Thursday, August 25, 2011

Exploring Art: Looking at art, the basics

Hans Hofmann, American
B. 1880 Weissenburg, Bavaria
D. 1966 New York, NY
Golden Blaze, 1958, oil on canvas

Before we can even begin to understand art and art history we must first start with the very basic idea of looking. I mentioned last week (here) that most people look at a piece of art for 5 seconds. So for our first foray into becoming art historians let's learn to actually look when we are browsing a gallery space. In a second post, I will give you a little art history lesson to enhance your looking experience. I will use the same piece for both posts.

The piece I am using in this exercise lives at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. As it is my place of employment, the gallery is steps from my office and I get to look at it every day. (I'm spoiled!) I love Hans Hofmann's work. I’ve been known to spend 30 minutes looking at just one of his paintings. I also find this type of modern painting to be under appreciated by the average vacation museum goer (*Art collectors consider his work important. One of his paintings, Gloria in Excelsis, sold for $4,297,000 at Sotheby’s in 2008).

Here is my usual exercise for looking at a work of art. I encourage you to do this next time you find yourself in a gallery (go now!). This is not a thinking exercise, though at first you will have to ask yourself a lot of questions about what you see. Trust your instincts and do not try to interpret the piece, just look at it.

To learn to look at art begin by looking at the gallery space itself. This will give context and meaning to the works of art in the space. Pay attention to how art is displayed. Is it high on the wall? Eye level? What works are around it? Are they similar in style or color? Do they tell a story as a group?

Curators strategically place works of art next to each other and in specific spaces. There is usually a theme, for instance in this gallery at the Corcoran these three paintings are all mid-century American color field, oil on canvas paintings. You don't need an art historical background to know that - I read the cards next to each painting and noticed the pattern. I also noticed that all the paintings in this space are blocks of color; 'color field' is an art historical term used to describe this type of painting. This will give me context for the interpretation phase of looking but I’m noting it here in order to focus my thoughts while in the gallery.

Once in the gallery, stand about 15 feet in front of the painting. Look at the work overall as a whole picture. What seems to stick out to you? This is what is important to the artist.

In this piece, Hofmann seems to be investigating color and how the paint itself is worked on the canvas. The painting is a large scale (around 6 feet tall) and placed so that the center is about eye level. I see from the two paintings next to it that those artists are exploring similar subjects too.

Now stand about 5 feet in front of the painting. How big does the painting feel? Can you see a lot of detail from this distance? From here, the Hofmann canvas is taller than me. I am fully consumed by color. It is striking. Hofmann uses vibrant, saturated hues and places contrasting colors next to each other. The blues are electric, the yellows, deep golden mustard, the orange and red ground the painting towards the middle. Although the color is layered it isn’t muddy or washed out. Knowing that oil paint takes a while to dry, it tells me that this took a lot of time and patience to create.

Lastly, stand as close to the painting as the guard will let you (usually 2 feet). Now what do you see? Has the subject matter fallen apart? Or are the brushstrokes so tight that the subject still looks like a photograph?

Standing this close to my beloved Hofmann painting I’m overwhelmed by the intensity of color and texture. I can see the minutia of the brushstrokes. In the top right hand corner the paint is looser, mixed with water then applied with a brush to create a wash. I see the canvas through some of the paint. In other places the paint looks like it was globbed onto the canvas straight out of the paint tube, several inches thick. You can see where wet paint was lifted from itself, perhaps with a rag, which gives the paint a rough surface. The layers of color undulate between large areas of smooth, washed paint and smaller blocks of paint smeared on with a palate knife or rag.

Go Gators (10 days until kick off!)

At this point I’m 15 minutes into the looking experience and I have stopped thinking. I’m fully consumed by the rhythmically changing textures and colors. Rough painted over smooth and smooth painted over rough. It becomes complicated and messy at points, simple and clean in others. As I keep looking I discover new places where Hofmann investigates the application of the paint. My mind wanders as I scan the canvas and stare at nuanced layers. I imagine the artist putting the paint on the canvas as a conductor directs musicians to join a symphony. At first a violin plays solo then cellos, drums, horns, and flutes are added. The sound builds up to a crescendo then drops off leaving the listener breathless, wanting more.

After I lose track of time, I finally drag myself away from my new obsession and leave the museum. That’s it for today. No need to browse through the galleries looking for other lovers. This one will stay with me for a while.


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