Art and People

What an Art Critic Wants to Teach You About How to Look at Art - Interview with Lance Esplund

Angie Phrasavath | April 16, 2019

On a cold, picturesque snowy day in February, I sat down with Eazel advisor, Adam Beckerman, and Wall Street Journal art critic Lance Esplund—a former painter, and author of the highly acclaimed book, The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art (Basic Books), which was published last November. Armed with a few decades of studying, teaching, and critiquing visual art—including the landscape of modern and contemporary art—Esplund shared with us his insights into how to look at and “read” art, and especially how to take a first step toward engaging with the art world.

The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art by Lance Esplund (Basic Books, November 27, 2018)

I could have simply asked, at the start of the interview: “So, tell me, Lance, how, exactly, do you ‘read’ art?”—to drive the conversation home. However, sitting across from an art critic (in general) and questioning the title of his book about art, at first seemed like a highly daunting and intimidating task, so I just began by asking him about what had initially confronted me: his book title. “My first encounter with the title itself insisted that I should treat the text as a ‘how-to’ manual, a ‘how-to-do-something-right-because-I’ve-been-doing-it-wrong’ guide. Is this your way of saying to me, and other readers out there, that you’re offering me a way to ‘fix’ myself?”

Summarizing philosopher John Dewey, Esplund said, “Dewey held that art should be a functional part of your everyday life—in the same way that a totem is a functional part of your everyday life, if you’re living in a tribe; or a crucifix is part of your life, if you’re worshipping in a church.” He reminded us that, while each artwork is meaningful, symbolic, complex, and perhaps even beautiful, neither a totem nor a crucifix, in its original context, is separated, worshipped, or put on a pedestal—as a work of “Art.”

Esplund said that when we encounter art objects (whether paintings, sculptures, totems, masks, crucifixes, or contemporary assemblages), we should approach each artwork with childlike curiosity; that we should treat each work of art as a functional object that has something important to communicate; that we should engage with it as we would in a “one-on-one” encounter with a living thing. “Yes,” Esplund said, “great art speaks to you at the highest level; but it also speaks to you at the entry level, too. That’s what makes it a great work of art. It draws you in at every level, no matter where or how you come to it. Unless you’re totally shutting down to it, art has the power to draw you in.”

“You always remember your first.”

It wasn’t until, after years practicing as a young photorealist painter, that Esplund discovered what making art—particularly “good” art—was all about. In his book, he writes that Paul Klee’s modern abstract painting, Howling Dog (1928), was the first artwork that really spoke to him—encouraging him to form a dialogue, a relationship, with art. I asked Esplund to elaborate on that encounter—the catalyst that led him to begin to understand “how to look.” “You always remember your first,” he said. The experience with Klee’s painting, on a college road trip, affected Esplund deeply, exercising and opening up his eyes, mind, and heart, not just to abstraction, but to all art. Klee’s painting not only engaged him, but taught him what elements—including metaphor—are present in a work of art, whether a representational picture of the Holy Family, by Leonardo, or a work of modern abstraction.

Paul Klee, Howling Dog, 1928, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

What Esplund realized is that Klee—who taught him how to construct and compose a picture—is not only a great artist but also a great teacher. “While looking at Klee’s abstract painting, I realized that there is something being communicated—that Klee’s line and space are dynamic, elastic. I experienced rhythms, movements, pressures, tensions, and spatial shifts. In art, as in music,” Esplund continued, “you have to ask yourself: Does it have melody? Does it make you want to dance?” During our discussion, he frequently compared the difficult task of learning the language of art to that of learning to read, play, and compose music—a language that, like visual art, is also universally practiced and understood. Esplund put it this way: “We’re in a period where everything is permitted and anything goes. A lot of artists and art teachers out there don’t know how to ‘read,’ let alone compose a picture. You wouldn’t send your seven-year-old daughter to a piano teacher who merely tells her: ‘Bang away. Play whatever you feel.’ We wouldn’t call that ‘music.’”

In his book, Esplund addresses the customary knee-jerk responses to his suggestion that it takes time and expertise to learn how to look at and read art. I realized that I, too, am guilty of the guarded reaction: “Screw you. I don’t need a professional telling me how to look at art. I know what I like and what I don’t like. Period. Now get out of my face.” Esplund, sympathetic, is aware of our insecurities and vulnerabilities—that our ego disregards our ignorance. He acknowledges that the decision not to look at art may come from the fear that the experience will ultimately expose our ignorance to ourselves and others; that engaging with art might alert us to the realization that there is something important that we don’t know.

How does Esplund help guide people through this? He advises: “Ask yourself: ‘Does it move me?’” When bringing his students to a gallery or museum, he shows them a mediocre work and a great work side-by-side (sometimes even works created by the same artist). Then he asks them to compare the artworks, and to discern which one is better, with a series of questions: “How are light and space operating in a painting, say, by Matisse? How is Matisse making the female figure both solid and ethereal, both weighted and weightless? What is the expression on her face doing? Is she turning toward us? Is she turning away? Is she doing both? What are her expression and the light saying to us? Where does the interior of the room end and the exterior, outside the window, begin? How does Matisse weave together figure and setting? What is outside; and what, from outside, is coming in?”

Esplund admits, without shame, that it took him a long time to warm up to the genius and severity of the Dutch abstractionist, Piet Mondrian; but that once he “got” Mondrian, he was able to come to many other kinds of abstract art—from ancient to contemporary. And that’s what he wants us to gather the courage to do. Esplund encourages his readers to be honest enough with art, and with themselves, to be able to say: “I don’t get it. I don’t understand what I’m looking at.” Eventually, if you make the effort, a doorway opens into an artwork. You enter. And that doorway opens into countless other works of art. You begin to read form and space, to become fluent—exponentially. “It’s like learning a new language,” Esplund said, “and realizing you’ve been having all of these indecipherable conversations and, suddenly, you understand them. You understand art.”

Piet Mondrian, New York City 1, 1942, Oil on canvas, 119.3 x 114.2 cm. Courtesy of Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

When engaging with art, Esplund acknowledges, we must trust our experience. We must begin and end with our common sense. As Esplund writes in Part One of his book, we need to trust our objective minds, as well as our subjective hearts. We must bring the highest level of subjective and objective engagement to each experience with art; but, Esplund emphasizes, “Knowing the difference between what is objective and what is subjective—and ridding yourself of prejudices are also vital.”

Esplund writes in his book that interacting with an artwork is like going on a first date—it's about purging yourself of expectations as best as you can. He told me, “It’s about being honestly open to an artwork, engaged with your experiences at a heightened level. If not, you close down both your objectivity and your subjectivity. And, as in dating, you might as well stay home.”

To appreciate modern art, people don’t need to know who Matisse or Picasso were, or how they revolutionized art. “You don’t need a history lesson to appreciate these masters,” Esplund asserted. “Knowing that Matisse was a ‘Fauve,’ in fact, that’s maybe the most useless thing you can know about Matisse.” Simply put: All that viewers need is just to be open to artworks and to realize, Esplund said, “That artists are poets…What people should know about Matisse is what he’s doing with color, space, line, and form; that Matisse pares down his artworks to the barest of essentials; that he is a master of light and understatement—that he gives us just enough so that we have it all.”

I asked Esplund: “So, do opinions start in the mind, as an intellectual process, or do they form from emotional experience?” Esplund believes that the process starts in the womb. “You have sensations—this feels better than that. I just learned of the scientific importance of rocking your baby, because, in the womb, the baby is never still.” Just as an infant responds to being rocked, we respond to similar sensations—such as movement and rhythm. According to Esplund, problems arise when, while looking at art—especially art that doesn’t initially appeal to or impact us—we ignore our natural sensations, responses, thoughts, and feelings; or we rely too heavily on what we already know, instead of on what the artwork is telling us.

After reading Esplund’s book and talking with him—and I feel that, finally, I know the steps of how to read modern and contemporary art—I asked: “There’s so much art being created. Where do you suggest we start?” Esplund suggested that we start with a period in which all of its art is usually good—for example: ancient Egyptian art. Esplund reasoned that it is not because we need to begin with the past (he said that we can start anywhere, including with contemporary abstraction), it is because there is really no mediocre Egyptian art. The ancient Egyptians created their abstract art to honor the gods—to prepare for and maintain the afterlife. They had to adhere to strict rules and a canon of proportion, in order to communicate with the gods. “If you were not making art worthy of the gods,” Esplund said, “you were not going to reach the afterlife; the planets would fall; civilization would crumble.”

Esplund conceived of The Art of Looking as a mental comfort blanket for those who feel confronted or perplexed by art. The book does not overwhelm or taunt you; nor does Esplund come off as elitist. Rather, the text is clear and encouraging, and reminds us that understanding art, specifically modern and contemporary art, is really not all that difficult. After reading his book, I realized what Esplund is trying to do: He wants us to understand that seeing art can be a really wonderful experience that adds value to one’s life. Art can lead us to understand the historical and cultural bond of being part of this earth.


LANCE ESPLUND

Lance Esplund writes about art for The Wall Street Journal. Previously, he was US art critic for Bloomberg News and chief art critic for The New York Sun. He has taught studio art and art history at the Parsons School of Design and Rider University, and has served as visiting MFA critic at the New York Studio School. His essays have appeared in Art in AmericaHarper'sModern PaintersThe Atlantic, and The New Republic among others. Esplund lives in Brooklyn, New York.

ANGIE PHRASAVATH

Angie Phrasavath is from Newport, Rhode Island. She obtained her B.A. in both Political Science and Art History from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. From there, she earned her M.A. from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Art Business. She also writes and conducts interviews about modern and contemporary art. (photo: Islay Joy Petrie)

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