(Mostly) Modest Thoughts on Modern Art

Normally, I don’t do this sort of thing.  I plan ahead, so that I can deliver a quality post for you guys, but this time it’s going to be a little different.  Here’s what happened: When visiting San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, I came across a piece that so astonished me that I felt compelled not just to write about it, but to bump up this story to the front of the line.

That means you’ll have to wait a little longer to read my take on the Flaming Lips, George Stevens’s films, or other such topics. I know waiting is hard, but I think it’ll be worth it, and if there is anything that I’ve learned from my audience surveys, it’s that you all are a resilient bunch.

Well OK, technically I haven’t done any audience surveys, but that’s what I imagine you all are like when I’m conducting management meetings about this blog … with myself.  It’s a very effective way of doing a meeting, actually. There’s lots of common ground for one thing, so you know, give it a try.

By now you may be wondering what artwork was it that made me veer off course. Or, maybe you’re wondering if I’ll ever get to the point.  Both worthy things to wonder.

We’re almost there.  I just wanted to get you ready for the experience by properly setting the stage.  I will make some rather abstract points, but stick with me, and I’ll tie it all together at the end.  So with that said, here it is:

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The piece is called “Blue Smudge,” and it is created by Mel Bochner.  Right away with the title, the artist is hitting us with a powerful juxtaposition.  Blue is a very distinct color, while a smudge is by its nature amorphous, lacking a concrete form.

In a sense then, Mr. Bochner is giving us definitive ambiguity.  What a scrumptious paradox!  Note too how the smudge in question actually bears a striking resemblance to a key element of the cultural icon colloquially known as the frowny face.

Mr. Bochner could have chosen any color, but it’s significant that he chose blue.  In the parlance of times, feeling blue conveys sadness, a world-weary ethos, depression. Is it too much of a stretch to say that feeling blue is in fact a smudged state of being? I think not.

Let’s take a closer look:

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This enlarged view really lets you see the subtle gradations of texture that the artist uses to make his point.  (Thanks Photoshop!) When does one hue of blue end and another begin?

It is not unlike the philosophical endeavor to determine where the domain of one soul ends and where another begins. The granular nature of chalk is the perfect medium to call attention to this inherently human quest for boundaries.

The colors also remind us of the Greek flag, hinting at the gift of democracy that ancient Greece gave us, but let’s take a moment to look at the world today.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a rockin political scientist for that matter, to conclude that we sometimes squander this gift on frivolous pursuits, and in that sense Mr. Bochner’s smudge cries for that wasted potential.  Look at the piece long enough and you really start to feel the pathos of the … OK, I can’t go any further.

Everything I said about the painting, except for the title and the name of the “artist” is complete rubbish.  Speaking of rubbish I would encourage the SFMOMA to do the right thing and recycle that puppy.

I know. It’s supposed to be conceptual art, and it’s about the idea, about provoking a reaction.  Etc.  In my humble opinion though, this is merely a way of justifying half-hearted effort and incompetence. It’s the art equivalent of the signs held by panhandlers on Fishermans’ Wharf that say, “Why lie, I need a beer.”  I’m not going to high-five those guys for being lazy. Nor am I going to  give  Mr. Bochner respect for his “artistic achievement.”

More art on display at SFMOMA.

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Can you imagine a baseball player who builds a career by blinking his eyes and signing “peace” in American Sign Language instead of, you know, actually swinging at the  ball? What about a plumber who addresses a leaky pipe by painting it with earth tones and calling it Yellowstone?

We wouldn’t put up with such posers because we still value the pursuit of excellence in most fields, but in the art world we’ve allowed a few pompous hipsters to hijack the standards we use to determine accomplishment.  As Jon Bon Jovi might say, you give art a bad name, Mr. Bochner. Shame!

As it happens the most compelling art I saw in San Francisco was not at the museum but in the city’s exceptional art galleries.  We’ve been conditioned to expect that museums, being non-profit organizations, are superior in quality to for-profit galleries, but just like in the world at large that’s not always the case.

It makes sense.  San Francisco is one of the biggest art markets in the world, so apparently it is not unusual to see original Picassos, Miros, and Chagalls on display at the high-end dealers.

At the Weinstein and the Martin Lawrence Galleries on Geary Street, the dealers spent a bit of time chatting with me about the art on display, even though I made it clear from the beginning that I was not looking to buy anything.  They were still eager to share their passion for art, and they didn’t treat me in a condescending way, which sometimes happens when the proprietors conclude that you’re not a paying customer.

I’m grateful to them for that, so if you are looking for art, and you’re in the San Francisco area, look those galleries up.  They’ll treat you right.

The Martin Lawrence Galleries had a particularly strong collection of Marc Chagall paintings.  Mike, one of the associates there, talked to me about the painter.  When he realized my admiration of Chagall’s work, he took me upstairs to show off the paintings valued at over a million dollars.  One of those paintings was the one below:

Bouquet Jaune sur Fond Bleu – Marc Chagall, 1981-1982

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Mike didn’t just show me the painting.  He unmounted it from the wall and showed me Chagall’s signature on the back that demonstrates authenticity.  Then, he did something I’ve never seen before. He took that million dollar painting and casually tossed it in the air and caught it upside down.

He wanted to demonstrate that Chagall’s paintings are still enjoyable to view even if the orientation changes. Stunned, I complimented Mike on his bravery.  Playing million-dollar catch is a little bit out of my price range, you know, but Mike made his point.

Chagall wasn’t painting to impress stuffy critics and art intellectuals.  He was painting with love, and that’s where the vitality of his work comes. Mike compared Chagall to Picasso, noting that Picasso has a very analytic approach and painted women in a way that suggests an underlying misogyny.  Chagall’s work is more tender, celebrating the joyful harmony of togetherness.

I’m not a hundred percent sure about this, but I think Jon Bon Jovi might react to Chagall’s style by saying something like, ” We’ve got each other and that’s a lot. For love – we’ll give it a shot.” (Hey, I told you guys I’d try to tie it all together in the end!)

Lovers and Flowers, Marc Chagall

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Anyway, even when the relationships in my life aren’t working so well, it makes me feel a little better to know that out there somewhere is love like that.  Whenever possible, try to be more like Chagall and less like Bochner with the things you do, whether you’re an artist or an accountant.  The world will thank you for it.

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5 Responses to “(Mostly) Modest Thoughts on Modern Art”


  1. 1 csavides March 24, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    This is hilarious, Nick! I’m laughing harder now than I did when we admired art in person in San Francisco.

  2. 2 parmanifesto March 30, 2011 at 12:34 am

    I wish you were an art critic. No, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But I agree that the SFMOMA’s collection is underwhelming.

  3. 3 Shannon Glasheen October 27, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I am researching this “Blue Smudge” by Mel Bochner right now to write an essay on how it was my least favorite piece of “art” in SFMoMA. I thought you were seriously praising it at first, thank god I kept on reading. Cheers!

  4. 4 Nick October 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Have fun writing that research paper, Shannon! You are welcome to use me as a source, but somehow I don’t think your professors would approve.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. 5 Justin Buzon December 2, 2011 at 12:56 am

    I wrote a paper on this as well…sadly. This is what i wrote:

    Out of the numerous and countless variety of “master pieces”, I couldn’t believe that I have not seen anything more lame and lesser than Mel Bochner’s Smudge of blue chalk. All the pieces shown at the museum display craftsmanship and effort of a wide scale; however, Mel Bochner simply took a piece of blue chalk and smudged on the museum wall a faintly lathered natural arc of blue nothingness. Blue happens to be my favorites color, but not this blue. The blue smudge is not on canvas or on paper, it is on the museum wall – it can be easily removed. I see nothing that constitutes the blue smudge greater than a child’s wall doodle with crayon, nor than an engaging topic of vandalism versus street art. I am curious to what people have to say about this smudge because in my opinion, a fine line of blue pen can make a perfect contender – I can now deeply understand why pens are not allowed in the museum. Precisely, I am just as “confuzzled”.


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