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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Chilly September evenings warn that the summertime strategy of distanced outdoor socializing is not for long. Soon we’ll be compelled to resume the stringent protocols of sheltering in place — a behavior that, as Will Corwin describes below, can alter our perception of even the most familiar things in our surroundings. For this series of articles, I’ve asked 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 in this weird, frightening time? And does it take on new meaning?
Will Corwin (New York City): The painter Lenita Manry was my parents’ upstairs neighbor in the late 1950s. When she died, her canvases were distributed to her acquaintances as she had no family to speak of, and my parents received this one. It depicts the view from her studio over the rooftops of the Village. Lenita was Hans Hofmann’s assistant and helped him run his painting school, and while she knew everybody in the art world, she never had much of a career. Still, it was the most important painting in my life in my childhood. It was always there.
Before this March, when many of us had to contract into a monastic life of introspection, I saw the painting as a landscape — I had always focused on the fiery red sunset above One Fifth Avenue and the water tanks. The philodendron plant hanging in front of her window made sense because we had those plants in front of our windows. Lenita’s painting was always that, a window that was akin to our own: similar but not congruent.
As I fell into a routine indoors, a bit trapped, but mostly liberated from deadlines or having to go places or see people, the lower half of the painting began to intrude onto my own constricted land of counterpane. I have been bounded by the three rooms of my apartment; a book on the coffee table or a teaspoon on the counter became a notable presence. It was their space as much as mine and they didn’t always have to get back on the shelf or in the sink right away; they had a right to be there.
Lenita’s painting is also about the inhabitants of the studio that are not her: a white wicker chair with a green scarf and red striped shirt draped over its arm; a messy houseplant on a patterned rug adjacent to a grapefruit. Along the windowsill is a pineapple, bananas, a line of sundry fruit. As I had become an interior presence not an exterior one, the painting became a still life. I’m glad it has that flexibility: it speaks to Lenita’s own tension between her studio life and the outside world. I have no idea if this duality would have dawned on me otherwise — but it was like realizing your parents have a life outside of you and you’re not a kid anymore.
Arlene Shechet (Hudson River Valley): I have owned this 1986 Allen Ginsberg photograph of Bob Dylan for about 15 years. There an intense vulnerability and weirdness in Dylan that Ginsberg, his close friend, has captured in this picture. I was first attracted to Dylan’s limp, crumpled figure, leaning into the fence, dressed in little-boy overalls and then, in contrast, his gigantic growling head with a piercing but questioning gaze. The scruffy landscape of his face mirrors the ground beneath him as the head and the body come together like a mythic collapsed puppet. Ginsberg pulls the strings in the act of making the picture.
Thinking of Allen and Bob, two poets I deeply admire, sharing space, recording this moment and letting me into the puzzle of its existence has been a constant source of joy. For quite a while the photograph has lived within an alcove between the entrance door bench and the staircase of my Hudson Valley home. Making tableaus with my artworks is something I enjoy, and this arrangement includes an early photo of the 1964 house we inhabit, a local hiking book, a treasured rock carried from the Maine coast, and a traditional Japanese hanging basket from a Kyoto flea market. I put them together without much deep thought but they are clearly all things of beauty and significant touchstones for me and my family.
During these pandemic days the entrance to the house has become a sanitizing way station, and various alcohol-based cleaning products have taken up residence on the shelf along with the art. The precious photograph has become a place to hang a mask or two. Though the latest additions are not things I desire, they are things that my family and I need in order to stay alive. I want to feel open to them, even grateful. Accepting these changes, I feel enfolded into the fragile membrane of our pandemic lifestyle, but with new appreciation of Dylan’s defiant, puzzled gaze and recollections of Ginsberg’s outraged incantations invoking political misdeeds and bodily embarrassments. I need them more than ever at the front door.
TL Solien (Madison, Wisconsin): Erika Nordqvist’s work engages me by both its subversive narrative ambiguity and the visibility of her editorial process — an important aspect of her graphic resolution that evokes a kind of kinetic aspect to the characters and contexts she creates. Her patient means of discovering form, shifting location, and altering body language and facial expressions fills the image with nervous energy and uncanny formal juxtapositions. Everything is alive, albeit quiveringly unstable. Four years ago we acquired Nordqvist’s large drawing, “Fat TV”.
Nordqvist’s female characters typically seem flummoxed by the trials of everyday decision-making, like the late Gilda Radner’s famously nerdish Lisa Loopner, who seemed perpetually traumatized and unable to act decisively, one way or another… which brings me to the topic of haircuts in the time of Covid-19.
Regarding unexpected shifts in content as a result of the pandemic, my first impulse is to think of the sudden appearance of harbingers of Death, but writing about Death directly seems less interesting than considering the many ways that the pandemic has altered our perceptions of everyday rituals, performed for us by skilled or semi-skilled others… such as getting a haircut, something that, at this time, I deeply fear. Who knows whose hands or breath harbors the virus? We are all one poor decision away from becoming a horrific statistic, and statistically, at 71, I’m in that exceedingly vulnerable age bracket.
My last haircut was in early February, almost eight months ago, and as I pass Nordqvist’s scissor wielding, hank-of-hair-holding character each day, I think of taking matters into my own hands. “If she does it, I’m going to do it!” But she never does. She can’t commit to it, and neither can I. Instagram friends advocate to “Just buzz it!” Others have said, “Just get your wife to cut it!” as well as other less nonsensical pieces of advice. My bald younger brother sarcastically asked if I still had a ponytail. I wish.
I don’t know what the answer is, my friends. Either hillbilly hockey hair submits in a viral salon, or it keeps blowing sideways in the pandemic wind. Turn on the TV; I can’t decide.
Christopher Kuhn (Los Angeles, California): This painting by Angela Dufresne has always been a mystery to me. I live in the sunshine of LA, and the snowy scene conjures a glimpse into another world. The treehouse structures seem fantastical. The violet blue tones of the landscape seem unreal. And of course, what’s that naked lady doing there?
The naked women in Titian’s (or Giorgione/Titian’s) “Pastoral Concert” and Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” may be equally enigmatic, but at least I’m not left worrying about whether they’re going to get frostbite.
This implied vulnerability has only been amplified in our current age of social isolation. The nude’s reaction to the presence of the figure approaching from the right now reads as more urgent. Her hand seems to command the other figure to stop. Is this some unwanted visitor? A threat?
Just as every passerby and chance encounter in our daily lives has become a risk to be mitigated if not avoided completely, so I imagine her telling the interloper to keep a proper distance.
And where’s her mask?
This painting is a respite. In the heat of summer, I escape into the wintery cool. As a painter, I rejoice in its painterly bravado.
But our new reality is inescapable. She has retreated from society in perfect solitude, and yet the threat of an asymptomatic other has found her — well dressed in wintery gear, prepared to weather the storm. What’s left but to escape up the spiral staircase to the interior of the cabin?
There’s a fire. She’ll be safe and warm. She can wash her hands (again!).
Hopefully the intruder won’t come following after. Maybe just drop the yellow package at the door and leave. Contactless delivery. Now that’s soothing.
Elizabeth Glaessner (Brooklyn, New York): I have lived with this painting by Samuel Vanderveken for the last eight years. We met in 2012 during an artist residency in Leipzig and traded works. The painting is modest in size, around 12 by nine inches, but has the impact of something much larger. The shapes and verdant greens echo the leaves of the plants on the nearby windowsill. It seems to breathe, a notion that seems so vulnerable in this moment.
There is a satisfying glop of paint on the upper left side of the canvas, a relic from the act of painting, which seems to have occurred with just a few purposeful flicks of the wrist — completely effortless and absolutely complete. It’s a meditation on green which evokes a train of thoughts and feelings. I think of lima beans and microwavable dinners at my dad’s house, dance, Marvin Zindler’s “Slime in the Ice Machine,” cigarettes, skinny-dipping in emerald lakes, Daft Punk. I think about Leipzig and my time in Germany, which is fraught with conflicting feelings. I think about my Jewish grandparents who fled Berlin and Vienna as teenagers during the Holocaust and embarked on their respective migrations to New York by way of Brazil, Cuba, and Canada. I think about my 96-year-old grandmother today who survived Kristallnacht and a global pandemic and was able to see my older brother get married in a socially distant wedding last weekend. At a time when we are so conscious of the air we breathe, I think about the green in this piece as a life-giving force.
Making the time to reflect on a single painting that I live with reminds me that art can transcend time. It also reminds me of the importance of both making and taking it in, allowing it to transform us and sustain us.
Heidi Pollard (Albuquerque, New Mexico): A treasured image in my collection is John Cohen’s photograph of Roscoe Holcomb’s hands. It lives where I can see it every day, an encouragement to keep at my work. When John met him, Roscoe was 48, retired from a hard life of manual labor in rural Kentucky. On the side, he was a brilliant old-time banjo player and singer.
Roscoe is showing John how trashed his hands were from years of working concrete — palms up and open, with fine, black cracks etched all over them, arms resting on the rim of his banjo. They glow against a dark backdrop of wooden planks, the banjo in shadow on his lap. Worn hands, the pale birds of his music making, and the instruments of his livelihood too.
John and I spent many hours talking passionately about drawing and painting and working, about living a life around making art. Unlike Roscoe, I am solidly middle class, and to support myself I’ve spent much of my life at various types of manual labor, mostly as a house cleaner these last 10 years. I love this image of working hands, which eloquently binds life and art together, and speaks movingly of the persistence of the artist.
John’s photograph inspires and reminds me of our friendship, more poignantly since his death last year. In the wake of pandemic quarantines and our still-mounting death toll, the protests for Black Lives Matter, and rising American fascism, it has also had me thinking about the meanings of an open hand. These days, open-handed generosity and the open-handed slap are both much in evidence in the ways people are treating one another, adding a fraught layer of significance to an image that was still and self-contained before. On better days, Roscoe’s hands look like a cradle, a calm, well-used place for the eyes and mind to rest.
Magalie Guérin (Chicago, Illinois): This existential landscape, titled “Marshmallow World,” is by Chicago artist Jo Hormuth. Jo is a good friend and we traded art a few years back; I was thrilled she let me have this one. It was originally presented in an exhibition at Julius Caesar in Chicago, one of four identical pillow-y paintings hung at eye-level (Jo’s level — my point of view was from below) representing the four cardinal points. I don’t know which of the orientations I traded for. I might have gone for North, my point of origin, given the choice. Jo’s show was titled There’s Only You — she meant you, the viewer.
Which brings me to now — this “Marshmallow World” is hung next to my kitchen table and more often than not, I eat alone. There’s only me. In social distancing mode, we barely experience the outside world anymore and I have this lovely, calm little cartoony landscape, not round but not flat either, wanting to burst at the seams. There is something profoundly beautiful about it and it brings me peace at this moment. Jo says the piece (peace?) is meant to be funny. I don’t find much funny these days but after this is all over — the pandemic, the elections, the violence, the injustice, the hurt — perhaps I’ll see it that way too.