Seeing Slowly

Prestel, 247 pages

In Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art, art world veteran Michael Findlay posits that the question often asked by viewers of 20th-century and contemporary artworks — “Is it art?” — is the wrong thing to ask. His position, which forms the thesis of Seeing Slowly, seeks not to ponder the nature of art but to examine its essential value. “There are no codes to crack,” he writes in his introduction. He suggests we spend altogether too much time approaching art as though it were an enigma, when more simple pleasures can be derived from seeing, just as with reading a novel, watching a movie, or listening to a song. His intent is to share the joy of looking at art. Seeing Slowly is a refreshing read that is free from the complicated theorizing that plagues a lot of art writing; in fact, the book is intent on throwing it out the window. You don’t even have to know much about the topic going in.

A longtime art dealer, Findlay was a champion of John Baldessari, Joseph Beuys, and Sean Scully, artists he represented at his SoHo gallery. Later, he became head of Christie’s Impressionist and modernist painting department. He is now a director at New York’s Acquavella Galleries. What he sees as essential to appreciating art is the idea of blocking out the noise that surrounds it — and today, there’s a lot of noise. In his first chapter, “Peeling the Onion,” he asks us to “abandon the multitude of distractions, which our culture places between us and the objects of our experience, and engage works of art with a naked eye and mind.” It’s essential to regard a work of art on its own terms. He writes about how a Japanese museum that houses works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and other luminaries offers viewers an interactive experience by way of an adjustable lighting panel that lets one approximate the light conditions from when the painting was actually made. But he argues that viewers are likely to remember this “toy” more than the works of art themselves. In a sense, the light panel stands in the way of a more direct experience.

He also admonishes us to do away with the cameraphones and look instead with our eyes. Another distraction in our way is how a work itself is presented. Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, for instance, is known to many from history books although it depicts an event 75 years after it happened; whereas Larry Rivers’ 1953 painting of the same title might prompt a more lively discussion, as it more accurately reflects the time in which it was made.

A short chapter, “Baggage Handling,” deals, essentially, with our expectations of art. These can be molded by our experiences with historic works, but they break down when applied to much of modern art, which, in many instances, sought to break free of formal restraints.Findlay also asks us to leave our cultural biases at home. But for the art dealer, that’s a challenge. He ends the chapter with an anecdote about a failed attempt to sell a number of Dutch still lifes featuring dead game to Chinese collectors because, as one of the collectors stated to Findlay, “No Chinese will buy paintings of dead animals.” Another collector added, “Unless they are cooked.”

Seeing Slowly is enlivened by many humorous, though pertinent, asides. Findlay takes a far less intellectual approach than Arden Reed does in his recent book Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell, published in 2017 by University of California Press, although both authors deal with a similar subject: how art is experienced. In his chapter, “What Is Art,” Findlay aims to provide a framework for viewing art (color, form, imagery, scale) only insofar as these provide a place for the novice to start looking and not to delineate concrete definitions. Nor is it necessary for any potential art aficionado to know the intent and all the references that may be informing artists when they create — a later chapter is called “Real Connoisseurs Are Not Snobs.” In his discussion of color in the works of Wassily Kandinsky, he writes how we may see in them “subtleties of color and quite possibly colors for which we have no names.” He writes that we can appreciate these without knowing Kandinsky’s color theorizing or how his interest in esoteric subjects impacted his work.

The book ends with “Getting Personal,” an autobiographical account of the artwork that profoundly struck Findlay, as he hopes modern art will for the reader. Seeing Slowly is an engaging, accessible work, and while it can be enjoyed by anyone, readers who shy away from modern artor feel intimidated by it have the most to gain. — Michael Abatemarco

The New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W. Palace Ave.) celebrates Slow Art Day at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 14, with an event in which visitors view five pre-selected works for 10 minutes each, then convene for a conversation about their experiences. By museum admission; 505-476-5072.

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