Art

Manhattan Over Our Heads: On Atoms, the Void, and Art in an Anxious Age

by

Elwood G. Baker started traveling early, periodically running away from the eight-acre truck farm his parents owned near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At age nineteen he married my mother, Naomi, and soon afterward, as the Korean War entered its second year, he was drafted into the Army and stationed at the White Sands Proving Ground, near the small town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Corporal Baker maintained the communication wires that stitched together the blast bunkers, stationary rocket stands, radar dishes, and other facilities scattered over the vast reaches of desert spanning the middle of the state. On more than one occasion, as his jeep bounced around the cacti, he stopped at Trinity Site, a shallow crater roughly half a mile across that was covered with a thin layer of “Alamogordo glass,” or “Trinitite.”

Trinitite was created at 5:29:45 a.m., Mountain War Time, on July 16, 1945, when the world’s first atomic bomb, the fruit of the infamous Manhattan Project, was detonated atop a hundred-foot-high steel tower. A U.S. Geological Survey paper describes this strange vitreous substance, which exists nowhere else on earth, as consisting of a top layer “1 to 2 centimeters thick, with the upper surface marked by a very thin sprinkling of dust which fell upon it while it was still molten,” and notes that “the color of the glass is a pale bottle green.” The heat of the blast instantaneously fused the tawny desert sand into a porous, glossy-green crust, the color roughly analogous to the Gallo wine jugs my father began collecting in the late 1960s.

By that time my entire family was living in Alamogordo, after Dad switched from the Army to the civilian side of the military-industrial complex, working at what was now White Sands Missile Range as a field engineer for Westinghouse Corporation. At some point during my teenage years my father mentioned that he’d picked up a few flakes of Trinitite while in the service, but we moved often in those days and it remained buried in our many unopened boxes. I never did get a chance to see it, though as a kid steeped in war comics, I was extremely curious about the stuff, a literal by-product of the cataclysmic destruction — like something from H.G. Wells or the Bible — that had ended World War II. In high school I broadened my reading to such classics as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and John Hersey’s Hiroshima and began to understand the war as an actual series of events, rather than a mere backdrop for the Hollywood epics my older brother and I enjoyed at dusk-to-dawn drive-in movies. The first of the two bombs used against Japan, “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima from a B-29 Superfortress with “Enola Gay,” the name of the pilot’s mother, painted on its fuselage. The roughly 75,000 Japanese citizens who were instantly vaporized by the explosion, or who died in the firestorm that immediately followed it, did not perceive the event as a fracture in human history, as we do now. It was simply the end of time.

In the 1980s I was busy with art school and had forgotten about my dad’s Trinitite, but WWII and its attendant horrors stayed with me. I was fascinated by an account of Harry Truman, recently ascended to the Oval Office, struggling with the decision to use the country’s secret atomic super-bombs in an attempt to bring the war to a swift end. “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in,” he had confided to his diary. “I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland.”

That chilling phrase — “when Manhattan appears over their homeland” — tolled in my mind when I moved to New York City, in 1986, after receiving a degree in fine arts from the Maryland Institute. A couple of years earlier, President Reagan had joshed into an open microphone, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” The jocular warmongering of the Great Communicator was a reminder that the Big Apple was targeted by God only knew how many Soviet warheads. But the city offered its own solace: For a twentysomething who had spent numberless hours drawing bottles and studying still lifes by Cézanne and Chardin, the Metropolitan Museum held out hope for civilization.

In college, an insightful instructor had insisted that we study the work of Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964), whose small paintings of bottles, boxes, bowls, and other workaday objects failed to fire my imagination at the time. But over the years, Morandi’s stubborn pursuit of the ancient craft of painting in the age of photography and film revealed a reality beyond mere perception. By 2008 I was writing in the Voice about the way Morandi’s natura morta evoked the “mystery of representation — how the three-dimensional elements of our physical world can be distilled into daubs of pigment on a flat surface. ‘Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own,’ the artist once said. ‘Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.’ ”

I wondered if Morandi was aware that his statement echoed the philosopher Democritus, whose insights are known to us only through luck and a great deal of tenacious scholarship. As Richard Rhodes notes in his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ” ‘For by convention color exists,’ the Greek physician Galen quotes from one of Democritus’ seventy-two lost books, ‘by convention bitter, by convention sweet, but in reality atoms and void.’ ”

Both philosopher and painter were struggling with something profound yet fundamentally elusive, which accurately describes the experience of viewing Morandi’s small canvases. The painter captured in the simplest of material facts — bottles, cups, tabletops — the interplay of light on a surface, exposing a void at the center of the physical world.

REMOVED AND DESTROYED

On April 19, 2012, I received the following email among my usual batch of gallery press releases:

Friedrich Petzel Gallery is currently preparing for an exhibition by our Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski. We are writing to you specifically as Christian has chosen you to hopefully participate in a specific work in the show. This work is titled “Review”…. In order to complete this work, the gallery is inviting a number of renowned art critics, journalists, and writers who Christian has chosen to write a review about the artwork, put it in an empty bottle and send it back to the gallery to become the artwork. Thus, ultimately, the work consists of a large group of bottles, each one with a unique review of the work rolled up and sealed with wax: The review makes the work, the work consists of the reviews.

The content of the review cannot be read without breaking the seal, and thus destroying the artwork. It will remain a mystery how the critics respond to the piece, and the piece can only exist once the critics respond to it.

Despite the flattery, I was in no mood for such an amorphous undertaking. Barely a week earlier, my father had died. But I soon began to think that such an oddball endeavor might help me cope. So I contacted the gallery and learned that Jankowski wanted each participant to write the contribution by hand and then place it in a bottle of that writer’s choosing. Review amounted to a conceptual ouroboros: How do you review a show before you get a chance to see it, an artwork that will exist only after you review it? The exhibition opened at the Petzel Gallery, in New York City, in June 2012. It was shown again at Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Art from February to April of 2014. Short of vandalism, iconoclasm, or social collapse, no one will ever read the words that I and the approximately one hundred other writers who collaborated with Jankowski agreed to provide.

Jankowski (born in 1968 in Göttingen, Germany) is a member of the cadre of nomadic international conceptual artists who occupy the realm defined in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp flipped a urinal on its back and titled it Fountain, instantly shattering the veneer of uniqueness, beauty, and craft that had long characterized our idea of art. Jankowski has dashed through that fissure, taking up residence in the space Duchamp vacated with his earthly departure in 1968. In one instance, he upped Duchamp’s “readymade” ante by partnering with an Italian shipyard to offer a yacht for sale at a premium if his own name was added to the stern, a stunt suggesting that the presence of The Artist was enough to transform an always depreciating luxury item into an infinitely appreciating collectible.

‘Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own’

London’s Tate gallery describes another Jankowski piece, The Holy Artwork, as “a conceptual video work made in collaboration with Pastor Peter Spencer of the Texas-based Harvest Fellowship Church, which was filmed and broadcast as part of Spencer’s weekly televangelical show. It is characteristic of Christian Jankowski’s performative practice, where he works with people operating outside of the art world to question its value-systems and the problems associated with artistic production and authorship.” With Review, Jankowski was decidedly not working with folks outside the art world, nor with a group that spends much time questioning its own “value-systems.” But in asking the sly question “Can content forever concealed be considered an integral component of a work of art?” Jankowski has certainly adjusted one of those values: the relationship between critic and artist. If all of the writers involved did remain true to the artist’s concept, each creating a single handwritten, never-duplicated essay only dimly observable through the variously tinted bottles, their opinions will never see the light of day. So much for “authorship.” As one review of Review noted, Jankowski reportedly told a participating writer that if “she were to republish her review, the bottle would have to be removed from the installation and destroyed.”

Does concealment complete Jankowski’s piece? Or will that fall to some oligarch or hedge-fund manager or other cliché of the early 21st century’s collector class, who buys Review, cracks open the bottles, and reads the essays, thereby completing the work in an entirely different fashion? Because, let’s face it, Jankowski can set his own rules, but nothing can stop a self-styled artist (albeit one with more cash than most) from putting on a few finishing touches of her own.

SHIVA’S BED OF NAILS

In an engrossing Art in America article from 1996, art historian Gary Schwartz tells the story of Ryoei Saito, a wealthy Japanese art collector who announced that when he died he would, as tradition dictates, have a number of dear possessions incinerated with him on his funeral pyre. Among them were to be Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette (a smaller version of the masterpiece in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay) and van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which Saito bought at Christie’s in 1990 for $82.5 million, at that time the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art. Public outrage apparently dissuaded the businessman from following through on his megalomaniacal vision, and when he died — bankrupt, as it turned out — spokesmen for his company reported that the paintings were safe, although their whereabouts remain unknown to this day, lost amid rumors of predatory creditors, Swiss bank vaults, secretive collectors, and other archetypes of an overblown art market.

“Apparently [Saito] let himself be swayed by the feeling shared by many that works of art are not just chattel or possessions,” Schwartz wrote. “Great works of art deserve to outlive us. Artists make them for posterity; art immortalizes its subjects. Eternal life is the natural condition of art.” Schwartz then added, “If those were his reasons, he was misinformed. The natural condition of art is not to live on but to perish — usually sooner, almost inevitably later.” He went on to cite studies claiming that as many as 99 percent of panels painted in Italy between 1210 and 1310, and possibly 95 percent of fifteenth-century manuscripts, have been lost forever.

So what happens to all that art? First come the choices dealers and curators make as to what to preserve and what to consign to the fates. Vincent van Gogh was fortunate that brother Theo was an art dealer — few others wanted his paintings during his lifetime. Next, artworks are generally vulnerable: In 2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, stone tablets incised with some of humanity’s earliest known writings, along with clay pots and marble carvings dating as far back as 5000 B.C., were smashed or damaged in a frenzy of looting at the Baghdad Museum, as American forces concentrated on protecting Iraq’s Oil Ministry, a few blocks away. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed this cultural carnage as “Stuff happens.”

And then there’s the fate of pieces such as Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Abbey Graveyard Under Snow (1819), reproduced in one of my thickest art-history tomes in black-and-white with the notation, “Formerly Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin (destroyed 1945).” But Allied bombers bouncing the Nazi rubble in World War II is very different from what befell Graham Sutherland’s modernist, warts-and-all 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill. The two-time prime minister and Sunday painter reviled the work (“It makes me look half-witted, which I ain’t,” he remarked), which was unveiled before Parliament and never seen again. Knowing the pain the image of the tired old Tory occasioned in her husband, Clementine Churchill eventually had the canvas burned. (Both the Friedrich and the Sutherland continue to exist in reproduction, but stripped of any sense of the bodily presence oil paint brings to a subject.)

And much more could go missing if some series of disasters — rising seas, electromagnetic-pulse attacks, or even the garden-variety wars and plagues for which we have plenty of civilization-razing precedent — destroys or hopelessly jumbles our archives. Who will remember that a pile of bricks is a Carl Andre sculpture and not desperately needed building materials?

Yet New York, despite the scars of September 11, 2001, has never been sacked as Rome was, and it is always heartening to hop on the subway, stroll to the Met, and gaze at an incredibly delicate Greek vase, forever fragile but still with us after 2,500 years. And around the world, serendipity often plays a role, as when a farmer plowing his fields or weekenders exploring a cave stumble upon long-forgotten artifacts. We are plain lucky to know something of our kin from more than 30,000 years ago through their ivory carvings and paintings on cavern walls; some, such as the negative handprints created by blowing pigment around outstretched fingers, reveal astounding conceptual leaps. “I was here,” they communicate over the millennia, a gesture acknowledging the hope that there will always be future generations to discover what we have left behind.

Which summons to mind a perplexing art project I wrote about for the Voice in 2002 that had its origins in a most modern predicament. Because of the toxicity of spent fuel rods and other irradiated equipment, bureaucrats have for decades been trying to figure out a way to dispose of nuclear waste without setting us all aglow. Construction was begun on a vast underground repository at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada, but that fell victim to politics and environmental concerns. Whatever the solution, it must push the limits of human time frames to take into account climatic change (will deserts become wetter over thousands of years and rust the waste containers?) and geology (earthquakes are rare only during our lifespans, not across geologic time). And it will need to be visible and comprehensible for those people tens or hundreds of generations down the line. As Frederick Newmeyer, former president of the Linguistic Society of America, points out, any language becomes “unintelligible to the descendants of the speakers after the passage of between 500 and 1,000 years.” (If that sounds like hyperbole, go crack open your Chaucer.)

So, in the early 1990s, teams of linguists, artists, engineers, archaeologists, and other experts were hired to design “Passive Institutional Controls,” meaning monuments that could wordlessly work as warning signs while surviving any climatic or geologic calamity. Recommendations included “massive, square-mile complexes such as ‘Landscape of Thorns’ (50-foot-high concrete spires with sharp points jutting out at all angles), ‘Forbidding Blocks’ (gargantuan black irregular cubes of stone, too narrowly spaced and hot to provide shelter), and other ‘menacing earthworks,’ all designed to convey ‘poisoned and parched and dead land, a place that’s really no place.’ ”

Anti-art, in other words.

But structures that deter some explorers will perversely attract others. You need only consider the waiting list to view Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, a mile-by-kilometer expanse of 400 stainless-steel spears ranged across the western New Mexico desert — Shiva’s own bed of nails — to understand the futility of trying to discourage that most curious of cats, humanity.

YOU ONLY DIE TWICE

We accept that the Venus de Milo, found in pieces, is mysteriously missing her arms, and that somewhere in the dim recesses of history, the Winged Victory of Samothrace was decapitated. Yet they remain beautiful works of art, even more beguiling through their survival.

No one reading these words now will be around to learn whether Jankowski’s bottles have that sort of staying power. As they break over time, will future curators flatten out the essays in vitrines next to the survivors? Or will they leave them rolled up, valiantly unread? Will the written language, given enough time, still be intelligible when the bottles finally break?

I wonder if Jankowski will accept the inevitable cracks in his artwork with the same equanimity as Duchamp, who, in 1926, learned that careless truckers had damaged The Large Glass (which he had labored over from 1915 to 1923) “after bouncing for sixty miles in Connecticut.” His reaction: “The more I look at it, the more I like the cracks because they are not like shattered glass. They have a shape. There’s symmetry in the cracking. The two crackings are symmetrically disposed and there’s almost an intention…that I’m not responsible for.”

At Petzel, Jankowski arrayed his bottles in clumps upon the gallery floor, as if gathered in mental tide pools, their obscured contents like a negative of the radiance emanating from Morandi’s still lifes. In reviews of the exhibition, which also included videos and other works, one critic lamented that “the fraught image of the many mute messages in their bottles imparts an unmistakable whiff of futility to the notion that critics’ discursive efforts have any audience at all.” Another noted that “just about the only thing we’re able to learn from these writers is what a wide variety of booze they consume.”

Indeed. And yet, through the alchemy of the art market, these homely, nigh-worthless bottles have sudden cachet and actual worth.

Which brings me back to my dad and his Gallo jugs. Over the years he had stored them in our various garages and basements, planning to sell them one day as candleholders or to outfit them as lamps by adding sockets. Finally, though, he decided to simply let them age into “collectible” status, even as I argued that they wouldn’t be valuable until long after any of us could profit from them. I also complained that the carton containing the Trinitite had been lost, suggesting that if we hadn’t been hauling those damned bottles back and forth across the continent, our atomic mementos wouldn’t have gone missing in all the confusion. He chided me, saying that the bottles would at least be suitable for storing water after the apocalypse — nuclear war with the Soviets, at one point in time, devastating global warming in one of our last conversations — and so would always be valuable.

In the way of sons since time immemorial, I rolled my eyes.

Dad died on April 11, 2012, and although I’m glad he never saw any of those sorts of catastrophes, he did live through the death of an older sister and a younger brother while he was still in his twenties, as well as the suicide of his alcoholic daughter, my sister, in February of 2012. Her name was Bonnie and she was kind and generous and unlucky, and, like too many people, she never felt terribly comfortable in this world.

Through the alchemy of the art market, these bottles have actual worth.

The slippery artist Banksy, whose career thrives outside museums, once told an interviewer, “Graffiti’s always been a temporary art form. You make your mark and then they scrub it off. I mean, most of it is just designed to look good from a moving vehicle. Not necessarily in the history books. But maybe all art is about just trying to live on for a bit. I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

Strange, that “a bit later on,” from someone whose trenchant art will keep his alias (and, eventually, his real name) well-known long after he’s dead. But he’s a smart guy, and, after all, there is no actual person — not king or pharaoh, not god, not Democritus, never mind an artist — whose name has been said for anywhere near as long as those cave paintings have awaited rediscovery. Or for as long as America’s homeless nuclear waste will remain deadly radioactive. The history of civilization is so far very short.

Perhaps that’s why I mention Bonnie’s name here. Maybe by my calling attention to her, you might wonder briefly about her. And maybe sometime, unexpectedly and unbidden, in the near or far future, you will remember these small things I’ve said about her. I was in New Mexico to spread some of Bonnie’s ashes in the desert near White Sands National Monument — a place she and my entire family loved — when my wife and I got the news that my father had died. Earlier in the week we’d been at Trinity Site, a pilgrimage I’d long wanted to make, ever since I’d heard that for two days a year the Army opened the still operational proving grounds to the public. I’d told my father I would try to pick up a piece of Trinitite from the original Ground Zero, but I’d also warned him that I might not be able to, since it was against federal law to remove anything from the site, a regulation enforced by soldiers who roam the area during the Open House days. And anyway, most of the bomb glass had been plowed under decades before, for vague public-safety reasons.

While we were planning the New Mexico trip, poring over maps, my father had mentioned that Trinitite could be purchased at rock shops in the area, since ranchers had collected bits of it before it was illegal to do so. We both laughed when I said that we could finally make some money from his green Gallo bottles by melting them down to create counterfeit Trinitite. Three days before Dad died, I bought two small pieces of Trinitite at $30 a gram, and he was glad to hear that his lost fragments of history were going to be replaced.

Over all the years that I have pursued my own work, my father never fully grasped what I was trying to do with painting, drawing, video, and writing, but to his credit, he never discouraged me in my pursuit of art. He certainly liked having my landscape drawings of the farm of his youth hanging on the walls of the house he and my mother built on that same family land after they retired — the farm he had spent so many years running away from. Once, during a stretch when I was broke, he and my mother were kind enough to buy one of my abstract paintings, and hang it up to boot.

But Dad understood finance. He had once been a serious card-counter at the blackjack tables in Reno and Lake Tahoe. So while he might not have fully grasped Jankowski’s intentions with Review, he would have loved the fact that an art project had turned out to be a good bet to finally make one of his Gallo bottles valuable. He would have enjoyed thinking about that bottle being bought for one price and perhaps auctioned at a much higher one in the future.

And he probably would grudgingly have understood the particular stipulation I inserted about my own participation. To avoid conflicts of interest, I never accept anything from an artist I review, and so although Jankowski offered each writer a photograph of his or her bottle floating in the Hudson after he had sealed it with wax, as “a sign of gratitude for your collaboration,” I turned him down. Considering that my old colleague Christian Viveros-Fauné, now a critic at Artnet, recently deemed Jankowski one of the “10 Artists to Watch in 2016,” Dad would’ve just chalked it up to my usual financial acumen.

But that’s OK. All I want is for Dad’s bottle to travel through the world and the ages, vulnerable as all get-out, yet cared for through the aegis of humanity, which we can all hope will one day no longer need places like Trinity Site.

I sometimes speculate about what those other collaborating arts journalists wrote. Did they try to imagine the physical layout of the show, or focus on its conceptual ramifications? Did they ruminate on the meaning of criticism? The fragility of the bottles? Of civilization? Maybe one author wrote a love note to someone who will never know he or she was the beloved. What does one write to that conjured audience of the future, who ideally will never read the words, unless — see Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003 — things fall apart?

Perhaps you are wondering what, exactly, I wrote on those pages that I stuffed into my father’s old wine bottle. The title, “Manhattan Over Their Heads,” as can be discerned through the green glass, is almost the same as the title for this story. The plan, of course, is that no one will ever compare the rest of those words with these.

If you are, I hope things aren’t too bad.