Interviews

Manhattan Cathedral Explores Water in Art

Winn Rea, "Fountain" (2011) (All images courtesy the Cathedral of St. John the Divine) (click to enlarge)

If you’re near Columbia University, there’s an art show that sounds worthwhile exploring and it’s devoted to water, The Value of Water. Sure, there’s nothing more universal than water, it is the substance that sustains life on Earth. It is one of the roots of environmentalism and for years we’ve been told that it has and will be the basis on wars as resources on the planet struggle to accommodate a growing population that demands more and more.

The Cathedral of St. John, which has long had an established art program, is tackling the topic of H2O in their current art show that features some major artists, including Jenny Holzer, William Kentridge, Robert Longo and Mark Rothko, alongside lesser known talents. The works are presented in the bays of the nave, in various chapels, and along the walls of the Great Crossing.

We posed a few questions to Margaret Diehl at the St John the Divine about the work, including why Rothko was included in an exhibition about water.

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Hrag Vartanian: How did you get these artists to agree to be part of the show or are the works from the Cathedral’s collection?

Jenny Holzer, "Selection from Survival: You are so complex that you don't always respond to danger" (click to enlarge)

Margaret Diehl: Fredericka Foster, the curator of the exhibit, chose the art after looking at the work of many contemporary artists, visiting studios and galleries. The artists were all interested in the project, and pleased to have their work shown at the Cathedral. There were some logistical issues, especially with the larger pieces, but those were worked out.

The Cathedral-owned art is not properly part of the exhibit, but some of it relates very closely, such as “The Baptism” from the set of 12 Barberini Tapestries that depict the life of Christ. These 17th century masterpieces were woven for Cardinal Francois Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII. Newly cleaned and conserved by the Cathedral Textile Conservation Laboratory, this tapestry is one of the four from this set now hanging in the Cathedral.

HV: What do you hope the exhibition will accomplish?

MD: We are hoping to harness the power of imagination — that of the artist and the viewer — to stimulate creative thought on the issue of water and climate change in general. This is an enormous problem and needs to be looked at in as many ways as possible. Art can change history. How it does so, when it does so, are not under anyone’s control, but not to look to it for help at this critical juncture would be foolish. This intent is not distinct from the more immediate one — to celebrate the richness and variety of water representation in art; and to celebrate water itself. Through celebration and reverence our vision is cleansed.

William Kentridge's "Tide Table" video (2003)

HV: I’d love to hear how you think Rothko’s work is related to the theme? What is the work that will be on display?

MD: Rothko’s work has no narrative content, but neither does the ocean or the sky. What is called “abstract” in the visual arts is not an invention of man, much less modern man, but a quality of the universe. As a Cathedral, and in particular one open to members of all faiths and no faith, we embrace the spirit in all its forms. We know that art is where the spirit is first given form, and we rely on it to guide our imaginations.

The climate crisis is requiring us, as a species, as a society, to do what only a few of us come to of their own accord: to broaden our point of view to encompass more than self, more than family, more than nation or faith. We think Rothko speaks to this great task; he is a spiritual ancestor to the contemporary artists whose work we are exhibiting.

Teresta Fernandez, "Untitled" (1997)

HV: Were there any surprises for you in compiling work around the theme of water? Did you find many artists have explored the issue or perhaps there was an aspect no one has really tackled?

MD: There are always surprises when looking at art! Certainly artists have been tackling issues since the beginning of time. In this exhibition there are many counter influences that we did not anticipate. The exhibition is provocative on many fronts. We look forward to learning what visitors to the Cathedral think; what questions they will have.

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The Value of Water continues at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) until March 25, 2012.

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