When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time at the Di Rosa Art and Nature Preserve in Napa, California. At the time, Rene di Rosa was still an eccentric and brilliant buyer, living on the Perserve’s property in a small space above the gatehouse. I would lead tours, but not in that way that you see in major art museums with old ladies gathering groups of tourists to a particular painting and talking about the historical significance of one of the most famous artists in the world. Di Rosa hated art critics and the dictatorial quality of the art world and of normal museums.
Here’s what I would tell the tourist groups. Rene Di Rosa started with the idea that he would write the next Great American Novel, and when that didn’t work out, he went back to school for something practical. He went to UC Davis to study viticulture, but while he was there, he couldn’t stay away from the art department. Di Rosa ended up being one of the first growers to bring wine back to the Carneros region in Northern California. This is not a wine blog, so I’m not going to go crazy with this right now, but seriously, everyone thought he was insane to try to put grapes back into a region that had suffered in the past, and yet. Look at that region now. It’s nothing but grapes. Not the point. The point is that di Rosa made a ton of money and what he did with it was buy art.
He filled his house with art and his cellar with art and he filled the garden with huge installations. He put so much art into the house that the ceilings were covered in massive paintings, the beds had sculptures on them, there was barely room to stand, let alone to sit, so he moved out and lived above the open garage (also filled with art installations, not cars) and he let people wander through his house to look at the art. He built two new structures on the property in order to house his art. There is a massive wooden door that opens into the side of the hill under his house and into a dripping, wet corridor that leads to a room of televisions set on their sides on which you can watch an entire day’s light (condensed into twelve minutes) streaming through the individual panes of one of the windows in the Chartre Cathedral. When I say there is art everywhere, I mean that there is Art, everywhere.
But the most interesting thing about the Di Rosa is that there are no wordy plaques on the walls. In fact, the walls next to the art won’t even tell you who the artist is. If you must know, there is a number, and a pedestal in each building where the numbers of the pieces can be matched to its details. Even so, however, the details go no farther than artist, title, date, medium. There is no snazzy background info, no critique or explanation. This is such a departure from every other museum or gallery space that it’s something we say on all of the tours. Don’t be alarmed. And in the same way that the plaques fail to direct every viewer to an opinion about the art, so did we.
This is a thing I enjoy. Maybe I enjoyed it before spending most of my weekends at this strange art haven in the middle of a vineyard, but maybe it’s just something I always thought. Art should speak for itself. Isn’t that the point? It’s visual art. It’s not an essay or a poem. If it needs words, you’re more than entitled, as the artist, to put them there. If you didn’t, then you have to let it go and let it speak for itself. You can’t loom over your piece, explaining it, forever.
One of the best things about being a docent (we were called docents, not guides) was the fact that we would go on studio trips and hear talks from the artists. Di Rosa had favorites, good friends from whom he would purchase multiple pieces, so we would take a tour of the grounds with, say, David Best, and hear him talk about all of his crazy art cars on display, or hear the story of how William T. Wiley sold Rene a painting and then decided it was unfinished, snuck into the gallery space, and painted more while it hung on the wall. But it’s not like we led the tours through the spaces telling these stories. We didn’t. Sometimes, if someone seemed particularly interested in a piece, I’d walk over and say, “You know…” You know, this is a plaster cast made of the artist’s lover who died of AIDS. His ashes are inside the piece here… You know, David Best claims that this particular figurine stuck to this particular car was placed there by a cop that pulled him over… You know, this parrot is singing the Internationale — the communist anthem.
These asides, though, were always only that. Asides. The pieces, according to Rene, should speak for themselves. If they fail to do that, then they fail.
Rene told me once that being an artist is tantamount to prostitution, but I think he was sensationalizing a little. He’s right that if you’re really being true to the art, you are putting yourself into it and then, in selling it, you are selling a piece of who you are. But in a way, art will always be more like parenthood to me, in that it is far more important (to me) that people understand that they cannot actually control this thing that’s come from them. You put yourself into it, but when it is done, it is not you any longer, and it is not even yours.
This is why I love street art and tattoos. These art pieces don’t come with artists’ statements or plaques. If it fails to have meaning, or feeling, or beauty, then it fails, and you don’t get to try to make it better by explaining into the piece what isn’t already there. In a very real way, when you’re done with the piece, you are letting it go. For street art, once you’ve finished, you have no guarantee that someone else won’t come along and spray over it. The only attempt you can make is to do a good enough job that other artists are impressed, don’t want to screw it up. Same for tattoos. You don’t have control over what goes around it, how it interacts with the elements of life and nature. Once it’s finished, it (and certainly its interpretation or reception) do not belong to you any longer.