I was duped by playwright John Guare. And it took me 31 years to realize it.
The realization came while walking through the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition celebrating the work of Vasily Kandinsky.
I’m not an art scholar. I never took an art appreciation course in college. So my entry point for most visual artists has either come from a museum or gallery visit or a reference stumbled on somewhere else in the culture.
I don’t think I’m alone. Whether it’s becoming a Mozart fan via the film “Amadeus” or hearing “In Flanders Field” for the first time in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” or deciding you want to learn about Voltaire because of the scene in “The Princess Diaries,” for those of us without a formal arts education, cultural doors are often opened via pop entertainment channels.
Okay, so John Guare’s play “Six Degrees of Separation” isn’t exactly “The Princess Diaries.” But it was a successful play and a good film and I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only person who had our first exposure to Kandinsky there.
In the play, a family of wealthy upper west side New Yorkers are duped into believing that a stranger is the son of Sidney Poitier. A central metaphor – and a central piece of the play’s set – is a two-sided painting by Kandinski, representing, at least in my mind, the duality of the personalities in the play.
I saw the play, featuring Stockard Channing and Courtney B. Vance, at Lincoln Center back in 1991 and, just a few weeks ago, I entered the Guggenheim anticipating an appearance by that unusual work.
If you have an art history background, you already know where this is going.
My son and I took separate paths through “Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle.”
From the bottom up, it’s design to first introduce the visitor to the artist’s later work — which is the way Curator Megan Fontanella clearly meant it to be viewed. Winding up through the spiral gallery, you travel back through time from the 1940s to the early years of the 1900s.
But there’s nothing wrong with starting at the top (side note: It’s easier on the feet to walk down instead of up).
My son was more interested in development and growth, seeing the seeds grow. I was as interested in the art as I was in trying to suss out why Fontanella wanted us to view the work in reverse.
That questions remained in my mind as I tried to absorb both the work on its own, in the context of other pieces, and in conjunction with the biographical text. Like Sondheim found out when writing his backward-structured musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” there’s a kind of sadness inherent in that reverse structure. Happily, though, there was much for this Kandinsky neophyte to marvel at along the way. I was, in short, entranced.
I won’t try to fact scholarly analysis. But when my son and I ran into each other midway, I was thrilled to see his overwhelming enthusiasm for the work exceeded even mine. We compared notes. We talked about the work that pulled us in.
And after being scolded by a guard for temporarily removing a mask for a photo, we continued on our journeys, his looking to the future, me looking to the past.
Two ways of looking at it.
Maybe I got my answer.
P.S. There is no back-to-back Kandinsky on the upper west side or anywhere else. Both sides of that play/movie prop exist, just not together. “Black Lines” and “Several Circles” are both part of the current exhibition and their combination was created in playwright John Guare’s imagination.
Like the play’s Kittredge family and their friends, I accepted an unreliable source in part because I wanted to believe it to be true.
I just wish I realized it before I told my son to watch out for it.