AUTHOR’S NOTE: If significance accrues to artworks over time, as this series of articles supposes, then it should be no surprise that eventful times such as the past year can accelerate that process, altering how we interpret even those works we encounter most often.
Simultaneously, the uneventfulness of quarantine exerts other kinds of pressures on looking and seeing. Since the coronavirus took hold in the US last spring, I’ve asked the same set of questions to artists who collect the work 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?
Mike Zahn (Brooklyn, New York): An admirably compact painting by Jackie Saccoccio hangs above my desk at home in Boerum Hill. It was a kind gift from the artist, generous and deep. I look at it every day, more so since last February.
In 2009, I watched Jackie execute an epic mural over a week spent at a summer residency in Provence, France. The clear devotion seen in her craft was astonishing. She gave me “C160” shortly after our stay concluded. I’ve come to understand it as a diminutive version of that large work. In the time since, it’s always rewarded a quick glance or studied concentration.
Like the mural, this painting was brushed, so there’s scant evidence of the leap Jackie took into her signature poured works which followed. The all-over surface is materially dense, shining with an energy built upon the mastery of value and hue. The light and shade evoke the features of a specific landscape, subtly disclosing tangled clumps. A single vertical stroke of cadmium red medium, hovering near the center, exudes a quiet force. The color appears in the painting exactly once. It has the quality of an event. Its effect reminds me of meeting Jackie for the first time at her studio in Connecticut, and of the week shared with her in the Drôme.
The jolt of this unique red mark is heavy. I’ve come to see an entire trembling world present in the power of this simple gesture. It was made in honesty, directly and without fear. Despite this painting’s brilliance, it is a humble thing which exists as an expression of our common humanity. As such, it’s divine. This was Giotto’s profound instruction, discerned in his belief that what he saw around us, and within each of us, vibrates as excellent, cardinal, and supreme. Now, I realize, stuck in the sameness of quarantine at a point beyond reason, it’s Jackie’s lesson, too.
Philip Smith (Miami, Florida/New York City): Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I have largely enjoyed the shutdown and quarantine. Under normal circumstances, I’m not someone who likes to leave the house, so mandatory confinement is custom-made for me.
When I first moved to New York and lived in an abandoned building on the Bowery, I would sleep late into the day so that I could work at night when the world was quieter with less static in the air. At those hours my thinking was more focused.
This shutdown had a similar feeling. In many ways, I welcomed it for myself and the planet. We needed this pause to try and recalibrate. The planet needed to breathe. The air and waters cleared, vibrations lessened, and we had a shot at redeeming ourselves. Looking back, I’m not sure this pause achieved the balancing goals I was hoping for.
In April, the Rolling Stones released “Living in a Ghost Town” with its hyperkinetic video of urban desolation. This became my anthem. I’m a ghost, living in a ghost town. You can come look for me, but I can’t be found. Personally, I like being a ghost. It provides maximum freedom of spirit and mobility.
Living with art, I am surrounded by thoughts, visions and conversations by other artists. It’s all very intimate. An artist’s energy is embedded in any work they create, and I get to live and converse with that.
During the lockdown, Jeff Gibson’s eerily deceptive piece “Untitled (Faux Greenery)” demanded my attention. At first glance, it appears innocent and even possibly “fun,” but you quickly realize something disturbing, as the work reveals hard truths that are carefully camouflaged in layers.
What we are looking at here is a seemingly casual catalogue of mundane green flora — neatly trimmed grass and perfectly shaped topiary. Perhaps from a glossy brochure where suburban gardeners do their shopping on a Sunday afternoon. Upon closer examination, all the greenery is artificial — synthetic nature at its best. We are fooled. This grass and topiary are a lie.
During the lockdown, the piece mirrored the ongoing political drama that was sadly capturing our attention. The people in our government appeared to be real but were just a form of inert, synthetic nature that was harmful and toxic for the environment, not unlike plastic grass.
As science, technology, and medicine advance, synthetic nature will become deeply integrated in our lives, from monoclonal antibodies to brain chips to humanoids. I find much of Jeff’s work disturbing, in a positive sense: a warning to look hard and remain vigilant.
Rusudan Khizanishvili (Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia): The smallest piece in my collection is “Capitoline Wolf,” an etching by Ukrainian artist Nina Savenko. The black figure reminds me visually of the figure of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Applied to this image, the work’s title suggests the destruction and misery that empires bring. In the background, the phrases in Russian repeat: “Here, there’s no one to feed, here nothing to feed anyone, here there’s nothing to do.”
I bought this print last year; it references the Russian-Ukrainian War in 2014. Martial law is still in effect in some parts of Ukraine. This tiny piece is full of human tragedy, tears, fear, and injustice. Our circumstances now, during the pandemic, cannot be described better than this. We are in a dark place, waiting for the sunrise. We are hungry and we are blindfolded. For artists and any other creative people, this is an important period — a time to go deeper into ourselves, to collect our memories and keep them for the future.
My view of this work changed with the pandemic, as this dark time brought closer to home human suffering, deprivation, loss, and pain. If when I bought it the etching was a memento of a civil war from a different land, it has become a symbol of what surrounds me, my home, my family, my country. I always want to remember that preserving our shared humanity is our duty. This image really keeps me awake and I am glad of that.
Laurie Fendrich and Peter Plagens (Lakeville, Connecticut): This painting by Heidi Pollard, acquired via a trade with Peter, hangs by itself on a white wall near our dining table. In mid-March, we began self-isolating here because of COVID-19, and to maintain form in our daily life, we made it a point to always eat meals together. Over the past 10 months, one or the other of us often would be gazing at Heidi’s painting (while holding a cracker loaded with peanut butter) and, crazy as it sounds, suddenly blurt out, “Wow, that’s an astonishing painting,” or, “What a killer painting,” or even, “Did you ever notice the fade in that bottom right corner?”
How did Heidi make such a small painting seem so big? How did she achieve beauty, humor and profundity in a single painting? I argue that the Yves Klein blue juxtaposed with orange makes for dramatic beauty and — forgive the anthropomorphizing — that humor lurks in the two small blue noses sniffing one another. Peter finds profundity in the way the blue shapes seem both planned and random. I like that the flat shapes are as powerful as the stones at a Stonehenge sunrise. Peter admires the bold use of yellow — a color that can easily take over a painting.
Then there’s the brushy underpainting, which lends body and depth to the picture. Finally, not to be overlooked, are the two negative shapes in the middle — the top an off-white rectangle, the bottom a salmon-colored shape enriched by swift strokes of red and muted green wisps. Artists’ brains love to switch back and forth between negative and positive shapes, but the painting inexorably settles into Platonic forms locked in space on their own terms.
Neither of us thinks that after the pandemic subsides there will be a “return to normal.” The virus ravaged us because homo sapiens have a hubristic contempt for Nature, a penchant for ignoring science, and power-hungry leaders marked by turpitude and ineptness — none of which are going away any time soon.
Susan Wides (Catskill, New York): In the morning I awake to a pairing of artworks by Richard Artschwager and Mike Metz that I recently brought up to my Hudson Valley home when I moved from Harlem. These treasured works appeared in the artists’ exhibitions I curated at ’T’ Space: Metz in 2011 and Artschwager in 2012. Since the pandemic, they’ve become touchstones for the vital in-person creative conversations I’ve had with other artists and can’t wait to resume in the (unknown) future.
Artschwager’s “Man Running (Orange 1),” a small oil pastel, was shown alongside his rubberized hair sculptures in his ’T’ Space exhibition. I fondly remember photographing Richard painting one from the Man Running series on an easel by his piano in his home in 2011.
Metz’s “snared-trapped Fedora-bird’s flight” is an expanded octahedron tensegrity structure comprising wooden struts and steel cables. Inside, a gray sculpture is positioned, movable along a wooden strut. The sculpture suggests both a wide-brimmed fedora hat and the outline of a bird’s flight. On its flat surface, a darker, zig-zagging band echoes the form’s outer contour and displays white lettering that reads: “Snared by the Fedora on the tip of my tongue, yet trapped by a bird’s flight in the back of my mind.”
I love this “visual/verbal puzzle,” as Mike refers to it. One moment you recognize the fedora shape, and then your mind shifts to see the same shape as a bird’s flight path; the mind cannot land definitively on either one.
This complex artwork has long evoked in me a perceptual and cognitive response, bringing to mind how subtly form and language denote meaning. However, since the extraordinary upheaval and loss brought on by the pandemic, I’ve responded more emotionally and psychologically to the work. In Harlem, I used to place the gray sculpture on the center strut of the structure. I recently installed it askew, so that it hangs down, suspended on the bottom outer edge of the wire, but unable to escape.
Some days Artschwager’s “Man Running” in the green landscape coaxes me up and out for my daily nature walks — a balm now more than ever. Other days, waking up from a dream-state, I’ve seen the Metz piece as a thought bubble above the head of “Man Running,” evoking confusion and uncertainty. Today, as “Fedora-bird’s flight” seems to reach down toward “Man Running,” the yearning for connection in this quarantine time is palpable.
Max Blagg (New York City): Each new viewing of this Curtis Kulig drawing triggers a delicious endorphin rush, allows this reluctant septuagenarian to recollect in tranquility the pleasures and terrors of a misspent youth. The swing set evokes the playing field in my hometown in middle England, and the big kids full of teenage testosterone who constantly tried to demolish it with their extravagant exertions, although in this version the toughest kid is a girl. That small figure leaning pensively on the post is surely my own distant daughter, now grown, but still in my mind’s eye an angelic child.
Repeated viewings send my lockdown thoughts along many paths. A gap in the golden hedge running along the background becomes an escape route from my tiny town, pointing to life in London and New York, instead of working at the new power station (since demolished) that my mum thought would have been an ideal future for me.
The trilateral shape of the swing conjures insoluble math equations, cold steel in winter, Blinky Palermo’s protective triangles. A few years ago in the midst of an ugly divorce and simultaneous eviction proceeding, I took a bus ride up to Beacon to see a Blinky Palermo exhibition. The inebriated minimalism of Palermo’s work cheered me, especially the protective triangles painted over certain doorways of the old biscuit factory. Back home I immediately painted isosceles triangles above each door of my loft, hoping to fend off the malignant forces trying to gain entry.
The landlord lost his case when a panel of five Supreme Court judges ordered that I be left in peace sine die. The triangles remain, instrumental, I am certain, in preventing coldhearted marshals from crossing my threshold.
Meanwhile, in this pandemic, like Ovid in exile, “don’t try to reason with the gods,” just isolate, mask it, and pray they will protect us from this ruthless virus, let the girl keep swinging, and the child reveal a loving smile.
Phyllis Galembo (New York City): Daily for the past year, I have looked at this fanciful, mystical landscape painting by Everald Brown (1917-2003). It is cheery, hopeful, full of life. Though I never learned the work’s title, its dreamlike colorful flowers have provided an escape from the grayness and darkness of New York during the pandemic.
In January 2000, I was traveling around Jamaica photographing Jonkonnu masquerades, a blend of African and English masquerade and mumming traditions which appear during Christmas and New Year’s. While there I traveled to the home and studio of the man known as Brother Brown, the visionary artist, priest, and mystic. He lived with his family on a limestone hill known as Meditation Heights in the Murray Mountain district of St. Ann’s parish.
There I was fully introduced to his work — his painted musical instruments, his paintings, his spiritual objects and the painted walls. I was lucky to be able to experience the place where he communed with nature, surrounded by the lush landscape of Jamaica, one important inspiration for his work. I was fortunate to be able to purchase this delightful painting from him, which has hung in my bedroom for more than 20 years.
In the 1960s, Brother Brown was inspired by a vision to establish a modest Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kingston. His paintings and ritual objects were created for the church. Brown’s imagery often drew from his other spiritual influences such as Rastafarianism and Kumina, an Afro-Jamaican religion brought by enslaved people from the Congo.
This painting is a constant reminder of my travels. I feel blessed to have been able to have traveled and photographed so freely throughout Africa and the Americas for more than 35 years. Now I continually wonder how life will evolve. The traditions of ritual and masquerade, which my art has focused on, will continue. I am curious and try to stay optimistic about how these activities will be transformed worldwide. I am lucky to have this fantasy and inspiration keeping me company during the pandemic.
Tom Wilmott (London, England): Charlie Warde’s “HELP,” a small, editioned print comprising the titular exclamation stenciled onto robust watercolor paper, hangs in the corner of my lounge/study. It was published in 2017 to raise funds for a briefly realized residency in which Warde camped under a thundering flyover in West London and made work with the rubbish and building detritus discarded there. Six days in, he was forced to abandon his project when the nearby Grenfell Tower tragically caught fire.
Since buying the print I had considered its statement an honest request for help and, on a personal level, a reminder of the importance of asking for assistance oneself (a failure of which I have been guilty). As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold and the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the first half of 2020, it took on new emphasis. I began to read it as an instruction, a command even, and, in conjunction with other ideas I had been developing, it helped me to refocus my own practice just as I approached a major creative crossroads.
In January 2020 I had made the significant decision to leave my representative galleries and the commercial art world entirely. Although deeply liberating, doing so created something of a vacuum in terms of what happens to the work I produce. However, in support of my attitudes toward commerce in my practice, and the great privilege I enjoy just being able to make work, “HELP” has made a notable contribution to filling this void, encouraging me to begin a new project, Painting Pro Bono.
Now, through Painting Pro Bono, I exchange my paintings for small donations to charity rather than selling them for personal gain. Since June of last year the distribution side of my practice has existed to support others, rather than myself. It’s a small thing, and I don’t know where it will lead, but I hope it may be the first step on a creative journey mandated to doing as Warde’s print implores — HELP.