AUTHOR’S NOTE: I recently asked a number of artists the following questions: Is there a work of art in your personal collection that especially resonates with you at this weird, frightening moment? Does it take on new meaning? Help you cope? Freak you out? Provide solace or momentary escape?
My premise is that artists who collect art experience an important kind of stimulation from having the work of others in their homes. In the context of rampant disease, do you look at your collection differently now, and which works in particular?
Rebecca Smith: The end of February was the beginning of the Covid-19 era for me. That’s when I attended several friends’ openings over the period of a week or so, and everyone became increasingly conscious, and then painfully aware, of the fear of kissing, shaking hands, touching, being in a crowd. Now, several weeks later, we are “sheltering in place” alone or with domestic partners. For most of that time my husband and I have been in our house in upstate New York.
Early on I noticed a subtle difference in how I experienced a collage by Joe Fyfe that always felt somewhat remote during the years we’ve had it. It is colorful and geometric, which I experienced as frontal, declarative, a bit stark. Now, it was more vivid. The cut-out circle on the lower right seems to be a place that goes somewhere and is calling to something. The rectangular shapes jiggle provocatively at various angles from the horizontal. Things are off the ground, like a deck of cards thrown into the air, and the insistent circular void is directed at me, offering a way out.
Daniel Weiner: Like many of us who are lucky enough to be able to shelter in place peacefully and safely, I am not confronted with the day-to-day terror of the pandemic, but live with an undercurrent of dread. No single artwork in my home alleviates this low-level dread; rather it is the fact that each artwork represents a moment in an artist’s overall project that I find most moving now.
I picture each artist in their studio or kitchen or ad hoc space cobbling together their work, unfolding their thoughts, tinkering privately. In isolation, they continue the peculiar, slow, indirect, delayed form of communication of art making.
Ordinarily, I feel a sense of solidarity in isolation with other artists. I feel it even more during our enforced isolation. Each artwork is a promise for its continuation. Each artwork in my home is a catalyst for solidarity in isolation.
Elliott Green: I live and work alone in the woods in upstate New York, so my life goes on the same as usual, except for the news from the outside world — of misery and grief, danger and hardship, fortitude, courage, and kindness, and on the other hand, gross ineptitude, ignorance, and blatant opportunism.
Under these circumstances, from among my beloved collection of artworks made by my friends, I’m looking a lot at my Trevor Winkfield painting. I think the reason it is jumping out at me just now is because it was created by a person who is a scholar of both history and absurdity, and that depth and dark humor are in the nuclei of the molecules of his work.
Absurdity is always present in Trevor’s paintings in the strange relationships between the parts. Objects that were never together before combine to make characterizations with various and contradictory motives. His assemblages teeter with a tension, and always seem to be on the verge of exploding back into their separate parts.
In my particular painting, I identify with the rabbit, looking on (as it seems today) with incredulous caution. During these unreal times of craven politics and ravenous microbiology, my Trevor Winkfield painting seems totally unfazed and relevant, like it saw the chaos coming.
Caroline Wells Chandler: We are thankful and happy to be quarantined in our new place. We have more wall space and our walls are no longer severely water damaged, so a large part of the work that I’ve been collecting is now safely on display. I’ve always wanted to hang Ruby Bradford’s work “Superman Cat” next to Katherine Bradford’s “Superman Night Sky.”
When I met Ruby Bradford she was wearing a Superman T-shirt and cape and a neon red durag. I thought it was great that she shared Katherine’s last name and painted absurdist superhero paintings. I’ve always wanted to hang the two next two each other because of the surname the artists share, and the hair in both paintings is really funny and great. “Superman Cat” appears to be wearing a toupée and Katherine’s Superman is painted on a towel so the texture of the towel comes through and looks like male pattern baldness or even hair plugs.
I’m an intuitive object maker and I gravitate toward works by artists who have impressive inner-looking skills matched with prolific outputs. The Bradfords hang makes me laugh. Regardless of the times, having a happy heart is good medicine for coping with the difficulties and uncertainty that life inevitably brings.
Katherine Bradford: In order to work at home I set up my laptop at the far end of our small loft-like space. Suddenly I have a full view of Harriet Korman’s big painting that fills that end of our home with light and color. The image reads like an open book. The colors are tropical and most of all I sense the joyous brushwork behind the making of this work. In this phase of Harriet’s career (the 1990s), she put down strokes of color swiftly with no corrections or hesitation. I’m reminded of the power of going ahead with the confidence that everything will work out.
Dennis Kardon: I have many pieces by artist friends and there are two in particular that resonate ontologically at this time, and coincidentally they are in close proximity and seem to relate to each other: a sculpture by Sarah Peters, and a painting by Fred Valentine. I like works that problematize my initial reactions and I am focusing on these two because of the complexity of the emotional responses they continue to elicit years after acquiring them.
The subject of the Valentine painting, which is from a series he did called Grieving Fathers is so striking because its mixture of inconsolable grief and sarcasm reminds me of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, which blends both misogyny and inchoate sadness. Although many people seem to have a strong negative reaction to it, I consider it a masterpiece of twisted expression. At a moment when our emotions have been bouncing from anger at the mismanagement, to confusion, to grief, to astonishment at the warping of reality, Fred’s painting seems to destabilize all points of view, and makes you wary of how easily emotions can be manipulated, depending on the cues.
Sarah’s sculpture, which is the white plaster cast prior to the bronze one she first exhibited in 2015 at Eleven Rivington, is in its pristine whiteness, a lot calmer. But the expression is so eerie, that in Peters’ typical smooth formal mix of ancient art and popular culture suggests a cross between iconic horror and the blowjob mouth of an inflatable sex doll, one of Sarah’s many esthetic referents. Because it is a sculpture, the expression seems to flicker with changes in light and viewing angle. Both works bring a subtle ironic humor to abject expressions of sorrow and somehow epitomize my pinball emotional experience.
Joanne Greenbaum: I am isolating in a rental home on Long Island and I’ve been here about six weeks straight during this virus time. I’m alone with my dog. Most of my art collection is back in New York City but I have a few pieces here. One is a tiny painting by Ellen Gronemeyer. I first saw her work at greengrassi, a gallery we share in London. I bought this piece in TriBeCa when Dennis Kimmerich had a gallery there before he moved to Berlin.
I usually buy or trade artwork that speaks to me in a language other than my own. Gronemeyer’s paintings are always weird and I can’t imagine what she thinks about when she makes them. Her paintings are dark and hopeful at the same time. This one in particular is of a smiling sun. But it’s a black sun.
The Gronemeyer painting is in the kitchen so I look at it first thing in the morning while making and drinking coffee and contemplating another day inside just like the one before.
John Zinsser: This is a Chris Pfister painting, like a timeless Albert Pinkham Ryder, peeking out from a bookshelf with my long-ago books at my mother’s house. The painting is from around 1990, oil and glazing on plywood. Chris, looking like a young Richard Gere, used to deliver these works to Bess Cutler Gallery on his motorcycle. But he gave this one to me. It manages to escape the grip of specific time and place.
Gabriele Evertz: One of the works in our collection is by my colleague and friend, the painter Robert Swain, who is known for his research into color behavior and color organization. For many years Swain made large-scale grid paintings, structured according to the principles of the golden section. His unique and ever-expanding filing system keeps track of over 4000 distinct colors.
After maintaining his practice for 40 years, in 2006 Swain began his brushstroke paintings. Even when he uses no more than three colors, as in this particular painting, he sets them into disruptive contrast by their closeness in value and contrasting hues. The visual elements are distributed in varying changes in size, quantity, and location, tumbling from the top of the painting to the bottom left corner.
Swain’s prior works felt restless in their apparent movement of immaterial blocks of light and color, which seemed to continuously advance and recede. These new works ask viewers to engage with the materiality of color as paint, something visceral and physical, the “physical fact” that Albers spoke of in relation to “psychic effects.” vAs a result, Swain has arrived at two different visual languages, equally valid, that reveal color experiences that may initially be individual and private but ultimately, evince our shared humanity.
This painting reminds me daily of the idea of artistic freedom. It takes me beyond cultural restraints and, by example, gives me permission to make work that deals with compassion. It aims at the revelation of our basic mutuality in the experience of joy or suffering.
Bruce Pearson: I’ve been thinking of Carolee Schneemann. We became friends when we were resident artists at Skowhegan in 2001. I did a portrait of her and in return she gave me a work from Eye Body, from 1963. It’s a photo of her image in a refracted mirror. Her face appears fragmented, which speaks to both her personal complexity and the multiplicity in her work. I so admire her complete openness as an artist, exploring not only eros, body, and feminism, but also the horror of her time, such as the slaughter in Cambodia, the Vietnam War, and 9/11. Carolee’s fearlessness is a model for me as an artist moving forward at this time.
Rosy Keyser: I first saw this picture about five years ago, in a thrift store in Portland, Oregon. I was drawn to the wolf’s posture of remove. She stands alone, on an exposed and snowy hillside, scanning the valley below. Perhaps she is just tired, but I see her as inspired, in the truest sense of the word: having taken in breath (inspirare) or having been imparted a truth.
The picture hangs on the wall just to the right of my bed, where I look at it every day, feeling inspired by the audacity of choosing to go one’s own way. I go to my studio with this image as a spark, a challenge, and a lifeline to individuation. It takes courage to be alone with your thoughts. I see the wolf’s audacity in separating from the pack as the price one pays for a clearer view of a bigger picture.
This scene of reflective isolation has taken on a darker tone in the last two months. There are devastating losses everywhere — pain and suffering abound because of this pandemic. So I wonder… What does solitude mean, exactly, when it is not chosen? Can we still inspire when we are suffering? Is a moment of crisis a time to reconnect with one’s own individuality? I have no answers.
But I hope that this is a chance for us to tap back into ourselves as individuals — not as lonely or selfish, but as part of a more robust consciousness, a bold and compassionate connectedness to others — as we participate in social and political life. And make art.