In the Room the Women Come and Go : navigating the landscape of turning 50
Artipoeus visits Landscapes, the work of Avigdor Arikha at the Blain Southern in Berlin.
“I can’t believe 50 is right around the corner!” That was an email I received last week from David Blanc, the station manager of World Radio Paris. He was talking about the 50th episode of Artipoeus — this one — but for a second, I thought he was talking about the 50th episode of me.
Artipoeus turns 50 and, this year, so do I. So I’ve been wondering: how to celebrate 50? How do you measure the quality of a life? How do you know it’s good? By the size of the birthday party? By the size of the cake?
Does size even matter? I mean, any more?
I feel I should do something big for my birthday — like, rent a castle and invite everyone over. But everything seems like a lot of work, especially a lot of work to clean up.
That’s what happens when you get older: you get tired.
How about a nice dinner with friends, suggested my neighbor Philip. But… but… how is that different? How is that special?
How is that enough????
I feel I should do something big for the 50th episode of Artipoeus, too. Interview Ai Wei Wei or something. Instead, I’m looking at impressionist watercolors and pastels.
Actually, technically, this is the 49th episode of Artipoeus. Again. Because somewhere along the way I misnumbered the episodes. That’s what happens when you get older: you lose count.
I asked Elon Musk to shoot me into space for my 50th. I figured, I could do a special in-flight episode of Artipoeus. And if I don’t survive re-entry, there will be nothing to clean up!
He didn’t reply.
I’ve really been wracking my brain about this birthday issue. For every milestone birthday, I usually celebrate by doing something I never thought I would do: when I turned 40, I tested for my black belt, instructor’s rank, in the martial art I took up almost a decade before. When I turned 30, I invited myself to the Cannes Film Festival and found myself at a party filled with movie stars. When I turned 20, I grilled steaks with a bunch of artists over an open fire on the Lower East Side of New York, in the sculpture garden created by the collective The Rivington School… although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t planned. I don’t really remember, to be honest.
That’s what happens when you get older: your memory starts to go.
I guess that’s really at the heart of celebrating 50 for me: not so much what will I do, but what will I do that I’ll remember.
What will I do that I’ll remember?
I went to the Blain Southern gallery actually for the free booze. When you’re older, no one buys you drinks anymore. That sounds so depressing and it’s not actually true.. But it’s a little true. An artist I know said they were interested in seeing the work of Avrigdor Arikha, landscapes done in an Impressionist style.
I hate Impressionism. That’s a big statement, and kind of ridiculous. But at the same time, I’ve been over-saturated with it — at the Art Institute in Chicago, everywhere in France, on coffee mugs and umbrellas and calendars, at the dentist’s office… it’s hard to tell if Impressionism is such a popular genre because that many people actually like it, or because institutions and curators push it so much, it’s just what most people know.
I get how Impressionism is an important genre in art, born of technological advances that encouraged a departure from realistic depictions to capturing movement and fractal colors and the transience of life and sunlight dappling the leaves of trees and dancing on water and giant hats and garden parties and green fields and flowers and flowers and flowers…
But it’s all so pastel and delicate, it feels to me like the watery poems of 75 year olds: a Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, opaque and melodramatic, nostalgic and faded from the primary colors and high relief of life in all its immediacy and realness — real tragedy, real joy, real love. It seems… old.
At Blain Southern, the landscapes were being shown alongside the work of American artist Micheal Joo. His work was big and bold and chunky and, you know, I could wrap my head around it.
Joo works a lot with glass as a medium, rendering it into everyday, banal objects. What makes it all the more fascinating is that they are full size, everyday objects: a ladder, a dustpan and, my favorite, wooden pallets. Except these pallets were made out of clear glass. They were completely transparent, and had the wonderful quality of appearing solid and fragile at the same time. It reminded me of my 30s.
At the opening, we soon found out just how fragile it was. Joo balanced the glass planks of the pallet boards on glass corner blocks. Someone wasn’t watching where they were going and tripped across the corner of a plank. The whole structure collapsed with a pretty spectacular sound of sliding, crashing, shattering glass.
Writing about the Paris he witnessed in the direct aftermath of the French Revolution, Chateaubriand said “In a society that is dissolving and recomposing itself, the struggle of two spirits, the clash of past and future, the intermingling of old ways and new, makes for a transitory concoction that leaves no time for boredom. Passions and characters set at liberty are displayed with an energy unimaginable in a well-regulated city.
Judging by the reaction in the gallery, society’s doing just fine in Berlin.
Everything. Went. silent. There was a collective intake of breath, and then nobody moved, nobody breathed. You could hear a pin drop which… you know, was a little ironic at that point.
Blain Southern is a big gallery, and they take their art seriously.
This means that a private view at Blain Southern is pretty much your cliche idea of an art opening: everyone is slender, tall (everyone is tall to me because i’m shrinking with age), dressed in black with funky haircuts, sipping chardonnay — except it’s Germany so also beer — and drifting around in a quiet cloud of murmuring. No gasps, no shouts, minimal beards.
I have to confess: I think this is the perfect atmosphere to look at art. I don’t like people yammering away at me while I’m looking at something, searching inside myself and trying to find a connection — because it’s not always obvious, you know? Asking myself whether I feel good about it or not, and if not, is it just me or is it, in fact, bad? I really appreciate private viewings like this, having so much space and time to myself, the almost-silence, the tall people swanning around, keeping the air moving.
Plus, the drinks are free!
Anyway, this is how I like to look at art, until someone breaks it.
In the silence that followed — so hushed you couldn’t even hear an apology — the artist and one of the curators quietly placed the pieces and every single shard on a stretcher and carried it away, along one side of the long gallery, like an injured player is carried down the sidelines and off the field. They happened to pass very near to where I was standing, their lips pressed tight, eyes straight ahead, entire faces barricaded against the emotions at the gate.
But the tension was filling up the room, so I decided to float upstairs, to the second gallery, before it popped like a mid-life crisis.
Been there, done that.
Going to the upstairs gallery at Blain Southern in Berlin is an experience of its own. The stairs leading up to the mezzanine level are outside the main gallery on the ground floor — you actually have to go through a weighted door that shuts behind you. You enter a stairwell and walk up two flights of stairs, where you re-enter the gallery in a sort of foyer or landing room. I find this exiting and re-entering has the effect of breaking my suspension of disbelief — taking me out of the experience, the story, and then expecting me to find my own way back in.
But this time, since it’s an entirely different artist being shown in the upper gallery, the disengagement works. I appreciated the time to clear my head and disassociate from the work on the ground floor,
I’m sure there is a connection between the two artists the curators had in mind when choosing to pair them — probably because Michael Joo’s work deals with the disappearing landscape of American history, and Arikha paints actual landscapes… or something like that. But to be honest, the break was so… literal.
Entering Arikha’s work was like falling into anothe world.
In the little landing or foyer area on the upper level, Blain Southern always displays one or two works of the featured artist, like an amuse bouche. There is a small etching here (that I thought was a sketch) and a print.
I thought the etching was a sketch because the lines are so light, like when an artist’s hand barely touches the paper as they shape out their vision into real life. It’s called Ville et Cypres, and is delicate — a small town and some trees — a jumble of stone and square lines, like wooden blocks loosely stacked, that seem to be spreading horizontally, almost evaporating outward into the surrounding hills. The trees are the lone, vertical objects, stunted it seems, against the loose town. Everything is a mere outline, a line drawing in squiggly, unsteady lines. It looks like a heat shimmer. It’s… well, it’s beautiful.
The print is a foundation of black ink that rises from the bottom of the paper about ⅓ of the way up, smudging out along the white background, and around some delicate black tendrils that seem to be reaching up out of the center and swaying in some wind we can’t see. It makes me think of Odilon Redon, the French symbolist, and his strange creatures that have the outlines of dreams. Arikha titled this one Herbes (Illustration for Samuel Beckett’s Au Loin un Oiseau), and that makes sense.
If anyone deserves a Symbolist illustration of anything, it would be Beckett.
There is a footbridge that crosses the empty space above the main gallery, and you can look down and see what’s happening there from above, which is normally kind of fun but the tension still boils beneath, so I walk on by without looking down, or back. I don’t want to rubberneck.
In the long gallery, watercolors, pastels, etchings and oil paintings are clustered together in groups of twos and threes. It’s an odd display, with large spaces of just blank wall between them, the emptiness just as important as the views. None of the pieces here are huge, so you have to get up close to see them.
I resist. I don’t want to see this Impressionism, I don’t want to get drawn in. I want the tension to break so I can back downstairs and have another beer. So I stay in the middle of the room, preferring to glance along the outskirts. But my eye lands on a larger black ink etching: a long balcony, an iron balustrade, the tops of trees and roofs I recognize. Paris. Avenue de Tourville vue depuis le balcon.
I take a step closer, because that memory is mine, too.
This one is paired with a pastel in more vibrant colors: another balcony, more rooftops, but this balcony is the steel, squared balcony of a fire escape, the rooftops flat and the treetops far away. I know this place too, or think I do — New York. Maybe it’s Tel Aviv.
But the next one, farther down the wall and separate from these two, that’s New York. I know those buildings, even in black ink, quickly sketched and captured in a moment, even though they never move. But the light does, and the sky, and time. Arikha manages to stop all of it in a single snapshot, drawn by hand. Gratte-ciels a New York, it’s called.
The room is anchored at both ends with single oil paintings. At one end, Mount Zion at Dawn Against the Light. It’s dense with deep reds and oranges and browns, and I think it’s a mountain covered in fall foliage. Although the line of the mountain is simple and there’s really nothing else in the painting, the layers and texture of color give it dimension and substance. When I look up photos of Mount Zion later, I discover that is mostly packed dirt with only some pines along the ridge. But I guess this is Arikha’s impression.
On the other end is another oil, called A path in the morning. A wide path of pale yellow dirt, lined with cypress trees on one side, long shadows from the unseen trees on the other stretching across the path, a misty blue sky. I don’t like this one, I’m relieved to say, but to be honest, I wouldn’t like this place in real life either. And that says something, I think, if I know what that place is, in this painting; if I’ve been there in some form — in Los Angeles, in France, in wherever it actually is. If I can look at this painting and know what it feels like to be there, strongly enough to know i don’t like the feeling.
On this end, near the path in the morning, is a pastel on paper of a 1960s or 70s style apartment building, like the kind popular in parts of LA. Flat, stacked, square, the building floats on cement columns over a parking area, a black car parked there. It is actually, as Arikha calls it, The Augustine Nun’s Sanitorium. I don’t know where it’s located — New York? France? — but I like this a lot, because it’s so mundane it’s weird.
Resist! I’m not supposed to like these! I find my place again in the middle of the room and return back down the long gallery, but… what’s this one over here? And this one? Is it a place I know? Did I once call it home?
Not all of them: a lone pine I don’t recognize, parts of Jerusalem, where I’ve never been. I find myself stopping at a small watercolor of a tree — Impressionism watercolor of a tree, the very thing I hate the most, the absolute essence of watery old age and preciousness and longing for shadows to gel back into something real. Argh! What am I doing here?!
What I’m doing here, in front of this tree under a stormy sky, is catching my breath. Not because I’m old and tired, although that’s a little true, but because it’s so… masterful. It’s the only word that comes to mind — not beautiful or stunning or even pretty, but masterful.
This tree stops me in my tracks in the same way Arikha has stopped the time in this tree. In this small 26.4 x 9cm rectangle, he has captured everything that is a tree: the slowness of growth, the gentleness of the leaves, the wavering light moving through the moving clouds above. You can smell the oxidized air, and you can feel the warmth of the Earth rising to meet the storm. You can hear the leaves rustle, even though they are frozen forever in time. Arikha has, basically, mastered time. And I think if you can master time, you can master the universe.
Because the universe is made of time, and time is made of these small moments. And maybe, at 20, at 30, at 40, at 50, that’s all there is.
Crossing back over the footbridge, I do look down. Directly below is the dark stain of the broken glass pallet on the floor, the impression of something that once was, only the shadow remains. Like all the things from your 20s you wish you still had energy and flexibility for, but are now forever out of reach.
Out of all these big birthdays what I remember are small moments, movements, details in high relief. When I turned 20, Parker, the orneriest of the Rivington School artists giving me a bright yellow wooden carpenter’s ruler that folded up like a Jacob’s Ladder.
At the dawn of 30, standing barefoot in a cocktail dress, eating pain au chocolat fresh out of the oven at 5am in Cannes, on the same street that Napoleon marched down to his imprisonment at Elba.
At my 40th, I remember the temperature that day, the oppressive heat. The color of the tatami mats in the dojo, the bright whiteness of the chairs set up for visitors. I remember my nephew’s face, enthralled, my mother’s pride, and my father’s face, wet with tears. I remember my when, after the ceremony, my teacher finally laughed and ruffled up my hair.
Avigdor Arikha was born in 1929 and sent to a concentration camp in 1941. His sketches of the the horrors we witnessed in the camp saved his and his sister’s lives — they were shown to Red Cross workers who helped them escape, and survive. He was trained as modernist painter, painting in the abstract until 1965, when he was 24 years old, and made a sudden distinction from the quick and the dead, hungry to have life and hold it, each moment, in his brush.
Maybe the small moments are the only ones I need to concentrate on now. Maybe this way nothing will get broken and I’ll have nothing to clean up. 50, for me, is right around the corner, although Artipoeus will be forever 49.
Avrigdor Arikha died in 2010 and the Blain Southern gallery now represents his estate. Landscapes is on view until the 24th of February at Blain Southern. Michael Joo’s exhibition, Simultaneity Biases, can be seen on the main floor also until 24th February. Blain Southern is located at located at Potsdamer Straße 77–87 in Berlin.
Music used in this episode is from www.bensounds.com.