Baffled, Bewildered—and Smitten

How to learn to stop worrying and love the art you don't understand.

Everyone’s had the experience. You walk into a gallery and see something hanging on the wall or sitting there on the floor or hovering all around you and you just don’t know what to make of it. It may annoy you—what is this, and why is this art? Or you may find yourself intrigued, or even kind of loving it, although you couldn’t really begin to explain what it might mean. Jerry Saltz, art critic of the Village Voice, recently named this phenomenon the “I-Don’t-Get-It Aesthetic,” referring to the kind of contemporary art that doesn’t easily let us in.

© 1997 Matthew Barney/Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery Matthew Barney’s work has mystified many. Lánchíd: The Lament of the Queen of Chain, 1997 (detail), is an installation related to his 1996 film Cremaster 5, in which Ursula Andress, playing the queen, sings a Hungarian opera.

Consulting a cross section of art-world professionals—including artists, collectors, dealers, and museum curators and directors—revealed that even the experts often don’t understand new work, at least on first encounter. “I would go so far as to say that’s exactly the kind of experience you’re looking for in art. It’s a disappointment when the work is too user-friendly,” says Robert Storr, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The nature of really serious art is that you don’t know what you’re looking at. You’re impressed by some quality or bothered by some quality. You don’t know why it’s the way it is or how it came to be that way.”

Others concur, finding that an aggressively negative introduction can bode well for a future relationship. “My radar is up around art I don’t understand precisely, because early art experiences that I had, which proved to be the most revelatory, were the ones that pissed me off,” says artist Fred Tomaselli. “When I first saw a James Turrell piece, I laughed, because I thought it was a stupid modernist dark square painted on the wall of a dimly lit gallery. Then when I tried to touch it, my hand went into empty space,” Tomaselli recalls, referring to how Turrell manipulates lighting to create illusions of flat shapes. “I went from laughing at it to thinking, ‘Ooh.’ It challenged what I thought art was.”

Dan Cameron, senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, says there are many artists whose work he initially found unsettling. “I would go all the way back to an artist like Sherrie Levine, whose strategies in the 1980s I just found so baffling and disturbing that I wound up learning a whole lot more just to get to the bottom of it. Through that process, I discovered that her approach to appropriation was a form of testing the limits. I realized more about my own ways of looking at art, and I ended up liking her work a lot,” he says.

“Art that makes you agitated usually has something going for it, and you can’t really trust your first reaction,” Cameron continues. “The complexity that the artist is aiming you toward is based on a kind of push and pull of your own tastes and your own ideas and psychology about art.”

Some liken the experience of trying to understand unfamiliar art to that of being introduced to someone new. “It’s like meeting people—they may have a dazzling impact in the first ten minutes, but really interesting people continue to reveal themselves over years. I look for the same thing in art,” says New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

“If people gave art just the same amount of courtesy and respect and time that they gave new people they meet, I suspect things would be a lot better,” says Marcia Tucker, a freelance curator and former director of the New Museum, who thinks that viewers too often rush to judgment about contemporary art. She herself is happily confounded by the enigmatic performances of Brooklyn-based artist Tehching Hsieh, who, in one piece, punched a time clock every hour, day and night, for one year. In another work, he spent a year living in a cell where he did not speak, write, read, or listen to music. “What he’s done is question the separation between works of art and quotidian life,” Tucker says, “which means I have to reformulate what being an artist is. It’s brilliant work and, fortunately, I continue to fail to understand it.”

Children seem to have an easier time “getting it” than adults, observes Leonard Riggio, a collector and the chairman of the board of New York’s Dia Center for the Arts. “I watch children in museums, especially looking at some of the so-called difficult work,” he says. “They move freely throughout these pieces, and there’s a joy of discovery. I don’t think that to them the challenge is to understand but rather to observe and participate. Children might say, ‘Wow, that’s really neat,’ or just shrug their shoulders, but they don’t put their hands on their hips and say, ‘I don’t get it.'”

A number of museum professionals underscore how important it is for their institutions to make the art they show more accessible. “We have audience members to whom Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly look strange. I think we forget that,” says Marti Mayo, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, who admits she found Matthew Barney completely mystifying until she made an effort to understand him. “Coming across artworks that I can’t immediately analyze helps me remember how the general audience is going to approach everything we put in the museum,” she comments. Mayo believes that efforts such as planting graduate students in the galleries—to answer questions from the public, like, “Why is a circle of rocks on the floor considered art?”—as well as extended wall labels and public talks by exhibiting artists have helped make the museum more welcoming.

Thelma Golden, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem, points out that curators have to bear in mind that not all audiences are the same. “When work first began to deal very specifically with identity, in the early 1990s, many people in the mainstream found it difficult,” she says. “But when that work was shown in culturally specific institutions, like the one I work in, in the context of a community perhaps similar to that of the artist, that level of difficulty wasn’t there.” The same goes for work that’s been around for some time. While art-world insiders may find Donald Judd, for example, “completely readable,” she says, there are plenty of other people visiting museums and galleries who will find his sculptures totally foreign. “So as museum professionals, we have to be sensitive to the fact that people understand things very differently.”

Judd, apparently, can be difficult even for the sophisticates who frequent Chelsea, reports Michael Govan, director of Dia. “I have people come into our galleries here and look at these Donald Judd plywood boxes, and although his work has been around for 25 years, people still don’t know what to make of them,” he says. “I don’t think you need to read a lot to understand his work. It just takes time and familiarity. When I look at them, I think of classical beauty. But you can read them any way you want—in terms of theme and variation—or you can look at them more philosophically. It’s nothing but a box, and yet he made that the creative endeavor, almost to say, ‘I’m going to take the most banal thing and open it up and deal with it in ways that will amaze yo

Govan admits he was on less solid ground when he first encountered Joseph Beuys’s Fat Chair(1963). “It’s a chair with a triangle of fat on it. Where does that come from?” says Govan, who spent a good deal of time sorting it out and actually found more insights from reading German Romantic literature than from anything specific to Beuys. “There are some very sophisticated artists like Beuys who’ve used that gap in understanding to stimulate the imagination of the viewer and to give the viewer an active role. Of course, it’s very possible, too, that artists can take that and it goes nowhere.”

Indeed, there is art that seems inscrutable for inscrutability’s sake and thus not worth the effort. “I think there’s a kind of art made now that is difficult only in the sense that it’s obscure and theory-heavy,” says Storr, “and the art-world insiders get a kind of smug satisfaction in how complicated their understanding of the piece is. But the truth of the matter is that such work is coded to be accessible to insiders. You can spend the rest of your life making fancier explanations, but the point is, it’s there to be explained. That’s not real difficulty.”

Storr offers Bruce Nauman’s work as an example of art that is inherently difficult but also capable of yielding levels of understanding step-by-step. “I think the average museumgoer understands the challenge of Nauman’s work without necessarily knowing all the ideas behind it,” he says. Viewers could experience its dissonance, for example. Raymond Pettibon, who often combines philosophical commentary with cartoon imagery, is another really hard-to-hold-onto guy, according to Storr. “If you had to say why all his texts and images work together, it would be really difficult. You read one part and say, ‘I get that’; you read another part and begin to wonder; you read a third part and get it but on an intuitive level,” he says. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who, along with Pettibon, was one of the best artists we’ve had in the last decade, was another master at leading you in but not giving you everything you want.” Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996, made installations that ranged from piles of wrapped candy to strings of lightbulbs.

Another aspect to consider here is the curmudgeon factor. Art of your own generation may be easiest to comprehend because of shared cultural references and sensibilities and also because that’s the work you tend to come to at an impressionable age. Art dealer Andre Emmerich freely admits that he has no interest in a lot of contemporary art and suggests two possible reasons: “One is that you get hardening of the arteries and perhaps of the brain. I am a child of my generation and maybe can’t get away from that,” comments Emmerich, who is 75. “The other possibility is that I’m right! There are a lot of emperor’s new clothes being paraded around town.”

Emmerich, nevertheless, was early to champion the Abstract Expressionists, whom he discovered in his mid-20s. “I remember being taken down to de Kooning’s studio and watching him paint,” Emmerich says. “I thought I’d never seen a man messier than Bill de Kooning. He had paint all over himself—hands, hair, overalls. And the pictures involved newsprint and oil and canvas. The messiness of it put me off until I saw a painting in isolation, not in the studio with all the materials strewn about. Isolated on a wall, suddenly, I got it.”

“A lot of art only begins to be understood as time spreads its message,” Emmerich adds, emphasizing that we cannot underestimate the degree to which tastes change. Artists are so often ahead of the curve that it can take time for most of us to catch up. Robert Rosenblum, curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, recalls that it took years before the art world woke up to late Picasso. “Then, one by one, the scales dropped from our eyes. I became smitten! There are a lot of late styles of artists such as de Chirico or Picabia that were totally inaccessible to me in the midyears of the 20th century and that now look fascinating and topical.”

Considering the contemporary scene, Rosenblum says, “I’m passionate about Matthew Barney’s films, but I would have a hard time—as someone whose business it is to write and lecture on art—to articulate what his work is about. It just gets me subliminally and works on the level of dream imagery. The bottom line is that it carries me away, like Wagner does.”

Barney’s art was by far the most frequently mentioned example of work that eluded understanding. But, as the artist Pat Steir points out, “Matthew Barney has become so familiar that people know they’re not supposed to understand his work. We’ve been given the code for how to look at that particular nonlinear work,” she explains. “But when it’s unfamiliar, I think people are scared by nonlinear thinking, because you have to totally relax your mind to see it, and it’s hard to put into words. You have to follow the private way of seeing that certain artists have.”

In that mode, Steir says, “I think of John Cage, with his music and sound, and his poetry and painting, too. I always thought I understood his music, but after he died, I felt it in a new way. I found it everywhere. Any collection of sounds is John’s music. It takes real relaxation and a lot of time with nonlinear thought to understand his work deeply, although superficially it can be explained easily.”

Dealing with contemporary art really does take time. “That’s something that’s getting harder and harder for people to do,” says Cameron, “to commit themselves to staying with a work or piece or encounter for long enough to come to some conclusions. Otherwise, they end up just skimming it and coming away with an experience of dissatisfaction, because they haven’t actually engaged it.”

Collector Eli Broad recognizes the commitment it takes to understand unfamiliar work. When he began acquiring art almost 30 years ago, even Impressionism wasn’t so easy. “Unless someone has a background in art history, which neither my wife nor I did, you cannot parachute someone into all the new forms of art and have them get it,” says Broad, who worked his way steadily through the 20th century and now buys contemporary art for both his personal collection and his foundation. “It’s a question of starting somewhere and moving forward. It’s a progression. One’s eye changes, and you begin to have some understanding of how we got to where we are. At one time I thought that art was something of beauty. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s really something that creates emotion, something you haven’t seen before or thought about before.”

Carol and Arthur Goldberg are also collectors who, for 38 years, have been doing the reading and legwork. “We’ve ended up buying pieces by artists who we think are interesting but we don’t know exactly why until we really get into it more. It takes work,” says Carol. A recent example is Matthew Ritchie, to whose paintings and installations the Goldbergs were attracted at the 1997 Whitney Biennial as well as in gallery shows, though they did not yet completely understand them. After a couple of years of thinking about the artist, they ended up buying a substantial installation of his titled Chapel Perilous, part of the exhibition “Faith,” held last spring at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut.

Tomaselli echoes the sentiment on Ritchie and Barney. “Both artists have these internal cosmologies they’ve let loose into the outer world,” he says. “I give Barney kudos for showing me things I’ve never seen before, but I don’t really know what it’s about. I’ve been given a cursory expl
anation of Ri
chie that involves quantum mechanics and physics and whatnot, and I don’t understand it. But I like looking at their stuff. I’m glad it’s there, even if I don’t know what it means.”

Hilarie M. Sheets, a contributing editor of ARTnews, last wrote on artist Tom Sachs.

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