Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

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was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?

Feast your eyes….

Here are some photos from my afternoon at the Tate Modern. No captions, no commentary, no nothing. (Phew!)

No commentary except about this first photo, that is, of a guard (I know they don’t call them “guards” any more….a concierge?) at the Tate. At the risk of seeming both overly forward and horribly middle-aged (not to mention American), I told her I thought her hair was a work of art and asked if I could take her picture. She was happy to oblige, and took my request very seriously in a way that I found touching.

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Choose your own adventure: some thoughts on pilgrimage

IMG_1936My summer has definitely had a bit of a pilgrimage theme. A mini-pilgrimage I was privileged to make earlier this week with my son has me reflecting on the whole idea of pilgrimage. There are many different types of pilgrimage; one could of course say there are as many types of pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.

There was our Walk Across England, which was a certain kind of pilgrimage, where the travel itself was certainly more important than the destination. During that walk, I spent some time thinking about my ancestors, the Mayflower Pilgrims, who left this land, already in the 16th century, etched with stone walls and footpaths, for a perilous journey to the New World, where the pilgrimage was not so much about the journey or even the destination as it was about escaping a certain life in exchange for an uncertain one in an unknown place.

There is the pilgrimage described in the novel I just read, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Like some great memoirs old and new, this fictional story recounts two distinct pilgrimages in parallel: the outer journey to a particular destination and the inward journey backwards and forwards through one’s own uniquely challenging life. Perhaps all pilgrimage has this outer, geographical component as well as the inner component.

Durham CathedralThere are pilgrimages to famous sites: Canterbury, Santiago de Campostela, Mecca, places hallowed by history and places to which, presumably, a pilgrim connects through their own history, their faith, their heart. A few weeks ago I visited Durham Cathedral and the popular Shrine of St. Cuthbert, a pilgrimage site for many over the centuries.

Last night, my family and I got together with a friend who leads pilgrimages through the Holy Land. He and his wife spoke very movingly about how their everyday Christian experience which they had long taken for granted – saying or attending mass, praying certain prayers, participating in baptism – had been transformed for all time by being in those ancient holy places.

IMG_1942A few days ago, my 16-year-old son and I journeyed from London by train and then bus to the little Sussex village of Hartfield, where we made our way on foot through rolling sheep fields, along narrow, wooded lanes, passing several farms-turned-luxury homes, through the Hundred Acre Wood to the Pooh Bridge. This was clearly a pilgrimage site like all the others, complete with advance instructions that if one wanted to play a game of Pooh Sticks, one needed to pick up a stick along the path out of town, because the trees and ground around the bridge had been completely picked bare of any suitable branches or twigs.

IMG_1941As we left the bridge we saw a little shrine in a hollow tree where people had left small pots of honey and notes to Pooh, as well as a note from Pooh apologizing for not writing thank-you notes, because he was, of course, “a bear of very little brain.”

This was clearly a pilgrimage site as much as any other. My son has a lasting, personal connection, through his own story and his own heart, to the place and the literary history shared by millions around the globe. That mix of the personal and, depending on one’s perspective, the universal makes the Hundred-Acre Wood and the Pooh Bridge holy land.

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My son’s connection to the story and the place is his own to tell (or not), but the pilgrimage experience in all its forms is ours for the taking. What’s your pilgrimage story? Where have your been, or where do you want to go?

nathan hundred acre wood