the big question that arose out of yesterday’s marathon viewing of three important visual arts exhibitions at lacma (los angeles county museum of art) was: will POP art become the IMPRESSIONISM of the 20th century? what i noticed while we decompressed in the galleries devoted to warhol & koons (not including koons in POP, lacma was making a point) was that young viewers (let’s say 20s or younger) glided right by the warhol art (soup can paintings & cereal box installations) even eliding his more important work from the late ’60s such as ‘the electric chair’ just like that.
intellectually i think we can all agree that impressionism was a revolutionary way of looking at life, but at the same time it offers some comfort to those less inclined to understand (or to even care) what it meant to the way artist’s paint what they see. it is pretty & easily digestible to 20th century eyes (who knows what it means to today’s youth, it is the 21st century after all.) & that’s what i thought yesterday as i observed young people sliding right by the warhols with a yawn (giving it the ironic ‘side eye’ glance reserved for proclamations made by their parents.)
it may be that we’re witnessing the decline of the intellectual empire or it could be that today’s youth digests history in ways i cannot imagine (i may appreciate the digital age, god knows it’s made life easier & often more fulfilling & faster). this all, of course, is a major generalization based on my observations of a handful of youth in the contemporary galleries of the broad contemporary art museum building of lacma. but i worry nonetheless (more on this later.)
i met my friends m. & s. at lacma yesterday morning expecting the museum to be packed (it wasn’t, in fact we were the first people into the eakins exhibit & it remained that way for the remainder of the day, you’d walk into a room of an exhibit & you would be alone with the art–it was bliss. no jostling or arching your neck to read the text or have a moment alone with a favorite image).
what struck us about the eakins paintings was his commitment to the exact representation of what he was viewing. working from photographs & using his friends, students, & professional sportsmen as models, eakins thoroughly (& exhaustively) investigated perspective, the balance of light (its angle, how it struck the flesh of the subject or glinted off the oar of the racing shell), the structure of flesh on bone.
today, of course, you can not ignore the inherent homo-eroticism of his sporting pictures. the reason i say ‘today’ is that attitudes have changed so dramatically in the intervening 120 or so years that it would be impossible for most people to look at these with the eyes of a 19th century viewer (who would have not thought that there was anything remotely erotic about them).
these paintings represent an emergent, vibrant nation; one whose citizens were encouraged to engage in healthful activities & whose competitive nature was beginning to be felt around the world (remember that the first modern olympics were held in 1896).
but we bring our own baggage along whenever we look at art & the influence on our interpretation of what we see is tethered to our experiences. eakins use of photography seemed more erotic to me than his paintings (the act of taking the pictures, not the pictures themselves, which i believe is an important distinction to make). there is less embarrassment noticeable among his subjects than one might have imagined. there is no shame in the exposure of their bodies, it all seems as common as copper is to a penny. that he captured this naturalness, this state of grace with such ease is, to me, the true genius of his work.
in spite of his devotion to perfection, the paintings themselves are as carefree seeming as one could hope for; the surface is pebbly with paint (not impasto) & his colors are muted. it is easy to be fooled by the reality of the subject matter, but his handling of the paint underscores his ability to give you an impression of what you know you’re seeing.