I took an impromptu trip to the New Museum for Contemporary Art this evening because I was looking for something free to do on a Thursday night. My first venture into this futuristic building on Bowery was in 2007. I was supposed to meet a tutoring student down on Bowery, but nobody was home when I arrived. Company policy said I had to wait 45 minutes to make sure the family wasn’t just running late, and in the course of that 45 minutes, I saw an awful lot of people file into the really futuristic building that was almost next door. When my time was up, I had a free evening, so I moseyed on over to see what the big deal was. It was the grand opening of the New Museum (their new location, anyway), and they were having extended free hours. And I thought, why not?
It’s a good thing I didn’t know going into that inaugural exhibit what it was about, or I never would have gone. I was taught, like many, unfortunately, that abstract art, installations, and other forms of non-traditional, non-literal art are nothing more than trashy attempts by artists to get attention by slapping trash on a canvas and pretending it means something. “Real” art, according to sources who shall remain nameless, consisted only of the classics – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rodin, anybody who painted or sculpted recognizable things.
The inaugural exhibit at the New Museum definitely would not have qualified as “real art” by my old standards. I’m not even sure why I gave it a chance – surely the word “Contemporary” in the museum’s name was a clue to what I was getting into. Maybe I was feeling rebellious that day. Or just really curious. I don’t know. I just remember walking in and almost laughing when I realized that the whole exhibition – all 5 floors of the museum – was dedicated to sculptures that appeared to be made, literally, of trash.
And I LOVED them. I looked at everything. I wanted to touch most of it. (I didn’t). Because of copyright issues, I can’t post photos for you right on the website, but the exhibit is digitally archived here. I spent the most time on two particular pieces. One was called “Elephant,” and it’s in the digital archive. The other one was a naked wax woman. She was as tall as me, and made to look pretty cartoony. Not comic book cartoony, but maybe mannequin cartoony. And when you walked around behind her, it turns out she was a giant candle melting into the floor. Her whole back was corroded, and her insides were just melting away. The wick of the candle was positioned in such a way that the back was melting much faster than the front, so from the front she still looked like a naked, cartoony woman, but from the back, she looked like a bombed crayon. As a young woman recently in touch with the violence done to me in the past and its consequences (feeling dead and mangled on the inside, needing to present something fake and normal-looking on the outside), I felt a deep kinship with the wax woman. I was deeply moved by several of the other pieces as well, although it is harder to articulate the reasons because they were more abstract, but they each touched me in some important way.
I stayed in that exhibit until the museum closed, and I walked out liberated. I felt like a whole new world had opened up to me. I had discovered something that the art critics in my past had never known, even though they’d been staring at it for decades (or perhaps they weren’t staring nearly hard enough, as I’ll get to in another paragraph or two). Most important, though, I felt that deep, unseen parts of me had been seen and understood by these strangers, maybe even more deeply seen and understood than I understood myself. I had been challenged as well; I left thinking new thoughts. I felt that I had shared some deep communion with friends. I didn’t need to see their faces because I had encountered pieces of their souls, articulated into visible space through the medium of ….. trash. Anything was possible after this.
I tell this story because I have a lot of artist friends (in many disciplines), and we can get very chummy in our arty world. It’s easy and exciting for us to engage with art and talk about it and let it impact us, because that’s how we’re built. Like some people show a very early proficiency with mathematics, my mother likes to tell the tale of that time when I was 4 years old, and she took me to a modern dance concert, and I nonstop the entire (long) car-ride home, re-counting in intricate, chronological detail the various movements, stories, and relationships between the dancers, and what it all meant. She says I noticed more about the show than she did. To this day, given a choice, I’d rather be in a theater than almost anywhere else; it’s my natural habitat.
But it’s not a natural habitat for everyone, the way that mathematics and art museums have not always been a natural habitat for me. I had to be taught multiplication because I never would have gotten there on my own, and many people need to be educated about how to encounter art. If you spend your whole life not knowing how to interact with art, you’re missing out. Different types of art require different types of viewing; I’m a natural with anything remotely narrative, but I had to learn how to be in an art museum just like the majority of humanity. The best advice I ever got on how to be in an art museum came from my wonderful Art in Education professor, and I’m going to pass on to you here.
First, banish the idea that you are supposed to see everything in the museum, cruising through rooms like a tourist, spending a few moments on each piece, passing judgment or not, and then passing by. A quality encounter with a piece of art takes some time, so decide before you go in that you are NOT going to see everything in the museum; instead, you are going to have a lengthier encounter with a few pieces. Maybe just one. I usually figure I’ve had a good museum trip if I found 1-3 things that I really wanted to spend time with. One quality encounter is a win, more than three and I usually start feeling art-fatigued. If, after 3, you still feel hungry, or if you paid good money to get in and feel cheated if you only encounter 3 pieces, by all means stay longer, but I would schedule in breaks to help refresh your brain so that you don’t lose quality with the quantity. If one of the pictures on this page speaks to you, try this exercise with it. If it doesn’t, you’re just going to have to get yourself to an art museum.
Second, you don’t have to spend time with the first item you see. Or anything on the first floor. If something draws you immediately, great, but feel free to wander, tourist-like, for a while until you find The One. Choose a piece that appeals to you, or intrigues you in some way. There is absolutely no right or wrong. There doesn’t have to be anything profound about it, either, maybe you just think the texture or color or subject is interesting. Whatever it is, it’s something that invites a closer look.
Now that you’ve chosen, find a good place to plant yourself and observe. If the museum is not crowded, this is easy, but if it’s mobbed, be patient and hold out for a quality spot. (Some sculptural pieces may invite you to observe them from several different perspectives, which is totally okay).
When you’re in position, start observing the piece. I mean just look at it. Without checking your phone for text messages or facebook updates. Look at it for a full three minutes. You might even want to time yourself in the beginning until you know what three minutes feels like, because it can feel like a year to all of us who are acclimated to instant gratification. While you’re looking at it, you’ll start noticing things that you didn’t notice when you first looked at it. You’ll notice different things in the third minute than in the first. Notice what you’re noticing, and notice the questions that start to surface. “Is that wood?” “I wonder if the woman posing for this felt vulnerable?” “Is that meant to look like a face, or is it a trick of the shadows?” “I wonder why the artist used blue in the skin tone?” “Is that discoloration original, or a sign of the age of the painting?” “Is that a lump of paint or is something hidden in there?” “I wonder why this painting makes me feel sad?” Etc. Again, there is no right or wrong for questions. This is your sacred moment, they are your questions, and this is a judgment-free moment for your soul. If you have a journal, write down everything that you’re noticing and the questions that are surfacing. If journaling’s not your thing, just be present and aware.
When you’ve looked at the piece for three minutes, look at it for another two. Maybe take a 30-second break to read the little card beside it if you haven’t read it already (although, personally, I find that half the time the cards are just confusing rather than illuminating). See if you’re noticing anything new, or if any new thoughts or questions are arising that are related to the painting. Have some of your earlier questions been answered by your persistent looking? What new questions have come up since then?
You look for as long as you need to look to be finished. I would give it at least five minutes until you have some practice and can tell more instinctively when you’re “finished.” “Finished” doesn’t mean that all your questions are answered. “Finished” also does not mean that you will necessarily understand the piece, or understand why you were attracted to it. Although you might. For me, I know that I’m finished with a piece when I feel full. I don’t know how to explain that; I just know that I can’t receive any more from this communion, that I’m full. As you practice, you’ll get to recognize when you’re finished, versus when you’re not done with an image yet, when it still has something to tell you or pry out of you. Not every piece will be a life-changer; some will just be an interesting pause in your day. In fact, you might have to practice for a while, on a lot of different kinds of artwork, before you actually find a life-changer. That’s okay too, there’s no rush, just enjoyment of the process. When you are finished with your piece, you may decide to seek out another to repeat the process, or you may feel that you are done for the day because you need to chew on that one for a while. You might even feel that you need to come back to a piece later because you don’t have time to finish today. I know a guy who has had a print of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son hanging above his desk for years because it is still speaking to him. It’s your choice, your encounter, your judgment-free zone for your soul.
I went through this process today with several pieces that were all made of found objects wrapped in yarn. Here are some of my noticings/questions: “Wow, that’s a really interesting shape. I wonder why it’s that shape.” “It looks so soft, I want to touch it.” (I didn’t). “I can’t see anything past the yarn, there are so many layers.” “I’m really attracted to the messy parts of the yarn wrapping, the parts where the strings are knotty or tangled, or dangling crazily.” “Seriously, what is inside there? That’s the weirdest shape.” “I wonder if it’s something fragile or something really strong.” “It seems so well-protected, like somebody wanted to hug this thing with yarn.” “It’s like somebody’s secret that they wanted to wrap up and protect in this soft, colorful cocoon.”
Somebody else might look at the same piece and think, “Yarn ball, really?” Because different pieces will speak to different people. If you are a Classics/Masters kind of person, go for it. If you like abstract or sculpture or ceramic or tapestry or whatever, go for it. Just learn to take your time and SEE what you’re looking at. It will change your whole museum experience, I promise.