A PSA for the art community: The Whitney Humanities Center event “Conversing with Things: Drawings, Paintings, and Pastels” is not a gallery walk-through with the exhibit’s featured artist, professor Karsten Harries ’58 GRD ’62. The artist won’t be on hand to offer any “meanings” to his modern art pieces. Instead, any “conversing” will be a direct and unfiltered exchange between you, the works of art and hopefully some of your fellow attendees. So enjoy some sensual studies of flesh-like conch shells — just don’t expect to see the artist in the flesh.
The exhibit’s publicity materials don’t make this obvious: Every person who attended the 3:00 p.m. event last Wednesday arrived with the erroneous impression that we would be meeting Harries himself. But 30 oppressive minutes of waiting for the absent artist gradually made for an enjoyable, unique, experience — now that I’ve spoiled the surprise, yours won’t be the same. Admittedly awkward at first, the afternoon turned pleasantly communal and eventually liberating once we realized that the onus of “conversing” with the paintings fell entirely upon our own amateur-art-critic selves.
Our laid-back group’s transformation from passive audience to active appraisers appropriately parallels Harries’s own elevation of commonplace objects to artistic subjects. The venue, too, reflects Harries’s approach to identifying art amidst the ordinary. The Gallery at Whitney is comprised of the WHC’s busy main hall and a large meeting room at the end. As you walk down the hallway, Harries’ eclectic collection of eggplant studies, paintings of tropical flowers and 1946 sketches of post-war Munich are punctuated by flyers advertising a talk on Ebola and windows peering into WHC’s administrative offices. Even in the main room, massive street-level windows look out onto a busy downtown intersection; the gray New England sky ominously overshadows the artist’s diminutive and dreamy seascapes of tropical Viques, Puerto Rico.
The diversity and distinctiveness of Harries’s subjects define the exhibit. In his official description of the collection, Harries emphasizes an intentional lack of a singular narrative: “These pictures do not try to make a point. They do not demonstrate anything. They seek to respond to some often not particularly memorable objects, a rock formation, a seashell, roots, flowers, fruit, garbage and especially the sea.” Rather than the subjects themselves grabbing your attention, the dynamism of their representation mesmerizes you. Soft pastel portrayals of seaside rocks seem to bloom into gentle grey flowers reflecting the sunlight. The charcoal sketch of a dancing girl condenses into a drawing of a flower only after you’ve seen the piece’s title: “Hibiscus.” And in the three “Garbage” pastels, no signs of decay mar the refuse — every cabbage piece, papaya peel and eggshell emits a refreshing, tropical island energy.
My favorite example of Harries’s artistic vivacity is the wall containing three sets of pastels: “Conch Shells 1–3,” “Eros 1–3,” and “Annunciation, Christmas, and Good Friday.” They combine Harries’s penchant for realism with his use of abstracted human forms and biblical themes. Together, they represent a spectrum of verve and animation that Harries imbues in all his works. A lifeless shell nonetheless oozes with the sensuality of blushing flesh, pink and pale; abstracted images of female sexuality dance through the triptych of “Eros 1–3”; the final set celebrates the celestial conception of Christ, his birth and death.
The lack of a consecrated space for viewing the art was my only grievance with the exhibit. In congruence with the participant-centered turn of the experience, a stronger art gallery atmosphere was only achieved when I myself shut the curtains on the large windows and asked a staff member to turn on the gallery lights. The resulting soft radiance facilitated our focused meditation on the images and our silent dialogue with objects — the prayerful conversation that Harries intended.
One final PSA: If your secret society has a picture of “an orange view of the church in Avioth and a somewhat Feiningerish blue image of the start of a sailboat race,” please consider returning these paintings forthwith to the Gallery. According to Harries’s description in the program, these pieces were removed from his office a few years ago. Word on the street is that they may be hanging in a society’s tomb right now.
Even without those pieces, I recommend the collection — it is on view every Wednesday from 3:00–5:00 pm until Dec. 10. But to make the most of the experience, make sure that the viewing environment is on par with the art itself. And also, don’t wait half an hour for Harries to show up.