In a word, painting proves controversial

Museum: BMA curator Helen Molesworth talks about the painting `Terrorist' and how it fits into art history.

October 22, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

When is a work of art a moral affront, and when is it simply a sign of the times?

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Baltimore Museum of Art found itself asking that when visitors to the museum complained that a 1990 painting by American artist Christopher Wool, which for years had hung mostly unremarked upon in the museum's contemporary wing, suddenly seemed disturbing.

Wool's painting, Terrorist, is an aggressive, in-your-face composition of three lines of letters - "TER," "ROR" and "IST" - stenciled in black against a stark white background.

After the complaints, museum officials briefly removed the painting but put it back up a few days later with a new label that asked viewers to consider how events may change the meaning of artworks. Yet the new text hardly answered all the questions raised by this provocative artwork.

Helen Molesworth, the BMA's curator of contemporary art, sat down to talk about Wool's painting, as well as about recent trends in the long tradition of avant-garde art from which it sprang.

Did Wool intend his picture to be an act of violence, which is how some people seem to experience it?

I don't think the picture is an act of violence. It's quite the opposite. It's a word - terrorism - that has a lot of associations with violence, and the artist is asking us to think about where the dividing line is between word, thought and action.

It's certainly a very aggressive painting. You're sort of arrested by it visually, and as you read the word it seems to have a lot of violence embedded in it, not only in the word itself but in the way it looks. There's something about the mechanical quality of the letters that suggests an uncomfortable edginess.

Why does Wool use words rather than pictures?

The inclusion of language in art has a long history. Renaissance paintings are filled with language; we just tend not to see it because it's written in Latin or it's painted gold, so we read it as pattern or decoration.

One of the things that happened in America after World War II was that a group of artists grew frustrated by what they felt to be the vagueness of abstract painting. So, many of them started to explore whether visual art could be made with language, because language itself is so evocative of images and so filled with meaning.

So language became another medium, like painting or photography or sculpture, something that artists wanted to play with and make something out of.

Poets, playwrights and novelists share a desire to tell a story. One of the things visual artists are trying to get at is that words are really visual things and they conjure visual images. They are looking at the relationships between language and pictures.

Talk about the difference between this kind of intellectual pleasure and what we might call the delights of the eye.

Painters throughout history have moved back and forth between whether art was primarily a beautiful visual experience or whether it was (as in the Renaissance, for example) an attempt to figure out the mathematics and physics of the eye, such as in the development of perspective.

Or in the case of David during the French Revolution, was art about visual pleasure or was it about a demonstration of political and revolutionary virtue? In Goya's time, was it about visual pleasure or about the horrors of the human soul, as in his famous Black Paintings? Certainly those are not visually pleasurable; in fact, they are quite terrifying.

For many artists in the 1960s, the ubiquity of TV and movies and advertising images meant that we began to live in what has been called the "image world," a constant bombardment of pictures.

Some artists consciously turned their back on imagery because they saw it as too polluted by the mass media. They turned instead to language as a way to explore different ideas of not only what art can be but also how we make meaning.

Needless to say, visual pleasure never went away altogether. While some artists were turning their backs on visual pleasure, others like Ellsworth Kelly or Alice Neel or Grace Hartigan were still trying to paint beautiful colors and beautiful shapes.

Certainly sometimes people just see the not visually pleasurable stuff and they get very nervous and upset. But in fact visual pleasure remains a dominant part of contemporary art, as well.

Will Wool's Terrorist survive as an important work for future generations?

I think Wool's work will be written about in terms of this history of conceptual art and the legacy of Duchamp and Johns. So I figure it could go a couple of ways: Either they will prevail, and this is, like, where art is going - or they won't, in which case this art will slowly be put into museum storage vaults.

But even then, you know, even if it turns out that it doesn't have any lasting effect, chances are that 100 years from now some curator will pull it out and do a show, and there will be a room somewhere with all these works and people will say, "How strange, what a curious time the 1990s must have been."

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