Thoughts in and on Quarantine
by Janina Ciezadlo · March 27, 2020
Marcel Proust's bedroom at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Marcel Proust's bedroom at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris

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.

Artists and writers have always encountered isolation. It is true that both artists in antiquity and contemporary printmakers work in workshops full of collegiality, collaboration, and cooperation as well as competition: healthy, stimulating and invidious. Relational artists, indigenous artists, and joyful collaborators work in groups. But in the modern world relationships between viewers and the visual arts often unfold somewhere between the eye, the mind, and the artifact in silent circuits of memory, pleasure, and grief. How wonderful it is to find oneself alone in an empty gallery or museum with only the colorful voices of paintings and sculptures speaking synesthetically to the “inward eye.”

There is a particular focus we invoke to be alone with an artwork in a crowded museum or concert hall, a strange and momentary tunnel vision in which we tune out everything but the art. Writers, critics, and artists need to cultivate that solitude in which we can be absorbed in the work of the arts. We often voluntarily confine ourselves to our quarters, cut ourselves off from the noise of the world so we can hear ourselves think. Isolation can be a generative solitude or loneliness and madness. But in the end our solitude always moves toward connection.

My feelings have been alternating between horror that the entire world has been shut down by a voracious microbe possibly emanating from such a strange beast as a pangolin and relief that the outside world will be making far less quotidian demands. Fear for myself, obsessive hand washing, a terrible diffuse anxiety regarding older and vulnerable friends or refugees in crowded camps who are already suffering immensely, dark thoughts about climate change and disease, the helplessness and flimsiness of our human systems against the powerful sublime forces of nature, even against an injured, misused, terrible Gaia seep into my mind like droplets or a disease-carrying miasma.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled. 1980-1998, Museum of Modern Art
Lee Bontecou, Untitled. 1980-1998, Museum of Modern Art

I can’t help but think of Henry Darger as the end point of the isolated artist: the piles of busy fantastic watercolors discovered by a janitor in his crowded room. Perhaps one reason people like Vivian Maier is that she feeds an odd fantasy of isolation and anonymity in the midst of the city. She was the person we refused to know who was watching us. Proust of course is among the best practicioners of social distance. His cork-lined room with his blue bedspread has been reconstructed in the Musée Carnavalet like a spatial emblem of isolation. He remembered, transcribed, and transformed all of his encounters with people and art in that seclusion. It is worth considering the varieties of isolation because seclusion, refuge, escape, confinement, and hiding are all very different psychological states. I’ve always thought that everyday women loved Georgia O’Keefe not just because of her work, but because she left a problematical husband and the art world of her moment for solitude in a far-away desert: a dream many women must have had before it became accessible to many. On the other hand, you might think that those flowers and skulls were magnified in isolation, filling her visual and emotional field and crowding out anything that might distract. Lee Bontecou, less well-known and possibly less accessible, fled her success (every museum in America seemed to have one of her dark and mysterious works when I first began looking at art) for sanctuary in Pennsylvania where she launched a new and fantastic oeuvre of fragile forms. But I am forgetting the artist whose suffering in isolation we imagine from the letters and paintings (not to mention the myth) that collected so vividly and furiously: Van Gogh.

At the other end of the spectrum, or in this dialectical relationship between isolation and connection, are visual artists and critics like Apollinaire, Gleizes, and Metzinger who hobnobbed like mad in the cafes of Paris. Their art and writing arose from their social dynamics. Famous pictures of art circles like The Irascibles offer images of interdependent aesthetic networks, which famously included their critics, forever giving the lie to the ideal of the distanced, objective critic. Sylvia Sleigh’s paintings of art world types sitting naked as jay-birds evoke another convivial social set. Recently a colleague of mine, Jeff Huebner, published a book about the Chicago muralist William Walker whose collaborative Wall of Respect was a gathering place for his community, for painting, music, poetry, and politics in the street. The very purpose of the Chicago mural movement was to rupture the isolating divisions of racism. Back in France I think of Joan Mitchell, who fled New York, as being part of an on-going party. Except perhaps for those hours when she confronted the canvas with her gestures of emotional isolation, exaltation, and anger.

Valerie Madonia, former leading ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet, casting out the virus in Telluride Colorado. Screen capture.
Valerie Madonia, former leading ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet, casting out the virus in Telluride Colorado. Screen capture.

One of the more hopeful aspects of the quarantine is that the internet, which in recent years took a dark turn into surveillance and a kind of brilliant parasitic collecting of our energies, has become a place of creative connection, somewhat like what the old sun washed gurus promised when it first arrived. Museums and galleries are posting collections and walk-throughs. Tutorials for children imprisoned with their parents are extending creative possibilities. Artists are compiling playlists. Dancers are sharing their solitary moves. Somewhere in my internet rovings I found a quote regarding the purpose of art. It is: To look through another person’s eyes and feel less lonely. In our quarantine and isolation we are becoming, I hope, keenly aware of the world, of our vulnerable shared humanity and community.

Janina Ciezadlo is a freelance art critic whose work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, NewCity, Bridge, Afterimage, and Hyperllergic, among other publications.

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