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Art Center Slow-Down

Today’s post comes from Rosa Bozhkov, class of 2017 and Art Center Student Docent.

On Wednesdays at three, we meet. Every week the student docents at the Art Center get to know just a little bit more about the gallery through a variety of exercises and events. There is always a surprise waiting for us on these afternoons—meetings include anything from an in-depth look at the Imperial Augsburg exhibition from curator Patricia Phagan, to a pop quiz about the Hudson River school. Due to these lively sessions, our knowledge of the works, the spaces, is constantly revamped and challenged.

A few weeks ago, we were given the task of looking at one work of art, randomly chosen from a hat, for a whole twenty minutes. As the hat was passed around, I worried about how my attention span would fare with the exercise. Would I lose focus and let my mind drift for twenty minutes? Or would I be able to really look at the work and understand it better? (It was a bit of both.)

Elaine de Kooning (American 1920-1989), Man in a Whirl, 1957, Oil on canvas, Gift from the Roland F. Pease Collection, 1997.11.9
Elaine de Kooning (American 1920-1989),
Man in a Whirl, 1957, Oil on canvas,
Gift from the Roland F. Pease Collection, 1997.11.9

My little piece of paper read Man in a Whirl by Elaine de Kooning, a painting that I couldn’t immediately visualize, one that I admittedly needed help finding from one of the more senior docents. Once I arrived at the work, I peered at it up close for a few minutes before sitting down on the wood floor—I knew I was in for a long ride.

The mess of brushstrokes, vibrant color and drips on the canvas frustrated me at first. After only looking at it for a couple of minutes I thought I knew basically all there was to know—an abstract expressionist painting, a collision of shapes and textures of strokes. It wasn’t that I considered the work predictable or uninteresting, more that in my desire to see all the art in a gallery or museum I had formed a habit of glancing at a painting and pausing at it for two minutes tops. In this way I assumed that I could extract everything from it after almost no engagement.

I kept my eyes glued to the painting as I let my mind wander. As I sifted through the events and stresses of the week, my eyes travelled the canvas and dug into the layers of paint. Before no time, what was once a jumble of bright lines became a highly architectural space. The wide, opaque sand-colored stripes painted over the many colors beneath acted as windows, framing a view of what seemed to lie beyond. I realized excitedly that there was a very decisive organization of space that I had missed out on altogether for the first ten or so minutes of looking.

From then on, it was as if the painting opened itself up to me. I saw countless delineations of space and the overlapping of paint created an incredible mirage of depth. The twenty minutes were coming to a close but I was busy in the spaces de Kooning created with layers of coinciding streaks. I was beyond the see-through beige diagonal and among the sea green and deep reds – I was the woman in the whirl.

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