Monday, October 24, 2005

Visceral art experiences

Very few "museum" pieces have moved me to the point of leaving me breathless with unexpected tears - not the all-out kind of emotional release or catharsis, but of a kind of instant recognition of something more to life, beyond asthetic appreciation or intellectual fascination.

Once, I turned a sharp corner at the National Gallery and came face to face with Elizabeth Murray's giant painting Careless Love. I still have no idea what it was about the painting that struck me - usually I can be analytic about why I like a particular piece, but this one is still a mystery to me. Something about its exuberant aliveness, mixed with a sense of deeper emotions. Murray's work is never just about frivolous, cartoony imagery, as it would seem on the surface. So I am overjoyed to see that a retrospective of her work opened yesterday at the Museum of Modern Art.

NYT review here. Murray on PBS's Art21.
Edward Winkelman on Murray.

Nicholas Nixon's The Brown Sisters is another such work. I first saw this piece during one of the super crowded "pay what you will" nights at MoMA. I was there to see one of the Modern Starts shows, and was focused on the figurative painters. Somehow though, what I came away with was an awed experience of standing before nearly thirty black and white snapshots of the same four women, year after year, watching them silently progress from young to middle aged. I'd never been interested in photography, never been moved by anything like this before. I could see those women's lives in their faces, could see where one of them had gone through a bad year, when later she seemed lighter again... Every year since 1975, photographer Nicholas Nixon has taken a photograph of his wife and her three sisters. The women stand in the same order, so even without knowing their names or anything about them you start to get to know them. It's eerily intimate, and at the same time something about their gazes keeps them opaque, unknowable.

Nixon's The Brown Sisters will be on display at the National Gallery of Art starting on November 13. Modern Art Notes post on the piece, which I think reminded me of this experience.


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