I spend a lot of time talking about art with people who feel they ‘don’t know anything about art.’ I really enjoy this, as it is an opportunity to change their assumptions, and hopefully build their confidence. My answer is that knowing about the history of art or about technical details is not a requirement to understanding and enjoying art. The facts are only one part of the story.
This is most true when the work they find is a bit more challenging, especially with things like abstraction. Abstract art challenges the notion that ‘good art’ is hard to make (which it often is, though in many different ways), and that it requires a great deal of skill (which it does, though skill can be defined through a range of lenses), and that effort and skill can only be demonstrated in an artist’s ability to reproduce reality. Some viewers are not confident in their own interpretations or questions, so this is where they get stuck.
One of my favourite tour stops right now is a salon-style installation that mixes historical works with a few surprises. It is a great opportunity for a bit of scaffolding, and for encouraging some thinking. We start on another wall with a few really lovely 19th century landscapes by Maurice Cullen. Then we shift to Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, T.R. MacDonald – everyone is still with me, as we talk about the loosening up of brushwork, more expressive use of colour, more emphasis on the paint and act of painting. Then, inevitably someone asks about ‘that little blue square.’ This is where the conversation gets good.
Instead of a conversation about who made it and how, one approach that I’ve been using lately is to look for decisions the artist made in order to create the work, and there are always a lot. The basics of scale, material, subject are a starting point – all the things that are ‘in’ the artwork. Then there are all the things that the artist chose not to do; what s/he left out, choose not to respond to. I’ve found that as we start to think about art as a conscious series of choices a lot more questions arise, but also a lot of revelations. This is where some of the connections are made.
So, the little blue square. This is a work by Claude Tousignant, a Canadian artist born in 1932. The piece is called Monochrome bleu transparante from 1995, and as you see in the image, it is a small blue square of colour – acrylic on cardboard to be precise – 6 by 6 inches, modestly framed.
Why is it this small? Sometimes this is less significant if the artist is working on a comfortably familiar 24 by 30 inch canvas, but this one is tiny, and that must mean something…
Why blue? We know that this is part of a series of squares of various colours, but why those choices? Why not put multiple squares on a larger single canvas?
Why work so hard to ensure no brush strokes, or visible ‘hand of the artist’? Why did the artist choose abstraction? Once you get started the questions are endless. In this kind of exercise, it is more about looking and questioning and interpreting than in getting all the correct answers. It is about making personal connections. The facts can come later.
The next time you look at an artwork, start looking for the choices and see what you learn.
Image credit: Mike Lalich
Collection Classics installation shot, Art Gallery of Hamilton