Phoenix Art Museum II - Modern and Contemporary Art

I had never really taken a guided tour of a museum before. I suppose it's because it doesn't offer a more personalized experience of adventure and discovery: tours are very limited, tour guides are even more limited in what they know, groups often stifle the personal connection between the art work and my own experience of it – my mind just isn't as fully engaged to interpretation in the surroundings of a group – and I don't get the feeling being an explorer, an adventurer in search of human emotions, which to me is probably the most important experience I want to have as I make my way through a museum.

That being said, there were only two other people on this afternoon's tour through the South Wing of the Phoenix Art Museum. We met our docent just outside of the museum store (Room 4) where she introduced herself and proceeded with an overview of the galleries we would be visiting centered around modern and contemporary art. We made our way through the JP Morgan Chase Lobby (Room 12) passed the corridor that followed and into Cumming's Great Hall (Room 13). The first art work presented was entitled Sphere Lit from the Top by Sol Lewitt, 2005, located at the north end of the Great Hall. Visually, one sees it as a circle, at least 5 meters in diameter, drawn on the wall. It is presented as a wall drawing using shades of graphite from its lightest to its strongest color, top to bottom. The docent described it as a radical gesture in transporting the image from a confined two-dimensional surface onto an expanded architectural field, essentially giving it a more special feel. The lighting on the image was focused primarily at the top so that as you got closer to the drawing, the light reflected off the graphite at the top, producing a sun affect, as if you were staring at the sun. Initially, the drawing had been in the Katz Wing for Modern and Contemporary Art (Room 15) but it was transitioned to the Great Hall earlier this year for closer examination. The drawing itself is more like a patent though as Lewitt himself wasn't here to redo the image in the Great Hall, several artists were employed to sketch the drawing onto the wall over a number of weeks. Knowing this, I feel somewhat detached from the artist in that while the idea is there, the artwork wasn’t rendered by his personal experience and idiosyncrasies – the artist isn’t there, the idea is. Art without the artist is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the images seen are but shadows of the real objects passing through the opening of a darkened cave, those images are ideas but not constitutive of reality.

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Les Arceaux Fleuris, Giverny (Flowering Arches, Giverny), Claude Monet, 1913.

From the Great Hall, we climbed the stairs to the Harnett Gallery, which is on a mezzanine floor above the other galleries. The next piece we saw was a painting entitled Les Arceaux Fleuris, Giverny (Flowering Arches, Giverny) by Claude Monet, 1913. It is an oil on canvas (31-7/8x36-1/4 inches) that depicts a scene from Monet's garden at his home in Giverny outside of Paris. The painting had its inspiration in impressionism as a picture of nature was depicted using the advantages of daylight in the reflecting water to play with the colors: the reflection of the arch itself is more brightly colored than the actual image of the arch outside of the water. This was accomplished by applying the paint directly from the tube to his brush allowing him to layer the colors on his canvas instead of mixing the paint colors on a pallet. The scene was of an aesthetically pleasing garden in which Monet found inspiration in as seen through a number of additional paintings that followed the 1913 canvass. While Monet was content to let nature play its part in the painting, our docent pointed out that he was also a bit meticulous, so much so that he would have people hand clean the water lilies so that he could increase the shimmering effect they had on his portrayal of them in the painting.

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El suicidio de Dorothy Hale (The Suicide of Dorothy Hale), Frida Kahlo.

Further into the Harnett Gallery we move to our next painting entitled El suicidio de Dorothy Hale (The Suicide of Dorothy Hale) by Frida Kahlo, 1939. Oil on Masonite. 23 13/16 x 19 1/8 inches. The painting depicts the 1938 suicide of the American socialite and failed actress Dorothy Hale, who found no other means of escape after husband's death and financial ruin which left her dependent on her wealthy friends. Clare Booth Luce, a friend of both Dorothy Hale and Frida Kahlo, commissioned Kahlo to paint a portrait of Dorothy, for the sake of Dorothy's mother. She was shocked when she saw the finished piece and her first impulse was to have the painting destroyed, but she was persuaded by friends to keep it. Clare etched out her name at the base of the painting where Frida Kahlo had written a message so that no one would ever know who it was commissioned by. Such was the background upon which our docent had given us about the painting. In examining the painting, one notices the incorporation and use of the frame to bring the image to life even as it depicts death, thus creating a three dimensional effect. The clouds and the bloodstain are probably the first things that you notice, the visual effect of this draws you in not only to the falling and ultimate death of the main protagonist, but the eerie feeling of her ghost somewhere in the midst of the clouds. Her death is on stage for the whole world to see and it's telling how Kahlo uses this at Dorothy Hale's last scene on stage.

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Ponder, Deborah Butterfield, 1981.

We next turn to the northwest end of the mezzanine where a sculpture stands overlooking the Great Hall. Entitled Ponder by Deborah Butterfield, 1981, the sculpture, composed of wood, wire and steel depicts a horse at the instant it is grazing. Our docent described the sculpture as abstract, depicting a solitary horse, introspective, unridden, at rest, which, despite its mass and materiality, appears animated; it evokes an interior life with which we can connect with. One finds a bit of irony in that the material used to make up the sculpture is the same material that is used to fence in the live representation of the sculpture. How we interpret this irony goes to reveal the way in which we view our lives and us in the world. To the younger generations, our docent says, a familiarity with what we've seen in theaters and video games comes to mind, Resident Evil. Confusion seems to pass over the older generations in the same way that a different painting, resembling a film from their time, passes over the younger. In these reactions, we come to learn that art transcends time and cultural, it's left to the interpretation of the viewer in a way that raises their unique experience of the world to question.

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Upside Down, Inside Out, Anish Kapoor, 2003.

Weaving our way down the ramp, past Whiteman Hall (Room 14) and into the Katz Wing for Modern and Contemporary Art (Room 15), we visit our next sculpture entitled Upside Down, Inside Out by Anish Kapoor, 2003. The sculpture itself was made of acrylic, carved into a huge globe that separated into hemispheres with an almost cell division like quality. Each half of the hemispheres kind of slid away from each other and the sculpture depicts the moment just before they completely separated. Because it's acrylic, it reflects its surrounds as if it were a mirror, hence not only could you see yourself upside side and inside out; not to be taken literally, you could see a reflection of yourself from head to toe in the center of either hemisphere, although you're upside down in the image, but you could also see yourself in two additional areas, essentially four different reflections. The sculpture took up the center of the foyer where you could walk all the way around and see yourself reflected in the black convex and concave curves. There was however a line pole that prevented you from walking directly up to the sculpture preventing you from contact. Our docent had indicated that there was a time when that wasn't the case, standing directly in front of the sculpture, so that you’re not but a few inches away from it, you could see yourself in the central reflection right side up. In this way, it reminds me of how we see things in the world, our eyes see everything upside down while our brain turns everything right side up, interesting to note.

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Extended Landscape Model for Total Reflective Abstraction.

The last sculpture we viewed as we moved further into the Katz Wing was an abstract piece of artwork entitled Extended Landscape Model for Total Reflective Abstraction by Josiah McElheny. The sculpture incorporated glass blowing as a means to focus on the idea of reflection, infinity, purity and shadows. The structure was composed of a rectangular glass base with different shapes and sizes of additional blown objects mounted onto the top. Our docent tells us that among the ideas the artist was attempting to point out was the possibility of absent shadows. We notice that there are no shadows on the base that the objects are mounted to; the glass is reflective of everything around it, eliminating the appearance of shadows and illuminating purity from within. I liked this piece the best because as a society, we have a tendency to view things in their positive and negative aspects and connotations, ying and yang, light and dark, good and evil, McElheny essentially eliminates the darkness by illuminating it, look at it long enough and one begins to think it’s almost utopian like. Thus was my last thought as our docent ended the tour.