I Took My Dad to a Contemporary Art Show

He had a lot to say.

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My dad reads every piece of writing in a museum. Every wall text introducing an exhibition, every placard that accompanies every piece of art. He reads every word, and he reads them slowly.

My dad is a lawyer. It's his job to scour the tiniest print on documents, to scrutinize information and then put together a narrative that rationalizes that information. When he's at a museum, the concept is the same. He's going to read the description next to that Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, so that he can figure out why the artist painted incorrect long division onto canvas on purpose.

"The first guy who does a white canvas is a genius. The next guy is a moron. The guy who puts four white canvases together, he's back in the museum." — My Dad

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I've taken my dad to the last weekend of Unfinished, the inaugural exhibition at the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum's new outpost for contemporary art. Unfinished brings together works from the 15th to 21st centuries, some left unintentionally incomplete, others whose unfinished-ness is a deliberate challenge to the viewer. The exhibition is laid out chronologically, and as we move forward in time, I notice my dad beginning to get, not frustrated, not dismissive, but…amused?

Pablo Picasso, Head Study for a Monument, 1929. Dad thoughts: A nose picking itself.
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This is a man who once got teary-eyed telling a story about Beethoven (Dad, if you're reading this, it happened, I swear). He attends a poetry workshop and owns issues of The Paris Review from the 1960s. My dad is no philistine. But once, when I was interning at a contemporary art museum in college, he laughed openly at the museum's installation of square dancing puppets. Years later, he's still laughing.

Donatello, Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 1455–1460. Dad thoughts: This is one of the earliest known football sculptures.

So, how to talk to my dad, any dad, about contemporary art?

When we reach the galleries showing the 20th- and 21st-century works, he's immediately drawn to Sol LeWitt's "Incomplete Open Cubes," barely stops to look at Jasper Johns's drawing of a target, and is, in the vein of dads everywhere, extremely skeptical of Jackson Pollock. Even after reading each placard, my dad still has a bone to pick with a few of the artists.

"He's not very good at math." — My Dad, re: Basquiat

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Of course, we never stop learning from our parents. So when my dad has questions, when he doesn't immediately get the point of it all, his criticism isn't off.

Below are my dad's responses to a few of the contemporary works at the Met Breuer, his stray observations, more serious criticisms, and his dadliest jokes.

Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting (four panel). 1992.
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Dad: "The first guy who does a white canvas is a genius. The next guy is a moron. The guy who puts four white canvases together, he's back in the museum."

Piet Mondrian, New York City 2 (unfinished, formerly New York City III), 1941.
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Dad: "He did substantially more work than that guy [Rauschenberg, above]."

Piero Manzoni, Line of Infinite Length, 1960.

Manzoni inscribed a line of ink on a roll of industrial paper, and then sealed it in a small wooden cylinder.

Dad: "I don't understand what I'm looking at. I don't have any feeling for it, because you can't even access it."

Me: "But the placard explains it: 'It measures neither time nor distance; instead, it represents interminable duration and unlimited extension.'"

Dad: "I recognize it, but it seems trivial, to make a little box and say, 'Inside there is a masterpiece that you can't see.'"

Robert Morris, Box With the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961.
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Robert Morris built a small wooden box, and then installed an internal speaker that plays a recording of him making the box.

Dad: "See, someone already beat me to it. They made a box."


Sol LeWitt, Incomplete Open Cubes, 1974–1982.

In which Sol LeWitt tries to exhaust all possible combinations for not building a cube.

Dad: "That's fascinating. That's amazing."

Dad: "They've done some at the Houston Zoo with elephants' tails like this."

[Editor's Note: No disagreement in sentiment here.]

Hanne Darboven, Letter and Indices to 24 Songs, 1974.

Hanne Darboven wrote a letter to LeWitt, a good friend, and included a musical score, all written in a code she called "mathematical prose."

Dad: "You get to this, and you've abandoned the figurative. It's almost evocative of binary code. This just seems more complex. The box and the vessel are interesting, but it doesn't require the same involvement from the viewer."

Cady Noland, Cart Full of Action, 1986.

Dad: "The muffler represents society's attempt to suffocate the creativity of young people. The fan belt is the binding that straps us to the system. The hubcaps are vanity and external displays of inequity. Those Chrysler hubcaps though… the road grit can get through to the lug nuts and rust them faster than a plain hubcap."

Kerry James Marshall, Unfinished, 2009.

Dad: "This to me does have a twist, putting the unfinished painting in the background."

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991.

I've seen this in a few exhibitions by now. To visually demonstrate the toll AIDS has taken on the human population, and, more intimately, the toll it takes on the human body, viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy. After not so long, the mound of candy disappears, the museum restocks it, and the process begins again.

Dad: "Hmm, I give it credit, now that I've read what it means."

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