Gauging the Influence of Influence

The Phoenix Art Museum

A few weeks ago I ventured with friends on the two hour drive down to Phoenix to see the Cézanne and American Modernism exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. I’ve lived in Arizona for almost 20 years, and sadly this may be but my second or third visit to this museum. Maybe it needs a hip museum acronym- but I do not think “The PAM” really works. But I digress.

To me–far from a museum professional–it was an interesting approach. This was not just a collection of the works of the Great Impressionist, but it focused more on his influence on American Modernists, how that influence spread, and impacted not just artists, but also photographers.

I’ve had a root of interest in this period going back to high school French class, where the odd then but now more greatly appreciated Monsieur Rivkin felt it important not only to teach us suburban kid how to conjugate verbs and order soup, but also to appreciate art and culture. For some reason, the Impressionists alway intrigued me, perhaps for the way they bucked tradition and followed their own instincts rather then the crowd of popularity (or maybe created a new crowd to follow).

It’s fairly easy to see Cézanne’s influence on Marsden Hartley, whose landscape works I liked especially that took the colors to the extreme. I am not remembering the other artist in this collection that one might say the same thing, but had adamantly stated that Cézanne was not an influence. Who is to say? Is it in the eye of the beholder?

If it is a part of Cézanne I came away with a new appreciation for from this show was the innovation of using the blank or unpainted parts of the canvas as key elements of his compositions. That strikes me as powerful to use negative space if you will.

The latter ring of the exhibit has a section on the photographers who were influenced by Cézanne, much it and the other influences channeling through Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. I could follow this for most of their examples, the influence of the framing of the still life fruits on the way photographers approached their framing of similar subjects; I was less convinced of the example of a Paul Strand photo of a bather in a lake per se being a line of influence from the master’s Bathers series.

Then again, influence in whose eyes? Who I am to say what the influence is or isn’t?

Another bit I took from this show was an appreciation for the acceleration of influence in this immediate, real time internet age compared to how it might have transgressed 120 years ago. For Cézanne to influence people in the US, it took visitors to Europe who returned home with their own descriptions, notes, sketches, or some of early, low fidelity photographs. Magazines acted like the network that spread the influence west across the US, but it may seem more like slow moving waves than speed of light bits we live with today. How does one now gauge influence when media moves much faster than us?

My friends and also wandered into the modern art of the south gallery of the Phoenix Art Museum, which is fantastic in its openness of space. I thought perhaps a might need a spray of this item I saw in the gift shop:

I doubt this really works. But maybe it would be worth a try.

Instead I just relaxed, and decided to let some pieces just not affect me at all, or leave me saying, “huh” while others, I can say, without exactly describing why, did speak more profoundly (or yelled stridently). In this case, rather than walking with the audio tour guide on a stick as we used in the Cézanne exhibit, we just took it in without any expert opinions.

One large black smooth sculpted piece in the center drew most of my attention (I cannot recollect the name or artist)… It reminded me a lot of a more reflective cousin, Cloud Gate in Millenium Park, Chicago.

Whatever the reason, I was curious about its diffused reflection from people looking at a painting on the wall behind me, and snapped a quick photo with my iPhone (it’s hard to know which are the ones the guards will or won’t swoop down on you for photographing- but I found out later).

South Gallery at the Phoenix Art Museum

Looking at this later, it feels somewhat Impressionistic in texture– and I guess again– how does influence work? I am doubting we can ever quantify it, and that is preferred to me, because it makes for more interesting speculation, discussion, and debate.

And on a larger scale, we are influenced daily a hundred, maybe a thousand times by visual, sound, things we read; how does all of that factor into some magical human stew of our minds that are manifested in the things we do or create?

For me, influence is left to be a bit more magical than empirical. And thus, becomes more beautiful.

Leave a Reply