AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this series of articles about the effects of the pandemic on the meaning of artworks that predate it, I’ve thought of meaning as something that can be reshaped by the pressure of circumstance.
The questions I’ve been asking artists as the pandemic has progressed — 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? — have elicited multifarious and often surprising responses. Below, Bill Schmidt considers an alternative paradigm in which “meaning finds the work.”
Bill Schmidt (Baltimore, Maryland): I bought this painting, “View from the Road #21” by Nora Sturges, a few years ago. Nora is a friend whose work I have admired for years and I was delighted to become the owner of this little gem. It is typical of her work in its tender, loving execution. And like all of Nora’s paintings, it is thoughtful and deeply considered. She works small, and the intimate interaction one has with her paintings is quietly powerful.
Last spring, I had a few things framed, including this painting. While trying to decide where to hang it, I temporarily set it upright on the table next to the chair in which I spend my mornings and evenings. I soon realized that this spot, a foot and a half from my face, offered me a relationship with the painting that no wall location could equal.
There is something sad and even touching about this image of a grim little chunk of the urban world. Nora’s formal choices always felt exactly right to me. The abandoned foundation rendered in two-point perspective allows the ramp-like structure on its far-right side to point to the tiny billboard on the horizon. I’ve always thought that this relationship was key to the magic of the piece.
Now, a year into the pandemic, what was merely sad feels dystopian, tragic. And after a session of doom-scrolling, I can even see it as post-apocalyptic. But, wait — that tiny billboard! This quarter-inch rectangle of pale gray on the horizon assumes a significance far beyond its physical presence. A lovely formal choice now becomes loaded with meaning. Could it be hope? A message about the future? Nora’s decision to introduce a beautiful blue by filling the foundation with water strikes a hopeful note, too, as does the grass sprouting between the slabs of concrete. And what is one to make of this tender, loving rendering of such a desolate view of the world? It feels both generous and optimistic.
As a painter myself, who is primarily driven by process and formal considerations, I’ve always been fascinated at how meaning finds the work. And that is happening so poetically in this wonderful little painting.
Robyn O’Neil (Los Angeles, California): My friends George Morton and Karol Howard, Texas collectors with a major-league treasure of outsider art from around the world, found this little guy for me a decade ago. For about 20 years, my own drawings featured hordes of miniature middle-aged men in matching sweatsuits, running around landscapes doing various good and terrible things. This sculpture brought those characters to life and maybe even made healthy fun of them a bit.
While adjusting to quarantine, this sculpture became a constant companion. I focused on him, wondered how old he was, where he was born. I even looked over at him when something funny happened on TV, the way I used to when it was my best friend in the room with me. He became the houseguest I wasn’t allowed to have anymore.
Life outside our own tiny bubbles hasn’t exactly been enjoyable for a long time now, and it still seems difficult to imagine a world that isn’t equal parts awful and terrifying. I believe what’s lost now more than anything besides human lives is a sense of humor, fun, elation, and laughter. But this little running man figure reminds me of the ridiculous, the goofy, and the dumb. I like those things. I miss those things. I want those things back.
Zachary Keeting (Hamden, Connecticut): I’ve needed an escape hatch. Haven’t we all? I’ve wanted a portal. “Night Turn Around” by Angela Heisch, however, is not an escapist painting.
It’s angular, and it’s barbed, and it’s been telling me I should stay on my side of the boundary.
Before COVID-19, I hadn’t thought of the piece as so fiercely guarded, quite so fortress-like. I’d thought of it more as an open window to an electric field, eddies of energy beckoning, free from the constraints of gravity, rising and shimmering.
But now that I’ve become wary of everyone, I see danger in the painting.
It is green, but not a sprouting, healthy spring green, a green of fresh beginnings and renewal. It’s a sinking green of decomposition and digestion.
Before last year, I hadn’t given the elongated rectangle at the base of the arch much thought, but it is now clearly an obstacle blockading the frame: a casket with a rising graph etched on its side.
The single red spot, hovering, has never looked more like blood. The shadowy talons have never been more teeth-like. The splayed perspective is that of a trap closing.
I look at the piece, mostly, at night. In the shadows its delicacy disappears, and the warning signs become less pronounced. I begin to think, again, that it might serve as a route out, a way to a gentler, disease-free realm. But who am I kidding? I see it in the light of day, and know those serpents want my neck. That blood is my own if I dare trespass.
Trudy Benson (Brooklyn, New York): I have a beautiful Ethan Cook painting: a woven red and orange geometric piece about 40 inches tall by 30 inches wide. It’s evocative of the very beginnings of a log cabin quilt pattern, two rectangles at top and bottom couch two squares in the middle. (It has always felt like a rectangle made out of two wonky L’s to me, not unlike an Al Held alphabet painting).
In April, when the world felt like nowhere I had ever known, I became obsessed with the snowballing deaths and hospitalizations. I was constantly looking through graphs and charts for information about my neighborhood and New York City in general, as well as my hometown and my in-laws’ communities, to my husband Russell. Because of its stairstep composition and vibrant red and orange, Ethan’s painting began to mirror the ever-climbing statistics.
We have the painting hung between two windows in our living room. Through the window on the left, a budget hotel one block over is visible across an empty lot. It appeared to function as a COVID hotel, and on many sleepless nights I witnessed ambulance visits, sirens blaring…
The inconceivable has become our reality, but as mass vaccination allows us to ease back into normal social interactions, I’ve again found comfort in my home as part of my world rather than my whole world. I’m choosing to think of the painting again as sounds building to a climax — not as an ambulance that changes pitch as it approaches, but as the world heating up for Spring and togetherness.
Douglas Florian (New York City): With the advent of our quarantine, one piece of art in particular has taken on a somewhat different, more poignant meaning for me: a photograph by my friend of more than 40 years, Allan Markman. We were close friends as art students in Queens College in the 1970s and remain such today, speaking with each other several times a week.
Allan’s photograph, “Urchins, Ball, and Rose Petals,” is framed on a wall by my computer, so I see it every day. In it, one larger-than-life sea urchin sits atop another, and on them rests part of a wrinkled and splayed-open greenish blue rubber ball and a few weathered old rose petals. All are completely surrounded by blackness, now a metaphor for the darkness that has surrounded the world in the past year.
Years ago I chose this piece for its beauty in form, texture, light, and color. But now it has acquired an added significance, a narrative that echoes the travails and triumphs we have endured during the pandemic.
The two globular, organic urchins have a beautiful geometric array of large and small bumps that echo the symmetrical, spiked form of the coronavirus, but their stability and steadfastness speak of a resoluteness against the surrounding darkness. And while the battered and bruised rubber ball looks quite like a victim today, the flame-like reddish rose petals make the structure resemble a torch, burning and enduring amid the death and despair.
Valerie Brennan (Paphos, Cyprus): This is one of my favorite art pieces that I own. The artist is unknown. In 1999 I came to Cyprus from Ireland to do a post-grad at Lemba Art College. I found it abandoned in the field behind my room. The artist has barely interfered with it. One of the panels has been worked on and the other has not, apart from the small nails and string on the back, for hanging. There is something very tender about it. It speaks of nature and time and I see our history when I look at it.
It carries memories for me. I have had it for more than 20 years and it has been everywhere we have gone — Cyprus, Mexico, Spain, and back to Cyprus. We have grown older with it. During the pandemic we were building a new house, and we have just moved in. When I finally hung it, I knew we were home. The painting makes me think about making art and about nature. I presume it’s unfinished, and I love that. Now in the pandemic when I look at this small anonymous work I think about how fragile our world is and how we must tread softly.
Diana Cooper (Brooklyn, New York): “Flux of Experience” was a wedding gift from my beloved friend, the artist Kathleen Kucka. It has graced our dining room since 2008. The yellowish greenish walls complement the painting beautifully. It is right at home.
During COVID, my husband and I have been eating together at the dining room table almost every night. It is a high point in our day, and Kathleen’s painting is in my sight. In these moments, I feel so grateful. Over these many months of lockdown here in Brooklyn, I feel like I am seeing the painting anew. Time seems stretched and slower, enabling me to focus and to contemplate this jewel of a painting. My eye is in constant motion navigating its undulating forms, animated tributaries, and mysterious orifices. I get lost in its concentric skin-like spaces. Its abstract shapes allude to uncontrollable organic growth. In this COVID era, I cannot think about the painting without thinking about biology. I look at it through the lens of someone who keeps reflecting on this microorganism that is ravaging our lives.
I’ve always felt that Kathleen is part scientist. For me this is a high compliment. The painting is part of a body of work that took years to develop because it required Kathleen to come up with her own way of painting. She developed a paint formula that enabled her to pour liquid acrylic onto a hard aluminum surface where time and space are suspended, not unlike the way I feel right now.
I have known Kathleen since 1993 when we were both getting our MFAs at Hunter. We became fast friends and I was in awe of her and her work. Even though she is only a little bit older, she was like a big sister to me in an art world I knew next to nothing about. I fondly remember going to her exhibits at PS 122 in the East Village and The Thread Waxing Space among others. At the time she was using stitching and burning in her pieces. Her work seemed so confident and intimate at the same time. I felt as though I never knew when to stop and she always knew exactly when to stop. This year because of COVID, I have only seen her once. I miss her but her painting is always with me.
Sofia Rozaki (Athens, Greece): Lockdown day number unknown and I can’t put my finger on the exact moment — time doesn’t move in linear fashion anymore, but rather piles up like a messy bunch of dirty laundry, turning the act of remembering into a Jenga-like catastrophe waiting to happen — but I guess there must have been a certain instant, a certain note of white noise in which the picture froze much like this icy dome, and Rebecca Chaperon’s “Lady of the Pink Lake” started playing in reverse. Because I swear I remember how I used to stare waiting for her to step forward once her hands were warm enough, just coming out from hibernation into this eerie yet soft embrace of a landscape, what a relief.
But then bam! Actually no, it was not with a bang not even a whimper and it was not even an end nor a beginning just lockdown day number unclear and somewhere in this unforgiving constant middle there must have been an invisible finger that hit rewind: the Lady stopped and it all was inverted. And day by day my beloved “Lady of the Pink Lake” began moving backwards, getting sucked — though never fully — into this black fistful of nothingness, her limbs now getting colder by the minute. Stuck in this timeless in-between, inside and outside have merged, no useful distinction there since both now scream danger, a “beware toxic” warning sign has emerged next to the once candy-flavored lake and lately I’ve been wondering whether there is an actual body hiding in the shadows behind those frozen hands anymore, or just a fragment of a fading memory of what a body feels like.
Lockdown day number unimportant and I can’t put my finger on it and I haven’t for so long ’cause it might not be sterilized and besides I’ve been questioning for some time now the very existence of my fingers.
Sika Foyer (New York City): I have always been fascinated by this reproduction of Kandinsky’s “Upward” (1929). The simple lines, geometric figures, letters, and color composition appeal greatly to my taste for abstraction and symbolic representations in which viewers need not call on their racial and cultural biases to appreciate the artwork. I admire how Kandinsky was able to do so much with so little, balancing geometric half circle-arcs atop a triangle/rectangle combo anchored by the letter E (unfinished) that some critics thought represents the “E” in the German title, “Empor.” The lines forming lean rectangles are strategically distributed to hold the piece together, like the masonry of a pillar — all embedded in a rich field of turquoise green, an oceanic pasturage where life can begin again. The tiny dot or point that could be the eye of a small bird did not elude me either.
As I remained day in and day out in this apartment, paralyzed by the pandemic and the police violence on the street against Black citizens, “Upward” sat on the wall, staring at me. Its figures and forms started to morph and spin a new and different narrative. The geometric figures and letters are isolated, though clustered together. They share outlines, which now look like barriers of entry. The only movements I could detect were from the rich turquoise-green field of clouds, and even those movements seemed minimal. The color field of clouds could not penetrate the geometric figures or the letter shape.
The clustered boxes in the painting reflect the fragmentation and isolation, in our lives and our society, that have become more transparent because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social quarantine.
Looking at “Upward” over and over again, I contemplate how we use the dead silence of a point (the eye in “Upward”) and burst into action.
That point — dead zone of silence, but also place to regroup and rejuvenate — represents to me the silence and shock many felt following the murder of George Floyd.
The same moment of silence, the same shock jolted the community into action. Within the silence and the fragmentation, there is a pause to reflect and to rebuild. The point and lines in “Upward” revolutionize the way I experience art and help me become more resilient.