For “Touchstones,” ARTnews asks creative figures from different disciplines—writers, musicians, filmmakers, chefs, and so on—about one artwork that has inspired them.
Composer, singer, creator of the opera ATLAS, winner of 2015 National Medal of Arts…
…on Ann Hamilton, The Event of a Thread (2012) [pictured above]
The Event of a Thread was a huge installation mounted in the Park Avenue Armory in New York. It was multisensory and combined different perceptual modes into one. There was a huge white curtain strung across the Armory and swings that came down from the ceiling; when someone swung, they were attached to pulleys and chains that influenced the movement of this beautiful silk. It was a piece about interdependence and interconnection, and to be able to manifest a philosophical principle like that in an aesthetic way was extraordinary. It was a kind of weaving in real time of objects and language and action.
Columnist for the Washington Post, author of Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why: Essays and A Field Guide to Awkward Silences…
…on Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877)
I learned about Gustave Caillebotte through Proust. I tend never to be on-cycle. When Titanic came out, I was like, “I’m going to get really into the Hindenburg!” And when the Harry Potter books came out, I thought maybe that was a good time to read Proust. You know when you’re reading something and haven’t been to the place where it’s set, so you start populating it with places you have been to? Like the Iliad takes place in, like, your garage, or in a yard you’ve seen? When I first saw this Caillebotte painting, I thought, This is what Paris is supposed to look like—these are the streets people are walking down, this is the sort of color-saturation levels that they have there. It’s very much the aesthetic of the Proust books: here’s some far-off lighting, here’s somebody in a top hat, here are some buildings just after rain. And it looks like there’s something behind all of the doors, in an exciting way.
Creator of the one-woman theater shows Sell/Buy/Date and the Tony Award–winning Bridge & Tunnel…
…on Hank Willis Thomas, All Power to All People (2019)
I’ve loved Hank Willis Thomas’s work for a long time. I’ve always thought of him as prescient and as a kind of public servant. My favorite artists are public servants in a way, and I think of all of us in that way—as capable of using our creativity to be of service to other people. And All Power to All People feels like the art we need right now. We are in this moment when it’s like “All Power to a Virus” or “All Power to the Incredibly Vapid Projectile Ignorance Coming Out of the White House.” So it’s amazing to see a giant afro pick with a title like that in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. That’s pure Hank magic.
Creator of the new album Everything Evaporate and The Flower and the Vessel…
…on Helen Frankenthaler, Mauve District (1966)
Space and color are very important to me and how I think about music—as a way to relate to space. The first time I saw Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings, I felt like I was encountering a vision of space that was very thoughtful and sensitive, and it was the same with color. I think most musicians are close to color, and color is really important to my way of seeing life in general. In Mauve District, there is something so simple: It’s almost like part of the painting is missing and you’re seeing just a piece of it. That is how I see art and music in general—most of the time it’s a fragment of something bigger, and it’s always in touch with something even if it’s detached.
Creator of new album All Things Being Equal, former member of Spacemen 3…
…on Victor Vasarely, Holm (1971/1988)
Victor Vasarely’s commitment to his art and evolution is to me one of the most focused of any artist ever. He was always interested in optical illusion. His geometric modulations of color, shape, tone, size, and perspective create virtual space-time warps, delighting in distortions of view and viewpoint. His work is also some of the most cosmic and psychedelic of any era, uncannily matching the hallucinatory visions created from the visual alphabet of our unconscious on psychedelic drugs. My suspicion is that he arrived at the same place—where we create images and modulations that never exist outside of our minds but are intrinsically part of the planetary folklore.
Singer/songwriter, creator of new album Unfollow the Rules…
…on John Singer Sargent, Madame X (1883–84)
John Singer Sargent has long been one of my heroes. When you look at the history of painting throughout the centuries, it’s rare to see someone so adept both emotionally and technically. This is his masterpiece, and there’s a simplicity to it and also a sophistication. It’s so sensual and seductive and playful at the same time. What I love about his portraits—especially of women—is that you get a real sense of their wit and cunning. They’re realistic portrayals of women, not damsels in distress. They’re incredibly complicated and fascinating characters, especially for their time, in the very early days of women’s empowerment.
Author of new novel The End of October, staff writer for the New Yorker…
…on Daniel Chester French, The Lincoln Memorial (1914–22)
I respond to sculpture. I started this group in Austin, Texas, to put up statues because we didn’t have many. It was in Greece that I got inspired by the idea that civilizations should commemorate the qualities they aspire to through works of art—especially, for me, through representational sculpture. It’s a very out-of-date idea, but statues give a sense of dignity to public space. The last statue we put up was of Willie Nelson—that was a lot of fun. Anyway, The Lincoln Memorial is majestic. And the details of it are fascinating. Daniel Chester French had a daughter who was deaf, and Lincoln had created the first deaf school in America. French was very grateful for that and, apparently, the hands—one is closed and the other is open—are the initials “A.L.” in sign language. I love art that has a bit of a secret in it. And when people talk about artworks sometimes being sacred, I can’t think of a better example.
Under his alias the Soft Pink Truth, creator of the new album Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?; member of Matmos…
…on Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0 (1974)
This is a weird story: I was a freshman in college walking down the street in Berkeley, and I see this colorful book on the street with a communist hammer-and-sickle made out of hearts. I pick it up and it was in a language that I don’t speak, and it was filled with photographs of Eastern European performance art—or something. Because I couldn’t read it, I had no idea what the context was. But there was this woman lying on blocks of ice and cutting a scar onto her stomach with a razor. There was a picture of her with her shirt open; there was blood and somebody holding roses, and she just looked really poised and powerful and amazing. I had to ask people who it was and they said, “Oh yeah, Marina Abramović.” It was one of those conundrums when performance art is kind of a hostage to its documentation, but those images were so strong. I never got to see Rhythm 0, but pictures of it still make me think.
Co-creator of the Adult Swim sitcom Beef House, visionary behind Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!…
…on Paul McCarthy, YAA-HOO TOWN (1996)
Early in my career with Tim Heidecker, we were performing together in New York and heard about a flash mob. Remember those? It was by some galleries, and walking home after, through a window we could see this weird saloon thing. I had heard about Paul McCarthy, so we walked in—and we were blown away. I remember the loud sound of hydraulic pumps making animatronic characters move through this Western town. There were all these windows that you had to look in, and you would see, like, a cowboy with his dick out, fucking something. It was so intense and grotesque that I really connected. In college I was inspired by McCarthy and Cindy Sherman, doing grotesque portraits of myself and others. But this took it to another level. Showing these sides of characters that are animalistic and bizarre or taboo really inspired me just to go for it.
Leader of Dirty Projectors, creator of new 5-EP cycle Life Is What Happens!…
…on Zach Harris, Linen Last Judgement (2014–15)
The works in Zach Harris’s Linen Last Judgement series are very singular. There’s something topographical about them. And how many paintings mess with dimensionality in a bas relief–like way? The canyons he etched into the wood have an arbitrary feeling, in the same way that actual canyons do—like, that’s just where water went 50,000 years ago. But he embraces the arbitrariness and turns it into a formal feature of the paintings. On these flat mesa-like surfaces is where life happens—you have all these wild improvisations.
DJ/producer, creator of the new EP Higher, co-founder of Kompakt Records…
…on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion (1929)
I clearly remember the first time somebody brought me here. It was after a rough disco night, and the next day she asked me if I would like to tag along. Ever since, when I’m in Barcelona, I go back. What this building did to me and how I feel about it are so particular—so overwhelming and so soothing. I’ve spent hours and hours in this place, changing perspectives once in a while and just taking it all in. It’s the most peaceful man-made place that I know. And you can’t really pull it apart: it’s not really a building—it’s just a few walls and a roof with pools, a statue, and a chair. There’s not much else going on—with Mies van der Rohe being a minimalist. But every detail is perfect.