––   008   ––

Conversations With Walls

a note on this series

First and foremost, any value found in these photographs rests predominantly with the artists whose works are featured, and with the talented people who curated this exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I usually present the story first and then land at the photograph, which is intended to provide a kind of arrival or unlocking for what you've just read. Given the nature of these stories, though, which were composed as imagined conversations between each artist and viewer, it felt right to lead with the image. And if you find yourself lost in terms of context and associations, the year in which each artwork was created plays a significant role in the conceptual framework for each conversation.

Part 1

A conversation with John Wilde


John Wilde asks “What do you see?”

I see your Wisconsin wonderland in winter’s twilight.

A glow hovers above the low-rolling land, pressed down by wind and cold and tractor tire with too few trees to shield you each. Your love is splayed against a gray matte under glass, wings pinned back, too cold to flutter. And then I see the spring and summer, the buds and buzz of all the little creatures who stood up to revolt against the dark months –– because we all crawl back in due time, we do, we do. The rot of life was present, yes, and it was overcome.

Time is moving in circles for you here now. This night may as well be morning and this year, a bold dash at the precise center of our final physical century, may just as well be 1943. You, alert and somewhat anxious in this gregarious post-war slumber, drink tea in the front room and reminisce on seven years gone.

Where is that sketch you made of Helen in the night?

“Ah yes, here it is. Here it is.”

When and where was this then?

“Ah,” you say, “let me tell you.”

This was the middle bit of the beginning of your adventure together. The two of you stayed warm by dancing at Gertrude’s. Once off your feet, you leaned forward, sighed, and returned as ever to the not so distant war: a brutal tiger in Marseille, Woollcott’s heart, the shoe ration, those dreaded U-boats and the crush at Bethnal Green. You found relief by musing over Saint-Exupéry’s prince and Wyler’s Oscar grab, then shuddered again at Murrow’s Orchestrated Hell.

“This will all be ok in the end,” you said in fervent consolation. “This too, this too.”

You lifted her hand, her coat, her scarf, made your goodbyes, then grabbed your own jacket and out you went. You two. The white gravel crunched under foot as you opened her door, then sidled around to yours. That ole’ moonshiner coupe coughed back to life and at last you were homeward bound. She counted breaths between the trees while you counted branches as they crossed the moon. One, two, three, another there, and one there. “Now don’t drift off, dear,” she said. “Of course not,” you said, “but the night!”

Meanwhile, Duke Ellington smiled coyly in the wings mere minutes after his Carnegie Hall debut, ears turned inward to early sketches of new work –– Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me perhaps?

I see new love and fortitude. “That’s what I see,” says she.

Part 2

A conversation with George Bellows


George Bellows asks “What do you see?”

I see the grandson of a whaling captain dancing in the boundless ruckus of Gotham back before its next lost step. I see the grime and the wish to float above it all. I see the pale crowd and the dark lights above. I see the fair fight and the grave injustice. And there in the corner, the lyrical left corner one might say? I see you, George. Yes, I see you.

Those bells and jeers signal the fall of great men everywhere. Jack Dempsey, sure, but Caliph Abdülmecid II and Lenin too! Don’t stop there for the fall will catch us all. Soup lines, gas chambers, and a big red dog around the bend? Fascists are winning elections, then and now? Or is it just a scrappy Argentine? One can’t be sure quite yet. For now we dance and cheer and pound the fist. For now we raise our hat and shout our way to mindlessness. For now we jump wild-eyed at the thrill of a human body being knocked clear through the ropes. Knocked clear, through the ropes. For now we sing and raise a glass to Dempsey, who fought his way back –– can you believe it? For now we sing and raise a glass to the fight of men.

I see pride before the fall. “That’s what I see,” says she.