Drawing A Reaction!

A word power is revealed when it, alone, becomes art

January 28, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

WHERE ONE viewer sees black and white, another sees gray. Where one sees fear, another sees hope. Where there is an abstraction, some see raw "reality."

Of perhaps thousands of visitors who have since late September seen the black-on-white painting of the word "TERRORIST" in the Baltimore Museum of Art, a few hundred have stopped long enough to jot their reactions on cards provided by the museum.

Near as anyone can remember, it's the first time the BMA has solicited visitor response to a particular work of art. But then, Sept. 11 has made for extraordinary times in more ways than this.

FOR THE RECORD - A story in yesterday's Today section misstated the name of Dorothy Valakos, program specialist in the Baltimore Museum of Art's education department. The Sun regrets the error.

"Nobody had any idea how to deal with this, including us," says Helen Molesworth, the BMA's curator of contemporary art.

After receiving some complaints about the painting from visitors in the days after the terrorist attacks, the 8-by-5-foot work by Christopher Wool was removed from gallery display on Friday morning, Sept. 14. The next Monday and Tuesday the museum was closed. When the BMA reopened on Wednesday, Sept. 19, the painting was back up, but with a few additions.

Museum officials decided to add a wall text providing a bit of background on the painting, conveying the notion that the meanings of art works may change with time. Next to this was the sheaf of blank cards in a plastic tray, a pen and another sign inviting comment.

"One of the things art has traditionally done," says Molesworth, "is give people an opportunity to discuss ideas."

The cards were an unusual step, but still in the spirit of much of what the museum does in its contacts with visitors, says Donna Valakos, a program specialist in the education department. She says the museum's docents try to get folks talking about what they're seeing.

"Rather than a walk and gawk kind of tour," says Valakos, "we ask people to bring their own experience in looking at the work of art."

And so they have in confronting Wool's "TERRORIST." Teachers, students, artists, a Pentagon analyst, business people, retirees, artists, a nurse, a doctor, a therapist and an Army environmental official were among those who offered their thoughts.

After removing "some of the silly ones," public relations director Anne Mannix provided for perusal most of the 250 cards the museum has collected, on condition that those people who provided their names be identified only by age, profession or city where they live.

To read the cards is to sense that the artist has flipped a maxim on its head. One word appears to be worth a thousand pictures.

"Stark, frightening play of good vs. evil, black and white. There is no shade of gray in this battle," says a 43-year-old president of a marketing agency in Nashville, Tenn.

"The dripping paint from the word suggests the evil that seeps from inside the terrorist, making our attempt to understand them difficult. They are not black and white but shades of gray," says a Cockeysville school teacher.

"In no way should this piece of art be taken down," says a 22-year-old college student from Ft. Collins, Colo. "It reflects on the black + white reality of terrorism, the fact that there is no constructive use for destructive actions."

A registered nurse says: "A work such as this should be taken off this wall and substituted with another work not portraying this motif. This is a compliment to any terrorist activity!"

When Chicago-born painter Christopher Wool completed this piece in 1990, he was 35 and had for a few years been awash in words.

He stenciled large words in black on white backgrounds, sometimes stacking the letters in eccentric patterns. There were phrases ("CATS INBAG BAGS IN RIVER") and there were individual words. In 1989 and 1990 Wool did "COMEDIAN" and "HYPOCRITE," "INSOMNIAC" and "SPOKESMAN." There was "PRANKSTER," "PESSIMIST," "PERSUADER," "PARANOIAC."

And there was "TERRORIST," the word stacked in three rows of three letters each.

He preferred painting on aluminum, the better to convey an industrial chill. They were word pictures and pictures of words. In the 1989 to 1990 series they were invariably called "Untitled," an ironic comment considering the "title" was the "picture" and vice versa. The effect, as one critic for Artforum International has pointed out, is to hold "both seeing and reading in a persistent if ambiguous balance."

As surrealism was a field day for Freudians, Wool heaped fodder on the semiotics crowd.

He put a signifier - a word - in a pictorial context where one would ordinarily expect to find an image of the thing signified. An image, say, of a masked terrorist, not merely a linguistic abstraction that might by certain cultural conventions stand for any number of things: a man, an organization, an outlook, a particular event, a part of the world, a political conflict, sundry horrific scenes from daily news reports.

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