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AUTHOR’S NOTE: As we stagger through the closing weeks of this annus horribilis, and truckloads of vaccine begin to roll out of Kalamazoo, our sense of relief is tempered by a suspicion that Trump’s venality will somehow sabotage even this heroic scientific feat.
If an artwork’s context determines content — which is the premise of this series of articles — then interpretation remains as provisional as ever. I’ve been asking artists who live with the artwork of others: 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?
Juanita Lanzo (East Harlem, New York): This piece is a soothing fountain/sculpture by Colombian American artist Lina Puerta. John and I became acquainted with Lina’s work in the early 2000s, loving and admiring her unusual combination of materials and fantastic allusions to the natural world. She was one of the artists I worked with on my first curatorial project, Material Culture at Longwood Art Gallery in The Bronx (2007). Shortly after the show closed, we acquired “Untitled (Suitcase Fountain #2)” from Lina, and since then her career has taken off, with many solo exhibitions and numerous invitations to artists’ residencies.
The sculpture is a working water fountain built inside an army-green vintage suitcase. In the middle of the suitcase is a biomorphic form resembling a plant with tufts of microfilaments sticking out, and around the edges there are plastic leaves of grass.
We have always loved the calming sound of water running inside our house, but with the deafening silence we experienced last spring, and because we hardly went outside, this lovely artwork has kept us company. During the summer months, the sound of the fountain was accompanied by birds, or the sirens of ambulances, or the pot-banging to thank essential workers, or the whir of helicopters during the protests that followed the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. With the arrival of winter, our windows are closed, muting most of those sounds from the outside, but this soothing piece and its mysterious beauty grounds me even when I lose track of the days I live. It grounds me when my husband and son go to sleep and I have a moment for myself, or call or text to check in on friends and family, or research COVID resources for artists.
When I hear the water and look at this idiosyncratically lovely piece, it reminds me of the sensual quality of touch, hugs, handshakes, looking, and seeing art.
Rochelle Feinstein (New York City): A 2018 fundraiser, INTERnational Space Station @MOMA PS1, was organized by Pam Lins, Trisha Baga, and Halsey Rodman, offering 100-plus anonymous works from the Ceramics Club; the proceeds were distributed among the Wide Rainbow, Critical Resistance, and Immigrant Defense Project. As the event was ending, I headed back for an unsold piece I found irresistible. Pam later told me it was made by Andrea Blum, who coincidentally is a dear friend. What are the chances that an anonymous object would speak with precise clarity to my own idiosyncratic process of translating objects into a thinking and feeling entity? And that this would be made by a friend? I titled it “Door.”
It sits on a shelf alongside other objects to the right of my bed. I see it morning and night. When I first saw “Door,” I recognized those two clunky bars represented potential for escape. I empathized. Made with an extraordinary economy of means and material, it speaks profoundly about liberation with thundering simplicity. As a child, I knew a lot about carceral “life.” In 2018, “Door”struck that chord. But now, in 2020, it has accrued more power, speaking elegantly and lucidly to mortality, social injustice, to the obstacles and traumas of recent years. Abstractly and concretely, the biggest problems we face have been distilled, in “Door,” to a Lilliputian scale. Placing the symbolic weight of this mayhem into the palm of my hand brings me comfort and hope in future possibilities. Strange to think the representation of a prison door has taken on the character of an amulet.
Meg Atkinson (Brooklyn, New York): Susan Carr’s painting (“Untitled,” 2018) brings to mind a wind-tossed cake, its peaks of whipped impasto the product of a mad baker. The colors are few and the iconography is plainspoken, and while I don’t pretend to understand its meaning completely, I recognize authenticity when I see it. Like a crop circle, its language is both universal and obscure. It energizes the space in which it lives.
I knew I loved and wanted Susan’s painting, and I knew it would enhance my life in material ways, but what I failed to recognize was how it would endure. Unlike much of the rest of my life these days, Susan’s painting, in holding steady, has provided respite from unwanted change. This isn’t to say that it exists in stasis. Quite the contrary: it has proved itself to be a fully animated inanimate object. In times both good and bad it has offered inspiration. My family and I talk about it. We note the palette: the pink, the white, and the black. We puzzle over the imagery: the arrows, the eyeball, and the dot. We say how grateful we are that it hangs in our home.
Kenji Fujita (Staatsburg, New York): I got this photo, “Child Playing at Curb, Eighth Avenue” by Roy DeCarava, from my parents’ old house. It is mounted on masonite, its surface is crackled, and some bits have chipped off along the edges. I grew up with this photo, an image of a small child in front of a row of empty storefronts. What I saw was a little boy who was on his knees, by a curb, with his face down, an abandoned child on an abandoned street. It’s a black-and-white image, but not bright, so it was a little hard to see, especially where it was hanging in my parent’s dark foyer in the apartment where I grew up on Central Park West. I liked this photo, but I wasn’t particularly close to it. It wasn’t mine — it was my parents’. So when I retrieved it earlier this year and brought it to my home, I gave it a closer look. Written in tiny block letters on the lower left corner is the artist’s name: “DECARAVA – © 1953.”
And, yes, the child is kneeling by the curb and his face is down, but he’s wearing dress clothes, with a white dress shirt and a dark hat. And even though his knees are on the sidewalk, he’s put a piece of newspaper down so as not to dirty his pants. Maybe it’s Sunday morning and he’s on his way back from church, but what is he actually doing there by the curb in his Sunday best while the rest of the city is just waking? He’s dipping a little stick into water and watching as the water from the gutter moves slowly towards a storm drain.
Amidst the chaos we are living through, I’m grateful for the moments when time seems to slow down — in this case allowing me to discover the details of a scene that I had overlooked for so many years.
Barbara Takenaga (New York City): Every morning I wake up and see this drawing by two friends from my undergraduate school days in Boulder, Colorado. Maurice Gray did the little quick sketch of me that I always thought was weird and charming. I love that in the lower right corner there’s the wagging tail of my first dog, Ari. One day back then, I was packing up to move studios and found one of the cut-out paper dolphins that Ann Leda Shapiro had made as gifts to everyone in our artist books class. To keep it safe, I slipped it under the glass of Maurice’s framed drawing. When I unpacked it, I was surprised to see how this random placement created an iconic dolphin leap over my head. A lovely, unanticipated duo.
In the pandemic, the portrait seems to look back at me more — it has these weird, overly black eyes that lock gazes with me. We stare at each other across time. The dolphin is still leaping but it’s also resting, balancing on the top of my head like a hat, a little weight on my head. Is that uncomfortable? For either of us? Is the pectoral fin touching or patting my forehead?
In the midst of the early COVID days there was an internet rumor, totally untrue but a lovely rumor, that after the big global lockdown, the dolphins had returned to Venice’s canals. Not only could we suddenly see Kilimanjaro — the air was clear and blue, no planes were in the sky — but the noise and pollution in the oceans had dropped and the dolphins had come back to Venice! I believed it for two days before I was disabused of this story.
I loved the fiction that for a while, the earth was quiet, the world took a breath of fresh air… animals were taking back the planet, wandering out on the streets and highways in bewilderment… elephants in China were drinking wine and passing out in tea gardens. So now when I look at my wonderful composite drawing, I often think about the dolphins in Venice. I look at this dolphin leaping and sleeping on the top of my head. A little respite of magical thinking.
Michael Voss (Brooklyn, New York): This charcoal drawing, a sketch of a hammer with an eccentric spring handle, hangs in our kitchen. It is by David Rabinowitch, one of two drawings that David gave us when we visited him and his wife Carrie in California a few years ago.
One afternoon during that trip — I don’t recall the exact circumstances — David, Lael, and I found ourselves in someone else’s workshop or storage space. It was a neglected place, all dusty shelves and giving-out cardboard boxes. But its large windows, their panes covered in an even layer of dust, filtered the hard, blazing California sun outside to a comfortable light. So we were hanging out — chatting and poking around leftover building materials and incomplete pieces of hardware — when David shouted out and held up a surprising find: a weirdly shaped hammer.
As soon as we returned home that afternoon, David disappeared into his studio with the prized tool, soon to re-emerge with two drawings he had made of it. One was signed for Lael, the other one for me. David held on to the hammer.
The drawing — we’re talking specifically about Lael’s here, which hangs in our kitchen — has always been a souvenir of good times spent with beloved friends. The way it is drawn, with quick, forceful strokes, charcoal debris splattered over the surface, and its diagonal arrangement on the page all speak of vitality, excitement, and in-the-moment-ness. On top of that, isn’t there something joyously comical about its subject, humanity’s first tool, with its implied archaic coarseness?
Yet, as I look at it now, during these drifting days of the pandemic, something else has been emerging. The other day I looked up that hammer: turns out it is a welder’s chipping hammer. And it surprised me, all spontaneous expression aside, how clearly the tool in this drawing has been depicted accurately in its actual specificity. Maybe it’s this truthful acknowledgment of the real object that gives the drawing a gravitas I hadn’t noticed before. In fact, there are moments when something menacing lurks in the way that drawing of a steel hammer is wielded at you. I’m reminded that these fond times with our close companions cannot be relived today. And the terrifying realization hits me that there is a real possibility these times together will not ever return.
Vincent Ramos (Venice, California): Until recently, Merwin Belin’s “Love #3” was lying flat on an old stereo receiver in the living room, perched on top of a sturdy pile of art catalogs. It had been there since late last year when he gave it to me. Merwin’s a generous guy and a close colleague. We bond through a shared passion for collecting. His piece is a reflection of that impulse: a collage consisting of just two found objects from the same time, yet from another time — from a period, like today, of social, cultural and political upheaval.
I’ve looked at it a lot lately, always asking myself the same questions. Does its message still resonate 50-plus years later? Did it really, even then? It has yet to be decided, in our contemporary America, whether love still actually conquers all. It isn’t lost on me either that even Sonny and Cher ultimately parted ways.
As I write this we are in the throes of deep change. A vaccine is coming. Governmental power is shifting. Many more Americans are dying. My continued attraction and embrace of Merwin’s gesture seems simplistic, naïve, and altogether quaint under these difficult circumstances. Two pieces of dime-store ephemera meant for the trash heap of history, here juxtaposed and displayed in a handsome box frame, can’t possibly be the map out of this chaos. Or can it? To me, the message of the work is clear. And ultimately that clarity reveals its deep complexity, in both action and meaning. I continue to imagine a space where our individual and collective decision-making, as they relate to the current moment, are driven by acts of compassion — not only towards our own (and that could mean many things at the moment), but towards everyone. We are all now intimately familiar with what happens when it is not.
A few months ago, I finally hung “Love #3.” It’s placed near the spot where my wife now works. Like many educators, of course, she finds herself teaching from home. I don’t think her second grade students can see it from their vantage points, but it’s there. And the beat goes on.