Last Saturday my grandnephew and I planned a visit to PhotoPlus Expo 2016 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. We had talked about it for weeks and were looking forward to checking out the latest in photography. It was also time I could spend with him since he was consumed with school, photography internships, and a job, and otherwise I would only get to see him during the holidays and family get togethers. We were all set including picking the corner of the block to meet, and then he was hit with a surprise assignment by one of his professors. He was to visit the Agnes Martin Show at uptown New York and report back with a paper. That left him a slim margin to go, then write a report along with all of his other obligations.
Friday I got a call asking if we could divert our plans from PhotoPlus Expo to meet instead at the Guggenheim. I was more than happy to oblige and thought it would be equal fun. One of the takeaways I’ve learned from being a member of an artistic family is that I know as much or more about composition from art and painting as I do from photography. Sounds like he’s got a smart professor. So time with my grandnephew whether it is at Jacob Javits Center or the Guggenheim would be well worth it, giving us time to catch up on each other’s lives.
I hadn’t been to the Guggenheim since I was a teenager when Mom and my sister dragged me to yet another showing. Geez, I hated it, but like the boring repetition of High School lessons or rote drills of sports, something must have stuck because unabashed comments on art spilled forth. Whether I speak with authority or not only the Muses know, so my prayers to them are more like apologies than petitions.
The line to get in was considerable bending around the block on a blustery, rainy day. Typical. New York is in the throws of a prolonged drought and the day Harrison and I had to stand on a line, (in a line if you’re not a New Yorker) was the only day weather hit us with a vengeance. After 25 minutes huddled in our coats and passing through security we were in and through the ticket purchase. How nice; he’s a student and I’m a senior (in life that is), both of us eligible for the same discount. I suppose what goes around comes around. As I walked through the main hall I was reacquainted with an old friend.
How sad that my first visits to the Guggenheim didn’t recognize the brilliance of its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Older now, much older, I see the bold genius that defined his unique aesthetic of American architecture. “Form follows function,” coined by his mentor Louis Sullivan was apparent throughout the building’s symmetry. Underlying form following function is the principle that the shape of a building should be based on its intended purpose. The ingenious beauty of the museum’s spiraling ascent welcomes the viewer on from one art piece to another, ever rising to the building’s height. I saw it again…but for the first time… eventually reaching the top along with Harrison not realizing my feet’s neuropathy was yelling at me.
The journey uphill introduced me to another new friend, Agnes Martin, being unfamiliar with her work before then. Art pundits label her work as minimalism, but what do they know? She called herself an abstract expressionist and if that was how she defined her work, then that’s what it’ll be. Born in Canada she became an American eventually moving to New Mexico in the late 60’s. She was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and for those familiar with Zen precepts it’s apparent throughout her work. Rachael Spence (Financial Times, June 5, 2015) describes her work as an “essay in discretion, inwardness and silence.”
Harrison and I had spirited exchanges about her pieces as we swam upstream from one to another all the while discussing our impressions and attracting eavesdroppers to our somewhat collegiate insights. However, my biggest take away was less about her technique and style, but more about how viewers interacted with her art.
It was an inquisitive dance; first the whole and then closer to see the detail and then back again to see how it all came together. Midway up the walk was a curator’s plaque that brought the meaning home. “Up close, the carefully crafted lines appear delineated, but when viewed from a distance they begin to blend into stripes and, finally, into a nearly monochromatic surface.” So for me the pieces were less about the visual impact within, but more about the energy of the viewer moving into detailed insight and back again to the gestalt. Was that her intention, I wondered? If so, how ingenious.
Then we discussed how we might simulate that in our photography. I had a mentor that taught; when you are searching for a solution, ask what your heroes would do. Combined with in-camera photos is Photoshop a tool we can use to simulate her art? I thought to try this resolved not to simply copy, but rather blend her technique with my own style. It will be my next experiment.
Sing in me, oh muse, and stop me from screwing this up. 🙂
Time was up, he had a photo shoot appointment in Brooklyn, so we walked downhill to the ground floor, poked around the gift shop (with nothing bought), and then I drove him downtown to his school so that he could pick up a camera for his assignment, all the while talking about Agnes Martin, my teenage home in Manhattan, and his aspirations after graduation. It was a wonderful and loving day for us both.