After enduring the Spider-Man musical, which is neither good nor bad-good enough to warrant more words than these, we wandered through Central Park toward the Guggenheim Museum. It was time to get the kids some culture.
That’s a thing we’re supposed to do as parents: expose our children to “culture.” Enough of this having fun and enjoying everything we’re doing, kids—it’s time to walk slowly past some old stuff.
At the Louvre last summer, our family and every other tourist in Paris had the idea of heading straight for the Mona Lisa when the museum opened. At first we all walked casually. But the competitive instinct kicked in. Soon we were race-walking. Grown men were throwing out their elbows and grunting. Our boys charged ahead, weaving through the fading old ladies. They don’t remember anything about the painting but still talk about how they blew past a large Italian family on the final turn before the salon.
This summer, the Guggenheim is devoting much of its space to a retrospective of Lee Ufan, who is a very important “artist-philosopher” according to the noted authority, Sign I Read On a Wall.
Our first exposure to his work was a painting made up of a long brush stroke along each of the four sides of an otherwise bare canvas. And there on the floor: a boulder placed at either end of two long pieces of metal. We walked on. Another canvas, this one with a few small squares of grey paint. Another boulder, this one with a metal pole leaning against it.
It was at this moment that I learned something I didn’t know about the Guggenheim. I learned that the Frank Lloyd Wright design ensures the human voice reverberates when spoken at anything more than a murmur. This is especially true if the human voice is that of a 12-year-old boy saying too loudly: “This is all a big pile of junk.” Meanwhile, our 10-year-old was silently contemplating the possibility that leaving behind his snack wrappers after watching TV makes him not a slob but an artist-philosopher with a provocative view on human consumption.
We did nothing to halt the critique of Lee’s oeuvre. When having culture inflicted on you, it’s important to realize that art can be beautiful or bogus, magnificent or nonsense, and that you don’t have to marvel over a couple of rocks just because some tour guide claims they represent “a durational form of coexistence between the made and the not made.”
Feeling left out? On the Guggenheim website, you can watch a video of Lee lifting a boulder and dropping it on a sheet of glass. Make sure you listen to the curator emptying her Roget’s in an effort to depict this as the genius gesture of a master artist. Clearly, she missed the groundbreaking work I did in the 1980s with a baseball and a kitchen window.
Over decades of museum and gallery visits, I have developed a foolproof theory related to art: the more impenetrable and pretentious the quotes about an artist’s work, the greater the likelihood that the art is going to be pretty ridiculous.
We stopped to learn about Lee’s minimalism. The artist himself was quoted: “If a bell is struck, the sound reverberates into the distance. Similarly, if a point filled with mental energy is painted on a canvas, it sends vibrations into the surrounding unpainted space.” The phenomenon, he says, causes the viewer to fall silent and “breathe infinity.” “You can’t breathe infinity,” said Will, our youngest. “It wouldn’t fit in you.”
Lee’s work suggests that each of us is one paragraph of flamboyant prose away from being an artist. That coffee ring you just left on the table? Your spouse would call it “an eyesore” and wipe it away. A savvy art agent would call it “a self-initiated rebellion of the hand and awareness of the coffee table as an infinite unknown” and get you an exhibition at the Whitney.
The Lee Ufan exhibition concludes with a site-specific installation featuring “a single, broad, viscous stroke of paint on each of three adjacent walls of the empty room.” The curator described it as establishing “a rhythm that exposes and enlivens the emptiness of the space.” James, our oldest, described it as “something he probably did in four minutes because he needed money.”