Wednesday, October 31, 2007












I have a small "complaint" about museums: there's too much art.

When Keith and I were up at DIA:Beacon last week, I was ambling though the three rooms (about 20 paintings) devoted to Agnes Martin's last works, thinking, "I'd love to spend several hours with just one of these paintings." Being confronted with 20 or so is too overwhelming, making it difficult to really concentrate deeply on one piece. Similarly the next day in Philadelphia, in rooms like the one housing the two Newman's, the Rothko, the Klein and the Motherwell--too much information in too small a space! I realize there's no way around it, but I think appreciation of the work suffers.

And it's not just large abstractions by any means. Walking through gallery after gallery of pre-20th century European painting, I'm entirely conscious of missing most of what's there. The Van Eyck above, which is maybe 5" x 6", is an astonishing work but easily passed by if you're not looking. And even if you find it, how long can you stay and give it the viewing it deserves? On occasion, I've gone the the Metropolitan, marched directly to one painting (the Velazquez "Juan de Pereja" or the Vermeer "Girl with a Pitcher", usually), looked at it for over an hour, then left. It's the only way you can come close to doing the pieces justice, imho.

I was spoiled early on when I attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1974-75. One of the courses I took involved the purely technical aspects of classic painting--the preparation of the canvas, making rabbit skin glue, making your own gesso, glazing, etc. As the main project of the course, we were allowed to select a painting from the stacks, take it to a studio atop the museum and do a copy. I chose a Tintoretto study for his well-known Last Supper. It's a work that, were it hung in a room with other Late Renaissance or Mannerist paintings, would probably not attract much attention. But having the opportunity to sit with the thing for a couple of months, for ten or so hours a week, you inevitably come to realize how incredible this "minor" work really is, how gorgeously painted (and I'm not even a huge fan of Tintoretto!), how masterfully the paint is worked, etc. The experience had a huge effect on me and my appreciation for how truly amazing many "minor" artworks actually are.

I'm sure the same would occur with virtually any randomly selected piece. Some obscure Dutch landscape by a follower of Ruysdael, a Sebastiano del Piombo, a tiny portrait by Corneille de Lyon, a sketch of a French soldier by Edouard Detaille--all things that would likely be passed over on your way to the "masterpieces", all deserving of far greater attention. There was a small Rubens portrait tucked away in a corner in Philadelphia, a sketch that probably took an hour or two--incisive and perfectly rendered; I'm lucky to have noticed it.

Like I said, on occasion I exercise the single-view option at the Met because I can go there fairly often; I used to do it at the Boston Museum as well when I had unlimited free access. But it's, practically speaking, impossible to do on a regular basis and that's too bad, because the paintings deserve better.

7 comments:

Richard Pinnell said...

Brian have you read TJ Clark's The Sight of Death? I read it this summer (following a Rowe recommendation as it happens) and found it enthralling, but it also caused me to have similar thoughts to yours here.

If you've not read it, Clark visits two Poussin paintings in a gallery every day for several weeks and writes about them daily, noticing new things each day. Really great stuff, but it makes you want to do the same yourself, and it just isn't possible...

Brian Olewnick said...

Yep, I read it this summer after leafing through Keith's copy when he was here in the spring. I'm sure, actually, it was one impetus behind the above post.

Even if I thought he stretched things a bit far here and there, the basic idea of not only revisiting the two paintings on an almost daily basis, but re-examining his own thoughts about them in such an open form, was extremely refreshing and impressive.

Richard Pinnell said...

Thats weird, I started by reading the same copy as you then!

I quite liked the fact he went way out there with his own guesses that seemed based on other guesses he'd already made. In part he built a fantasy around the paintings and then lived in that fantasy for a while, an attachment to art that I kind of like. It reminded me of the Jeph Jerman thing I did a couple of years back, spend time every day with one topic and you start inventing all kinds of things...!

Mwanji Ezana said...

I feel the same way about jazz festivals,which is why I don't go to very many.

Just recently I was talking to Ethan Iverson about how it is impossible, today, to recreate the kind of attention people might have lavished on a single song back in the era of 78-rpm singles.

Brian Olewnick said...

hey Mwanji,

I have less of a problem in music festival situations given that, (necessarily, unless there are overlapping events) you're concentrating on one thing at a time, over the course of an hour or so. Though granted there's still an overload and some performances require a certain amount of digestion. Also there's the day after when you vainly try to remember everything you've just heard...

But you're definitely correct re: the amount of time available to really get to know a given piece of new music. It's the rare item these days that sits around unfiled, urging me to relisten numerous times.

Richard Pinnell said...

Hang on a minute... Brian do you have a distant ancestor that posed for Van Eyck paintings? One of those monks looks decidely familiar....

Brian Olewnick said...

The renegade Flemish branch of the Olewnicks...Actually, mom's German--close enough for the likelihood of rape and pillage in times past.