Ephemera

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In the Waiting Room for the Ear Hole of God (James Turrell)

10:06 PM Samantha
They had that bamboo exhibit there, last year, maybe? Did you get to that?
10:07 PM John
No.
10:07 PM Samantha
It was cool to be under the bamboo and then look out at the skyline.
10:08 PM John
You always did love bamboo. You are like a panda bear. Love the bamboo.
10:08 PM Samantha
What’s not to love about the bamboo.
10:08 PM John
I know, right? You love it. …You ought to know. Panda Sam, we say.
10:08 PM Samantha
Also, as I found out [deleted], makes a great walking stick on a hike!
…Um, we are not calling me that, dear.
10:08 PM John
Yup. So useful. We say, There goes Panda Sam. Maybe she will spear some of that trash with her bamboo walking stick.
10:10 PM Samantha
Come on.
10:11 PM John
Panda Sam, Panda Sam, walking along as best she can.
10:11 PM Samantha
Proud of yourself for that one, aren’t you, dear?

I was at the Met the other day. For what, people usually ask. For lots of things, I would have said this time. There was an exhibit of Civil War photography; a small show of paintings by the Swiss checkerboard expressionist Paul Klee; a noxious cage of catwalks adorned with punk fashion and a mockup of the bathroom (see below) at CBGB; the European galleries are all new, of course; and there was lots else besides.

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The highlight, though — excluding the new sunlighted maze of European paintings — was a haunting ancient bronze of a boxer that is crouched in Gallery 153 of the Greek and Roman Art department. (Left and down the hall as you come in the front door.) I did not even know it was there. The figure is expressive and haunting. The face is fantastic, with wounded eyes, and cuts and scars inlaid with copper.

It is called something like Boxer at Rest, or Boxer Wondering Who Said That, or Boxer Who Is, All, What Do You Want?! Or something. And it was found in Rome in 1885. The shovelers guess that it was buried on purpose in the fifth century, probably at the behest of some toga-wearing alarmist who was worried the barbarians were (again) just over the hill. (To be fair, they were.) The thinking is, it could maybe be a monument to an actual boxer, but it might just be a tribute to boxers in general. Or, you know, some whole other thing.

Who can say with art?

I say “who can say with art?” because moments after leaving this centuries-old marvel I went into the Guggenheim, the interior of which is now plugged by “an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color,” to quote the fairly breathless Roberta Smith of The Times. I might have said, “an immense, multicolored eustachian tube,” but, you know, who can say with art?

Ms. Smith led her review with a remark that was misquoted to me as her representing the Guggenheim’s show as being the “art hit of the summer.” In fact, Ms. Smith had qualified her praise, saying that it was “the bliss-out environmental art hit of the summer.”

I suppose the distinction is important; certainly, it is worth making.

The Guggenheim show features the art of James Turrell, one of the great unwashed, far-out hippies of our time. Now 70, Mr. Turrell was the chief explicator of bemusement and first-chair bongo-drum thumper for something that art majors like to call the Light and Space movement. The large aural canal now taking up the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda is known as “Aten Reign,” and according to The Times it is the “largest temporary installation” “the museum has ever undertaken.” What it is is a tiered vertical tunnel of light, suspended over the viewer’s head, that changes color steadily in one-hour cycles. It definitely is big, and definitely is something to see. Though perhaps not at the higher-than-it-used-to-be Guggenheim admission price of $22.

…you may or may not see God, but you will probably come away with both an enhanced sense of your visual powers and also a new humbleness concerning the world’s visual complexities.

via James Turrell Plays With Color at the Guggenheim – NYTimes.com.

I don’t read many art reviews outside The Times, but I am guessing it is safe to say that most art critics do not casually toss around the phrase “you may or may not see God.” Never mind the obvious and nettlesome theological problems, you may want to swing by the Gugg if only to see what drove Ms. Smith to such heavenly heights of hyperbole.

Of course, the giant centerpiece is only the first stop on a “spare, unhurried tour of his art,” as Ms. Smith helpfully notes. Upstairs — the great Guggenheim ramp is for this show unadorned by other art — there are three smaller displays of Turrell’s work. The first you come to in your sensory-thrill-seeking tramp is literally a slice taken out of the wall. Ms. Smith calls this “a shaft of astoundingly mysterious white light.” I literally thought it was a window.

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The CBGB toilet; I was not supposed to take this picture.

Second are three related rooms. In the first  are illuminated sketches of illuminated rectangles. Next door are life-size examples: dark rooms with a shaft of intense white light in one corner.

And for the finale, which was reached only after a half-hour wait in a long, unevenly managed line, was something called “Iltar.” This is a rectangular hole in the wall, which is dimly illuminated from the sides. Ms. Smith was captivated. She called it “a surprise ending.” She saw mystery, simplicity and “granular textures that almost start to teem.” In that dark room, at the end of a tedious queue of jangled tourists, Ms. Smith found “a quiet renunciation of Mr. Turrell’s centerpiece.

“You may not care,” she writes, “but it is there.”

I didn’t care when I got “there.” Following me into the room were the blue cellphone spotlights of several blundering museum-goers, who had apparently spent the balance of their visit in blissful ignorance of what “light” does to “space.” I stood in front of the cutout and quietly began a renunciation of my own.

The sour feeling did not fully dissipate until I had a bowl of vanilla frozen yogurt (with blueberries) once I got outside the museum.