Fields of Art: The Richest Walk in Princeton
One of the pleasures of living in a town that has a free, easily accessible and relatively compact art museum with a world-class collection is you can casually walk in without being locked into the formal museum mind-set; instead of the old stop-and-start gallery grind, you can stroll past a view of Cezanne's Provence and head straight for a favorite spot like the room in the rear on the mezzanine floor where you can peer down into Red Grooms's 3-dimensional cartoon vision of the Cedar Tavern when Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock were in their prime.
Open six days a week, the University Art Museum can turn a campus walk into "something rich and strange" and it's only a few minutes from Nassau Street. The Princeton campus is a work in progress itself these days, with all kinds of "found art" on display in the form of construction machinery, including a backhoe striped like a zebra. Approached by way of the construction-ravaged landscape adjacent to Firestone Library, the museum will catch your attention the moment it comes into view because of the formation of headless bronze giants frozen in mid-march in front of it. This dark legion was created by Magdalena Abakanowicz, who calls the work simply Big Figures.
Now is a good time for a stroll through the museum. There are no major exhibitions, though a retrospective of American drawings and watercolors is coming October 16. Of the two recently opened smaller shows, the larger one features prints from the permanent collection, from which the other exhibit, of nineteenth-century photographs, is also drawn.
The formal title of the print show is Bringing into Being: Materials and Techniques in American Prints, 1950-2000. The brochure accompanying the exhibit says the title refers "not only to the physical activites involved in pulling a print, but also to the maturation of the medium." If you forget the purely informational subtitle and simply look at the prints in terms of bringing something into being, the title seems more truly to refer to the way these works express the moment when art comes to life, animated by what D.H. Lawrence called the "quick" of art or "the poetry of the present."
A possible counterpoint between the two exhibits is offered in the commentary for a two-color, apparently photographic lithograph of waves by Vija Celmins that places it at the "border" between the "fiction of the print" and the reality of the subject represented by the photos of the ocean surface the artist worked with. If you look closely, you can see Celmins has sketched in the texture of the waves to amplify the illusion of motion. According to the posted commentary, if the original photographs of waves had documentary integrity, what the artist has done is "analogous" to fiction. But surely the power of the print has more to do with poetry than fiction, another reason why Lawrence's "poetry of the present" seems relevant.
That said, a number of the early photographs on display aspire to "fiction" or narrative much in the way prints and paintings do. If you move around the room of photographs in the order intended, you go from the elemental reproduction of forms (the impression of a plant traced on paper) to the flagrantly anti-realistic abyss of Edward Steichen's early (1899) multiple platinum print The Pool, which could be an image out of a story or poem by Edgar Allan Poe, like the tarn in The Fall of the House of Usher. Another way to see this adventurous work (done when Steichen was only 20) is to think of the more purely representational photographs in terms of the conscious mind and Steichen's in terms of the murk of the subconscious.
Equivalents to painted art are obvious throughout: whether it's Roger Fenton's still-life from 1860, or the Turneresque sky and seascape in Gustave le Gray's Le Brick (The Brig), Corot in Peter Henry Emerson's A Winter Pastoral (picture the path running between the lake and the canal from Princeton to Kingston) or Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris in the Pre-Raphaelite aspect of Melancholie by Emile Constant Puyo.
If you think of the museum as a place to stroll about in, an indoor park planted with woods and fields of art (and if you leave out the wonders in the other galleries), the two rooms of prints offer the most spectacular scenery. The photographs are more or less uniformly framed while most of the prints seem to break through their framed boundaries even when they don't actually do so. No photograph can match the whiteness of white or the blackness of black in works like Barnett Newman's Untitled Etching #1 or Richard Serra's massive one-color etching Kepler. Newman's stark minimalist work acquires another dimension when you read that it was conceived in the context of Martin Luther King's assassination. For Serra, the context being Johannes Kepler, the imagery is obviously cosmic; it's the expression of a discovery (that planetary orbits were not circles but flattened circles or ellipses) and what better example of the phenomenon of art bringing an idea into being? Compare it with a large-scale photograph of a starry sky and what you see instead of the documented, proven constellations is the consciousness of the artist filling the huge flattened circle with the richest essence of black.
Of course not all the prints are black and white. Among the most impressive works on display are two studies of the electric chair by Andy Warhol. Made from photographs taken during an execution at Sing Sing, they represent, according to the posted analysis, "a stark dialectic of fullness and void." No doubt about it, the contrast is stark but there's a somewhat regulatory edge to the commentary that seems alien to the freedom of the work. If this were a walk, it would be like running into a sign stating that it is forbidden to step on the grass or climb the trees. True, the chair seen in the topmost of the two screenprints is suffused with redness and blasted with a dynamic splash of yellow light (the "quick" again, the poetry of the present in action) but "fullness" implies something finite; if so, then this is lightning in a bottle. As for the other view of the chair, while words like "bleak" and "void" are appropriate, the image suggests the chair is dissolving, as if melted by the white heat of one execution too many. It has a chill, greenish aura; and it's not all there.
That was quite a stroll. Landscapes of life and death, fields of art, constellations and executions, Warhol's electric chairs just another species of extravagant flora and fauna.
Outside it's a perfect September day. The blue sky has the special warmth and clarity people in the New York area remember seeing up there that September morning three years ago. Is this sky any less clear and blue? Maybe it becomes even more beautiful if we know what exploded out of such a sky as this on that morning. The beauty's still there, after all. On the way back to Nassau Street, you might take time to stop by Chancellor Green and the little garden so tastefully and lovingly created in memory of the 13 Princeton alumni who died on the day the sky was so blue.