Sunday, December 17, 2006

On viewing art

... really viewing art, that is: staring at the damned thing until something shifts deep down inside and you feel yourself begin to understand what it is.

Some time in the early Eighties, when I was a student in London, I went to see an exhibition of paintings by Mark Rothko. (Probably the Tate Gallery, possibly in 1980 to mark the tenth anniversary of his death. Not that it matters.)

Until then, I had rated works of art by the presence of "about-ness:" Art as story-telling, a good painting is one which has a decipherable meaning or at the very least a describable content. Rothko's colour fields did not suit this theory, so I told myself that I disliked them; there seemed to be nothing to be understood about them.

I went to the exhibition nonetheless, and walked straight through it in under half an hour, looking at every painting but never feeling inclined to stop. At the exit, I said to myself, "Well, that was a load of crap" — but then hesitated. For some reason, I didn't walk out, but turned around and walked back through the exhibition. It took me over an hour. At the entrance, I said to myself, "Wow, it's really got something, this is good stuff." So I turned around once more, and walked towards the exit for the second time. Roughly at the middle, I arrived at a set piece: several (eight? twelve?) similarly sized and coloured paintings (maroon, red, black) arranged around a large, calmly-proportioned room. I sat down on a bench in the middle of the room, and stayed there for almost an hour. A friend came in and sat beside me; she asked what I thought, and as I opened my mouth to answer I realized that I was close to tears.

I'm not sure whether that was really a turning point, or whether it now seems that way in retrospect. In any case, whenever it happened: those paintings changed my ideas about art. Some art simply is, with no more — and no less — meaning than I am that I am.

I'm in an odd mood this evening, as you might have noticed. End of year, perhaps; many things are coming together in strange and unexpected constellations.


Blogger brooksba said...

In visits to art gallaries or museums, I have had mixed reactions to different paintings. There have been ones that made me stop, stare, analyze, focus, and cry (not always crying as a sadness but just as a display of powerful emotion). Sometimes, I look at the art and feel nothing, stare for a bit and still feel nothing, but I've realized that doesn't mean the painting is bad - it just doesn't reach me.

I really enjoyed this post.

December 17, 2006 at 10:31:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Antonia said...

udge, you described the Proust-Vermeer situation :) where is that little yellow patch on the wall?

December 18, 2006 at 8:11:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Udge said...

I'm pleased that my little post has had such resonance (including an e-mail from my sister who remains to shy to post comments :-)

Antonia, thank you for that obscure reference. I had forgotten the episode, and had to google it. Here's a link to the paragraphs in question and a well-written and comprehensive discussion of the painting.

December 18, 2006 at 8:45:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger arevik said...

This is a beautiful post. Rothko was exactly that turning point for me. I like your odd moods.

December 18, 2006 at 11:02:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger zhoen said...

I was in the Detroit Institute of Arts, on a lunch break, I worked at the library across the street. A tour guide was telling her group about a door sized solid red paining with a single narrow white stripe down the center. She talked about the intensity and meticulous laying down of color, the subtlety. Then she asked them to stand in front of it, for a long time sometime when they were not on the tour, and feel the color. When they moved on, I did.

I couldn't leave.

I stood there with overwhelmed tears.

It's a matter of letting oneself really look, and let the art take over.

Same experience with Rothko and Pollock, Segal. Paintings in reproduction don't convey this resonance.

December 18, 2006 at 11:57:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Rob said...

I remember being very impressed by a party of French primary school kids who were being shown the Pollocks in the Pompidou Centre whiel I was there, and who were clearly really getting into them in a way one wouldn't necessarily expect children of that age to do.

Your comment about the "meaning" of artworks brought to mind the line from Samual Beckett's "Happy Days" (can't find the whole thing via Google) where someone asks what a piece of art is supposed to mean, and is met with the riposte "What are YOU supposed to mean?"

December 19, 2006 at 3:38:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Udge said...

Arevik: welcome aboard. I've been unable to leave a comment on your blog because of Beta Blogger playing sillybuggers again. Thanks for the link, and for the nice words.

Zhoen: I thought to myself, "that sounds like a Barnett Newman", googled DIA and found this. Is it your painting?

Reproductions do leave out something quite essential about art (Antonia will again quote Proust at this point!)

December 19, 2006 at 10:43:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Antonia said...

udge you knwo when I came living here,I frist went to The Hague where the painting is[here:] and I went to search for the yellow patch and didn't find it or guessed a little around where it couldbe,but it was so amazing to see the painting in real, am very thankful for that. Proust also went to look at it even when he was already very ill. It is a very strange and beautiful at the same time what effect art can have on one. I find the Proust passage one of the most touching ones of the whole book.
what did I want to say? Yes. Ilike rothko, too. And now I go and check your Vermeer link.

December 19, 2006 at 12:35:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Antonia said...

that's a great ressource,this link, udge, thanks :)

December 19, 2006 at 12:40:00 p.m. GMT+1  

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