AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the six months since the first reported case of Covid-19 in New York City, the anxiety many of us feel has changed in character from vague to acute to chronic, and artworks are functioning as psychogenic projection screens to perhaps a greater degree than usual. In this series, I’m posing this question to artists: In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, do you look at your personal collection differently now, and which works in particular? Is there one that especially resonates with you at this weird, frightening moment? And does it take on new meaning?
B. Wurtz (Southold, New York): There is a painting of a train by Keith Mayerson in my wife’s and my collection entitled “Wind Turbine Blades — The Great Western Railway.” It hangs in the eating area of our kitchen in our small house in Southold. Before Covid-19 it already had a story: when I got it I had the idea to hang it on that particular wall because outside the house, just 30 feet away, are the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. A few times a day a tiny train goes by heading to or from Greenport. Keith’s painting became part of an installation, so to speak.
With the Covid-19 quarantine, the painting began to take on new significance for me. I spend time in the kitchen practicing singing and playing my guitar — like some people sing in the shower — because the acoustics are so good. My practicing takes about an hour and I find myself looking at Keith’s painting for much of that time. I love trains and can almost feel the heat and dryness of the landscape coming off that painting. The train is traveling through Texas and there is something quintessentially American about the scene, as with much of Keith’s work.
He told me how it came to be. His best friend Dan Knapp also loved trains. The two of them were driving across the country in a truck when Dan, who was driving, spotted the train carrying the wind turbine blades. He urged Keith to quickly take a picture.
These days in the pandemic none of us are doing much traveling. I think about America more than I have in a while. I think of the crisis facing our democracy. I think of the destruction of the environment and the climate disaster. Dan Knapp died not long ago in a car accident, and similarly I feel sad about all those who have died from Covid-19. To me the train represents the industrial revolution and the faith in progress that in many ways has backfired.
But I also think about what those wind turbine blades the train is carrying represent: a hope for a better future. When times are dark there is the inclination to want to give up. But the Dark Ages led to the Renaissance. We are at a crossroads in our country, in our world, and this painting signifies the possibility for change.
Mel Prest (San Francisco, California): I am looking at a work by Sandra Ono that has felt like my constant companion since our world changed with the pandemic. Sandra’s piece is directly outside my bedroom, and next to the dining nook that is now my office, and beginning months ago, my home studio too. When I first saw it I fell for it immediately; something about it felt familiar and deep and captivating.
It is made from hundreds of twisted trash bags and though it’s only 10 inches at its longest dimension, I feel this object’s presence as an ever-changing remnant, talisman, witness. It looks back at me. I am drawn to the holes and how the work simultaneously pulls itself together and threatens to fall apart. As in a painting, the time scale is layered, deep and evolutionary. Its creation feels like a devotional practice, and I am catching a glimpse of it in a moment of transition. I know how much strength transmitted by Sandra’s work comes from its liminality. It survives.
Michael Scott (New York City): In 1990 I traded paintings with Steven Parrino and received this “pulled” monochrome. Monochromes by their nature are severe paintings, questioning preconceived ideas of what art is or should be. This painting disrupts the stillness of the monochrome. It shows the remnant of an action that, in one way, may be viewed as violent, but can also seem gentle. The pull destabilizes the harmonious nature of the flat canvas. And yet because the canvas was stretched with this shift in mind, the pull is simultaneously a violation as well as an intention, which can be read as an act of creation. This single action of the pull changes the context and the meaning of the monochrome; it energizes the painting and the space around it and provokes the viewer.
The dichotomy I find within this painting is now heightened by the tension I see in the world today. During this time of social isolation and social evolution, our lives have been deeply centralized inside our homes and I am especially grateful to live with art. Of the works I own, this painting is my favorite. It has always found a space on my wall. I have lived with this painting for nearly 40 years and it provides comfort and solace while continuing to challenge my thinking on art.
Marcos Valella (Miami, Florida): For the past few months I feel that I am a performance. Not performance art, in the postmodernist tradition of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, but a subject of the post-industrial condition in which labor is performed and a job becomes an occupation. My new occupation is to stay home and occupy my living room.
On the wall to the left of the TV there’s a cluster of artworks that I accumulated over the years. One particular piece is this painting by my friend Andrew Moeller that I won in a bet. Never bet against the Yankees!
I had always read the work as an architectural facade turned into a communication, but now I think less about the painting itself and more about Andy making it. The composition of geometric shapes and soft colors on white paper appear calculated and organized according to the old rules of abstraction. The work is not flat. Ridges remain from layers of paint on every slowly built-up brick, leaving behind concentrated evidence of the hand.
Formally, the narrative generated from the groupings of dry little rectangles removes any possibility of a novel abstraction. Instead, we get a message of abstraction as a dead language and proof of the artist’s labor. I imagine Andy sitting in front of his works, gently, hermetically, laboring over them. Performing them. The idea of the artist in his studio is now synonymous with occupation.
As I sit here on the couch watching TV, I wonder if Andy is alone in a room somewhere painting and asking us — a divided and socially-distant nation — “Won’t you be my friend?”
I’ll be your friend, Andy.
Jason Stopa (Brooklyn, New York): I have five paintings of equal dimensions hanging on my living room wall. One such painting by Ted Gahl seems to stand out in quarantine. It measures ten by eight inches. It is thinly painted, characteristic of many of Gahl’s paintings. It is a lyrical, line-heavy painting punctuated on the right side by an opaque, black circle. I have always thought of it as a quasi-abstract landscape. Having sat with it for the past six months in quarantine, it has taken on a fresh, new reading. It now feels cartoon-like, with a myriad of affects. What I previously read as branches and thicket, now appears as the outline of a large-bodied figure. It bears no specific features, but there is an anthropomorphic quality to the work, not unlike a lamp or a book in a Guston painting. For the rather small size of the painting, its scale is enormous, even a bit imposing, yet intimate and comical. Its limbs are mannerist, exaggerated. A red dot just above the center of the canvas, the only color other than black, now appears like the eye of a cyclops. I now believe it is a painting of a monster, or a monster’s former shell.
Brian Edmonds (Huntsville, Alabama): I included several works by Katherine Bradford in a group show I curated in 2014 during Bushwick Open Studios. One thing I love and respect about Katherine is how giving and kind she is with everyone, even someone she hardly knows. We spent an hour talking about painting and deciding on what works to include. On the day of the closing, she brought several works on paper for me to choose from. It came down to a work featuring a diver and one with Superman. I couldn’t help but choose the Superman. It’s so iconic. I remember Katherine commenting that most people preferred the Superman. She didn’t understand why.
Katherine’s Superman draws its power from being so simple and direct. Her hero is more human than superhuman. He seems to be floating above the Earth searching for someone to save, looking to right a wrong. In times like these, we could all use such a hero — one who would help right the wrongs of the past few months, one who would reassure us that it will all be okay. Right now the protesters are our superheroes. My hope is they will continue fighting the good fight, and that lasting change is just over the horizon.
Tanja Softić (Richmond, Virginia): Elysia Mann’s “Linear Progress” (2014) is a screenprint combined with pseudo-etching, a process that creates a scratched, smudged surface resembling well-worn street pavement: cut, splattered, abused over a long period of time. An undulating Möbius loop of yellow police tape reads, with some effort on the part of a viewer, a repeating phrase: “WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY.” A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Mann made “Linear Progress” after the acquittal of the officer who killed Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson. The work is an enraged elegy. Everything in it — the process, the composition of text, the unforgiving colors — speaks with shocking clarity. Especially now.
Earlier this summer, as the realities of Covid-19’s spread were promising nothing but months of quiet misery ahead, people rebelled, nationwide, in response to yet another police killing of a Black man. Massive, sustained protests in Richmond accomplished what seemed impossible: they brought the statues down. As of this writing, Robert E. Lee’s equestrian monument still stands due to legal wrangling, but its massive pedestal is transformed into an urban palimpsest, shrine, and stage for speeches, performances, light projections.
Richmond has become a place of change and celebration but also of fear, destruction, and police violence. We are yet to see how deep the reforms will go: like that Möbius loop of police tape, the obscene kabuki of power feeds on its circular inertia. We long for the circle of police violence to be broken, we long for the tape to fall on the pavement, for Trump to be defeated, for a vaccine to be developed, for the wall to collapse.