It’s funny how the art that is meaningful to me at any given time will change, for no good reason. Such was my experience today at the Art Institute of Chicago. I am on a location shoot here for the next few days.
I searched through the galleries for work that would stop me in my tracks and make me fully absorbed in its transcendent reality. I visited familiar paintings in the museum, like the vast walls of Monets and Manets and Renoirs, admiring them but not much more. I waded through the muck and mire of the Surrealist galleries, holding at bay their distressing visages, to get to my favorites in the small room of Abstract Expressionists. They have two Rothkos, not his best work, and a very nice Franz Kline. But even these failed to grab me like they usually do. I searched out the Matisse that so haunted me last time, but I had passed it three times before I found it, opposite the Picasso Blue Guitarist. It just wasn’t reaching out to me like it did before.
So I walked back in time to unfamilar works. In a room of early Italian work I was stopped in my tracks. In this transition between Medieval and Renaissance, things just look weird. I don’t know the cultural context, the history, or the dense symbology in this work, so it looks as Surreal as anything from the 20th Century—angels and cupids hovering about haloed women in strange layered perspective renderings. Then I got to the great Venetian painters—Tintoretto and Titian, and this time they made sense to me. Well, maybe not sense, but they made something jingle in my spine that made me want to be with these paintings, to be in their thrall. It was only a little bit the abundant nudity in this era of painting—we’ve cancelled HBO and Showtime, and so my cultural life has been devoid of bare breasts lately—but there was much more than titillation at work. It was the density of story, only a little of which I could decipher, that held me. I knew I was in the presence of greatness and depth in this work, and that I could spend a lifetime getting to know more. But it also grabbed something much deeper in me. It was, in some ultimate, inexplicable sense, a spiritual connection with the work. "Art is where heaven touches earth," someone once told me. I visit art museums because I seek to stand in the afterglow of that encounter.