my top 10 favorite artworks

A few years back, the author Zadie Smith wrote an interesting article (actually a combined movie and book review of The Social Network and You Are Not a Gadget) in which she reminds readers “that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations….Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)”

It got me thinking about all the things there are to like, who determines what is likeable (in the public list-making sense), and how. Someone else has already set the parameters within which we create identities for ourselves on social media. How would our social interactions and the world be different if we were more often (or ever) asked, as Smith suggests, to list our favorite plants or ideas or buildings?

Or artworks. Artworks affect me. Not all of them, but I have seen enough that I think I can list my top 10 favorite pieces. What I like about visual art that I think distinguishes it from the media (movies, music, books, and TV shows) we are commonly asked to catalog on the Internet is that I am free to spend as much or as little time as I want experiencing an image or object. In a gallery or a museum or on the street, I have control over what I look at, within the parameters of what is displayed. But the parameters are trickier to restrict there–all those venues are also good for people-watching, and at the museum, I sometimes look at my reflection in the frame’s glass to see my own face superimposed on the iconic. I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about art. I’m just a layperson who likes to look at it and think about it. This is a list, in semi-particular order, of what I like, what I still think about years after seeing it for the first time.

10. Rufino Tamayo, The Window

I think of SFMOMA as my local museum, and I’m really sad that it’s about to close for a two-year remodeling project. I’ve been going there since I was 18 and visiting San Francisco during college vacations. I’m pretty familiar with its permanent collection, and The Window is a piece I look for every time I’m there. I’m probably supposed to say I like it because of the intrigue (I do tend to prefer art with an imaginable narrative), but I’ve never imagined a story here. I don’t care why that gun is on the windowsill, who did or didn’t shoot whom. I like this painting for its simplicity of forms and the full moon.

9. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain

Art can be fucking funny. What else can I say? I especially love that there are eight of these damn things!

8. David Hockney, Scrabble

Of course, this piece marries my love of Scrabble with my love of photography. I first saw Hockney’s photo collages in high school or early college, and I guess it was the first time I realized there was a wider range of what photography can do (or what one can do with it).

7. Bill Owens’ Suburbia series

This goes along with my more general interest in post-WWII America. I once read–probably on a card written by some museum curator–a description of another artist’s (Ed Ruscha’s) aesthetic as “relentless deadpan banality,” and that’s what I get out of Owens’ work as well. His pictures are fairly straightforward depictions of real people in everyday settings, which is reason enough to like them, but it’s hard not to read any kind of cultural criticism one wants into images of suburban housing developments and tract homes. I don’t think that’s the point, but it’s something I could think about endlessly, and that’s why I keep coming back to these photos.

6. The Brown Sisters series by Nicholas Nixon

I’m really interested in how people change over time, in making everyday life into art, and in art that spans time and is unfinished. Nixon’s yearly portraits of these four women (his wife and her sisters, I believe) deal with all of that.

5. Any On Kawara date painting,_1973_(Today_Series,_%22Tuesday%22)_On_Kawara.JPG/220px-Oct_31,_1973_(Today_Series,_%22Tuesday%22)_On_Kawara.JPG

Speaking of art that spans time and is unfinished, this series is unfinishable and has unlimited yet specific meanings. What happened on that date? Where were you?

4. Diego Rivera, Man, Controller of the Universe (AKA Man at the Crossroads)

I was in Mexico City for a few hours on a layover a year-and-a-half ago, and this was the one thing I made sure to see. The original version was destroyed in the ’30s because those in power at Rockefeller Center didn’t like how Rivera included Lenin in the painting. The story behind this work, everything that’s going on within it, and its dual titles fascinate me. Crossroads indeed.

3. Richard Diebenkorn, Coffee

Another piece from SFMOMA. I identify with this painting a lot. I imagine that I’m that woman, drinking coffee in front of a window that looks out onto the ocean. I feel like it represents some kind of original root or foundation of who I am, where I come from.

2. Michael McMillen, Aristotle’s Cage

The photo above does not do this installation justice, but this cool video starts to. Here are some other angles. It’s in the Oakland Museum of California’s art collection. When I walk into the installation through a screen door and hear its staticky soundtrack, it’s like a world I want to be in.

1. Any photograph ever taken by anyone

Growing up, I noticed the care with which my dad took family photos. The idea that picture-taking is serious business was somehow instilled in me at a young age. Composition matters and you must be thoughtful about it. I would love to do more with my own photography someday, to learn how to exploit or manipulate my environment and equipment to achieve desired effects. For now, I just take a photo a day with a crappy point-and-shoot and post them on Flickr. I like joining communities where other amateurs post their photos a day too. I could stare at almost any photo for hours. It’s hard to explain why, for the vicarious experience, maybe.

I can’t believe I just made a top 10 favorite artworks list that doesn’t include Chuck Close, Joseph Cornell, or any women. Such are the limitations of top 10 lists. What are your favorite artworks? Or what have you been dying to make a top 10 list of that you are never asked to?

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