Contemporary thinking

Experimental art — often grouped under the terms conceptual, modern or contemporary — can be divisive. To some, a blank canvas marked only by a diagonal rip is hardly “art”. Starry Night, Girl with a Pearl Earring, American Gothic, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte — that’s art.

Experimental art as we know it today asks more questions than that of previous eras. Just as our eyes linger on the subtleties of shadows and light on the face of a cherubic child in a Renaissance painting, they explore the sharp lines and curves of an abstract piece or the (seemingly) haphazard spackles of a Pollock.

Dutch Golden Age paintings are, admittedly, my favorite kind of art. I will spend minutes poring over the intricacies of a seaside scene, or the gentle dips of a dewey moor. I spend less time looking at the blank canvas with the knife slash — but somehow, that piece of art hangs in my mind a bit longer. It begs me to understand what it means, why it was created, what sort of feeling it’s supposed to evoke.

I’ve seen the gamut of experimental art at museums like the Centre Pompidou, LACMA, Tate Modern, MoMA, and smaller regional centers. This type of art is almost undefinable; I rarely walk into a new exhibit with an expectation of what I might see (or hear, or touch — conceptual artists toy with mediums that engage more than just the eyes).

NYU Steinhardt says the following of contemporary art and its role in society:

“Contemporary art provides an opportunity to reflect on society and the issues relevant to ourselves, and the world around us.”

Art is as much about the reaction it causes as it is the piece itself. Rather than create something to be looked at and passed by, conceptual artists seek to present the viewer with a question. Perhaps a question that causes discomfort, if only for a few seconds. That discomfort, though, should lead the viewer to discover something about society, the artist, or themselves.

Art does not always have to be created — it is frequently found. These types of work are perhaps the most thought provoking. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was as much a statement about how we perceive art as it was actual artwork. Having purchased a urinal and signed it “R. Mutt”, Duchamp submitted his piece to an art society he helped start. And it was rejected. Today, though the original piece was lost, its replica is one of the world’s most famous pieces of truly experimental, “out there” art.

Art can either tell a story, put the viewer in a story, or challenge the viewer to create a story.

Medium, composition, and framing or placement are thoughtfully planned out in a way that guides a viewer’s eyes through the piece to communicate a message. Monet’s Water Lillies tells the story of a serene pond, viewed through the soft lens of muted colors. Rothko’s Untitled 1967 tells us…not as much, at first glance. Blue and white shapes sit atop a light pink background, providing a complementary palette that’s easy on the eyes, but lacks a clear narrative.

Art like this is sometimes best understood as part of a whole. Rothko’s pieces, taken in groups or altogether, show variety in color and size in accordance with a consistent “template” — those vertically-stacked rectangles and squares. You wonder what Rothko’s strategy was or wasn’t as he approached every new piece. How each artwork was made the both the same and different as its predecessors.

On Kawara’s Silence was one of the most stunning, mind-boggling exhibits I’ve attempted to deconstruct. Spread around the Guggenheim, Silence included postcards, telegrams, binders full of type-written numbers, newspaper clippings, sketches, and more.

Canvasses from Kawara’s Today series rounded out the artist’s lifetime of work. Kawara began the series of paintings (each is a solid-colored canvas with the day’s date in white) on January 4, 1966, and ended in 2013. He didn’t paint one every day. Some days he painted more than one.

Viewed separately from the Silence collection, Today seems mundane — anyone can paint the day’s date on a canvas. But when slotted in with the rest of Kawara’s work, Today has a purpose; it provides structure to disparate collections that seem quirky and eccentric on their own. Even more, Silence gave me a better understanding of the artist himself. I began to see the world from his perspective, to understand what compelled him to create various pieces. And I began to question things about my own perspective on life and society.

The most powerful thing art can do is awaken something inside us.