“This isn’t art! I can’t believe something like this would hang in a museum!” My seventh-grade self was outraged upon seeing an all black canvas hanging in the National Gallery on our family’s trip to Washington, DC. Even though I grew up in an art-centered home, I had primarily focused on the representational pieces by the great masters when flipping through my dad’s art history books. To look at modern and contemporary nonrepresentational images didn’t occur to me. Now, faced with what seemed so uncreative, I didn’t know how to respond.
While at the National Gallery, we did see paintings by artists I recognized – da Vinici to Van Gogh. But what stuck with me was that all-black painting. It defined a new path: I began reading more books, watching Sister Wendy, and eventually went to college in Paris, pursuing a degree in art history. Now, nearly 20 years later, I work at the Clyfford Still Museum, which contains most of the nonrepresentational artist’s oeuvre. An abstract expressionist, Clyfford Still paints in bold blocks of color; his paintings are untitled; his philosophy is that he “want[s] no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator.”
The other day, while taking the light rail into work, I reflected on my journey in art history. If I hadn’t been visually uncomfortable with that black painting, I may not have wanted to know more. Even though it was my least favorite painting of our trip, it is the one that has stuck with me the most and which has most shaped my journey.
I wonder how many times I have shied away from discomfort, not wanting it to disturb my neat, tidy life. What opportunities did I pass by, not wanting to step out of my comfort zone? Which friendships did I not pursue, because I was uncomfortable with an initial meeting or with entering a vulnerable place? How many times did we not invite people to our home because we were uncomfortable with its size? As we enter into Advent and a season of hospitality, I want to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
How have seemingly uncomfortable situations defined your life?