17:40 pm
I Saw the Light

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Alice Walton's failed attempt last year to buy The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins' 1875 canvas of an operation being performed by a Philadelphia surgeon, Dr. Samuel Gross, led me recently to pick up Portrait, the brisk new biography of Eakins by William S. McFeeley, and to take a new look at Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, Eakins' hard lined, sunstruck scene of himself (in the background) and his friend Schmitt, boating on the Schuykill River that runs through Philly, a picture owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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You sometimes hear The Gross Clinic described as the greatest 19th century American painting, though I've never been sure what that meant, and for all its pictorial thunder I prefer the sculling picture. I know why, too. It's that hard light that searches out all the particulates of the scene and specifies everything it falls across. That light always seemed to me to be the visual correlative of the pragmatic, dry eyed materialist side of the American disposition, all of which can be virtues at times, and all of which are indisputably qualities of Eakins, who was fascinated by science, mechanism and rigorous processes. He painted the picture more than 50 years before William Carlos Williams offered his famous description of his own processes as a poet — "No ideas but in things" — but that's a line Eakins would have understood right away.

I found myself thinking about this at a press luncheon yesterday that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts gave to kick off the big Edward Hopper retrospective that opens there in May. As I watched the Hoppers slide by on a big screen at the front of the room I was reminded again how much Hopper's stark, unpitying light, all those sunstruck walls, owes to Eakins.

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No one is better than Hopper at finding the melancholy note in sunlight. He understood how light can isolate figures even more mercilessly than darkness, a lesson I suspect he learned partly from Eakins. (Naturally they both suffered from serious bouts of depression.) And like Eakins he found in light its capability to imply deep, enclosing silence.

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And where, I asked myself, did this light go later in American art? The light that identifies things that are mute, specific, isolated, enclosed within themselves? Then it hit me.

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Donald Judd. No?

15:46 pm
And Even More Fear of Flying

Remember when I promised a few days ago to get off this topic? ("This topic" being how rare it is for artists to do anything with the universal ordeal of flying.) I lied. I'm back to it, but just briefly. Thanks to Jason Kaufman of the Art Newspaper for reminding me that the Swiss artist-pranksters Peter Fischli and David Weiss have a photo series called Airports that wallows in the banality of those places we all drift through with our eyes closed. Here are two examples.

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Banality is a favorite Fischli & Weiss motif, so it's no surprise that they would find airports irresistable.


22:15 pm
More Fear of Flying

Or is it fear of more flying? I promise to get off this topic after today, but in anticipation of a return flight tomorrow that will take off in bad weather, I found myself thinking more about something I blogged about yesterday, how rarely you find contemporary art that's concerned with the mundane experience of flying and airports. What occurred to me today is that because we don't get much from artists about the banality of flying, we're also spared the spectacle of disaster that lurks in the back of everybody's mind. Meaning the plane crash.

This is not as morbid as it sounds. (Actually, it is, but it's morbidity with a high minded educational purpose, so keep going.) Artists didn't used to be so squeamish. By the 18th century shipwreck scenes were an established subgenre of maritime painting. In an age of expanding colonialism, which meant expanded sea travel, they gave even stay-at-homes a picture of an ever more common fate. Claude Joseph Vernet, one of the most successful seascape painters of his day, returned to the subject again and again.

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By the 19th century, after the Romantic taste for emotional extremity had taken hold, and when the ocean voyage had become an increasingly common but no less hazardous experience, Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa could become a sensation when it was first exhibited in 1819, just three years after the shipwreck it described. (Meaning when it was, by 19th century terms, practically a news event. Keep that in mind the next time you hear that the movie United 93, which came out five years after 9/11, was -- gasp -- "too soon".)

Movies have never shied away from imagining plane crashes, partly of course for the same reason that painters once loved shipwrecks -- they're the last word in action sequences. In the last ten years film makers have gotten all too good at picturing how a crash would look from inside, in Scorsese's The Aviator, in the Jeff Bridges movie Fearless and in Alive the adaptation of Piers Paul Read's book about a real world plane crash in the Andes, one that fascinated people because, just like the Medusa incident, it ended in episodes of cannibalism. (Will Ethan Hawke end up as a carnivore or a canape?) With it's loving attention to the cabin experience of a semi-controlled crash, that movie in particular fulfills your worst imaginings. How the wings would go flying off, the fusilage would fracture and the seats right behind you -- or worse, your seat -- shear away.

Yet where movies go, art doesn't, even when artists have no problems appreciating car crashes. Was Warhol the first to turn crack-ups into a legitimate subject for art? What I've always liked about his disaster series from the early 1960s was that the car wrecks that this most celebrity-obsessed artist decided to silk screen weren't the well known celebrity crashes. No James Dean or Jayne Mansfield. (And for that matter no Jackson Pollock, whose impassioned Action Painting Warhol's deadpan Pop was laying to rest.) The crash victims in Warhol were nobodies -- meaning you and me -- from the tabloids.

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And one of my favorite works from the '90s is Unpainted Sculpture, Charles Ray's meticulous fiberglass recreation of a totalled sedan.

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It's a screw you to whatever was left of Minimalism, an R.I.P. to California car culture and a low minded renunciation of John Chamberlain's candy colored (and hey, also wonderful) crushed car-parts sculptures.

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And while we're at it, Ray's tangled remnant of a car is a momento mori -- that means "reminder of death", class-- one that's more riveting than Nicole Ritchie at her skinniest. It's a Raft of the Medusa with nobody on it.

It's true that automobile fatalities are much more common than deaths in plane crashes. All the same, who gets into a car and thinks every time about death? And who gets into a plane and doesn't? Meanwhile, the plane crash remains a rare subject in art, though in some corner of our unconscious every 747 looks like Melville's White Whale. And you know what that stood for.

22:25 pm
Fear of Flying

A cross country trip this weekend made me wonder why artists have done so little with the common experience of flying. I don't just mean pictures with planes in them. Gerhard Richter, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein have all done those, though all of them used warplanes. I mean the banal stuff of civilian aviation, the airports, the check in, the view of the back of the guy's head who's sitting in front of you -- which may be one of the great but rarely acknowledged motifs of the century, as common as a sunset. (More common -- when was the last time you actually looked at a sunset?)

Nineteenth century artists were fascinated by railways. Manet made one of his most enigmatic scenes, a woman and a young girl waiting -- for what? -- in Gare St. Lazare. To perfect his rendition of steam effects, Monet returned repeatedly to the same Paris train station.

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After 9/11 a few artists began playing with images of the security check in. Thomas Demand, the German who builds paper reconstructions of photographs, then photographs the reconstructions, made one of those three years ago called Gate.

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But outside of WPA airport murals, and the occasional photorealist canvas from the 70s, artists haven't devoted much effort to this defining 21st century experience that we all endure. Is that because it's too difficult to reconcile the contradictions of flying? The combination of exhaltation -- I'm flying! -- banality -- I'm flying in a dreary cramped cylinder -- and persistent low grade anxiety about terrorism and turbulence?

15:00 pm
Deja Vu All Over Again

I enjoyed Lee Rosenbaum's recent piece in the Wall Street Journal about Boston's new Institute for Contemporary Art, the one designed by Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. Rosenbaum draws a connection between the ICA's cantilevered upper story, which has a room descending at an angle from its underside, and the not so different silhouette of Rafael Vinoly's Boston Convention Center a few blocks away, which can be accessed on her website here. (My own take on the ICA from a December issue of Time can be found here.

The room sloping downward from the ICA is a very different thing from the one descending from Vinoly's Convention Center -- Diller + Scofidio designed it in such a way that it opens a view directly onto the surface of the waters of Boston Bay, creating the impression for anyone inside that they are looking at a glistening and slightly unreal wall of water. All the same, now that it's been pointed out, the family resemblance between the ICA and Vinoly's building, at least in that one area, is unmistakable. It got me to thinking about the many times I've experienced a kind of architectural deja vu. Whether it's a matter of coincidence, homage, unconscious influence, free quotation, outright steal or simply two architects who have each offered their own take on a historic form, it happens quite a bit. It happened again last fall when I visited Cesar Pelli's new Minneapolis Central Library.

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It's a superb building, but it's also one with a roof that brought to mind Vinoly's famous Tokyo International Forum, which I visited two years ago.

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Great minds thinking alike? From time to time I'll post other examples.

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