Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

What do you see?

Everything I learned about art criticism, or understanding what’s going on in an artwork, begins with looking. ‘Describe what you can see’, my art teacher would say. As a twin I became interested in the way I looked at something and formed a different interpretation to my brother. How was it that we had such divergent interests? Forming completely different interpretations from our observations is a fundamentally human impulse I think. Our senses connect us with the world, but sight is often seen as the most objective and rational of the group.

Writing about and appreciating art are subjective acts. This raises the question of perspective – from which position does the looking happen? Objectivity seems moot in this context. But the appreciation and analysis of creative expression remains vital for several reasons: an artist’s reputation and profile is formed through critical writing about them (while alive and often re-evaluation after they die); a critical evaluation can introduce an audience to the artist’s practice or approach, providing a gateway to understanding ‘what is going on’ in the artwork from their perspective of viewer/critic; criticism is also seen as vital for establishing the canon, what is “good” and “worthy” (and later, what is expensive).

I am curious about criticism and its role, particularly the way objectivity collides with personal preference and interpretation. What is taste? Why does it matter if a person’s taste in something runs counter to apparent accepted “good” taste? Seemingly “bad” movies can be rehabilitated or redeemed with the right interpretation. And don’t get me started on the epistemic questions of whose voices have been validated by Western hegemony and whose have not (or do get me started, I do this for a living).

The critic is seen as someone both knowledgeable and qualified to make pronouncements about a work of art or an exhibition. They’ve looked at a lot of art, so they know what quality is because their eyes have done a lot of looking. But it remains the case that everyone’s interpretation of art—and the world—comes through their subject position, their experience of the world.

Am I a critic?

I am situated by my education, ethnic background, age, and location, among other things. I want to explore how these impact on the art I like and what I have to say about it. If you are also curious about the role criticism and the relationship between viewing and knowledge production, then perhaps you will enjoy this series.

I intend to explore my own response to artworks old and new by asking ‘What do you see?’ What will I see? I’m interested in exploring what critics said at the time about artworks we now love or loath. I’ll explore these and other questions using a single artwork (each month). I’m guided by my taste and curious to see how it’s formed through my self-selecting visual diet. I’m also open to suggestions!

Artwork 1

Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952)

I’ve chosen this painting as the starting point for the simple reasons that a) I’ve seen it in person and b) it’s a good one for seeing how criticism works.

In Blue Poles we see immediately hectic movement and colour. There are no brush marks or figurative elements to discern from the frenetic lines of orange, yellow and navy blue. White is also present near the edges of this canvas, as are the almost imperceptible silver-green hues. The most striking element of this painting is the six vertical lines dividing the canvas almost equally. They are the poles referred to in the title. Paint has been poured, dripped and slung onto the canvas surface. The patterns formed by curves and intersecting lines are arbitrary. The viewer feels disoriented first by the large scale (212.1 x 488.9 cm), as well as the incomprehensibility of the lines. Looking at a work like Blue Poles it becomes clear that the artist wasn’t motivated by an idea of what the canvas might look like at the end. They were focussed on the process.

Looking again at the colour it seems that different colours elicit different lines form the artist’s hand. Orange is meandering and weaving across the canvas; white is clumped and splodged in a sort of slow then fast pattern; silver is again frenetically applied with no clear pattern; yellow seems to form a middle layer with verticals and diagonals that are short and partly obscured.

Overall the viewer is unsure where to look. The eye does follow the blue poles, but then gets caught on an orange and yellow tangent before circling back around the edges of white. Movement is what we feel when looking at Blue Poles as well as a sense of restless energy and untempered excitement.

I visited Blue Poles in Canberra sometime in 2012 and this description of what I saw was published in fragmented magazine, vol. 1. Reading my impressions now I think to myself ‘you’re trying very hard to create a voice, but this section isn’t bad’.

View the painting.

I haven’t included a reproduction of the painting here so that after reading what I saw you can see if it resonates with what you see.

In early August 1950 Berton Roueché, an interviewer (and medical writer) from the New Yorker, visited Jackson Pollock and his wife—artist—Lee Krasner. When asked for the name of a ‘handsome, arresting job – a rust-red background laced with skeins of white, black and yellow’ occupying most of the end wall in the large room, Lee Krasner replied that Pollock had stopped labelling his paintings with conventional titles. ‘…Now he simply numbers them. Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a picture for what it is – pure painting.’1 Pollock agreed:

‘Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment. Only he didn’t know it.’2

So even when a critic forms a judgement of an artwork, the artist will have their own interpretation of that judgement. Painters at this time appear to have read reviews of their work, in the opposite way people avoid “reading the comments” today. Their work was new and elicited a lot of discussion. I do find myself wondering who the critic was the Pollock was referring to.

Interestingly Roueché wasn’t even an art critic, he was a medical writer whose books and articles went on to inspire the television series House. His interview titled ‘Unframed Space is behind a subscription wall on the New Yorker website and is perhaps more discussion than judgement.

When I think of judging Pollock’s work I think of Clement Greenberg. Greenberg was the most influential art critic in America during the 1950s and into the1960s. He liked Pollock’s work and took an early interest. He listened to what the artist was intending to achieve in his paintings, as he describes in this 1981 footage. Greenberg has himself been criticised though, for favouring a grand narrative of progress in art.3

Lee Krasner tells Greenberg that Pollock is going to be a ‘great painter’, in fact she introduced the two men. Abstract Expressionism must have been a force for people to call something great that early on. This was in part the result of Greenberg’s championing of Abstract Expressionism and his style of criticism (which is described in this excellent lithub article). He believed that abstraction was a way to resist the politicisation and commercialisation of art, it was also anti-fascist.

Tell me what you really think?

Looking at Blue Poles now, I’m reminded of why I really like Abstract Expressionism. I like bright colours and I don’t much mind what the artist was trying to do. Rothko is probably my favourite and I tried really hard to be moved emotionally when I saw his paintings in the San Francisco MOMA in 2009. Mostly looking at those paintings made me want to move paint around on a canvas. It still does. It wasn’t that they were underwhelming but it felt like they held a secret and refused to share it.

That’s still pretty powerful when you think about it.

Pollock’s work, for me, doesn’t hold any secrets. You can see what he’s doing and it looks fun and serious and masculine and “heroic”. That said, I did enjoy standing in front of Blue Poles. I like big paintings for the way they make the viewer feel small.

It’s really the ideas more than the object that resonates in Abstract Expressionism, and those ideas as about emotion, expression. For Pollock, who became known as an “action painter” it was the physicality of the process that was important. His canvases are on the floor and he’s spattering paint everywhere. The idea that the body makes the art, and the art expresses some kind of fundamental emotions through that technique. I love that! The mind is secondary in this equation, there’s no pre-empting what looks “good”. It’s quite appealing to think about making art in this way.

Do you love/loath/feel something about an artwork? Would you like me to tell you what I see?

1 Krasner cited in Roueché, The Grove Book of Art Writing, 546.

2 Ibid.

3 Arthur C Danto cited in The Grove Book of Art Writing, 571.