Empty and Disgusting? Doubly Wrong

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Let me start by admitting that yours truly was wrong, doubly wrong. I'm talking about my initial response to the works of two extremely original artists who chose dramatically different ways of expressing themselves. When I saw the abstract, minimalist paintings of Agnes Martin (1912 - 2004) for the first time, I couldn't understand why she was considered to be a major American artist. To quote Gertrude Stein, "there was no there there" for me. Martin's medium-sized oil paintings have very simple, geometric compositions --most often consisting of several horizontal stripes. The colors are very pale, and only if you come close enough to the surface, will you notice thin lines drawn with graphite.

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Years passed by before I slowly began to appreciate the subtlety and wisdom of Agnes Martin's work. The current retrospective of her works at LACMA, with its elegantly sparse installation, pays tribute to the silence and solitude of her art. I went to see it three times already, and definitely plan to see it again. Every time, I find myself standing longer in front of her paintings, hearing their voices louder and louder.

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Reading the newly published biography of Agnes Martin by Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, you learn that her life was anything but quiet and simple. There was a lot of drama, a lot of instability, and a lot of pain. And, as with so many great artists, all that turmoil was transformed into poetic, poignant, philosophical artistic sermons.

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And here is another exhibition that reminds yours truly how wrong he was in his initial response to the works of yet another artist. The Orange County Museum of Art is currently showing paintings, photographs, and videos by Marilyn Minter (b. 1948), with the appropriately provocative exhibition title: Pretty/Dirty. To quote from the museum press release, "Minter has been embroiled in controversies over the relationship of her art to feminism, fashion, and celebrity." From a distance, her gigantic enamel-on-metal paintings look like photographic color close-ups of the lips, eyes, and feet of beautiful young women caught --to put it mildly --in very peculiar and often provocative acts.

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One of her iconic images, which initially might shock you, is a close-up of female feet in gorgeous, bejeweled, designer high heels. But again, there is something off about the image. Pretty it is not. You not only see, but almost hear the broken glass cracking under these heels. And drops of dirty water splash all over. All this is very strange, very sexual, and disconcertingly attractive. Definitely not an exhibition you want to bring your in-laws to...

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In one of her oversized paintings, she zeroes in on a woman's mouth, her long tongue sticking out in grotesque fashion. What happened to this woman? Is she drowning? Or throwing up? What are all of these silver bubbles floating in the air? But be brave and come close to the painting to discover the intricate texture of the brushstrokes and even traces of finger marks. This exhibition definitely helped me overcome my prior ignorant dismissal of Minter's work. Just think about your first ever sip of whiskey. Wouldn't you agree that it takes time to discover and appreciate the flavors beyond the initial bitterness?

To learn about Edward's Fine Art of Art Collecting Classes, please visit his website. You can also read The New York Times article about his classes here, or an Artillery Magazine article about Edward and his classes here.

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Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.