Inspiration Strikes

With pencil marks, Baltimore-born artist Janet Cohen works to capture the magic of Baseball's perfect game. The concept could be a hit, depending on who's keeping score

April 25, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- So this is perfection as captured by an artist. You might have thought of Michelangelo's "Pieta," the pristine light in a Vermeer, or the sublime equilibrium of a Piet Mondrian. You might have been misinformed.

Through the eyes of Baltimore-born artist Janet Cohen, perfection looks like dozens of little pencil marks showing approximate pitch locations, the marks clustered like gnats swarming the strike zone. These marks on paper show roughly where pitches landed in perfect games thrown by New York Yankee right-hander David Cone in 1999 and left-hander David Wells in 1998.

No runs, no hits, no errors, no walks, no hit batsmen, no opposing team member reaching base by any means. Twenty-seven men up and 27 down -- a perfect game. In the strictest interpretation -- with which some baseball aficionados might argue -- it's only been done 13 times since Cy Young threw one for the Boston Red Sox in 1904, the first perfect game in what historians consider baseball's modern era.

In what historians might consider fine art's post-modern era, Janet Cohen's rendering of these two baseball feats falls in the conceptualist camp, in which the idea is more important than the execution. In other words, the point here is a way of thinking about baseball, not a display of draftsmanship. The work itself may not even fit the notion of what a drawing looks like.

Twenty-five of these pencil drawings on paper -- Cohen's first solo show -- will be on display through May 13 at the Clementine Gallery on West 26th Street in Manhattan.

The drawings of Cone's game against the Expos and Wells' against Minnesota represent part of the work Cohen's been up to since that night in May 1991 when something possessed her. The spring air, perhaps, or baseball fever -- who knows? For some reason, while watching the Yankees play the Seattle Mariners on television in her New York apartment, Cohen decided she'd get her drawing pad and pencils and try a pictorial variation on traditional baseball score keeping.

She had no grand plan, Cohen says, just the impulse to "see what would happen if I plotted where pitches fell."

Yes, as Yogi Berra supposedly said, "You can observe a lot by watching."

Recording only pitches shown by the center field television camera, Cohen made a drawing about 12-by-8 inches. Like some other drawings in this series, the image from a distance has a certain Rorschach quality. What exactly is this? A cloud of house flies? A diagram of nuclear fission? The birth of a new solar system?

A closer look reveals the marks on plain white drawing paper as numbers, and numbers drawn atop numbers forming dense clusters. There are little diagonal dashes, circled digits. The image emits a jittery energy.

It's not your old man's score card, which through a system of numbers, letters and symbols leaves a record of what happened on the field that day for generations to come. Although aspects of the game can be reconstructed from Cohen's work -- she numbers each pitch in sequence and uses traditional baseball scoring symbols -- she is less interested in the action on the field than in the workings of the pitcher's mind.

"Some of the subject matter for the drawings reflects ideas for which I'm trying to find a suitable form," Cohen wrote in a 1997 exhibit catalog. "They include: documenting events through estimating pitch location, capturing and depicting time, getting into someone else's head in an attempt to depict and describe what someone is thinking by showing his or her actions "

In pursuit of a form, Cohen has tried a few tacks. She has superimposed pitches thrown by both teams atop one another, identifying home pitches in black pencil, visitors in red. She has set the two side by side. She has separated each at-bat in a kind of chart, a succession of boxes containing marks showing pitch locations. These drawings gain clarity while losing the energy of the pitch-clusters. Cohen says she's still figuring all this out.

"This is just scratching the surface," says Cohen, who has lived in New York for 20 years but still considers herself a Baltimore Orioles fan.

Cohen, who is 40, got her first lessons in baseball as a little girl in Baltimore and her master's degree in fine art at Yale, where she studied with, among others, Mel Bochner. A prominent conceptual artist of the 1960s and '70s, Bochner has at various points in his career made art that involves measuring physical space, with numerical sequences and the relationship between marking and counting.

Bochner is known for a project that involved measuring a room. Cohen takes an inexact "measure" of a more cosmically ambiguous "space": the baseball strike zone. As any ballplayer would say, the zone varies by the umpire, the hitter, the league, the season and often the moment. Cohen's work raises the customary ballpark jeer about the ump's eyesight to the level of aesthetic inquiry.

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