#22: Give minimalism a chance
I attended a reception at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for an association event this evening and was excited to learn that the second floor exhibitions were open for guests. I skipped the hors d’oeuvres and headed for The Panza Collection exhibition, comprised of new works acquired by the museum from a private collector. The pieces include art from the “Conceptual, Light and Space, Minimal, and Environmental” art movements. (I use quotes here because I’m citing the exhibition brochure; I’m not sure I would have had a clue what movements these pieces were from otherwise. Perhaps the “bore our viewers to tears” movement?)
I was disappointed from the get-go, probably because I have little love for gallery spaces with nothing in them except a few vinyl words on a wall spelling out “It can only be known as something else” (sorry, Robert Barry). Upon encountering this work, I audibly sighed. I was hoping for something that would make me feel something other than an irresistible desire to roll my eyes. Maybe the original “graphite on wall” version would have been more interesting (you can learn a lot from an exhibition checklist if you try hard enough). But I doubt it.
I know these guys (not one of the pieces in the show was by a woman, as far as I can tell) were supposed to be challenging traditional ideas about aesthetics and the meaning/nature of art (again, I know this thanks to the brochure). But I just can’t get behind something that feels less powerful to me than it would have in a poem, which I could have read anywhere and would not have taken up so much precious space on the National Mall. I walked past piece after piece—a large grey line on a wall; a definition of the word “idea” printed in white on a black square of cardboard; another word, “self-defined,” formed out of white neon tubing—and I felt, well, nothing. And that just makes me sad.
Most of the time I “get it”—art doesn’t have to be beautiful, or made with paint or marble; it doesn’t need to make sense or make you feel good. But art that makes you feel nothing just seems like such a waste. I’m okay with being shocked, horrified, saddened, humored, confused, surprised, awed. The Hirshhorn’ exhibition description tells us that the works in the Panza collection are made by:
artists (who) dismissed conventional concerns in favor of an avid engagement with ideas, processes, social and political issues, the body, and phenomenological experiences.”
Sounds good to me. But I didn’t feel anything “avid” or “engaging” about most of the works I encountered, which is a shame. And then I read this little tidbit about Dr. Panza:
(He) distinguished himself by his willingness to collect art that few museums or private collectors at the time were willing to acquire, such as Conceptual works that exist only as documentary certificates or room-sized installations that require vast storage space and significant resources to install.”
Now we were getting somewhere. It’s true that the exhibition showcases items you’ve probably never seen before. I hadn’t really thought about why (other than the fact that I disliked them and so, therefore, didn’t really care). And just as I was about to give up hope, I came across this little number:
I found basically no interpretation of this work in the gallery itself. But a quick google search for “Roman Opalka” turned up an article, “The Weight of the Infinite.” Apparently, Opalka has been painting numbers for quite some time, beginning with “1” in 1965. The series this piece belongs to, called “Details,” begins with white numbers on black and, as time progresses, he lightens the background: black, grey, . . . white? Yes, at some point, he should get the point where he is painting white numbers on a white background. Why? That’s not the point, and that’s not why I’m writing about him. I was attracted to the two photographs, not the numbers on canvas. Apparently, each time Opalka completes a canvas of numbers, he takes a photograph of his face. So, as his numbering slowly stretches towards the infinite (and will eventually be invisible), so does his life trajectory reach toward the finite (the photos attest to the process of aging, which must ultimately lead to, well, death). Pretty heavy, huh? Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? More than that, it probably makes you feel something—fear of your own mortality, sympathy for a dying man—yeah? And even if the concept of it doesn’t move you, the photographs alone speak to the human condition: at once alive in the moment and yet always slowly dying.
My Panza Collection experience was worth it just for this piece alone—or rather, for this man alone. But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I also enjoyed Doug Wheeler’s ethereal “Eindhoven, Environmental Light Installation,” Richard Long’s naturally soothing “Carrera Line,” or Jan Dibbets’s oddly mesmerizing “The Shortest Day of 1970 Photographed in My House Every 6 Minutes from Sunrise til Sunset.” If you have a half hour, check the exhibition out. Let me know what you think. Or better yet, let me know what you felt.
Lesson learned: If you open yourself up to something you think you won’t like, you just might be surprised. Also, knee-high boots with wooden soles are REALLY noisy in an echoey-empty gallery space “filled” with minimalist works. Go for ballerina flats or maybe (more likely in my case, at least) your favorite Pumas.