3 Things I Learned about Art– Plus a Few Observations

So I’m reading a book called, Pictures of Nothing, by Kirk Varnedoe. I decided that I wanted to go to Seattle Art Museum to visit some of the pieces that are by artists that Varnedoe talks about in his book. My main motivation is my pure curiosity. I started out from a point of complete misunderstanding of abstract art. Because I want to break this down in simple terms so most people can understand me, I will explain myself (skip ahead if you already know my explanations or please, by all means, correct me where I go wrong. I’m here, firstly, to learn and understand.) The work of Mark Rothko used to completely offend me. The main reason, is that, without realizing it, I didn’t have the knowledge to understand it. To me, it was just a bunch of dumb color things hap-hazardly painted on a canvas. I didn’t get it. When I think about it, I feel a bit ashamed at my reaction, but still, I feel that it’s better to react at all to than to simply stroll by altogether. However, I did the work to understand it and have now done a complete 180. I not only appreciate Rothko’s work now, but his work ranks among my personal favorites. Watch this documentary and I think you’ll get it too Mark Rothko and The Power of Art.

Fast-forward to now, where I am finding myself with an insatiable curiosity about Abstract Minimalism, in general. Being naturally contrarian (“opposing or rejecting popular opinion; going against current practice”), noticing that lack of comfort the people around me seem to have with these paintings, I can’t help but get to the bottom of the mystery. I have seen way too many docents speed past these paintings and I want to know why. (Docents are like the Superheroes of Volunteerism at museums. They are people who have special training, from the museum, to give tours to the public. They often have access to special museum resources in  order to gain more knowledge about the artwork so they can talk about it with visitors, like you and me.)

Here is what I learned from my experience:

1. A huge part of art understanding is what you, the viewer, bring to it. You don’t have to be some sort of brainiac to get it, but thinking and engaging is important– being willing to google things that you think or talking to people who have more experience with the art than you; picking up a book or reading the descriptions. For example: Check out the Al Held Yellow X, where I make observations. I need to learn more, but at face-value the painting is demonstrating to the viewer, an amazing phenomenon of the human eye– which is the ability for our minds to read a recognizable character (the letter X), with a minimum of shapes. We can still recognize this painting as an X, even though it quite different from the X’s that we usually see. In this collection, he does this with a lot of other letters (a lot smaller– on view at SAM) OCR is Optical Character Recognition. It’s how your brain turns shapes into letters. So point one, if the painting says nothing else, it is saying that and it is a marvel. You are part of the art because of how your eye works.

Al Held: The Yellow X, 1965. I'm in the photo to give an idea of scale. I'm 5'8". Seattle Art Museum, Acrylic on Canvas, American, 1928-2005, Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright 2013.11

Al Held: The Yellow X, 1965. I’m in the photo to give an idea of scale. I’m 5’8″. Seattle Art Museum, Acrylic on Canvas, American, 1928-2005, Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright 2013.11

2. I don’t have to live in a special, magical place to learn about historically significant art. I can live right here, in the Greater Seattle Area, in Lynnwood, Washington. I am able to gain experience (even though I have also lived in NYC for 3 years.) We can also get books shipped that we may not find locally. We can watch a wealth of art documentaries on Youtube and Netflix. Yes, it’s be awesome to be able to see all these great things in other places, but I have ample resources here that are extensive. I doubt I’ll ever be able to exhaust them (use up all the learning!). Pictures of Nothing has mention Pollock, Stella, Kelly (among others– don’t forget Olympic Sculpture Park)– There is work by each of those artists at SAM. Today. I may not be able to see the exact pieces that Varnedoe talks about, but I can see his photos and I can also see other work by the artists– That, combined with my trips to DFW (Dallas Fort Worth area, my bases are nicely covered, I’ve realized.) So, contrary to that belief. We can move on.

3. Living near a great city is awesome. I can go there, soak up all the learning and resources until my brain gets burn-out, then go back to my peaceful house in Lynnwood.

…And now for some off-the-cuff observations from what I experienced that day 

The Frank Stella pieces use an unusual color scheme. Another thing that makes them special is that the canvases were built in an unusual shape. Some people have talked to me about carving (can’t remember who) and how the canvas most nearly carves out the space that it’s in. I think the color helps emphasize that; they glow. So as I’m reading Pictures of Nothing, I hope to understand even more. I don’t have to live in a special place to gain that experience (even though I have also lived in NYC for 3 years.)

Frank Stella: Wolfeboro III, 1966. The lessons are in the details. Both the Stella paintings are large-scale like the Al Held Yellow X painting. Seattle Art Museum, Fluorescent alkyd paint on canvas, American, born 1936, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bagley Wright

Frank Stella: Wolfeboro III, 1966. The lessons are in the details. Both the Stella paintings are large-scale like the Al Held Yellow X painting. Seattle Art Museum, Fluorescent alkyd paint on canvas, American, born 1936, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bagley Wright

Detail: Frank Stella, Wolfeboro III, 1966. Well, both the docent I talked to and I thought the painting was made with spray paint... I notice that the lines are not 100% crisp. Since I am a bit OCD, it felt inspiring to me because the painting makes it point, all-the-same.

Detail: Frank Stella, Wolfeboro III, 1966. Well, both the docent I talked to and I thought the painting was made with spray paint… I notice that the lines are not 100% crisp. Since I am a bit OCD, it felt inspiring to me because the painting makes it point, all-the-same.

The Seattle sky is gray a lot. You can see that in the background. I love how the paintings make it seem brighter and livelier. About the weather of Seattle: It’s often gray and dreary here. A great way that I’ve found to keep my momentum going is that I take Vitamin D supplements. Every. Single. Day. (thank you J.L.!!! Forever grateful for her recommendation.) It has been a game-changer for me and I am forever grateful. I feel like a vibrant person, not a gray-day person.

Frank Stella: Wolfeboro III 1966 and Sabra I 1967. At Seattle Art Museum... this was about at 3 in the afternoon... I love the contrast with the paintings and the blue/gray skies outside.

Frank Stella: Wolfeboro III 1966 and Sabra I 1967. At Seattle Art Museum… this was about at 3 in the afternoon… I love the contrast with the paintings and the blue/gray skies outside.

Frank Stella: Sabra 1, 1967. Seattle Art Museum: Acrylic on shaped canvas, American, born 1936, promised gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of SAM

Frank Stella: Sabra 1, 1967. Seattle Art Museum: Acrylic on shaped canvas, American, born 1936, promised gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of SAM

I’m enjoying the work of Hans Hoffman. The texture is dramatic and tumultuous in Circular Fantasy. There was another one that I lusted after that used to be where Elysium II is but I don’t know the details about it other that it was my favorite because of both the color and texture. They are vibrant like Elysium II but with the drama of Circular Fantasy. I want to see it again and again! Also, it makes me want to learn more about Hans Hoffman. They were next to Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change.

Hans Hoffman: Circular Fantasy 1949. I just wish you could experience the amazing texture. This painting is astounding. Seattle Art Museum, Oil on canvas, American (born Germany), 1880-1966, Gift of Sydney and Anne Gerber

Hans Hoffman: Circular Fantasy 1949. I just wish you could experience the amazing texture. This painting is astounding. Seattle Art Museum, Oil on canvas, American (born Germany), 1880-1966, Gift of Sydney and Anne Gerber

Hans Hoffman: Elysium II, 1963. So I know this might be blasphemy, but to me, this painting looks unfinished. It's signed, so that means intention, but based on the other paintings I've experienced by Hoffman, it leaves me with a lot of questions about that. I want to learn more. American (born Germany), 1880-1966, gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright in honor of SAM's 75th Anniversary

Hans Hoffman: Elysium II, 1963. So I know this might be blasphemy, but to me, this painting looks unfinished. It’s signed, so that means intention, but based on the other paintings I’ve experienced by Hoffman, it leaves me with a lot of questions about that. I want to learn more. American (born Germany), 1880-1966, gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright in honor of SAM’s 75th Anniversary

So, this Jackson Pollock was recently restored so it looks like it was painted yesterday. There is a strain of abstract art where the artist avoids a focal point. I think this is like that here where your eye continually wanders, constantly discovering new details. Also, think that it’s interesting that Pollock used house paints. From a cost-perspective (as an artist who wants to paint on a larger scale), it makes painting larger a bit more affordable.

Jackson Pollock: Sea Change 1947. Seattle Art Museum, Artist and Commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, American, 1912-1956, Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim

Jackson Pollock: Sea Change 1947. Seattle Art Museum, Artist and Commercial oil paint, with gravel, on canvas, American, 1912-1956, Gift of Signora Peggy Guggenheim

Here is the curator‘s description of the piece. Tell me if it’s too small to read.

IMG_1847[1]This one caught my eye because of the recent Modernism in the Pacific Northwest show at SAM. It looks like a signature Seattle piece because of it’s apparent dialogue with Mark Tobey’s (a Seattle artist) famous White Writing. The main thing is that this piece appears to be digital. Frankly, I appreciate the look of the piece but it sort of pains me to see digital art in a museum. I want it to be a painting. I was a bit disappointed when I looked closer. I have yet to learn how to appreciate digital art. Another project for another day. I haven’t been able to get past it to uncover the meaning.

Isaac Layman: 6 Glasses 2010. I wanted this to be a painting. I get it, visually, but I don't get the process. Something to think about.  Seattle Art Museum, Archival  inkjet print, American born 1977, Mark Tobey Estate Fund

Isaac Layman: 6 Glasses 2010. I wanted this to be a painting. I get it, visually, but I don’t get the process. Something to think about. Seattle Art Museum, Archival inkjet print, American born 1977, Mark Tobey Estate Fund

Detail of 6 Glasses: Isaac Layman

Detail of 6 Glasses: Isaac Layman

I love to visit the Sandy Lew boutique. Sandy does such incredible windows. They inspire me every time. The place is unique and carries a carefully curated mixture of designers. Her blog is here. She posts her windows there too. I got a fun, turquoise blue, chunky, Italian necklace while I was there… she is so kind to whoever comes into the store and she makes people feel welcome… I’ll visit again in February when, I’m told, the new arrivals come in.

Sandy Lew: Designer Clothing Shop. One of my favorite places to visit. I love how Cindy Lew creates her windows and it's only a few doors down from SAM. Her windows delight me so much that I make sure and visit them each time I go to the museum.

Sandy Lew: Designer Clothing Shop. One of my favorite places to visit. I love how Cindy Lew creates her windows and it’s only a few doors down from SAM. Her windows delight me so much that I make sure and visit them each time I go to the museum.

Well, trying to make the blog better, but it takes a lot of time and I have a lot more of my adventures that I never posted. I hope to catch those up. I really have been following my mission of continued learning and growth but I haven’t been blogging about it. I guess the main thing is that I get caught up in The Perfect Design for the blog and now I just realize that maybe it won’t look or be the exact way I wanted, but I think it’s more important to share what I’m doing. Hopefully, it’ll inspire people to get out more and appreciate the art that we have. We really are fortunate. The more I learn, the more I realize it.

Let’s keep learning. Until the next post, what will you learn about?

About Rachel Heu

"Creativity is an act of defiance. You're challenging the status quo. You're questioning accepted truths and principles. You're asking three universal questions that mock conventional wisdom: Why do I have to obey the rules? Why can't I be different? Why can't I do it my way?" --Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life (pg. 133)
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One Response to 3 Things I Learned about Art– Plus a Few Observations

  1. Wow Rachel. That is all so interesting! Thanks for sharing your experiences. You are so fabulous.

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