This week’s post is by Gabriella Kula and Luned Palmer. Gabriella teaches school, family, adult and access groups at The Noguchi Museum, The Jewish Museum, and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Gabriella is also the director of Havurah, the JCC Manhattan’s experiential Jewish education program for young children. Luned freelances as a museum educator, facilitating all types of programs for all ages at The Noguchi Museum, The Morgan Library and Museum, The Jewish Museum and The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. She has worked as a high school and elementary school teacher, camp director, graphic designer, curriculum designer and teaching artist.
During a guided gallery experience, one of the most common questions visitors ask is, “How did the artist make this?” An artist’s process is often complicated, obscure and lengthy; it is even sometimes intentionally obfuscated by the artist. A museum-goer views a work of art, she might be able to deduce the medium and the subject, but most likely she will not be able to see how the artist took the work from beginning through completion.
As museum educators, we have many ways to share what we know about an artist’s process during a guided gallery experience. The most obvious strategy is to share what we have read or heard in a curatorial lecture or an artist’s statement. However, we have found that merely telling visitors how a work was made has not been a successful catalyst for deeper conversation about an artwork. If anything, it is a conversation ender.
We suspect that when people ask process-related questions they are actually operating from a place of “adaptive narcissism,” which is the positive or constructive type of narcissism that encourages us to gain new knowledge so that we can be the best versions of ourselves. Perhaps the question participants are really asking is, “How can I make a meaningful work of art?”
To respond to this reframed question, museum educators might offer museum visitors opportunities to experience an artistic process through an activity. Activities that mirror part of the process an artist used to produce a work allow participants to own that part of the artistic process. Such copycat experiences open up channels of meaning and understanding for participants by allowing them to experience the challenges artists might have faced, make choices as artists do, and ultimately feel like creators.
Three artists stand out to us for having demystified at least parts of their processes, offering us tools to create gallery activities on the theme of process: Isamu Noguchi, who wrote about his work in his own catalogue; Taryn Simon, who has opened up her studio to the public and spoken explicitly about her process; and Gerhard Richter, who allowed filmmaker Corinna Belz to make a video of him working.
Here are examples of activities we have used focusing on a single element of these three artists’ processes.
Isamu Noguchi, Fudo
As author Hayden Harrera said in Listening to Stone, her biography of Isamu Noguchi, for Noguchi, “the materials out of which his sculpture would be made, would, he said, be part of their content” (Herrera, 77). In other words, materials have meanings. In turn, when looking at Noguchi’s art, we often make connections between his choice of materials and the meaning of his artwork.
During a gallery program at the Noguchi Museum we hone in on the importance of material selection as part of an artist’s process through an activity we call Symbolic Materials. In this activity we bring a basket with a range of materials into the gallery: swatches of metal, plastic, different fabrics, shells, stones, and a variety of wood. We then ask participants to choose two materials that represent themselves and explain why they chose those materials.
After facilitating the activity, we encourage participants to look back and the work and notice the materials Noguchi used. Naturally people observe the paradoxical formal qualities of the two materials within Fudo (reflective vs. rough, hollow vs. solid, geometric vs. organic). They notice the way the two materials are connected to one another (i.e.: “one part balances atop the other,” “one part supports the other,” “one part violently cuts into the other”). When visitors comment on the human stature of the work, we often share this quote by Noguchi from his catalog: “This piece has a dual history – Japan (Mannari), where I carved the sculpture and America (New York), where the base was made. The concept is as indivisible as I am.” Ultimately we tie the conversation together by inviting participants to interpret their observations, and connect the materials to Noguchi’s life.
Although this activity doesn’t explain Noguchi’s entire process, it does shed light on Noguchi’s notion that materials are instrumental to a work’s meaning, and that materials can represent an aspect of the self. The activity also gives participants the chance to think about their own identities as they consider different materials, gain a deeper understanding of how Noguchi expressed his personal history through his material choices, and more generally consider the symbolism of materials in art.
Recently a participant was so moved by her experience with this work that she began to cry as she said, “In a society in which assimilation is embraced, I am comforted to find that I’m not the only one who sees my dual heritage as a point of incredible pain.” This deep reaction would not have been evoked had we just shared Noguchi’s quote without leaving time to experience some part of the process itself.
Taryn Simon, Swimming Pools
Taryn Simon’s work is currently displayed in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin. The curators share information about Simon’s process on the label for her work Swimming Pools:
The source material for these works comes from the Picture Collection of the New York Public Library, arranged in categories of the artist’s choosing. The library’s image bank, which comprises some 1.29 million pieces, organized under twelve thousand subject headings, is a grab bag of postcards, prints, posters, and pictures clipped from books and magazines; in it, masterworks of art appear alongside travel brochures… As Taryn Simon’s work suggests, bias and happenstance contribute to the formation of ideas, and both can be informative, reflecting the society that created the archive.
To mirror her process of using found source material to create a work of art, we have used a poetry activity with “found” words. In the activity, each participant is given four small pieces of paper and asked to write down four unique words about Simon’s work, one on each piece of paper. The educator collects the words and shuffles them. Participants are then asked to group together in teams of four and are given 16 of the shuffled words. Together they use their words to create a poem about the work. Participants may add small words in, change words tenses, or remove words as needed, but are essentially required to use just their 16 “found” words. Poems are then shared with the larger group.
After the activity, we encourage visitors to make connections between the poetry activity and the work of art. We explain that just as Simon collected images and arranged them to make visual art about society, so did the participants collect words and arrange them to make poetry about their interpretation. We ask how the process felt, and ask, “what do you notice now?” Visitors often describe how different their relationship with the artwork is after having done the activity. This activity illuminates Simon’s concept that there is power in the way found material is organized, that this organization in itself is a form of art, and that incorporating what already exists into an artwork is a meaningful way to reflect a society’s values or a group’s identity. As one participant reflected upon completing this activity, “Poetry is so much less scary when I don’t have to come up with my own words,” which to us implies an early stage understanding of the power of appropriation and objet trouvé, which are deeply connected to Simon’s process.
Gerhard Richter, Photo Paintings
Gerhard Richter is notoriously reclusive and secretive about his process. However, he did allow a video to be made of him working in his studio on paintings from his Abstracts series, which is the series subsequent to his Photo Paintings series. In each of these series Richter paints a meticulous artwork only to squeegee away its details, leaving just the most important colors and sometimes a faint image. As he said in his notes from 1964-65,
“… I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.”
We imagine that the Blackout activity would be useful for clarifying the ideas of both abstraction and minimalism, which are essential to Richter’s work. To facilitate this activity, instruct participants to fill an entire page with words about the work before them. Then, ask them to use a Sharpie or pencil to cross out all but the most important words in the text. Finally, have participants share their essential words and discuss. This version of Richter’s process provides an opportunity to create and then eliminate, in order to hone in on just the most necessary facets of a work.
It is clear that artists’ processes are usually impossible to know from observing a work. And while museum educators can explain processes verbally to museum visitors, we have found that that does not satisfy them, nor does it further connect them to any artist or work of art. Process-linked activities, however, have the power to expand imaginations and open different doors for each individual. We use gallery activities to explore elements of artist’s processes as a way to enable visitors to make personal connections to artists and their work and become creators and artists in their own rights.
What experiences have you had attempting to illuminate an artist’s process through a gallery activity? Do you think it’s possible to expose an artist’s process through a gallery activity? Why or why not?