Fresh Paint
Monday, January 24, 2005
Milwaukee Art Museum, Again
No, didn't go up again. These are some random thoughts I had last week.

I like to see a museum welcoming, even affectionate toward visitors. While the docents at most museums are generally frightening individuals (docent training is about the most rigorous work you can imagine -- I went through it once for Dawes House here in Evanston, a mini-museum of sorts), the often-elderly volunteers are generally delightful. Like a real snot, I always think I know everything when I walk into a museum and want to form my own impressions, look through my own eyes, etc. etc., so always brush aside the taped tour.

The only thing I actually know about one of these things (or thought I did) was back in the days of blockbuster Impressionist shows when hordes of the unwashed all marched from painting to painting in lockstep looking to the right and the left simultaneously as the tape progressed. And you had to pay for it too. They tried to get more money out of you on the way in and then, surprise, the way out was THRU THE GIFT STORE. People would glare at you if you wandered through the collection carefree and freeform and against traffic. Guards always looked at you suspiciously.

So one of the lovely volunteers pressed the new type tour on me, insisting it was free, digital, not like the old tours at all, you just punch in the code number under a certain number of paintings and get a brief art crit of the object. Or not. How fun, I thought, though still with a sneer.

So looking at the Agnes Martin (lovely, off white, with graphite and/or pale ink lines across) I was surprised to hear just that, a brief description, pointing out things like spacing of the lines, layering of paint, and then, if I liked, I could hear her read a poem just by pressing the "next" key. Really nice to look at the painting and hear her voice.

Looking at a giant Chuck Close face (what, I wondered, could they find to talk about that isn't already obvious?), the voice told us to start at the top of the painting and just start moving down, looking at each part. With this huge scale he really wants you to consider each eye, each eyebrow, each line above the lips. Why yes, yes indeed.

Finally, Russell Bowman, who was the director until last year, chatted about the lovely Rothko they have -- a red and green on a blue field, the intensities near identical. He talked about Rothko's statement that after World War II, this was all that was left. It was kind of nice to hear his voice. One of the three times I went to the Milton Avery exhibit a few years ago, Bowman gave a walk-thru lecture, and I was very impressed. He didn't talk down, pointed out things I didn't know (like Avery's sense of humor and how he always made his ears too big and his jokes with Gottlieb). I've been nervous about how the museum would move on.

Seems to be doing ok, as far as I can see.

I have no idea whether they have these things at most museums (I don't get out of town much). I don't think they do at the Art Institute (though please correct me).

The only tour notes that didn't work for me were the ones supposedly geared toward children -- a little too too. One was the description of Alex Katz's painting of a dog -- huge, where the grass and the fur and everything done with identical marks, the only thing varying is color. Tape had all these annoying barking sounds in the back and the voice was a little condescending.

But then I'm not 6 years old.

And they shower you with even more love: rather than not allow you to draw, they will give you a bright irridescent clipboard and a pad of paper as you go in, or a bucket of crayons if you're a child. And the floor is always littered with art students lying down next to a Kiki Smith wax figure or the wonderful (wonderful) Tony Oursler that they've moved so that the students lying down next to it writing down his video utterances aren't as much underfoot.

I guess I'm just a fan of this place. Still have a few more things to say, but will post this now.

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