While in Washington last Friday, I dropped by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to see “Gyroscope,” a large-scale, long-running exhibition drawn from that museum’s permanent collection. I don’t plan to write about it in detail, mainly because I don’t need to (Tyler Green, who blogs at Modern Art Notes, did it here, better than I possibly could), but I did want to tell you about an educational experience I had while walking through the show.
As those of you who know me personally are all too aware, I have reached that unhappy age when I am sorely in need of bifocals. Alas, I’m too stubborn/vain/lazy to go to the trouble of getting a pair, so I continue to do without. I noticed for the first time at the Hirshhorn on Friday that I can no longer read the wall labels at museums without taking off my glasses. At first I found this to be irritating, but before long I realized that it was liberating.
Confession time: I have another little problem, which is that my eyes reflexively go to the labels in a group show, very often before I’ve taken in the works of art they identify. I can’t help myself–I’m a slave to the printed word. Only I can’t do it anymore. To read the labels, I now have to pull off my glasses and move in close, which takes away all the fun. As a result, I looked at “Gyroscope” the right way, meaning what first and who second, and not infrequently, I didn’t even bother to find out who. (In addition to a reasonably generous helping of good stuff, “Gyroscope” contains more than its fair share of crappy art.) Dr. Albert Barnes, who deliberately hung the paintings in the Barnes Collection without labels in order to force visitors to think harder about the art they were there to see, would have been proud of me.
Needless to say, I had no trouble identifying many of the artists whose work was on display (no points for spotting a Kenneth Noland at a hundred yards), but even in the galleries where there was no possible doubt about what I was seeing, I learned a lesson from consistently looking at the paintings first. Take the gallery devoted to what I suppose might be called Pop Art and Its Predecessors. The big stuff, the jumbo canvases by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Indiana, caught my eye first, but as soon as I glanced at the two medium-sized Stuart Davises (one of which was the amazing Rapt at Rappaport’s) facing each other on opposite walls, I knew who the real master was.
I’ve just admitted to a naïve-sounding disability which I’m sure will make some of you smile. I came late to the visual arts, and I still fall on my face with humbling regularity. I’m no connoisseur, just a guy who likes to look at paintings, though I trust my eye and my taste. On the other hand, I don’t trust them far enough to be absolutely sure I’m always seeing paintings, not reputations, which is one of the minor reasons why I think I’ll put off getting that first pair of bifocals for a little while longer.