In the late 1990s, I went to see an exhibit in the Albuquerque Art Museum. I decided to go see the exhibit because I had arrived 45 minutes early for an appointment in Old Town and I had some time to spare. I don’t remember the exhibit’s actual theme but I vaguely recall it was something about ‘REALLY BIG WORKS’—the kind that are the size of normal walls and therefore not intended to be hung in the living space of anyone who doesn’t own a McMansion.
Since I was working with a 45-minute time limit, I decided I would look at each of the works for as long as it held my attention. I figured this would be a good way to time my viewing experience and still get to my appointment. In any event, I got through the works in record time. Not a single work out of the 15 or 20 works held my attention for more than a minute (if that). As a result, I was left with nearly 25 minutes to fill. There was a low bench set in front of a large 4’ x 6’ minimalist painting. I do not remember the name of the artist or whether or not it had a title. I have reconstructed the work’s appearance here. The (to me) bland grey and pink work hadn’t merited more than a 5 second glance when I was working my way around the exhibit, but the bench looked inviting, so I decided to sit down.
I am not particularly fond of minimalist work because this style is usually so subtle that I find it boring. I call Bruce Nauman’s Center of the Universe sculpture at UNM The Concrete Idea [picture below]. (I have since realized that its apparent simplicity masks possibilities for deeper experience of engagement that didn’t occur to me when I first encounter the work. For example, I heard a music student standing in the center playing a flute and the shape of the sculpture enhanced the music. It also provides an interactive experience and watching how others interact with it is fascinating.)
I spent the next 15 minutes staring at this work. After a while the museum guard who was posted in the room came over and asked me what I found about that work that had held my attention for the last 15 minutes. I laughed and confessed that I was using it as a projection screen for a daydream. In turn, I asked her what she thought of the works in the exhibit. She told me she disliked them. I suspect that she found them boring. (Boring is a kind of value judgement after all.) I hadn’t found anything to really look at either and unlike the bored guard, I could leave.
As I reflected on this experience, I thought about the jury process that is sometimes used to select works for exhibit. At that time, artists would send in slides of work and the curator or a jury would go through them to make the selections. If there were a great many slides, the viewing time for each slide would decrease because the process of jurying works usually takes place under extreme time constraints. For one show I entered, I calculated that my slides were viewed for a maximum of 10 seconds. This kind of process tends to favor works that have immediate impact or reproduce well as slides. I strongly suspect that the works in this exhibit had been selected this way. That is why none of them stood the test of attention which I devised. I also think that the theme of the exhibit was too vague especially since the works didn’t leave enough impression for me to remember it. So, I realized that just because a work has been exhibited in a museum that is no guarantee of its aesthetic value.
What holds your attention when you encounter a work of art? Since your response says more about you than it does about the work, the answer to this question is a opportunity to learn more about yourself. I always do.