Eye on the Beholder

January 10, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: Bridging the New Year in New York this winter two major exhibitions of two major American artists. At the Museum of Modern art Jasper Johns, whose flags and targets have become icons of contemporary paintings. At the Guggenheim Museum, Ellsworth Kelly, famous for huge monochrome canvases of various shapes and sizes. Kelly, with whom we’ll start, oversaw the installation of his show himself last fall.

ELLSWORTH KELLY, Artist: Unless we get it exactly vertical, I mean even 1/8 of an inch is going to be annoying to me.

PAUL SOLMAN: An American in Paris after World War II, Ellsworth Kelly had cast about for a stylistic breakthrough in self-portraiture, in a drawing of seaweed, in this group of stacked tables in a restaurant. Early works like these show him starting down a road of greater and greater simplification. Less is more, his work proposed, as in this faithful rendition of a window in Paris’s Modern Art Museum. Kelly was looking at the world and reducing it to its most rudimentary visual elements. Photographs he took book back in the 1950’s and 60’s show his inspiration, says the head of the Guggenheim, Thomas Krens.

THOMAS KRENS, Director, Guggenheim Museum: Every one of these shapes you see in those black and white photographs, and you say, ah ha, that’s in the world around me; that exists out there. And that’s also what I see here in a much more refined abstraction. I mean, the paintings have the–sort of the highest level of abstract precision. But he takes these things from the world around him. And that’s his magic. Like this exists. This is a way a shadow crosses a street. Yet, most of us don’t pay attention to looking at that. Ellsworth pays attention to looking at that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Case in point–Bridge Arch and Reflection 1951, a stop on the kids’ tour at the museum’s annual members party. Here you see the space of the arch underneath the bridge and its mirror image in the water. These so-called negative shapes are Kelly’s stock and trade.

SPOKESPERSON: If you look across the way, can you see that open space that we’re looking at? Do you see that open space everybody? He could make a work out of that. See the open space between my legs? Look under my arms. He would be interested in that.

PAUL SOLMAN: As the tour moved on, so did we, shooting the show from one picture to another. In bringing together for the first time ever such a large number of Kelly’s abstractions, the Guggenheim Museum has given viewers two new ways to see them. One is as a foil for the quirky architecture of the Guggenheim, itself. The other is the way in which Kelly’s abstractions play off one another.

THOMAS KRENS: It’s a little bit like making a musical composition, is that each one of these things can be perceived as a note. And altogether they make a symphony.

PAUL SOLMAN: But as is so often the case with contemporary are, some people just can’t hear the music, including, as it happens, the members of our very own camera crew, who muttered skeptically at Kelly’s work while taping it. So we prevailed upon David John, another museum guide. To pick a picture and explain Kelly’s virtues. He chose this one. Consider the monumentality of the black, he urged, the optical illusion of a tapering canvas that from a distance looks concave yet up close is completely black, the sheer texture of it. The crew remained underwhelmed.

PAUL SOLMAN: It just doesn’t do it for you.

MAN: I’m a little lost.

DAN: Boring.


DAN: Yes. It’s black.

DAVID JOHN, Guggenheim Museum Guide: Texture. Texture.

DAN: There is no texture. It’s black. There’s no color. There’s nothing. It’s like empty.

PAUL SOLMAN: Undaunted, David John took a loftier tact.

DAVID JOHN: You’re answering this. It’s as if it’s completely enveloping you. It’s almost a spiritual feeling that you’re having with the work of art?

PAUL SOLMAN: Dan, spiritual?

DAN: No.


DAN: No.

PAUL SOLMAN: So if it moves him, do you think he’s being fooled by the work of art, or he’s just a more sensitive guy than you are?

DAN: No.

PAUL SOLMAN: What’s your explanation?

DAN: Art is in the eye of the beholder. It moves him spirituality. It doesn’t for me.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, in fact, we had brought two crews to the Guggenheim for an extended interview we had scheduled with Ellsworth Kelly. When the artist failed to materialize, however, there was time to spare, and our other camera man, John Marr, began shooting images at the Guggenheim that he found at least as interesting as Kelly’s.

JOHN MARR: Look at this.


JOHN MARR: It’s interesting.


JOHN MARR: Look at this. Look at this.

PAUL SOLMAN: I guess the question John’s asking is, if I look closely enough at this curve, at the blackness of the microphone that you’ve got, of the different textures that it has, I may be able to get a spiritual feeling from that and a reverential relationship to it, no?

DAVID JOHN: If you look at it that way, yes, anything can be a work of art to the individual.

PAUL SOLMAN: Anything can be a work of art. Well, that may not be a bad line for getting us to the second major contemporary who was on display in New York, Jasper Johns at the Museum of Modern Art. Johns, a Korean War vet who did store window displays in the 1950’s, made his name dressing up Old Glory in new clothes, using bits of newspaper, wax, odd colors, and the like. Targets came next with a variety of chaperones. Then came the plays on words, the word “red” stenciled in yellow, the word “yellow” in blue. There was his blotch period, his stripe period, and more recently more representational images filled with symbolism. We asked the curator of the Johns show, Kirk Varnedoe, to choose a painting to explain. He picked the same one he’d used on the cover of the catalog.

KIRK VARNEDOE, Chief Curator, Museum of Modern Art: Johns is an artist who constantly feeds on his own inventions and recycles them so that, for example, on one side of this picture you see a kind of cross form pulling together four paintings, his seasons paintings of the mid 1980’s, and putting them into a kind of wheel so that the turn of autumn, winter, spring, and summer is seen as a cycle literally, and then over the top of that you see a spiral galaxy, a very ghostly kind of nebulant turning form, and that’s something that derives from a photograph of deep space that Johns has included in numerous works since 1990. On the other side of the work, on the lefthand side of the painting, is a large floor plan, and that’s a plan that Jasper did by memory of the House that he grew up in as a child between the ages of two and eight, a very personal device, but overlaid over the top of it is the tracing of a figure that he borrowed from a 16th century altar piece by Mathias Grunevald. It’s actually a soldier at the foot of the tomb of Christ at the moment of the resurrection. So he’s recoiling and falling back and holding his hand up against the spectacle of the risen Christ. It’s a figure of aw or revelation, and I think that’s been part of this interest for Johns.

PAUL SOLMAN: Does Kirk Varnedoe think you have to know all that to appreciate this painting? Well, no, he says. The picture has an overall impact with what he calls beautiful harmony, spatial layering, a dreamy quality. But understanding its constituent parts, he says, certainly can’t hurt.

KIRK VARNEDOE: Presumably, if you walked into the Sistine Ceiling and Christianity was not your religion, would you worry about the people flying through the air and pointing at each other? What would these two guys trying to touch fingers mean to you? Would you suppose that they were involved in accusing each other of something? One could invent any number of stories. Once you understand that that’s the creation of Adam, you understand one thing about it. And if you knew something about Michelangelo’s career at that time, you would understand another level about it. Art, all art certainly involves these levels of dialogue between seeing and knowing. And modern art puts extreme pressure on that because so much of its language and vocabulary is the prerogative of the artist, himself, and not drawn from a common set of beliefs as the Christianity in the Sistine ceiling.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, to be honest, Kirk Varnedoe was talking about just that aspect of contemporary art that sometimes makes me and maybe you a little uneasy, the extreme pressure to get a real sense that I know what it is I’m seeing. So after hearing from the curator of the Jasper Johns exhibit and disinclined to do yet another crew interview, I sought out a more professional dissenter. Hilton Kramer, former art critic for the “New York Times,” is now editor of the conservative “New Criterion” Magazine and art critic for the “New York Observer.” We asked him about the painting that Varnedoe had explained to us and featured on the catalog’s cover.

HILTON KRAMER, Art Critic: It’s all bogus. There’s no profundity to it.

PAUL SOLMAN: But he’s talking here–this is the house plan from memory of Johns’ grandfather’s house where Johns grew up.

HILTON KRAMER: Well, so what?

PAUL SOLMAN: Yeah. And so these are all the things. The nebula is–here–we have figures which refer to Picasso–

HILTON KRAMER: But it’s all so badly painted and, and nothing is of any real significance.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, but so you say, but I mean it’s significant to Kirk Varnedoe that this is his house and this is a soldier at the tomb of Christ, falling backwards, so that it has that kind of Christian resonance, and here you have the cross, which is, you know, a characteristic of earlier Johns’ works, the seasons, the rotation of the cross is the same as the nebula.

HILTON KRAMER: Well, if you can believe that, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you cheap.

PAUL SOLMAN: But these things are all here.

HILTON KRAMER: Well, yes. That is–I mean, there are little cartoon hints of them.


HILTON KRAMER: But you can’t experience any of that in pictorially, painterly terms. In other words, it’s not really–it’s not really transformed into form that can be experienced as great art.

PAUL SOLMAN: What Kramer means is that art proves itself by passing the good old test of time.

DAVID JOHN: Here is a Paul Cezanne painting. We have another one here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even our Ellsworth Kelly guide at the Guggenheim, it turns out, really loves the 19th century post Impressionists in his museum’s permanent collection.

DAVID JOHN: And finally we come upon Paul Gauguin. This is a beautiful paining.

PAUL SOLMAN: You like this better than Ellsworth Kelly’s?

DAVID JOHN: Yes, I do.

HILTON KRAMER: In the end there are some pictures that some of us prefer to others and with good reasons. And no one will ever convince me that those reasons do not have to do with the very foundation of our esthetic experience.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Kirk Varnedoe disputes this notion of an absolute standard of beauty.

KIRK VARNEDOE: Don’t you think it’s one of the essential characteristics of modern art that it challenges the notion of beauty that you bring to it and asks you to invent new kinds of it? Pollock’s dripped paintings looked to many people and still look to many people like they’re spatter cloths on the floor of a studio, like they have no form. And many of Picasso’s cubist paintings looked to the original viewers and still look to some people like “explosions in a shingle factory.” One of the phenomenal gambles of modern art is that a lot of individual artists work with forms which seem either ugly or inchoate or without order and they make of them personal languages which have a new kind of order. There are no rules. There’s no final arbiter. It’s not like there’s a Pope who lays down an encyclical that says what’s good and what’s bad. It’s a matter of small communities of disagreeing people that vie for who’s going to win over the broader public.

PAUL SOLMAN: Folks like those at the Guggenheim and modern museums, critics like Hilton Kramer, small communities of disagreeing people, that is, that make the art argument go round and round, and sometimes make those of us they are vying to win over a little dizzy as well.