Although the summer does not seem to end, the mornings have a barest scent of fallen leaves. The angle of light at mid-afternoon has changed. The responsibilities of work and school and life have returned. This last gasp of summer is its most painfully sweet moment. It concentrates long, drawn out summer months into shortening days; it overwhelms us with sweetness while acknowledging its own limits. These limits, these glimpses ahead at fall are reminders that the trees and houses that have stood hidden, robed in summer splendor persist underneath the green.
Last week, the Hunter Museum of American Art hosted Art Alive!, a night of conversation and performance inspired by Helen Frankenthaler’s Around the Clock with Red. The large painting was the backdrop for the evenings activities. Assistant Curator of Education Rachel White led conversation about the painting, placing the work and Frankenthaler into a larger historical context and the context of the museum and the other paintings in the gallery. Kayla Mae Anderson’s performance with four dancers and the conversation that followed extended the time spent with the painting and invited wide ranging interpretations from audience members.
I left the museum, filled with the discussion, the movement, thoughts of what type of attention I paid. The evening stayed with me as I moved through the week, eating lunch, looking again at Frankenthaler’s other paintings, checking the mail, and it followed me through the gallery walk last weekend, accompanying me through crowded receptions of small talk and open studios.
I visited Around the Clock with Red again a few days later, still holding the evening, the performance, the conversation, and, as I looked at the painting again, I realized that more than the evening, I had been living with the painting. It had not changed. Its paint was as static as ever. The textured reds still anchored my eyes while sending them towards the edges of the canvas. The large apricot swath across its middle was as raw and exposed as before, still making me feel as if the top of my head were taken off. The multitude of gestural languages Frankenthaler speaks were as compelling as the first time I saw them. The painting persists through the other layers built up around it. I saw the same painting with the same eyes, but the permanence of the painting, its lasting objectness stripped away the layers I had built around it.
The historic, economic, cultural, and other frameworks Around the Clock with Red and any painting have accrued over time are inescapable. We cannot separate it from the art market with its presence in a survey museum and the reminder of who the donors were. We cannot view it outside the structures of power and cultural domination inherent in a museum and the white male dominated art world that Frankenthaler knew and we still know. We cannot lift it from endless cultural consumption which thins our attention every direction we look.
Saying the painting still lives within those layers is obvious and facile, but, within that statement’s simplicity, we should not forget the power of an object to leave us breathless, to move us beyond words, to help us carry and share the weight of those frameworks. There is work to be done to identify and name the structures that support and enable our cultural and civic institutions and our personal lives. We must acknowledge that we continue to exist within a series of large and small, more and less noticeable frames. We are not erasing those frames by recognizing and celebrating the objects they contain. We revel in our bodies precisely because we carry our skeletons around with us wherever we go.