Friday, August 17, 2012

Cool and Warm, Dylan and Waldo at SFMOMA

Early this month I spent an afternoon wandering on my own through downtown San Francisco.   I started with Bánh mì in Little Saigon where I happened upon this stone monster.

Then I walked to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  I was pleased to encounter a large Mark Rothko painting entitled No. 14, 1960.  It was hung in a very appropriate cathedral-like setting.  Rothko's work had been inspirational for me at one time, as had many painters and composers from 1950s New York.

When I resolved to take a picture of the Rothko, however, I encountered a problem: there were lots of people standing in front of the painting, looking at it and at the other works of art.  I waited for a clear shot.  I wanted to capture the work together with the vaulted ceiling.  I never got that chance - but I took lots of snaps anyway.  Here are all of them concatenated into an animated gif.  Pick your favorite.

Next to the canvas was a small sign identifying the work and providing a paragraph of description written by an anonymous art expert.  Quite rightly the author discussed how the considerable interaction of the color fields and varieties of surface texture combine to form a "doorway into another, transcendant reality".  Yes, that seems about right.

The title of the painting, like, say, the title "Symphony No. 5", neither contributes nor detracts from the transference of meaning.  It merely gives an ordinal position in a series of presumably similar works.

Another painting also caught my attention.  It turned out to be less meaningful and, thanks to its title and its own paragraph of description, considerably funnier.  Here's the picture I took of it.

Using the evaluative scales of "unity and variety" or "repetition and variation", this piece racks up nearly perfect scores of both unity and repetition.  There's not much going on.  People were not paying it much attention.  Getting a clear picture was easy, focusing was hard.

The point-'n-shoot in my pocket couldn't focus because the painting is completely covered in (to my eye) perfectly even flat battleship gray.  Well, there is a small strip at the bottom which is only partially painted in the same flat battleship gray.  Here's a closeup of the small strip at the bottom.

An artist named Brice Marden, someone new to me, painted this work in 1966 or possibly 1986.  He called it The Dylan Painting after Bob Dylan.  A video of him discussing this painting is here.   In the video he talks about the variations in the surface.  Although I got very close to the canvas, I did not notice variations.  He calls the strip at the bottom a "history" of the painting, apparently created with the drips from the top section.  Ah, I hear the merest, faintest echo of an action painting.

This is different from the Rothko in that the title apparently conveys some important aspect of the meaning.  To be perfectly honest, I can't see what a monochromatic canvas has to do with Bob Dylan.  Mixed Meters' three readers know that I don't much like Dylan's music, although I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a poet.

Here's the little paragraph of description posted next to The Dylan Painting.  (You can see my reflection in the plastic.  Clicking on it might make it easier to read.)

I burst out laughing when I read:
Its mauve-gray surface is simultaneously cool and warm, paralleling Dylan's tough yet soulful music.
In other words we are supposed to accept that this canvas, one with virtually no distinguishing variations whatsoever, is intended to encompass the polar opposite qualities of coolness and warmth at exactly the same time and also that we, following the suggestion of the title, are supposed to understand this as a reference to qualities in the music of a particular popular singer/songwriter (as identified not by the artist but by a commentator), which might be true enough descriptions of the music but because these qualities are subjective and imprecise they are in no way opposites of one another and hence, are not analogues of coolness and warmth in the painting.

In other words, maybe the person writing the description was making a joke for us musicians to enjoy.

Later I visited a trendient coffee shop on the top floor of the museum.  While waiting in line I casually snapped a picture of the San Francisco skyline out the window.

I was intrigued with the mass of air conditioning equipment on the opposite roof so I zoomed in for a couple shots just of that.  Remember that the point and shoot in my pocket has a very small screen.  Also I was getting mildly annoyed that the line was moving so slowly.

It wasn't until I got home and looked at these pictures on the large computer screen that I realized who I must have been seeing subconsciously in the picture ... Waldo, a famous reclusive character who is neither tough nor soulful.  His face is shaded by a real hat.  That's probably why I didn't recognize him.

These three pictures are uncropped just as I shot them.  And I honestly had no idea at the time that I was taking a picture of anything besides an interesting jumble of pipes and ductwork - a found, functional sculpture by an anonymous artist.

This post describes just three encounters I had with visual images during my visit to the museum.  My comments reveal certain things about my personal perceptions, preconceptions and expectations of art and art institutions.  When visiting museums, I try to linger in front of the most promising pieces and occasionally break up my tour by finding a comfortable seat for people watching.  Those people, of course, see different things, react in different ways.

I saw plenty of other artworks as well - probably too many.  Some will stick around in my memory until I finally absorb whatever meaning they might have for me.  Others struck me as just witless or stupid headscratchers.

I left with a certain mental confusion.  I had seen and considered jumbles of images and junkyards of ideas, a visual cacophony.   In each new gallery some voice screamed for my attention, shouting yet more ideas and concepts.  These were then swallowed by another din of yet more artworks in the next room.

Outside, I felt relieved by the simplicity of a bustling city street with a stiff breeze and clear blue sky.  I felt no desire to visit an art museum again any time soon.

Dylan Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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