Monthly Archives: June 2013

Good Old Shock of the New

Wow, wow, wow!  Thank you, MrShockoftheNew, whoever you are, for uploading the grand old BBC art documentary series Shock of the New to youtube.  For those of you who love art, just stop reading this now and go watch one of the episodes. Unknown

The series was written and hosted  in the 1970s, by art critic Robert Hughes (now deceased) in all his swoony, snarky, golden-haired youthful splendor.  He is opinionated, to say the least, but even when he’s dissing something, he does it in such a way that you learn quite a bit.  Between Robert Hughes and Tom Wolfe (in From Bauhaus to Our House), I somehow managed to fall in love with midcentury architecture even while they poked holes in the utopian schemes of Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia or the glass box purity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Actually, Hughes does praise Mies’ Seagram Building, and he casts it firmly in the twentieth century tide of architectural movements and developments like the Bauhaus,  and Louis Sullivan’s primary vocabulary of the skyscraper.  As a survey course on the innovations of 20th century art and architecture, The Shock of the New reigns supreme.  While Hughes critiques modernism, he carefully reconstructs the how/why/wherefore of each painting, building, and sculpture so that, by the end of each 57-minute episode, you don’t dare say, “Yeah, well, my five-year-old could’ve painted that,” because you see that no, they couldn’t have.

Hughes filmed his series all over the world and he is careful to show each art movement or monument in it social environment. When he talks about the “failure” of Brasilia as a utopian dream-turned-nightmare, he takes us to the streets of the Brazilian capital city and shows pedestrians about to get run over by as he calls it, “an infestation of VW Beetles,” and the crumbling concrete in one of Niemeyer’s plazas.  In truth, many Brasilia buildings have been restored, are still used,  belatedly but belovedly placed on historic registries.  Oscar Niemeyer was awarded the Pritzker Prize in architecture in 1988.  So, Hughes was not always correct in his indictments, but he makes the valid point — still being made on the pages of Dwell, Metropolis, and in architecture schools today — that architects must never lose sight of the human beings they propose to shelter and the human need for comfort.   A still-slim, long legged Hughes scrambles up from an uncomfortable De Stijl armchair, making a visual point but dialing back the obvious cheap shot of ‘who the hell would have this in their living room?’.  Instead, he rescues the chair by saying that its primary function is artistic statement.  Sometimes form doesn’t follow function — it’s just form for the beautiful sake of form.

At any rate, I must’ve been 15 or 16 years old when my mother and I watched Shock of the New on PBS for the first time.  As I’ve said before, my mother was an art student/practitioner/patron/activist, and she was watching not only the series, but my budding fascination with architecture and art.   She had a strange habit of  treating me like a mountain lion cub — throwing me a bone but then expecting me to go out and kill the deer by myself.  She brought home books from the library, like a new biography of art collector Peggy Guggenheim,  for instance, or handed me the art columns in Time Magazine, or made sure I knew about the sculpture of George Segal.   One night after watching Shock, she told me that I should write Robert Hughes a letter and that she’d give me the money to get on a plane or Greyhound bus to show up at his office and ask for an apprenticeship.   I think at that time he had become the art critic for Time magazine and had offices in New York.  If I had been made of sturdier stuff, I would’ve taken her up on her dare.   But I wasn’t.  I was immature, insecure, incredibly self-conscious, and pretty enough to know that I was starting to attract attention.  Mom used to say, “Oh for god’s sake, Mimi, stop thinking that everybody’s watching you!”  The truth was, as she probably well knew, that when you’re a 15-year-old girl, everybody is fucking watching you, men, women, the kid across the street . . . everyone.  You awaken to the fact that, for many years to come, you will be an object.

Poor Robert Hughes.   Imagine what he would think of some female teen from the provinces showing up and shakily asking for a job.  Being from Australia, he well understood the uphill battle of finding cultural footing as an outsider.  His memoir Things I Didn’t Know details his own journey from Australia to Italy to London to New York.  I think we pick  idols for reasons we don’t even understand.  Well into my thirties, I read Hughes’  account of his suffocating, traumatic first marriage that lasted for years and sucked the life out of books and projects that — unlike the brilliant Shock of the New — never saw the light of day.  (As he describes it, he spent many hours sitting at home worrying about where his wife was while she was, in fact, out screwing people like Jimi Hendrix.)  Nearly a decade into a gorgeous, treacherous, self-immolating relationship, I read this and briefly forgave myself for not having the energy to write every day.  If the great Robert Hughes admitted that he let love fuck his work over, then I felt a little bit better.

Anyway, I still adore Robert Hughes and miss him dearly.  Even though some have characterized him as a bombastic bull-walrus of an art critic, few  dispute his punchy, articulate brilliance.  If I never was the girl who could be goaded into getting on the bus, more’s the pity.  What was the worst — or best — that could happen?  That I’d become his underpaid — perhaps laid — flunkey?   In the process, I’d have developed life savvy, a thick skin, and an indisputable arsenal of art knowledge, connections, and enough cred to launch my own career.

No matter.   Limpet like, I pay tribute to someone who enriched my life, and digress into an explanation of myself.  Don’t we all do that?  If you’re curious about the work of Robert Hughes, do read the Wikipedia entry (against the advice of librarians and academics, I’m sure).   It really does convey a good idea of the huge range of his career, life, and includes this useful bibliography:

Cover of "The Shock of the New"

Cover of The Shock of the New


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Art As Rapture

People run their fingers along the surface of divinity in different ways, whether they’re Christian, Islamic, Jewish, atheist.  Maybe they surf, ride horses, collect rare PEZ dispensers, sing, taste a bunch of wine until they find one that makes their palate sing, or hammer a 4 X 4 truck through a mud run.   Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, all the mood enhancers that lift you from quotidian blah into another psychosphere — it’s all good.  (Or well, it’s all good until you have too much of it and then sometimes it’s not and you find yourself on Intervention or Hoarders.)  I know, I’m confusing adrenaline rushes with rapture, but I truly believe people access these states of being for similar reasons, some of them more noble forms of escape than others.

Usually, I get divine willies from seeing amazing buildings, art,  books, or dance performance.  I’m a really visual person.  But the real work gets done in my brain as I process what I’m seeing — the crazy things that artists, writers, and dancers do with pigment, paragraphs, plies — that takes me backwards in time, forward with uncertainty, that subconscious recognition of  ‘oh yeah you’re showing me this because you’ve seen it too and yeah i know they did this thousands of years ago but wow i never thought of it that way thank you thank you thank you. damn.’  And half the time artists don’t even know they “meant” all that, which makes it even more incredible and of course means that really, the responsibility lies with us — the viewers and readers — to determine the seismic impact.

Yesterday my friend Sue and I went to the Orlando Museum of Art to see the new Contemporary American Graphics Collection.   Let me tell you, we absorbed and devoured that collection.  The guards had their work cut out for them  following us around.  We know better than to touch paintings, but we came within a hair’s breadth a number of times, backing up,  focusing in, catching them in different lights, looking for layers of underpainting and reading into all the intricate little pencilings and collage bits.  What do they mean by this?  What is it doing to me?  What kind of statement is this piece making?  What the hell does that mean?  All the time, the guards are thinking these bitches are just way too interested.

A bunch of works were arresting and dramatic,  or innovative,  or physically huge.  And then we came to this relatively small, quiet piece by Ben Aronson, an urban streetscape called “Closed Ramp” that just took our breath away.  I’ve included an image of it which of course doesn’t do it justice.  The perspective is technically brilliant, the volumes and planes of composition are so well balanced, and it rewards the eye up close, at 10 feet, at 20 feet, the surfaces had depth that changed the more you studied it.   I’m no art historian, but thanks to some inherited genetic code from my mother I know when I am seeing something very good to great. This piece transcended the technical into the realm of divine heebie-jeebies.  Sue (who actually does have art history training) and I usually like the same things —  but not always.  But  with this one, we both knew.  This was a smart piece that was making us look in a hundred different ways.  And I felt those chills run up and down my legs and thought, “Yes, I see.”   images-2

After our intense brush with graphics, we took a break with sculpture which was no sensory break at all for me.   I had to work hard not to rub like a cat up against one sculpture.  I wanted to gnaw on one wooden sculpture like a beaver.  Sculpture is so tactile!  It just seems cruel not to let people touch it.  I  wanted to hug this fat, abstracted lovely dark green horse, barely recognizable as a horse.   That is, until you circled around to the rear and saw a very realistic anus under its docked tail, and thought, yep, that’s a horse.  We giggled with another couple of people who were looking at it, just like some delighted kindergartners laughing at a horse’s butthole.  I’m sure the artist put it there to deflate the lofty abstraction that it nearly becomes.  I love it when an artist shows a sense of humor.  And truly, this is what a museum is supposed to do — amaze and delight.

On that topic, check out Wayne White (below — Failed Abstract Paintings of the Seventies.)  He’s fun — and funny —  beyond belief.  No, he’s not at the OMA.  Don’t I wish!



Later that evening, I found myself wishing that Sue and I could’ve shared the OMA exhibit with my mother.  Reading about yet another exhibit this morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  I wished I could go, then I wished Mom could go.  It occurred to me,  “Mimi, she’s dead.  She can get a ticket to any damn exhibit she wants to.”  This was my flip way of saying that I’m sure wherever/whatever/however she exists, my mother realizes and knows when I am seeing something sublime.   Or does she even care about art?   Are spirits in such a beatific state that they’re beyond the wonderings and wanderings of art?

Earlier this week, I wrote a strange fact-piece for an online reference source.  The topic was whether or not Lutherans believe that animals go to heaven. (For anyone interested, the answer is ‘no’ to ‘maybe,’ depending on who you consult and how free-thinking your pastor is.) The piece got sent back to me for editing because I included some quote from Will Rogers about if dogs are not in heaven, then I want to go where the dogs are.  Humor is apparently not appropriate in reference sources, go figure.  So maybe thoughts of the afterlife are on my mind.  Art scrapes and scratches at the nature of existence, forcing us to see beyond our normal comprehension.  I wonder when you don’t exist anymore on this earth, are you in such a constant state of grace that you don’t need the interpretation of art?  On one of my Pinterest boards, I paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche to say,  “We have art so that we don’t perish from the truth.”  A little bit of truth is all I can handle, but if I glimpse it through art in this lifetime, bring it on.


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