Reflections From Laguna Beach
by Liz Goldner · May 27, 2020
Laguna Beach in 2014. Photo by Tom Lamb.
Laguna Beach in 2014. Photo by Tom Lamb.

Art Critics on Emergency is a real-time collective diary by AICA-USA members about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on art critics, artists, arts institutions, art education, and the arts at large. AICA-USA members are invited to submit journalistic reflections and critical observations about this moment as it unfolds.

While visiting a museum in Bern, Switzerland several years ago, I saw an exhibition of work created during the Bubonic Plague, a pandemic occurring in Europe in the 14th century. The show consisted of dozens of caricature-style illustrations by an unknown artist. While viewing this unusual display, I was struck by the range of characters who lived and died during the rampant infection. Along with paupers, court jesters, and courtesans, there were knights, royalty, and esteemed church leaders.

Similarly, as today’s COVID-19 pandemic has proven, there are no social barriers to this devastating and sometimes lethal scourge. Among those infected are royals, politicians, movie stars, musicians, TV anchors, athletes, doctors, and nurses, along with factory and food-service workers and prisoners. Yet these coronavirus victims are not the only people confined to their homes or hospitals. The majority of us are stuck at home missing the camaraderie and the hyper-connectedness of group activities, including sporting and musical events, and in my case, museum and gallery openings, and art fairs.

As Jason Farago wrote in The New York Times on March 25, 2020, “No museums, no galleries, no fairs, no art schools; no openings, no studio visits, no arguing over beers, no gauche private-jet partnerships…the world of contemporary art went from a reverberant global network to a ghost town, sheltering in place as the coronavirus endangers our cities and our livelihoods.”

From my Laguna Beach, California home I look out my windows at the flourishing spring, at the proliferating wildflowers, seeing the world through the newly crystalline air, now relatively un-besmirched by pollution. Yet not far from my windows there lurk germs that could make me very sick, perhaps even kill me.

Sitting in my idyllic environment, taking walks around my neighborhood, seeing people walking, running, riding bikes, walking dogs, enjoying themselves, I think about the 1959 film, On The Beach, starring Gregory Peck, Tony Perkins, and Ava Gardner. The movie, set in Australia during a global nuclear war, depicts local residents who acknowledge that their bucolic island is the only remaining place on Earth not yet affected by the nuclear fallout. Yet as these citizens try to behave normally they know that the fallout will reach their island within a few months and will ultimately destroy them all.

I follow the news with great intensity, often feeling astonished about the growing numbers of cases and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. I wonder if the virus will eventually reach me, my friends, or acquaintances, just as nuclear fallout was heading toward the players in On The Beach. The film’s final scene depicts a city street devoid of people while a single piece of paper is blown about. Likewise, news anchors broadcast pictures of Times Square, now mostly empty.

Joseph Kleitsch, The Old Post Office, oil on canvas, 1922-23. Property of Laguna Art Museum.
Joseph Kleitsch, The Old Post Office, oil on canvas, 1922-23. Property of Laguna Art Museum.

Some of the scenes of life around me, including stores all lit up yet free of customers, remind me of the eerie mid-century art by surrealists who depicted a strange, elusive and discomforting world.

As an art journalist, I relished attending exhibition openings, meeting with artists, curators, and art administrators. So much so that today I feel bereft by the stay-at-home orders (although I understand their purpose). I sit in my home with fond memories of my recent dialogues and interactions with artists and curators. I also think about the many exhibitions I have toured in the last year in venues throughout this country and beyond, and I reflect on the joy of viewing those art shows and the many exquisite pieces within them.

While there are numerous opportunities to look at art online, seeing the work digitally does not replace the sensation of seeing tangible artworks, of vicariously feeling the energy, drive, and intent of the artists. As an art writer I look forward to picking up where I left off a few months ago. I also realize that the world I have known will be dramatically different when we recover from this plague and the resulting economic downturn. I wonder how the many museums and galleries I have visited will fare once we return to a so-called normal state.

André Masson. There Is No Finished World. 1942. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1951.333. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
André Masson. There Is No Finished World. 1942. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Saidie A. May, BMA 1951.333. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

As an editor I work with remarked recently, we are in a new cultural paradigm. While he didn’t say what that new paradigm is, he alluded to the fact that during these shut-in times art writers might expand their horizons and write about topics that ignite their passions.

While my passions are many, I often find myself looking beyond the immediacy of the art I am writing about and the specific situations that I am in to a larger world view. I recall seeing an exhibition last year at the Baltimore Museum of Art titled Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s. This show of work by artists including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Andre Masson was based on the idea that monstrosities in the real world breed monsters in a variety of art forms producing work of exceptional creativity.

This pandemic—and the resulting bodily disengagement and political situation—is the most distressing nationwide and worldwide crisis I have experienced. Dialoguing with a group of artists recently on Zoom I expressed this opinion while alluding to the current relevance of the Monsters and Myths Surrealism exhibition. As most of the artists agreed with my assessment, I expect that when this pandemic is over we will discover that people in the art world have created work that not only expresses the era we are living in, but—as with the surrealist movement—have produced outstanding art pieces. I look forward to seeing this work and to writing about it.

Max Ernst. Europe after the Rain II. 1940-42. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art: The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Caitlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1942.281
Max Ernst. Europe after the Rain II. 1940-42. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art: The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Caitlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1942.281

Liz Goldner is an art journalist based in Laguna Beach. She contributes to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Visual Art Source and several other print and online publications.

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