Marilyn Minter approaches the glass doors to the building housing her studio in New York’s Garment District and waits for the superintendent to come by and unlock the door. “I’ve got my gloves on, I’ve got my masks, I’m in the middle of the pandemic,” she says. Of her 10-year-old studio, she says, “I really miss it, and we’re locked out. But hopefully we’ll be back soon.”
She’s there to pick up supplies before going back upstate to continue work on her bathers series of paintings. But she’s also brandishing a smartphone to briefly chronicle the moment for “Artists in Quarantine,” a new online project created by the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The project sets out to document the “impact of the global pandemic on artists, their art-making practices and their views of the world,” according to a release.
The nation’s modern art museum is closed (as is access to the sculpture garden), and the major shows planned for the spring have been postponed until later this year. But online, Minter is among the first group of artists checking in with the museum and its patrons on how she’s coping. The minute-or-so videos are peeks into the homes, makeshift studios or regular workplaces of an assortment of international artists, who offer philosophy, empathy or simply updates on what they’re up to while quarantined.
Art making tends to be a solitary endeavor, but there are few artists who haven’t been affected by the sheltering in place required to counter Covid-19. “Obviously, with this new norm of social distancing, I haven’t been able to paint models from life,” says New York painter Aliza Nisenbaum, speaking from a table in what she calls her “kitchen studio.”
“So I’ve been revisiting older works and focusing on abstractions of color from those paintings,” she says.
Artist Tony Oursler, amid a number of projects in his own studio, seems unaffected by the cataclysm. “I know we’ve all been isolated and shut down,” he says in a video that is enhanced with some animated items floating through it, “but you can’t shut down the creative engine of the arts community.”
That’s not the case with every participant so far represented in the project. Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat relocated from her Brooklyn studio to upstate New York where she says, “I haven’t been able to really focus and finish the calligraphic work that needs to be done.” Instead, she says, she’s been experimenting with iPhone photos and Polaroids she then paints. “I tend to do everything I don’t normally do and stay away from everything that I normally do.”
Hirshhorn visitors may be familiar with Ragnar Kjartansson, the subject of a 2016 retrospective there. From snowy Iceland, Kjartansson says, “after times changed, I’ve been mostly at home. We’ve been with our two daughters, you know, kindergarten home schooling.” The pandemic has given the artist time to think, though. “I’m seriously working on tackling my narcissism and Googling ‘humility,’” he says, “to try for some spiritual awakening to come from this crisis.”
The artist Mariko Mori is full of such philosophy as well, kneeling in her video from Tokyo as if from her own meditation. “It is essential to feel the light within myself,” she says. “Please stay home in peace.”
Cree painter Kent Monkman, whose painting Honour Dance was on display at the Hirshhorn earlier this year, sent a video from his “country studio” outside of Toronto where he’s been thinking how the Covid-19 crisis raises “similarities to some of the themes I’m already exploring in my work that have to do with devastating loss and the resilience of Indigenous people in times of hardship.” He adds, “I’m not sure how this experience will shift my work yet, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it.” Monkman is scheduled to do a Zoom talk with the museum’s chief curator Stéphane Aquin on May 13.
“My studio practice is pretty much on hiatus. I’ve run out of energy to be anxious anymore,’ says sound artist Christine Sun Kim whose embrace of American Sign Language as a kind of music was the subject of her persuasive 2015 TED talk. Museum patrons may recall her controversial appearance at the Super Bowl in February, when she was asked to sign the national anthem and “America the Beautiful,” but her performance was not broadcasted on television. “I’m waiting for a slow energy refill so I can start working a bit.” She’s biding her time browsing online videos from other artists on the Internet, though, she laments how few of them are captioned and thus inaccessible to the deaf community.
Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu says the artists invited to the project were part of what she calls the museum’s extended family—“they’ve had exhibitions with us, we had acquired their work, or have been honored by us at various galas or something like that. But we also went more broadly.”
Teaming up with Theaster Gates, the Chicago visual artist who is also on the Hirshhorn board, the curators reached out to dozens of artists, hoping to amass an eventual 100 videos, with new ones rolling out on the museum’s website and social media platforms each week.
Gates’ own video has him walking through his studio musing about landscape, land and buildings. “When I think about all the spaces in my life,” he says, “it gives me a lot of pleasure to imagine that I can move freely between spaces, to freedom, akin to making art.”
“Our intention is to grow a living archive,” Chiu says, to mark the unique time but also “to live on as a web presence, so you get a sense of the evolving perspectives of artists within the crisis. We wanted to chronicle not just this particular moment but even the aftereffects as something central to our mission as the national museum of modern art.”
To request submissions in a diary form was something intended from the start, Chiu says. “For most people, this is a very solitary moment. A lot of artists are either in their homes, or able to get to their studios, or some combination of that fashion. So we figured that some sort of format of an artists’ diary, that could be drawn from artists all around the world—obviously the U.S., but also more broadly—so you could get a little bit of a sense of maybe a point of comparison over which things are the same and which things are different.”
The only perimeter given is that the pieces would be brief, which would also mean artists with less bandwidth, or access to editing, could submit their clips in full more easily, she says. “I think that’s one of the things we wanted to show with this project, which is everyone has a different experience, and a different perspective to share.”
The results may help bring the artistic community closer at a time of social isolation. “Especially in the early days, it came as a shock to a lot of people to find themselves in quarantine and isolation, so this was a way of reaching out to artists and finding out that they’re OK and asking them to share their thoughts with the world,” Chiu says. “And then as the archive grows, I think then it becomes more of a historical record, a kind of chronicle of this moment.”
As Minter says in her clip from her upstate studio, “when I’m painting, I lose track of what’s going on. I get a moment of respite from the Covid-19. I recommend it for everybody.”
“Artists in Quarantine” is an online exhibition from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. For updates, follow the museum’s social media channels using #HirshhornInsideOut, visit Instagram @hirshhorn and YouTube. For home education activities, the museum updates its “Kids at Home” weekly with art projects for all ages.