I received an email the other day from a good friend with whom I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art in the mid 1990’s. He had been back to Cleveland for a visit, and had met up with another CIA painting alum to walk the galleries at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He wrote about revisiting paintings that had been important to him during school, like Rubens’ Portrait of Isabella Brant and about other paintings that stood out now, at this different moment in his life, including an Inness landscape. I haven’t been back to Cleveland since 1999, and I’m curious about which paintings might stop me now, and how different the list might be for me today than it would have been 10 years ago. To tell the truth, it isn’t necessary to travel to a museum that I haven’t been to for many years to have a similar experience. I’ve been working at the IMA for a little over five years, and I am amazed by how often a work of art that I haven’t paid much attention to suddenly asserts itself.
One of the great things about working in an art museum is the opportunity to really get to know a collection. It is a sad reality of museum work that sometimes, although we are literally surrounded by a wonderful and varied collection of art, the practicalities of making the institution do the things it does overwhelm museum employees, causing us to spend more time in Outlook than actually looking around. It has been my experience that walking the galleries almost always yields some surprise, or reacquaints me with a painting I’ve admired but lost touch with, or is just somehow the right painting for the right day. A stroll through the American galleries earlier this week included some time spent with Tidying Up by Isabel Bishop, a painting that I’ve seen many times,. I’ve always liked the painting, but this time the painting really seemed special, and I’ve been thinking about why.
I’ll foreground my discussion of the painting with an admission: I think my interest in any painting, or the degree to which a painting affects me, is nearly always dependent on the way the painting connects with or disputes some ongoing development in my own art making process. I suppose I am a selfish viewer, but I think that it is also about the value of placing yourself within a lineage of artists, and finding commonalities in practice across eras and locations. I think that is one part of what museums provide for most artists, a place to construct a framework for your own practice, a building that serves as some kind of physical demonstration of the value of making art as a collective human endeavor. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about drawing and observation, and about the way that keeping a sketchbook full of drawings done on the spot and in the moment formalizes the process of looking around, and helps remind one to be always at the ready for visual inspiration. Bishop’s painting speaks to that impulse to see and interpret, and in keeping with the nostalgic air of the beginning of this post, reminds of me of days spent on trains and in public spaces sketching unsuspecting strangers. I have become a frequent visitor to the Urban Sketchers site which is a collection of artists in cities all around the world who post scans of their sketchbooks, including some drawings of commuters that rhyme nicely with the un-posed and informal look of Tidying Up.
I love the way that finding oneself unexpectedly entranced by a painting can act as a catalyst that links and crystallizes thoughts. In an unexpected way, I find myself connecting both the work posted on the sketchblog and Bishop’s painting to the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Before researching and installing the current Star Studio exhibition, More than Four Legs: A Closer Look at Chairs (through January 19), I was familiar with the work of Charles and Ray Eames as designers, but knew very little about their photography. The show contains a label written by Charles Eames’s granddaughter, Carla Hartman that details the amazing volume of photographs that Charles and Ray Eames produced (hundreds of thousands of still images). Many of the photos record apparently simple, common household tableaus (dishes in a sink, a bouquet of flowers). I love the idea of a cumulative record of the visual events encountered in daily life that prompted the desire to artfully record the moment, to produce a personal library of framed views of the world. Perhaps today Charles and Ray would have a massive Flickr account or would keep a really great photoblog.
Combining Bishop’s painting (and the long history of reportage-style drawing that is implied by it ) with the examples of lifetimes of close looking found in the work of Charles and Ray Eames creates a model for really seeing and understanding the world through constant, disciplined application and exertion of the “view-finding” eye. The message I get is shoot photos, make drawings, watch the space around you for art, both purposeful and unplanned. Look more intently at the world around you.
I don’t want to overstate this, but I feel like Isabel Bishop’s modestly scaled painting is acting as my own stand-in for Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, and reminding me of the unique, and really kind of unreasonable, impact that an object in a museum can have on one’s thinking. The last line of Rilke’s poem is “You must change your life.” There is an echo of that message to be found in museums everywhere, and it is likely to be triggered by an object far less obviously imbued with the weight of historic significance than an ancient Greek statue.
So, for me 2009 is going to be a year of looking around more intently, drawing more, and a year of allowing myself frequent opportunities to be surprised and affected by the works in the museum’s collections. Maybe I will also start writing more concise blog posts. Happy New Year.