AUTHOR’S NOTE: Over the past year, I’ve asked artists this set of questions into the fluidity of meaning in images and objects: In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, do you look at your personal collection differently now, and which works in particular? Is there one that especially resonates with you in this weird, frightening time? And does it take on new meaning?
This series of articles has archived the answers I’ve received to this inquiry, which document the capacity of some artworks to shift in significance to meet the present moment. Not all do — some seem “timeless,” untouched by circumstances. But in the oppressive tedium of this quarantined year, those that surprise, delight, or otherwise engage us in unfamiliar ways have interested me more. I’m grateful to the project’s many contributors for so generously sharing their insights.
Lynn Saville (New York City): I acquired this Richard Haas drypoint print of the Cary Building at a show where I was exhibiting my photographs. The print was being given away by the gallerist in a raffle, and my husband held the winning ticket. Apparently regretting the loss of the print, the gallerist immediately offered to buy it back. But we were delighted with the rendering of this mid-19th century cast-iron building in the Italian Renaissance style and decided to keep it.
The Cary Building is in Tribeca, at 105 Chambers Street, but its cast-iron construction reminded me of the buildings in SoHo I had fallen in love with when I first came to New York. Then, as now, I toured and explored the city as a visitor might. On one such tour, the double-decker bus was passing cast-iron buildings and I heard a woman say to her husband, “Oh, in New York, they keep these buildings.” That memory made me want to “keep” the Haas print even more.
During the lockdown, I amused myself by imagining my apartment was a museum in a foreign city I was visiting. The fantasy inspired me to look with fresh eyes at this print, and my renewed scrutiny led me to see a detail that had previously eluded me: the faint trace of a person’s head looking out from a second-story window. This discovery pleased me a great deal. First, the curve of the head rhymes with the curves of the many arched windows, humanizing the facade. Also, this figure is like a secret message from the artist. What seems to be a lovely but impassive facade is winking! Finally, I identify with this “person.” During the lockdown, I — and perhaps many others — could sometimes feel like an isolated figure animating a single window in an otherwise blank facade.
Nils Karsten (Brooklyn, New York):At the end of the day, I sit back on my sofa and immerse myself in my art collection, displayed across from me on the living room wall. Often, I just count the dots on the soles of the shoes depicted in the Philip Guston print, “Group.” I know the number is 12, but it always feels great — a kind of accomplishment — getting again to this magic number of 12. Then, I divide the number 12 by six, then three, finally by two, just to start all over again counting to twelve. Each and every time, it feels like a discovery, the same old outcome a wonderful surprise. My sense of time and counting has shifted a bit during the pandemic.
The counting itself is the goal: reaching the 12 is just the U-turn sign; not arriving yet is the point. A constant not arriving yet. Just the same old now; the loop is the new getting ahead. I am holding on to that. For someone like me who likes to travel not just by train or plane, but also in my head, this is such a shift! Now is the new tomorrow. Tomorrow is as good as yesterday.
In that aspect, pandemic time works for me, since I never have been very linear in my perception of time. I am in a loop that constantly picks up the overlooked or forgotten.
I often think of the gymnast from 2002 by German photographer Ingar Krauss, positioned next to the Guston print, as a time traveler. Like a meteor in a loop, she always returns, yet she does not travel freely; she is stuck in a Laufbahn! This girl never ages, and is as much at home in the past as she is in the present and future. She stays here in her holding it all together pose, weathering whatever there is to endure. She is like the number 12. Unshakeable, she is not child-like in her ever-present stage of holding it together! Like a child during war, in a difficult upbringing, not free. So many people are barely holding it together right now; not knowing when the present is going to end, while the future seems to be getting out of sight a bit more each day. I think of another group — my students, whom I see every day on Zoom. They are holding it together, often with grace and humor, despite the insecurities of an uncertain, inflamed time.
Courtney Puckett (Holmes, New York): Pauline Halper’s painting, “Head,” is as weird and frightening as the moment. I have lived with this painting since 2007, just before Pauline moved from Brooklyn to Northern California. In her Brooklyn studio, there was an assortment of skeleton paintings to choose from. This one was the most confrontational, painted at human-scale. At the time, it seemed benevolent and benign — playful. It was a cartoon of a cliché of our insides. I love the three layers: bone, flesh, and aura. Right now, I see the skull as more sinister, staring straight at me with a giant grin, unmasked. It’s unsettling, a contemporary vanitas without all the fuss of symbols of consumption, wealth, and greed. The rawness of Pauline’s work is its strength and is what draws me to it over and over again through the years. She continues to paint things, people, and landscapes from the inside out.
Archie Rand (New York City): I bought this Joe Brainard tomato/orange drawing from Steve Clay. There are two fruits. We are advised that common wisdom is to not put the tomato in fruit salad. We know what colors they are, but in this pen-and-ink drawing, imposing that knowledge on them would be a liability, reducing them to a redundant recognition. The tomato is a snowflake, the orange is a sunburst. The tomato a splat, the orange a holler. The tomato a girder, the orange a web. The tomato is a panel, the orange a convention. The tomato is the virus, the orange is the virus.
I met Joe Brainard through Bill Corbett. Joe Brainard is gone. Bill Corbett is gone. This drawing had belonged to Lewis Warsh — he is gone. Their friend Bill Berkson is gone. And my beloved partner of more than five decades, my wife Maria, only this last May, has died. Although none from COVID, all were insufficiently mourned.
The tomato and orange emit Munch’s fast scream — our throats gagged. The interior havoc is coolly trapped in each cordoned section. Joe’s martyred fruits have just been sliced. Juice pulses, these orbs hover, iconic as Christ Pantocrator, to forgive and judge in the domes of their own apse, promising a return of sustenance.
The drawing is a modest 5 x 7 inches. Each circle measures 3 1/4 inches in diameter. Both of them extend to the edge, occupying all the space as their shapes push. Their commonality is made clear by their identical size imparting a narrative we are meant to infer. One is considered a fruit and the other is mistaken as not. The tomato and orange, their faithful transmissions imperative.
Joe’s draughting skills are immaculate. The exactitude of observation does not feel obsessive but dutiful, leaving no doubt as to what range of narrative is being articulated. The verbal pun quickly wears thin; the gravitas, lingering, remains the armature of the story. Beautiful, joyous, snide, crestfallen — the revisitings generated by this story are self-replenishing. These fruits touch yet dare not touch. Are they exposed or performing a function? Displaying their cleaved innards announces an impending sacrifice to gastronomy. This is not vegetation that has escaped, overlooked by the gardener’s hand to fall noiselessly, whose moist gasps will nourish the seeds of their own renewal. No, these fruits will be consumed and leave no progeny.
Andrew Huston (Venice, Italy): My wife and I were already well into our third year in Venice when we found ourselves in northern Italy’s strict lockdown. When weeks turned into months, our view on to the canal, with the slowly returning fauna, satisfied our need for nature while the works of art on our walls took on a new resonance for our quiet internal contemplation.
This untitled painting is by Ralph Rumney, transferred from our former Brooklyn sitting room to our new dining room in Venice. The painting was the nexus of a series of three exhibitions on abstraction titled Oysters with Lemon, co-curated with Mike Zahn in 2015. A wedding gift by the artist to my wife’s parents in 1957 and signed in that year, it was most likely painted in London, though at the time the artist was moving between there, Milan, and Venice. The same year that Rumney co-founded the Situationist International, one of the last of the avant-garde movements. This is a Tachiste work (from the French tache, mark or dab), typical of the detached approach to painting by Rumney’s circle, whose paintings often have a patina similar to that found on city street walls where layers of posters that, when ripped away, leave a random archeology of frayed edges and color. In Rumney’s painting, the dabs and marks are unhinged from any compositional impulse, yet it still finds a balance via a central plane of ocher that is kept in tension by dabs of lemon yellow in the top left and bottom right corners. Violet, cadmium yellow, phthalo green and light pink are seemingly applied by paper overlay adding another level of texture on top of the thick woven linen canvas.
The Tachiste group found a method using randomness and chance to cleave a physiological distance between the gesture and the artist and in doing so created a new strategy in abstraction. Rumney’s energetic painting participated in his generation’s search for a new language to satisfy their aspirations for radical change. What, we may ask, will the inevitable post-COVID language look like?
Anne Harris (Chicago, Illinois): Our house is cluttered. Neither of us is tidy, but we clean up adequately for guests, and distract them from un-dusted corners with good food and art on the walls. We have too much art and too little wall space.
Pieces are stacked, waiting, yet every year we buy or trade for a bit more. My husband, Paul D’Amato, also scavenges old signs and discarded kitsch — we had a decade-long argument over a 10-foot swordfish he brought home and hung in our dining room.
One consequence of COVID-quarantine is now we’re both home a lot, Zoom teaching, with no company to please. Our mess accumulates until we can no longer stand it (or each other). Then we clean.
Things look great for a bit until we give up, then the mess regrows, and so on. I’ve noticed though, no matter the chaos, the art holds up. As we get messier, the art increasingly centers us, each piece an oasis of concentration.
I’m now sitting in the dining room, which has become an office where we eat. The swordfish is long gone, replaced by other, better things. I’m staring at the tiniest piece here, called “Tied,” by Altoon Sultan. It has a big presence, and from a distance pops off the wall.
Up close, it’s exquisite. A photo misses its nuanced color and tender matte surface, but you can see the slowly described volume and pressurized space. Forms stretch tight and squeeze against each other. Altoon paints the best cracks.
The painting sucks my sight into its crevasses, like being pulled into a wringer-washer. It’s weirdly aggressive.
Right now, “Tied” hangs above a beautiful nude by Janice Nowinski, and below a goat with cat’s eyes by Tony Phillips (and next to a thermostat and crooked light switch, which we try to ignore). Do I see these differently because of quarantine? Well, I see them more, so I see more. I seem to be hyper-seeing these days.
Sam Messer (New York City): I acquired these two extraordinary objects in 1988 — the Egyptian mother and child as a wedding gift, and the James Son Thomas after visiting him in his home in Greenville, Mississippi.
I met Son Thomas while accompanying my wife, Eleanor Gaver, as she was writing an article on self-taught artists. These objects have sat next to each other ever since, and I have looked at them every day for close to 40 years. The meaning and stories I have experienced from them have ebbed and flowed with the events in my own life. The birth of our daughter made me more attuned to the way the baby rested. My view of the Son Thomas head would alternate between sadness for his life circumstances and being inspired by his artistic genius overcoming everything else. Though they sat together, I experienced them separately.
However, this past year the pandemic brought a new dimension to my thinking of time. Through my looking at and drawing these objects, I found myself considering the context of their making and makers.
I started seeing the United States in relation to Egypt — also built by slaves, consumed by plagues. I started imagining Son Thomas as a peer to the great artists of Egypt who had invented a pictorial language also based on myth, narrative, and invention.
All the events of the past year also made me more attuned to the Mother figure. I now feel the strength in her pose first and foremost, and I think about how all societies and civilizations have been maintained and built on the shoulders of its women. More than ever before, these objects have created a connection to all people past, present, and future. I no longer experience them as two separate objects made thousands of years apart but see them in a constant conversation, melding time and space.
Roy Dowell (Los Angeles, California): As collectors and gatherers, my husband, Lari Pittman, and I have continued with our activities, working daily in our studios and, more than ever, enjoying and appreciating the things we have collected.
There is one object in our collection that has currently resonated the most with me, acquired about 10 years ago at a flea market in Mexico City. It is a small, simple green stone carving resembling a flat architectural structure, from the Mezcala culture in southwestern Mexico.
A few months ago, during the pandemic, I acquired a second one of these items from a dealer in Los Angeles. It is a bit larger with more detail, and it has rekindled my appreciation and interest in the first one, encouraging me to do more research about both.
There is little information on the Mezcala people, and comparatively few relics chronicling the activities of their culture, which is believed to be concurrent or might have even predated the Olmec culture. The stone objects created by the Mezcala are distinctive, angular, and unadorned. Oddly, in the area of present-day Guerrero where these items come from, there is no evidence of architecture that may have resembled what these miniature structures seem to depict. They have been discovered only in burial sites. I feel that they may have been a portal, a threshold or a ceremonial entrance of an idealized temple.
Yet I remain skeptical of my interpretations, as they can easily become taken for fact; rather, they are deeply personal and romanticized observations of something about which little is known. A book of field notes by Dr. Carlo Gay from Italy, published in 1987, describes in great detail the many stone variations and sizes that these temple-like architectural models have taken. With great observational detail, Dr. Gay goes deeply into explanations of the region and accounts of the archeological sites discovered there. But he offers no explanation of what they might represent.
These mysterious little structures, purpose unknown, with undocumented provenance, have recaptured my interest and provoked much reverie. For me, that reverie has been a portal out of the chaos and tribulations of the last year, objects of meditation, speculation, and an entrance to a happier, healthier and safer world.
Carolyn Case (Cockeysville, Maryland): I have been living with this maximal collage piece by Amy Boone-McCreesh for about three years. She is a Baltimore artist whose work I have admired for more than a decade. Her work is always full of life and has a deep commitment to the spaces we make our own. This joyous piece says, “Welcome Home,” a doormat adage, and this is also the work’s title. However, in my mind, I have always thought of the message as “Home Sweet Home,” an aspiration for family life. The piece felt compiled of memories and images from the peripheral vision of domestic life. I imagine walking into a room and catching glimpses of some laundry on top of a carpet or bedspread. Or as I set my keys down, I see a rug, a throw pillow, and a curtain as one image out of the corner of my eye. A kaleidoscope of patterns dissect to give way to other marks.
Since the pandemic, my home, once an oasis, now marks the border of my world. I read “Welcome Home” and wonder what it will feel like to long for this home once again. The layered patterns and the embedded fake flowers make me wonder, Have I missed the party that is going on without me, just outside these walls? And what will the peripheral memories of my children be? They will be leaving home after being confined during their teen years. Will they remember their home as an oasis? Amy’s ebullient work tries to reassure me that they will.
Catherine Lee (Wimberley, Texas): Two disparate works of art by two very different artists have lived side by side since 2015. Both are heartfelt, as all true art must be, and both clearly reflect their makers’ most sincere intentions.
“Porsgrund Porcelain #1” by Steve Reynolds is organic, winsome, abstract, and concrete. The diffuse pastel colors, neither painted nor glazed, result from the innate properties of the porcelain itself. The color emanating from within gives the work a sense of being seen softly, as though through water. It is mushroom/urchin-like in its demeanor. It resembles images of the novel coronavirus, but it is by no means menacing. It’s a delicate object of beauty, tenderly rendered from porcelain by a burly artist, so the outcome seems all the more surprising. Its fragility, precision, and otherworldliness remind me that there are surprising and beauteous objects in our real world, yet to be seen, in coral reefs and on forest floors. It lifts my spirit to know such beauty can be collected, like magic, into a vessel such as this, and held suspended in time, just for joy.
Margaret Meehan’s “The Other Ruth” makes a powerfully emotional, aesthetic statement. We lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg last September. We knew we eventually would, but that doesn’t make the loss easier to bear. I learned this too often in 2020. My mother, Alice Porter, died last year, following a fall; she was an RN for 40 years, one of those front-liners we all reckon so differently now. And then my younger sister, Teresa, died at 68, one of the half-million we unconscionably lost last year. It makes one wonder at the chasm between two seemingly similar words: oversee and overlook. My mother was 90 years old; Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only four years younger. Death, of course, is inevitable, yet the loss of these amazing women still seems shockingly abrupt to me. Looking at Meehan’s tribute to a great justice and a supremely moral human being, I’m comforted that there are people in the world who choose to see to the welfare of others, as she and my mother have done, a benchmark of true humanity. This artwork’s subject, painterliness, bright colors, and wit bring me cheer and good hope. These people never leave us — the ones we love and cherish, who taught us all we know about how to be in the world, and to whom we owe lasting gratitude.
Lauren Fensterstock (Portland, Maine): Lola Brooks’s lustrous gold and black diamond ring has become a familiar part of my hand. Its brilliance reminds me of Lola herself, who still dazzles after 20 years of friendship. Known for her lavishly subversive riffs on historic jewelry, Lola masterfully fit this ring to my finger, setting its dark fractured stone upside down to draw light in, rather than reflect it. Unique among art forms, jewelry can become a part of its owner. It is experienced as an intimate part of your own body and becomes a defining element in how others perceive your appearance. As a heavy band has the power to reshape a finger over time, a ring can also slowly forge your identity. When I consider Lola’s ring as part of my body, I acquire a piece of her iconic cool, carrying her friendship and virtuosity as a piece of myself.
Every day when I arrive home, the first thing I do is take off my jewelry. But in a year where I went nowhere, the jewelry never came back on. Objects that melded themselves to my psychic and physical self were suddenly separate from me. This year I missed wearing jewelry. I missed being seen in jewelry. In the most palpable way, not wearing my ring solidified my separation from other people. It was fitting, then, that when a beloved pet died in 2020, I asked Cyndi Lou of Tsunami Tattoo to add the image of a Victorian mourning bracelet to my arm. Only after peeling off the bandage did I grasp that I had instigated a piece of jewelry that not only bridged the gap of a lost body, but was also indivisible from my own.
As an end to the pandemic feels within reach, I have been putting Lola’s ring back on and preparing for a public reality. Only now have I stopped to appreciate the conflict-free diamond as the result of millions of years of the Earth’s forces, and the history of the band’s gold as recycled from a family heirloom. These materials are durable. Their present form is just a blink in the long arc of their evolution. This resilience transforms my ring into newly found armor and offers tangible evidence that our present sorrows are but a vignette in a much larger story.
Iva Gueorguieva (Los Angeles, California): This painting has always been with me. The surface is heavy, slick, and smooth. The oil paint layer is reminiscent of a Chinese vase — a carapace encasing the heavy MDF board. The board is cut at an angle so as to appear thin and floating away from the wall. Dylan Collier gave me this painting the same year he made it, in 2000 or maybe in 2002, before I left Philly for New Orleans. He died some years later. My son is named after him.
I am sure Dylan had a beautiful title but I don’t know what it is. I call it “Dylan’s Painting.” I’ve stared at it in many places for two decades, yet I stand before it now and think, not about Dylan and his death, but about beauty. One dreadfully hot day around 2004, Dylan made me drive with him around New Orleans for hours looking for the perfect magnolia flower to photograph. He made dozens of drawings for a tattoo he eventually got on his forearm of a magnolia with a light bulb in the middle. We climbed a rickety ladder standing in the bed of my pickup truck to look closer at the blooms. He would look and look and then say that we needed to keep going, searching for something ineffable held by a specific flower. Dylan was looking for something I didn’t understand.
This past year has compelled me to look closer, and to look for that which I don’t know how to look for. I stand in my living room with coffee in my hand every morning. I look at Dylan’s gorgeous painting of a highway, somewhere in the American South. I sense the sweetness of the air, and remember the many road trips I took by myself in the 1990s on those very highways, listening to music and waiting for the click of the old-school car lighter. I fully get the reality of this profoundly American feeling — the sweetness and seduction of alienation. It’s a kind of freedom akin to the relief one finds in the idea of death. But this brutal COVID year has sensitized me to Dylan’s very profound and transgressive connection, not to alienation, but to beauty. The last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Swan,” come to mind:
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?