Friday, January 28, 2011

Nicole Krauss, Great House, Random House, 2010

It’s difficult to imagine how someone so young could write with such powerful insight into what it means to lose, to suffer, and to carry the trauma of that loss into a world that has no place for it, no way of dealing with it. It’s difficult to believe that Nicole Krauss has not lived before, in some other life, given that her writing has a depth and a sagacity that defies the apparent ordinariness of living in Brooklyn, New York.

In Krauss’ latest novel, Great House, three narrators each tell the story of someone else, and one tells her own. The four protagonists inhabit different worlds — New York, Israel, London, and one who belongs nowhere as he roams the world searching for the furniture and effects of his late Hungarian father who was interned by the Nazis in 1938. The four are of different eras, are bestowed with and inherit different fortunes, and they all suffer alone, in their own opacity. And yet, they are bound together, each story, and each life, except one, that of Dov, a lawyer who fought in the Yom Kippur War. Dov is so alone in Krauss’ fractured, shard-like narrative, as well as isolated and withdrawn from his own world, that he is at one and the same time, unique and the most articulate embodiment of the other characters’ shared qualities. Aside from Dov as the vessel of all the other protagonists' qualities, each story, each life is bound together by a desk. It is a huge great hulk of a desk described in detail throughout the book by the different narrators. Most significantly, it is a desk that holds in its drawers, 19 of them, one of which is locked, the horrors of the Holocaust. It is the desk that literally connects the characters, but it is the Holocaust that overshadows every breath taken in Great House.

Nadia inherits the desk, as one does, from a friend of a friend, Daniel Varsky, a young Chilean poet, who is leaving New York and who has no use for his furniture. For her, the desk comes alive and has a place in her life that moves and grows from a comforting womb-like space to fall into as if a refuge, a refuge in which to write. And then, in the end of her story, Nadia begins to live and experience the memories of the desk. She had acquired it from Varsky, who was disappeared in the 1980s when he returned to Pinochet's Chile, and yet, Nadia somehow remembers the desk being plundered by the Germans during the war. The desk has a history and a memory of its own, as if its experiences are carved into the niches and form like currents through the grains of its wood. And these memories, these imaginings and experiences come to inhabit the one who is fortunate enough to form a relationship with the desk. I say fortunate, because without the desk, they would have nothing to anchor them in the world. Whether it is Georg Weisz who wanders the world, searching for it, Nadia who writes at it, Lotte Berg who carries it into her marriage as if as a safeguard against her husband coming too close, or Leah who loves Weisz' son and "reclaims" the desk from Nadia, all are grounded by a physical, emotional and spiritual yearning for the desk.

Nadia is the one narrator who tells her own story. The others are told by someone who is, at least from the outside, close to the protagonist. All of them, like the desk, hold within them a secret, but it is not a secret in the sense of some information passed on to them to safeguard. Their secret is a trauma so deep and so incomprehensible that it cannot be uttered. The secret sits like a silence at each protagonist’s core, elusive, and like Daniel Varsky, making sure they are never really present, except to the desk. Each of the protagonists, except Dov, are victims of the Holocaust. And then, we learn that even Dov is a survivor, a survivor of his father's survival. And where these traumatic experiences once were, there lies the silence. The unspoken contract with the people who share their lives —husbands, siblings, lovers, parents —is to let that silence alone. For all of them, the trauma cannot be touched because it is so deep, so unfathomable.

Perhaps the most powerful element of Krauss’ book is the way this trauma is passed down silently, through the veins, in the blood, from parent to child. Or in Leah’s case, through the crevices and scars of the desk itself. Krauss’ evocation of this passing on of the trauma is what will touch every reader, it’s what makes the book speak to and about all of us, even if we have not been touched directly by the Holocaust. Nadia asks “who isn’t a survivor from the wreck of childhood? … in order to survive that dark and often terrifying passage of my life I came to believe certain things about myself.” (p. 200). Haven’t we all? Krauss so eloquently captures the inarticulable sense of being thrown into a world of isolation, loneliness and separation from the world, at birth, and then having to spend a lifetime learning how to become reintegrated. This is the struggle and shock, the responsibility of being alive. This is what makes this Great House so mesmerizing to enter. As much as it is a book that echoes the shattered lives and shards that are the fabric of Holocaust survival and memory, it reaches so far beyond. Inside the rooms of the Great House, we find ourselves confronted with how we deal with loss, the destruction of those we love, and those disappeared in political struggles, unjustly taken from us. It’s a book that speaks about what it means to be human, even before we have lived, the trepidation and simultaneous fascination with death, the death of those who have gone before us, that we carry in our blood across the earth, for our lifetimes, and pass on without knowing it, to those who will live in our wake.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thomas Struth, National Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1999

Thomas Struth, National Museum of Art Tokyo, 1999

I have been critical of Thomas Struth in the past, primarily because I am not always convinced of the novelty of what he is doing. Is the ultimate significance of his work the same, no matter the museum, no matter the old master painting on display? In each of his museum photographs we see images of an audience looking, or more likely, not looking, at an icon of Western art in what is meant to be its sanctuary environment of a world renowned museum-cum-theme park. 

However, this image, National Museum of Art, Tokyo, from 1999, on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of their “Between Here and There: Passages in Contemporary Photography” exhibition is in a category all its own. National Museum of Art is layer upon layer upon layer of representation: a photograph of a painting, mounted on a white board, against a curtain drawn to create a temporary gallery wall, all of which is further photographed with an audience looking on in darkness. And as if that were not enough, the layers of meaning and potential for interpretation are multiplied when the painting is recognized as Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) on loan to the National Museum of Art in Tokyo from the Louvre. Delacroix’s is a painting in which Liberty leads people of all classes out of the chaos and confusion of the French revolution in 1789. The painting is huge, it is flush with intense emotion, colors, building to the crescendo of Liberty forging onward and upward, the French flag proudly and unerringly at the helm. And in Tokyo, 1999, a world far removed from the passion, the political and cultural ideals of France two hundred years earlier, the audience in Struth’s photograph stands in darkness, silent, still, and distant from the image they cannot possibly understand, activities that must seem incomprehensible to their present moment.

Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830 Oil on canvas, 102 1/4 x 128 in. (260 x 325 cm) Musee du Louvre, Paris

As if in reflection of the diminished intrigue and significance of the French Revolution to the unsuspecting Japanese audience, in Struth’s photograph, the Delacroix painting is small, minimized by the layers of backdrop, mounting, photograph, audience that are all given equal weight in the huge photographic representation. The painting, its frame, the glass in front of the painting, which is then mounted on a panel, is kept at a distance from the perfectly posed, presumably immaculate Japanese audience in Tokyo. A barrier stands between them and the painting such that the movement of and in the painting is framed, trapped, not important in the face of the layer upon layer of protection given the French national treasure that is, really, now, a photographic representation of its display in Tokyo. A guard stands next to the painting, keenly observing the people who, in turn, stand at a distance, clearly separated by the barrier we nevertheless do not see. And I assume that somewhere in Struth’s conception of his photograph he is fascinated by the mechanisms of distanciation that ensure we never get too close — in time or in space — to a work or art that might, ultimately, celebrate our own liberation.

Then, as I look at Struth’s image in the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, yet another discordant layer is added to an image already bursting with impossibility, conflict, an image in which everything is out of place. I become the audience who watches the audience in Japan who, in turn, pays homage to the French who put their faith in Liberty all those years ago. In true Metropolitan Museum style, I am allowed to wander around the photograph, move extremely close, lounge on the bench placed right before it. My interaction with Struth’s photograph could not be more different from the cold, static audience in Tokyo, and again from the passionate, fiery participants in 1789 Paris. So in tune with the institution and the city in which I encounter this image, just as are the represented audiences, I behave as though these pasts, these other worlds did not exist, so caught am I in my own present perception of Struth’s enormous photograph. Me, my experience, my present time and place is all that matters in my encounters with great works of art in famous museums, if I am to believe Thomas Struth. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still and Willem De Kooning at MoMA

Barnett Newman, The Voice, 1950
Barnett Newman’s The Voice, 1950: an all “white” field, a zip on the right hand side of a huge canvas. The accompanying text plate in Abstract Expressionism at MoMA tells me this painting is about the flatness of the canvas, the anonymity of the paint, the absence of the artist. To be exact, this is the kind of painting that “downplayed the signs of the artist’s hand.” My experience of The Voice could not be more diametrically opposed to the one I am guided to have of this, one of Newman’s most vulnerable paintings. I become lost in the movement of “white” paint, which is really an intense and undulating array of off-whites in various shades, densities, hues. The zip as the unmistakeable signature of an artist that is everywhere present on this canvas, a canvas that is anything but anonymous, is the only thing that stops me. The zip is like a fence that pulls me back as I fall reverently into the expanse of paint and color that simultaneously becomes more than a surface. I cannot get past the fence, the zip, I can’t jump it, I can’t break it, I can’t move beyond or even along it. Steadfast, and yet somehow uncertain, overwhelming the right hand side of the canvas despite its complete understatement, the zip works to thrust me and my attention back to the center of the painting.

Other visitors took photos of The Voice, though I wondered why. As you can see from the image above, in reproduction, there is nothing much to see. Everything in The Voice happens as I stand before it, in person, over time, just like the (presumably human) voice of its title. In time, the white becomes too bright, it reflects the light and the after images become overwhelming, the glare is blinding. To compensate, I am pulled in towards the canvas, to examine the movements of the paint, its viscosity, the cracks on the painted surface which remind me of aged skin, or more likely, the tiny red branches of an irritated eye. And up close I see the strokes of the brush, horizontal and vertical, revealing that the “white” might just be white afterall. I see that it is only in the handling of the paint by this anything but anonymous painter that monochrome is transformed into an array of rich, variations of white, cream, off-white, dirty white, and so on. There is the virtuosity of The Voice.

Franz Kline, Chief, 1950
I have spent years looking at paintings by Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and so last week I chose to spen time with Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2, 1944 and 1951-T No. 3, 1951. I don’t think I have ever really understood Clyfford Still’s paintings perhaps because I am not American. I am always reminded that Still’s relationship to paint on the canvas is American, vehemently and decisively American. I wonder what this means? While I know enough about Newman to take issue with the text plate, when it comes to the paintings of Clyfford Still, I am less arrogant and more inclined to believe what I am told to think and to see. Still’s are apparently paintings for the new world, they are paintings that express the expanse and the possibility at the horizon of that expanse. It’s true, Europe knows nothing of expansiveness and the possibility of change is much harder in coming. And so, I can see, maybe these paintings are quintessentially American afterall.

Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2, 1944

A swathe of black spreads out over the surface of 1944-N No. 2: though of course it is not really a swathe, but a highly worked over and worked up, meticulously crafted surface of layer upon layer of variegated black paint. This halting, yet deep, intense black surface creates both a space of liberation, but also of doom, the unknown. And then at the edges and in the cracks that emerge in this vast wilderness of black, comes the color, the brown the red, as if looking out from a cave into the possibility of color and light, life and future existence at the edge of the world. Ironically, even though the room of Barnett Newman’s paintings precedes Still’s in the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, the possibility and the future in 1944 would pave the way for Newman, for Rothko, even for Pollock. Not only did they all explore color and its effect on perception, its relationship to other colors, but they were the progenitors of an American obsession with the dynamic relationship between the surface of the canvas and the necessity for a frame. We see this “problem” or relationship resolved by Newman in his trademark language of the zip, a problem that is first imagined by Still in those red and brown interventions into an all black color field. 

I am still thinking about Clyfford Still’s work as quintessentially American, and I wonder who is the American who engages with this work? Who is it painted for? Who is this so-called American who has such a relationship with the landscape? A relationship that is colored by such force and energy, a relationship that sees few limits as possibility opens up inside and across the sumptuous surface in black. Perhaps the one Still imagines is characterized by the self-reliance and physical drive of the American spirit – an energy I don’t see anywhere in Europe?

Willem De Kooning, Woman I, 1950

There were other paintings that stopped me for a time. Philip Guston’s gray paintings for example, but my interest in them is of a different kind. I loved the de Koonings for their color, for the plasticity of the world as he sees it, a world that is angry, filled with insanity, loneliness, isolation, and the fractured selves of the modern world. It is a world so radically different from the infinite expansiveness of Still’s American dream. De Kooning is American, but as we know, he was born in the Netherlands, and so his paintings are framed. Inside de Kooning’s frames, the great European traditions of portraiture infuse the power of Woman I, 1950. And the European exploration of color — inspite of De Kooning’s rendering color strange and artificial—is all over paintings such as A Tree in Naples, 1960, together with their homage to Cubism and other early twentieth century European movements. Simultaneously, on his canvases, figure and ground are in such battle with each other, wrestling with an intensity that creates motion and that familiar forthright energy of what it means to be American. 

Abstract Expressionism at MoMA

Abstract Expressionism at MoMA
When MoMA first opened its dramatic new building by Yoshio Taniguchi, a new hanging of the collection, and most of all, new entry fee of $20 in 2004, I was curious to see if the world would think it a place worth visiting. I don’t think I have ever seen such hoards of people at a museum: last week MoMA felt more like a football stadium in Germany than home to modern American art. Clearly, the makeover has achieved its desired goals. With a week in New York, and that week being when everyone else had a week in New York, I didn’t have the luxury of visiting the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at a quieter time, and so I dived into the masses and soldiered forward to some of America’s greatest paintings with heads in my way, surrounded by tourists absurdly posing for the camera in imitation of the paintings, and screaming babies. I didn’t stop long, I couldn’t, given the theme park conditions. However, even in these less than desirable viewing conditions, I chose a few select paintings to stand before, and to pay homage to extraordinary images that, in spite of the challenges in viewing them, are still somehow able to envision the world from a perspective I had not yet considered. This, even though, none of the paintings was I seeing for the first time.

I will not say much about the exhibition itself, as I was not entirely convinced by MoMA’s apparently undiscerning attribution of “Abstract Expressionism” to the entire corpus of American art of the 1950s, from Rothko, to Pollock, to Newman, and even to Harry Callahan’s photographs, to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Each of these artists would rail against the categorization of Abstract Expressionist, a resistance that does not, in itself disqualify the attribution. However, in the case of these masterpieces, I do find it more productive to see them as working on canvases that are unique, yet somehow connected to the explorations of each other. To call them Abstract Expressionist is to elide most of what is exciting, and to dull all that is breathtaking about these paintings.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108, 1965-67
I will say, however, that the exhibition is mindboggling. It is mindboggling for the sheer number (and size) of the works on display, but unlike every other blockbuster, all of the work is taken from MoMA’s permanent collection. And so we walk from a room full of Warhols to a room of Newmans to a room of Pollocks with de Koonings, Klines, Motherwells generously scattered throughout. Where else, but MoMA? If for no other reason, seeing the enormity of the museum's postwar American art collection on display like this, is an incredible experience. And beyond the scale of the exhibition, even though I have been visiting MoMA and looking at these paintings for nearly 20 years now, to be in their presence once more, to be reminded how much they are now a part of who I am, provides such pleasure that the crowds cease to exist and the frustrations of MoMA dissipate. Everytime I see these paintings, I am made a more humble, wiser, more compassionate person.

And because I have too much to say about the paintings, because they are worthy of more than a cursory glance, you can read more in the next blog!