Last week, after the AAR/SBL extravaganza of meetings, papers, and conversations with friends, I found myself with an extra day in Chicago all to myself. Naturally, I spent a good portion of it at the Art Institute, which was only a few blocks away from my hotel.
I often find going to museums overwhelming. There is so much to see, so much to take in, that I am tempted to rush from one thing to another rather than to allow things to speak to me. As I wandered through the Modern wing of the Art Institute, I thought about James Elkins’ book, Pictures and Tears: A History of People who have Cried Before Paintings. While I wasn’t exactly weeping, several works did stop me in my tracks, as they called forth a certain aching in my heart that I associate with the experience of beauty.
I was particularly surprised to feel this way in front of four paintings by German artist Gerhard Richter. Done in 1989, each has the title Ice, followed by numbers 1 through 4 in parentheses. All of them are 80 inches high by 64 inches wide, hung side by side along a wall immediately across from the entry into the room. Beautiful is not usually a word I associate with Richter’s work, which generally challenges notions of identity, meaning, and reality. Many of his works reference documentary photographs or prints or paintings by other artists, altering them in ways that make them almost – but not quite – unrecognizable. These Ice paintings, though, were completely abstract, reveling in the materiality of paint just as much as any mid-20th century abstract expressionist. And I was captivated, close to tears.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, after looking at a lot of art that left me intellectually curious but emotionally cold, I came around a corner to see what looked like the root of an immense tree. This was a familiar sight, as it was only a few days after the passage of Hurricane Sandy, which pulled many trees in my neighborhood out of the ground.
But this was no ordinary uprooted tree. It was a dream of a tree, an artificial construction that reproduced the gnarled branches and knots, the rough bark and smooth planes, but also revealed the trace of human hands. The artist, Charles Ray, called it Hinoki, which is the name of a particular kind of cypress tree that grows only in Japan. In his statement, Ray described a fallen tree that he had seen in a meadow off the California coast. The tree haunted his imagination, until he finally decided to make a life-sized sculpture of it. He writes,
Silicone molds were taken and a fiberglass version of the log was reconstructed. This was sent to Osaka, Japan, where master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoshi and his apprentices carved my vision into reality using Japanese cypress (hinoki). I was drawn to the woodworkers because of their tradition of copying work that is beyond restoration. In Japan, when an old temple or Buddha can no longer be maintained, it is remade.[http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/189207]
Thus, the old, dead tree was remade out of new wood, and released into the world. All alone in its shrine-like room, softly lit by an entire wall of windows, it smelled of hewn cypress and sandalwood. Like the paintings called Ice I had seen earlier, this art melted my heart and filled my eyes. And for this feast of sight and smell, I give thanks.