Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Painted Door



There is a 16-month calendar with an intriguing theme–– doors––that is beautifully realized in photographs of doors the world over. How does the song go?

“When you’re young,
You find inspiration
In anyone who’s ever gone
And opened up a closing door.”

That song isn’t just about going through a door, though that may be implied, but about opening up a closing door, probably getting through it just in time, and then maybe holding the door open for other people to come after. 

A Wind in the Door. The Door to Another World. The Door in the Wall. The Door of Opportunity. Always powerful as symbols, doors in certain places have become decorative too. Blue painted doors in the white stone houses on the Greek island of San Torini replicate the varying blues, glittering like rooftop tiles, of the surrounding sea. The brightly colored doors of Santa Fe, New Mexico, featured on postcards and photographed by thousands of tourists, have become icons of surface beauty. In the children’s story The Secret Garden, a door in the garden wall leads to an interior world, to what will be, for the child gardeners, an experience of depth.

I have a memory of a moment when I stood in front of a painting of a door in the old San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, some time before 1995, at the time when San Francisco’s modern art was housed in the not especially modernist Veterans’ War Memorial building on Van Ness.  

That moment happened before the museum defined itself by its contemporary architecture: an architecture so outspoken that, when the new museum first appeared in its new location on Third Street––not only did it look wildly out of place next to the dignity of the Saint Patrick Church, the boxy practicality of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the complacent progressivism of the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., a series of plaques with engraved quotations from King’s speeches, ‘hung’ at intervals along a walkway beneath an outdoor waterfall–– not only did the new SFMOMA stand out, brash as a call girl in couture at a tea party, but its definitive appearance in the January sunshine raised awkward questions about the city's art patrons and about San Franciscans as well. Were they pretentious? Or were they merely too nouveau riche to know their art? Did they lack vision? Were they stuffy? Hopelessly middlebrow? Close-minded and elitist? Vulgar and parochial?

For the new museum built by European architect Mario Botta, that assertive building in all its horizontal grandeur, seemed at first to dwarf San Francisco’s modest art collections within––especially the collection of Modern Art from Europe. These collections were, after all, latter-day West Coast collections, composed therefore of suitable if hard won representations of every art historical category in the modern era, graced as it were with gourmet leftovers for the late comers to the party. Carl Djerassi’s Klee collection, once the pride of the museum, now seemed incomplete and quirky, small works unchaperoned by any major oil paintings. The Braque appeared to have floated off the pages of an art history textbook. Was that really a Picasso? Even Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, her neck twisted beneath the symbolic weight of that painterly milliner’s confection, even Matisse’s modernist woman seemed overshadowed, a precious antique boîte à bijoux hidden beneath a trundle bed in a flea market.

And the American art, which had seemed so cutting-edge in the old building, now looked dated and unsure of itself. Jackson Pollock’s hieratic Guardians of the Secret, Roy De Forest’s toothpaste tube dogs, Joan Brown's portraits, Diebenkorn's semi-abstract paintings with their solitary figures in fields of California color, Robert Rauschenberg’s comic strips embedded in bright red paint ––all became sadly offbeat and provincial inside the brick and granite marquetry of the Swiss Italian architect. 

That moment when I encountered the painted door took place before museum visitors first of all contended with the brick and granite exterior of the building, with its turret like an all-seeing eye at the top; before visitors climbed the grand staircase to a post-modern heaven, and kept on climbing up to the fifth floor, past exhibitions of photography, graphic art, video, design; and when they reached the fifth floor, they headed for the suspended bridge and stepped across its gently mobile planks at the top of the airy atrium.

Before all that, there was the War Memorial building, with its tidy spaces, Green Room, and maze of galleries. There was the painting, the door, hung in a gallery devoted to shockingly in-your-face large German oil paint abstractions––the modernist, visual counterpart, perhaps, to long-winded German philosophy, densely learnèd German philology, and the placidly expansive German Bildungsroman. Sculpted, almost, of blue and white impasto, the painted door had a real brass doorknob implanted in the paint.

It was a moderately large painting among other oversized, ambitious paintings. The painted door was crafted by, I think, Julian Schnabel (or was it Gerhard Richter?) In any case it was German, and big.

"You need more––than the Gerhard Richter hanging on your wall
A chauffeur-driven limousine on call
To drive your wife and lover to a white tie ball
You need more, you need more, you need more."

A painting with blue and turquoise lines pulling at the eye, with the grandiosity of its symbolist intentions, with utter disdain for trompe l’oeil, and just to make sure you got the point, with its little joke of an actual doorknob embedded in the paint. It was a sufficient vision.

It seemed to be all about craft and surface.

Impossible to get beyond that surface, so thick and painterly.

Yet the blues of the palette swirled in and out of  one another. In the light of the room it was really rather dazzling.

The blues––colors of the sea and of the sky, after all––wanted to go beyond the boundaries, the painted outlines of the door.

I thought of rows of doors reflected in a mirror. I thought of a door to the sea, the sky. I thought of infinity.

Infinity not for me personally, the little human standing before the painted door. Infinity existing not for the individual soul, but as a dimension of the universe. Infinity that could be visited by little humans in the same way that they visited art museums; in the same way that they visited Earth.

And quite unexpectedly, one quietly elegant Italian lady, all in amber hues and white, appears by my side and starts talking to me about the painting very philosophically. She speaks my own thoughts, about the edges of the door, a door leading, perhaps, into endless space. Wrapping herself in her white, stylishly asymmetrical cloak, its fringed edges flapping about her like a pair of wings on the down stroke, she says,

“The door that you go through is not the same as what you will find on the other side.”

And yes, I’d heard something like that before, and I’ve heard something like it since, but not the way she said it, standing suddenly in front of that painting, then as quickly disappearing into the crowd.

A visitation? Hardly. If angels indeed descend to Earth, I doubt they clothe themselves in Armani. But if not a visitation, it’s as close as I’ll ever come.

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