No matter what museum in the world one visits, there is always a crowd and with it comes murmuring. The museum experience then becomes like watching a movie with the director’s commentary on.
Some weeks ago something highly unusual happened. I found myself alone with three creations by two American masters of painting: Clyfford Still and Joan Mitchell.
The miracle took place during the Art After Dark hours at the Norton Museum of Art, which could explain why, for more than 20 minutes, I had one whole gallery room to myself.
The paintings in question will not be rushed. Silence is their big collaborator. They provoke a personal reaction in each individual, in time and in solitude, without the pressure of having to move along.
“They are very powerful when you actually see them,” said Cheryl Brutvan, curator of contemporary art, referring to the untitled Mitchell work on display and Still’s PH-1033 and 1949-A-No.1.
Seeing them is already a big deal when you consider that these paintings have rarely been exhibited. Now you can see them until Sept. 2.
Upon entering the room, we face a dark violent landscape or creature in velvety blacks and deep red tones. Creature or not, whatever it is, it looks alive. This is Still’s 1949-A-No.1, my favorite of the bunch. Just last year a lucky telephone bidder acquired it for a record $61.7 million, breaking the artist’s previous record of $21.3 million.
To the right, another Still piece is battling a fire. The flames threaten to consume the entire 93 ½-x-83-inch-canvas although which color represents the fire is up to us. In the center of every orange brush stroke lives a redder intensity just as within the lighter space some spots go whiter. There remain blank spaces untouched by the heat. A balance is achieved. This is PH-1033 (1976).
If you stand far enough, you could think of it as a bloody sheet, spread out as a sign of a certain sacrifice, loss, offering.
A stampede of color seems to be running away from the center of an untitled canvas and heading to the edges as if someone had yelled fire or bomb on a packed theater. This is a frenetic crowd, an explosion of tones, a massacre. Colors step on top of colors, get on the way, interrupt other colors’ flow. No tone escapes intact. The white sports multicolor scars: random violent strokes that seem accidental but you can rest assured were well planned. The same goes for the blue.
This is Mitchell’s Untitled (1960). At an auction last year, this one piece reached a record $9.3 million for the artist. Mitchell once said: “What excites me when I’m painting is what one color does to another and what they do to each other in terms of space and interaction.”
It shows here.
Occasionally we find a small oasis of calm in the work, where the colors are not fighting but fusing together under a thin, smooth layer of paint. To the right (on the top half of the piece) a magenta spot resembles a sunset sky.
The artist was in her mid-30s when she painted this. An abstract expressionist with an athlete’s discipline, she is known for the emotion and energy of her brushstrokes.
The miracle minutes of silence spent with these three works in that small white room make me think of one word: conspiracy. I am not wrong.
The Norton intentionally placed the paintings in one of its smallest gallery rooms to facilitate that intimate, personal connection between the viewer and the each work, Brutvan said.
After all, what is the Mona Lisa to you if you cannot see her smile or her eyes because of a packed room? I can tell you what it would mean: nothing. You might as well be facing a painting by Mr. Bean.
Artworks as rare as these three tend to be like comets. You need to be very patient and they eventually will come around and find you. Just be sure when they do, you take the right amount of time to really find them.
American Masters at the Norton: Clyfford Still and Joan Mitchell is on display through Sept. 2. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $12; county residents free every first Saturday of the month, and West Palm Beach residents free every Saturday. Call 561-832-5196 for more information or visit www.norton.org.