Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pixels Don't Breathe

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1956 - Click to view larger
As usual with de Kooning, the handling is wet-in-wet—high-keyed color worked with lots of white paint, which keeps things lively and advancing. There are screechy yellows, electric blues, boudoir pinks, and—as painter friends assure me—two of the most ungovernable hues in the painter's kit: alizarin crimson and thallo green. These are dyelike synthetic pigments, transparent like nail polish and viciously intense. They affect other colors the way garbage cans kicked downstairs would affect chamber music. They give the Dutchman no great difficulty.

— Peter Schjeldahl, The Hydrogen Jukebox 1


Here's a fun project for you, children.

One fine, convenient day, close your laptop, shut down your monitor, mute your smartphone and slip it into a pocket, and go visit an art museum. Once inside, skip the bookstore, shun the gift shop, and eschew any special exhibitions of Blockbuster Anything or Super Duper Famous Artist retrospectives. Instead, find the painting galleries in the permanent collection and wander around until you find a nice piece that particularly interests you—preferably one with a bench commodiously arranged before it—and sit down. Just exactly what kind, vintage, or style of painting is entirely up to you. For what it is worth, for my purposes I prefer an abstract painting, but this choice is an entirely personal matter and does not impinge upon the value or effectiveness of the exercise. By choosing an abstract piece, I am not distracted by the narrative behind it, the physical beauty or attractiveness of the painter's subject(s), or the verisimilitude of his or her representation. But again, the choice is yours.

Now, here's the exercise: look at the painting. Just look at it. Look at it long and hard: 10, 15, 20 minutes at least. Stand up and go look at it up close. Back up and look at it from a distance. Look at it with squinted eyes, with eyes wide open, with a sideways glance. Try to take in the entire painting at one time (this is harder than it looks). Go up close to look carefully at individual passages or details to see how the paint has been applied. Is it smooth? Is is scumbled? Is it cracked or glazed with varnish? How does the surface of the painting—shiny, fleshy, or rough—work with the colors of the paint and the light of the room to create the images you see from a distance? Can you guess how the artist painted that particular passage? Try to understand why the light falls on it just so in that one intriguing corner.

If you are doing this right, you will need to take frequent breaks. Looking this intensely at anything is hard work. Use these breaks however you like: looking at other museumgoers (always interesting sport), glancing at other paintings, reading a snippet of catalogue, taking a brief stroll around the gallery. But always return to the painting. Try to look at it afresh each time, and try to see something new, or something you missed, or something you thought you saw before but now realize you missed entirely.

Go up and read the label, if you want, just to give yourself some context, but try not to let the label tell you what to think about the painting. Make up your own mind. Do you like it? Do you dislike it? Why? Are there particular parts or passages that you like or dislike? Why? Try to answer these questions for yourself, but if you cannot, do not get frustrated. Instead, examine your feelings and impressions about the painting. Try to decide what you think about it. After all, the painting is there for you. It will wait.

* * *

There is much, much more you could do, but I think you get the idea by now. The point is to experience an object in real time—in the flesh, as it were—unmediated by the lacquered page of a book or the reflections on a computer screen. An object which has been created out of canvas, and wood, and paint, and whatever else the artist chose to incorporate for the express purpose of being looked at in itself, as an object: here and now.

Given how much of my personal and professional life is conducted or mediated through the sterile arrangement and rearrangement of glowing pixels on a screen, I find an occasional such exercise to be a refreshing and even reinvigorating way to reconnect with the physical world. You could accomplish the same thing by contemplating a tangerine, or your belly button, I suppose, but I personally tend to find fine art more intrinsically interesting. Plus, there's the advantage that staring for 20 minutes at a painting in a museum will garner you fewer incredulous stares (although not none) than doing the same thing with a piece of fruit in a farmer's market.

For someone who likes and looks at art a lot, primarily on the printed page but increasingly online, I never fail to be amazed by the sheer physicality and scale of good paintings in real life. I remember being astonished years ago when I first encountered historical paintings by Rubens in a European museum: they were so damn big. Scale is integral to the experience of an art object, and that is something completely missing from photographic representations in whatever medium. As is the physicality of the medium itself. You simply cannot appreciate the sheer weight, texture, and fleshiness of the surface of a de Kooning painting—or the way its surface and scale can draw you in until you swear you begin to see it breathe—until you have stood before the actual object.

* * *

I am sure I could draw parallels between my little exercise and others you could perform to pierce the electronic veil before your eyes and reconnect with the world-as-it-is, but I will leave that project for you to contemplate.

After all, like most artists, I do not wish to dictate. I prefer to suggest.


1 "Willem de Kooning." Berkeley, California: 1991, p. 133.

PHOTO CREDIT: Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1956. Photograph by Renzo Dionigi, here. This is a very good, high resolution photograph of the de Kooning piece hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The color balance is a little too yellow, but this is a common problem in such shots.

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