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The Intimacy of a Collection in Your Home

September 28, 2003|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic.

Living with art at home is not the same as looking at art in a museum, and it isn't just a matter of the difference between private and public ownership. I've had many perception-altering experiences in art museums over the years--that's one reason I go to them--but nothing quite like an encounter I had at home.

Returning to L.A. from the celebrated 1980 Picasso retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, I sat down at my desk and promptly felt a small earthquake in my head. Hanging in my office at home was a framed piece of wallpaper that Andy Warhol had designed for an outlandish exhibition in 1966, when Pop art was gaily exploding aesthetic conventions. I'd been toting the wallpaper around to various domiciles since stumbling upon it at a strip-mall junk shop in Toledo, Ohio, in 1973. The shocking pink portrait of a Jersey cow against a bright banana-yellow background had appealed to me for many reasons. But one thing always left me puzzled: Why a cow? Of all the photographic subjects Warhol could have silk-screened on his notorious wallpaper, why did he choose a cow? Sitting at my desk, tired but exhilarated after the museum trip, my angle of vision on the world suddenly shifted a degree or two.

"Toro," I thought.

Picasso had used the image of the bull, so pervasive in the traditional rituals of Spanish life, as a surrogate for his own dramatic and voracious appetites. Bulls were everywhere in the museum show--in Picasso's paintings, etchings, drawings and sculptures. Warhol, an effeminate homosexual trying to stake an ambitious claim in a pre-Stonewall art world almost as socially repressive as mainstream society, had obviously chosen the bull's feminine mate to be his own subversive surrogate. A joke on Picasso-style machismo, the cow is a coded self-portrait. With the intensity of a comic book Pow!, my take on Warhol's work--in fact, my comprehension of the entire subject of Pop art themes in the 1960s--changed in an instant.

It's true that I might have had my little epiphany if, after visiting MOMA's Picasso show, I'd seen the Warhol hanging at, say, the Whitney Museum uptown. But the experience would have been qualitatively different--like the difference between reading gossip about a celebrity you've only known from afar and finding out something hitherto unrecognized in the personality of your spouse. It's an intimacy thing. There's distinctive depth to the discovery. Art at home, regardless of how significant or obscure the artist might be, isn't framed with the aura of grandiloquence that attends enshrining it in a museum gallery. The domestic relationship is more casual, comfortable and nonchalant.

Context shapes experience. Museum galleries are meant to establish a focused aesthetic context. Not having a slew of Picassos around the house, I might have looked at that Warhol by my desk for another half-dozen years without ever coming to a satisfactory understanding of why a cow was looking back at me, rather than a monkey or a rhinoceros.

But having it at home did offer something no museum gallery was likely to suggest. Cow wallpaper is, well, wallpaper. It's part of the decor. Describing art as decoration is one of the last big slurs that can be hurled against it. That's why decoration is often accompanied by the adjective "mere," which rudely twists the knife. But here's a dirty little secret: Decoration is a perfectly honorable, even noble, attribute.

It can be powerful, too. Decoration is what Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel, what Matisse did in the stairwell of Sergei Shchukin's Moscow house at the brink of the Russian revolution, and what Jackson Pollock did next to the foyer in Peggy Guggenheim's Manhattan apartment. (I'm talking about the wall-sized mural he made for her; what he did in the fireplace was something else entirely.) But the 1950s changed all of that. Women, following the Rosie the Riveter social upheaval of World War II, were being moved out of the factory and the office and back into the home. Art has long had a feminine connotation in American life, so the social shift was decisive. Decoration's low regard comes from its suburban association with the feminine arena of the American home.

By contrast, the art museum is a public legacy of the Enlightenment, when knowledge in any form was perceived to be something that should be gathered, annotated and cataloged for reasoned civic consumption. A repository of knowledge--whether an encyclopedia, the Library of Congress or the Louvre--has a formal public purpose that is different from colloquial pursuits at home.

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