Notebook, 1993-


In Time

Critic's Notebook - 'Hurry Up: Art Is Long, and Time Is Fleeting' By Holland Cotter - Published: January 6, 2006. NYTimes.

ONE year passes. With a cheer and a toot, another year starts. Then before you know what's what, that year, too, is yesterday's news. How does this happen? Time, which once felt limitless, then plentiful and then at least available, is becoming a problem.

Art should help with this problem, shouldn't it? You go to a museum, and there art is, undiminished, just where it was before. But, no. Art is all tied up in time. Time is its subject and its substance. Art records time, measures it, manipulates it, invents it. Art also exists in time, is composed of it, is swallowed up in it. The idea of timeless art is sweet. But there is no "timeless." And the longer a piece of art outlives its time, the more clearly it speaks of ephemerality, what is or will be gone.

How did I get going on this? I guess because it's early January, and exhibitions that opened last year are starting to close across the city. Many are small shows that I haven't seen, or saw late, or didn't have time to write about, which I regret. People work hard on these projects. The art itself is, as often as not, a delight, a discovery. The chances of the same material being assembled again in one place soon are slim.

For all these reasons, let me mention, just under the wire, a few exhibitions approaching their sell-by date. Each, for different reasons, is worth a last-minute dash. And time is a theme ticking away in them.

Asia Society
"Rockefeller Collection in Focus: Jizo Bosatsu" at the Asia Society actually seems tailored to a quick visit: it's one small sculpture in a room. But you might consider giving the image some of your time, because that is what it is giving you. Carved from cypress by Zen'en in early-13th-century Japan, this figure is of the bodhisattva (bosatsu in Japanese) known as Jizo, a Buddhist deity who has postponed nirvana to help mortals thrash through the cycles of rebirth.

In Japan, Jizo is enormously popular. He is a listener and a counselor, especially protective of women, children and travelers. You'll find his baby-faced figure along city streets and country roads, often dressed in a hand-knit cap and supplied with a glass of water. But as gentle as he looks, he is a power player in the cosmic scheme. He is in charge of clearing the way for the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya, who will bring the age of moral darkness to a close. And it is Jizo who personally leads the faithful to heaven, where time stops, and rest begins.

To a believer, the sculpture embodies Jizo, who gives you his attention and patiently waits for yours. And, at one time, the image embodied other things, too. When the statue was conserved in Japan in 1955, 1,000 tiny, carved Jizo images were discovered packed inside, like seeds. They vanished, and their fate remains a mystery.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
There is no mystery, however, about where we mortals experience time most immediately: in our bodies, as we age, meet with accidents, fall sick, return to health. And the corporeal experience of time is what "The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt," an entrancing show at the Metropolitan Museum, is about.

Egypt was no picnic 3,000 years ago. The average lifespan was about 40 years. Wild animals were ever present. Childbirth was perilous. Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness were shots in the dark. Physiological and psychological procedures had about equal weight. Doctors were priests. Medicine was a blend of science and art. The science was mostly fanciful; the art was almost entirely functional, as in the case of a tiny amulet in the shape of a staring eye.

Today we can see the chip-size amulet as a decorative charm prettily worked in gold. In fact, the eye was that of the sun god Horus, who, the story goes, lost his sight every evening at dusk and regained it at dawn. The amulet was probably prescribed to ward off eye disease. But it also spoke about larger things: illness and recovery, death and continued life. The Egyptians made every effort to extend their time on earth, but were equally intent on ensuring eternal time in the hereafter. The 65 pieces of art in the show helped them do both. Although some showed signs of active use, all were found in tombs.

Just as tombs are cultural time capsules, so are books. And cultural history radiates from "First Impressions: Hebrew Printing in the 15th Century," a tiny gem of a show skimmed from the colossal database of some 400,000 volumes that is the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The books on view are technically referred to as incunabula, a term derived from the Latin word for cradle and used to describe the earliest European printed matter, from the Gutenberg era. From the first, Jews were active in establishing presses. They understood the practical value that the printed word would have in consolidating a people spread over vast distances.

The show, which coincides with publication of a complete catalog of Hebrew incunabula in the library's collection, is peppered with firsts: a copy of the first illustrated book printed in Hebrew, a volume from the first complete edition of the Hebrew Bible; the first printed comprehensive book of prayers.

And it has a few items that are unique, including a one-page edition of a Hebrew almanac from Italy. Like everything else in the show, this little calendar thinks big. It provides Torah readings for each week and tallies the years since the creation of the world, the flood and the giving of the Torah. But how did a flimsy broadside, meant to be tacked to a wall, survive? By printing the wrong year, 1493, instead of 1496. Tossed aside as a reject, the almanac was used to line a book and has survived all this time, its words intact, including the phrase "New year in Jerusalem" at the bottom of the page.

Hispanic Society of America
We used to say that photography "captured" time, though we don't say that so much any more, since the medium's reputation for truth-telling has come under a cloud. Luckily for us, early-20th-century photographers entertained no such doubts, which is why we have "In the Lands of Extremadura" at the Hispanic Society of America.

The show includes 80 of the thousands of pictures taken in Spain by the photographer Ruth Matilda Anderson as part of a documentary project commissioned by the Hispanic Society in the 1920's. Anderson, who was from Nebraska, trained as a fine art photographer in New York and brought a refined eye to her pictures of village life in southwestern Spain.

To some degree, she approached her subject selectively; no signs of distress or disorder or modern life enter the picture. At the same time, a sense of unobtrusive objectivity marks much of her work. And her portraits of women and children seem to be products of trust and love.

So it is crushing to read the field notes she made on returning to one village 20 years after her first visit. Businesses had failed, people had left, the modern world had come. She writes of a woman named Crescencia, whom she had photographed with a young son in 1928, observing that now in her face "hooded eyes matched grim mouth; three of her sons had died out of their time, in war or motor accident."

New-York Historical Society
If photographers edit time, other artists invent it from scratch. This is what many of the 19th-century American landscape painters in "Nature and the American Vision" at the New-York Historical Society did. Frederic Edwin Church was one of them.

A student of Thomas Cole and a leading light of the Hudson River School, Church arrived on the scene about the time that the United States had become a trans-Atlantic political power in search of a cultural profile. Church, a zesty artist with a good hand, some business savvy, theatrical instincts and a naturalist's eye for observation, answered the call.

In the marketing concept that he and others devised, America would be presented as the un-Europe, which might shade into the new, improved Europe. Europe had its Romantic ruins, but America had its ultra-Romantic wilderness. Europe had antique; America had primeval. Europe told time in centuries; America told time in eons.

All of this was spelled out in landscape paintings, which became 19th-century America's official art. After traveling, like a combination pioneer and research scientist, to the Western frontier and to South America, Church turned out billboard-size pictures with a barely veiled symbolic content: panoramas of lush forests (limitless natural resources), smoking volcanoes (explosive energies barely contained) and arching rainbows (divine approval). Far in advance of digital Hollywood, a total reality created from special effects, this was a reality of a distinctly American Eden, running on distinctively American time: a forward-march millenarian now.

You'll find another, contradictory take on American time in a suite of 10 paintings by Ed Ruscha at the Whitney in pictures with conscious links to the Hudson River School work. These pieces, too, are landscapes, or rather cityscapes, and, as the official United States entry to last summer's Venice Biennale, they can claim a certain nationalist status. Finally, their collective title, "Course of Empire," echoes that of Thomas Cole's famous series of paintings, which is in the New-York Historical Society's show.

The Cole series is a narrative in five sequential pictures of the rise and fall of an imaginary civilization. Mr. Ruscha's nonlinear series is conceived as a set of five pairs, each pair a then-and-now view of industrial buildings. Change brought by time in the Cole series is cumulative and catastrophic: humanity is destroyed, or destroys itself. Change in Mr. Ruscha's images is less obviously traumatic: an old tool-and-die plant has been converted into an Asian-owned factory; a trade school building has been surrounded by fencing and put to some other, anonymous use; a telephone booth, presumably made obsolete by cellphones, has disappeared.

Some historians read Cole's series as an essentially metaphysical vision of a Romantic artist enthralled by the drama of mutability. Others, however, see politics rather than poetry; they see the response of a reactionary and nostalgic artist to an America changing before his eyes as social hierarchies flattened, immigrant populations changed and grew, and an agrarian culture gave way to industry and commerce.

It is quite possible to pick up corresponding cues from Mr. Ruscha's paintings, though the tone is different. In Cole, time is an agent of crisis, forcing history into the role of destiny: this must happen, but that must not. In Mr. Ruscha's series, done in his signature affectless style, time is passive, a container of history: that happened, then, somehow, this. The only emotion generated is a mute, Hopperesque melancholy that hides a lot more tension than it shows.

International Center of Photography
Just as art can invent an image of time, time can invent and reinvent art. Decades of research by art historians in a changed American culture may have made Church's landscape paintings very different from the ones his peers saw. And for an instant demonstration of how quickly, but ambiguously, a single image can change in time, check out "Che!: Revolution and Commerce" at the International Center of Photography.

Like the Jizo exhibition, this is, in a sense, a one-image show, the image being Alberto Korda's famous 1960 head shot of Ernesto Guevara, or Che, taken in Cuba. But the theme is the transformation that the portrait has undergone in the passage of 46 years, as Che's soulful likeness migrated from political posters to album covers, T-shirts, paper currency, vodka ads and gallery art.

In Vik Muniz's "Che Fr’jol" (2000), for example, the portrait has been reconstituted in the medium of beans, that staple of the traditional Latino diet, and rephotographed, a gesture that restores Che to "the people," but also makes him ordinary and digestible.

Surely the image will continue to circulate in art. In her book "Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960's" (M.I.T. Press, 2004), the art historian Pamela M. Lee writes about the obsessive interest in time on the part of artists like Robert Smithson and Andy Warhol at the outset of the computer age. Now, far into the digital age, their obsessions live on and deepen in the work of countless young artists, who are making contemporary art synonymous with time-traveling through the past.



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