Monday, June 15, 2009

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
Maya Angelou


A centenary retrospective of the paintings of Francis Bacon brought me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently. After a brisk walk downtown through Central Park—a gentle explosion of freshly scented expectation spiriting me along a path almost unhinged with blossoms and lush foliage—I decided to detour from my objective and first take in whatever was on view at the roof garden of the museum.

I stepped from the elevator into brilliant shards of light reflected off a chaotic tangle of industrial piping. It was as if I had wandered out of the realm of Nature’s gentler forms into a postmodern forest of chaos where there was, conveniently, a wine bar. The decidedly impressive site-specific installation, Maelstrom by the artist Roxy Paine, will be on display until October 25th. Twisted tendrils of stainless steel pipes and rods—he calls them Dendroids—lattice the view across Central Park, high above the treetops bound by the recognizable architecture on the park’s southern and western borders.

It was early and so I took advantage of the scarcity of tourists and quickly photographed the installation. The roof garden began to fill with culture seekers (Do you want red or white with that experience?) Directives from one digital camera laden visitor to another hung over the terrace: “Stand over there for a good shot of the Dakota!” Really? I was about to make my way to the exit when a mirthful chorus rose above the conversational knots around me. I looked around for the source of the magical tune and saw only one little gray bird perched atop the main structure of the artist’s installation, cresting the über Dendroid I guess you could say. Later a friend responded to the photo I e-mailed and noted the garrulous little fellow was a Northern Mocking Bird. And indeed he packed an impressive repertoire, appropriating the varied trills and warbles of many other birds. Expecting a brief performance before he flew off I became one of many among the growing audience of humans who remained captivated by his joyous parody for nearly three-quarters of an hour.

Unbelievably, it seems we have more and more birds in Manhattan these days. Free of the cage they soar above city streets, nest in treetops and alight on a shiny bit of sophisticated artwork if they so choose, eschewing the wine bar and telephoto lens that would only take them artificially where they, in reality, could fly any time. It's marvelous. They sing really loudly here to compete with street traffic noise. So I have been told.

New Yorkers have also seen the return of the Monarch butterfly. In summer the shrubbery surrounding the reservoir is speckled with these orange and black beauties. Alight on fragrant boughs, their fragile wings slowly open and close like visual heartbeats. Their reappearance is due to the disappearance of the WTC towers. The flight path of migratory birds and butterflies has been re-opened and they come soaring back here. Everybody wants to be in New York!

Light hearted I left the roof garden for the Bacon exhibition. Francis Bacon, just behind Vincent Van Gogh, is an artist I admire who was a great influence on me as a young painter. Along with other painters and some writers like Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, they contributed to how I learned to see the world around me, what details I learned to focus on, and what to see beyond.

I had not seen any works of Francis Bacon in a long time, a more youthful penchant for museums and galleries having dimmed a bit. This was an exhibition I was looking forward to, and after a quick stop among the Expressionists for a customary greeting to Vinny Van, I made my way to the exhibition.

Over 60 paintings in all and as many archival objects are on display to mark the centenary of the artist’s birth in Dublin. Bacon’s work is described by some as torturous. And indeed he did not shy away from portraying physical and emotional suffering and pulls the viewer into his personal recognition of pain—his and his subjects’. Pacing myself, I strolled through the galleries. It was like coming into a roomful of dysfunctional friends who had suffered great torment in their distant past and now were gathered together again with a kind of new found strength, still twisted by the artist’s brush but stronger somehow. The canvases, all systematically wrangled into uncomplicated heavy gold frames, felt fresh. Particularly moving is the triptych of his lover George Dyer, painted in memoriam.

As with all painters who make an impression on me, I often see something new—something missed—even in canvases I consider I am very familiar with. One aspect that is still very much present in Bacon’s work is the cage, either blatant or implied. In every scene, there it is, the cage.

1 comment:

velvetbottomfeeder said...

It is strange that his studio is now housed in Dublin.
He disliked Dublin, he even denied being Irish.
He was quite an angry man, as you know. He used to drink in a bar called 'The French' in Soho. I drank there often as a student, but never saw him there, just heard lots of stories about when he had been last there. He was like a ghost.