At the Guggenheim, writers and artists cross-pollinate.
Writers have always been in love with the visual arts. Just think of Frank O’Hara’s sly poem “Why I Am Not a Painter, ” which is actually all about the creative entanglement of the two forms—tinged with yearning and a wry bit of envy:
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
And it isn’t just poets. Hemingway, that great champion of muscular prose, credited Cézanne as one of his masters—a guy who painted pictures of rooftops. More recently, Don DeLillo has haunted the outer edges of the art world in novels such as The Body Artist, Falling Man, and 2010’s Point Omega, which begins and ends with a description of Douglas Gordon’s video installation 24 Hour Psycho.
That’s why it is such a pleasure to walk up the Guggenheim’s white spiral and look at the work on view in “Storylines: Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim.” “Storylines” is about the resurgence of narrative in the visual arts, but it is also about how writers still love to write about the things artists make. In a moment of inspiration, the exhibition’s curators got thirty novelists and poets, from John Ashbery to Jeanette Winterson, to write creative responses to the works in the show. These responses are available in booklet form as you walk in, or, and they’re collected on an inviting . Fifteen are also available, with the writers reading their work.
Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s deputy director, explained the genesis of the idea. “Once we decided to focus the exhibition on the idea of narrative, we immediately thought of inviting authors to contribute texts on individual works in order to extend the idea of storytelling and to promote the fact that much contemporary art is open-ended and subjective. We did not want to dictate meaning.”
There is a spontaneity and playfulness to the writers’ pieces. The novelist Helen DeWitt writes about an assemblage by Zoe Leonard made of vintage suitcases lined up in a row—one suitcase for each year of the artist’s life. DeWitt’s response is a rapid-fire montage of characters in motion, each a paragraph long:
Inge left because she thought that if she did not get out she would kill herself. When she was at school no one talked about the camps, you didn’t know. But then there was the Eichmann trial. She got a suitcase from the Keller and crept out at the crack of dawn. Matthew married her so she could stay in England, this is before the EU.
Heta met James at the Magdalen Summer Ball (a girl loves a hop). They got engaged three days later (he was going to India in four). They waited a year before fixing a date. She had qualms on the voyage out. His mother locked her in a hotel room and poured champagne down her throat.
Jack boxed his way around Mexico in the summers to pay for college. It took a while before he understood ¡Mata al gringo!