looking up something to do, there is a Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) that looks amazing. Surprisingly, there is a second major exhibit touring there as well, Portraits of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado, that will be closing soon. These exhibits are normally $20 each to get into, but I find on one particular night this week, they are letting you in for $10 FOR BOTH. I think I have found a place to escape and clear my brain from the now. Luckily, my friend in Houston takes me in, so that is where I head, on the Megabus. The first few hours in town are spent by myself. This is refreshing and fantastic. I ignore my email, facebook, and texts, to just breathe for a while. I decide to just stroll around downtown. I’ve mentioned how I love the city. Yes, there is a lot going on around me, but it feels much different when it’s not me rushing around. I am the one in slow motion as everything is running around me. People watching, architecture, just observing life. As usual, I see art everywhere, as I think of Richard Estes, staring at these huge store windows. While I have always loved and photographed reflections, Estes gave me an appreciation for layered realities.
I hop on a bus to the Menil. Instead of heading straight inside, I turn to go to the little park there. This new route took me on a side of the Menil that I had never noticed before. Enjoying the outdoor sculptures is something I don’t always take advantage of when I am here. There are three negative sculptures by Michael Heizer on the lawn of the museum, created from 1968-1972. Known for creating land art, these sculptures are small scale replicas of three pieces from his “Nine Nevada Depressions” series of work, made in 1967. These pieces laid the groundwork for one of his major works, Double Negative, created in 1969-70. Studying DN in school, the scale of land art fascinates me. The design of Rift reminded me of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind. It is such a beautiful day, just relaxing under a tree is exactly what I needed. I sketched a little and worked on some of my titles for my current pieces, but nothing pressing, nothing that had to be done now. Just thinking and brainstorming. The stress was beginning to melt away. When I finally got up (probably after about an hour), I decided to head to the Cy Twombly Gallery. The Menil is fantastic, the way it has several additional buildings in the immediate area, dedicated to a particular artist or specific type of art. I will openly admit I used to never appreciate Twombly. While not being exposed to many images of his work in school, I had still seen several of his pieces in different museums, but only one or two together. They never really said anything to me, there was not enough of a discussion. Then I went to the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston for the first time. Getting to see so many different bodies of his work let me appreciate the gestures and lines, an important element of many of his works. One of my favorite series here is Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts), 1988. The deep, gestural greens seem to lead into the abyss. These pieces are full of emotion and gesture. Using a limited color pallet, the work is expressive of something much deeper. Staring into them, I feel a sadness, as if I were Ophelia, letting the weight of everything pull me down. The heaviness keeps me exploring further. Even in this series, Twombly adds lines in the form of text, a poem to Rilke, enforcing the mood he has created in this room, with this painting, in nine parts.
(Ponds) to Rilke
and in the ponds
broken off from the sky
my feeling sinks
as if standing on
For the first time, I fall in love with a new series of Twombly’s work, Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair, a set of five paintings, 1985. Viewing them before, I apparently never appreciated the depth these paintings offer. While these large pieces are composed on white backgrounds, the feelings of despair, continue to hang in the air in this room also. This is an interesting combination using this color. White normally represent things such as youth, purity, and innocence, yet here is in juxtaposition with mature perceptions. The emotional gestures in a seemingly chaotic mess exude complicated passions. The “rose” seems to display a bleeding heart – messy, dripping, and coming out of the canvas. Amid the abstract imagery, the pieces also incorporate text, forming characteristic scribbles. It’s interesting when Twombly uses “legible” text, he creates a distinction from the imagery. Where as in many of his most recognizable works, the scribbles are the work, presented as indecipherable and repetitive gestures. In this instant, quotes from Rilke, Rumi, and Giacomo Leopardi are crammed into a compartmental space above the imagery, shaping the panel. Each series I encounter offers more to the conversation with Twombly. As each room houses a different body of work, more of his thoughts and gestures are revealed. Extending past the canvas, his work also includes sculptural pieces. While not a huge fan of his sculptural work, there has always been one piece in particular that has always drawn me in, Thicket (Jupiter Island), 1992. Made of wood, plastic leaves, plaster, and paint, the media differs greatly from his more characteristic work. I always return to this piece. Something about the way the plant looks like it’s suffocating, drowning in the paint, fascinates me. It is completely covered, yet the plant doesn’t seem weighed down, it is still springing up. Any life is blocked by the plaster, coming or going, yet it has this tenacity, aiding it’s survival. Previously, I discussed an exhibit of huge still life photography by David LaChapelle, referring to a particular piece as “the Suffocating Bouquet”. In both pieces, the “life” is restrained by an outside force. But I never get the sense of something being dead, the life has not been removed, somehow these piece are still breathing. They are both the color white, the color of life. It is captivating to look at. Twombly’s work culminates in Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), 1994. This enormous triptych takes up an entire room, at 53′ wide and 13′ high, showcasing the range of mark making he utilized throughout his many bodies of work. This particular piece is both minimal and yet very expressive at the same time. Completed over a span of twenty years, this is the full discussion Twombly wanted to exhibit. While the most complete, this may be the piece I discuss the least. It is something to be viewed and contemplated in person. See this piece after you have viewed the rest of the gallery and don’t underestimate it. There is a bench. Just sit down for a while. Untitled (Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), 1994, Detail In an entirely separate building a few block away is Dan Flavin. Richmond Hall is yet another building exclusive to one artist, by the Menil. Flavin is one of my favorite artists that works with light and this is one of my favorite pieces. I have been fortunate enough to see quite a few of his works, such as in New York, Berlin, and Munich. But my other favorite Flavin installation I have written about is in Marfa, Texas, at Chinati. His individual pieces don’t compare to the way the light works together when combined to create these massive works. Using a characteristic limited color pallet, this piece incorporates pink, yellow, green, and blue, and uses one additional color I have never seen utilized in another work of his, purple, in the form of a fluorescent light splitting down the middle of the entire length of the piece, anchoring them together. The lights reflect on the floor, extending the work from the walls into the space. While there are the physical components of a light piece, it is about what is radiating and how it works with the environment it’s in, that is the most interesting part of experiencing light pieces. It is about the space, a much different viewing experience than looking at a two dimensional piece of art. When I first walk in, there is actually a contemporary dance troupe performing amid the installation. Their body movements were mesmerizing, I kept thinking how exceptional it is to be able to perform in the midst of such an amazing environment. The piece highlighted motion and gestures using only their bodies, in a space where the art was exuding from the walls. This was indeed a unique experience. The performance was by the MFAH Core Residency Program at the Glassell School of Art and I talk to the choreographer. I tell her about Luminaria, a huge city art event in San Antonio that is about light, but encompasses all arts, including literature, performance, and dance. I have worked with Luminaria, on a couple of occasions, most recently this year as Site Manager for a fringe location. They give out grants to perform. I write down the info for her and she gives me her card. It really was a special piece, I would love to see it travel. Isn’t that what I do as a curator? Make sure art is seen? While not curating now, I have to share info with this spectacular program. This signified the end of my introspective time alone, this is where my friend met me. After dinner, we head to the MFAH. The special entrance doesn’t start for another hour, so we decide to enjoy the permanent collection, it is free today. The Abstract Impulse: Selections from the Modern and Contemporary Collections is one of the exhibits they have out. A large imposing Soundsuit, 2011, by Nick Cave towers over you at the entrance. Cave makes these suits out of different materials, this one composed of various rugs. The feet are the only reference to a person, yet there is a major presence as you walk around the piece. The suits are meant to be worn and performed in. He will be performing in Grand Central Terminal in a few days. I was very disappointed that I missed his exhibit of these suits at the Austin Museum of Art (AMoA) last year, I heard that was an amazing show. Another exceptional piece is Calavera 4, created by Grupo Mondongo, an Argentinian Collective of three artists. This huge piece is approximately 6′ x 6′, demanding my attention. Made of plasticine and wood, this piece is entirely carved, revealing a rich history, mythology, as well as leading to up to current pop culture. The detail is pristine, as the imagery comes alive from panel on the wall. The depiction of evolution expresses the continuing changes, crammed among each other, as if occurring in a short period of time. Maybe it has, we just assume our lifetime is an eternity. The piece is exhibited along with a touch screen tv, describing in detail all of the intricately carved imagery. There were plenty of other pieces to discuss in this exhibit, but this was not my primary reason for being here today. However, this show is an excellent example of the modern and contemporary artwork in the permanent collection. As a former registrar, I would love to be able to get my hands on these pieces. I promise I’ll wear gloves. MFAH also has an amazing light installation. The James Turrell piece, The Light Inside, takes up an entire underground hallway, connecting one part of the museum to another, the dimensions are 11′ x 20.5′ x 118′. The media is neon and ambient light. The entrance is blocked by a large wall of light, which you have to walk around to enter or exit. There is a solid walkway, while the entire room is filled with light. It is a little disorienting to walk through at first. Even though the walkway is only a few feet above the ground, the color makes it seem endless, as if walking over water. This light piece definitely utilizes the space, creating it’s own environment. And then onto the main attraction: Picasso Black and White. While Picasso is known for experimenting with color in phases throughout his life, this show focuses on his monochromatic work, stripping the color to focus on the subject, something he continued to do throughout his career. Unfortunately, since I didn’t purchase a catalog and the security was extremely tight (as to be expected), I have no photos. It was quite an amazing, as well as ambitious exhibit. With over one hundred works, his subjects varied from everyday life to the horrors of war. While Picasso is of course a master and ground breaking artist, his most powerful work is where he is working with a theme, such as Guernica. The broken fragments of cubism can be used to express emotions of chaos and violation. Of course, that piece is not included in the exhibition, however, many of the studies and precursor imagery were. An artwork so monumental, in both scale and concept, may be worked on for quite a while before realizing the potential of what it is to become. But there are plenty of beautiful pieces every direction you turn. One of my favorites is Woman Ironing, depicting working class daily life. Another is a still life, Cock and a Jar, where the broken imagery brings an incredible energy to an otherwise static display. Yes, Picasso’s work is amazing. On another floor is the other stunning exhibit, Portraits of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado. The polar opposite of Picasso, this exhibit displays the opulence of the ruling class in Spain. Jewels, ornate clothing, and lavish households of the ruling class are the main subject of these paintings. In fact, included were several pieces showcasing their amusement, little people. The wealthy class did not think too much of the commoners they ruled over. Showcasing several major artists, including Titian, Rubens, and Velasquez, the show would not be complete without Goya. Goya’s body of work ranges from the elaborate portraits commissioned by the Spanish ruling class, to his raw and expressive still lifes, reminiscent of Dutch still life paintings, and his emotional work portraying war. The highlight of the entire Prado exhibit was his prints. The subject matter, the details, the emotion. None of Goya’s other works compare to the profound imagery he depicts in his printmaking. The amount of art therapy I had was just what the doctor ordered. Sometimes life is crazy and seems to throw unending curve balls at you. But the art today did exactly what it is meant to do – allow me to contemplate, offer inspiration, and add an incredible amount of beauty and skill to my day.