For “Touchstones,” ARTnews asks creative figures from different disciplines—writers, musicians, filmmakers, chefs, and so on—about one artwork that has inspired them.
Ferran Adrià — chef
Culinary star at the legendary restaurant elBulli and founder of elBullifoundation in Spain…
…on Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–15) [pictured above]
When you see The Garden of Earthly Delights, you say, “It’s not possible this is from the 1500s!” The work has been an inspiration to numerous people, from Tim Burton to Salvador Dalí, and it seems very ancient and at the same time very modern. I discovered it after I closed the restaurant, but now it serves as inspiration for everything we do. I had the good fortune of seeing it during a private tour at night in preparation for a program I did at the Prado, explaining cooking through artworks. It was one of the works I chose, and I consider it one of the works that everyone should know. The Garden of Earthly Delights is the avant-garde.
Josh Safdie — filmmaker
Co-director of Uncut Gems, Good Time, Daddy Longlegs…
…on LeRoy Neiman, Joe Namath (1981)
If you have ever been to a steak joint or a somewhat exclusive hallway of Madison Square Garden or anywhere in Miami, you’ve seen the work of LeRoy Neiman. But it’s hiding in plain sight because it is largely considered disposable, in a strange subset of “sports art.” But it’s art nonetheless, and he is after the emotive experience of watching sports and what a seminal moment means to all the people invested in that moment.
There’s an expression that he captured on Namath’s face that really comes through the style in which he paints—the broad strokes, the knife he is using, what have you. He captures the kind of blocky, emotional nature of being a sports hero but somebody who is feeling defeated. When we were choosing the art that appears in Uncut Gems, this was a big piece for us to put above Howard’s desk, as an expressionistic portrait among all the other sports memorabilia. In the life of a sports fanatic, there is a lot of hurt and a lot of pain—and it’s all in that painting.
Jlin — musician
Creator of albums including Black Origami; composer for Wayne McGregor’s dance piece Autobiography…
…on Kevin Beasley, A view of a landscape: A cotton gin motor (2012–18)
I really liked the idea of Kevin Beasley taking the sounds of a cotton gin and modulating them through microphones. I had never heard of anyone doing that: turning a cotton gin into a sort of musical component. To me, the genius of it was to take what was such a negative in black history—picking cotton—and turn it into a positive.
I saw the plans for it when they were in the baby stages. Then, when I first walked into the Whitney and actually saw it, I was so proud. As a black person, I felt a lot of things. And the sounds themselves—they were very rugged. I used to work in a mill, and it reminded me of the monotone sound [from] back when I was working at U.S. Steel. But all the different pitches and tones from the different parts of the machine were very clear. Some parts were high-pitched, other parts were almost like screeches—and then a lot of deep hums. Hearing them altogether in one shot was very intense.
Olivia Laing — writer
Author of Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, Crudo, and The Lonely City…
…on Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974)
I like I Like America and America Likes Me. I like its weird conceptual rules and especially its sense of wild risk. Joseph Beuys came to America from Germany to make the piece but insisted on never touching American soil. He arrived at JFK Airport and was collected by two men who swathed his body in felt and carried him to an ambulance. At the René Block Gallery, he was lifted out and deposited in an enclosure furnished with straw, a blanket, a shepherd’s crook, a stack of copies of the Wall Street Journal, and a coyote. They spent the next three days together, sleeping and playing, observed by visitors from behind wire mesh.
Beuys and the coyote roam the space, as two foreign bodies. Are they companions or in uneasy non-alliance? Most artworks that employ animals feel exploitative, but Beuys and the coyote look more like colleagues, equally possessed by curiosity. In one of my favorite images, they both stare out, dreaming separate dreams. It gets to the heart of how I wish the world was: a democracy of beings.
Kelly Reichardt — filmmaker
Director of First Cow, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy…
…on Christo & Jean-Claude, Surrounded Islands (1980–83)
I lived in Miami pre-internet, when you could live somewhere and not have any idea of anything else going on in the world. I had a sense that there were things going on that I wanted to be a part of, but I had no access—there were no art people in my family at all. Then Christo and Jean-Claude came to wrap the islands in Biscayne Bay.
I would cross a causeway to go to this beach where I wasted much of my youth, and I passed those islands all the time. There was a long lead-up to the wrapping, and the production of it was kind of like how you make a film: It only works when a lot of people come together and make it all happen. I didn’t know any art or artists, so someone having an idea with no practical purpose and getting a bunch of people together and go out and build it changed the whole landscape. It had a huge impact—it was like something from Mars coming to my city.
Rivka Galchen — writer
Author of Atmospheric Disturbances, American Innovations: Stories, and the children’s book Little Labors…
…on Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533)
I first came across The Ambassadors as an example of an optical illusion, brought up in the context of a clever trick more than as a great work of art. I loved optical illusions and hidden meanings and visual jokes—it was an ideal painting to introduce to a kid. I was so wowed by the way what looked to me like a random piece of wood at the base of the painting could, when viewed from the side, “pop” into a skull. I had it filed away in my mind like that, as a code. I barely registered the men and paid little attention to the other prided objects. Mostly I remembered that kind of creepy-magician feel of the green carpet.
When I got older, the painting revealed more of itself. It carried so many messages about its time period—the hymnal, the astrolabe, the lute, the globe. I became sensitive to more aspects of it. The way my eye enters via the brighter figure on the left and exits somewhere in the dark robes on the right. The way it so masterfully manages [how] your attention moves, the mix of control and chaos. There’s something so special about an artwork that can continue to feel fresh even as I age. It never seems exhausted of interest, and it could connect to me in every decade of my life.
Carl Craig — musician
DJ/producer and creator of Party/Afterparty installation at Dia:Beacon…
… on The Heidelberg Project (1986–ongoing)
Tyree Guyton beautified the neighborhood and the houses around where he grew up by painting dots on them—multicolored polka dots. He is a big influence for me. Derrick May [one of the fabled Belleville Three who invented Detroit techno] actually showed me the area because he was living in a loft down the street. Imagine being 19 years old and seeing houses with polka dots on them, or houses covered with shoes or teddy bears. Tyree Guyton did all of these things as statement[s] about how the neighborhood was falling apart and the city wasn’t doing anything to restore or beautify it. He just took it into his own hands and made it into a living art piece.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — musician
Synthesizer aficionado behind albums including Tides: Music for Meditation and Yoga and The Kid…
… on Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866)
I first found Rainy Day in the Tropics when it came up in Google images and I fell into a rabbit hole. I fell in love with the feeling I get from all of his paintings, an awestruck feeling that reminds me of where I grew up—on Orcas Island in Washington—which has a lot of vantage points where you can take in a really big horizon line that makes me feel humble and remember my size. It opened up my world to a lot of transcendental artists. To me, it comes in where language can’t really fill in. It reminds me just how expansive the world around me is—and I seek that in all forms of art.
Lee Ranaldo — musician
Guitarist for Sonic Youth; maker of new duo album—with Raül Refree—Names of North End Women; and, solo, Amarillo Ramp (for Robert Smithson)…
…on Robert Smithson, Amarillo Ramp (1973)
I got interested in Robert Smithson mainly through his writings, because he seemed to be fusing all this different subject matter that was not necessarily considered part of the art canon. He grew up studying geology and anthropology, and was bringing in an interest in the displays in the American Museum of Natural History and things like that. He seemed to be a profound thinker about what art was and what art means.
When Sonic Youth was first touring in Europe, I dragged the band to see Broken Circle/Spiral Hill in Holland, and later I got to visit Spiral Jetty. At some point a young fellow in Texas wrote and said he worked on the ranch where Amarillo Ramp is. I had created a piece of music in the ’90s that was dedicated to the work—my electric guitar evocation of this desolate space in the high Texas desert. But last year I finally got a chance to go. Ancient cultures talk about certain places being power spots, and Smithson had drawn us out into this landscape where we confronted different thoughts and feelings that the work allows to come forth—about space, time, and place. It was kind of magical.