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Untitled

by Meredith Kahn Rollins

Published in Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2008 Grants Booklet


The art world of my childhood was a pretty hemmed-in universe, defined-as it had to have been-by my parents' affinities: chamber music, 18th century painting (of the rolling-landscapes-and-powdered-wigs variety), and a viewing of The Nutcracker every other year. I was lucky, of course, luckier than most. It wasn't adventurous, but it was definitely culture.

We lived in a suburb north of Chicago, and on those rare occasions when I was bundled into my winter coat and we set out for the Art Institute, I looked forward to seeing all the pretty objects, the elaborate portraits of ladies and gentlemen, the ballerinas and sweeping ballgowns. But I approached the contemporary galleries-they were located, at the time, unsettlingly close to all those nice, misty Monets-with a mix of confusion and disdain. A suburban girl asked to contemplate an entirely unknown taste, like being presented with a pomegranate when your definition of fruit is an apple. Looking at all of those strange and abstract canvases and minimalist sculptures, my response was one I've heard since, spoken at a million art shows. What's the big deal? Where's the skill? I could thrill to Renoir's pretty little girls in vibrant hats, but the spatters of a Pollock made me mutter: I could do that. A kid could do that.

This attitude took a long time to die. (Believe me, it had nothing to do with a sense of my own talent-the only thing I could draw was a fairly passable, long-lashed eye, repeated over and over in my junior high notebooks.) In fact, I didn't kill it until my sophomore year of college. It happened back at the Art Institute. One of my friends' fathers was a photography curator at the museum, and we met there to wander the galleries before dinner. We came upon an installation of Ellsworth Kelly paintings in the courtyard of the new contemporary galleries, and I remember a feeling of total exasperation. A blue canvas, a red canvas. Good grief. The more I looked, the more irritable I got. What was the point? Give me a pail of paint and I could do the same thing.

My friend's father put his hand on my shoulder. Put aside the fact that these are masterfully, gorgeously painted, he said. Let's put that aside. Let's say you could paint these. You wouldn't. You didn't. You'd never imagine expressing yourself like this. This is passion and precision, this is a clear and beautiful way of looking at the world. This is inviting the audience in to your way of thinking, giving them an experience that engulfs them-and fearlessness about putting it out there in the first place. You don't have to like this; you don't even have to think it belongs here. But you can't dismiss it by saying that you could have done it.

Of course he was right.

I'd love to tell you that I blinked, reconsidered, and fell in love with those Kellys. That took longer (though lord knows the bug, once caught, has proved impossible to shake). But I did start to look at things differently. The way a bright blue canvas carved out the space around it. The slow and mournful arc of a dancer's limb through the air. The delicious spareness of a single repeated line of music. I couldn't-wouldn't have dared to, would never have thought to-make any of them. They were experiences created by people who weren't only talented, they were passionate enough, driven enough, generous enough (or, in some cases, just perfectly insane enough) to share them.

In the intervening decade and a half, my sense of wonder at the creation of art hasn't dimmed; in fact, it has infiltrated my life in ways I never would have expected. As a journalist, I've edited cultural reviews and interviewed performers and visual artists, and whether the article is about a famous movie star or a cheeky upstart Viennese art collective-and whether I love their work or entirely don't get it-I can't help but be amazed, and grateful, that it exists at all. Since I helped launch the Young Friends group of this Foundation three years ago, I've had even more opportunity to be astonished first-hand: at the way Julie Mehretu turned a fascination with big-city stadiums into some of the most stunning paintings I've ever seen; how choreographer John Jasperse and his dancers transformed a bare rehearsal space into something utterly beautiful, simply by throwing their bodies around.

I had a baby last year, in early summer. There are thousands of things I'm dying to do with him: hold his hand as he takes his first steps, watch him dip his toe in the ocean, feed him an apple...or a pomegranate. Introducing him to the art I love is right at the top of the list. I can't wait to see his reaction as he watches people dance across the stage for the first time, or hears an orchestra cacophonously warming up in the pit. Not to mention all of the pictures to show him. And if he says, looking at one of these things-at any of them-I could do that, my response will be: Nothing in the world would make me happier.

Meredith Kahn Rollins co-founded the Foundation for Contemporary Art's Young Friends group in 2005. She is the executive editor of Lucky magazine. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York, W, and Blender, among other publications.

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