The Cloisters: A Good Place to Start

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by Andrew Baker

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It was early March 2008, when I met a friend, and painter, for a drink after work at a bar beneath Grand Central. He had just come from the Whitney Biennial, which had recently opened. The experience had left him drained and a bit cynical. I hadn't seen the show, but I knew the feeling.

There are shows that leave you so invigorated that all you want is to be back in the studio, feeling as though you could work through the night without tiring. Then there are the shows that leave you empty, pondering the foolish choices and childish ideals that led you to choose the life of an artist. And you leave these shows knowing you're supposed to want to go back to work. But who can work when there's so much drinking to be done?

So we talked for a while over some beers about the things two painters talk about when they feel the world is backwards and that nobody makes art for the right reasons. And somewhere in there, we realized that though we'd both lived as painters in the city for the better part of a decade, neither of us had ever been to The Cloisters. Finally, a problem that could be solved!

And so it happened that the following morning my friend and I met at Columbus Circle, and headed north seeking some form of creative purification or rejuvenation at a medieval monastery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

If you've never been to The Cloisters, it's really quite remarkable. The subway lets you off outside the gates of Fort Tryon Park, which is a gorgeous patch of hilly green overlooking the Hudson just to the north of the George Washington Bridge. From there it's a bit of a hike through the park's gardens and wooded passes, and by the time you finally reach the abbey you're so taken out of your surroundings that it's almost a surprise to realize that you haven't even left the city. It's a feeling you rarely get in any of the other major NYC parks, and for this place, it's an appropriate sort of artifice. For it's there, hidden away at the northern tip of Manhattan, that you can find a museum that houses what is probably the greatest medieval art collection in the New World; including, most famously, the Unicorn Tapestries.

The building is a sort of amalgam comprising architectural elements taken from various medieval European abbeys and transported to New York, in the 1930s, by John D. Rockefeller Jr., for redesign by Charles Collens. The interior is stone, and a bit cold. In the heart of the building, there's a 12th century arcade (hence: Cloisters) surrounding an open-air garden, which is closed off during the colder months, as it was then. At opposing ends of the garden, there are two chapels, built centuries apart, lit by a cool expanse of ambient natural light. The tapestries hang in more dimly lit rooms adjacent to the arcade, but the bulk of the collection on display, e.g., illuminated manuscripts, ivory carvings, early Flemish masterpieces, can be found on the lower floors.

We walked through this space with thoughts of the Biennial and of the emptiness of its brand of celebrity still fresh in our minds. I stopped before an elongated glass case that held a small ivory relief. There were two panels with hinges in the center allowing it to open and close like a book. Opened, the piece displayed four miniature scenes carved into the ivory. On the left was the Coronation of the Virgin. On the right: The Last Judgment. In the lower third of both panels, souls were being lined up, the lucky being welcomed to Paradise, the rest were being banished to damnation. It had been carved by an anonymous Frenchman in the mid-13th century.

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I've seen a lot of medieval art and artifact in my life, and I have little doubt that I've walked past similarly crafted works before without taking notice. And shame on me for that. But not on this day. I remember being struck by the scale of the thing. In a world where we can become so accustomed to the over-sized, to the pretension of the monumental, here was this thing, this tiny object that I could hold in my hand, smaller than a paperback, but carrying more weight than anything I'd seen in I-don't-know-how-long. And what was this weight? Whatever it was, it seemed to flow through those halls like lava: dense and slow, but hotter than you can imagine. And it filled those spaces with a power to preserve the old as new, and leave the new cowering in shame and in awe.

The diptych was but one object of many that made us stop and just look. But it's only one of literally dozens of ivory carvings and miniatures, each sharing many of the same attributes. It was the same with the Gothic sculptures adorning the walls of a crypt from which they looked down on a variety of gorgeously rendered sarcophagi. And it was the same with the paintings. Shit. The paintings!

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The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin may be the greatest painting I've ever seen. Humbly displayed in a quiet room the color of limestone, it sits on a perch and whispers, "Come closer." I obeyed, and I found a picture I'd seen a thousand times before in reproduction, but as is so often the case, I had yet to really see it. Three panels: the Annunciation of the Holy Motherhood by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin in the center, flanked on either side by devout onlookers to the left and Joseph the Carpenter in his workshop to the right. A technical marvel, it's masterfully rendered in oil from a time when the medium was still in its infancy. I have yet to find a reproduction that will do it justice, but the picture is revelation, both literally and figuratively.

I've heard stories of people breaking down before a Mark Rothko. Now, I like Rothko as much the next guy, but give me a break! You want a reason to weep, go stand in front of the Campin Annunciation for twenty minutes and really look. Afterwards, try to remember why you ever thought Mark Rothko was a painter of note. Maybe you can do it. Maybe a lot of people can. I sure as hell can't. I couldn't that day, and I can't now.

I don't mean to say that the Campin has no equal, or that the Rothko lacks the power to move. I've stood in the middle of a room full of Rothko pictures and bathed in the depths of his blues and oranges; I have stood there, closed my eyes, filled my lungs with air, and felt myself falling into those fields of color, and I have been moved. But on this day, as I stood before that gloriously crafted and unassuming triptych, I stared into its turbulent world of spatial anomaly, of allegory and riddle, of symbolism and iconography, and of blind humility in the presence of the extraordinary, and I was pulled in, and my eyes were opened. I've since found that I do some of my best looking when my eyes are open.

There's a terrace with a well-manicured garden upon which museum visitors can walk out and sit while enjoying panoramic views across the Hudson and into New Jersey. It was on the terrace, while looking at a peculiar shrub whose branches had been manipulated over the years to grow like the arms of a candelabrum, that my friend and I began to piece together what we'd been seeing. And why it was all so profoundly different from what we'd become accustomed to seeing.

Had either of us been religious, then we might have been tempted to look at all of these distinctly Christian masterpieces and attribute their power or pathos to some form of divine inspiration. We are not so disposed. Nor are we of the type to be persuaded that the Old Masters were endowed with mystical secrets or otherworldly abilities. They could not, as an eloquent professor of mine once put it, shit marble. They were not, in any objective sense, special. They were just people; people with an admirable level of skill, which was innate, and a brilliant technique, which had to be learned. But they had something more.

When I mentioned to my friend that I would be writing about this, he reminded me that the word-of-the-day had been "Devotion." We decided on the terrace that afternoon that, more than skill, technique, or inspiration, the current that reverberated through the halls of that abbey and those of so many of the great museums of the world, yet so few of the places where new art is still being made and shown is nothing if not the lingering vibration of the profound and unshakeable devotion of the makers. Not to God, but to the work itself.

Think of the nameless Frenchman who, with large hands and diminutive tools, more than seven hundred years ago peered through a primitive magnifying glass to deftly carve tiny Bible stories into a fresh block of ivory that had been harvested from a slaughtered elephant somewhere across the known world. He could have had no ambitions for museum exhibition. There was no such thing. The object he toiled over was not even meant for display. It had utility. It was small for a reason. It was meant to be held, to spend most of its time clasped shut, and to be opened privately by its owner who could then contemplate its lessons in solitude. That was its purpose.

It had a purpose! It wasn't even art in the modern sense of the word. Certainly no more so than a chair or a desk. But it breathes with life even today. Through a pane of glass it was never meant to be behind, it speaks. Christ! It has the power to speak to nonbelievers about life, about meaning and faith, and about devotion. It's nothing short of magical. That it is art is undeniable. But more than that, I've come to believe that it is what art, what all art, should be. What all great art has ever been. Not what it should look like or be about, but what it should strive for, and sadly what so much of art today fails to even consider. That it was made by, probably, a man with no ambition or even concept of fame only serves to underscore how far our expectations have fallen.

The art world, whatever else it is, is an insulated place. I spent the Thanksgiving prior at the home of a friend of mine who owns a gallery. Towards the end of the night, a conversation between the host and a guest I didn't know turned to an argument over who was more relevant: Jeff Koons or Matthew Barney. Koons, the host argued, was more relevant, and this was evidenced by his having had a float in that morning's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I don't really remember the argument in favor of Barney, but it probably had something to do with the Guggenheim. "Relevant to whom?" I recall asking nobody in particular. After all, while it's true that, short of being the subject of a major motion picture, Koons and Barney are probably as famous as any two living artists can get, I couldn't help but feel as though I was watching two adults heatedly argue over the relevance of two people to a world that had never heard of them, had never seen their work, and could, consequently, never be expected remember either. Relevant indeed.

Artists today are, in a way, like the 13th century ivory carver. That is to say, we don't—or shouldn't—have any illusions about being remembered by history. But unlike the ivory carver, we live in the 21st century and have therefore been endowed with a very keen sense of celebrity, which, when historical relevance is out of the question, will do in a pinch. And this brings me back to The Whitney Biennial.

It should be said that there's nothing extraordinary about hating the Biennial. Indeed, almost everybody always does. The idea, if you don't know, is a large multi-floor group exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in which the curators take their best stab at defining that moment in the world of art-making and, theoretically, distinguishing it from the moments two, four, and ten years prior. The result is almost always a cacophony of the fashionably novel, a noisy mess of the superficially new.

But somehow nothing ever feels new. It's always the same things being said in slightly different ways. A grand creative dialogue, which began in earnest at some point in our distant past, has devolved into an exercise in which everybody sits quietly, waiting patiently for their turn to chime up in agreement, to take their brief solo in the endless chorus of "Me toos!" A periodical exposition of shabby cover tunes, a loud and over-hyped episode of American Idol every couple of years is all that remains of what used to be called the avant garde.

Devotion, in art as in other arenas, is a virtue to be cherished. And even if we assume at the outset that it's always been a rare commodity, it's hard to walk the halls of The Cloisters, filled as they are with centuries old masterpieces produced by human beings of whom history has little or no memory, and then find even trace amounts of that kind of devotion in the shallow pitch of "Me too." It's as though we as artists have forgotten what we are capable of doing. Or as though so many of us have simply stopped caring. But so often it seems to be that devotion—more than talent, craft, inspiration, or even time—is what separates them from us.

The work mattered to them in a way that it doesn't matter to us. Their work was precious, and their work had meaning. They had no concern for being remembered, yet their devotion moved them to create things that have bridged the centuries and can move us still today. For our part, we seem to have responded to the news that we will almost certainly be forgotten with the conviction to stop caring altogether. After all, if we can be reasonably certain that the day will come when our names will be uttered for the last time, where are we to find the motivation even to try to make something actually worth remembering?

For those who still have the energy to look, I offer The Cloisters as a good place to start.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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