I Think I Would Rather Be a Painter


Arts & Culture

At the Guggenheim, writers and artists cross-pollinate.

Carol Bove, Vague Pure Affection, 2012, wood and steel shelves, paper, brass, concrete, and acrylic, 85″ x 35 1/2″ x 16″. © Carol Bove, photo courtesy Maccarone Inc., New York

Writers have always been in love with the visual arts. Just think of Frank O’Hara’s sly poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which is actually all about the creative entanglement of the two forms—tinged with yearning and a wry bit of envy:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

And it isn’t just poets. Hemingway, that great champion of muscular prose, credited Cézanne as one of his masters—a guy who painted pictures of rooftops. More recently, Don DeLillo has haunted the outer edges of the art world in novels such as The Body Artist, Falling Man, and 2010’s Point Omega, which begins and ends with a description of Douglas Gordon’s video installation 24 Hour Psycho.

That’s why it is such a pleasure to walk up the Guggenheim’s white spiral and look at the work on view in “Storylines: Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim.” “Storylines” is about the resurgence of narrative in the visual arts, but it is also about how writers still love to write about the things artists make. In a moment of inspiration, the exhibition’s curators got thirty novelists and poets, from John Ashbery to Jeanette Winterson, to write creative responses to the works in the show. These responses are available in booklet form as you walk in, or through an app, and they’re collected on an inviting Web site. Fifteen are also available on audio, with the writers reading their work.

Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s deputy director, explained the genesis of the idea. “Once we decided to focus the exhibition on the idea of narrative, we immediately thought of inviting authors to contribute texts on individual works in order to extend the idea of storytelling and to promote the fact that much contemporary art is open-ended and subjective. We did not want to dictate meaning.”

There is a spontaneity and playfulness to the writers’ pieces. The novelist Helen DeWitt writes about an assemblage by Zoe Leonard made of vintage suitcases lined up in a row—one suitcase for each year of the artist’s life. DeWitt’s response is a rapid-fire montage of characters in motion, each a paragraph long:

Inge left because she thought that if she did not get out she would kill herself. When she was at school no one talked about the camps, you didn’t know. But then there was the Eichmann trial. She got a suitcase from the Keller and crept out at the crack of dawn. Matthew married her so she could stay in England, this is before the EU.

Heta met James at the Magdalen Summer Ball (a girl loves a hop). They got engaged three days later (he was going to India in four). They waited a year before fixing a date. She had qualms on the voyage out. His mother locked her in a hotel room and poured champagne down her throat.

Jack boxed his way around Mexico in the summers to pay for college. It took a while before he understood ¡Mata al gringo!

The poet and novelist Ben Lerner chooses a photomontage by Gabriel Orozco of objects forgotten on an AstroTurf playing field, and responds with a fragment of museum catalog copy from an imagined future:

Slow rolling blackouts, some lasting several years, had not yet challenged the hegemony of the digital, and many artists were active, even militant, members of the Dark Oasis. Here the schematic arrangement (grids) of carefully sculpted ritual objects (note the delicate impression of teeth in the glistening polymers) points to what Anika Singh has called “the surrender of science,” a declining belief in the adequacy of existing regimes of knowledge in the face of planetary upheaval.

Because of the richness of this interplay, the Web site, which matches all thirty writer responses with reproductions of the artworks, feels as if it has a life of its own, independent of the show. The curators mention that they were inspired by the current tendency to reinterpret and repurpose source materials on the Internet:

The recent narrative turn in contemporary art cannot be separated from the current age of social media with its reverberating cycles of communication, dissemination, and interpretation. Seemingly every aspect of life is now subject to commentary and circulation via digital text and images.

Even so, “Storylines” manages to avoid the noisiness of social media, maintaining a sense of contemplative quiet.

My own introduction to “Storylines” happened in the analog world, and in the best way imaginable: I saw the novelist Meg Wolitzer and the poet Yusef Komunyakaa read at the museum, in front of the artworks they had chosen.

Just being in the museum after closing was part of the fun—it felt like we were in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The big open space at the center of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral was silent and still, full of summer light, and walking up the ramp felt like an adventure. Meg Wolitzer had chosen Carol Bove’s assemblage, Vague Pure Affection, a set of shelves with books and other objects arranged on them, exuding the Proustian melancholy of time past, mid-twentieth century edition. Wolitzer’s response is a meditation on mortality:

The bohemian childhood ages strangely. A thousand years later we come back to empty out the house, we two thick midlife sisters who once banged into these walls, all elbow, all the time, shuddering shelves and causing the things on them to tremble and potentially drop like acorns, or icicles. But never, originally, did any of it seem fragile …

I asked her what writing the piece was like. “It was unusual to get to write from direct inspiration rather than from the more nebulous stew that tends to lead me to fiction,” she told me. “I was moved by, among other qualities, the mystery of Carol Bove’s piece, and I tried to reflect on it in my own fiction-based way—the way I know best.”

Yusef Komunyakaa had selected Shannon Ebner’s Instrumentals, a large photograph of a pegboard made for hanging tools the artist found in an auto-repair shop. In stark black and white, flattened to two dimensions, the image defies visual resolution, looking something like a cross between a mysterious alphabet and torturer’s implements. Komunyakaa’s poem, “Hieroglyphics in the Atomic Age,” caught both of these qualities and the tension between them:

A montage of ingots, slugs of obsidian
or molded rare earth arranged in twos
& threes. I can almost see prototypes
of the past honed into an instrument
to keep minds working to interrogate.
We wish everything utilitarian,
even our first tools were weapons…

I asked Komunyakaa about writing the poem and he e-mailed me later with a comment so apropos that it should serve as the last word here—a summation of the pleasures offered by the exhibition and the way it encouraged writers to cross artistic boundaries.

Instrumentals called my imagination toward the philosophy of a made thing: “Shapes change the future, yet ink/recasts dungeon icons on an ivory field/of contrast … ” After all, so much depends on what the viewer brings to a work. As I spiraled down the staircase, colors and textures and objects caught my eye. But the ones that made me pause before them seemed to interrogate me; they knew something about history. The reading at the Guggenheim was momentarily communal, in that the curators offered the narratives that gave the works social and political dimension without reducing or erasing the mystery. But also the experience made me realize that nature still produces the supreme accidental art, and we can be relegated to a collective of selfies musing on a strand of barbed wire lodged in the heartwood of an oak growing beside a fence, that we’re driven by the brain’s compulsion to create symmetry, and even glimpses of diminished beauty.        

“Storylines” is at the Guggenheim through September 9.

Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of two novels, All the Money in the World and All Will Be Revealed. His short stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Tin House, The Oxford American, and other venues. His essay “Criminals” will appear in the Fall 2015 issue of The Paris Review.