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November 2011: Singular Visions @ the Whitney Museum of American Art

Matthew Day Jackson, Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship), 2004 (installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York).
Wood, vinyl, fabric, rope, metal, leather, plastic, fur, yarn, and found objects, 120 × 96 × 204 in. (304.8 × 243.8 × 518.2 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art; gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson 2009.202a-hh. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins

Singular Visions
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
December 16, 2010–

Do you feel overwhelmed in a museum when you see dozens of masterpieces next to each other? The folks at the Whitney have you covered. Singular Visions is an exhibition designed for viewing artwork one piece at a time. The ongoing show includes 12 selections of post-war art. Each piece stands alone in a spacious room.

When I stepped into the first room and looked at Matthew Day Jackson’s sculpture Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship), I was pulled right into the piece. I read the description on the wall and then spent a long time walking around the sculpture. With the other artwork out of sight, I felt invited to really examine the piece down to its minute details.

Sepulcher is a life-sized sculpture of a boat that sits atop a funeral pyre. The boat’s sail is a patchwork of old canvases, faded band T-shirts, and those promo T-shirts you get from restaurants and end up wearing as pajamas.

Inside the burial ship, a set of clothing is spread out like a corpse. The outfit, which draws from hippie and punk styles, is comprised of Birkenstock sandals studded with metal spikes, leather shin guards, a matador’s jacket, and jean shorts covered in anti-war patches. Above the outfit, on the reverse of the boat’s sail, an illustration is printed of a grassy field that meets with outer space. The picture creates the impression that the boat sails through space and into oblivion.

According to the museum’s description, Jackson considers Sepulcher a farewell to his old modes of expression and tired ways of thinking. The sculpture serves as a metaphoric burial of the artist’s old self at age 30. The ship’s sail, sewn from T-shirts for bands like Black Flag, as well as scraps of the artist’s paintings, allows the viewer to piece together their own story about the artist. As one imagines the young man’s experiences – perhaps pumping his fist at a concert under a downpour of Henry Rollins’s sweat – there is something strangely intimate about seeing the artist’s old, yellow fleece sewn into the patchwork of his creation.

Sepulcher rewards close observation. If the sculpture had been placed beside other artwork, I might have overlooked interesting details in its construction, such as the triangles that pattern the boat’s bow, the kind of design a punk kid might carve into his desk while sitting in the back of class.

In addition to Matthew Day Jackson’s engrossing Sepulcher, Singular Visions includes paintings, sculptures, and photographs that haven’t been displayed in decades, as well as artwork from historical heavyweights like Willem De Kooning, Eva Hesse, and Leon Golub.
 

Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski is a writer and artist in Brooklyn. He runs the small publisher On Lives Press and is currently working on a collection of short fiction.

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