I’ve just returned from a few short days in my hometown, a very different part of New York than the more urban(e) one I now experience each day. Ten years have passed since I left, and in unconscious recognition of the anniversary I went back to visit the spots that, in their—or my—absence, have come to hold some of my most formative memories.
I returned, laptop in hand and loads of work to do, to the small town settled in 1787 where I grew up walking ten minutes to school with my brother each day, playing AYSO soccer, climbing trees, walking in the woods, building tree and snow forts, and generally having tons of time to pursue whatever it is my vivid imagination might have desired. By my teens, like so many others in villages of under 2,000 inhabitants, in graduating classes of about 125 kids, all I wanted was out—out to the big City, out to the world, out to work, out to life. Being the incredibly lucky girl I am, I was granted my wish, and went off to study one of those subjects that simply wasn’t considered viable, or respectable, or much of anything but marginalized by the nevertheless superb public school system that was all I’d known until then.
But before I took flight, and without really thinking about it (though my parents likely had), I’d spent years filling those delightfully unstructured hours after school with activities that, while important, I had a suspicion would someday have to be demoted to mere hobbies: workshops in painting, drawing, ceramics, and other craftsy stuff. It was with this attitude—the mindset that tells you something is enjoyable yet trivial (at least to the rest of the world)—that I went to my first painting class at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica. A ten-minute drive from my own quaint little college town, Utica was a real pit: the traffic lights on the city’s main drag, spaced at what seemed to be one-block intervals, were synchronized for the speed cars moved in the 1940s. The most memorable ads in the paper, even for a little kid, were either for used car dealerships or strip clubs. Graphically, the newest sign for any business looked like it came from the 1950s. Curiously Anglicized Polish and Italian names abounded, with even more curious pronunciations on local radio and television commercials. None of this has really changed much, except for the schools’ installation of metal detectors. The Polish and Italian names are giving way to Bosnian and South American names, accompanied by a growth in barely literate “my-grandpa-learned-English, why-can’t-these-scrappy-people-get-it?” old-timers’ letters to the editor in favor of declaring English an official language, whatever that might mean.
Not that I intend to get sidetracked: Utica seemed like such a pit to me, moderately privileged kid from a small liberal arts college town, that I just assumed—assigning guilt by association—that anything found there couldn’t possibly lead to much. So when this painting class I took with Ms. De Visser brought us into the museum portion of the Munstitute, as we called it, I didn’t expect to see much on the walls. They told us Philip Johnson designed the building, constructed in 1960, and we just saw it for the brutal, foreboding, windowless box it appeared to be. We were to choose a painting from the permanent collection and copy it in drawing, then choose another to copy in drawing and a more developed painting. Docents made a big deal of Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life (though a second set is in the National Gallery in DC, the original set is here) and Jackson Pollock’s Number 2, 1949, but I was taken with the obscure, more figurative stuff: an 1888 neoclassical canvas by Francis Davis Millet titled After the Festival, of a wistful young woman in flowing robes with rose-bedeck’d hair, her graceful wrist perched on a tambourine; and a 1948 panel called Double Date Delayed, No. 1, by Isabel Bishop—whoever Millet and Bishop were, whoever Johnson was…. Apparently I indulged my predilection for depictions of missing, absent subjects from an early age.
I came across these two works on Friday after forgetting all about them and the hard work I put into copying them. In the meantime Cole’s other major cycle, Course of Empire, has gained renewed attention thanks to a band named after it and newer works by Ed Ruscha. I took a closer look at the old Voyage of Life again, noting the fairly didactic little changes from one canvas to the next to facilitate viewers’ reading of the fixed narrative—the hourglass on the ship’s prow marks time, vanishing by the last scene, and the sculpted faces on the ship’s side reflect the mood of each season of life—and picking up an amusing little activity booklet for kids to help them decipher devices such as allegory, symbolism, etc. Across from this cycle was a remarkably kitsch, not-so-famous 1826 Audubon, Two Cats Fighting, painted in two days in his Edinburgh studio, quickly enough to toss the rotting carcasses out before the stench of the two cats and their coveted squirrel overcame the space.
Leaving the gallery of Audubon, Cole, and Tiffany silvers, I strolled past Dan Christiansen’s 1968 Draco, predecessor of his more recent works with similar title and gift of Philip Johnson (who’d ever have known…), whose colors echoed those of Pollock’s Number 2 across the way. Warhol’s 1967 purple and silver Big Electric Chair was there, along with David Smith’s 1950 The Letter and two surprising Gustons—a classic 1975 Table at Night and a surprisingly Shahn-esque, Lam-esque Porch No. 2, dated twenty-eight years earlier, hanging right next to Shahn’s 1958 painting of what seems to be a drowning man, The Parable.
Jenny Holzer’s 1984 truism THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR WILL BE SECRET, acquired in 1993, oh-so-timely then as now, was just about the last thing I’d expect to see here—but, then again, so was a large Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture, along with most of the other works. This surprisingly strong collection was begun in the 1860s and carried on by the two daughters of James Watson Williams and Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams, who both married entrepreneurs interested in collecting, had no children, and hence had loads of money to dedicate to that end. The institute was established in 1919, and the core works were joined by post-war acquisitions. 1940s director Harris Prior worked with collector Edward Root as acquisitions consultant, and Root’s bequests were later joined by those of architect Philip Johnson, Musa Guston (Philip Guston’s wife), and other people who saw art as the keystone of their lives, as it has since become for me.
One of the newest pieces on exhibit was Elaine Reichek’s Sampler I, a cross-stitch done in 2000. Taking Emily Dickinson’s 1862 poem, #640, “I Cannot Live with You,” Reichek crowns that wrenching verse with an image from Henry Peacham’s 1612 book Minerva Britannia. The emblem pictures a weeping eye floating in the sky and the motto Hei mihi quod vidi (“Oh woe is me because I see”). If I’d had my red pen with me, I might’ve made a correction to their catalogue, so it would read Heia, gaudio mihi quod vidi. That sentiment will just have to remain part of the personal catalogue I’ve been amassing for the last few years, begun and unexpectedly enriched in the humble Mohawk Valley of Central New York.
Other Lunar Refractions can be read here.