July 2002 Archives

Introducing the Art Tourist

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July 28, 2002

PARIS -  Even tourists who never travel to see art will see the Louvre when in Paris. If these tourists can only go to one art museum, they'd be wisely advised to visit the Musee D'Orsay - more Impressionism than stamps at the post office. And, if they can stomach modern art, they might take in the hubbub at the Pompideau Center and ride the escalators to the museum of art since the Impressionists.

The dedicated Art Tourist might do the big museums, but is alert, scanning the horizon like a birdwatcher for the rare and happening.

The adventuring type of Art Tourist, doesn't want to stand in a summer crowd to see the Mona Lisa. We want more. We want to know what artists are doing today.

On the streets of Montmartre and in the booths of the street fairs, we could see contemporary artists who draw caricatures, or mimic landscape painters, portraitists or recently-famous abstract artists. Even if we found them in Paris, most of these artists are making copies of previous ideas just like those fair-craftsman any Art Tourist can find in any American town with a craft fair. Visiting a street fair is like going to a kid's baseball game. We might get lucky and see a young Nolan Ryan, but it would take a parent to think a ten-year-old was that great. We are looking for something wiser: art that artists were willing to sell their soul (or similar passionate metaphor) to make.
Adventurous art tourists want to see something that will illuminate life on this planet today.

Art adventures are like any sporting event - some experiences are better than others. In the following entries, I'm going to talk about the most interesting experiences like any spectator. I know about the history of art, like a baseball fan knows the sport's history. And I can take in information about the players as they come up to bat. I'm not going to talk about how much the players are paid, or who is running the league unless it matters to the experience. 

Steuart Bremner in ParisIn Paris, where we are today, Art Tourists are always in luck. There is a small museum of art in every neighborhood, usually it is dedicated to the artist who gave the building to the city in lieu of estate taxes. There are several gallery districts, experimental art spaces and secondary museums in addition to the big ones I've already mentioned. 

For today's adventure, we wanted so see the undead and the unsung. So I opened the current copy of Frieze Magazine, and read about a cluster of new galleries on rue Louise Weiss. But I couldn't find the street on our map. The neighborhood (13th Arrondissment) is near the controversial new library named after former French president Francois Mitterrand. The building was supposed to look like a bookshelf. Okay. Mostly it's clean, glassy and modern -- too conservative for people who wanted Frank Gehry and too Bauhaus for people still living in the 19th Century.

Inside, the gallery showed handmade books beautifully crafted by a British artist. The works were a pleasure to look at, but too decorative for a day when I was hunting for the edgy.

One of the librarians had a new neighborhood map, and drew the street we were looking for on our map. We went under viaducts and walked neighborhoods that Parisian librarian goers said would soon be renovated -- but not yet -- and found one being occupied by galleries showing contemporary art. So many galleries lined the street and neighboring ones that they had published a brochure.

Inside several, we were faced with a bench and a TV. Sure, video can be cutting edge, but I don't need to be in Paris to watch TV. Other galleries were closed. In one private gallery we saw: Roland Goes Shopping.

Roland was a series of funny photographs. Photos, nicely printed and not too big or too small with a man in poses surrounded by bright colored things. Their format said 'standard art photograph.' And to break it down further, they were images of real things - like realistic painting from the Renaissance to the moderns - flatted onto a page, in a series like a comic strip -- slow TV - and we get limited sensual experience from them. These photographs revealed that it was more fun to be in photographs than to see them.
Steuart Bremner in Paris
The art wasn't mind bending, but finding it had been a great way to spend a July day in Paris: walking, seeing architecture struggling to be post-modern, making fun of contemporary art, getting up with a great coffee and down with a equally great beer.

Next week, back in Denver, I met a woman at the Contemporary Museum of Art (of Denver) and told her about our search in Paris and what we saw. She said "Paris isn't the place to look for contemporary art; Los Angeles is."

I didn't argue, she was so confident. I had barely scratched the surface of contemporary art in Paris, could rave very little about L.A. and had years of experience - good and bad art - in our own city, in rural Colorado and in nearby New Mexico.

Every trip is an opportunity. Being an art tourist is playing a sport with few rules.

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