Teaching with Contemporary Art

Uncovering Works of Art

Arturo Herrera, “Untitled”, 2002. Courtesy Sikkema, Jenkins & Co., New York

Monday evening I had the pleasure of participating in a dynamite online conversation with our current group of Art21 Educators. We decided, based on some recent requests, to spend a little time actually looking at art together. While teaching, planning, and discussing ways of bringing contemporary art into the classroom are topics that come up a lot in our yearlong relationship, sometimes the simple act of looking at art together gets lost in the shuffle.

We focused on Arturo Herrera’s collage, Untitled, above. The group was initially asked about their interpretations and ideas about it:

Ca: Student made?

JH: Such an interesting comment- why do you say that?

D: I’m thinking “I saw the Figure Five in Gold”

S: Is this a photo of something sculptural or a painting?

A: It makes me think of paper graffiti…. dripping, tubes, lines, subway

G: I love that I don’t know what I’m looking at… what’s the scale?  The space is so deep but flat at the same time!

T: Thinking about paper cutouts…

M: It reminds me of a spiral made out of a simple piece of graffiti

Ch: It looks 3-dimensional but I think it is a 2-dimensional piece

M: Not graffiti- paper

T: Is it 3d?

Ca: I see what looks like some photo with some paint?

D: Charles Demuth painting – the gold floating in the air

Cr: Something about it makes me think of Warner Bros. Cartoons

CM: There are lots of layers within layers

A: Intestines!

M: Looks like some fun with an X-acto

J: Yes!

Ch: It looks like it might twist like a mobile

Ca: That looks like a sleeping loft up above

A: I just saw the bodies exhibit

D: Awesome

T: My brain wants to see more than I do but I don’t.  If that makes sense

C: it looks like a collage/painting . . . and the background creates the illusion of space and the overlay . . . flattens it out. A cabin interior or stage curtain?

J: Do tell…

D: Arturo Herrera, I’m looking for Disney

M: It looks like it is done in Photoshop or with a computer

CM: Are there some figures within it? The front piece (intestine shape)

M: Agreed- looks digital

T: I want the missing pieces

A: I want to unravel it

J: Nice

Then we revealed the “credit line” including the artist’s name and title of the work:

Ca: No more helpful info here, for me

F: It didn’t seem to be a collage to me…

Cr: The bright colors an maze like structure seemed to suggest a game

G: I love that everyone was thinking large and spacial… but it’s small and flat.

J: I’m fascinated by how much we need to know exactly What something is, rather than what it’s doing or conveying or how we interpret it.

C: I definitely see layers.

T: I saw a stage

F: I wonder how seeing it as a slide impacts our response…

In the final part of our discussion we asked all members of the group to watch an Art 21 exclusive featuring Arturo Herrera in order to provide some context to what everyone was looking at. The range of comments from this point on were wonderful:

JF: Music is non-objective… There is no content… Agree? Disagree? How does this help us “see” the work in a new way?

Cr: I’m happy to be in the state of not knowing – that’s a great line

Mn: Wow, so that was one in that music series?

Ca: I love the idea of a wall filled with variations on a theme. Very musical.

S: I wonder if he sees the colors as characters… or various instruments as color…

Cr: Kandinsky was really into music informing art too…

Ca: Can someone define subjective in this context?

A: I like this idea of layers of things that just rest on top of a background.. very much like music

D: O’Keeffe and music too

J: I’m really interested in the idea of what we expect of music, vs. what we expect of a visual image – which I think connects to our ideas about subjectivity – our patience with it.

M: Very interesting! Though I think there are stricter relationships between sounds you hear in a musical score than what he describes as the goal of his piece

S: I thought I remembered that Pollock was really into Jung and I see this idea of visual musical expression being similar to archetypal exploration

F: I wonder how his sense of ‘content’ relates to the idea of ‘content’ in other disciplines?

Ca: I think people react totally individually to music and art.

D: What IS content?

A: I feel that is an interesting thing to bring up with students.. it also really challenges perhaps what they currently view as music and art

F: Interesting idea to create something that is totally subjective, like stream of consciousness?

M: agreed- I’m not quite sure subjectivity is more inherent in sound vs. image

Cr: I wonder if people expect more of art than music – art is more like a physical entity confronting you

D: People can turn off music.

Ca: People certainly are outspoken about liking and disliking both art and music.

M: You can turn a painting against a wall too!

Cr: You can walk away from art

A: I think that we could have some really different camps.. I wonder what it would be like to engage this as a multidisciplinary project with music students

J: His connections to music makes me more patient about ‘not knowing’ or not needing to know – to enjoy the not knowing

Ca: I think that the idea of abstract is more mainstream

M: I’d be really interested to learn more about his process in making the pieces

CM: I think it definitely helps but I also like looking at something first without knowing anything

Di: Yes and no.  There is a part of the guessing and the mystery that is the wonderful part of looking at art

D: JF’s question: do we agree that Music has no content?  (I think there’s content, but I don’t have much of the vocabulary or musical references.)

S: Commentary always helps I think… it’s honestly hard to appreciate some works without it… unless you’re already acclimated to reading visual elements

CM: Usually we have the kids go around and say the first word that comes to mind before offering context clues

M:  Think it’d be particularly interesting in the same way its interesting to hear composers talk about their music

F: We bring our own preconceptions to anything we look at, so it’s never going to be tabula rasa for us. I wonder how different people in different contexts will view the artwork.

M: I’m a music teacher!!

J: Well, I think we expect that we have to have the ‘answer’ all the time and I actually appreciate visual art for the same reasons he talks about appreciating music and being in the space of not knowing, but being able to come up with my own ideas or seek out different ideas, background, context, information

Ca: It reminds me of what you said out art being a space to think!

D: Is there art with no content? If it has no content, we talk about the colours, and they become content, no?

F: If we think about music as being similar to math, do we come to a new way of thinking about content?

D: I like the notion of being comfortable with not knowing

A: I think that students would very rarely make the connection between math and art… we have to talk about accessibility culture, etc.. to really get at this “abstract music”

T: Not knowing is a state of being for me.

A: Sorry math and MUSIC

F: Great point!

CA: I don’t think I can be in that space as easily when looking at a painting like i can with listening to music . . . in response to J . . . my mind takes over and tries to order/analyze it . . . but there is a beauty in his thoughts . . . and all of your comments

Ch: Maybe the content that people feel when looking at art is about their experiences

M: I do think there’s a distinction between passively “not knowing” and actively “not knowing” in a way that poses problems or questions

D: what about digital versus analog music?

M: I think in order to “not know” you need to “know some”

F: Many great mathematicians are superb musicians.

CA: Great comment, M. I agree.

Cr: D – have you ever heard Dutch Tape Loop music?

T: Does not knowing that I don’t know mean I know something?

Ch: Mathematicians are also great artists!!

Ca: What’s the difference between analog and digital? How does it change the listening experience?

M: Well I don’t know about that last statement actually- its kind of our human nature to actively not know

CA: Very socratic, T

M: So Socratic, T!

The reason I wanted to share this conversation with all of you really has to do with highlighting the opportunity to uncover works of art slowly. I found this conversation to be both exciting and meaningful because we not only investigated the work together as a group, but also raised questions that connect to so much of what we do. We actually had the chance to use Herrera’s work to go beyond Herrera’s work.

Thanks to all of our Art21 Educators for a great evening on Monday!

 

 

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
  1. Ty C says:

    Thanks for posting this great lesson on lessons! Starting from the work, uncaptioned and unexplained, compels us to look closely and formulate our own questions, so that when information is finally offered, we engage it thoughtfully and deeply.

    Reply

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