I bought several Jack Bilander etchings. Bilander was an artist in Chelsea, my neighborhood growing up in New York City. Lately I’ve had this urge to go there. I’ve built up an obsession, really, to return to my Grandmother’s apartment, to be in her space, to see the cheap 1960s parquet floors of Penn South, smell the esoteric scent of Jewish working class intelligentsia, and view a wall full of images still strikingly memorable forty years later. I don’t know why I became obsessed with Jack Bilander, but when I found his suite of pictures on Picasa, I sighed audibly, repeatedly, at how many of them I remembered vividly. So indelible and powerful. Clearly it’s a need formed because of where I am in my life at this precise moment. But precise moments are the entire point.
Upon receiving the package of prints, I ripped through the cardboard, styrofoam, and bubble wrap immediately. The first etching pulled, “Landscape,” was not one I found most attractive when seeing the pictures on line. In my hands, though, it was stunning and I cried.
One of the prints, “The General Lived Here,” came loose in the shipping. I took it to a fine arts print shop in town to get it re-matted. The shop owner said the original matting was acid-based and was destroying the paper, and that the print needed protective glass if to preserve the quality.
At the frame shop, the owner pulled the print from the frame and matting and there the etching lay in its fully naked state, with nothing in between it and me. I am naive about art. The photos posted online had barely captured the quality of the etchings. That was why I was so stunned when seeing them “live.” The glass had dimmed the depth and color of the etchings. The bare print had texture and deep vibrancy. I was told touching the picture wouldn’t damage it, and so I did, feeling the pattern left by the impression of the copper plate.
The whole unpacking and unframing experience was so viscerally layered, at both tactile and emotional levels, that I started thinking about the prints I was buying and how meaningful they are. Jack, my grandmother’s friend, poured out emotions, or sometimes maybe he just worked, the way someone writes a memo or completes a job task. Then the print circulated in this small Jewish community in Chelsea, among friends and family, all with a certain webbed history, culture, and politics. The man who sold some of these prints is the son-in-law of one of Jack’s friends. That means something too. The etching somehow traveled to Massachusetts and sat somewhere in the son-in-law’s residence, overlooking a family home for at least three decades.
The print has a social and emotional investment.
All “art” does, I suppose. We can quibble over definitions of art. We could dance with Benjamin about the lost aura of art once it’s mass produced, and what the value of high and low art is. I certainly won’t begrudge anyone their tears over an Elvis on black velvet.
I just know I got to touch a piece of something powerful and vibrant for a minute while it was out of its frame and free from its protective glass. It felt like touching a cultural ley line, if there could be such a thing. I don’t know if getting the print cleaned and restored will wash all that away, or if its seared into the print’s fibers. It’s a curious question.