AUTHOR’S NOTE: It has been a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. As Steve Greene intimates below, such a world-changing event might retroactively alter how we see images that we’ve been looking at since long before March 11, 2020. For this series of articles, I ask artists if, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they look at their personal collection differently now, and which works in particular. Is there one that especially resonates with them in this weird, frightening time? And does it take on new meaning?
Steve Greene (Collinsville, Connecticut): My wife and I bought “Asleep Near Litchfield”by our good friend Seth Forman in 2015. I love this little painting. It is a little more whimsical than usual for Seth, and not as disturbing. A black bear, his eyes squinting in ecstasy like a happy pet, spies on a Rip Van Winkle-like character. If not for the hirsute hermit’s Crocs and running shorts, this might be a lost painting from the Renaissance, with its stylized boulders straight from Giotto, the distant idyllic farm, the careful layers of glazes. The figures, rocks, trees and sky interlock in a very satisfying way.
When you live with an artwork, you enter into a relationship. The artwork stays the same, but you grow, you change, and you view it differently. Can a work of art also evolve over time? Something in this painting seemed to change over the course of 2020. It’s as if Seth made a new painting about living under lockdown sometime after the pandemic started, in which he cleverly mimicked “Asleep Near Litchfield”— subject matter, style, composition — then sneaked into our home and switched the two paintings. Now it seems I am living with a coded version of my old painting.
This new version is a portrait of me, even though it’s not a very good likeness. I’ve fallen asleep and I’m vulnerable and I’m isolated and I can’t wake up. I dream that everything is fine. I dream of the farm where I grew up. (This doesn’t look like my childhood farm, but that’s okay, Seth has never seen it.) I dream that we are at peace with nature, that it’s not something to fear, that a bear creeping up this close is perfectly natural. I sleep and dream for a long, long time. Time stands still, and the days and weeks come and go.
What I want to know is, after the pandemic is over and I can get together with my friend Seth, can I have my old painting back? Somehow I don’t think I’ll ever see it again.
Guy Richards Smit (Brooklyn, New York): I am 51 now and in the last six months, my body has begun to fall apart with a speed I had not expected. Twelve months of mandated atrophy upon years of unchoreographed stage acrobatics have left both knees burning. A loose relationship with pre- and post-run stretching has forced my Achilles tendon into constant revolt. I limp like an elderly man, taking measured, careful steps to the kitchen each morning for my coffee. It’s awful, and thankfully no one can see me. Eventually, the ibuprofen or Advil or Tylenol kick in and I do various half-hearted stretches until my movements resume a general normalcy. I am reduced to taking long walks.
It is with this newfound fragility that I write about my beautiful Walter Robinson, “Painkillers,” a contemplation on aging (I’m sure) delivered in his deft, matter-of-fact hand. The Excedrin bottle is centered and bold over an underpainting of muddy indigo peeking through a thin layer of violet-brown. There’s a fleeting sense of Morandi, had he indulged life rather than cloistered himself from it. No fireworks, no pointless flourishes. Everything is presented, plain as day and warm like life. The artist is indifferent to style because that would interfere with the matter at hand. It would be too on-the-nose to illustrate the magical powers contained within its amber shell. It would be Jesus as lion rather than lamb. The bottle glows like a chalice regardless.
Tabitha Soren (San Francisco, California): I’ve lived with “How About It” by Nicole Charbonnet for my entire married life. It was the first piece of art my husband and I bought together and it is the only large painting we own. Until COVID, it was so familiar to me that despite its scale I barely saw it. During the lockdown, I’ve spent time doing two things I’ve always wanted to do more of: reading and painting. Focusing on words and paint instead of my camera has made me look closely at Charbonnet’s piece. She carves text into the thick layers but it’s pretty illegible. I get to decide what the words mean and, in a sense, finish the painting.
I had also never really understood the labor involved in building up texture and thickness like this. Paint is used but so is modeling paste, marble dust, and plaster. Once in a while someone bumps into it and I end up wiping up debris from the floor. Yet the overall effect of the piece is unchanged. This is a useful reminder that you can’t really see what’s coming at you in life. The difficult twists and turns of everyday living during a pandemic can knock you off balance, and at times the isolation has made me feel like I was falling to pieces. But looking at “How About It” helps me shift my state of mind. This abstract painting is now an invitation to dive into the complexity of life – and its unpredictability. “How About It” promises there will be beauty there too.
Valerie Hegarty (Livingston Manor, New York): Since the start of the pandemic, I have been living in a mobile home in the Catskills. While my Brooklyn apartment has many artworks hung salon style, here I have only one small painting. The title is unknown, but there is stamp on the back: Aaron Cohen, Loch Sheldrake NY, ’92. It sits on a bookshelf because I like the walls blank as a respite. The little landscape was a nostalgic purchase at an antique store two years ago because it reminded me of the view from my family’s lakeside cabin in Maine, where I spent the happiest days of my childhood. I love the Marsden Hartley-esque way the scene is painted and the abstraction of the reflection that makes the composition only a few moves away from a Rothko.
The painting makes me long for those long summer days playing in the sun while my father barbecued and my mother brought out our swim towels and my little sister collected frogs in a bucket while my brother, older sister, and I practiced diving off the dock. Now when I look at the painting the yearning is more painful as my heart-tugs have turned into heartbreak over the sense of impossibility of not only going back to childhood, but back to life “the way it was.” It feels like we are experiencing an end to a different type of innocence.
Although the cabin is still in the family, my parents are elderly and no longer go. I worry about them dying from COVID-19 as I grapple with the reality that I’ll never see my friend Norma again, who died after Christmas, and my friend Patrick, who overdosed last spring. In the little painting the sun is forever rising, making the distance from here to there feel like an ever-widening abyss. We always knew there was going to be a tipping point with the environment and as I look at the painting I wonder if this is it.
Derek White (Washington, DC): In the early 1990s my brother Kevin gave me this piece. It is one of six objects he made for his MFA thesis show at ArtCenter in Pasadena. I’m not sure whether he made these objects for people to actually hang on their walls. Mine is not particularly attractive and is a pain to hang because it’s fragile, made of crumbly Styrofoam, and coated with this supposedly toxic paint that comes off if you touch it. (This was the idea, anyway — all the pieces in this “Elements” series were coated with various toxic elements and had metal handholds that fit only his hand.) Kevin used to paint a more conventional kind of 2-D art, the kind you might hang in your home, but the year before his MFA show a studio fire destroyed all his work. After that he swore off painting and made only conceptual objects. He brought this piece to me in a coffin-shaped crate in the back of his pickup. I mounted it on my wall for a few years but then I went through a nomadic period, so I loaned the piece back to him for safekeeping.
After Kevin died, in 1997, the piece ended up with my mom (though unfortunately a lot of his other art went unaccounted for). In 2000 I moved to New York City and had our mom send us the piece, by now dirty and battered. My wife and I moved quite a bit within New York and the easiest way to transport it was to carry it like a bowling ball using the handle, so I’d walk across town or onto the subway with it rather than risk damaging it by putting it in a box. A decade later we moved to Africa so I sent it back to my mom. In 2019 we moved back to the US and bought a house, so on a subsequent trip to California I sent the object back to myself. By this point it was in bad shape, so I had to restore the broken parts and repaint it.
This piece is particularly meaningful not just because my late brother made it, but because of the history it has acquired despite its fragile vulnerability. Whenever I’m going through some big world event like 9/11 or the pandemic of 2020 I wonder what Kevin would think if he was still alive or whether he ever imagined that this object would still be carrying on, hanging in this world. A piece of him lives on vicariously through it.
Ellen Carey (Hartford, Connecticut): “Her Portrait Photographed by Him Only One Time – on Their Last Meeting; the Lens Cap, Forgotten by Him, Was Not Taken Off.” This is the English translation of the Russian that Igor Savchenko wrote by hand to caption and title this black rectangle, a photographic print made from a completely transparent 35mm film negative. How many of us have thought we took a picture only to find, once the film was developed, that it had been lost?!
Because he knew it was my favorite, Savchenko gave me this photograph when he was a Visiting Professor at the Hartford Art School where I teach. Throughout the yearlong pandemic it has taken on the dimension of the shadow, its void, and light’s immateriality.
Before the pandemic, this image brought to mind the pictures of loved ones I had taken as well as many photo-mistakes I had made. Savchenko’s love subject is missing, and in its place is a featureless image of absence as the photographic object.
The positive and negative remind me of the classic Greek Eros and Thanatos duality in the life-death cycle. Savchenko’s print compels me to think that there is a prescience in the nature of art and certainly in the bittersweet moment of this photograph, because it would be the last time the photographer would see his loved one. His black rectangle impresses me with the way it mirrors photography’s picture signs of the shadow, the void, the outline, light, and the silhouette. It doubly reflects the gravitas of love and loss experienced in this collective tragedy before us now.
Jan Hakon Erichsen (Oslo, Norway): This is a depiction of what used to be our family cabin, drawn by my Scottish Grandad Jack Martin, after he and my sweet Granny visited Norway in the 1980s. If times had been different when he grew up he would probably have been a professional artist, but instead that part of his life had to wait until he became a pensioner, and he spent his later years drawing and painting.
The drawing is hung next to my TV, so I find myself staring at it more often these days, and lately it has grown into a sort of symbol of better times — when there was no pandemic, when I got to see my Scottish relatives quite often, and my main health worry was getting car sick on our trips to the cabin.
According to family lore, Jack was supposedly so shaped by his experience as a technical draftsman during the war that he was unable to draw freely, having spent so much time making strict schematic drawings during those years. Looking at the beautifully rendered trees surrounding the cabin, I can see that that is not true. They speak of artistic merit, not limitations.
Growing up knowing that my grandfather spent so much time drawing was an inspiration for me and my brothers. It made it clear to us that art was something worth pursuing. Grandad separated art into two sections: things that were nonsense, and things that were not. My art would definitely have fallen into his nonsense category, and for a long time I thought I had a more sophisticated art taste than him, but the truth is that I just fill those two categories with slightly different things. Like a Venn diagram where our “not nonsense” category sometimes overlap. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t like, and so do I — he just was a bit more vocal about it.
Ken Johnson (Minneapolis, Minnesota): “Yannarelly’s Bar,” by my friend Greg Graham, was done in enamel, traditionally a crafters’ paint used in finishing model cars and airplanes. Greg felt challenged to attempt using this medium as a fine artist might, despite the peculiarities and limitations of the medium (few color choices, high gloss). He developed a working method and did a series of small paintings on panels. The one I own depicts the rear of a bar once located on the east side of Saint Paul on a gray winter day, dirty snow humped up on the curb, a dumpster propped open, an anti-drunk-driving billboard curiously looming above. I admire Greg’s evocative sense of color (I particularly love his subtle grays accented with the siennas that give the painting some heat) and the delicate brushwork necessary to make such a small painting work.
The scene evokes a memory for me, for I spent my early years in this neighborhood, a blue-collar, working-class immigrant area. When I dream of my childhood (and I do dream in color), it is often just the kind of day this painting depicts. From the toned-down colors in the painting, I sense the same feeling of ennui I get from my dreams, a “downness.” The gloss, however, renders this as something other, since in dreams my senses seem slightly tempered or dampened, as if encased in something matte and close, like wool.
Because of its sheen and reflected light, the painting appears as a tiny window, a point of interest often in my undirected sight. During the pandemic I have been drawn to it, and I note what is missing: people. Where have they gone? What will happen next? With few appointments and no in-person gatherings for almost a year, I have been able to concentrate on making art and my life has become simpler. But I would be grateful to hug people outside my bubble again.