I went to the Hirshhorn this past weekend on a date. Little did I know, looking at contemporary art together can be a good litmus test for compatibility.
After going through the Pulse exhibition, we ended up walking through the Sean Scully Landline exhibition, a series of abstractionist paintings and sculptures. I was not familiar with this artist, but I was immediately drawn to his paintings. They reminded me of Mark Rothko’s works. Shortly after entering Landline, it became obvious that my date was the wrong person to look at contemporary art with.
“I could do that,” my date said, as we stopped to admire one of the paintings.
“But you didn’t,” I said.
“That’s what everyone says.”
Apparently, he had had this argument many times before. Or perhaps my comeback was just the classic one of modern art enthusiasts. We were forever trying to impart knowledge of why something seemingly simplistic was meaningful.
This was quite irksome. I could feel myself closing up, my chest tightening slightly. I couldn’t say that his opinion was wrong per se, but it was such a lazy and tired criticism that it may as well have been wrong.
“Would you hang that in your living room?” he said, referencing the canvas in front of us.
I could feel a pair of museum-goers approach the painting beside us, the tension of our conversation seeping into their experience. I was embarrassed to be looking at art alongside such ignorance, and I felt guilty for not being more open-minded. Was I automatically right? What did I even know about these paintings?
The piece we were discussing was a square canvas. Purple, red, and yellow brushstrokes waved across it diagonally. I didn’t exactly like it. I wished we were arguing about another artwork, perhaps one that I felt more strongly about, but I felt strangely protective of this one. I could see it’s value, the way it was supposed to make the viewer feel.
“No, because it doesn’t match my decor,” I said. “But, I would hang that in my living room.” I pointed to a rectangular painting a few feet away from us with thick strokes of blue, green, and grey going horizontally. It was calming, more muted. I wished I had something like it in my apartment.
A few days later, I decided to learn more about the Landline exhibition by listening to Sean Scully’s gallery talk with Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu. I needed to know more about these paintings. What did they mean? Why did the artist make them? Maybe I just wanted to make up for my date’s insulting them; balance out the karmic forces of art appreciation somehow.
I learned that a photograph that Scully took in 1999, while on vacation in Norfolk, was the impetus for this series of paintings. It was a photograph of the land, sea, and sky that he took largely because he was bored on vacation. “People go on holiday to relax, but I’m already relaxed,” he said. “I’m in the fortunate position of doing what I love every day.”
In the talk, Chiu referenced Scully’s goal of trying to “rescue abstraction from the abstract.” Grounded in something real, Landline, inspired by the photograph from Norfolk, attempts to do just that.
He spoke about how in the seventies, the promoters and appreciators of abstract art were refined, elevated people and that only this high class of people could appreciate and enter the world of abstraction. Scully considered it his mission to return abstraction to the people; to “popularize it without lowering the bar”.
I found it ironic that his goal of returning abstract art to the people had probably worked too well in this particular instance. At a first glance, his paintings could be considered too simplistic, especially to the naive art viewer. Or maybe, abstraction could never reach those who weren’t willing to see it’s value, even if it was “accessible” and inspired by realness.
I told this story to my friend later at a coffee shop. It was still bothering me, or maybe I just found the whole conversation interesting.
“Who is this guy to denounce the artist’s whole career?” I said. “He could do that,” I laughed, rolling my eyes.
“Sure, he could make some brushstrokes on a canvas,” my friend said. “But it wouldn’t have meant anything to him. It would just be lines on a page.”