For “Touchstones,” ARTnews asks creative figures from different disciplines—writers, musicians, filmmakers, chefs, and so on—about one artwork that has inspired them.
Pablo Picasso, The Chicago Picasso (1967)
I lived about a mile away from this sculpture in Chicago, and I remember walking past it as a kid. Nobody mentioned it, nobody talked about it—I don’t even remember a plaque. But it was so extraordinary. It was my first intuitive introduction to public art, when I didn’t formally intend to go into a gallery and I wasn’t prepared for it. Here was this stunning monument, by Picasso—and the free public nature of it left a lasting impression on me. The piece itself is also so weirdly beautiful and great: this bizarre baboon that stands 50 feet tall, with wings for hair. I grew up with a love for it, and I’m always excited when there’s some big monstrous crazy piece of art in the middle of a city, or in a field for that matter. I love the idea of stumbling across something and relating to it when you’re on your way somewhere else, with your mind somewhere else.
Janna Levin is astrophysicist, founding director of the Science Studios at Pioneer Works, and author of books including the new Black Hole Survival Guide and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.
Harmony Korine, Twitchy Roze (2018)
I’ve known Harmony Korine for a long time and have watched him move from enfant terrible filmmaker and cultural force to a wildly successful visual artist. My wife and I went to see a show of his at Gagosian gallery with our young daughter. Her name is Poppy, and although the flowers in Twitchy Roze are not poppies, they’re fairly poppy-esque. So much of what I appreciate about art and music is tied up with people I know and work with, because that’s my entire life: living with and speaking with and sleeping with people I’m artistically involved with. I’ve never slept with Harmony, but I have had a wide and wild variety of experiences with him. Seeing this in a gallery also made me think about how the relationship of art to commerce seems to get more complicated with each day. But then I found myself actually stricken and moved by the work, even as I knew that because of the nature of how the art world moves, it’s likely that most people will never see it. A lot of high-end art is never accessible to most people, but here we were jumping around from socioeconomic tier to socioeconomic tier simply by navigating our own family’s social network—finding ourselves transported and moved and inspired in the way that I assume most art is intended to transport and move and inspire.
Will Oldham is a musician a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and creator of new duo album with Matt Sweeney titled Superwolves and solo records including I See a Darkness.
George Cooke, Tallulah Falls (1841)
My work as a scientist has made me particularly interested in the question of to what extent are we human beings part of the natural world and to what extent are we outside it. George Cooke was associated with the Hudson River School, and although those artists celebrated nature, they also believed that human beings were set apart from the natural world and were something different. This painting really represents that. We see tiny human figures standing on a little promontory above a deep canyon. The people are dwarfed by these tree-covered mountains, massive rocky ledges, a raging waterfall pouring down. And not only are the human beings tiny in comparison to the landscape, but they seem to be witnesses to the scene—not part of it, but witnesses to it.
Alan Lightman is a physicist and author of books including the new Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings and Einstein’s Dreams.
Sissòn, Quarantine Lean (2020)
We’ve spoken about it and this piece for Sissòn is speaking to the Black experience during the pandemic, with Black Americans and masked figures representing medicine men and demonic characters. It’s about the Black experience of medical care and health care in general in the history of the United States. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, there’s been an inordinate number of deaths of people of color. And this painting is talking about a type of suffering that is always happening. The work speaks to this period of time, obviously, but it is also universal.
Angel Deradoorian is a musician, former member of Dirty Projectors, and creator of solo album Find the Sun.
Andy Hope 1930, Heedrahtrophia 1 (2018)
When I saw this it reminded me of an energy monster from Jonny Quest, a cartoon from when I was a kid that must be deep in my subconscious. That’s why I was drawn to it—it seemed like some cool monster from my past. I don’t know much about Andy Hope 1930, but I hope to meet him after the pandemic in Berlin. I usually go there a lot because my wife is from there. Asking him to use this for an album cover [for Dinosaur Jr.’s Sweep It into Space] was pretty simple. He was very agreeable, and I even asked for a different picture, too: I wanted to make a guitar pick with Heedrahtrophia 1, and I put another image I liked from him on the other side.
J. Mascis is a musician and songwriter/guitarist in Dinosaur Jr. and the creator of the new album Sweep It into Space and solo albums including Elastic Days.
Cassi Namoda, Sad Man with Roses (awaits his beloved) (2020)
I think Cassie Namoda’s work is absolutely brilliant. There’s so much motion and movement in the strokes, and what I like about this painting in particular is that it makes me ask so many questions. Looking at the moon in the background, the first question I have is: Did someone stand him up? Was he supposed to be on a date that was canceled? The scene is at night, but where is he? Is he wearing a tunic, or a caftan? Are the flowers for his partner? Or is he consoling himself after a breakup? It’s stunning work, and the first time I saw it I was just awestruck. Sometimes I wind up in an art rabbit hole online—that’s how I found Namoda’s work, and I was so moved by her.
serpentwithfeet is a musician, creator of albums including Deacon and Soil, and the voice behind the song in Wu Tsang & Fred Moten’s video Girl Talk.
Dawoud Bey, Poppy, Brooklyn, NY (1989)
I would take the train to work in Harlem and sometimes I would see this beautiful woman. She wore long white robes with this dark complexion and hair pulled back into a kind of ponytail—she was a beautiful Black woman. She looked not just like an angel but like somebody out of one of my comic books. She was a walking manifestation. Then, when Dawoud Bey had a show in Brooklyn, I walked into the gallery and saw a picture of this same woman. My heart stopped! Dawoud said, “Oh yeah, this Poppy Perez.” Poppy and I tried to date for a second—it didn’t work out. But to this day, that was when I realized what a photograph or a portrait can do. You can capture someone’s essence, and sometimes even more than that: you can capture something that even they don’t know they have. I don’t know if I fell in love with the picture or the woman, but I got smacked.
Tim Fielder is an illustrator and author and creator of new Afrofuturist graphic-novel Infinitum (with afterword by artist Arthur Jafa).
Inka Essenhigh, Born Again (1999–2000)
This painting causes an aspiration in me to make a work in prose that evokes a similar feeling. What is that feeling? It has something to do with wildness. This painting pops me out of the confines of my sensory apparatus. It reminds me that there’s a world beyond my conceptual understanding, that my normal grasp of things is just a Darwinian sliver of all-that-is-out-there. The painting is wild but not irrational; the wildness in it is actually present in every “real” moment, if only we are mindful and awake enough to see it. I don’t know what the painting “means” exactly, and I don’t want or need to—the little celebratory change in my consciousness is enough. It is the meaning. The result makes me see the “real” differently and with more interest. It makes me feel I haven’t really looked closely enough at the world yet.
George Saunders is a writer and author of the new A Swim in a Pond in the Rain plus Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December.