I may have failed to mention that there is a boy in my class who is not Orthodox. He's Reform and, quite frankly, wasn't worth mentioning because he barely ever said anything. Before this week, he simply struck me as young. Mostly, I forgot he was in the room. This week, however, he must have sensed my lack of attention; He made Crazy Chaim look sane and open-minded.
A Jewish landscape artist who lives in Philly but works in New York came to discuss Jewish-American Artists of the 20th century: artists like Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers, and Philip Guston. More than anything, he spoke of men in distress. They were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants who moved to this country to make new lives for themselves. Many of them lead destructive lives: women, alcohol, and depression defined their lives and many times inhibited and haunted their art. Like many 20th century artists, they sought to make a statement through their art about the importance of the inner struggle and path to spiritual enlightenment. Art was no longer what other people wanted them to paint, but what was inside their spirit. Painting the royal family or even every day scenes gave way to the internal struggle. As The Artist said, "they wanted to destroy the cult of the past. Originality is the new greatness." Their paintings pulsated with the inner workings of life and youth and shiny newness.
We looked at slides of the changes of art through time from impressionism to abstraction. We looked at Larry River's naked jazz musicians playing their saxophones. We stared at Phillip Guston's cartoonish self-portraits with their hanging light bulbs, shoes, cigarettes, and KKK hoods all seeped in an endless pallet of red paint. We watched as Mark Rothko's evolved from barbaric mythological imagery to abstract swirling shapes and colors to giant blocks of color. The Cultural Historian (my professor) noted that he'd seen a Rothko exhibited at the Guggenheim, and when he stood back and watched the paintings wind up the twisting walkway of the Museum-the colors emitted their own glorious light—saturating the building in brilliant colors. For the Cultural Historian, Rothko brought holiness to the Guggenheim.
The boys commented on my silence. They were shocked that I'd barely said a word. I didn't want to speak. I was taken in by these artists: captivated by their subject matter, their lines, and their choice of color. I was drawn to their destruction and their seduction from perfect form to abstraction and back again. Their inner darkness wound its way around every line, every curve, and every brushstroke. These men struggled, had nothing, and then were worshiped by the art community. They were living breathing struggling examples of what it meant to change the cultural landscape of America.
At some point, Mr. Silent-all-semester (we'll call him Curious George because when I reenacted my class at dinner last night, I used my son's Curious George as a prop), looked at two abstract paintings side-by-side, one huge black brush strokes and the other multi-colored whose lines seemed to curve into the body of a beautiful long haired woman. I was quite taken with the painting, but then from the corner of the table, Curious George's nasal pre-puberty sounding voice sharply hacked through the air, "How is that art?" The Artist looked up from his slides and array of articles scattered across his table. "Well," he said thoughtfully searching for the right words, "Abstract expressionism is not concerned with subject matter. Instead, it is concerned with making a statement. Although, I admit, at times, the statement is usually much more obvious to people who've studied the artist than with the general public."
"Ach!" Curious George bellowed. "A kindergartener could paint that. What's the difference between those lines on a paper, and kindergarten refrigerator art?" (of course, as the mother of a five-year-old, I know that kindergartener's lack the fine motor skills make lines like that impossible to draw, but I digress).This was not the argument of a Talmudic scholar mind you. It was loud and abrasive. It was as if he'd heard nothing of the Artist's lecture. Were his eyes closed when we looked at each slide? "We could go all day, dealing with the merits of art; however, let's move on to learning about these men's lives."
The slideshow continued. The stories of drinking and philandering and suicides of fathers filled the otherwise silent room. Finally, we got to an instillation created by Mark Rothko at the end of his life for an ecumenical chapel in Houston, Texas. In 1964, John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Rothko to create a meditative space filled with fourteen giant paintings by Rothko.( Rothko did not live to see the chapel completed. He committed suicide in February of 1970.) While the Artist didn't have a picture of the actual chapel, he showed us a slide of the type of painting Rothko formed for the chapel: a giant rectangular wall-sized painting saturated in differing shades of red and purple. Three separate blocks of color stacked on canvas. Even from the slide, the painting emanated light. The Artist spoke about the wonders of the chapel, how people from all over the world come to meditate and feel the power of the paintings. I wondered if walking through the chapel would be like walking through a meditative labyrinth except instead of earth and trees, one would get mesmerized by color. The Artist played a composition by Morton Feldman written for the Rothko Chapel. According to the Artist, it was one of the loudest pieces created by Feldman. (to experience Rothko's paintings and hear the composition click here) As one reviewer noted, " Rothko Chapel is the most accessible of Feldman's compositions. It sounds like Debussy with spare lyrical strings, chimes, and an enchanting soprano." (reposted from review). I found the music haunting yet oddly calming. I imagine it is the perfect complement to Rothko's pieces.
I, however, was alone in my assessment of Rothko and Feldman.
"What kind of music is that?" moaned Curious George. "So depressing! That's not something you jam to." (because, after all, music you jam to is the only kind of music) "And, I'm sorry," Curious George squeaked and rasped at the same time, "but, that is not ArT! Those paintings are nothing. Anyone could do it. A child could do it. I could stare at the freaking door and come up with images. Does that make those images ArT? No. It just makes them something in my head. It goes back to the refrigerator. That's something that goes on a refrigerator."
The Artist said nothing for a long moment. My body temperature rose with my utter embarrassment. It wasn't the fact he didn't like the pieces I found embarrassing, it was the screaming at the top of his lungs. It was the way he ignored the entire lecture, and the way he went on and on and on. He kept harping on the horridness of the paintings and the music. He wouldn't stop. The room filled with the awful scratching of his voice.
While, I'd kept my mouth shut all day, I simply couldn't help myself. "It's about intent." I said quietly, shyly. "It doesn't matter whether or not you like the paintings or if they have shapes and forms you can pick out. What's important is why he decided to paint them in the first place. "
"Well," interrupted Curious George, "All these guys were insane. They should be in a padded room."
I looked down at my sloppy clothing choice of a t-shirt and workout pants, relieved for once I hadn't had time to change into my normal anti-orthodox attire. I took a deep breath, sighed, and did only thing a sane, lover of thoughtful discussion could do—I crawled under the table.
I don't know when I'm coming out.