I was fifteen when I first thought about the way people look at art. In mid-September of 2011, my dad took me to a retrospective of the German photographer Thomas Struth in a small gallery in East London. We walked through hushed, white rooms where large, glossy prints seemed draw us into their scenes. Struth had photographed intimidating, intricate machinery and seductive, green jungles, and we found ourselves tangled in outstretched mechanical limbs and elegant fronds. But we were most caught up in the photographs that seemed to pose as mirrors in the gallery. We were captivated, watching snippets of lives that seemed to resemble our own. Struth’s photographs from the early 2000s, a series titled “Audiences,” were life-size photographs of gallery-goers caught in the act of looking.
* * *
I’m now sitting in the Yale University Art Gallery. I’m in the room with the Romans and the Greeks, surrounded by ancient stones and the dull eyes of past powers. Light falls through the tall windows and stripes the floor with shadows. This is the first room when you enter the gallery, and for that reason it seems that people don’t really stick here. They merely glance around, unsure of what to look at, before moving on to the big stuff: the Titians, the Manets, Van Gogh’s “Night Café” — everything that people know and can marvel at with ease.
The room is pretty empty right now. Everyone seems to have his or her attention directed elsewhere, but maybe that’s because it’s a Friday evening and there are 15 minutes until closing time. There are one or two who wander in and pay a bit more attention to the surrounding relics, like the man who clasped his hands together, smiled and bowed his hairless head to me as I held the door open for a group of accented tourists — “Thank you very much darling.” He idles between busts and portraits with those hands now clasped behind his back, his posture straight and chin lifted while his eyes study Marcus Aurelius through his glasses. His slow, soft steps are deliberate along with his poise, giving him an air of assurance. Then, there are those who come through the Ancient Art room just searching for an exit. Those are the more elderly visitors: white tufts of hair and spotted faces that smile at me. Their cheeks crease, eyes crinkling as they meet mine.
Upstairs in the corridors of European Art, I look for the names that I know, the brushstrokes I can try to decode and identify with. Sometimes, if the surface of a painting particularly intrigues me, I walk up to it and, standing quite close to the canvas, search for evidence of the artist’s human touch. Sometimes a work of art becomes so well known and revered that it almost seems to have come into this world fully formed, as if no man or woman’s hand could possibly create such an icon.
I can’t remember the first time I picked up a pencil, crayon or magic marker. My fingers have always known the grip of a pen, and my back has always been familiar with the sensation of hunching, shoulders forward, as if poised to dive into the picture-plane of my creation. I’m comfortable making art, but looking is an entirely different matter. My knowledge of art history consists only of the few facts I remember from a high school class on the subject, none of which are relevant in small, hushed galleries like that one in East London. There, all that is needed is a single glance from one of the gallery’s employees, someone who knows that he knows more than I do, and I am left exposed.
If galleries and museums leave artists and art-enthusiasts alike feeling lost and uneducated, why do we keep going back? Why did my dad and I, on a dreary Saturday in mid-September, take the Tube from central London and ride the rattling tracks all the way to a small, out-of-the-way exhibition in East London?
* * *
Crossing the hall, I leave behind the late 19th century for the likes of Hals, Rubens and Uccello. This side of the gallery is empty; I drift farther back in history and away from familiar faces, names, color palettes and anatomically correct figures. A member of the staff dressed in black and blue interrupts my reverie to inform me that “The gallery is closing soon.” I nod and head for the elevator with the guard following slightly behind, padding across the wooden floors with his black, patent leather loafers.
Looking around the elevator, I see many of the same people from Struth’s photographs. There are men and women clutching brochures at their sides, their eyes scanning the interior of the elevator with varying levels of engagement, their clothes not too far from the average styles of 2004 and 2005: blocks of color, garish floral prints and baggy trousers. There are children holding their parents’s hands, and adolescents casting their eyes to the ground. Nobody moves to interact with the other gallery-goers. They are all wrapped in their own observations.
I step out of the elevator and into another gallery. Soft chatter hums in one corner while the sharp report of boot heels against a hardwood floor punctures the still atmosphere. As I glance around me, I see people focusing on what they see before themselves. They are searching, with eyes that dart to and fro and meander through landscapes of paint; they are searching with bodies that crouch over and lean in and step back to take in the whole scene. And then, at some point or another, a change occurs. The searching eyes widen, a smile shimmers across the cheeks and the back straightens. It has been found, that familiar thing they were searching for, that which they can’t tuck away in a tote bag but which they will hold on to. With such a souvenir acquired, they will leave feeling like the afternoon at the gallery was worth their time. I’m also looking for something to take home, something I can use myself. I’m looking for those hints of human, a mistake, a structural line, an exposed layer of old paint, an exposed layer of old ideas, ancient people, a different time.