I Went To The Whitney And…Threw Up

All right, not exactly right away but this really was a museum experience remembered by Henry Geldzahler, the legendary and sometimes controversial Metropolitan Museum curator of contemporary art from 1960 to 1977.

MoMA in New York has now on its website a page that posts notes left by visitors about their experience: I Went to MoMA And   See also Judith Dobrzynski’s blog  – and my comment – about it, in which she talks about the importance of making memory in a museum.

Back in 1951, when Geldzahler made his visit to the Whitney as a 15-year-old, there was of course no invitation from any museum to a visitor to leave a record of his experience. Geldzahler recalled his in a 1993 interview:

… I saw a show of Arshile Gorky’s at the Whitney. I stayed three hours, came home, threw up, slept for eighteen hours, then, two years later announced my ambition to become a curator. I was dizzy and disoriented at the time because I saw something swimming…

But that was not the only time he had thrown up. He did too when he first encountered a Robert Irwin minimalist  work (around 1962), which he saw as the turning point between Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist art:

…I wasn’t ready to accept it. I was challenged. I had to accustom myself to an unfamiliar, an astonishing new way of seeing.  I had to face it over a period of time…

While emotion is a major (if not the only) factor in memory, there probably aren’t too many of us who would react quite like Geldzahler. But new things upset us and it’s good to know that this very avant-garde curator too got upset, violently upset with something new.

But is everything that’s new, that’s ‘game changing’ art?  Well firstly, unless we know already everyone who’s been around, how would we know who’s a newcomer? (Shock alone is not enough). And secondly, how can we know if it is art? Here’s Gledzhahler again:

the shock of quality, that instantaneous weakness, that breathlessness we feel when in the presence of something that is absolutely right. **

Yes again, it is very personal and emotional – but a ‘gut feeling’ of one who’s seen and examined a lot of art for a very long time. One man’s intuition is another’s hard labor.

** Oh then what is ‘absolutely right’? Virginia Woolf says of a good book: It just hangs together.  For me, there’s a sort of electricity that runs through the whole body, gripping the heart and the throat.

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