I know it when I see it

Every first Sunday of the month in Paris, almost all of the museums and tourist sites dispense with their admission charges and let the masses in. This gives you an idea of the pandemonium that ensues — the line stretched all the way to the end of the entrytube at the Centre Georges Pompidou:

Pompidou line

I didn’t even attempt the Louvre, or the Musée D’Orsay, or the Musée Picasso (where the line stretched out the door, out the courtyard, and around the block).

But I like the Centre Pompidou. They aren’t kidding when they say they’re a museum of modern art — this is not the kind of place where the curators wait for what was once shocking to ripen into respectability before daring to acquire it. You’re as likely to find the exact room that optical artist Yaacov Agam decorated in the Elysée Palace (and which President Pompidou’s successor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, swiftly removed) as you are to rest your eyes on some pretty Matisse. The question of “What is art?”, inchoate in more sedate museum settings, is brought to the fore without shame or awkwardness at the Pompidou, where even the building (“like an office block that threw up on itself,” someone behind me in the line to get in said) makes one ponder the definitions and boundaries of art and architecture.

Not that a yen for the new has always well-served the museum. Apparently this plastic bubble, air-as-medium stuff was very big in the 1970s.

plastic bubble

But I like Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s repurposed bottle caps and gum wrappers (for my San Francisco friends, there’s a similar Anatsui piece in the permanent collection of the De Young, so you ought to hop along some first Tuesday of the month). This, to me, recalls Klimt — except with Klimt all you get is gaudied-up, demi-monde surface, and with Anatsui I’m forced to think of materials, economics, nationality, history, and the meaning of choice under the constraints of circumstance.

El Anatsui

I like this, too. I’m a sucker for expressive line — painters who really let loose with their strokes, like Egon Schiele and Toulouse-Lautrec, always pull me in more than their more conservative, neatly-executed cousins. Here, the line is all there is, and it has a kind of sympathetic simplicity.

Bull drawing

And thankfully the Centre Pompidou had the grace not to hang it too close to its obvious point of departure:


I’ve had this Jean Dubuffet installation, “Le Jardin d’Hiver” (“The Winter Garden”), in the back of my mind since my last visit to the Pompidou, in 2002. It’s somehow disorienting — a pockmarked, uneven grotto with no straight lines, and no light source other than a small, roundish door set high in one wall — and comforting in its extraordinary simplicity. There’s not much to look at, but it’s hard to keep your eyes from tracing the thick, black, topographical lines that define the cave’s bulges and negative spaces. Last time I was here, a sad, sad, music was playing, and I spent quite some time just standing there.


I’ve decided that one day, like Yves Klein, there will be a colour named for me. Not sure what it will be yet, but if an artist can get his models to roll in paint and stick his name on the shade, surely a model should be able to get something.

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11 responses to “I know it when I see it

  1. That Rhino is AWESOME!

    I’m having brunch in SF today! You’re jealous! But not because it’s rainy.

  2. Oooh I want brunch. Yummy. Call me? I have a new number I just e-mailed you. We can watch PR!

  3. I stumbled on your site (specifically your entry on visiting museums on “free days”) while researching the phrase “I know it when I see it” (as in Justice Potter Stewart’s famous Supreme Court concurrence). Wow! — it’s nice to see stereotypes punctured. You’re a model AND you’re smart and analytical. My writer son will know it when he sees it if he ever meets someone like you. Cheers from Minnesota USA.

  4. First of all, I just wanted to concur with the kind words of the gentleman above. But you already knew you were my favorite model, smart or otherwise.

    That being said, I have to sadly admit that this law student didn’t recognize the “I know it when I see it” line. After I did the appropriate research, however, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the equally interesting district court decision that allowed Ulysses into the US.

    The case required the judge to determine what constitutes “obscene.” He decided to poll his friends to see if a man of average sexual instincts would be aroused by the book. He concluded with this gem:

    “Whilst in many places the effect of ‘Ulysses’ on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”

    Just wanted to throw that out there (and in so doing avoid my own legal endeavors).

  5. I feel improved for knowing that fantastically random factoid, Alyssa. And that, plus procrastination and porn, is the whole point of the Internet, right?

    Thank you for the nice message, Burton.

  6. Alyssa, if I’m the “law student” you’re referring to, I’m not one and I was well aware of Justice Stewart’s use of the phrase and the context. I’m a 65-year-old lawyer who, in background for a piece I’m going to post in my law blog, http://WWW.TheDailyJudge.Com, was researching the derivation of the phrase to see who BEFORE Justice Stewart had used the famous line and in what ways. :-) BRH

  7. Oh, don’t worry, Burton — Alyssa is the law student here.

  8. I neglected to get back to you and tell you I gave you a plug at my Daily Judge blog — as a writer. Sorry about that. :-) It’s in the second of the following two linked entries:



    Best wishes.

  9. Pingback: El Anatsui « thesalt

  10. longshot here, but any chance anyone knows the artist of the bull painting (the one with the expressive lines) in this post?

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