"Only connect."

Alone In The Room With Art


Reading David Nice’s recent essay on Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” started me thinking about having a personal relationship with a work of art – why I want it, how to have it, what it means. David’s description of a book that can so draw us into its story, that we have a sense of being part of it, comes to me in tandem with the description included in a friend’s post of a Schubert lieder, pointing out that the feeling conveyed is so deep, one feels as if alone with the singer in a room.

Because the novel reviewed involves the story of a stolen painting, it reawakens an old curiosity about stories based on art theft! Why should something despicable be interesting? If we had an original Van Gogh, for instance, and someone stole it, we would be crushed and livid! Mine! And, isn’t this what the art thief feels? Mine! Not the thieves who want to sell the art – but the ones who want to keep it.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, my teenage years were punctuated by visits to the then free-entry Art Institute. Many a Sunday afternoon, after a weekend saturated with homework, I treated myself to a solitary trip downtown and spent a few hours wandering. Though it was Sunday, and it was downtown, I didn’t really have to dress up. But I did – I was visiting art, and it was important. On entering, I hurried first to pay homage to current favorites, where, ignoring the intrusion of casual gawkers, I stood, or sat, if possible, in front of each painting, gazing, drinking in, to the best of my ability, becoming one with it. I gave to each painting as much time as it seemed to want, before moving on to the next. No one else in the crowd of tourists and Sunday afternoon idlers had the same relationship with any of “my” paintings, I was sure.

It wasn’t enough, but it was what I could get. Though the reality of being left alone in the building overnight and sleeping in front of a beloved painting would have terrified me, I daydreamed about it. I even managed to work the image into a paper assigned for economics class, using it as a supposed metaphor for something or other. No doubt, it was perplexing to the poor teacher trying to follow my logic, and even I can’t justify that stretch of imagination now. The simple yearning for beauty, and for whatever more art represents and conveys, is innate in us. We’re lucky, if we’re artists and can make it. If not, we have to find another way to be close to it.

On the way out of the museum or gallery, we go into the shop and purchase postcard reproductions, little tastes of the big experiences, to take home and pin up, to keep the feeling going. An early acquisition was a postcard of Paul Klee’s “Fish Magic”. In the third grade, we had learned to make paintings by, first coloring a picture with crayons, and then coating the whole paper with paint. The paint adhered to the paper and only spotted the wax of the crayons. My creation was of two leaves, one gold, one red, painted over with a black background, and entitled “Autumn”. When I saw “Fish Magic”, I thought, here was an artist who shared my own technique – well done! The miniature went up on my bedroom bulletin board, where it remained throughout my childhood. The original of “Autumn”  hangs in the hallway.

Finally, I have come across a ritual, a perfect experience for appreciating art. I learned that Charles Lang Freer, who donated his vast collection to The Smithsonian Institution, first hung the collection in his Detroit home, where he developed a reverent ceremony for sharing a single work of art with friends. Freer had a specially designed gallery in his home, where he and his friends would assemble near sundown. Served with refreshments, they would all sit, as he brought in a work of art, and remain enjoying it in the light of the setting sun. It was described as an almost metaphysical aesthetic experience! Though this ideal of art appreciation enthralls me, I have learned that it doesn’t speak to everyone. I described it to one of my artist friends, a person who has often complained of feeling undervalued in the world. Expecting her to be as thrilled as I felt, I was stunned when she rejected the idea as sounding like snobbism! “But, wouldn’t you love for people to spend fifteen minutes contemplating one of your paintings?” “No! I wouldn’t look at any painting, even my own, for that long – maybe fifteen seconds! The idea of people sitting around drinking cocktails,” (Had I said “cocktails”?) “while looking at one work of art, is elitist!”

Noted. Not for everyone. But it still holds great appeal for me. Sitting in the presence of a single work of art, sipping a cup of tea – or, perhaps, a cocktail, now that it has been suggested – as the light fades, is just the right pace for me. I might add some quiet music, if it doesn’t detract. It seems a lovely experience to share with like-minded friends – or, if none surface, just alone in the room, with art.



10 thoughts on “Alone In The Room With Art

  1. I’m with you, Elizabeth, and this post is particularly timely for me. After a particularly aggravating morning recently, I headed to Dia:Beacon to commune with a few works of art. I was, as always, particularly drawn to the rooms of Agnes Martin paintings. Almost no one was at the museum, so I could sit or stand quietly, without interruption, for as long as I cared to. I marveled once again how impossible it is to capture in a photograph the almost not there luminescence of her work. One has to be there, and there is something precious about that.

    • Sue, I admire the way you find a balance for life’s pressures in the restorative quality of beauty, designed, as well as natural. The singular aspect of “communing” with a work of art is that we have a silent conversation with the artist. How fortunate to live near enough to the museum, that you can visit whenever you need it!

  2. Elizabeth, happy to follow you from Facebook to your website to read this! Reminded of Jeanette Winterson, writer of some of my favorite novels, and her own practice of sitting for an hour in front of a painting (see her stimulating book of essays, “Art Objects”), though I couldn’t do that any more than your artist friend could. Another thought is that doing so, as with a concert, great writing, architecture, etc. is wanting time in the presence of our better nature, the obverse of reading about atrocities in the morning paper, a counterbalance. In spending time with Constable or Utamaro or whomever you’re also spending time with your own best nature. In a kind of solipsistic (?) sense, you’re creating the art you’re experiencing (which is what a lot of artists admit to). You’re as great as anything you’re stimulated to feel. Now I will bow out before collapsing in my own mysticism! But thanks for the post and the reminders it brought me.

    • Curt, I always so enjoy the conversation, when you bring your artist’s point of view to it! Not being an artist, I consider myself among the curators in the world, though with a very limited audience. I like the phrases you offer, of spending time with our own best nature, and creating the art we experience. You have refined my relationship with art, and I can feel it spreading also to my relationship with beauty in the natural world. I do feel some regret at your bowing out, before collapsing in your own mysticism – to be continued! — Elizabeth

  3. Hello Elizabeth!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    As a painter, I may spend countless hours working with a canvas. Perhaps a hundred hours. More? I can’t really say. It depends on the piece. Aside from time actively working on a piece, it may live with me and knock around the studio for years. Sometimes rotating into my exhibition space (the center hall). Sometimes languishing in “the pile”, awaiting a well-intentioned return for the last touch-up.

    Observing masters is three-fold for me.
    First, the essence of visual art, I drink in the piece itself as it is presented to me by the artist.
    Secondly, as an artist, I explore and soak up the style, skills and interpretations. Color, hue, intensity, contrast. Strokes, blending, shading, impasto, texture. Emotion, mood, power, motion.
    Thirdly, I find myself thinking of the artist during the creation of the piece. Standing in front of it. Staring for hours. One more touch on this. Early mornings, late nights. A cup of tea, a glass of brandy. Still one more touch. No, just don’t like that. One more touch. That time, that indistinct time that cannot be labeled a moment. The time when you declare the work ready for viewing. No, not done, not complete. The artist is NEVER satisfied with their own work. Like a child that one day is grown. It is an evolution, not an event.

    And the pieces that are emotionally important? Those tied to my soul? The Detlefson painting that was hanging in the hall my entire life, which lives with me now. The print of Wyeth’s Christina. The collaboration piece, a painting of our family’s old getaway, “Wee Haven”, it’s chipping oils applied by my mother and father.

    Like dear friends and family.
    I could spend all day alone with them!

    Take care and keep in touch,


    • Paz, such a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of an artist! You articulate just how a person can end up spending so much time absorbed in a single object of beauty. Digging weeds out of a garden bed, I at times find myself mesmerized in the same way, gazing at unfurling ferns. The process of creating is a whole other chapter, and how interesting, and nice, knowing how long it can take, and how much contemplation goes into it, how much of your self! So identifiable, your description of paintings which are “tied to your soul” – good phrase! Thank you for sharing this space!

  4. Wonderful Post, great ideas ..

  5. Glad I looked in, Elizabeth, if rather late. I think Freer’s notion is splendid, given that he was who he was. Of course he then went on and shared his collection with the world – nothing elitist about that. Art is unique among THE arts in that only a direct contact with the picture can give you the full sense of wonder, though reproductions may lead you to yearn to see the original. And postcards, as you say, are a memento of what you’ve experienced. Whereas in music and theatre we are in direct communication with the artist through the performer. Britten positied the magic triangle: composer, performer, audience. How that communication works is an intangible mystery.

    In the protagonist’s favour, of course, is that he didn’t intend to steal the picture exactly – but I hope you want to read the book. I’ve just worked my way backwards to The Secret History. The Little Friend is incredibly evocative, too. She tells a cracking yarn but she’s a poet in prose too.

    • David, I especially enjoy what you write about the “magic triangle.” Sitting comfortably in the audience, I like feeling more than an observer, as part of the experience. I hadn’t thought about the fact that, without an audience, the communication of art – of any of the arts – would be incomplete. Your words bring me into a better sense of involvement! — Elizabeth

I welcome your response - what are your thoughts about this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s