Just for my teeth

I’ve been working a lot, and using that as an excuse to avoid blogging. There is little good news – I did get my first vaccine shot recently, with the second scheduled for late April, so yay for that – and I don’t want to dive yet again into the museum world’s poisonous dalliance with monetization. To summarize: deaccessioning is when works are sold out of a museum collection and the revenue used to buy more art, an established practice; monetization is when works are sold and the money used for non art-related purposes, a harmful practice. This is why the most important monetary gift you can give is an unrestricted one. If they need money to keep the lights on and pay the staff, your dollars will be put to good use. Don’t force (though too often it is not force, but poor management that leads down this path) the museum to sell art to keep the lights on!

But enough of that. Today I’m going to tell you a brief story. I keep thinking of it over these pandemic months, as it takes place amid crowds and the world that used to be. First, a drawing to set the scene, the New York City subway.

Reading on the Subway, 1926 – John French Sloan

I was on the subway, bound for Penn Station after a day browsing in museums, a good day years ago. The train was not crowded, but reasonably full. Near me was a heavyset man in dirty blue jeans and a plaid shirt, his posture slightly sagging, his face tired; a working man heading home after a full day. There was a kid in his late teens or early twenties, in a black leather jacket, slim and tattooed. I was blandly dressed in khakis and some sort of shirt; my fashion sense was minimal in those days.

Nearby stood a black woman and her daughter, the latter being about five or six years old, at a guess. The little girl was talking to anyone who would listen. She wanted everyone to see how clean her teeth were, as they had been professionally cleaned for the very first time. She explained that she had a doctor just for her teeth, and his name was Doctor Dentist.

The surrounding cast of tired, otherwise occupied New Yorkers were beaming at her, because she was so adorable -and her teeth were brilliantly white and clean. Her mother kept a hand on her shoulder, trying not to laugh. It was a fleeting, trivial moment, but when I think of New York I remember her smile and her pride at her newly cleaned teeth. I wonder who Doctor Dentist really was, and still hold out hope that that was his real name. My mother knew a clergyman whose last name was Priest; stranger things have happened. Nothing important or momentous happened on that subway ride, but now that crowds are dangerous and I have not been in NYC in ages, it keeps coming back to me.

A little Easter morning blessing to that little girl, who might be a teenager by now – I forget how many years it has been – and hope she continues to make strangers smile.

Since this is an art blog, a little more subway art for you:

Keith Haring, untitled drawing in subway, 1984, chalk on paper, photo by Ivan Dalla Rana. Copyright by the Keith Haring Foundation.

A Nontest

In a loose-minded, silly mood tonight, having just coined one or two words (later I will look them up and see if either of them is real) and eager to share them with you. Therefore, I announce, a nontest.

And what is that?

Simply, a nontest is a contest without a winner. I don’t mean a tie; I mean a contest which is never concluded, judged, rated, or in any way changed past the initial question. Whether answers come in or not is irrelevant. No expiration date exists. It is a perpetual motion machine that produces nothing.

If it produces nothing, why do it?

Although it produces nothing, by participating in the nontest you might produce something yourself. A train of thought may emerge, decisions made. These will have no effect on the nontest, but you have been warned to expect nothing.

So – to the nontest itself:

Along with nontest, which now has a definition, I coined a word with no definition: snither. This nontest seeks to find a definition for snither, be it noun, verb, or what-have-you. Are you snithering now, and if so, is that good or bad? Are you snithered? I someone/thing snithering you? Have you misplaced your snither, and is that it beneath the credenza?

I intend to edit any comments with extreme prejudice: tell me how you would define snither, but don’t tell me which other definitions you like best. This is a nontest, not a beauty pageant.

Book review: Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas by Lary Bloom

     Prophets often lead lopsided lives. Their pronouncements, whether predictive or admonitory, are pored over endlessly, but the person behind the words is often in shadow or reduced to a caricature over time. What did Isaiah have for breakfast, and who (if any) did he sleep with? And what does it mean when that prophet turns out to be an ordinary person?

     Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) was the foremost prophet of conceptual art (he preferred the small “c”), which provided an intellectual, often cooly detached riposte to Abstract Expressionism’s grandly emotional gestures. LeWitt transformed the idea of the mural with his multitudinous wall drawings, his best-known and most multitudinous works. “I think the cavemen came first, (p. xiv)” was his response when he was given too much credit for drawing on a wall instead of paper or canvas. That diffidence, and wry accuracy, was typical of him. His “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) and “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969) are holy writ to many artists. He stands as one of the artist-prophets of the second half of the twentieth century, a designation that rightly would have made him uncomfortable. To his mind, if I may paraphrase Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Sol’s just this guy, you know?” 

     (Full disclosure: I was part of the crew who executed Wall Drawing #1131: Whirls & Twirls at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford CT during the Summer of 2004. I met Sol on less than a handful of occasions, and always too briefly. My account of executing the wall drawing can be found in Art in America magazine or October 2005.)

     Since his death, questions of legacy arise. Instead taking the vanity route and endowing a LeWitt museum (I’m looking at you, Clyfford Still) he chose to house a huge selection of wall drawings at Mass MoCA, giving that youthful institution a boost in attendance and a signature installation that will last, at least, until 2033. His career is dotted with other such generous instances. His rivalries and jealousies he kept to himself.

       Lary Bloom (yes, Lary with one R), author, playwright, and longtime newspaper columnist/editor for The Hartford Courant, not to mention a friend of Sol LeWitt and his second wife, Carol, undertook to raise the curtain on LeWitt’s life in toto, a counterbalance to the many college theses and art books on LeWitt’s professional life. Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas is the result, and one I have returned to several times in my (admittedly biased) artistic studies. In my journal I wrote that LeWitt was “…as his reputation describes, soft-spoken, self-effacing, unassuming – what in less famous people is called shy.” That, now that I have read Bloom’s book, was not quite accurate. LeWitt did not seek or have any interest in the machinations of fame, or the hoops that must be jumped through to reach them. His closest analogue might be former New Yorker editor William Shawn, whose reticence and broad influence are similar. (Not everyone can be Anna Wintour or Jeff Koons – or wants to be.) Like Shawn, LeWitt was generous but firm in his convictions, and both men found the glare of publicity to be distasteful. Shawn’s private life was commemorated by New Yorker stalwart (and Shawn’s longtime lover) Lillian Ross in Here But Not Here (1998); Bloom’s approach is as repertorial as Ross’s, but covers more territory, and from a less intimate viewpoint.

      Like a teenager flipping through a novel to see if there are any sex scenes, readers might want to seek out the seamy underbelly associated with the bohemian lifestyle. Everyone has a dark side, but LeWitt’s was as thin as an ink wash, and will disappoint the prurient sensation-seeker. Bloom makes a conscientious effort to avoid hagiography, but it’s an uphill struggle; fortunately, his personal relationship with the artist keeps idolatry at bay. LeWitt was no saint, but he was far saintlier than any of his contemporaries, lacking any addictions, bigotries, or dark events in his life. Perhaps he was a little too serious (“Sol doesn’t do fun,” Carol said. (p.xii)) but he never strayed into pedantry or art-babble, and his vices were minimal almost to the point of being uninteresting. If he had one flaw, it was his tendency to date women in their 20s after he had left his 20s behind; age difference was a recurring bugbear in his love life. I have not counted, but the low-key, visually un-spectacular LeWitt seems to have been quite the ladies man, which comes as the biggest surprise of the book. None of the women he dated left with hard feelings; the closest was a comment from a woman named Karen Gunderson, whom LeWitt left for someone else: “How could you be critical? It was the ‘70s, after all.” (p.190)

     LeWitt the writer is almost as admired as LeWitt the artist, and quotes are scattered throughout the book. I have long savored one of LeWitt’s comments in response to accusations that he had stolen his best ideas from European artists: “Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all. (p. 280)” Bloom wisely avoids the internecine questions around Conceptualism – is it an outgrowth of Minimalism, a companion movement, or its own thing? – which can be better debated by theorists and critics.

     LeWitt’s relationship with artist Eva Hesse, immortalized by the letter he wrote her in 1965 and the many reprinting and readings of it, was more complex than some of his amours. Her reputation as an artist has risen slowly but steadily since she died of cancer in 1970 at age 34. Her relationship to him was much in the mentor-student mold, almost a father figure; his feelings for her ran deeper, though the difference in their ages worked against him yet again. His letter, urging to her “…just DO” has been enshrined among the best motivational letters of its era. You can find readings of it online (such as Benedict Cumberbatch reading it here), plus essays and even hear it set to music. Bloom made the admirable decision to include the entirety of LeWitt’s famous letter, not just the first, eminently quotable, half. 

    The scene moves from growing up in Connecticut (including an adolescent bit of proto-punk poetry damning his hometown of New Britain) to New York City, to Italy, and back to Connecticut. Weep for the accounts of living in New York in those days ($45 a month for his apartment in Hester Street in1961, equivalent to $387 today). Bloom’s newspaper experience allows him to move briskly through elements that must be noted but bear little to no impact on the story, such as LeWitt’s very brief first marriage. He does not delve deeply into the art historical/philosophical roots of Conceptualism, as that has been covered in depth many other places by more knowledgeable hands. Carl Andre’s reference to LeWitt as “our Spinoza” captures LeWitt’s philosophical impact, though LeWitt, unlike Spinoza, was spared the censure of his peers. Andre’s own scandal – he was accused and acquitted of murdering his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, a case that still divides the art world – is dealt with efficiently, without judgement or dilation. Bloom keeps his focus on LeWitt, bringing the book in at a readable 303 pages, plus notes and bibliography.

     Conceptual art was born out of wedlock, a free child of the 1960s, parented by various artists across Europe and the United States. “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art (Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum magazine)” neatly sums up some conceptual practices, and LeWitt’s specifically. 

     One episode did leave me wanting more. In 1970, LeWitt was assembling a show and catalogue at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, a show that carried special poignancy, as he was working on it when Eva Hesse died. His instructions to curator Enno Develing “I know a lot of people dislike my work and they should have some say in the catalogue. If there are any other unfavorable reviews you know about and want to use it’s okay with me.” (p. 156). Without having seen the book, I cannot say whether or to what extent Develing obliged LeWitt; Bloom does not inform us. Who includes negative opinions in an exhibition catalog? Certainly Mass MoCA, in their companion book to the LeWitt retrospective. Sol LeWitt: 100 Views (2009), did not, despite including notes, tributes, and anecdotes from a wide variety of artists, curators, and critics. 

     The book’s chief frustration is visual rather than verbal. The necessary and obligatory center section of illustrations show mature works, but none of the rarities and juvenilia that might have expanded on the text. You can buy any number of books that cover his works: his structures (he preferred that term over “sculptures”) and his wall drawings, from the black-and-white ones that began and ended his career, to the explosively bold color of his mature years. (Here I question myself: the wall drawings seemed to burst forth in full ripeness, with none of the tentative qualities many other artists have when exploring a new idea. The early wall drawings are understated, but not immature.) Bloom refers many times to small works made as gifts, sketches made off-the-cuff and the like, but we do not get to see them. LeWitt’s art holds such joy and engages the mind so completely that I crave more, especially the rarities, but I understand the need for concision.

    LeWitt’s ideas have a life of their own, and continue to be passed on to successive generations.  Should you wish to learn about the man, this is the book to start with, and will likely stand as definitive for some time. Bloom has found a near-perfect subject: nothing to repel, no feet of clay to ruin the admirer’s notions, and access to friends and family sufficient to be comprehensive. While the prose does not enthrall, as Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” (2003) or delve as deep into artistic philosophy as Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees” (1982), Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas stands on its own as a worthy biography and a worthwhile read. 

Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas (2019) by Lary Bloom, is published by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT

One straw too many

The Indianapolis Museum of Art

The departure of Charles Venable, formerly Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, was an unexpected surprise, and a welcome one. I had been planning a post on how Venable’s mismanagement of the museum merited his dismissal, but he himself resigned (willingly or not we will likely never know), intending to add to my “Stupid Museum Tricks” posts, when word came down. Even more surprisingly, the Board of Trustees and Governors of Newfields issued a public apology (below), a truly rare occurrence:

The final straw, ironically, came about because Venable was about to be moved into a new position, and included, well, read for yourself… this is from the job listing for Director:

This is a blunder right from the start. Racism in museums, whether in staffing, programming, all across the board, is one of the primary challenges to the field. This listing, though seeking to broaden the museum’s audience, also makes it clear that the “traditional, core, white art audience” is its own thing, separate from the community as a whole. It’s a poor choice of language, and one that the executive search firm working with Newfields, m/Oppenheim, ought to have flagged immediately; the posting was revised, but too late. It was one straw too many, and the arts community rose in outrage.

Keep in mind that many of the other straws were just as bad, and Venable himself is only part of the problem. Staff turnover under Venable’s leadership has been extensive and damaging to the museum’s reputation, with former Associate Curator of American Art Kelli Morgan writing to Venable about the “toxic” work environment, and citing a “racist rant” from a member of the Board. Venable became Director in 2012, and his tenure has not been viewed positively in the museum world. Eliminating free admission in 2015 led to charges that portions of the community were being overlooked in favor of the wealthy. In 2017 the institution as a whole was renamed Newfields, as the museum also includes gardens, a park, and two historic houses, but this was seen as diminishing the museums central role. With some educationally light programming, and little to no emphasis on the museum’s holdings, Newfields seemed headed in the wrong direction. Venable is, I hope, not a token sacrifice: the Board has promised improvements, and they should be held to that. Since a new Director was already in the museum’s future, the time is now, doubly so since the reopening of the country following the pandemic will add extra importance to how museum’s re-engage the public.

It is time for a more open and transparent attitude at Newfields: sometimes the openness is physical (Venable had the gardens enclosed), economic (work to re-establish free admission; it is a long-standing myth that admissions bring a significant portion of a museum’s revenue), and internal (transparency in salary, anti-racism training, and programming that keeps the museum’s collection front-and-center). It’s a troubled institution, but there is great potential as well. I hope some talented executive gets the job, and gets the healing and repair started promptly.

ADDENDUM: This essay on Artnet, written by former Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson, spells out many of the problems at that troubled institution.

A bit of self-promotion

A sample issue of the classic Startling Stories, in this case Fall 1943. Art by Earle K. Bergey

Startling Stories was a classic pulp science fiction magazine, published from 1939 to 1955, filled with scantily clad damsels being menaced by bug-eyed monsters or deadly robots while square-jawed heroes fought to rescue them – not always as broad as that, but always fun. Along with its sister SF magazines, Thrilling Wonder Stories. Captain Future magazine and, in later years, Fantastic Story magazine, it entertained readers such as my father, who was a regular reader in the first half of the 1940s.

A revival of Startling Stories in 2007 did not last, and now another attempt, by Wildside Press, has debuted. Why am I blogging about it? Well, because I have a story in the premiere issue. You can check out Wildside’s listing – it’s also on Amazon. A small image of the cover is below.

Stupid Museum Tricks, reflux

I had planned to entitle this “Stupid Museum Tricks Redux” but picked a more visceral word instead, as this recurrence is always accompanied by a sickly feeling in the stomach. Oh, not this again…

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Once again museums are looking to “monetize” – an ugly word if ever there was one – their collections in order to deal with debt. The Covid-19 pandemic is an unusual event, but museums are responding to the pandemic’s stresses in familiar, disheartening ways. I recommend you start with Andrew Russeth’s article on Artnews, which covers the sad situation and some of its precedents.

This time it is the Met, flagship art museum of the United States (I think that’s not hyperbole) that is considering deaccessioning works to deal with a $150 million deficit. As soon as word got out – they are only considering deaccessions at this point – criticism began. Writer and podcaster Tyler Green began a petition, which I urge you to sign. Former Met Director Tom Campbell sounded a warning. Now it’s my turn to echo their concerns.

What is the point of having millionaires, and even billionaires, as Trustees to a museum if they do not understand that their role is primarily financial? Deficits are their problem, for they hold the collections in trust. Any museum Director or curator who has to look at their collection as though they were a rancher forced to cull the herd has been betrayed by their leadership. The Met has a large board, 36 members by a very quick count, plus 20 Honorary Trustees, and 33 Trustee Emeriti – about 90 people in all. Do they not have sufficient money/connections to make up this deficit? And let’s bring in the ex-officio Trustees while we’re at it. They could contribute expertise and connections, even if money is not always their role.

I’ve been singularly fortunate during the past year. I know people who have lost loved ones to Covid, but no one close to me has died. This charmed life, not without its elements of privilege, might make me a bit jaded, but no. Out of all this, we must preserve those things we want to have on the other side, when at last the contagion is gone and life restarts. Museums selling art in order to buy art in order to diversify their collections is something that will have to be argued on a case-by-case basis. This, selling where sales cannot be justified, is something else entirely.

We will have to wait and see what the Met’s Board decides and which, if any, works end up on the auction block.

Time, see what’s become of me

(Tip of the hat to Paul Simon for the title, from his song Hazy Shade of Winter)

Let’s start with an equation: Time+Place=Fantasy

I recently treated myself to a book, Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, one of Taschen’s beautifully printed and bound art books. These outstanding prints, made between 1856-58, are not only beautiful, they show us a world that no longer exists. Buildings have been replaced, the landscape worked by successive generations; even the name has changed, from Edo to Tokyo. Hiroshige was showing the world he lived in, but now he shows us a lost land. I’m not being nostalgic – how can one be nostalgic for a place he has never been? – but I got to thinking about seeing old landscapes with modern eyes. In fact, there is no other way to see them.

Inspired by the book, my imagination made the logical leap: if this is no longer a real place, it is then a fantasy. His understanding of the landscape, his renderings, are the only “real” depictions but, as art, they are not real. As I’ve written before, realism is not reality.

Edo/Tokyo was and is a major city, but my mind went out into the countryside of pre-industrial Japan, and further into fantasy, to Yuki Urushibara’s manga series, Mushishi, and the anime series adapted from the manga. In Mushishi the land is imbued with magic and magical beings – mushi – which are only visible to some. It’s not a big step from Hiroshige’s bucolic (to our eyes) cityscapes to the forests and farmland of Mushishi. Just add a little magic – a little more magic, since time already imbues the past with additional meaning. The magic of bygone places comes from us.

A page from one of Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi books, chosen because I love the drawing

Artists have long added meaning to landscapes, commenting, telling stories, or just setting mood through the trees and hills. Giorgio de Chirico and the Surrealists took the components of a city and made dreams out of them.

Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia, 1950s

This post relates back to my older post on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (my post here). Every place becomes imaginary. L. P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country…,” the opening line of his 1953 book, The Go-Between, has endured because we know it to be true. Realism becomes fantasy with time. I suppose I could just have put up the images with Hartley’s quote and left it at that – but this wouldn’t be much of a blog then, would it?

A Mixed Salad

Front Cover (published by Quirk Books, a very appropriate name)

It took decades for Disney to bring Destino, Salvador Dali’s Surrealist screenplay, to animated life (I blogged about it here) but for movie buffs the unHoly Grail of Dali’s film work has to be Giraffes on Horseback Salad, a treatment Dali worked on as a starring vehicle for Harpo Marx. The seemingly anarchic, gleefully rambunctious Marxes seemed like a perfect fit for Surrealism; both the brothers and Dali were arguably at their creative peaks in the 1930s, when Giraffes first took what little shape it had. But were they really a good match? Could they be? Let’s see one possibility…

Dali and Harpo, the latter playing the Surrealist harp Dali had made.
The strings are barbed wire, so Harpo bandaged his fingers for the right effect

We have only notes and sketches showing what Dali envisioned; whether there ever was a complete script is not clear. A young man, Jimmy, is living a frenetic life of work and idle pleasure, but he is drawn into the mysterious presence of the Surrealist Woman, who transforms life around her but is herself enigmatic and vaguely defined. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are her assistants, who are not always helpful, but they provide the personality the Surrealist Woman lacks. Jimmy’s life is thrown into chaos, with profound consequences for him.

As the notes progressed, Dali moved Harpo from a sidekick role to center stage: Harpo would be Jimmy, with his usual personality manifesting itself very rarely, as a new personality that is revealed in Jimmy through his experience with the Surrealist Woman. Clearly, this is a terrible idea. Harpo’s silence was integral to his persona; to change him into a bland, shallow romantic lead would have sunk the film from the start. It would keep Harpo at center stage, as Dali intended, but to what end?

A double-page spread; artist Manuela Pertega recreates Dali’s “The Lips of Mae West” (1934-35) on the right-hand page
Dali’s original. Copyright the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation

Writer Josh Frank has been a Marx Brothers fan since childhood; this book is his own what-if: an expansion and completion of Dali’s unfinished idea. Frank began by imaging that Irving Thalberg, the brilliant MGM producer whose death in 1936 at only 37 years old, did not die. Thalberg had carefully cultivated the Marx Brothers at MGM, taking their frenetic humor and meeting a more traditional movie musical halfway; no one else would take such care with the Marxes after that. Frank makes a logical assumption, namely that Thalberg would insist on songs in the film, and provides some pretty credible lyrics. He teamed up with comedian and writer Tim Heidecker, who worked to give detail to Dali’s often-allusive and elusive notes. They found a Spanish artist, Manuela Pertega, to render the script into graphic novel form.

You might say this is not what Dali and Harpo intended, and you’re likely correct, but Hollywood usually did that. I once described the MGM approach as “pin the story to the wall and throw writers at it.” This is not the film that would have come out, but that’s all right. It is surprisingly filmable, even by the standards of the time; today, with CGI, there’s nothing here to make a special effects company break a sweat. There is also nothing as daring as Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), which remains the definitive Surrealist film. Frank and Heidecker attempt to keep Groucho and Chico in their usual characters, though too many of the jokes feel like retreads of familiar Marx material. Harpo, as I noted, was not so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book, and its brief glimpse into an alternate world. Consider it a work of fantasy, a pastiche (which it certainly is) and even a spoof. Anyone can write a Marx Brothers movie, but it takes just the right mind – which Dali did not have – to write a great one.

It’s a good question whether Surrealism could be put on film today. Though we have the technical skill, the mindset has changed; codes of morality and cultural assumptions have been rewritten extensively in the passing decades, and humor has changed with them. We love the Marxes because their humor was unique. A survey of other madcap comedies of the period, such as W. C. Fields’ “Million Dollar Legs” (1932) or Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs” (1933) will bring a lot of laughs, and a deepened appreciation of the Marxes and their writers. Had MGM gone with Giraffes in some form, it would likely not be this one, and that’s okay.

Endurance

The President’s House, watercolor, 1814-15, by George Munger (1781–1825). Munger’s most famous works are of the damage to the White House and the Capitol during the War of 1812. I chose this image as the one of the burnt Capitol felt a little too near the mark.

I thought it might be a good time to remember that our country is not just objects; beliefs are more valuable than things. While all art will cease to be, through entropy, disaster, or human action, what must be protected is the ideas that make life worthwhile and civilization possible. Complacency leads to vulnerability. The long-overdue – almost fatally overdue – resistance to neo-fascism is a welcome development. It took the defiling of a national symbol to tip the scales, which is to our shame, but here it is and here it will continue.

Burning buildings are rarely the symbol of victory people take them for.

My Eyes Are Up Here

A “lover’s eye” from the Skier Collection, Birmingham, AL, photo by M. Sean Pathasema

After moving cross country – not for the first time – I find myself in western Massachusetts, reveling in the snowy weather I remember from my New England childhood. It is cold, bright with the unique white light that comes from sunlight reflecting off snow, and suffused with Christmas spirit. I am working in retail for now, to rebuild our finances after the move, and it allows me the uneasy privilege of being regularly among a lot of people. Not the best thing, these days – I am at high risk, and “essential” as a result – but for someone interested in human nature I suppose I am fortunate.

In watching people mingle and shop, a recurring moment caught my eye. Two people, intent on their lists and purchases, pass by when a flash of recognition lights one face. “I didn’t recognize you with the mask!” says one, and a conversation erupts. I’ve seen people stand for 10 minutes, quietly joyful to talk to someone outside the four walls of their lockdown. But I have to wonder: what is it about masks that makes people unrecognizable?

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zorka in The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939)

There is a trope found in several serials made by Universal Pictures in the 1930s-40s, in which a character is rendered unrecognizable by shaving their beard. A mask can be a similar, but more easily observed, disguise. It is almost as though people do not look at the eyes in order to recognize a face.

Yes, the obvious conclusion is that people are often so caught up in their own affairs to pay attention, and have no training in looking closely – “You see but you do not observe” as Sherlock Holmes put it in A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) – but I wonder if there is something more. People spend so much of their lives with eyes downcast, especially in this age of cell phones, that the recognition of another in eye contact comes as a surprise. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster’s famous phrase (from Howard’s End, 1910) might be rewritten as “Only observe.” Eye contact can be the prelude to intimacy on many levels; there are many variants of “the eyes are the windows of the soul” going back to the Gospel of Matthew and likely before. “Lover’s eyes,” such as the one shown at top, were tokens to remind someone of their beloved, a memento of connection. The Universal Pictures cliche both acknowledges the absent way most people look at others, while misunderstanding the primary focal point of the human face.

M. C. Escher, Eye, 1946

The eye has been thought of as more than a portal, but a recorder: the myth that the eye retains the image of the last thing it sees was once thought of as fact, and was studied by scientists and included in crime fiction. As a chronically shy person, I understand the impact of eye contact. It is central to establishing connection; as a part of foreplay, it is the first contact made. Now that we are limited in many ways we must value that connection more than ever. Seeing someone on a screen is not the same thing.

Fatima Ronquillo, Bound Hand with Lover’s Eye, 2013. Private collection

The “lover’s eye”, which you can see above and at top, used to be a love token; a painting of an eye given to a lover, allowing the illusion of presence even when the couple are separated. It’s a lovely idea, but my experience during lockdown suggests it wouldn’t always work. I could be cynical, and say that some people can’t see what’s in front of them (and some can’t), but there’s enough cynicism without adding to that noisome pile. We bond through eye contact, and it is one of the most potent bonds. Friends, acquaintances, might not be sufficiently close to carry this bond – hence, people don’t recognize one another through the eyes unless they are very close.

Good thing, too: how many superheroes are regularly seen by close associates and never recognized because they wear masks or alter their appearance in minor ways? “I know those eyes anywhere – you’re Bruce Wayne!” At least the 1938 serial version of The Lone Ranger (photo below) presents a mystery: the Ranger is thought dead; five possible suspects were presented. No one knows which of the murdered Rangers survived except Tonto, and so no one expects to see a dead man alive again.

Who was that masked man?

The lover’s eye is worth reviving, as a trinket, or in some virtual form: Tik Tok videos of a face, for example. Any excuse for connection, any method by which connection can be maintained, is worth pursuing in this lockdown world. Look. Look more. But don’t just see: observe.