Road map for enjoying your next museum visit

Tate Blues by Lilianne Milgrom  Gouache on board
Tate Blues by Lilianne Milgrom Gouache on board       FOR SALE $650

Is this scene all too familiar? By now it should be no secret that I am gaga over art, but museums are daunting. They are tiring. They can be boring. Many visitors confess to dragging themselves around for hours just to feel like they are getting their money’s worth or, in the case of the free Smithsonian museums, visitors feel guilty if a day’s visit to a museum fails to produce swollen ankles and blisters on their feet.

Pulitzer prize-winning art critic Philip Kennicott wrote a very useful and quite hilarious article in the Washington Post’s museum arts section entitled HOW TO VIEW ART. I have provided the link to the article, but most people would rather have the abbreviated Cliff Notes of the five pointers Kennicott outlines. So here goes:

1. Take time

Obvious, right? But Kennicott points out that looking at art while distracted by our ubiquitous digital devices or thinking about competing demands on our time makes the museum visit a lost cause. As he puts it, “there is no hope that anything significant will happen.” In other words, don’t even bother.

2. Seek Silence 

You’ll get a lot more out of those quiet rooms hiding forgotten gems than you will crowding around the most famous artworks that have become a parody of themselves. Kennicott also warns of another danger in following the crowd: “Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people”.

No crowds on my  recent visit to the Hirshhorn
No crowds on my recent visit to the Hirshhorn

3. Study up

What? He wants us to do our homework? Shouldn’t we just lazily sweep the walls and pedestals till our eye alights – for a fleeting moment – upon a work of art that ‘speaks’ to us? No, says Kennicott. The more you know, the more you will enjoy. I couldn’t agree more. I always try to time my visits with a tour and invariably learn interesting tidbits of information that heighten my enjoyment of the art.

4. Engage memory

Here Kennicott wants us to engage in mental exercises. He suggests that we try to remember a fact, or two, or three, about a particular work (artist’s name, year created, etc.) so that it will have some lasting power. Try this: observe a work of art, turn away from it and try to describe it in your head. Kennicott makes no bones about how he feels about those museum educators who dismiss the importance of remembering such details: “They are lying.”

5. Accept contradiction

Even the so-called experts flip-flop about how they feel about art. One can’t generalize or have just one response. “Art is inspiring and depressing, it excites and enervates us, it makes us more generous and more selfish.” And this is just as it should be. In fact, don’t expect a museum visit to cure the blues. Kennicott concludes that “If you feel better about yourself when you leave a museum, you’re probably doing it all wrong.”

Art students in museum (12)

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Lessons learned

ImageI have said this before and I’ll say it again – every time I take in an art exhibition I come away with something for my own practice even if I didn’t particularly like the art. I recently saw some outstanding exhibitions in Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York City that inspired me in different ways.

The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum is larger than life, like the artist’s persona. For fans of this contemporary Chinese artist/dissident/activist, it is nirvana.  His work conforms to his belief that “art is not a secret code” and that is precisely what makes his art so accessible. Weiwei is that rare artist who makes Art That Matters.

LESSON LEARNED: Weiwei utilizes the simplest of materials and objects (see bicycles above) to make the grandest and most sweeping social commentary. Even though I don’t have scores of assistants and an unlimited budget, it is good to be reminded that as an artist, you don’t need to overreach and get too complicated to get your message across.

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Two of Weiwei’s minimalist Installations of compressed tea leaves (top) and bath-sized ceramic vessels filled with cultured pearls (bottom) are signature Weiwei – exquisitely understated, masterfully executed and heart-stoppingly deep. An absolutely must-see show, closing February 24, 2013.

In Phildelphia I visited the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) to see The Female Gaze:Women Artists Making Their World, which nicely dovetails with my current preparation for a solo show of Parisian portraits in July.

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Viola Frey’s gigantic ceramic portrait with vessel
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Portia Munson’s painting of her underwear

LESSON LEARNED: The hugely disparate takes on portraiture just underscore the uniqueness of the individual and the singularity of the artist’s vision. Sharing a peek (below) at my own intimate apparel version – porcelain panties!

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Of course I could barely tear myself away from the recently renovated Rodin Museum also in Philadelphia. Rodin’s sculptures take my breath away – every single time, without fail. They positively contort in their joy and in their hell. I couldn’t resist a quick pencil drawing (below) which resulted in being invited to the Saturday sketch sessions. Too bad I don’t live in Philly!

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One more exhibition worth noting is Brooklyn Museum’s Mickalene Thomas’ shiny, oversized, brilliant exhibition Origin of the Universe. Thomas’ paintings are a cross between collage and patchwork quilts – she paints on wood in acrylics and oils and then embellishes them with hundreds of sequins and crystal beads. Her shiny bling take on black women within the context of iconic paintings by Courbet and Manet are simply amazing. Here is her take on Monet’s dining room at Giverny:

ImageLESSON LEARNED: There is no material or medium that cannot be transformed into fine art in the hands of a truly distinctive talent. So go off and see art. It is inspiring, educational and visually exciting!