A cross country trip this weekend made me wonder why artists have done so little with the common experience of flying. I don’t just mean pictures with planes in them. Gerhard Richter, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein have all done those, though all of them used warplanes. I mean the banal stuff of civilian aviation, the airports, the check in, the view of the back of the guy’s head who’s sitting in front of you — which may be one of the great but rarely acknowledged motifs of the century, as common as a sunset. (More common — when was the last time you actually looked at a sunset?)
Nineteenth century artists were fascinated by railways. Manet made one of his most enigmatic scenes, a woman and a young girl waiting — for what? — in Gare St. Lazare. To perfect his rendition of steam effects, Monet returned repeatedly to the same Paris train station.
After 9/11 a few artists began playing with images of the security check in. Thomas Demand, the German who builds paper reconstructions of photographs, then photographs the reconstructions, made one of those three years ago called Gate.
But outside of WPA airport murals, and the occasional photorealist canvas from the 70s, artists haven’t devoted much effort to this defining 21st century experience that we all endure. Is that because it’s too difficult to reconcile the contradictions of flying? The combination of exhaltation — I’m flying! — banality — I’m flying in a dreary cramped cylinder — and persistent low grade anxiety about terrorism and turbulence?