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Last January, I headed to the exhibition Modigliani Unmasked at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan with a single goal: to improve my own figure drawings. I wanted to push them beyond their minimalist style, but I didn’t want to lose their simplicity. I found my inspiration in a black crayon sketch: Female Nude with a Lighted Candle and Chandeliers, inspired by Anna Akhmatova. Amedeo Modigliani caught the figure’s gesture concisely and elegantly with an outline. Then he added a contradiction: short, messy lines encasing the outline like a coarse cloak. In my drawing session later that day, I realized that Modigliani’s rough marks did not negate simplicity; they embraced it.

Each time I visit an art exhibition, it is more than an enjoyable pastime—it’s a necessary pursuit. My focus depends on the challenges I’m confronting in my own art making. It can be stylistic, like studying Modigliani’s use of line. It can be pragmatic—hunting for lighting solutions or display possibilities. Or it can be theoretical, like exploring language that will help me articulate the impetus for my new body of work.

My current project consists of small sculptures, and my studio is the scene of a population explosion: the pieces are jumbled together, overcrowded on shelves and tables. They will soon be moving from this private room to public spaces, and they need to be presented as a family. But how?

I visited the Marian Goodman Gallery to see Cristina Iglesias’s installation Phreatic Zones, a sculpture that is more like architecture—a terraced structure that occupies most of a large room. It’s an inside river: water flows over cast aluminum forms that look like glowing, tangled tree roots.

Each time I visit an art exhibition, it is more than an enjoyable pastime—it’s a necessary pursuit. My focus depends on the challenges I’m confronting in my own art making.”

Though Iglesias’s installation did not relate directly to my own work, it provoked a surge of thoughts about presentation. First, it sparked practical ideas beyond any I had previously considered: Should I incorporate metallic materials? Add hidden lights? Vary the level of the floor? Second, I was inspired by the atmosphere Iglesias had created; the space energized me and transported me out of the present. In an article in the Huffington Post, Iglesias said, “I use [water] as a material that marks time, that changes, that makes a sound even within its silence, and that makes the places I build active.”

When I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, I expected to continue in the same vein; that is, focusing on physical aspects. I’ve always been attracted to Bourgeois’s courageous sculptures and installations—they are big, bold and beautifully constructed.

But her prints and books raised a different set of questions about presentation. If your art comes from a private and emotional place, how much of that story do you want to explicitly reveal?

Bourgeois never shied away from relating her personal narratives; in fact, she insisted that you know them. Some are literally printed on the pages of her fabric illustrated books—works that reference the tapestries that were the focus of her family’s business when she was a child. The pages of Ode à la Bièvre and Hours of the Day contain text from her diaries: “I had gone back with my children to ... see the house where I had grown up and where the river Bièvre flowed...” “I am on the other side of despair and this happens to me four times a day.” For me, her words are compelling because they are simultaneously specific and universal.

I recently showed an acquaintance images of my sculptures—broken casts of my hands embedded in slabs and blocks—and her response was: “Eeeww. Stunning, but creepy.”

If your art comes from a private and emotional place, how much of that story do you want to explicitly reveal?”

Then I told her about my impetus: it was (and continues to be) a combination of my brother’s terminal illness and my own mild autoimmune disorder. “Ah,” she said. “That changes everything.”

At first I was hurt. Isn’t the art supposed to speak for itself? We want the power to come from the work; not from the story about the work. But unexplained art, while strong on its own, may not convey the artist’s intended message. So ask yourself: How much of your backstory do you want to tell? Will your explanation help viewers understand what they are seeing? Or will it provide too much direction, steering them away from finding their own meaning?

Days after a museum expedition, I can recall the artworks that I focused on while I was there. But the specific lesson that I gained from each artist—about style or presentation or narrative—often changes, and leaks into one of the other categories. I picture Modigliani’s drawing, and I think about his identity as an Italian Sephardic Jew in Paris. Conversely, I recollect Bourgeois’s emotional text on a handkerchief, and I wonder how I might use fabric in an installation. ca

© 2018 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.

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