Thoughts on the fire that almost destroyed my thesis
an essay accompanying the exhibition Those who do not repeat the past are doomed to forget it: paintings
“Consider your sowing” — I.26.117
About two months ago, a 2:00 a.m. fire in the Pratt Institute’s Main Building destroyed several floors that housed several dozen painting studios. The fire probably began with a spark catching someone’s highly flammable materials: a rag soaked in mineral spirits, a work on paper, a brush wet with medium and paint. The studios belonged to college seniors, many of whom were preparing for their thesis exhibitions and readying portfolios to show graduate schools.
Reading the news yesterday, I found a follow-up article about an exhibition that the Gagosian Gallery has mounted, showing new work that these students have completed in the interim. One quoted student is philosophical about the conflagration, observing, “Loss is part of being a painter. You sell a painting and it’s not yours. But everything you learn, the fire can’t take away from you. I’ve learned that painting is more about experimenting and taking risks — and not making it such a sacred object.”
I admire her for making meaning out of this calamity, as the prospect of what she and her peers dealt with over the past few months makes the bottom drop from my stomach when I think about it. Two weeks before my own senior thesis exhibition opened, the laser cutter in the woodshop below my studio caught fire and almost burned down the building, paintings and all. The student on duty was up alone sometime after midnight, using the machine to cut sections of her own thesis from plastic foam, and the first fire extinguisher she aimed at the flames was empty. Frantically searching, she found another in a nearby office, and after successfully spraying the laser cutter she called the fire department. When they arrived, they told her that if she hadn’t acted as soon as she had, the entire building would have gone up before help appeared. I learned all this the next morning, when I ascended the studio stairs to find a harsh chemical smell hanging in the air. My paintings are fine, but I have to wonder, to shudder, at the parallel accident that did far more damage one month earlier. Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “The novel is that art form that burns most easily,” and without instigating a bizarre inter-medium competition of flammability and impermanence, I feel it’s reasonable to issue a corrective in favor of painting. Then again, Emily’s architectural model actually started the fire beneath my studio, so perhaps her work is the most flammable, most prone to going up in flames.
At heart these two fires stuck me especially because, for all this Pratt student’s optimism about the essential importance of making a painting rather than preserving it as “a sacred object,” the social life of paintings is inescapably about keeping these precious and fragile things safe. Right at the end of my thesis, I received this terrifying reminder that my own work demands protection. I had the oddly circular realization that I was feeling the same protectiveness I set out, this past September, to make apparent and to criticize.
Before I began painting this year, I started my thesis by writing down what I wanted to do, and my early notes on museums have a tone of simple and insistent hopelessness.
I observed that, whether we found our history curricula on the good-hearted desire to know where we all came from or on George Santayana’s ominous maxim ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,’ by the time any of us comes fully to his senses, he considers museums harbors of value. Human life is short and human memory shorter, but a wealth of history sits inside these buildings where the past lives. Though we cannot hold or touch any of it, we can survey the assorted stuff of countless human lives. We can look at the clothes our forebears wore, the tools they considered useful, the pieces of metal over which and with which they fought wars, and the items they considered beautiful. Paintings show us their royalty and, later, their homes, their contemporaries, their understandings of themselves, and their dreams. It’s good and right to learn how the past was, we know, so we visit again and again. Imagining other worlds as best we can is an act of empathy, after all, an effort to walk in another’s shoes.
Being around all these things should make us feel closer to history, but is this the case? As they sit, these gathered objects don’t simply offer us lost events. For their great number and all the human lives they imply, these exhibitions are dead. Tools of use sit unused on plinths and works of art that once hung in homes now stand in odd pairings, filling quiet rooms. An Egyptian corpse or a whole Egyptian temple can sit inside a building, transplanted. We can walk around the temple and walk inside, given access only a handful of the reclining corpses likely had. We can look at the bodies or portraits of dead kings and queens and buy shirts in their likenesses. We are privileged with powerful hindsight and yet it’s easy to feel that, without some effort on our part, museums hold everything but the history they intend.
The problem is a simple one. Can we really know the distant past from relics and placards? Museums propose that we can, that even in their strange and incongruous settings these things tell a story we can and need to know. I set out with the intention of proving this proposal somewhat hopeless.
My thesis comprises a series of paintings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its contents as they exist today. I treat this preserved history with a visitor’s eye and with a brushstroke that shows my hand, acknowledging the human presence I bring to this institution’s stored knowledge. I have painted statuary, instruments, pottery, replicated buildings, paintings, and other objects, along with the glass cases, museum architecture, gallery-goers, and even cleaning implements that surround the museums’ historical contents.
My hand, apparent in all these paintings as a mediating fuzziness, was meant to stage some of the incoherence that I repeatedly described. I was insistent upon the idea that the museum allowed us only “a historical fiction of clarity,” and that the best we could do was to make the honest effort of trying to understand, trying to step outside of ourselves. Maybe in that effort, I wrote, we can glimpse the past — if not directly then sidelong, incidentally.
For all my enthusiastic naysaying, I realized as soon as I began visiting the museum, photographing its works, and painting, that I cared far more for the things I was painting than I initially realized. I love museums because they house many of the greatest things humans have made. Despite all the things wrong with the collected pieces of our pasts, all these articles of culture that are equally documents of barbarism, these objects are the objects we have. They make history meaningful, even if this meaning is sometimes fuzzy or mediated into incoherence. We could easily have nothing, but instead we have busts of Pericles, and Mangarevan statues, and, lately, paintings by Chuck Close. After a fairly short time, indeed, almost immediately, even the most violently parricidal work of art or literature has to be protected from the elements or else perish. Yesterday Leonard Louder gave the Met his huge stockpile of Cubist and Futurist paintings, each a miniature revolution in its day, which the museum will now store for dear life, protecting them like the flammable boxes of wood and canvas and oil they are. Marcel Duchamp once hung a geometry book outside on a clothesline so that “the treatise seriously got the facts of life.” If we do this, our art will fall amid the elements. Though the Colossus of Rhodes stood for a good fifty-six years in the saline sea air, it was always going to crumble like King Lear, to crack at the ankles under the vicissitudes of nature. As artists today, we could easily, and perhaps just as valuably, spend our time protecting old works of art rather than making new ones.
On these terms, the smeary presence of my hand in all those paintings could register both as the inevitable incoherence of the museum’s retrospective project, and as a sign of frightened haste, a speed that comes from necessity, as if I had seven months to record everything in paint before it was lost. Maybe, I decided all of a sudden, this project unwittingly had more to do with saving all these great things than it did striking out across entirely new artistic ground.
The central analogy I am making ties the museum’s project to that of painting, playing on the simultaneous and inextricable showing and obscuring that both offer. Nothing in the museum isn’t colored by the observer, by the museum, by the lunch we have or haven’t eaten in the cafeteria, by how long we’ve been walking the halls of the museum, by the particular intensity of the sun shining through the windows, and by the shape of those windows, and by any trees or yellow cabs lending their color to the corner of the frame in which we see the whole scene. The museum serves to protect the sacred originals of these works of art, but even as it does this, it has the ironic side effect of subjecting these works to its own subtle abuses, or — more charitably — colorings. I wanted to play out the strange leveling, sad yet somehow democratic, whereby everything in the museum falls under a unifying pigmented patina.
After all, I wanted to keep these objects safe because they are precious, and even with my own qualifications regarding their tenuous safety, that may be at heart what I have done.
Whenever I think about explicatory commentaries, I can’t help but remember Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which at length and with gusto skewers the entire project of exegesis — a potentially fatal abuse of art, less dangerous than fire but capable of great distortions nonetheless.
Nabokov’s novel gives us a lyric poem alongside a very long appendix of footnotes that threaten the poem with a self-centered, irrelevant, and often downright violent interpretation. Charles Kinbote, a scholar infatuated with John Shade, the poet, is convinced that Shade has in fact written entirely about the scholar’s own life. To the reader, it’s obvious that this Kinbote has read into the poem a thousand things that are not there. When it comes to interpreting Nabokov’s work, though, making something of Kinbote’s abuse on the scale of the novel, we collide with our own dark reflection in the book’s windowpane. The moment we try to claim we know the text’s definitive meaning, we are Kinbote, simply reading ourselves. Nabokov makes specific mockery of Freud and Marx, but in the end he leaves us with an intense suspicion of any interpretive project.
This leaves us in a strange place. We can’t interpret the novel, so we try simply to read it. We return to the poem within, whose series of heroic couplets we enjoy anew for their clever rhymes and, finally, their content: the story of a man who loves his wife and regrets, deeper than anything, the suicide of his ugly daughter, and assures us near the end that world has order only because of art, even the patient, antiquated rhyme and meter of poetic verse:
I feel I understand
Existence, or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only through my art,
In terms of combinatorial delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.
If Kinbote’s project is to take this poem apart, explaining it away, Nabokov’s is perhaps to create a few notes of meaning that we simply have to take as they are, rendering interpretation impossible by aping our attempts to do so, showing us the pointlessness of Kinbote’s interpretive bodkin. Even if Shade’s staid, classical rhyme isn’t quite Nabokov at his most straightfaced, he makes an elegant case for good, old art standing on its own as valuable.
I hope that this statement tends more toward Shade’s helpful articulation than Kinbote’s ridiculous “plum pudding,” as Nabokov once called it. I could easily have let these paintings stand alone, I suppose: when asked what his one of his plays was about, Edward Albee once replied, “It’s about two and a half hours, three hours.” In this spirit, my thesis is about twenty-two paintings, or seven months of labor.
To put this more reasonably, I will say that while working on my thesis, I’ve become somewhat skeptical of the idea that we must always have an incisive and novel meaning to give to our art. Why, in contemporary artmaking, must we necessarily pursue radical and meaningful newness over the old?
Relative to that of my time in high school, my current level of creative and intellectual maturity consists largely of greater eloquence and the ability to talk about things in terms of timelines and trajectories.
When I started painting in oils at seventeen, I knew only that Marcel Duchamp had shocked many people by placing a urinal in a museum, that Francis Bacon had made some of the most arresting images I had ever seen, and that I liked painting loose, painterly, and dramatic self-portraits — like Bacon’s, but never as good, I was always dismayed to find. I had an easel and an old, square mirror that I found in a closet, and I arranged these things so that I could study my face from different angles and under different lighting conditions. I had a tin clamp light with which I gave myself stark shadows, dark pools instead of eyes, or a flat complexion with only a slight nose shadow, or the alien physiognomy of a face lit from below.
There was something miraculous about seeing myself in an image I had created, and something all the more miraculous about how quickly a few brushstrokes stood in for the shapes that made up my face. My hand, though, apparent in the broad brushstrokes themselves, was the real miracle, and every one of the ten (I have counted) self-portraits I painted that year was a solitary delight.
The story of modern and thus contemporary art can go several different ways, but sometimes I wonder whether its drive forward springs from the simple fact that when enough people make art, we have to start ranking it.
When we rank art, we need evaluative criteria that we can talk about, and for modern art, these criteria fall under the umbrella of meaning, the ideas that each work expresses. When we attempt to rank the importance of different works’ meanings, we pit them against one another. We celebrate those statements that ask or reframe large questions, that encompass many things, that break established conventions and strike out for new grounds of meaning. Just as there is something comforting and affirming in a work that sets itself above the scrum of individual expressions and explains how we got here, a work that gives us something entirely foreign has a gratifying novelty, a note of irreverence that registers as such precisely because it addresses the serried ranks of existing art by freely and deliberately moving outside them, knowing enough about the old to say something really new.
If enough people paint self-portraits, even good self-portraits, each in its own way executed with technical facility, we have to develop a way of ranking these pictures or else risk having nothing to say. We can’t look at all of them because there will simply be too many.
And, after all, why should we have to look at all of them? When everyone makes art, much of it must be ill considered, bad. Consider Cicero’s remarkable picture of endtimes that are probably continuous with our own: “Times are bad,” he writes. “Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” What makes this phrase so pointed and funny is the banality the image casts over all these Roman citizens bent over their books, laboring to express themselves and to add something new to an age of mass navel-gazing. Everyone has something to say (I have heard that everyone has one novel in him), but when everyone says something, much of it is lost in the scrum, the noise of the apparently ancient phenomenon of mass self-expression.
Because of this, perhaps, when I arrived at college, the simple pleasure of painting myself (or my friends or relatives, for that matter) no longer sufficed as justification for making art. Art must always have a concept, we’re taught, and must never be derivative, thoughtless, unexamined, unoriginal. To be sure, no one independently wishes any of these adjectives for his work, but the force with which we take up the assumption that good art is novel art strikes me as pretty astounding when I pause and think about it.
I’m less interested in writing an elegy for the many self-portraits I could have painted than in questioning the drive for newness and innovation that I, among many young people I know, have long taken as axiomatic.
Learning the story of art also means learning a set of rules, questions, and concerns by which we are bound. We find ourselves the protagonists of an ongoing story that insists upon novelty, and in which we’re told that representational painting is irrelevant for any number of reasons.
Calls for novelty and innovation often come informed by interesting imperatives. The writers and artists of DADA saw unfamiliar, abrasive art as a weapon with which they could bludgeon the bourgeois. Walter Benjamin believed, somewhat similarly, that cinema made its viewers more active and incisive critics than did quiet contemplation of shrinelike paintings in museums. Clement Greenberg called for a successive flattening and smoothening of painting that would “purify” it, reducing the medium to its essence, “the ineluctable flatness of the canvas.” Art that did not do this was, at its worst, kitsch: harmless entertainment that pleases and “pretends to demand customers of nothing but their money” while quietly teaching those customers passivity and dullness. Kitsch, Greenberg writes, is the rear guard to modernism’s avante-garde. (In 1939, with German, Italian, and Spanish fascism on the rise, these were particularly damning criticisms and witticisms.)
Arthur Danto gives a good articulation of the idea that art is a tramline pressing forward. For Danto, the great virtue of modern art is that, through it, we can increasingly make mute objects speak for us. In his book The Abuse of Beauty, he tells us that Abstract Expressionism appealed to him so strongly because of its evident affinity with analytical philosophy, especially the “hard-edge thinking” he felt art not shared with the philosophical project of expressing reason.
He draws on G.W.F. Hegel, who wrote that artistic beauty was superior to natural beauty because it was “born of the Spirit and born again” — worldly matter shaped from muteness into expression by human action. Hegel argued that art would one day end, when our facility of expression became so great that we no longer needed representations in stone, paint, or words to make evident the greatness of human capabilities: poetics would be replaced by the staid prose of philosophical thought. Danto uses this train of thought to suggest that conceptual art (in which one urinal, for example, becomes different from all other urinals simply because we place it in a museum, where it speaks volumes as a work of art) is the telos of human artmaking. Danto thus lives in a glorious present when we make art only to speak by doing so. When we paint, we use beautiful images only incidentally, in service of our prosy meaning. If we don’t press on in this story of art, he argues, we simply don’t understand art as it works today, as it moves ever onward.
I have only scratched the surface here, but I believe that many of our assumptions about the dire importance of newness, especially those with parricidal implications, come from texts like these, which give art a kind of therapeutic, medical role in society. These writers have their own long tradition, and museums full of correspondent artworks bear this out.
Of course, high esteem for novelty is by no means a value unique to artistic modernism. Dante Alighieri, climbing the slopes of Purgatory in the twelfth century, met an artist who strove in vain for novelty:
Oh vain glory of human powers! how briefly it stays green at the summit, if it is not followed by cruder ages! Cimabue believed he held the field in painting, and now Giotto has the cry, so that the fame of the first is darkened. … The clamor of the world is nothing but a breath of wind that comes now from here and now from there, and changes names because it changes directions. What more acclaim will you have if you strip off your flesh when it is old, than if you had died before you left off saying ‘dada’ and ‘mama,’ before a thousand years have passed? which is a briefer space compared with eternity than the blinking of an eye to the circle that turns slowest in the sky.
Tellingly, this artist suffers on the terrace of the prideful. On the Christian timeline of eternity, the only great art that matters is God’s, and to presume otherwise is vanity. Underlying this elegy for buried human ambitions, though, are Dante’s suggestions that Giotto has succeeded Cimabue because of his skill of realistic representation — a metric of progress, to be sure — as well as the imputation that Dante’s own written words will long outlast painting, his account of his divine odyssey being of a superior art “by which man makes himself eternal.”
The vanitas theme in art comes from this awareness of time’s great scale, against which colossal weight and length our small innovations seem insignificant. That Dante himself presses on anyway never registers as foolish, though. At the end of the day, he places his faith in one great work of art — in his case, a work so great that it can stop time, or encompass all of it, from Ulysses to Mohammed to Giotto to Dante himself, and beyond. Surely we have always prized novelty, forceful newness, but why should novelty itself preclude the kind of earnest retrospective that allows us to pause and, turning back, look again at what our forebears have done? Why can’t we try on their problems ourselves? Much of what we grapple with has been grappled with before. None of us wants to resemble Dante’s Ulysses, who sailed across the earth with such irreverent speed and brio that he wound up in the Inferno, suffering for his ardor by burning forever where not even Dante’s conversation could put him out.
Søren Kierkegaard, contesting Hegel’s philosophical idea of progress and collective human perfection of reason, wrote, “Every generation begins afresh, has no task other than that of any previous generation, and comes no further,” and I feel his phrase bears repeating in the realm of art.
In this vein, I often wonder how much we can really talk about art that we can’t write into any story of development. For example, Byzantine art. I read in Judith M. Bennett’s textbook Medieval Europe that
As custodians of Greek culture and Roman traditions, Byzantines revered their classical heritage, nurtured art, and admitted learning. Yet, although impressive and sometimes awe-inspiring, their creative impulses were limited by devotion to ancient traditions that they altered only slowly and cautiously, if at all. Byzantines were more preservers of ancient traditions than innovative creators. They would have liked Norman Rockwell more than Pablo Picasso.
As a kind of backwater in the advancing stream of realistic space that Dante, for example, notes, Byzantine portraits are something of a footnote to the story of modern art. If our current art resembled theirs in style (very flat) and theme (almost exclusively religious), we could certainly talk articulately about the ways they anticipated us, but unless we understand the Byzantine artists’ project in the simple terms of making human existence a bit more vibrant and meaningful, we can’t feel much affinity with these humans, now all gone.
A few weeks ago I read for the first time Baudelaire’s early definition of artistic modernity in “The Painter of Modern Life,” which strikes me as its best and most elegant defense. A good and engaging artist, Baudelaire writes, “makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory.” Art that treats the present day has a special shine and immediacy, he writes, because “the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent” are simply exciting. Unthinking classicism and unnecessary quotation may carry the stock weight of antiquity, but for anything modern to deserve a place in ‘antiquity,’ he tells us, it must strive for the undefined and indefinite beauty that comes from the present day. “Every old master,” he writes, “has had his own modernity.”
His praise of the modern makes me wonder what is so wrong, after all, with prizing novelty. Perhaps the only problem with these various stories of modernism is that they take this simple human pleasure and bend it to a cause, telling us precisely why we ought to want what we do.
Am I an apologist for bourgeois morality? For what it’s worth (apropos of Judith Bennett’s above observations on Byzantium), I do not admire Norman Rockwell’s paintings, and I think Picasso was a genius. For all that Rockwell’s work might be able to tell future museum-goers about us, his work does not have the special strangeness that makes Picasso’s scenes marvelous. (Also, to unnecessarily contest Bennett’s innocent example, doesn’t Picasso’s late flatness actually recall Byzantine symbolic art?) My feeling is simply that the image of the artistic schism, or of artwork as the abrasive yet messianic societal cure-all, is itself no longer novel, and probably does little to shock today, to whatever end.
They say that art is long and life is short, but without museums, art falls far shorter than most text and commentary, and I hope that, after all, my images outlive their explanation, however undogmatically I intend these reflections to read. All the art I have discussed here is highly flammable.
My hope is not, as Arthur Danto and perhaps Hegel put it, that the art will speak for itself, but that after all it does not have to speak. These paintings are about paint, and about the way we can never keep things (panting, sculpture, written words, our history) as safe and clean as we want, even by lavishing care upon them, and about how there is something beautiful in this impossibility, whether in the museum or on the canvas. We can only really understand history in instants, just like we can only experience the museum through individual views, albeit with a few helpful vistas. And there is something worthwhile in repeating the past, whether to protect it, to shore up its fragments against our own ruin, or to look more closely because we recognize something of ourselves in it, and this recognition gives us a feeling of stability and safety.
This idea itself is not novel. In the Odyssey, Homer’s characters already quote the Iliad, understanding themselves even during the ancient Bronze Age Collapse in reference to greater, older things.
Here are some reproductions of my paintings and the gallery where I hung them. They don’t look as good as the originals, I think, but as I have sold most of the paintings, these prints have the virtues of being available, being easy to transport, and being capable of protection by these thick covers.
None of these things are impervious to flame, or dust, or, for that matter, time’s incoherence, but as I have made several copies of this folio I will trust that one of these self-portraits, at least, will find good hands.
April 12, 2013