It seems that somewhere along the line I signed a contract binding me to visit the Art Institute of Chicago whenever I am in that town. This last visit to Chicago was no exception; though I was tired and had a lot of work to do, the Real Doctor and I carved out an afternoon to wander among the collections. It is always time well spent; I still have not exhausted the place, and every time I go I discover something new that will grab. This time it was the room with Sargents and Cassats and Whistlers.
However, it’s good to push one’s self a bit, so the Real Doctor and I wandered over to the brand new contemporary wing of the museum. It did not work for us.
Here’s a particularly memorable work.
It’s two 8’ by 4’ canvases, one brown and one yellow, butted up against each other. It’s called (for reasons totally unknown) “Rodeo,” and it represents the work of the American artist Brice Marden*.
No, really, it’s supposed to be art. It may be “art,” but I think that calling it art highlights the total inadequacy of the word “art.” It may be “art,” but it’s definitely not at all the same thing as this, which is also called “art”:
Or even this:
After spending a couple of hours browsing among pieces like those last two, then washing up against some of the stuff in the contemporary wing, I actually felt angry. I felt as if I’d been feasting on the finest delicacies, then served a s#*t sandwich. It didn’t help when I read the helpful explanatory note, which you must read in full:
During the past four decades, Brice Marden has played a key role in maintaining the vitality of abstract paining. Rodeo, a work of imposing scale and stark presence, represents a high point of his early career. Two rectangular canvas panels, one yellow, the other gray, are joined to form an eight-foot square. Each canvas is pulled across a deep stretcher and painted with a medium that combines oil paint and beeswax. The stretcher and thick, opaque pigment give to Rodeo a sense of weight and a sculptural presence, qualities complemented by the iconic simplicity of the painintng’s composition. The oil-and-beeswax surface absorbs light and inhibits reflections; it is remarkably even in tone, material, matter of fact. And yet this very materiality and insistence also suggest depth. There seems the possibility that, beneath the impassive surface of Rodeo, something lies hidden.
The line joining the two panels may suggest a horizon line, and thus a landscape. The juxtaposition of two rectangular fields also recalls the work of Mark Rothko. However, whereas Rothko’s floating, horizontal fields are transparent, shimmering, and evanescent, Marden’s twin panels seem determinedly earthbound, presented as physical facts rather than as expressions of spiritual aspiration. Still, something of the mystery so powerfully expressed in Rothko’s work is also present in Rodeo. This results partly from Marden’s colors, rendered vaguely unfamiliar by the paint-and-wax mediu. The word “yellow” for example hardly captures the color or tone of the top panel of Rodeo, even though no other word, or combination of words, can easily describe it. Moreover, the medium affects the relation between the two colors: the yellow and gray panels, which we would expect to advance and recede, remain uncannily suspended on the same plane.
Marden’s paintings of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with their joined monochrome panels, repeated shapes, and hard-edged colors, are often linked to the tenets of Minimalism. However, Marden’s practice cannot be adequately contained by the painter Frank Stella’s famous dictum, “What you see is what you see.” Like all of Marden’s paintings, Rodeo is handmade. Its composition, two equal panels that form a square, reveals a clear and rational a priori structure, while its surface is the product of an unusually laborious process. Keeping his paint-and-wax mixture warm in a pot on the stove, Marden laid layer upon layer of the medium over his canvas panels to achieve a virtually uniform surface. Because it is largely unaccented, that surface displays little of the process of its making. Neither, however, does it suggest pure logic nor does it offer a moment of unmediated perception. Rodeo is among the most bold and striking of Marden’s paintings; it is also subtle and mysterious. The work’s even, dully glowing yellow and gray surfaces, the apparent weight of the painting, and its physicality all sugest that something unseen, but nevertheless felt, operates upon the viewer’s perceptions. With Rodeo, what you see is also what you do not see. –J.S.
That is art. That is stunning, majestic, inspiring, laborious, learned, practiced, heart-stopping art. The ability to produce such dazzling flights of literary bulls#*t—“something lies hidden,” “the word ‘yellow’…hardly captures the color…of the top panel of Rodeo, even though no other word or combination of words can easily describe it”…”What you see is also what you do not see.”—is the product of pure genius. I have made my own modest efforts at producing bulls#*t, but I may as well just pack up and go home. There is some great art in the contemporary wing, and to be sure some of it hangs on the walls and is worth a lot of money (Richter, Bacon, Freud, Close, and more), but the most stunning art is typed on little pieces of paper next to the displays.
More on Chicago and minimalism later.
*You can tell he’s an artist because he dresses in black and always wears a black stocking cap.