How to Look at Art

Experts tell how to enhance your appreciation of artworks seen here locally.

BY January 13, 2017


It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see. American philosopher Henry David Thoreau said something along those lines 150 years ago, and his words still resonate for art professionals today. They know that viewing art takes time, effort and patience—qualities that seem to be in short supply among museum-goers these days. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, we were told that people in museums spent about 30 seconds on average looking at a work of art. Now, researchers say that number has dwindled to 15 or 20 seconds, depending on whether the viewer stops to read the label. On the bright side, that’s still better than the average adult attention span in general, which clocks in today at 8 seconds, 1 second less than that of a goldfish.

“We do a lot of scanning and glancing,” says Jack O’Brien, curator of art at the Naples Art Association. “With the prevalence of computers today, it’s changed the way we look at things.”

To alleviate this collective attention-deficit disorder, Annie Storr, a museum educator and art historian based in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Gloucester, Massachusetts, travels the country leading workshops called “Exercises for the Quiet Eye.” She aims to help people slow down and contemplate an artwork from multiple perspectives. “Like many, many, many people in the museum and art world, I’ve seen the obvious problem of people rushing when they look. The way I fell into working on this was using the hypothesis that the main reason people rushed was not that they wanted to get good money’s worth for their museum admission or wanted to catch up with the friend that they were going through the galleries with, but that it’s anxiety,” she says.

“It may be many kinds of anxiety. But one kind of anxiety that we all know when learning something new is discomfort at not knowing what we’re doing here. People say to themselves, ‘What do I do now? I’ve just glanced at this, but I don’t get it. I’m going to move on.’ So I’ve tried a variety of techniques to get people to slow down and take more time when they look at art, specifically to take more time before they expect themselves to ‘get it.’ For almost 10 years, I’ve been actively working against the inclination to figure things out. It may be that the most important thing the visual arts teach us in our lives is to tolerate ambiguity. But we live in a society that gets nervous with the ambiguous,” Storr continues. “I’ve been working on finding ways to help viewers feel comfortable in a place where they can’t figure it out. Figuring it out is not the point. Artworks can seep into their eyes and their minds more slowly.” 

Participants in her workshops—be they senior citizens, museum docents, parents and children, church groups or club members—are gently guided through a series of exercises that encourage them to pick a single artwork and sit quietly with it. Then, they may be asked to list a series of adjectives that occur to them while they look at the work. They might be asked to sketch it, to formulate a question about it or to gather in small groups to discuss the object. Essential to the process is that looking at art becomes active and interactive. Storr wants to counter the feeling that viewers have to understand a piece right away. “Keeping people’s eyes on the work is keeping their minds going,” she says.


All That (Visual) Jazz

When it comes to examining an individual object, O’Brien explains, “My philosophy is that an artwork should be compelling from a distance, across the gallery. But a work of art should be more than a billboard. When you get up close, there should be more detail that’s revealed, more texture or something that comes into view at close range. The work should be something strong that’s speaking to you, and something that will reward you for looking.”

“When I focus in, I’m really drawn to the artist’s use of the elements of art—color, shape, value, line and texture. I consider how the artist has organized the visual space. I look at the composition, how the artist uses balance, proportion and rhythm. Are there areas of emphasis? Is there more positive or negative space?” he says.

He flagged a colorful, abstract painting by the Argentine artist Ignacio Alperin called Summer Me, Winter Me (left) as an example of an artwork that rewards close inspection. This large mixed-media work is on view this winter in the offices of Fischer International in the Galleria at Naples in North Naples, along with 23 other original paintings by Alperin. He is struck, foremost, by its formal qualities, the long-time curator said.

“The first thing I notice about this painting, of course, is the color and the multiplicity of elements in the composition. The artist isn’t limiting himself. He’s taking it all in and putting it all down. Alperin’s an artist who’s very internally driven. There’s a lot of emotions going onto the canvas. He paints to music, especially jazz, and a sense of rhythm is important in his art. One of the things that grabs me is there’s a lot of blurred-edge shapes that recede into the background. And all those thin lines of paint in the center—that area is very intricate, like a bird’s nest,” O’Brien says. “Also, I really like what he does with ink, where he gives the look of stitching with dark ink in parts of the painting. I find it visually very tactile.”

Metal sculptor Mary Voytek, who teaches studio art at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, spends time in her introductory classes helping students develop an appreciation of three-dimensional art. It’s usually their first exposure to serious consideration of sculpture, she notes. “We discuss what a sculpture is and how you experience it. How is a sculpture different from a two-dimensional work of art? We talk about how sculpture has mass, it has space, it’s more confronting to the viewer. With a two-dimensional artwork, like a painting or photograph, the viewer stands there and looks into it, almost as if looking through a window. With a sculpture, you should be compelled to walk around it. There might be a frontal vector, but you should be able to walk around it, and experience it as a full-round sculpture.”

Voytek adds, “One of the first lessons is I have my students go around campus. We have a wonderful collection of different types of sculptures on campus at FGCU, most of them public art. I pick out three and ask the students, after the first class, to visit the sculptures without any assignment in mind, except that I want them to try and define their initial impression, their gut reaction, to each.” Later, she assigns the students to return to the sculptures and consider their intellectual reactions. What do they think the artist’s intention was? What does the sculpture mean to them? On a third visit, the students are asked to pay attention to how the sculptures interact with their surroundings.

For instance, Voytek prods her students to scrutinize Albert Paley’s 22-foot-tall Cross Currents (right). The angular, welded-metal sculpture stands in a large plaza on the eastern side of campus. Many students don’t like it at first. They call it “the ugly thing,” she says. But when they realize that this piece was designed for a specific location, they begin to discover some of its possible meanings. The title is a maritime term for where currents come together in the ocean, Voytek tells them. “They pick up on the idea that the campus is where students from different areas mix together. The plaza is where people wait to get on the bus. It’s near where they register for classes. It’s a central meeting place.” They begin to understand that the piece expresses something about the campus environment.

When she visits museums and galleries to see art for her own pleasure, Voytek says, “I am always interested in how something is made. As a sculptor, I’m all about materials and processes and techniques and innovation. But, a piece can’t just be about innovation or about unique uses of materials because then it doesn’t hold my attention. Sometimes I’m drawn to an artwork and immediately I’m starting to analyze what it is and how it was made. I am sometimes cursed with wanting to know how it was made,” she says with a laugh, “or how a thing is framed or how it’s attached to the wall! I might just peek around the sides and up underneath it.” 


Seeing the Big Picture

Having been involved professionally with the organization of more than 100 exhibitions over the past decade or so, Frank Verpoorten says he tends to appreciate the totality of an exhibition when he visits a museum or gallery. He examines individual works, to be sure, but he also considers the installation, wall colors, labels and explanatory materials provided to the public, says the director and chief curator of The Baker Museum at Artis—Naples.

“This summer I was in the south of France. I’d been eager to visit this glorious museum on the water in Marseille, called MuCEM, the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. They had one of their greatest exhibitions on view. It was about Picasso and the title was A Genius without a Pedestal. I thought the show was fabulous,” he explained. “It had a very smart concept and approach. It was organized from the vantage point of how Picasso was inspired by popular arts, culture and tradition. It was about how his art was influenced by music, bull fighting, hair dressing, even pigeon racing—things that were really prevalent [in his environment].” The show also demonstrated how Picasso incorporated artisanal crafts—ceramics, metal, wood and textiles—into his art.

Verpoorten also relishes the opportunity to study works in The Baker’s permanent collection in greater depth than a typical museum visitor might be able to do, and sometimes even to engage in a bit of scholarly detective work. Lately, he’s become intrigued by a small, undated portrait of a woman, one of more than 400 works of art recently donated to the museum by the estate of the renowned collector Olga Hirshhorn, who passed away in 2015. The painting is an oil on canvas by the 19th century French artist Alexandre Falguière (left), but the identity of the sitter is unknown. The picture stands out in part because it is different in intention and effect than most of the works from Hirshhorn’s collection. The mysterious young lady in the picture appears serene and self-possessed. Her inscrutable features emerge from the dark-toned background as if lit by a lamp or some other direct light source. Falguière’s paint handling is relaxed and self-assured for an artist who was primarily known as a sculptor during his own lifetime.

“It has many formal aspects of an example of French academic art,” Verpoorten notes of the portrait, “yet the brushwork is more loose and sensual, indicating that it was most certainly not submitted for the portraiture competition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.” He believes that the woman in the picture may be Carolina Carlesimo, an Italian-born painter and artist’s model who went by the name of Juana Romani. Romani spent a free-spirited youth in Paris, eventually becoming both an artist herself and muse to several French academic painters of the late 19th century.


Living with Art

To say that collectors Bob and Terry Edwards surround themselves with art in their Naples home is an understatement. They live amongst the art rather than with it. “Wherever we can put the art, the art goes,” Bob Edwards says with a smile. In addition to the many works displayed in their formal living room, paintings and sculptures are propped up around them in their library, where the couple often relax in the evening. “It’s a little bit cluttered in here right now,” Edwards points out contentedly, glancing around the book-filled room at works by artists ranging from Sam Francis, Alexander Calder and Robert Natkin to Darryl Pottorf and the Miami outsider artist Purvis Young. In the kitchen, a metal sculpture by the modern British artist Lynn Chadwick casually inhabits a countertop. Even the bathroom walls are hung salon-style with framed works by modern and contemporary masters.

In the couple’s bedroom, a windmill-like metal structure by the late Robert Rauschenberg gently fans the air when its sonar-activated motor is switched on (at top). Silkscreened images are printed on its multicolored aluminum vanes. “The title of this piece is Eco-Echo, eco for ecology. The sonar is the echo,” Edwards notes. “Bob [Rauschenberg] loved clocks. He loved round things like bicycle tires. There’s all kinds of shapes and little things to discover in this sculpture, but it’s really about ecology.” While the kinetic sculpture communicates Rauschenberg’s long-time passion for environmental causes and his interest in renewable energy sources, it also reflects his fascination with the iconic form of the American windmill, Edwards explains. 

Rubbing elbows with the world-famous Rauschenberg, who resided on Captiva Island from 1970 until his death in 2008, was an enormous influence on his collecting habits, Edwards says. “The ability to see him locally, to go to his studio, to go to the openings and cocktail parties, I was thrilled. I took every opportunity I could beg, borrow or steal to go up there to his studio.” Eventually, Edwards began to collect not just Rauschenberg’s work but the art of Rauschenberg’s friends and peers, such as James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and others. 

“When you look at art as a collector, you look at it a little bit differently. When you’re collecting artists who are recognized, you’re looking at their work in the context of its time and in terms of where it comes in the artist’s career, as well as what you can get,” Edwards says. “You go to museums to see the most amazing works of art that you can. When you collect, you try to acquire the most amazing things that you possibly can with the budget you have.”

He and Terry enjoy the opportunity to see works in their collection freshly when they move art objects around the house, or when an artwork that has been loaned to an exhibition returns to them. That intimate relationship with art—the ability to touch it, to see it throughout the day in changing light conditions and in the context of different household moods, and sometimes even to forge a personal connection with its maker—is at the heart of collecting. And, as Bob Edwards points out, the couple finds joy in sharing their collection with others, “walking around and talking about the art and having someone appreciate it.”

As a new season of art unfolds in Southwest Florida, keep in mind that looking at art is a very personal thing. It can be a social or solitary experience. It can be done in the muffled quiet of a museum or the lively party atmosphere of a gallery reception. You can bring years of reading and research to your looking or simply follow your nose to what delights you. Just remember—there’s no need to rush.


Janice T. Paine is program manager for art education at the United Arts Council of Collier County in Naples and a freelance writer on the visual arts.


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