"Nothing is positive about art, except that it is a word."
-Willem de Kooning, Time magazine, 1951
You can see the stuff on the walls of every modern art museum: square canvases painted entirely black; jagged piles of intertwined wires; 60-year-old shellacked birthday cakes.
It's called modern art, and for most casual viewers, it's more confusing than quantum physics, the electoral college and the infield fly rule combined.
Plenty of patrons dismiss the dribbled splotches of Jackson Pollock and crisscrossed lines of Mondrian as mere dalliances in the shadows of great painters and sculptors from antiquity to the end of the Impressionist movement 100 years ago. Still others think that art died with Picasso or, even more generously, with Andy Warhol.
But inside the august rooms of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, modern and contemporary art is alive and well. A visit on any afternoon will reveal a vast array of viewpoints, from the head-scratching, clueless boyfriend: "My 3-year-old nephew could paint 'Gotham News' in his sleep!" to the pretentious art-snob sophisticate: "Duh, dude. This green blob is obviously a meditation on the military-industrial complex."
But there has to be some middle ground -- someplace where the clueless boob and the sophisticated hipster can meet to unlock the cryptic secrets trapped under the brushstrokes of de Kooning or Mark Rothko.
To find out, we employed the help of Jodi Penna, 22, a University at Buffalo student and barista at Spot Coffee. Penna sits smack at the intersection of clueless and sophisticated. Her understanding of modern art is informed but limited, her mind open wide as a field and her opinions stronger than the espresso she brews.
With the help of Albright-Knox Associate Curator Holly Hughes and gallery intern Joe Bochynski, we set out on a recent Thursday afternoon to confront the challenges of modern art face to face, painting by painting, in the gallery's constantly rotating "Remix the Collection" exhibition.
>'It's all about the teacher'
The tour started on the ground floor, in a corridor hung with large photographs and paintings. One work in particular, Andres Serrano's "Circle of Blood," seemed to pop off the wall and catch the group's attention immediately.
At first glance, the framed rectangular work looks like an enormous red dot painted onto a bright yellow background.
"When you look at this, do you think that it's a painting or a photograph?" asked Hughes.
Penna, echoing the common response, said she thought it was a painting.
"It's actually a Petri dish full of blood that he photographed at close range," Hughes said, explaining that she selected works for the corridor that mirror the complex relationship between painting and photography.
"Ohhh," Penna said, achieving a reaction Hughes is fond of referring to as "the aha moment" -- that split-second epiphany when a viewer comes to understand something about a piece of art that makes it click or resonate. "Circle of Blood," depending on the viewer's perspective, can embody any number of issues: the intersection between science and art, the threat of disease, or, even simpler, the combination of two primary colors that have an unsettling effect on the viewer.
"It makes a lot more sense in that way, especially with painting and photography merging," Penna said, still not completely convinced that what she was looking at deserved the appellation of art. "But really, without any of that context it's just this big . . . red . . . dot. I feel like I'm not getting what I should be getting, or what the artist is trying to put out there, unless you have this massive history behind it."
Penna's concern, Hughes said, is a common one. There is often a sense that viewers need a doctorate in art history to appreciate modern art, whereas Renaissance or Impressionist paintings on the surface seem so much easier to understand and enjoy.
As for "Circle of Blood," a little explanation seems to go a long way for Penna and others. But without Hughes' presence, the fact that the work is meant to explore the interstices of art and photography is likely lost on most patrons.
"It's all about the teacher," Hughes said.
>Not all art is pretty
In the next room, huge, imposing canvases painted in strange yellows and greens tower over viewers. They are painted mostly in angular, geometric formations in stark and often garish colors. This is the geometric abstraction room, and its focus is a relatively small work by Piet Mondrian, "Composition, London."
The Mondrian painting -- a small square of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines, filled in here and there with basic blue and red -- sits unassumingly next to an incredibly bright and vivid painting by hard-edged abstract expressionist Al Held. The three rectangular blocks of primary colors in the Held painting -- red, yellow and blue -- served as the basis for a new kind of painting that was almost exclusively concerned with the effect of colors on the eye and the emotional responses they evoked, Hughes said.
Mondrian's work, Hughes pointed out, served as inspiration for an entire school of thought on interior and furniture design that came to prominence in the 1970s.
Before long, the group's attention turned to an enormous work from 1992, Peter Halley's "Over the Edge." Among the painting's features is a block of puke-green stucco work in the center, surrounded by interconnected cubes of various muted yellows, sickly greens and muddy browns.
The appalled look on Penna's face could have told Hughes all she needed to know about her opinion of the painting.
But she had to ask: "Does it make you uncomfortable?"
"I don't like it," Penna said, her lips pursed, her mind made up. "I don't want this inanimate object towering over me with hideous colors and jagged lines, you know?"
Not exactly the kind of "aha" you'd expect Hughes to be excited about. But, on the contrary, she was thrilled.
"That was the artist's intent!" Hughes said. "He started thinking about how we live our lives, in these cubicles, in these cells or in prisons, and how our entire life is compartmentalized. So this piece is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable . . . Even though you might not have known it, you got the reaction out of it that he wanted you to."
Hold on a second: Art you're supposed to hate? Penna is having a hard time swallowing that idea, but Bochynski takes a different approach. He cited Tolstoy's famous article "What is Art?" in which effective artwork is described as a transfer of emotion from artist to art object and finally to the viewer.
"Many people come in and say, 'I could do this,' or 'This looks like the stucco on my living room ceiling' or something," Bochynski said, "but I'm getting the emotion that an artist, 10 years ago or 70 years ago, put into this." And that intergenerational transfer, whether it's from a scratchy puke-green square or a Michelangelo masterpiece, is more than enough for him.
As for Penna, not all is lost with the geometric abstractionists, whose work she said drudges up unpleasant memories of advertising billboards and Subway commercials. If anything, Hughes' explanation has taught her that it's OK to detest a piece of art.
"You're taught that art is very pretty, very realistic, and there's this betrayal once you hit art at a certain level of learning about art and art history," said Penna. "It's like you almost feel bad if you don't like something that you're told is this really big deal." Now, she added, she realizes that "it's OK to not like it. It's OK to have negative, gut reactions."
>Finding connections to artists
Upstairs, in what Hughes has dubbed "The Identity Room," Jackson Pollock's enormous "Convergence" dominates the south wall, while the rest of the room is peppered with new acquisitions like Jim Iserman's enormous pill-shaped vessel of braided cotton fabric and local artist Robert Mangold's "Column Structure IX."
In the corner near the stairs is a small canvas that appears from a distance to be solid crimson. If anything, this piece might seem the perfect candidate for criticism from the casual viewer. It seems unskilled, a piece any kid with a bucket of red paint could produce in mere seconds with the flick of the wrist.
"You know what?" Hughes said. "Your kid probably could do something similar. But would the intent be the same?"
As for Rachel Lachowicz's untitled red square, the intent could be considered more important than the end result. Upon closer inspection, the painting appears textured instead of blandly painted. Big globs of red substance drip down the canvas, seeming almost visceral and suggestive of blood.
The bright color and suggestive anatomical nature of the painting immediately caught Penna's attention. When Hughes revealed to her that the artist used layer upon layer of lipstick instead of paint, and that she was making a sarcastic comment about a minimalist movement of mostly male painters, it was love at second glance.
"Knowing that it's a woman, and there was a bunch of men and it was kind of boys club, it made me like that that much more, beyond the aesthetic," Penna said. "Something human to it. I'm very into the human element."
The human element -- a great part of what the Albright-Knox is using to promote its current exhibition of dark paintings by Francis Bacon -- can be lost in works where the process is less evident.
And Penna, like most art lovers, identifies most with the work in which she can see herself, whether it's her fear, joy, sexuality or humor -- however contorted, sculpted or represented.
"In some sense," Penna said, "coming to an art gallery is in part about what human beings are capable of; there's some comfort in that I have some basic DNA in common with people that did all of this."
>The 'leap of faith'
The tour wrapped up, unexpectedly, in the gallery's French painting room. It's a succinct survey of the last couple hundred years of French painting, from the gallery's famous "L'Ambitieuse" by James Tissot to Paul Gauguin's famed "The Yellow Christ."
Hughes, citing the work of impressionists like Monet and Van Gogh, noted that Impressionism was initially and viciously rejected by the establishment in turn-of-the-century France. Much like the way some contemporary art is viewed today, Hughes said, the Impressionists encountered opposition from those who were unwilling to make the jump from realistic portraiture to Van Gogh's turquoise skies and Pissarro's whimsical brushstrokes.
"It's about taking that leap of faith," Hughes said. "Again, you don't have to like everything. That's OK. Maybe if there was a room similar to this a hundred years down the road, they might be using it and making those same juxtapositions with art of our time."
Penna agrees. "I do think it was a big jump, but it wasn't just a jump in painting, it was a jump in the way people chose to perceive things," Penna said. As for Penna's perception, her frustration with some modern art is still there, but now, at least, she has a deeper understanding of the issues at hand and the context necessary to appreciate some pieces.
"I can understand now why they would pay so much for art," Penna said, "but the value that they put in that art is not the same value that I put in art, and it's as simple and straightforward as that."
Hughes hears Penna's frustration loud and clear but downplays her own role in an individual's experience of a piece of art.
"I think that a lot of times, you already have the ability to look at art," Hughes said. "I could tell you all this background and all this goopity-muck, which is important in the realm of art history and what this means, but it's really about how you perceive it and how you feel."