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Overheard At The Museum: Dallas Edition

You know the book of that name in my headline, published in 2005, which gathered a bunch of conversational snippets the author, Judith Henry, heard in museums and galleries, and published them with pictures. It comes to my mind every now and then, when I hear a good quote — either funny, enlightening, sad or all-too-on-target, alas. I heard one in the last category the other day in the Dallas Museum of Art. I was in the contemporary galleries, looking at the wall I’ve pictured below, when two young men — probably college kids, freshmen or sophomores — came walking through.

DallasContempOne went up to the Rothko, and said to other:

“Just what I thought, Mark Rothko. You see this — it looks really simple. But it’s worth so much money now. We studied him in art history.”

How disappointing, that link immediately to the market. Not another word passed between the two; they just went on past the Diebenkorn and then the Francis. And soon they left the gallery.

It’s a great wall, though.

Photo Credit: © Judith H. Dobrzynski 


  1. Years ago a gallery in New York sold a Velasquez to the Metropolitan Museum for $6,000,000. It was on the front page of the New York Times. It was a first for an art story to be place there. I got in touch with the individual who wrote the story, Grace Glueck. I said to her “Congratulations, but it’s too bad that the price had to be there. Her response, in her own inimitable way, “How do you think i got the story on the front page”. It shut me up and it is a fact of life and not a new one.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gerald, and Grace was right, of course. I would make two distinctions re: my post — one, this was a conversation, not the front page of the NYT. Two, I’d be much less unhappy if there had been a sentence in between the “simple” sentence and the “money” sentence. Something like, Rothko typically worked for TK months on his paintings, or he was striving to convey his emotions. After all, this speaker had supposedly learned about Rothko in his art history class.

  2. yeah, I have to agree; it is kinda sad. Most of what so much of the general public knows about art comes from the auction news with regard to stratospheric selling prices – apparently that, for many folks, is the only noteworthy information. And in most media reports, there’s rarely even a picture of the works that brought the bid. There are probably no more than a mere handful of important artworks beyond say, something like the Mona Lisa, that any percentage of the public would ever recognize. I think many consider art to be only of interest to the mega-rich and so pretty much tend to ignore it in general.

  3. I wish that were not the case but I don’t know of any good way to overcome it either.

  4. I agree with you, Judith–it looks like a stupendous wall!

    Perhaps the problem for the young men is that we don’t have a generally available vocabulary for discussing abstract art. You can talk about the color, perhaps, or the shapes, and of course you can talk about the effect the work has on the viewer, but I think for many people there’s really not much else to say. (Please don’t take this as an attack on abstract art–Rothko’s work is sublime; he is one of my favorite artists.)

  5. BobG, I admit I for one don’t have much more to say about the sublimity of Rothko’s work except that it moves me deeply, due to the profundity of the painted color and shape — but why isn’t that enough, except for theorists, technicians and scholars?

  6. Whenever I encounter a story about contemporary art it is usually about its price, its location or so filled with artspeak technobabble that the language of art is itself a barrier to understanding. It seems the artworld deliberately keeps the public out of its realm. Therein lies the problem with not only the college students, but the general public which can hardly speak whole English sentences, much less art jargon.

  7. I side with the student, who had studied Rothko in class, but likely had a mostly negative or neutral response to the paintings (and to abstract work in general), and had nothing more to say.

    On a related matter: In 2000, having read our book ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand,’ published that year, the late cultural historian Jacques Barzun wrote as follows to Michelle Kamhi and me: “[A]s I see it, you and Rand and I all repudiate art that is not made but found, or simply assembled, or is a mere arrangement of lines and colors. When I look at a Rothko, I may admire the subtle gradation of colors and the shimmering, but I feel ‘This isn’t enough.'” (See his ‘Use and Abuse of Art’ [1974] and ‘From Dawn to Decadence’ [2000] for more on his views on abstract painting.)

    The participants in this discussion so far will not agree with Barzun and us, but that’s in the nature of respectful debate (in Real Clear Arts and elsewhere), isn’t it.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  8. Mary Christian says:

    I can’t tell you how often I’ve overheard docents and museum gallery lecturers–in top museums–discussing a work of art not by the piece itself, or by the artist or movement, but by resorting to how much some second or third relation to it fetched at auction. I’ve always thought it came from some insecurity where, falling short of specific knowledge of the work, they couldn’t just look at the work and identify for the crowd what was significant, or how it fit into concerns on that wall or across the gallery. It’s too bad: we want museum education to teach the general public something about art literacy, but this skirts that ability altogether for some trivia that the speakers can use to justify the work as important.

  9. Jim VanKirk says:

    As a Lifelong painter and not a young one I would challenge all of you who feel critical to paint something so we can also judge where your own true aesthetic leads. I suspect that your work will pale sorely in contrast to Rothko’s. I would also like you consider that Artists are not without personal complexity and that what you do or don’t see in a single work might well be dominant in another. The issue has nothing to do with abstraction.

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