• John Diamond-Nigh


Waiting for Firestone to open, I spend a couple of minutes ferreting out those old receipts and Tutankhamun pistachio shells that find refuge in the crannies of a car interior. In the cup holder I feel something small, hard and glossy. That's where I put it.

It is a small Delft vase that I had purchased as a boy and given to my mother for Christmas. For as long as I can recall, it sat on a shelf in her living room. Fragments of the rim had broken off and then been glued back in place. Cracks raced around the narrow neck like creases on an old man's wrist. My mother had done an exemplary job.

I have a far less distinct memory of who I was at 14 than I do of how watery, flowery Holland overtook me with wide-eyed, story-book bliss. I wrapped that vase in a sock and tucked it into my suitcase where it remained through France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and back to the airport in Amsterdam.

I remember in spring there were violets in the vase, like miniature flags of a coming republic of warmth.

To us it seems odd. When something cracks–out it goes. But cracks in Japanese pots and timbers are treasured, sometimes filled with a gold seam or crude iron staples that reinforce the fissure as if to accentuate its existence. I once made a series in which I pressed sheets of moist paper into the cracks of the sidewalk in front of our house. When the paper dried and I lifted them up, the pattern of the cracks looked like elegant, ancient runes.

No one sets out to crack an object but when a crack appears, it is often like a cleft into the deeper life of the object. A mémoire. Think of the Liberty Bell. I can imagine this title for a book, Cracked: The Incalculable Life of Beautiful Things. I can easily picture the wealth of things you would find inside. The most famous instance is the The Large Glass by Marcel Duchamp, whose large pane of glass was cracked into hundreds of pieces during shipping. Rather than discard it, Duchamp set about reassembling the shattered pane like a vast jigsaw puzzle, declaring the cracks an indispensable, magical part of the piece.

Last week, a young man in our usual café was wearing a T-shirt that said, Modernity Has Failed Us. Made me wonder if I could wear that myself. Modern art did two things, it strove to emulate the clarity and modernity of the machine, and in an opposite spirit, it sought to reclaim its ancient role of insubordination, to crack those fine delusions of utopia and prestige like a "rude, parodic squawk in the temple of art" (Cy Twombly).

Temples of art. Holland Cotter, the NY Times art critic, has wondered if our deluxe museums need breaking up. Is the standard, centralized model soon to be obsolete? Is their costly grandeur (MoMA, for instance) in fact sanitizing, even killing, the art inside? Disperse the art to smaller, more authentic outposts, he suggests.

Opposite our present institutional grandeur, the early venues for modern art were little more than shabby shoeboxes sequestered on out-of-the-way streets. Early Picasso paintings were exhibited in junk shop windows. Gertrude Stein longed to buy a Picasso from the dealer Ambrose Vollard who said no, shuffling like a groundhog back down to the basement. Not one to take no from anyone, Stein returned, begged, cajoled, insisted. Vollard (not one to take yes from anyone) still refused. Turning in frustration to her brother, she muttered, merde, this guy is cracked.

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