How to Cook Asparagus—The Show Within the Show

Few will revisit the Whitney Biennial and fewer still would make a special return trip to see only the paintings. I’ll number myself among those few—I wanted to test a theory.

A painting in the Biennial is like a cat in a dog show. It doesn’t heel, sit or fetch—What the hell is it doing there? Pretending to be a dog?

Paintings don’t look good in the same show with videos, photography, installations, websites, or bit sof stuff on tables. Particularly not with videos. Our eyes are drawn to movement even against our will—probably a survival response. The other genres also shape expectations and attention spans, as well as convey information very differently, making it a different kind of information. Many of the works in the Biennial have the ability to make their point very quickly and work with the element of surprise. That is a decided negative in a painting—it would be rejected as uninteresting, not holding our attention. In order for a painting to be good, it must be able to be seen over and over, each time evoking a range of thoughts and feelings.

The curators of the Biennial seem to agree with me because, excluding painted installation, stained glass, look-alikes, and with a little confusion about drawing, there are seven painters in the show, out of approximately 110 artists. Taking it from the top floor, they are Yun-Fei Ji, who paints wickedly humorous wet dreams of mythic creatures and wrecked cars and helicopters in the traditional Chinese landscape. He shares a room with Gerry Snyder and together they make it the sexiest room in the show. Snyder also paints mythic beings, cuddly and sensual, floating in the sky.

Outtara Watts, in a room of his own, goes every which way with large collaged works influenced by everybody and laying claim to an African symbolic heritage as well. On the next floor John Zurier paints layered monochromatic works that look, well, painted over. Lauetter Vinciarelli paints a series of geometric abstractions in washes of watercolor that do a pretty neat trick of looking like a photograph one moment and a watercolor the next. Vija Celmins shows two paintings of spiderwebs that are also photograph-like in their attention to detail. I don’t find them as successful as her sea- and star-scapes, perhaps because they form a pattern too quickly. Peter Williams is worth a longer pause on the way to the screening room. It’s easy to miss how strong his paintings are in their basic composition because of the dark whimsical imagery that plays across the surface.

In short, it’s a pretty good painting show. I even enjoyed the works I felt more critical of. I enjoyed thinking about them. A mixed media show tends to follow a one-of-a-kind curatorial method, which puts painting at a disadvantage. Looking back on the great days of painting, it seems that subject matters and styles were held more in common. It is hardly possible for two painters to paint alike, anyway, aside from direct forgery. Perhaps that is the inherent subjectivity of painting—the touch and sensibility will be unique. To crudely paraphrase Walter Benjamin, photography and film showed people what they had not realized before, that paintings and drawings are subjective views. Since this article is about whether painting and drawing can actually be “seen” in the same physical space with photography and film, it is also interesting to speculate whether the viewer judges the “truth” of paintings in a more subjective way. Some might accuse me of using recipes to pad my column. Nobody has, but they might.

It’s only partly true. The other reason is my intuitive feeling that painting is a little bit like cooking—the idea’s important, but the execution is everything. Looking at painting is a little more like eating—developing a sense of taste to know what is good, and what’s good together.

Raw materials are very important to cooking and selecting the right asparagus makes all the difference. I hope that the local asparagus season won’t be over by the time you read this. Look for almost completely green stems with no shriveling. The diameter of the spears is not an indication of quality, for the fatter ones simply come from older beds. They just need longer cooking times. Asparagus is not replanted each year; the shoots grow up from the old roots, so they are up quite early.

Hold the asparagus near the bud end and break off the lower part. It will break at the proper point. Cook the tops either standing in an inch of water in a covered saucepan or radiating from the center of a flat pan, stems inward. Cook until tender, drain, and serve with butter, or cook until almost tender, transfer to a baking dish, sprinkle with olive oil or butter, bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, and put under the broiler for a few minutes. They’re done when the Parmesan starts to brown.

By the way, I happened to read the other day that it is completely within the rules of etiquette to eat asparagus with the fingers.

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