Saturday, March 19, 2011

10 Pictures

It is a Palace of Democracy. What is inside was made for kings, pharaohs, generals, dictators, thieves, and the wealthy, who are all of those things. Yet here I was, and now all of it was mine--only temporarily but hey--for the price of a dollar ("Suggested admission: $28" ["Pay what you wish" in type almost too small to see, or that was their hope]). The plunder of nations and the ages, all collected in one lavish, epically scaled building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I like entering by the grand staircase of what appears to be a thousand steps: one should sweat a little for prizes like these. Into the immense white hall, with its sprays of fresh flowers the size of a football player. (They are replaced once a week, year round, under the terms of an endowment to the museum expressly for this purpose.) The Great Hall functions as a mountain: reminding us how
small we are.

This day, we let the two boys, clutching their drawing pads, rush ahead into the Greek wing. They hunkered down on the floor, blending into yet another group of art students, clustered at the feet of ancient heroes, with their offerings of sketchpad and charcoal. I was drawn, not to the heroic, but to the impossible: a small case containing glass. From Rome. Whole, unchipped. It spok
e of miracles. Maybe they were small ones, but those are the ones we can grasp.

After the sculpture, the boys intended to visit (of course) the swords. Then the samurai armor; it always frightens me. But them--it makes them dream. Of being frightening. That which the male of our species hopes for, while the female yearns to attract the warrior so he will take off the frightening armor, frightened of her. We wear it in different places, that's all.

The ladies decamped to the more intimate spaces upstairs, to see some photography. I wasn't much interested in the show of Steiglitz, Steichen, Strand--it is hard to see these grandaddies with a fresh eye, just as it is hard to look at the Mona Lisa and see anything but a thousand parodies--but I was interested in a show titled "Our Future Is in the Air: Photographs from the 1910s."
It got me thinking of the photographs I love, that always look new to me, and I felt like mounting my own exhibition, an intimate chronology of the art, starting with two from the aforementioned show.

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Tadeus Langnier

Anton Giulio Bragaglia, The Typist

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bichonnade Leaping

Charles Sheeler, Doylestown House--the Stove

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina

Garry Winogrand, New Mexico

John Pfahl, Trojan Nuclear Power Plant

Lewis Baltz, from Park City

Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #249

I tried to figure out what linked these images, and for a long time I could not--apart from the fact that I love them especially, for they each appear to me nearly perfect. They are from different traditions and visions: futurist, formalist, snapshot, the "ruined landscape," the age of Manifest Destiny. Then I realized: they are all linked by their dedication to surprise, to opening the eye to what has been unseen in what is always seen. They are new, even if they are old.


M said...

I love these. Most of them, especially the landscapes, seem to have a desolate mood, a frank portrait of something less than ideal but still loved...just my opinion. Studying photography was one of the most rewarding, if not challenging, courses I took while in school. I'm inspired to post my own attempts at analog photography.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

It's funny--looking at these again just now, it occurs to me to realize how incredibly variable photography can be, although it it based on the ostensible "real" world; just as variable as painting has been through many centuries. This leads me to think that the very notion of its basis in nonfiction, concrete reality is itself chimerical--a lie.

Yes, post pictures: there is endless appetite for new visions.

bill g said...

Interested in your thoughts of Edward Hopper, now showing at the Whitney. I love and shoot photography but love the light and simplicity of Hopper paintings.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

There is indeed something deeply alluring about Hopper--there's a sense of distance and closeness both; isolation and intimacy at the same time. And he's commenting on something peculiar in American life, too: I think it's a human yearning forced into sublimation by the forces of industrialization.

I haven't seen the Whitney show, but I see it's on for a couple of weeks yet. Hope a surprise trip to the city is in the cards, next hand I'm dealt.