Saturday, January 30, 2021

In the middle

Detail of Franz Kline’s Turin (1960), left, and Joan Mitchell’s Noël (1961-1962)

In college I essentially moved among the poles of art, literature, and rock and roll, cut through with beer. At the University of Maryland I minored in Art History; in retrospect, I wish I'd Double Majored, so in love was I with those cool, dark classrooms, murmuring professors, and oversized screens full of eye-popping, challenging paintings. I loved the way that the stakes in Modern and Post Modern paintings felt so absurdly huge, matching my own outsized self-regard and innocent belief in the power and value of art, and seemed to speak to me in a secret or foreign language that I boldly intuited. (I hooked up with a painting major named Kate H., and mooned over after her even when I knew that there was nothing there.) This all came back to me as I was looking through some of my old textbooks from those classes. I'm thinking fondly of a time when I'd be exposed to a Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, or Joan Mitchell painting, and I'd be affected for days. It's what life felt like, as if the painters were using my chest cavity and heart chamber as life models. And it still does. As I look back, my deep affection for the work of those painters, and many more, has stood the test of time, though I demand, or need, much less from them now than I did then. 

Then: I was half-convinced that, beyond boring stuff like food and sleep, all I needed in life was that zone between Kline and Mitchell, beyond stark figuration and colorful abstraction. At the end of a day, staring at the ceiling trying to fall asleep, my heart pounding—looking back at my fraught crushes on girls next to me in class, the politics at the campus radio station, songs playing in eternal rotation on my Walkman, the difficulties of remaining faithful to a girl I no longer loved as much as I did, anxieties and sleeplessness, musty books in high, musty floors in the graduate library, solitary strolls on campus, rock and roll on the radio—everything dissolved into that abstract yet deeply felt space between Kline and Mitchell, all of life in its variety of sensations, arguments, sadness, bliss, ugliness, and beauty, right there in the middle. 

Kline, photo by John Cohen (via ThoughtCo)

Mitchell, photo by Robert Freson (via Artsy)

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