Artists

I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, many years ago. It was one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. When I reached the end, reluctant to part with the characters and the story that had so absorbed me, I read first the “Author’s Note” and then turned to the very last page. In “About the Author” I discovered that Chabon was almost my age.

Not only had he published two previous novels and two short stories collections, but he’d won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Kavalier & Clay. What had I accomplished in these same years? I wasn’t comparing myself to Michael Chabon’s literary skill; I simply stacked my achievements against his, and came up short.

A new show has opened at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum of Art: Painting Air, by Spencer Finch. The exhibit brochure contains an insightful interview of Spencer by Judith Tannenbaum, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. Spencer mentions seeing a piece in the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, by Bruce Nauman, and feeling both excited and angry. “He just hit it out of the park, and you think, why bother?”

Spencer Finch is just as charming, engaging and interesting in person. At his show’s opening last night he and Judith had a live conversation, with questions from a packed audience. Thankfully, he was not permanently discouraged by the Nauman piece because in Painting Air he’s created a visually stunning experience. Spencer’s work explores color, and Painting Air takes this to literal heights: four 16-foot high walls are painted with vivid colors in overlapping squares. More than 100 large panes of glass hang suspended from a grid in the center of the room, and the color blocks on the walls are seen through—and reflected in—these slowly moving pieces of glass; the vibrant colors shift and soften, and the effect is mesmerizing and very beautiful.

I had eagerly anticipated this show because I’ve been privy to regular updates on its progress. Cherisse and Cathleen worked as part of the museum’s installation crew on the meticulous painting of the walls and the hanging of the glass. The process was unusual in that they (and many others) were part of the show’s creation—it was Spencer Finch’s vision and inspiration executed by the crew, his own studio staff, and some of his RISD students.

That work alone would be enough for a show, but there was more. A curtained area contained Bee Purple, a fascinating experiment in capturing what, and how, bees see (an ultra-violet light invisible to humans, and objects as hexagons). In this room was a large flower, constructed of hexagons; the eye was directed to the center, where the bees would find nectar and pollen. Because of the crowds at the opening, an interesting phenomenon occurred, perhaps not anticipated by Spencer. The noise from the crowds, muffled through the heavy curtains, sounded like a raging wind and gave the impression that the flower was a quiet sanctuary.

Some of Spencer Finch’s other explorations of color and nature were on exhibit, as was a fascinating room filled with items from the museum’s collection. These were chosen and arranged by Spencer to juxtapose specific things (for instance, wildly different works by a variety of artists, all done in 1972).

The show is up through the end of July, and I can’t wait to go back. I am sure that each visit will bring fresh revelations, much like a great book.

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