Just Looking

An essay by Michael Milburn


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Frank Lloyd Wright’s great rotunda has been fitted with six evenly spaced, concentric ovoid rings, smoothly clad in white plastic. They increase in size from the top, where a translucent membrane of the plastic admits light from the skylight, to the bottom, where the last ring fills the space, about ten feet above the floor. An orchestration of slowly shifting colored light, from unseen L.E.D. fixtures between the rings, suffuses the atmosphere with one ravishing payoff after another: breathable beauty.

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, reviewing James Turrell’s installation “Aten Reign” at the Guggenheim Museum

    These were the words that made me want to go, promising a less grueling experience than the glazed plod through New York City museums that I submit to a few times a year, determined to expose myself to art. I invited along my son, who lives in Brooklyn, and drove down from my home in Connecticut to meet him in the thronged plaza outside the Guggenheim. We joined a long line creeping past the ticket counter, stalled at a bottleneck blocking the entrance to the rotunda, and finally emerged into a high circular space dense with people—people lining benches along the outer wall, people milling around the floor, people ascending and descending and leaning out from the walkways leading to the upper levels.

    And the art? I suppose Schjeldahl had it right, though he must have visited during a critic’s preview with only a few other experts for company, because even though the rings did spiral upward and the colored light did swoop and shift, no one who stood in the rotunda with us that August day, elbow to elbow, nudged forward by the press of entering patrons, backward by the descent of departing ones, and sideways by wilting tourists jostling to claim a vacated seat on the benches, would have felt “ravished” except in the preyed-upon sense of the word, or thought “breathable” in any connotation. I looked up and around, trying to imagine the effect of the light if the space had not been so full, then turned to my son and said, “I’ve got to get out of here.”

    Whether Schjeldahl saw the installation under the same conditions that I did or in spacious solitude, he claimed that it needed its crowds: “The Guggenheim show hits an unchanging sweet spot of what we want from any museum: a place where we can go en masse to be alone.” I can’t think of any place that I can or would go en masse to be alone. Nor do I know of any art, not even a funny or suspenseful film where my fellow watchers are guffawing or gasping alongside me, or a rock concert where we’re all bopping our heads in time, that I wouldn’t enjoy more without other peoples’ bodies and words intruding on mine. Which makes me a bad New York City museum patron, I know. It’s not only people that disturb my viewing—I also have a bad back, which limits my standing stamina, and a low tolerance for concentrating on anything except words. I can stroll through Manhattan for hours and read an absorbing novel into the night, but looking at art in a museum (with a voice chanting in my head, “You’re looking at art! What are you looking for?”) quickly exhausts me, and I stop enjoying it even sooner. And that’s when I’m not being crowded and subject to overheard vapid or learned comments about what’s on view.

    I have never liked appraising art in the self-conscious and conscribed way that museums demand. According to the guidebook that accompanied me during a college summer in Europe, every large city had at least one unmissable museum with at least one masterpiece. I’d head straight for the masterpiece and stare at it in a clutch of fellow tourists before feeling obligated (I’m 6’5”) to move out of the way. Walking out past the other paintings on display—lesser achievements, according to the book—I’d emerge with relief into the open air where I could walk around and rest on a bench when I felt like it. Before exiting I would buy a postcard of the masterpiece to put up in my hostel room and view from the comfort of my bunk. I preferred this vantage to the peering that one does in museums, bending in close to inspect brushstrokes, moving one’s eyes over the canvas. I suspect that the only people qualified to scrutinize art in this way are art historians, students, critics, and other artists. I only do it because I have seen them doing it and figure that this is what art appreciation entails.

     To some extent these complaints of a sporadic museumgoer are just that—complaints. You wouldn’t want your New Yorker art critic to sully his review with an account of his aching back and misanthropic thoughts instead of effusions about breathability and ravishing payoffs. But it’s been a long time since I visited a museum in New York City that wasn’t crowded—sometimes several viewers deep in front of each painting, sometimes just generally busy so that negotiating it is as draining as making one’s way through Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. These are the conditions under which I, living where I do, see most popular art. They influence my looking the same way that Schjeldahl’s must be influenced by his access to critics’ previews or a schedule that allows him to visit museums at off-peak times. I don’t know that he enjoys these privileges, but even if he doesn’t, his rave review helped to create the crowds that greeted me, meaning that he missed partaking of the collective phenomenon that he anticipated and that enhanced his praise.

    I could confine my outings to less cosmopolitan museums or more obscure art, but then I’d miss a lot that I want to see—Cezanne at the Met! Hopper retrospective at MOMA! Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” on loan to the Frick!—attracted either by the reputation of the art or a critic’s enthusiasm for it. It’s my inability to share in that enthusiasm—to arrive in the Guggenheim rotunda and find promised breathability or feel ravished by anything except back pain and claustrophobia—that makes me despair of enjoying celebrated art in public any more. When the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague reopened after renovations in June 2014, its director, Emilie Gordenker, announced that it would limit visitors to 1000 at a time, with a maximum of 30 allowed in the room where “Girl with a Pearl Earring” hangs. “It’s important that people don’t feel cramped,” Ms. Gordenker said. But if I had to navigate through 999 people in the Mauritshuis’s modest townhouse to join 29 of them in front of Vermeer’s 18” by 5” canvas, cramped is exactly how I’d feel.

    I don’t have any more masterpiece pilgrimages or blockbuster exhibits in me, which is good and bad news. On the positive side, I’m done with something I never enjoyed in the first place. More troublingly, my exposure to museum art over the years—through my European travels, my studies and then employment at two universities with world-class art galleries, and now my living a two hour drive from New York City—must have had some edifying effect. Presumably, most people share my dislike of the scrum of museum-going and would rather stand in solitary contemplation before “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” but they put up with the crowds because they’re unwilling to give up the art. Or maybe not—maybe the majority of those viewers are not in physical pain, or crowd-phobic, or over-stimulated. If they were, wouldn’t they also have decided if I’m not enjoying it, why go?

    It’s not only my back pain and dread of crowds that “must see” art has to overcome. If I had driven to New York City this past winter to look at “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” on loan to the Frick from the Mauritshuis, I would have been so aware of the painting’s stature and mystique, and the momentousness of being in front of it, that I would have been more occupied with monitoring my looking than with actually looking. I would only have started appreciating the painting after leaving the museum, as a remembered image or reproduction. Reflecting on it over time rather than in a single self-conscious gulp, I wouldn’t have felt rushed to affirm its mastery on the spot. In the case of the Turrell installation at the Guggenheim, I barely had time to try to match it to Schjeldahl’s lyrical description before retreating outside.

    When I’m physically comfortable in the presence of art, when my “You’re looking at art” voice is not activated by the pressure of standing in front of or inside it with limited time and space to take it in, and when I’m not predisposed by someone else’s opinion before I’ve had a chance to form mine, then I can discover it on my own terms. Those requirements are rarely met in prestigious public venues such as the Guggenheim, so my most satisfying art consumption these days takes place in my living room and involves literature, music and film. Given that I love reading reviews of these art forms, I often approach them with preconceptions, but at least I can do so from a reclined position and pace my viewing and listening.

    One example of art that came to me in this way is a detail of a larger work, one that I might have overlooked in a public viewing. It consists of a one-minute sequence of close-ups from the documentary film The Stories We Tell, directed by the Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley. I first watched the film on DVD while lying on my sofa, able to pause and replay it as often as I wanted. My admiration for Polley’s previous directing projects had led me to rent this one, but I knew nothing about it in advance. The film starts out as a portrait of Polley’s late mother, Diane, told through the memories of her loved ones. Midway through, Polley’s interviews reveal that the man she had grown up thinking of as her father was not her biological father. From then on, the film becomes equal parts a biography of Diane and a detective story that uncovers her brief extra-marital affair with Sarah’s real father.

    The close-ups don’t advance this inquiry, but they deepen one’s knowledge of and sympathy for Diane at a point when one is tempted to revise one’s favorable opinion of her, having learned that she cheated on her husband and lied about her daughter’s paternity. A reviewer wrote, “Diane Polley comes to us in fragments, and we are forced to re-adjust our interpretation of her throughout the film as new details are revealed.” All of the interviewees, including Sarah’s four siblings, uncles and aunts, and both her real and presumed fathers, recall Diane as a vivacious woman who lacked for attention and affection during her marriage—even Diane’s husband at the time of her infidelity agrees with this characterization. No one condemns her deceptions, but it’s hard for the viewer to know how to feel. She is the only character who does not get to give her side of the story, appearing on screen only in archival photographs and scenes dramatized by professional actors.

    Eleven years old when her mother died, Sarah shares the viewer’s curiosity about her, and neither the interviews nor the dramatizations explain why so many people close to Diane, including those she betrayed, forgive her. To probe deeper into this mystery, Polley employs a strategy that is rooted in documentary truth, but owes its insights to the filmmaker’s art. For several seconds after each interviewee finishes recalling Diane, Polley keeps the camera rolling to record their expressions as they reflect on what they have said. By editing these wordless shots into a sequence, Polley gives them a cumulative power. Viewed one after the other, the interviewees’ crumpled, tearful, pensive faces make clear that Diane did not act out of any weakness of character. As reflected in the looks of those who knew her best, her choices become heartbreaking rather than appalling.

    Having watched The Stories We Tell twice in its entirety and this sequence numerous times, I wonder how Polley would feel about me investing this sixty second excerpt with so much emotional weight. That I could watch and re-watch in unhurried, undistracted comfort makes me think of all the subtleties of museum art that might have rewarded my scrutiny if I’d had the time and stamina to notice them or do them justice. Given the degree to which different viewing conditions affect our response to art, it’s natural to ask whether artists take them into account. Did Polley assume that people would see her film once in a theater with no opportunity for pausing and re-playing, or envision a motivated viewer who would parse a ten shot sequence as carefully as a poem? What about Turrell? Would he consider my anxious, fleeting Guggenheim stay a travesty or a valid response to a deliberately public piece?

    I imagine that my encounter with “Aten Reign” would depress Turrell, though whether he would blame the Guggenheim’s liberal visitor quota, New York City’s summer tourist glut, Schjeldahl’s enticing review, or my irritability is hard to say. On the subject of viewing public art, Turrell says, “The main thing is to make a journey, so that you actually go to something purposely and have time to settle down and empty out the noise and distractions of daily life.” Turrell describes his ideal viewer as someone who takes the time to submit to the work, a luxury that he admits is impossible with popular exhibits these days: “Sometimes I'm kind of cranky coming to see something. I saw the Mona Lisa when it was in L.A., saw it for thirteen seconds and had to move on.” Like me, he wishes that people could view art in public with the same concentration that they bring to literature and music:

    When you're reading a book and people pass through the place where you are reading, you don't notice them because you're really in a space generated by the author, more than in the space where you're sitting and reading. This price of admission you've paid to enter, by giving yourself over to the story, needs to be done with art as well. With literature people know that, and have the habit of it. With music you can be in a small apartment, and you listen to this music which makes the space bigger than your apartment. This universe "created by the work" is also important with visual work.

     Schjeldahl praised the Guggenheim show as a place where one could go en masse to be alone, but Turrell seems to see literature and music as places where one can go alone and feel part of something larger, and to want that for his public art as well.

    By this measure, Turrell would envy Polley my close engagement with her film; far from saying “I’ve got to get out of here” when I first saw the sequence of grief shots, I thought, “I’ve got to see that again,” and returned to it after the DVD ended. If I had seen The Stories We Tell from a cramped seat in an un-air-conditioned theater with other patrons whispering and texting around me, I might have been too miserable to admire the sequence or want to rewatch it. In fact, without the alternative of home video, movies would have joined my list of public art forms that I can no longer appreciate. The fact that both Turrell and Polley produce art intended to be seen in public, but that only Polley’s allows for private viewing, makes all the difference to my experience. My only opportunity to see Turrell’s site-specific installation in a reflective way is to read Schjeldahl’s words.


    The introduction to my 1970 edition of H.W. Janson’s History of Art, the required text for an art history survey course that I took as a college freshman, includes a photograph of Picasso’s found sculpture “Bull’s Head,” composed of handlebars placed on an upside-down bicycle seat. Picasso describes its creation:

One day, in a pile of objects all jumbled up together, I found an old bicycle seat right next to a rusty set of handlebars. In a flash, they joined together in my head. The idea of the Bull's Head came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together.

     My pleasure in “Bull’s Head” comes from its effects of simplicity and surprise. Since my first encounter with it in my textbook forty years ago, which also marks the first time that I approached visual art analytically, I have returned to it as a standard of artistic purity: instantly accessible and pleasing, and impossible to forget. What initially impressed me was the obviousness of the pairing, the fact that anyone could have put those two objects together in that way in a few seconds, though until Picasso came along, no one had. This reminds me of Polley’s sequence of close-ups, which uses tools available to every filmmaker—a camera and faces—in a simple yet original way. Turrell’s installation, on the other hand, violated all of my “Bull’s Head” criteria. Its customized location restricted its accessibility and it was impossible for me to feel pleasure in the crowd.

    Given my antipathy to museums, and the fact that I have never seen the actual “Bull’s Head” sculpture, it’s fitting that I use it as my model of artistic effect. To me, its genius lies in Picasso’s combining of the two objects into a new entity, not in any texture or detail that would only be visible if I stood in front of it. This doesn’t mean that reproductions can always substitute for original art, though I wonder how much Turrell’s thirteen seconds with the Mona Lisa added to the appreciation he’d gained from viewing it in books. At least the art lover who never gets to see a masterpiece has a reproduction to look at—anyone who couldn’t make it to the Guggenheim in the summer of 2013 missed out on Turrell’s installation entirely. My problem was having to be in that particular place at that particular time, not just in order to see the work in person, but to see it at all.

    To judge from his latest project—turning a volcanic crater in Arizona into an observatory—accessibility isn’t a priority for Turrell. Admission is by invitation only, and the artist says, “It would be wonderful if visitors could spend at least 24 hours, but it would be better to stay longer.” Submitting to art in this way demands more effort than I’m prepared to expend, though I wouldn’t call myself lazy—my investment in Polley’s sequence draws on a different kind of energy. That minute of film has seeped into the way that I think about parenthood, families, grief, verbal and facial expression, and art. According to Schjeldahl, the time we spend in the presence of a work may matter less than its aftermath: “Don’t bother trying to think under the gentle but imperious optical onslaught,” he writes in his review of the Guggenheim show. “Only later might you wonder what the experience was about and what it constitutes as art.” It’s ironic advice coming from a critic, that the first step toward seeing museum art may be getting past the inconvenience of looking at it.


Michael Milburn teaches high school English in New Haven, CT.  He is the author of a collection of essays, Odd Man In, and three books of poems, most recently Carpe Something (Word Press, 2012).