The elegant woman standing next to me at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the one who was laughing out loud, turned and apologized for her behavior. "There's just something about that piece of sculpture," she said, pointing to an arrangement of bronze blocks by artist Joel Shapiro, "that makes me feel happy."
I knew what she meant. I'd been smiling for the last 20 minutes -- ever since I stepped into the gallery and fell under the spell cast by Shapiro's enchanting sculptures.
The magic begins almost instantly as the impersonal blocks of wood and bronze rearrange themselves before your astonished eyes into . . . people! Somersaulting, marching, skating, breathing people! Standing there, watching these cocky, little caricatures of human-ness break out of their abstract prison is a bit like watching the Tin Man struggle to come alive in the Land of Oz.
The figures conjure up associations from childhood: building blocks, toy soldiers, stick figures, cartoon characters. And the feelings that spring to mind about Shapiro's art have equally to do with childhood; they summon forth from the nursery the pure emotions of pleasure, playfulness, joy.
And looking around the gallery the other day it was easy to spot the children who resided within the museum-going adults: They appeared, briefly, in the unguarded faces that watched as Shapiro's figures marched through the galleries, blocks of wood unconcerned about their funny, imperfect mimicry of real people.
I could, of course, go on about Joel Shapiro's sculpture but I'm reminded of something Edward Hopper said once on the folly of trying to explain art: "If you could say it in words," he observed, "there'd be no reason to paint or sculpt."
True enough. But the question that interests me even more than "trying to explain art" is why one particular work of art (or music or literature) evokes a strong response in you and another does not. It has nothing to do with the issue of what is great art and what is not. I leave to the critics the task of making such value judgments.
The Freudian spin, I suppose, is what I'm after. I wish I had a quote handy from some famous analyst or another which would set straight the psychological transaction between artwork and observer. But I don't. Which may be an indication of the difficulty of locating the roots of such a thing.
Often when I'm drawn to a work of art I find it has something to do with the shock of recognition. Which is to say: I recognize something in the work that is familiar to me.
Sometimes I can't identify what exactly it is. But I suspect it's a form expressed in painting or writing or music that corresponds to an important memory stored in my unconscious. And for whatever reason, the interaction between the two forms -- the close fit between the outer one and the inner one -- elicits from me a response that is simultaneously old and new, past and present, emotional and intellectual.
For about 10 years I worked in a museum, surrounded by great art. It was a time when my kids were young enough to need baby sitters and, often, when school was out I would take them to work with me. They were at a stage when they thought of TV as perhaps the greatest art form of our time. I remember how they hung out with the museum guards under the shadow of paintings by Matisse and Van Gogh and Rembrandt without seeming ever to notice the art.
And then came the moment: The older boy, about 12 at the time, found the glorious Matisse painting of a dog sleeping under a table. Who knows what clicked inside my son's head? All I know is that he came running through the museum to find me and tell me of his discovery of "the sleeping dog" -- as he called it.
Years later, while away at school, he would write from London of the wonders of that city's museums and galleries; of the glories of Constable and Turner. He ended the letter with this brief observation, a note written by that 12-year-old inside him and handed to me across the years: "The paintings here are almost -- but not quite -- as wonderful as the sleeping dog!"
By the way, did I mention that one of Shapiro's figures looks like it's trying to stand on its head? As a kid I must have tried that stunt a million times. Always unsuccessfully. And you know what? I found out the other day, after my visit to the museum, that I still can't stand on my head.