Not Safe for Museums (Seeing Things One at a Time)

A recreation of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV was painted on a concrete wall outside of my 4th grade classroom. At some point I had learned it was a work of art, but that concept was meaningless until I went to the Art Institute with my parents on my birthday.  We came across the painting while going down one of the museum’s grand staircases.  Mounted high above my head,  I could not see its brush strokes, imperfections or other indications of “realness.” Nonetheless, it was clearly more exciting than the school mural.  I remember wanting to stay because there seemed to be something to figure out about this painting. But, we had to move on because we were standing in the middle of the museum’s stairs.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Sky Above Clouds IV. 1965. Oil on canvas. 8 x 24 ft. Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I was not taught how to look at art as much as how to make it until taking a Humanities course in high school, during which we studied art’s masterpieces by flipping between and comparing images in E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art at record speed; there was too much art history to be had for a high school class divided into equal parts between visual art, music and literature, but we did what we could.

I studied Ingres’s Une Odalisque during a college Humanities survey course, but I was not prepared for the way such a work could bring a person to pause.  Visiting the Louvre as an American citizen is typically expected to be a pace-driven experience, as one tries to consume as much art as possible in a single day. The chateau’s daunting, 4-wing layout and shopping list of masterpieces-to-be-seen in the map discourage any sort of intimate experience one might want to have with singular works of art.  Une Odalisque was a painting I happened upon while wandering through the rooms of French Neoclassical paintings.  The preciseness of the technique was so much more stunning and the blue so much more bold than I had expected, I felt like I could stay with this single painting until the institution closed and be content.  But for reasons I can no longer remember, we felt compelled to keep on, the art marathon track guiding us away from any impromptu lingering.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Une Odalisque. 1814.  Image from Musee du Louvre.

In The Story of Art, Gombrich offers warnings against the meandering experience:

“People who have acquired some knowledge of art history are sometimes in danger of falling into a…trap. When they see a work of art they do not stay to look at it, but rather search their memory for the appropriate label. They may have heard that Rembrandt was famous for his chiaroscuro…so they nod wisely when they see a Rembrandt, mumble ‘wonderful chiaroscuro,’ and wander on to the next picture.” (Gombrich 34)

Museums are highly conducive to the empty wandering Gombrich describes; Michael Kimmelman recently discussed the phenomenon  and attributed the problem to a desire for self-improvement. His claim that there is pressure to see everything is certainly true. “Everything” could be everything in the museum, everything in an exhibition, everything famous.

“Everything” never means one work of art.  Yet, a painting as rich as Une Odalisque commands a stop, an opportunity for the viewer’s full attention. I disagree with Kimmelman  in that I think a thorough trip to the museum can be meaningful when objects are viewed more quickly but still thoughtfully and as a whole.  However, there are also works of art that need to be seen entirely on their own, without a “white cube,” placement on a time line or the underlying desire to see anything else.

Charlie White’s 1957 is a work I want to return to see on its own.  The photograph is part of This Old, Weird America, an exhibition currently on view at the Frye (see exhibition reviews by Regina Hackett and Jen Graves) comprised of an interesting, and often unexpected,  grouping of artists. However, 1957 is so fascinating I am tempted to come back to see this photograph only.  A composition of filmic and allegorical images combines with a level of attention to period details seemingly comparable to Mad Men to open a space for considering how the past is created in the mind, amid the fictional representations to which we cling.  Although the intrigue of 1957 can be enhanced by the works around it, the experience of seeing it independently is entirely different.

Charlie White. 1957. 2006. C-print photograph. Image from CCF Artist Gallery.

Sky Above Clouds IV and Une Odalisuqe were early occasions in which  I felt compelled to focus on only on one thing and did not.   Since my experience at the Louvre, I have had several opportunities to go into a museum and see only one thing. The evening I arrived in New Orleans to see Prospect.1*, I could only find one work of art to see, as all of the venues were already closed. Alexandre Arrechea’s Mississippi Bucket was listed as being in the Plaza of Good Fortune at Harrah’s Casino, which seemed like a place that would be open all night.

Alexandre Arrechea. Mississippi Bucket. 2008. Plaza of Good Fortune, Harrah’s Casino, Prospect.1 New Orleans.

Predictably, the Plaza of Good Fortune was difficult to find. The Harrah’s tower dominated the modest New Orleans waterfront, but determining the location of a particular plaza housing a work of art was challenging. After walking through an underground tunnel towards the inside of the casino, I made my  way towards the first human in sight.  When I asked about the Plaza of Good Fortune, she directed me back outside.  After wandering the perimeter of Harrah’s for 20 minutes, searching for something to indicate the plaza I needed (Symbols of luck? Pennies falling from the sky?), I happened to look down to see a sprawling, trough-like sculpture made from wood.  After spending so long in search of the Plaza of Good Fortune, I kept reconsidering this empty, quiet bed of tributaries and what good fortune actually meant to them.

Since this encounter with Mississippi Bucket, I went to SFMOMA to see only Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_LAS VEGAS 05, I went to the Henry to see only Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, and I wandered through the labyrinth of the EMP to find Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean jacket and white glove.  All of these works are highly memorable to me in a way that even standout work in an exhibition is not. One of the reasons for this difference is the individually viewed work of art becomes an experience rather than one object among many.

Creating an “experience” is something museums constantly strive for, and yet the “museum visit” can become so formulaic (get ticket, enter galleries, see special exhibition, see permanent collection, depart) that remembering even a hand-full of works can be challenging by the end of the day. Interacting with a work of art involves both the artwork and the viewer; when a single work is seen alone, the entire context of seeing becomes part of the work.

Although admission fees, large-scale marketing campaigns and highlighted maps may suggest otherwise, seeing one work of art should not be considered a luxury reserved for the admission-less museums in England or the masterpieces of painting in France. The viewing process always under our control, and it is our responsibility to see accordingly.

*For the purposes of this essay, the biennial experience’s qualities of maximum art consumption and presence as a large-scale exhibition make it comparable to the museum experience.