Looking at Art at Museums

Going to a museum is an odd experience. There are so many things to look at, how do you choose which ones to see? And, once chosen, where do you stand? Close? Far? How long do you stand there? How do you negotiate other people? Museum going is an exercise of one's affective receptors, a veritable work out of the best sort. Some prefer pilates; others, running. Me, I prefer to flex my senses — all of my senses, not just the five we like so much. 

I like to move through a museum until something catches my eye. But "eye" is a funny word for while looking at art might lead with the eyes — this is debatable — it is not only experienced with the eyes. A good painting, photograph, film, performance inundates me. It envelopes me — or not, as the case may be.  Something doesn't as much catch my eye as it does beckon me. Come hither.

But each work of art envelopes me in its own way. Part of the trick is to find the pocket, if you will. Once beckoned, I make my towards the work, looking for that sweet spot of affective resonance. What the heck is that? you ask. It's the spot at which all the different flows, speeds, moods work me over in a way that delights me. This pocket is not always easy to find. It can be directly in front of the work, two feet away. But it might be twelve feet away and off to the side. Or, then again, inches away, my oversized nose coming dangerously close to the canvas.

What is that spot? Well, a work has different speeds that conspire in their own way. Just as a river has different currents flowing at different speeds as the fish make their way in their own time and both current and fish negotiate rocks so that there form seams, eddies, pockets where insects gather and fish feed and spawn, well, a work of art is the same way. That pocket before a painting is akin to the seam the angler discovers when seeking salmon (pace L Green). 

This may seem odd to say, especially if the work is a painting or photograph, that is, a presumably still image. But very few images are still. Usually, they vibrate and gesticulate. Or perhaps there are plains, or planes, of what seems like continuous mood, a somber green. But, upon closer inspection, this mood becomes tempered by drips of affect, smudges of sensation. Looking at a Matisse painting online, the reds become impossibly red, a steady hum of digital hue. But standing in front of the canvas, you see finger marks, drips of paint, erasures of other moments: you see shifting perspectives. Which is why it's good to move about, lean in close, stand back. Often, each perspective onto the work reveals a different perspective of the work.  

And of course a work may have different affective zones — melancholy here, delight there, anxiety scattered about as anxiety is wont to do. The work doesn't have to cohere into one affect. That would be absurd. How often are you one affect? No, a work is a set of affective zones as different planes of sensation interact in different ways.  Gestalt is not one thing but many things, usually.  

I recently saw two great shows, one of Richard Diebenkorn's work during his Berkeley years; the other, David Hockney's work of the last decade. Both painters do incredible things with landscapes. One thing that brings me great delight in both are the different speeds of the terrain of their paintings. The sky may be sluggish while the grass hops and jumps about, coming into being with a silly glee (this is Hockey, for sure: his leaves are downright exuberant).  

Indeed, throughout the Hockney show, I was giddy. He has created these enormous canvases of a spot in the woods and painted one for each season then hung them on the four walls of a room.  I stood in the middle of the seasons and laughed. C├ęzanne discovers the decay within nature, its fetidness as well as its glory. Not Hockney. Even his Fall with its brown leaves and bare trees is not an image of decay but of exuberance, of coming into the world. Hockney sees the world emerging. His palette, all bright and candy, vibrates with a hurrah of life itself.

So I'm standing in this room of seasons thinking about the movement of these paintings, how they throw their hands in the air with an unabashed hallelujah. And then I walk into the next room and it's the same thing — one space in four seasons — only these canvases are video. Each one is a grid of the space; each square in the grid its own monitor with its own movement. I started laughing hysterically, as if he'd read my mind and wanted to confirm for me that, yes, those paintings were moving just as these videos are. 

But of course he didn't read my mind. I was already in his world, riding his crest of affect, of life, of leaves, of exuberance.  

Mind you, I have to surf this wave amidst the throngs. Which means I have to jockey for position, wait for a moment, and be sure not to hog the pocket too long. This is why I only go to museums midweek when there's nothing but old people and a few European tourists. It's hard to find the sweet spot and be carried along if you keep bumping into other people who may or may not be surfing the same wave. Going with another person has its risks, too, as you have to negotiate them. On the other hand, riding a wave with another person can be electrifying, if not downright erotic. I have good friends, married to each other, who put aside a night every few months to get a little high (on life, of course!) and, together, slowly move through an artist's monograph. This is exquisite foreplay, if not in fact full blown consummation.  

Often, I don't like museums. With limited space, they cram too many works into too small a space. As a result, it can be hard to maneuver my mood: exuberance everywhere at once can exhaust.   The Diebenkorn show I saw at San Francisco's de Young museum was filled to the brim with astounding images, one after another. It was nearly impossible to look at any one image, to find its sweet spot, as images competed for my attention from all angles.  I wish, just once, a museum would hang one work in a space and only let one person in at a time. The whole model of efficiency — show as much work to as many people as possible — may be commendable in its democratic ideals but it makes seeing greatness decidedly less great. Perhaps, then, museums should focus on the how of viewing, not just the what. Isn't that the greater calling — to teach people how to see? (The writing on the walls doesn't count. It's usually historical, as if knowing where an artist lived teaches you the first thing about how to see.)

I, for one, get exhausted pretty quickly looking at art — especially art I like. If I see one or two things I like, I'm spent. That work has worked me over. Usually, I'll spend 45 minutes at the most at a museum. Which is why I like to be a member, if I can. That way I can come and go as I please — 20 minutes here, 32 minutes there. I might go back and look at the same work; I may move on to others. When I was 21 and living in Paris alone and lonely as all get out, I used to go the Pompidou to see this one great Otto Dix painting. She — it — became my sole companion and, frankly, made very fine company indeed. 

A museum is an odd place, no doubt. But whether good or bad, it proffers some delight. Above all, it offers itself to be negotiated, obliging me to be hyper attentive to the play of moods, a kind of affective obstacle course.  


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Anonymous said...

I think, well, I hope I caught your idea :) and here's what came to mind:
I read in a book (can't remember a title, Max Frisch is the author), and there was a moment when a man with his girlfriend have visiting museums in Greece.
And there was such situation, when the girl (she was really into art & history, and the guy was totally engineer), so the girl said smth like "Look, this statue! It's alive!!! Seriously, LOOK!". He came to her, looked where she pointed and agreed with her, that this statue virtually is like it's alive.

Then he explains to her (or to himself) that such impression he got because of the light that came through the newares window and put a lights and shades on the statue's eyes, arms, legs, posture... And if it'll be different time of the day - and the sun would not be at the right angle - such effect wouldn't occur, or if it's raining. Or if the person stands too close - he doesn't see it (or too far). Or maybe he's in glasses or not, maybe he came from the dark-dark room and light just strikes him in his eyes, or vice versa when from the light light room he came into the much darker one and it takes for a while for eyes to catch everything, and in such moments you see something that is not exist... Or actually, it doesn't exist constantly, or for everyone :)

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