Rae Armantrout At The Phillips Collection

For the last six years, one of the poetry readings in the Folger’s poetry series is held at the Phillips Collection, a private museum in DC. It bills itself (and I don’t doubt it) as the first modern art museum in America (it was founded in the twenties).

Rae Armantrout read in dialogue with an exhibit of Man Ray’s work entitled, Human Equations.

I got into the museum about twenty minutes early, so did a quick stroll through the Man Rays and also their permanent collection.

My father and I had just been talking about smaller, regional museums and their acquisition struggles. It is often a choice between buying first rate pieces by second rate artists or second rate pieces by first rate artists (the Phillips doesn’t have this problem – it’s got a first rate collection, through and through). Specifically, we talked about the Montgomery Museum of Art in Montgomery, Alabama. They have an excellent Hopper (my father noted) and a very good Rothko (I mentioned; though the Hopper is better).

Well, I’m strolling and what do I see but nearly half a dozen very fine Hoppers (though smaller than the one in Montgomery). A moment later, I walk by a sign for the ‘Rothko Room.’ Inside were four, good sized Rothkos (do you ever see a small Rothko? I don’t think I have). However, save one, they had color or color combinations that I found almost physically repulsive (that yellow!). I usually enjoy his work but… eewww.

Armantrout, it turns out, for me anyway, is better read on the page.

She admitted to not having a massive interest in art and having not had any particular interest in nor experience of Man Ray before being invited. Her comments about the pieces were shallow and the connections between her chosen poems and the art were flimsy and unconvincing. I can understand reservations about Man Ray, but she radiated a palpable disdain for the man and his work. I actually asked a question that came down to: Do you like Man Ray’s work? She said yes, but I am not persuaded.

Guy Raz from NPR moderated the conversation and it’s clear he know little about poetry. His questions were of a high school variety – variations on ‘how do you write a poem?’

Even though, once she’d signed my book, I still have forty-five minutes left to further peruse the museum (they’ve got a great De Kooning), I was so turned off by the event that I just left.

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