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Friday, December 29, 2006

day one: seeing is misbelieving

I arrived in London earlier today, but my trip actually started back in New York last week. I've decided to make Spanish painting my theme for the next month: the Guggenheim's Spanish painting exhibit, Velázquez at the National Gallery, the museums of Madrid, and then back to New York for the Hispanic Society's collection.

I've always believed in the benefits of immersion. A painting, or anything, viewed in isolation can produce a powerful effect, but it can also produce a misleading effect. Take Jasper Johns's flag paintings for instance. If one knew nothing about his work and saw only one of his red, white, and blue single-canvas American flag paintings, what would one think? That he was a folksy patriotic painter, perhaps? Try to imagine it:

Last year a student actually lived this, a bit differently, by wandering through the Met's contemporary wing and writing about one of his all-white encaustic flags. Here it is, White Flag (1955):
The student had the imagination and confidence to read the painting's rough surface and monochrome colour as some sort of political critique of the United States. Good. We want students to use their imaginations. But knowing that White Flag was part of a series of flag paintings by Johns changes everything. One needs to see it as a variation in a larger series of paintings repeating the flag as a symbol, and not the only symbol that Johns took up. The painting has about as much to say about America per se as Warhol's Campbell's soup series has to say about soup. Likewise, seeing just one On Kawara date painting might lead one to think something major happened on that day:
One would never guess that he paints the day's date every day.

So here I am setting out to see all the major Spanish painting exhibits and collections that I can in three to four weeks. Next time: my belated report on the Guggenheim.


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