The Artist

A career is a death trap. I ought to be drowning instead, swimming in the endless lake of composition. A life lived to its potential ends in the drifting away on one’s senseless musings, one’s unread writings, one’s unrequited love.

On an uncommonly bright and warm early-autumn day a friend of mine and I visited a Marlene Dumas retrospective at a museum in the capital of the country of my exile. I greatly admire my friend, who is a trained and exhibiting visual artist herself, not for her work though, which I have simply not seen enough of to warrant my forming an opinion on it, but for her power of judgment and distinction. It was she who acquainted me with the minimalist art of Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven and others (mostly non-Dutch) commonly associated with the so-called Zero Movement. My favorable response to their work had encouraged my friend to suggest joint excursions to exhibitions or art events with greater frequency. Until then each of us had pretty much considered such affairs as pertaining to the privacy of her own predilection.

After we had seen the exhibition my friend suggested that we walk across the park to another museum (as renowned as the museum with the Dumas retrospective) and pass by an exhibition of sculptural art by the American artist-engineer Alexander Calder (1898-1976), which for the main part unfolded in that museum’s freely accessible gardens and for a smaller part in its newly built atrium, before the toll gates, i.e. free of charge as well.

Once in the gardens we first sauntered by a number of standing mobiles. My friend elaborated on the layout of the gardens and pointed to the patches of lawn which could be uprooted for specific purposes and turned back to virgin lawn in a matter of days. When we got to the next segment of the gardens, exhibiting stationary sculptures (“stabiles”), my friend said: “And now on to my favorite.” It was at this juncture that she volunteered that she was all but partial to the standing mobiles, the loose (“mobile”) elements in her opinion having a minifying effect on overall structure, subverting it. This was typical for my friend. She would explain what she liked and captured her interest, and simply not comment on things she disliked, or not bring those up until an occasion presented itself where comment was apposite. Her tepid reaction to the standing mobiles echoed what I felt about them, and not just aesthetically; in those days a lot seemed to have become unhinged within me. My senses could well dispense with the jading stimulus of stout structures impaired by dangling elements. If anything, I needed stabiles! I had kept my feelings to myself though, immensely enjoying the stroll and very much inclined to be over- or underwhelmed, as the case might be, by whatever we would run into.

My friend’s proclaimed “favorite” was Le Tamanoir (the anteater), which struck a note with me, too, that note being the impression it gave of unfettered massiveness and unquestionable presence, played down, as if effortlessly, to elegance of form (the particular form of this sculpture) and of balance, a balance, however, not precarious but sturdy. Other stabiles equally appealed, and for similar reasons, to my aestheticism. We left the gardens and entered the museum’s magnificent atrium. Here we found a reduced-size, if still quite sizable, version of the 60-ton Homage to Jerusalem on Mount Herzl, Israel. This stabile, which we observed for a while from a raised partition of the atrium, then, having descended to the floor it was standing on, circled a few times, and finally (rather uselessly) sallied right into, is – well, beautiful, and as we left the museum to head back in the direction of the former museum I carried inside me the reddish-and-burnt-orange glow of the warming and comforting bulk of Homage to Jerusalem.

On our way to the Calder exhibition, engrossed in the inconsistent rippling of my D&G S/S 14 polka dot skirt (fitted through the thighs and knees, but flouncing at the calves), I had nearly bumped into a golden statue standing right in the middle of the walkway. My friend jerked me back by my arm just in time or I might have knocked it clean off its base. The statue was a man of flesh and blood, a living statue – a standing mobile! Everything of him, his face, his hands, and on him, his attire, the palette and brush he was holding, was painted in gold. Even his hair, if most likely a wig affixed to his plumed hat, gold painted of course, was golden. This man, as I immediately grasped, intended to impersonate a Dutch/Flemish painter in the so-called Golden Age, or, rather, the statue of such a painter. I think, more specifically, that the reference was to Rembrandt, the gold paint again being a giveaway (how smart, too!).

To my enormous relief the artist showed far greater liberty with his self-imposed role than is often seen in living statues, whose rigorous rigor seldom failed to revive in me the memory of various obsessive-compulsive disorders I had suffered from as a young girl. This was a personable living statue! He leaned over to us from his pedestal and asked, rhetorically I should say (I was carrying a transparent signature bag of the museum through which a catalogue I had bought was visible), if we had visited the Dumas retrospective. My friend confirmed this and added that we were on our way to the Calder exhibition at the museum across the park. The latter piece of information he acknowledged, appeared to vet even, with a slight nod.

Unsure whether it was quite comme-il-faut to address a living statue I didn’t say a word, but merely smiled at him. He smiled back, doffed his hat, and made obeisance. One has to be careful with a face thickly smeared with gold paint, but I found myself very much warmed to his smile, his traits, and his gallantry. I chose to ignore the modest bowl at his feet. The truth is I felt awkward at the idea of giving this peddler of personal statuesque qualities his meed. I think I felt it would be condescending, almost a debasement (even if I were to use the gold-color coins which were plentiful among the country of my exile’s legal tender) – and one doesn’t want to debase a statue.

As we turned to continue our way I muttered something about perhaps having to have given the artist his due, which my friend met with that sibylline smile of hers which I always thought of as indicating that she wished one to come to one’s own conclusion. But if I had, and if it would have been favorable to the artist, it was useless, because we had moved on and to return would definitely be impossible. Yet, I turned my head and saw that the man-statue had turned his head too and smiled at me, and made obeisance, despite the risk of marring his act (and, by implication, all he had for a business case) with other strollers approaching him in our wake. This living statue was as unstinting as it was personable.

We followed the same path back to the museum where we had started our cultural jaunt. And, sure enough, there he was again, the living statue, the artist, the golden Rembrandt, right in the middle of the walkway! My friend nudged me and said “Now make up for it!”, and I took out my wallet, culled out all gold colored coins and dropped them in the bowl. The artist smiled at me and made obeisance. I didn’t know what to say. We walked on. When I felt we were at a remove which for any gold paint in the world we would not go back on I turned my head. I could still see his golden face gather into a handsome smile and his body then fold into a courtly bow.

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