Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In the Garden of Good and Abstract

Canton Palace, Ohio, 1980

One of the little joys of my drudgery work is that it lies within hailing distance of Our Nation's Capital's principal tourist attractions, including the vast and sober museums that line the stately National Mall.  Today at lunch, it being a singularly quiet sort of Tuesday, I went for a walk.

It is a remarkably fine day, clear and seasonably warm, and the summer crowds of regrettable visitors have dissipated, leaving the wide open green space to hardier travelers and lunching office drones like me.  Soon enough I found myself at the Hirshhorn, a museum whose building has always seemed to me to be going to great lengths to be sobersided, as if in atonement for also being doughnut-shaped.

I have many aesthetic lapses, and one that I've learned to live with that is that in general the kind of art collected by the Hirshhorn (with some major exceptions, Henry Moore being one) is not really my cup of tea.  Still, it's been years since I'd been there, and I thought it was about time once again to dip my foot into the more adventurous art of the last century.  Rauschenberg, Guston, and the like fill the walls and the curiously comfortable round-edged galleries, but as usual, I have to admit, they didn't do all that much for me.

Still, two things did, and I suppose that's something, and both by artists of whom I've never even heard before, which makes me feel rather broadened.

The first is the work above, a photograph by one Hiroshi Sugimoto.  This image of an old-time movie palace, still and almost uncannily detailed, at first almost seems like a model or miniature.  It turns out, I learned on reading the label (an option in many museums, here very nearly a necessity, given the paucity of visual clues so frequently given by the works on offer), that his modus operandi consists of setting up the images with exposures as long as the film being shown - so that what one sees is the brilliant blank screen (the images having all flickered by) and the empty, magisterial auditorium, and nothing else.  One can read a great deal into an image like this - about time, and storytelling, and mortality, and, I suppose much else.

The second hit more personally home.  Tide, by the Dutch conceptualist Jan Dibbets, is a row of ten photographs, each showing the progression of a rising tide as it obliterates a line drawn in sand.  It's a deceptively simple thing, and like so many conceptual works at first seems both enigmatic and superficial.  But I stood there in front of it for a good long time, and then moved in sequence past each image, oddly moved. I suppose having had my brush these past few months with a kind of rising and implacable tide - for the moment apparently, if temporarily (as it is, I remind myself, for all of us) held back - I felt a kinship with that line.

On the way out I stopped in the Museum's lowest level, which is currently hosting an installation that immerses one in the fierce and imperative world of Barbara Kruger, an artist whose work is essentially a career-long exercise in slyly undermining her own boomingly self-confident platitudes. It all feels very '80s and as a result I liked it a lot.

So I've started the week with a dip into culture; I wonder what else the days will bring to drag me back down to earth. We shall see.

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