Bringing Yourself to Art

"The Artist is Present" A viewer sitting with Marina Abramovic at MoMA - New York

Performance art is a difficult art media to understand — one which people may be less comfortable with or familiar with, than say visual art. Marina Abramovic, perhaps one of the most well-known performance artists who began her work with the emergence of the form in the 1970’s and ’80’s, is exhibiting at MoMA in a work entitled “The Artist is Present”.

In this work, she simply sits in a chair. Across from her is an empty chair in which viewers can sit for as long as they like. Some viewers sit for 5 minutes, some sit all day. A camera crew is present to photograph these viewers, many of whom are very emotional; some cry and others show extreme anguish). This is striking. What can possibly be so interesting about Marina’s face, her hair, her body, her expression?

It appears that she takes on a luminescence, that she somehow is able to look through the viewer. In interacting with others, we usually have their full attention — there is engagement. This performance art seems to keep the art on display and the viewer distanced, yet I wonder if Marina’s movements or changing facial expressions reflect the viewer’s response? After all, aren’t they also reacting to the piece and being photographed as the art? In essence, is the viewer actually part of the art? And is the title of her show “The Artist is Present” yet another clue that may allude to the viewer also being the artist?

The photos that the photographer has taken of these viewers are surely fascinating to look at, and cause me to wonder if indeed they will, in the future, be an accompanying piece to any writeup or essay on this exhibition, where the viewer is artist…


For the Memory, Not the Moment

Visitors at the Louvre: some engage directly with the art while others take pictures of pictures.

That NYT photo tagline above sums it up: museum crowds often snap a steady stream of photos for the “been there, done that” memory (think Mona  Lisa), not the  “aha moment” — the long, lingering introspective ponder that results in a myriad of intellectual streams to wander down and eons more insight into the artist’s world view.

A NYT “experiment” captured the museum scenario: for two hours the author watched passersby approach — and then walk by — the art on the walls.

A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels… Almost nobody…paused before any object for as long as a full minute…

…tourists… wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.

The author mentioned that he and his 10-year-old brought along sketchbooks to St. Peter’s in Rome, “just for the fun of it… to help us look more slowly and carefully at what we found. Crowds occasionally gathered around us as if we were doing something totally strange and novel, as opposed to something normal, which sketching used to be.”

But is sketching enough? The author never posits how, exactly, we should look at art. Do you get the best “view” when you can get a grip on what appears beyond the actual paint, the charcoal, or the pencil to see the artist’s political motivations? How about the social undercurrents? Here lies the difference between an artwork’s “Visual” portrayal and it’s “Narrative” portrayal.

Just to flesh out some of the varying perspectives, I cobbled together this list of “how to look at art”:

  • Art is not just about the execution, it is about the concept. The concept of most nonrepresentational art is about the pleasing or satisfying arrangement of shape and color (art society).
  • to see how the pieces at the Met come together to tell a broader story–not so much a narrative, but a story (the Atlantic)
  • The way museums (art museums are often the worst) are designed today is terrible. You have a wall-spanning painting or massive sculpture, and then the only informational context is a 5 inch plaque next to it — often showing only the artist, the year, and perhaps the period/genre. Put interesting things there. Put how it fits into the region, the time, the culture. Put stories about how the artist had to hide it from his patron because he didn’t like it, or how that person in the foreground is actually based on his mistress, or how this type of paint had to be smuggled in from Egypt. (the Atlantic)
  • To really get into art, all you need to do is ask yourself a few questions that will get you thinking about what you’re looking at. There are only two questions that you really need to look at art, and those are: “What’s going on in this picture/sculpture/building?” and “What do I see that makes me say that?” (The Art History Blog)
  • 1. figure out what’s worth stealing
    2. move on to the next thing
    rinse and repeat (somebody’s Flickr page)

Another question is, how long do you have to perform the “lingering moment” before you can really get into the head of the artist? To figure out his world view?

For me, the jury is still out.

Someone said you can’t measure it (good point):

Timing people and picking the arbitrary minute as a measuring stick to differentiate who breezes through and who really stops and drinks it in seems unfair. If we go to a museum and its crowded, then the intimacy is harder to attain. If one goes with friends it might be a social occasion as much as an art encounter. Talkative friends at a museum can be a very different visit than going alone or with one’s wide-eyed-drink-it-all-in kid. Lots of people study a room full of Sargeant’s paintings longer than I do, but few people linger in front of a Franz Kline or Rothko or Milton Avery than I do. I check in on every room if I can, want to see everything everytime but my wife wants to see just an exhibit or two. I can’t get my daughter out of the Asian wing of the MFA. My wife was a ballerina so looking at paintings of Degas has a hundred more layers for her than some people. (the Atlantic)

All that I really know is that the curator around the corner would be most pleased if you stopped, stared, and ogled, only twenty minutes later coming to, not having realized that you had been drooling, lost to the world.

How To Look At Art (like an artist)

Get Up and Get Out

Get up and get out. This is my M.O. when it’s a dreary afternoon in what is supposedly spring (we’re still in the mid-50’s!).  So I hooked up with a gallery tour in the wilds of downtown Cleveland this weekend. Great art, cheap wine, stimulating conversation. Wanted so much, bought too much, pined away for that artsy lifestyle. One gallerist in his loft studio took us up on the roof to a magnificent skyline of downtown Cleveland. (Yes, even amid the fog and smog it was impressive.) I wondered why — in these cool spaces — they didn’t host a monthly art fusion. I’d be there in a heartbeat. The restored brick buildings converted to lofts, with tons of great art hanging out on the exposed brick walls is intoxicating. A metalurgist had vintage tables set up with all the tools you’d need to hammer out a ring right then and there. Walls of art history/gemology/portrait books showed where these people had come from. It was like an island of coolness, so distant from suburbia, and the corpora-tivity of downtown.

A perfect place to go when you want to get up and get out. Next time, I might just walk away with a hole in my pocket, but with something fabulous like this. Or better yet, make something like this:

Todd Pownell

Todd Pownell

The Art of Process

Conceiving a piece of work (a painting, a novel, a poem) can take 3 days or 3 years. Or it can happen spontaneously, as the brush hits the canvas. I’d think that more commonly artists chew on  the threads of a concept for awhile, as they brainstorm, twist, challenge, sharpen ideas that will eventually take form on paper, canvas, or in clay. This is all a part of the creative process. No less creative, however, are those whose art is conceived spontaneously, and even moreso, without the deliberate intent of the artist.

Zeng Fanzhi, "Untitled 08-12-19", 2008, Via Acquavella Galleries
 Zeng Fanzhi, “Untitled 08-12-19”, 2008, Via Acquavella Galleries

Consider Chinese contemporary artist Zeng Fanzhi‘s technique, as shown at Art Observed:

He holds two –sometimes even four- brushes at a time, allowing him to create and to destroy form simultaneously.  As a result, the paintings convey a sensation of spontaneity and sentiment.

Holding two or more brushes in hand, an artist can conceivably control only one brush; the others are simply stragglers making their own design. Looking at Fanzhi’s works, however, you can’t separate what was spontaneously created or what was conceptually premeditated, as the two techniques are seamlessly intertwined to create the “sensation of spontaneity and sentiment.” The viewer can’t distinguish between which brushstrokes were intently applied and which ones were stragglers.

In some ways,  I think this mimics daily life. With several brushes in one hand, we meticulously guide just one brush to paint our actions; the other brushes represent our scattered, non-focused, actions. Our friends (the viewers) often cannot tell what actions/comments are deliberate brushstrokes and which are not.

And so Fanzhi has captured the process of human nature: we paint our lives with many brushes.