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AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the artists featured below (and in the 12 previous installments of this series), awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the spontaneous reinterpretation of artworks they’ve been living with, often for many years. A kind of situational significance has crept into these works — the natural projection of a reshaped, perceptually rewired beholder. Whether a source of distress or delight, this fluidity of meaning figures in their responses to the following questions: 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?
Elisa Lendvay (Poughkeepsie, New York): At the beginning of the pandemic and quarantine, I moved Mike Olin’s painting, “Chinati, Spider 2,” to a new spot in our entryway where we could see it better. The vintage wallpaper’s dashed crimson zigzag patterns almost resemble the motions of a heart monitor and highlight some of the subtle details in the painting, such as the striped patterns in the spider’s legs. It is kind of funny there, and somehow the spider is at home — a pattern maker in a landscape of fading patterns.
This full-frame, rough-hewn arachnid is a totemic force of strength in a time of disorder. With its archaic associations — creator, destroyer, weaver of illusion, weaver of healing power — the spider is a guide to enduring one’s present reality.
The spider’s form fills the space. The legs reach out to the edges and corners and structure the composition. Wispy brushstrokes with bits of brown, orange, and yellow imply motion and texture. Muted washes of deep blues laced with almost glowing lighter shades surround the core and left legs. Floating ephemera and a few mica sparkles catch the light like dewdrops. Two thin sticks emerge, leg-like — they are glass shards, part of an enameled costume jewelry butterfly. There are layers of fabric and a playing card, peeling but sealed with paint.
The spider is melding into the background while emerging out of it, as if it is coming out of the wallpaper and in and out of the painting. Is it headed to a horizon beyond, or is it sitting on a rock or precipice, looking onto a subterranean landscape?
In this quarantine, we too are embedded within these walls, emerging in and out of the background. “Chinati, Spider 2,” hung in its entryway nook, protects us. Interestingly, real spiders seem to be more drawn to this spot than anywhere else in the house. We have to escort them out the front door to new horizons.
Olivia Bax (London, UK): A work that became more politicized in quarantine is a black-and-white photograph by my partner, Jean-Philippe Dordolo. It has never meant much to him but I always liked it and insisted that we frame it. It hangs in our bedroom. The image is of a rain puddle outside the Hayward Gallery in London, with the reflection of the kinetic light sculpture, “Neon Tower,” by Philip Vaughan and Roger Dainton. “Neon Tower” was installed on the top of the Hayward in 1972. Meant to respond to wind currents, it was removed for renovation in 2008 and has yet to be reinstalled.
The photograph made me consider Vladimir Tatlin’s “failed” works such as “Letatlin” (1929-32), his flying machine that was damaged in transport and never took off, and “Monument to the Third International” (1919-20), the imposing structure that was never realized as a building but remains an important art motif.
The Hayward, like so many art institutions, is in distress. But where is Vaughan’s and Dainton’s sculpture now? The gallery website says, “The tower is currently being refurbished to provide a visually stunning garden furniture seating area.” JP’s photograph made me consider what responsibilities these cultural centers have to the public. Like the puddle in the image, the original sculpture — ambiguous, bold and open to interpretation — has been allowed to evaporate.
Matt Magee (Phoenix, Arizona): In the mid-1990s I received this offset lithograph as a birthday present from Robert Rauschenberg. At the time, I was working for Bob in his studio and archive on Lafayette Street in Lower Manhattan; he often gave his own work as birthday gifts to his staff. This print, which uses photographic reproductions of images he’d clipped from newspapers and magazines, was also used for a poster for the silkscreen show curated by Roni Feinstein that opened at the Whitney in 1990.
The print hangs in a room in the center of our home by the fireplace, the hearth. It is the first thing I see in the morning and most nights the last thing I see before sleeping. It hangs above a collection of memorabilia which includes an Yves Klein sponge, an 18th-century Chinese carved ivory figurine inherited from my grandfather, and our dog Jake’s ashes and dog tags.
Rauschenberg’s ashes, and the ashes of his tortoise Rocky, are there as well, stored in small cork-stoppered engraved copper vials. The ashes were given to the 15 immediate Rauschenberg staff members a few months after his death. Rocky’s last egg is near her ashes, gold-leafed in a small glass box. Carved wooden cigarettes by artist Aaron Frisby are alongside as offerings to Bob’s afterlife.
Until recently I thought the title of the print was “Untitled” but realize now the print is also known as “Recall.” Looking at the imagery is like reviewing a memory bank. Photographs of Manhattan street signs and buildings collide with an image of the sun and of what looks like someone taking their pulse.
Because we’ve been home so much, seeing it afresh every day, “Recall” has become a visual narrative of life present and past. The Southwest desert, where we live now, endured 143 days of above 100-degree temperatures this past summer, as the large orange sun serves to remind. My Instagram feed of late has featured many photographs of skies, clouds, and orange orbs of suns filtered through hazy smoke wafting in from California.
We bought a battery for our battery-operated thermometer to check our temperatures. The weatherman reminded us every day of the temperatures outside and “Recall” there on the wall reminded us in turn of the pulse and temperature of our time. And in my mind’s eye that’s Steve McQueen on his motorcycle making his great escape in The Great Escape, perched on a block of images ready to leap for freedom from the isolation we’re all enduring.
“Recall” has served as a daily reminder in the past few months of what IS and what WAS and what things can BE.
Yukari Edamitsu (New York City): I have works in our living room by the Indian-American artist Zarina (1937-2020). I came to New York City as a Japanese national and worked as Zarina’s assistant for a long time. She suggested that I become roommates with her close woman friend, Dr. Mahmood, who came from her hometown in India. When I moved into Dr. Mahmood’s apartment, many of Zarina’s works were already proudly there, gifts from Zarina during their long friendship. Since then, I have been looking at them in this Indian-style living room when I eat, invite friends, and talk with my roommate.
Zarina’s work is about home, Partition, immigrant life, and displacement. She was always searching for a place to call home, where she could settle down mentally and physically. Zarina sometimes showed me her resilient attitude about what it is to be an immigrant woman and an artist from Asia. Usually, she enjoyed chatting about everything from politics to gossip and it never stopped, even when we were seriously engaged in work together at the studio. These experiences let me learn much about Zarina personally through her stories and beliefs, which are the basis of her works.
Zarina passed away in April 2020 without knowing the new world of COVID-19. My roommate and I were left only with these pieces in the peak of a worldwide pandemic. While we adjust to the new lifestyle that the coronavirus imposes, we are still grieving our precious friend.
Having so much quiet time with Zarina’s works during the pandemic, my contemplation brought me to the many moments I spent with her as her assistant over the past 14 years. “Homes,” “Moving House,” “Hanging in There,” “Delhi” — my roommate recites the titles of Zarina’s works on the walls, which also represent her life, and smiles.
The work had always given me insight into the meaning of the life of an immigrant . At this insecure and isolated period of COVID-19, the subjects of her work speak even more directly to me today.
Deborah Brown (Brooklyn, New York): This work by Derek Fordjour has taken on special significance during this time. “No. 85” is a portrait of a basketball player in the artist’s signature style, in acrylic, charcoal, and oil pastel on newsprint mounted to canvas. Before the pandemic, I saw the figure as a Black sportsman with a quiet dignity, wearing the uniform of a contemporary basketball player — an individual. I viewed it as a reflection of the artist’s milieu and a window into a community of Black athletes and their circle, perhaps a representation of Derek’s youth in Memphis and his undergraduate days at Morehouse College. The image had for me a nostalgic quality and a longing for a utopian world.
As I have looked repeatedly at “No. 85” during the lockdown, I have come to see it differently. Where I had seen a representation of someone particular, perhaps outside my own direct experience, I have come more recently to see the timeless, archaic quality of the work. In this time of isolation, we have all been searching for ways to connect with others, and “No. 85” has been a vehicle for me to accomplish this. It embodies an attitude of resolute composure and stoicism in the face of adversity.
The empathetic portrayal of the subject reminds me of our vulnerability and mortality. It has renewed my awareness of what all people have in common. The work has brought me solace. In the absence of human contact, Derek’s work demonstrates the power of art to bring us into the consciousness of another, simultaneously reminding us of who we are as individuals and what we share with others. Ars longa, vita brevis.
Elisabeth Condon (New York City): This drawing was a gift from the artist Li Fei Xie on a 2005 visit to his Beijing studio, on a freezing winter day. Like scrolls everywhere, it is stored in darkness and brought out to view at special times. Following text-based artistic pioneers Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, Xie’s drawing spoofs the veneration of calligraphy with a non-language of fluid, running grass-style strokes. Retreating from the sprawling studio to drink tea and warm up, Xie discussed calligraphy in terms of revision and liberation. Inexperienced with concepts of ink load and brush practice, I could not understand the drawing as I do now, though its embrace of process enthralled me.
The invented script contains broken seals, scandalous whiteouts, and a directional arrow, all taboo in calligraphy tradition; the substrate, a thin, single sheet of mulberry paper flecked with shimmering gold chips, absorbs every mark. Swipes of glittering medium cross ink sporadically, adding subtle surface texture; tendril-like gestures transgress invisible lanes of emptiness, or become entangled as ungainly blots. Variations in ink tone create rhythmic arrangements from flourishes and fuckups. The drawing’s title is unknown, or perhaps it is untitled.
Viewing it again, I perceive with a jolt its reliance on calligraphy as a centuries-old practice and art form. Calligraphy can accommodate transgression and coded messaging; landscape scrolls and their critiques of unwanted regimes emerged from it. While unorthodox or idiosyncratic variants of traditional calligraphy such as Xie’s can convey critique in the guise of “nonsense,” the brute immediacy of Trump/Pence posters and their message of America First lack such capacity to encode. As globalism wanes amid trade wars, rising nationalism, and the virus, the media distortions between countries become a form of nonsense calligraphy Xie is familiar with and recognizes.
I wonder what has happened to Xie? Searching his name on ArtLinkArt, I find one 2007 entry, nothing else. Is he still in Beijing? Is he still making art? Will we ever meet again?
As the brush gains momentum the ink dances, pirouettes, before crashing into blunders the artist then wipes out. All movements matter in the ad-hoc contingency that has always united ink painting and Abstract Expressionist processes for me. The orientation of the drawing is unclear. If I follow each gesture from wet to dry, the signature seal ends up at the top and the other seals are printed backwards; turning the paper horizontal works in a western way. Rotating it day by day offers salve for the disorientation of daily life.