My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of revelation – it is the revelation.
I’m in the final days of my Greene Street residency – only 8 days left before I leave New York and head for London. I still have a lot to write about so I’m going to use subheadings and take a more shorthand approach in this post – well, as much as I possibly can!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an extraordinary annexe of Medieval Art called The Cloisters, a conglomerate of historic buildings set in 4 acres of beautiful gardens all the way up the far west end of Manhattan. I took the longest subway ride I have ever taken in New York to get there, to 190th Street. It’s then a very pleasant walk though lush green parkland alongside the river to the actual museum.
The museum itself houses a collection of over 2,000 superb items that include wooden sculptures, altar pieces, furniture, icons, and its very famous Unicorn Tapestries. One work I find particularly striking is a little statuette of a naked Jesus with a pinkish blush to his bottom – I think immediately of Jeff Koons’ sculptures of cherub-like children which feature a similar treatment around the genital area. I also love the remarkable detail, scale and richness of the tapestries, which offer a glimpse into an extraordinarily fertile Medieval imagination. And I simply enjoy wandering around the galleries and the stunning internal courtyards and gardens that offer perfect little havens for a quiet moment of contemplation. My whole visit is marked by a great sense of peace and calm.
Some time in September, Janet Cardiff’s Motet, which I recently saw installed in the Art Gallery of Toronto in the Henry Moore sculpture gallery, will be installed somewhere in the Cloisters. It is the perfect location for the work, which features the individually recorded voices of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing a 1573 choral composition by Thomas Tallis. I am sorry I will not be here to experience it.
ART ADVENTURES WITH FIONA LEE
Fiona Lee is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania’s College of the Arts, which is where I teach, and she visited New York on her way home from a three week residency at Banff in Canada. We spent a few days together exploring galleries: MoMA PS1, an annexe of The Museum of Modern Art; Dia Beacon, an installation gallery in a converted Nabisco factory; The New Museum, and a series of smaller galleries in Soho not far from my studio – Apexart, Art in General and Artists Space: Books and Talks. It was such a pleasure to have a well-informed companion on these art adventures.
MoMA PS1 was established in 1971 in an old schoolhouse in Long Island City in Queens with the aim of showing experimental and challenging art forms, including site specific installations and performances. The building underwent extensive renovation in 1997 and in 2000, PS1 became affiliated with MoMA. For some time, the Australia Council, who are funding my residency in Greene Street, had a studio at PS1 which was offered as a 6 month residency in New York. That all changed a few years ago, and the 6 month studio is now located at ISCP (Interational Studio and Curatorial Program).
Fiona and I are excited about our visit – PS1 has a reputation for innovation and we are ready for it! Alas, with the exception of a few works, we are generally disappointed with our experience. We view a beautiful permanent James Turrell sky work, great William Kentridge silhouettes in one of the stairwells, and a magnificent installation by Adrián Villar Rojas’s called La inocencia de los animales (The innocence of animals) that uses clay and concrete to transform a very large gallery into a surreal cracked architectural ruin that resembles a Greek amphitheatre. It is a powerful work that suggests the very foundations of western civilisation have become completely destabilised. There is also an Olafur Eliasson installation – Your waste of time – in which real chunks of ice from Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, are displayed in a room where the temperature is below freezing. It is so cold in there that it is difficult to stay longer than a minute. These works are all very impressive, but the rest of what we see leaves us feeling rather flat and uninspired. We eat lunch in the café, which is set up like a schoolroom with communal seating at long tables and blackboards on the walls. The menu is scarily fascinating and we both decide to have the least adventurous item on the menu – cold asparagus and broccoli soup with something that looks like cornflakes sprinkled on top.
Our trip to Dia Beacon is a much more successful and happy art adventure. We catch the train at Grand Central Station and enjoy an 80 minute trip that takes us north along the Hudson River through lush green countryside to the township of Beacon. It then takes about 15 minutes to walk from the station to the Dia gallery, which is set in the stunning landscaped grounds of an old biscuit factory.
Fiona and I love every minute of our visit. The factory is massive and has been perfectly converted to show the work of artists such as Donald Judd, Any Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Lawrence Wiener, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria, Louise Bourgeois – the list goes on and on. Fiona and I audibly gasp as we move from one huge gallery to another, getting lost both in the immensity of the space and the immensity of the work. Every time we think we have seen everything in a particular area, we glimpse the work of yet another artist in the distance. Every work we see has plenty of breathing space and every work commands that space with great authority. My favourites are the Sol Le Witt wall drawings, Dan Flavin’s fluoro light works, Richard Serra’s monumental curved steel sculptures that seem to defy gravity, and Michael Heizer’s North East South West (1967-2002) which are massive, perfectly formed geometric holes cut into the gallery floor. The square holes are stepped twice into the ground and instantly bring to mind the design of the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero – double waterfalls that sink into the void of the earth where the twin towers once stood.
Outside in the garden, we experience the hauntingly beautiful sound work Birdcalls (1972/1981) by Louise Lawler which leads us along a boardwalk through a grove of evenly planted trees and to a large platform that looks over extensive green grounds. It’s hot and muggy and the walk through the trees accompanied by the totally unexpected sound track is a magical experience.
On our last venture together, we explore some of the smaller galleries in Soho. Apexart is featuring a show called Laughter that includes a 1974 video work by Christian Boltanksi, and Artists Space: Books and Talks, is a beautiful gallery with a rather demanding conceptually driven exhibition that involves a lot of reading (it also has an incredibly annoying website that replaces the normal arrow or finger cursors with a large coloured triangle). And then there is Art in General, which is showing Letha Wilson’s Landmarks and Monuments, a compelling suit of works about nature, architecture and culture that are part photographic, part sculpture and part painting. Interestingly, Art in General have co-curated the Latvian pavilion for the Venice Biennale in conjunction with Riga’s KIM gallery space. I can’t wait to see the show in Venice when I go there in August, which has had some excellent reviews.
We then head for the New Museum, which has a series of new exhibitions since I last visited. Fiona and I are rather arted-out at this point and skim through the galleries. The most interesting show is a retrospective of the work of Llyn Foulkes, an artist who has tended to be overlooked by mainstream galleries until fairly recently. His work is hard to categorise – a mixture of painting, collage, montage, relief work, dioramas, a little surreal, often grotesque. There are some really fascinating works in the show, but there are so many of them, and the hang is so crowded, that the overall experience is just too visually daunting.
Fiona and I have some lunch in the café in the foyer, and it’s while we are eating that I hear someone call out my name. I turn around to see Annette Allman, a student from the Tasmanian College of the Arts. It is such a lovely surprise to meet yet another Tasmanian in New York, along with her truly charming family – her husband Noel, and her two sons, Jackson and Max. Max is an artist, living in Toronto, and Jackson is an architect, based in Melbourne. We arrange to meet again in a few days time. They visit my studio, we go to the roof and admire the view, and we enjoy a lovely dinner together. About a week later, I run into Max at the Whitney Museum summer evening event for members. More shiny happy people moments that make this journey just that more memorable.
THE WHITNEY MEMBERS’ EVENING
The Whitney hosts a special summer members’ evening to coincide with the opening of Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil, originally shown in the gallery back in 1977, and an exhibition of Edward Hopper drawings and paintings. I go with Kathy, the manager of the Greene Street Studio, her partner Sardi and their friend Lucia (yet another Shiny Happy Person). There’s a party atmosphere throughout the gallery. We have drinks in the lower floor while listening to a great little jazz band and people watching, and then we wander through the exhibitions.
Irwin’s Scrim Veil is a beautiful, minimal work that takes up the whole fourth floor of the gallery. It divides the space horizontally into two with a piece of fabric that emphasises the shape of the space and plays with the changing light from the huge window at one end. If you look towards that window, everyone becomes a silhouette. We wander about, noticing how the veil has changed our experience of the space. Then we visit the Edward Hopper exhibition, which Kathy describes as totally ‘Mercan’ (as opposed to ‘American’). For me, it is a great treat to see some of his iconic paintings, especially Nighthawks, 1942, which so evocatively depicts a ‘Mercan’ diner at night. We also walk though the I, You, We exhibition that features significant works from the 80s and 90s that I saw when I first arrived in New York. Kathy and Sardi relate personal stories about some of the artists, so it’s an added bonus to see the show again in their company.
The evening is topped by some of the fabulous people we meet. There is the wonderful Ariel Krupnik who is wearing an extraordinary outfit dominated by a Barbie doll necklace and floral boots. And the stunning Jean and Valerie, the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas, all in perfectly coordinated and totally dramatic black, grey and white. They prefer ‘growing old with verve’ to ‘growing old gracefully’ – and they do it with impeccable, striking style. And, as I said earlier, we also run into the charming Max Allman, the son of one of my past students from the Tasmanian college of the Arts.
We catch a bus to a lovely little French restaurant on the upper east side for a perfect end to the evening.
The new show at the Guggenheim features James Turrell, the master of light and colour, who has taken over the entire rotunda and transformed it into a single, sublime experience. I go to the special member’s preview with Daphane, the New York based artist I met not long after I arrived here.
It is hard to know what to say about what Turrell has done to the building. When I first see the rotunda from one of the entrances, is it completely red – a bright, intense pure red that floods everything and everyone. When I enter the space and take pictures of it from the inside, the camera bizarrely records everything as blue. There are hundreds of people in here, all gazing upwards at the extraordinary light show Turrell has created. He has covered the entire spiral walkway with a gauze-like fabric that has transformed it into a beautiful spiral of softly changing light, from red to purple to pink to grey to white to blue to green… It is mesmerising. I make my way up the spiral to take more photos from above, but one of the attendants tells me that photography is not allowed. Down below, however, everyone is using their phone cameras. Daphane and I dodge our way through the crowds and manage to get seating along the outer rim of the rotunda. Some people are lying on the floor, but that doesn’t last long, probably for safety reasons, and everyone is asked to stand. It is an extraordinary work, beautiful because of the constantly shifting light, and mysterious because it alters my whole understanding of the Guggenheim as a space. I keep trying to work out how a spiral rotunda has now become a series of elipses, one inside another… my powers of perception are totally befuddled.
I return to the Guggenheim a couple of weeks later with a surprise companion – my partner Gerard has flown to New York to join me for my last ten days here! We go to the gallery on an immensely hot day but despite the searing heat, there are huge queues outside, waiting to experience Turrell’s work. We have a membership card which gives us fairly quick access, but inside the rather cramped ticketing area it is chaos and it takes about fifteen minutes to get our free tickets. When we finally enter the rotunda, I am surprised at how different the work looks during daylight. You can actually just make out the mesh that is stretched across the entire width of the space. The light show is also a little gentler and more subtle than at night. This time, I also walk up the ramp to see other Turrell works that I missed at the members’ preview. There is a simply stunning series of very spare aquatints that depict rectangles and columns of light in darkened rooms, and there are also a number of projections of white light onto walls. One is a simple rectangle that looks like a vast white void that you could step right into and disappear forever; another is a column of intense white light in the corner of an empty room that has completely mystified a crowd of about thirty people who hover around the work as if waiting for something magic to happen. I also get to see what Turrell has done with the ramp – all of the balconies have been enclosed with opaque white mesh fabric – but I am still unable to work out how a spiral has become a series of ellipses…