MoMa'ney, Mo' Problems

Thursday, June 11, 2015 | 0 Comment(s)

When I was in high school, my family and I took a trip to Chicago to visit my paternal grandmother.  As younger kids we often took trips to the Midwest to see my father's relatives, but as my brother and I got older the frequency of these trips fell off.  I was still too young to understand the politics of families of origin, so I just assumed the downtick in travel was random.

It had been a good five years since I had been to the Windy City, and as a 16-year-old, a plethora of new family friendly activities were available.  Having visited the Museum of Science and Industry on our last visit, I cast my vote for the Museum of Contemporary Art.  My choice had less to do with an affinity for modern art and more to do with a firm distaste for old portraits of America's White forefathers.

As you might imagine, my Mom and Dad had a parentgasm at the sound of their child asking after modern art.  During these celebrations they never paused to remember that they had already banned anything "fun" like going to the movies or an arcade.  

"You can do that at home," they'd reply.

"But you don't let me!" I'd snap back defiantly.

To my displeasure, the topic was no longer open for discussion.

We saw three stories worth of art that day.  A huge kinetic mobile hung from the ceiling and took up the majority of negative space under the vaulted ceiling of the atrium.  The rounded staircase to the upper floors was positioned on the outskirts of the open air space to give visitors an opportunity to view the whale-sized art project from every angle.

Somewhere on the second floor came my first jaw-dropping discovery.  Framed, with a name plate, was a large blue canvas. Hanging in a museum in Chicago was, again for emphasis, a big blue canvas.  I can't remember the name exactly, but it was something a bit too on the nose to be funny, like "Night" or "Blue."
I've chosen this painting, Blue Monochrome, 1961, as an example of what I'm talking about here. I think it's a very solid example. Hell, it could be this very paint that's been moved around. Or maybe it's some other seemingly random solid blue canvas. 
At sixteen, I was searching for meaning.  I stared at that canvass asking myself question after question.  Are there multiple layers of blue? Is there some textural element I'm missing? Is this one of those hologram-deals that I have to stare at until my vision blurs? Could I make this? Why couldn't I make this? Is this a commentary? Is it on Cookie Monster? Was Anna Wintour about to step out from behind a curtain to offer a powerful monologue describing the origin story of this particular hue of blue? Was this the last painting of an assignment to make as many paintings as one can in 2 hours?

I looked at the explanation. There was none.  A guy, with a name, painted this canvas blue and made it famous.  Those were the facts.  Any explanation of the "Why?" of those facts, however, was kept secret.  In retrospect, this all seems very American.

"Fuck that painting," I thought as I walked away.  I didn't want to let one stupid privileged artist throw shade on the entire medium -- but that canvas was some unequivocal bullshit.  I kept on moving.

I was starting to hit my stride as the corridor I was walking down opened into another gigantic rectangular room. With four Campbell's soup cans, all fluorescent, staring back at me, I smiled at both the familiarity and discord of towering Warhol lithograph.  This gave me the feels.  The images were ordinary, but the chords they plucked inside me were not.  On the far end of the same epic room were the distorted taffy-pulled characters in a handful of Dali paintings I recognized.  My brain grew elongated legs and loped around the expansive clean lines of the gallery floor.  The galloping grey matter finally disappeared into the growing darkness of the setting melting-clock sun.  This was modern art I could get behind.

As I spun 180 degrees to enter the next room, my jaw took one last trip floor-ward. Directly in front of me,  at eye level, was a black rectangular canvas about 7 feet wide by 4 feet tall.  On it, in precise white lettering it read,  "Oct. 31, 1978".

My birth date. 

I believe this now resides in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. 
What the fuck is this about! Am I on Candid Camera!?! (This was before Ashton Kushner. #blessed) I went from searching for meaning to having a shit-ton of it dropped flat on my face like an anvil.  I took a deep breath.  In a bright flash of panic I daydreamed another piece that accompanied this one.  A white canvas with black lettering, with some messed up date in the future like February 22, 2016.  Or how about September 11, 2001.  How fucked would that have been.  I assure you that if this piece had a sister, that date would burn itself into my consciousness forever.  February 22nd next year would have been a guaranteed sick day.  September 11th, when I was living in NYC, would never have been a threat to me personally, as I would have been under the covers all day.

I checked my peripherals for any piece that might accompany "The Inception." Nothing.  What I did find was a short write-up about the painter who created this masterpiece of modern art. On Kawara is dedicated to creating at least one painting every day of his work life, displaying the date in the customs of the country he is in. Fascinating dude. If a painting isn't finished by midnight that day, he destroys it immediately. The project is ongoing and as the Wiki on the painter foretells, the series is expected to end only in his death.

The canvas in front of me answered the unasked question: What was this painter doing the day I was born?  After more consideration I decided this artist must be a genius to have recognized the fundamental importance of that day, and that its worthiness merited memorial by name.  I was pretty self-involved back then, and it was easy to skim right over details like he did this almost every day. 

Even so, there was no denying I was moved by that painting.  Was the reaction I had the artist's original intent? Probably not.  But that is the flexibility of an art form designed towards interpretation.  Modern art doesn't have to hold one meaning, which leaves open the possibility for unintended, but no less important, interpretations.   To that end, when Kawara doesn't display a date painting, he stores it away in a custom box with newspaper clippings and other markers of that unique day.  In that way, perhaps he did have an idea that each day, while regular to many, will always be special to someone. 

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