Looking at art

Once in a while I like going to a museum to look at art. There is no particular period I like more over the other. I can just as easily be amazed by a painting from the Middle Ages (because of its weird perspective and I like trying to figure out the used symbolism) as of a painting by Rembrandt (look at those brush strokes and use of light) or Picasso (what am I actually looking at). But many fail to appreciate the more contemporary art. Statements such as ‘my kid of 5 years old can make that just as well’ are not uncommon in the average modern art museum. But just as any other art period, modern art tries to give answers to certain problems. Whereas at first painters used symbols to tell a story, over the years depictions became more and more realistic up to the point where the image is just a reproduction of the real. These paintings are generally easy to understand and like. Then artists went further and wanted to represent more than the visual world; things such as senses, emotions, time, space…  And yes, sometimes a lot of artistic ‘bla-bla’ is used by the artist to justify their work, and most of the time it still doesn’t explain anything. But that doesn’t mean I cannot like the work of art, or be intrigued by it. Some I do like, and about others I’m indifferent. So why is that? What is it that captured my attention? Let me try to explain by two examples.

Yves Klein / Monochrome Blue, Untitled

Monochrome blue - Untitled. By Yves Klein.

Monochrome blue – Untitled. By Yves Klein.

It’s just a blue rectangle you might say. That’s right, just blue. But what kind of blue? Not standard blue, it’s a very intense and saturated blue. The blue works well with the black that seems to be smudged all over the painting – or is it just shadow? What is the artist trying to tell me? I don’t know. I have a very thick book, that I barely read, which might explain, but that won’t help. Let’s look a bit further, is it painted on a canvas, or a different fabric? And see those brush strokes, how the intensity of the black and blue is changing? I’m trying to look how the paint is applied, thick or thin, small or big, straight or irregular? I wonder about a lot of (tiny) things when I look at the painting. But in the end I just like it. For no specific reason.

Sol Lewitt / pecil lines at museum wall

Sol LeWitt

Sol LeWitt

See this picture? It’s just some lines, made with a plain pencil like the one you and I used at school. Imagine this is scale 1:1. Imagine this is just a tiny snapshot of a wall, a museum wall. Very big. Let’s say 12 x 5 meters. Does it mean anything? Probably not. Does it say anything about society or such? Very unlikely. But what a work it must have been to make this, line by line. With a pencil. And a ruler. Amazing. It looks perfect. Maybe I can spot a mistake…

When I am looking at a work of (modern) art, less and less am I trying to figure out what it means or what the artist wanted to tell me. Instead I try to listen to my intuition; do I like it or not? If not, I keep on walking. If I do, I try to figure out what attracted me to it. Just by asking myself simple questions; how was it made, when, with what kind of materials, by accident or with intention, etc. etc.

Now I am curious. What do you look after when you look at a piece of art?