Viewing Art, Being Present

From time to time, we post short articles from Slow Art Day hosts. The article below is by veteran Slow Art Day host, Paul Langton.

A rainy day. I am early for an appointment. An opportunity to go to a gallery for forty or fifty minutes, without expectations? I realise don’t actually know what is currently on at the gallery.

Fortunately I listen to my intuitive self, and a few moments later find myself in the Whitechapel Gallery, exploring Mel Bochner’s fascinating work. But, I become aware that his exhibition would need more time than I feel I can allow. I then go into a room with a single sculpture. A tree. Immediately fascinated I walk around the sculpture. I notice the materials used – gold leaf, bronze. I feel at home in the space and decide to spend some time in this room.

Spazio di Luce by Giuseppe Penone at the Whitechapel Gallery (image from the Whitechapel Gallery website – click the image to visit)

A well-placed bench allows for some slow art thinking. Who is this by? What is it doing here? I walk around, I sit down. I walk around again. I go and read the information about the sculpture. I ask the attendant if I can I touch it.

The exhibition is very peaceful. Occasionally people come in and I notice their reactions to the piece, yet I am pre-occupied by my own thoughts. I feel I am in the right place at the right time, as though I was meant to see this piece today. I love the way each time I view the tree it look different and I love the light further illuminating the gold leaf, shining light on this wintry day. I walk alongside it and see it from different angles. I don’t hug but I do touch.

The sculpture, I find out, is Spazio di Luce (Space of Light) by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone and is a Bloomberg Commission, in the Whitechpael Gallery until September 2013. Space and light, they seem ideal words. It’s good to find out it will be here for a few months, and another visit will be possible. I realise I may have seen some of Penone’s work before as part of Arte Povera at Tate Modern, but I couldn’t be specific.

I have been thinking of trees in the last few weeks and the importance of trees – there was a fascinating discussion on the radio the previous month about trees with James Aldred and Mark Tully – and this sculpture adds an extra dimension to my current feelings and thoughts. I reflect on nature, art, myself, others, and art as part of life.

The light in the title becomes so appropriate as I leave the gallery, literally feeling lightened and uplifted. I then wonder on how something so beautiful and fascinating just appeared in my day without notice. In my head I thank the artist and the gallery, for being presented with and for being present, for some time, with this wonderful sculpture. Please visit if you can.

(If you are not able to visit a video of the artist talking about the work is on line:

The Whitechapel Gallery is one of 160+ Slow Art Day venues for 2013. Click here to find out more or register.

– Paul Langton

Note: An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Paul’s blog:    

Getting Lost in El Anatsui’s Black River

Slow Art Day has asked its 2013 college interns to write short summaries of their own experiences looking slowly at artworks of their choosing.

I was a little nervous about my practice run of looking slowly at a single piece of art. I have never been able to focus on an artwork for more than 2 minutes without fidgeting and I can’t even spend time sitting in a room full of friends without doodling or making crafts to occupy my hands and wandering mind. Standing still for ten minutes absorbed in a single work of art seemed very daunting.

However, armed with the task of my Slow Art Day homework assignment and my choice of El Anatsui’s undulating sculpture Black River, I had no problem spending fifteen minutes admiring the textile constructed out of recycled metal.

I had noticed the piece before working with Slow Art Day but I had never taken the time to see how many different types of recycled caps were used, how the light filtered through the negative space between the pieces of metal and how the curators had strategically pinned the sculpture against the wall so that it appeared like a cascade of gold. I admired it from numerous angles and different distances for its texture, and after reading the museum plaque, for its meaning.

And the experience didn’t just change how I saw that artwork. After leaving the museum I was able to focus more than I had ever before. I generally appreciate the beautiful and interesting aspects of my environment as an artist and an art history major, but I rarely take the time to actually stop and stare at something I find intriguing. After my slow encounter with Black River, I noticed a gaggle of geese and stopped to stare at them for over ten minutes. I took in the texture of their webbed feet, noting how it compared nicely with their fluffy feathers, and gawked at the striking contrast between their black necks and the white patches underneath their eyes. Slow Art Day has taught me that art is everywhere and anything can be beautiful as long as you take long enough to sit and appreciate it.
– Gabrielle Peck, Boston University
[El Anatsui’s Black River (2009) was viewed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.] 

Connecting the Dots: Slow Looking with Roy Lichtenstein

Slow Art Day has asked its 2013 college interns to write short summaries of their own experiences looking slowly at artworks of their choosing.

While spending some time at home in Virginia over the holidays, I headed into Washington DC to check out the National Gallery of Art’s retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein, one of my favorite artists. Lichtenstein’s mechanical, removed style has always intrigued me, as most of his paintings are void of any painterly brushstrokes. The retrospective was truly spectacular, displaying not only Lichtenstein’s cartoon style, but also some truly stunning landscape paintings made near the end of his life. These landscapes managed to combine Lichtenstein’s trademark ben day dots with traditional Chinese landscape painting, two styles I wouldn’t have expected to mesh well together.  I had never seen these works before, and spent over 10 minutes in front of this painting, Landscape in Fog, created in 1996, a year before Lichtenstein’s death.

Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape in Fog, 1996, Oil and Magna on canvas, 71 x 81 3/4 inches (180.3 x 207.6 cm).

Both painterly and mechanical, this late, almost minimalistic work seems to layer dots behind and under a more abstract expressionist brushstroke. Looking at the ben day dots receding into the white background towards the center of the canvas was difficult on the eyes; it was almost impossible to tell whether the dots were covered by the white background, or whether Lichtenstein’s virtuosity with circles produced a gradient effect. Looking at the dots up close was mesmerizing; each dot is painted individually, and the subtle flaws in the imperfect circles reminded you that the artist painstakingly filled in, by hand, every single dot. The black dots used to give the effect of mountains were equally as fascinating, as Lichtenstein included slivers of individual dots to help define the outline of the mountain peaks.

Without careful observation and slow looking, these incredible details would have been lost. Not only did I get to see a series of paintings that I had no idea even existed, I interacted with this piece in a way that helped increase my awe and fascination with Lichtenstein. As I spent more time than the other visitors in front of this piece, I felt almost a kinship with Lichtenstein, who must have taken ages to carefully paint in each individual dot; the art of slow looking connected the artist and the viewer in a meaningful way that I won’t soon forget.

Alie Cline, University of Texas at Austin
Slow Art Day Social Media Manager

[Roy Lichtenstein’s Landscape in Fog (1996) was viewed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC at the exhibition: Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective.]

Turin Point: My Face-off with Franz Kline

Slow Art Day has asked its 2013 college interns to write short summaries of their own experiences looking slowly at artworks of their choosing.

Meandering the sparsely populated gallery on a normal Tuesday afternoon, it is nearly impossible to not be transfixed towards Franz Kline’s Turin (1960). As I draw closer to the magnetic canvas, it’s massive presence causes Turin to loom over, dwarfing me with impressive size. My first instinct in the face of such a monolithic painting is to scatter to any corner of the exhibit. Instead, I decide to stand my ground in the front of the gallery. This bolstering of will initiated by the intimidating strokes anchors my legs directly in front of the canvas. Perhaps my initial reaction can be distilled with a measured and slow look.

Within the first minute I am already wavering.  The raw, impressive energy of Turin is overwhelming head on. I am used to standing off on the side, not facing a work so directly. I cannot afford to be passive, however, I have to engage with what I am staring down before me. Instead of an impartial sweeping glance across the room, I find myself fixated. Here, I am held captive.

I am drawn first towards the thick, heavy vortex of black paint. All I see is black, as my eyes are downcast towards the frenetic yet firm grip of the brushstrokes. The distracting murmurs of the gallery’s other inhabitants echoing in the spacious gallery begin to dissipate. As far as I am concerned, I am in solitude with Turin.

I become more preoccupied with trying to discern how brooding columns of pigment can pair so well with fibrous sweeping gestures. I follow the strong, deliberate beams outward until I must step back and shift my weight in order to follow their lead. As the concentrated black swirl leads out in angular, cantilevered bars, I exit the vortex that had first captured me, my eyes watching the articulate arching reaching outward. I soon realize that Turin, in fact, has an abundance of white space.

By standing my ground, I have the revelation that Turin exists in a state of contradictions. It appears both dark and light, crowded and sparse, belabored and spontaneous. I realize that there is a wealth of information behind it’s initial intimidating stature. With this reveal, it becomes obvious that Kline’s abstraction is a well-crafted process revealing a plethora of competing elements.

I step away with satisfaction, having spent a good deal of time exploring the varied and numbered passageways within Turin. Without stopping and looking unflinchingly at the canvas, I doubt I would have been able to fully appreciate Turin’s dynamism, or been able to see the fluidity in his taut lines.

-Karen Trop, Bennington College


[Franz Kline’s Turin (1960) was viewed at the Allentown Art Museum’s exhibition: Franz Kline: Coal and Steel. The Allentown Art Museum is a participating venue for Slow Art Day in 2013.]

That Which We Call “The Rose” – Slow Art with Jay DeFeo

Slow Art Day has asked its 2013 college interns to write short summaries of their own experiences looking slowly at artworks of their choosing. 

I recently went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), to visit their currrent exhibition “Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective,” which I’ve been wanting to see for a long time. While there, I did a compressed version of a Slow Art Day event with one of my friends; we spent about 15 minutes looking at DeFeo’s piece “The Rose,” and afterwards sat in the (excellent) SFMOMA cafe to discuss the work.

My familiarity with DeFeo’s work is fairly recent. I attend Mills College in Oakland, CA, where DeFeo taught for several years in the 1980s, so when the retrospective at SFMOMA went up it was heavily promoted on the Mills campus. In November, when the exhibition opened, I attended a lecture that art and music critic Greil Marcus gave at Mills called “Jay DeFeo and All That Jazz,” about the relationship between DeFeo’s art-making process and contemporary jazz music (Marcus was also a contributor to the exhibition catalogue accompanying the DeFeo retrospective). While the lecture was certainly eye-opening, when viewing the exhibition I found myself wishing that her work was entirely new to me, so that I could experience it without any preconceptions.

Jay DeFeo, “The Rose” 1958 – 66, image via the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

DeFeo’s piece “The Rose” is a colossus at more than 10 feet in height and weighing in at over a ton; the paint on its surface is more than a foot thick in places. DeFeo spent over seven years working on the painting but never considered it finished. Her work on the painting was interrupted in the 1960s when she was forced to move out of her apartment in San Francisco, where she had worked on the painting (according to Greil Marcus’ lecture, she was evicted because neighbors complained of her and her husband’s eccentricity). Her new apartment didn’t have space for such a large painting, so it went into storage for several years. When DeFeo was moving, a construction crew had to be called in to pry the painting from the walls and take it out of the building via a crane and the fire escape.

In the retrospective, “The Rose” is presented in such a way that it seems almost diminutive at first glance. Set apart from the rest of the exhibition in a sort of alcove, with unusually dim lighting, the staging is supposed to mimic how the work would have looked when in its original location, a wall in DeFeo’s apartment. From a distance, “The Rose” looks small and unimpressive, but up close, its sheer bulk is overwhelming. The many layers of paint that make up the work cause it to protrude so far out from the canvas that it appears to be free-standing, blurring the line between painting and sculpture. My only problem with the SFMOMA’s presentation of the work was that the separate room it was in prevented much freedom of movement around the work, so that I couldn’t view it from as many different angles as I would have liked (that didn’t seem to discourage creativity among other viewers though – a museum guard told me that she had once seen a man try to stand on his head to see the painting from a different perspective).

Even after spending over 15 minutes with the painting, I’m still not sure what to make of it. As the most famous of DeFeo’s works, it was the one that most of the viewers were flocking to, and they all seemed to be suffering from the syndrome that occurs when you encounter any famous work of art in a museum, where you’re drawn to a work of art simply because it’s famous, and not for anything inherent in the piece itself (I call this the Mona Lisa syndrome). I felt the same way at first too, excited to be seeing the one work of DeFeo’s that is regularly featured in art history textbooks. But after a few minutes it made me sad more than anything else. The layers of cracked and fractured paint dividing the painting, once white but turned gray and black in places, brought to mind the ruins of a once-great cathedral. I couldn’t help but think of how DeFeo had spent over seven years of her life working on “The Rose,” and she never even got to finish it. She also didn’t live to see the work find fame – it was exhibited only once during her lifetime, at the Pasadena Museum of Art, and subsequently bought by the San Francisco Art Institute, where it was installed in the wall of a conference room. There, it sustained such damage that a false wall was built to cover the painting, obscuring it from view. In the 1990s, a decade after DeFeo’s death, it was bought and restored by the Whitney Museum in New York.

I thought it was apt to do a slow art viewing experience with “The Rose” given the extraordinary amount of time that DeFeo devoted to it. However, this was an instance where spending 15 minutes looking at a single work of art didn’t feel like enough time. I kept thinking about how DeFeo spent every day for seven years in front of this piece, and so it felt like a disservice in a way for me to only spend 10 or 15 minutes. I’m planning on returning to the exhibition soon, to spend more time with “The Rose” but also with the other works in the exhibition, a couple of which caught my eye. If you’re around San Francisco (the retrospective will also be opening at the Whitney in late February), I highly recommend checking it out to form your own impression of DeFeo’s work.

[Jay DeFeo’s The Rose (1958-66) was viewed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective.]

– Maggie Freeman, Mills College

Experiencing the Slow Art Day Movement

Slow Art Day has asked its 2013 college interns to write short summaries of their own experiences looking slowly at artworks of their choosing. 

One afternoon, I spend 20 minutes looking at Rufino Tamayo’s El Hombre En La Ventana (1980). At first glance, it appears that the man is only momentarily looking outside the window. But after further observation, I come to believe that this man is not just casually looking but staring as if looking out into the distance, out into the future.

As I look more, I reflect on how the style of the piece is important. The style is Mexican – I know because of the style and materials of the blinds. These are traditional Mexican wooden blinds, not conventional American plastic ones. I also begin to think about this Mexican man. Perhaps he is looking to the future because he is a father and has a family that he needs to support. This piece is very simple but seems to suggest a deep topic in a very simple yet impactful way.

I stand back and also think about where I am seeing this painting. The Vincent Price Art Museum, in partnership with the East Los Angeles Community College, seeks to serve the culture and history of the Mexican community both in Los Angeles and in Mexico. Through a motif of modernism, this museum and its varying collections offers a new view of modernism that reflects the local community. So maybe this Mexican man is at a window at his home in Mexico or maybe he is here in East LA.

As the minutes tick by, I begin to reflect on the moment the painting was created: 1980. The U.S. and many other parts of the world are in recession. Many people, including perhaps this man in the painting, were thinking of moving for jobs. Even within the U.S. a big migration was beginning from the rust belt to the sun belt.  I think more about the body language of the man. He has his hands on his hips. I think he is ambitious. He wants control of his future for himself and his family. He is very similar to many other men at this time because they all wanted something better for themselves.

I’m amazed at what I’ve seen in 20 minutes. In really looking slowly at this piece of artwork, I have thought about much that would have gone unnoticed. Looking slowly is a great way to truly evaluate and appreciate any artwork and was certainly true for this Tamayo. Next time you are in Los Angeles, I recommend you visit not just the big museums but come to the Vincent Prince and take some time to really see.

[Rufino Tamayo’s Hombre en la ventana (1980) was viewed in the Vincent Price Art Museum’s exhibition: The Views of Mexican Modernism.]

-Cristina Gonzalez, UCLA

Artist Mark Meyer and the Art of Slow Looking

Katie Hosmer at My Modern Met describes the experience of Alaska-based photographer Mark Meyer: each morning, he captures an image of the view out his bedroom window. From falling leaves to snow to frost, Meyers freezes a moment in time and allows for the luxury of a slow look at what would normally be a fleeting moment.

Image by Mark Meyer

About the project, Meyer says, “It has gradually turned into a minimalist personal project that’s become a reminder to myself that even the simplest things are interesting if you pay attention. I’ve found it to be good way to start each day, an exercise in seeing and visually exploring a single subject and noticing how it gradually changes over time.”

Image by Mark Meyer

Be sure to look at Mark Meyer’s website showcasing his other photography, and thanks to Katie Hosner at My Modern Met for the original article about Meyer’s work.

– Alie Cline

In Birmingham, Slow Art Day is every Sunday

We at Slow Art Day are excited to learn that Kristi McMillan, assistant curator of education for visitor engagement at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), recently launched a new free program: Slow Art Sundays.

Slow Art Sundays, led by museum docents, presents participants with one artwork to look at slowly from a collection of 24,000+ paintings, sculpture and multimedia works from around the world.

After gathering in the designated gallery space, visitors are provided with stools for their slow looking. Importantly, the experience does not start with a lecture or context-setting by the docent. Instead, it begins with 5 minutes of silence so that participants can quietly observe the artwork.

Following the quiet looking, there is a period of discussion. Docents kick it off by asking simple non-directed questions like, “What is your immediate response?” or “What part of life does this artwork capture?”

McMillan, who works on ways to engage visitors says she believes “in the power of internal and external collaboration in order to address the visitor experience holistically.”

While the museum has experienced great success with their new, regular program, they are also excited to continue annual Slow Art Day events. The BMA is a veteran host museum. In fact, Caroline Wingate, master docent there, started hosting it in 2010 and has since become a leading member of the global Slow Art Day volunteer team. For Slow Art Day 2013, the BMA has decided to invite participants to look slowly at two different artworks at two different times during the day.

We at Slow Art Day plan to introduce Kristi McMillan and Laurel Fehrenbach, public programs coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Last week we profiled Laurel and her initiative “Is This Art?” that includes a similar slow looking approach.

Part of our mission at Slow Art Day is to support these kinds of events at museums throughout the year – and also to connect progressive museum educators and curators with each other so that they can learn from and help each other. If you know of a museum or gallery pursuing slow programming we should know about, please comment here on this blog post or contact us.

And if you’re in the Birmingham area anytime in the coming year, stop by and experience a Slow Art Sunday. The BMA is free and open to the public as is this program.

-Dana-Marie Lemmer, Slow Art Day Coordinator

Whose eyes do you see with?

Big Red & Shiny’s Benjamin R. Sloat interviews three Taiwanese artists, Chen Chieh-Jen, Yao Jui-Chung, and Chien-Chi Chang, and discusses the challenges of cultural misinterpretation.

Marcel Duchamp said the viewer participates in the artistic process – “the artist sets in motion a creative process that the spectators must complete.” This philosophy of including the ‘consumer’ or viewer of art in the art-making is central to our philosophy here at Slow Art Day.

But, what if the art comes from a different culture? How then do we think about the role of the viewer? Are there some pitfalls that one should seek to avoid, especially in viewing art from another culture? Read here to see what these Taiwanese artists have to say about their own work and a foreign viewership.

– Naomi Kuo, Slow Art Day Intern; edited by Phil Terry, Slow Art Day Founder

Taking a Slow Look at a Museum

When you are looking at art in a gallery or museum do you pay attention to the building or the installation set-up?

Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, writes in ArtForum about his experience of the Clyfford Still Museum, a museum built specifically to house the artwork of Clyfford Still, a first generation Abstract Expressionist. Still’s will required that his works only be shown in such a museum and so most of his work had been sealed off from the public for over 30 years.

In the article, Cooper takes us on a slow tour of the museum space and considers how the exterior, the layout, and even the wall texture, compliment the paintings on display. He also makes observations about the relationships between pieces that the installation and separation of different rooms create for the viewer.

Read Cooper’s article and visit the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver to experience the amazing architecture and paintings in person.

– Naomi Kuo, Slow Art Day Intern