I have been a participant in the Ragged Cloth Cafe for many years now, and it has played a large part in my education as an artist. Although I have no formal background in art, reading the Terry Barrett books Interpreting Art and Criticizing Art with the group, and then reviewing them years later, established for me some principals of viewing art critically and systematically . However, it wasn’t until recently that I internalized those principals sufficiently to allow me to examine art thoroughly, experience it both emotionally and intellectually, and articulate that experience to increase both my knowledge and pleasure. I call this active looking or observing with intent. I love the word intent as it defines both purpose and focus. I was able to put my new skills into practice this summer when I had a wonderful opportunity to see some amazing art in London.
The basis for my system (and I don’t claim it as original, but some of us seem to be required to reinvent the wheel!) is to intentionally choose the art to be examined (although you must look with intent, you also have to be open to surprises) and give it your full attention. This takes a surprising amount of energy, so you need to be prepared to spend a quite a bit of time or limit yourself to a small number of works. You must bring to bear on this chosen work the full range of your knowledge of art –not only the technical aspects, but your knowledge of the historical time period and the artist him/herself. And you must take notes. You look, you think, you write. Any reaction you have to the work is valid and should be noted. Trust your 1st instincts and your intuition; but be prepared to change your opinion. You might write about the composition, colors, value, line, volume, balance, movement, style perspective,mood, texture, rhythm, the content, theme, symbols, whatever you see and feel and understand or don’t understand or want to know more about. The more you write, the more you see and understand and the easier it becomes to see what the artist is doing and the more intrigued you become about aspects you don’t “get.”
I used this active looking method to good purpose at three major exhibits: a Vilhelm Hammershoi retrospective, a major Cy Twombly exhibit, and a room full of large Gerhard Richter abstracts, the Cage series. I can’t remember ever having had deeper, more exciting and inspiring interactions with art! I plan to post on each of these in future months.
I didn’t want to leave you without any pretty pictures so:
On my way out of the Tate Modern, having spent 3 hours looking at Cy Twombly, I went through a room that had only 4 paintings in it. Three of them are reproduced above. ( I couldn’t find a postcard of the Joan Mitchell painting that was the 4th. And I can’t now remember the name of the painting. I can tell you that I was simply too tired to write everything down!) It was a visually striking room. Three of my favorites — Abstract Expressionists, oh joy! But what odd choices. And what was that Monet doing there? It’s really hard to do this with these nasty little images, but can anyone see what they were saying to one another?
A final note. My education was in Comparative Literature. I was trained to do close reading (textual analysis) of literature. It seems to me I have finally transferred some of those skills to a “reading” of art that interests me. And an unlooked for lagniappe for me has been an enhanced capacity to actively listen to music and make connections between contemporary art, music and literary themes. (And I am really untrained in music!)