By Josh Wagner
I want to live with an original piece of art. Sleep underneath it. Solve p-sets within arm’s reach. Feel its presence as I attempt to find a matching pair of socks. And the easiest place to find art is in a museum, namely at the Cantor. So, last week, excited by the idea, I walked into the Cantor to ask about living with a work of art. The first docent I found all but laughed at me as she informed me that the Cantor displays Fine Art, which has no place in a college dorm room.
Discouraged, I walked out of the building thinking about why the notion of having Art in a dorm room is so absurd. It’s only at the museum that these framed pieces of treated canvas are separated from the world by sheets of Plexiglass and wooden frames. And the majority of the museum’s art collection sits underground in storage, not doing anyone a bit of good.
Maybe my confusion relates to the fact that I never know what to do at art museums. Enjoying the idea of going to museums, I often find myself wandering around the Cantor or SFMOMA, wondering what I should be doing with my hands. And a few too many lost afternoons, I’ve realized that I feel a much closer connection with the other people browsing the virtually empty rooms, the way they furtively walk through the gallery and stop in front of a Rothko or meander through several rooms in 117 seconds — the art is almost secondary.
Logistically speaking, it seems like a nightmare to try to coordinate a fair art-sharing program where every student would have a chance to have art in their room and where no art would be ruined. Despite such challenges, the University of Chicago, Harvard and Williams College have managed to sustain such a program.
Chicago’s art sharing program, “Art To Live With,” matches undergraduates with 75 pieces by artists like Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. Students can browse a pop-up exhibition of the available pieces a few days before they choose what they want in their room. Art is served on a first-come, first-served basis with complimentary Command hooks and a care sheet.
The Williams Art Museum has a special collection specifically acquired in order to lend out to undergraduates. Called WALLS, the Williams Art Loan for Living Spaces, the program lends out 120 pieces by both contemporary artists such as Kiki Smith and masters such as Albert Dürer. WALLS encourages its students to host dorm gallery openings as a part of a larger campus art crawl.
Appreciating and even just looking at art on the wall of a museum is difficult. I really enjoy sitting on the floor. Seeing a work of art in person, especially as opposed to artificial reproductions, draws attention to its permanence and existence and a historical statement about the world. And when I do find a work that interests me, I like getting super close to it so that I can see the cracks in the paint and the record of the physical contact between artist and canvas — the term for realistic art, mimesis, literally means to put something in front of you.
These etchings of time that I’m so drawn to reflect the personality and presence of the piece and of the artist. After that initial shock wears off, I’ll go find a corner and start scanning the piece from corner to corner, side to side, edge to edge so that my mind can spatially comprehend the piece. The more time I spend with it, the more the piece becomes less formal, alienating and rigid — I can find a space for myself in the monumental canvas.
But there’s a world of difference between ogling at a museum work and hanging a painting on Command hooks in between your laundry basket and bookshelf. For one, there’s something wonderfully profane about bringing an example of High Culture into your own personal space. This is precisely what makes the idea so compelling. Pieces of art are usually passed over in museums, but now I would be forced to spend every waking moment in my room with it.
Such physical closeness would make me move around the piece more often. I could orient myself towards the daily tasks of living instead of looking. Over the course of a day, I could look up at the art, preoccupied by other responsibilities, and focus on a corner. Unable to tear myself away from the art, I would begin to develop an adversarial relationship with the piece. Whose room is it anyway?
When I saw the Pollock at the Anderson Collection for the first time, I couldn’t believe how wide it was. In those first few moments, I noticed most of what I remember about the piece. The specific layering of colors, green and red and purple on top of a shimmering black. The monumental signature in the lower right, disguised as another swirl. The painted peach backdrop. The dancing motion of Pollock’s hands as he flitted around the floor-bound canvas. The conversation with the pink and red Rothko just across the foyer.
But, such a memorable experience only comes in moments — it’s not every second when you look at artwork that you have a sublime revelatory experience. You can spend hours looking at a piece and experience nothing, or glance sideways at it from across a room and have the most sublime interaction. Distance, space and time alter my experience. I almost want to look at a piece of art for a few seconds, come back months later, look for 30 seconds and, a year later, look for a full minute. Flashes of amazement arrive in seconds, like lightning, and I never know when they will arrive.
Art usually exemplifies the artist’s own creative goals and inclinations. So I find it difficult to figure out where I can fit into such a predetermined structure. But the experience of living with a piece of art helps humanize the art and open it up in new ways. In a confined room, the literal distance between viewer and artwork is continually distorted to the point where neither maintains a stable identity. Find a space and find some art.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.