A Fork in The Road: Untitled

A Fork in The Road
Decision Made in Art
Curated by Sydney Reed

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969

The correct way to view a Rothko painting is directly in front of it. Not so close that your breath reaches the layers upon layers of paint, but not so far that you can see the boring, beige walls of the gallery in your peripheral. Once the perfect position has been achieved, the next step is to stare and let your feelings lead the way. Cheesy, yes, but after a minute, the painting will take over. What seemed to be blocks of solid colors from a distance begin to move, revealing the brushstrokes that portray movement, depth, feeling. Certain paintings reveal deep, dark chasms of color, while other colors almost appear to be rising out of the painting. Each viewer interprets a Rothko painting in their own manner, deciding for themselves not whether the painting is good or not, but whether the painting makes them feel something, and if so, what. The viewer often has to make some sort of decision when standing in front of a painting, the most common being whether they like it or not, but some artists go beyond that basic decision and push the viewer to interpret the painting according to their own feelings, not just what they see.

Rothko capitalized on this ability to create art that caused the viewer to stare, reflect, and feel. Rothko conducted a particular process when creating his art, painting layer upon layer, creating a variety of strokes, and often sitting in front of the canvas for hours pondering what the painting meant to him and what it could mean to others. Rothko wasn’t creating art to be sold and hung above the fireplace, but was creating masterpieces that had specific lighting, placement and viewing requirements in order to fully grasp the true talent and message of the painting. He was particular about where his art went, constantly concerned that the art would be ridiculed, and wanted to send it to “a place of reflection and safety,” according to John Logan’s Red, a play that explores Rothko’s talent.

I believe that part of Rothko’s concerns derived from a worry that people wouldn’t just ridicule the art because they didn’t like it, but because they didn’t understand it. If Rothko didn’t instruct people the correct way to hang and view the art, they could completely miss the enchantment of the brushstrokes. And if they missed this element of the painting, the viewer wouldn’t have the ability to decide how the painting made them feel, an element I believe in an integral part of Rothko’s art.

When I first looked at the painting above, I noticed how the light blue almost appears to be a sphere, rotating towards the back of the painting, as if I was standing on a planet looking over the rolling horizon. But the more I zoomed in and looked closer, the clearer the brushstrokes appeared, and the line where the colors meet began to move. I felt engulfed by the painting, and found myself feeling relieved. The contrast between the almost black purple and the lighter shades of blue are serene, but that’s just how I interpret this work of art. That’s my decision about the painting, a radically different decision than what most others will feel. So I challenge you to zoom into this painting and observe how it makes you feel, and form your own decision about Rothko’s art. 


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A Fork in The Road: Madame X

A Fork in The Road
Decision Made in Art
Curated by Sydney Reed

John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1883-84

Have you ever struggled with a choice so much that you never reached a definite decision you felt completely comfortable with? It’s that one decision in a collection of choices that catches you off guard and then proceeds to make you question everything else. For Sargent, this decision and subsequent questioning began with a portrait. In February of 1883, Sargent began a portrait commission for the prominent socialite, Amélie Gautreau. This portrait had the potential to be beneficial for both Sargent and Amélie, as past portraits had elevated the fame of rising social stars and painting a well-known woman could lead to more commissions for Sargent. After a difficult period of time sketching Amélie, as she was still a busy social figure who had many engagements to attend to, and contemplating how to execute the portrait, Sargent finally had a clear idea and began the work that he would submit to the Paris Salon of 1884.

As Sargent began to paint the life size portrait of Amélie, his confidence quickly began to wane. What began as a striking, confident and slightly sensual painting began to look too radical on certain days, and not radical enough for the Salon on other days. Sargent’s concerns about the original painting were so intense that he scraped and repainted the canvas numerous times, resulting in an uneven canvas, something Sargent could not present to the public. He, thus, painted a copy, hoping to make less changes, but then still couldn’t decide whether the original was satisfactory, or whether he should continue the copy. He invited his mentor Carolus-Duran to help dispel Sargent’s fears, and decided, after receiving advice, to abandon the copy and add the finishing touches to the original.

The original painting looked similar to the one you see in this blog, with one slight change that really wasn’t viewed as so minor – Amélie's right strap. The portrait Sargent submitted to the Salon had a strap that was sensually falling from Amélie's right shoulder, revealing nothing, but insinuating everything (at least according to the viewers of the portrait). What seemed like a rather harmless decision in a collection of overwhelming choices at the time turned into a scandal when the Salon opened. Men and women alike found the painting too sexual and vulgar, revealing too much of the young ladies figure and making her look both sexualized and too pale, almost like a corpse when contrasted against the blackness of the dress. People ridiculed the painting in conversations, newspapers printed negative reviews, Amélie was mortified by the negative reaction, and Sargent didn’t know what to do.

Sargent could not remove the painting from the Salon, and had to wait until the Salon was over before he could reclaim the portrait that threatened to destroy his future as a portraitist and Amélies’ future as a social figure. Once the portrait returned to Sargent’s studio, he immediately painted over the fallen strap and placed a new one on Amélie's shoulder. Sargent did not paint the strap to be re-exhibited so the public could view the possibly redeeming factor, but possibly so Sargent could see the other side of the decision he never fully felt confident in.

Artists have to make choices every time they stare at a canvas, never knowing how that decision will impact how their painting is received and criticized. For some paintings, as evident in Madame X, it can come down to only a few brushstrokes that determine not only the fate of the painting, but the fate of the artist and the subject. However, there is another factor at work – time. While Sargent’s masterpiece was originally viewed as a scandal and pushed aside once the backlash of the original showing faded, the painting rose to fame after Sargent’s death. Sometimes, all a painting needs is the right crowd of viewers who are prepared to look past the original skepticisms, judgments, and fallen strap, and view a skilled masterpiece that portrays beauty, class, and decisions that set Sargent apart from other portraitists. 

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A Fork in The Road: Alchemy

A Fork in The Road
Decisions Made in Art
Curated by Sydney Reed

Jackson Pollock, Alchemy, 1947

Art is an integral part of world history. Without portraits, certain world leaders and figures would lack a face to their name, battles would lose color, texture, pain and specific details as time passed, and rebellions would lose their propaganda. Art has the capability to capture decisions in certain moments of time and ensure that they are never forgotten, and share the feelings of the original participants in that moment.

In 1945, the nature of warfare changed forever. The decision to drop the atomic bomb shocked the world, leading some to clap and others to cower. No longer would old tanks and submarines be the ultimate threat of war - nuclear warfare took over the scene, giving supreme power to countries with the weapon, and inflicting fear and tension upon all countries.

The decision to drop the bomb was represented through newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and art – including photography and paintings. The photos showed the physical reality of the destruction, causing the viewer to feel the wrath of the bomb, while paintings, such as those by Pollock, rather illustrated the anxieties felt by the viewers due to the bomb. The harsh layers of contrasting bright and dark colors allude to the rubble of the weapon and the physical chaos it created, while simultaneously illustrates the mental anxieties felt by the worlds’ inhabitants. According to Kirk Varnedoe, “Pollock created an art into which a lot of people projected a lot of anxieties of the post-war era. They felt that this war was savage, violent, apocalyptic in a way that they felt was attuned to the age of the bomb.” No portion of the painting is peaceful, nowhere is there a place to rest your eyes. Strikes of colors lead every which way, adding to the chaos of the painting that provides no solace – only anxiety. Alchemy, along with other Pollock paintings, portrays a momentous historical decision and the chaos and anxiety that decision created.

*The quote from Kirk Varnedoe came from a PBS Newshour video. Follow this link for the complete transcript - http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-jan-june99-pollock_1-11/

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A Fork in The Road: The City Rises

A Fork in The Road
Decisions Made in Art
Curated by Sydney Reed

Umberto Boccioni, The City Rises, 1910

To put it frankly, the Futurists loved themselves. In their minds, their art was not only the future, but also the art that would replace all past works and become the new model for all art. They planned to fulfill this by destroying anything defined as “old” to their standards. They hoped to “destroy museums, libraries, academies of every kind,” all in an effort to leave only their art standing.  The Futurists attempted to force their theory of art upon others, insisting that speed, war, momentum, force, and industry were the ways of the future, all elements of their paintings. The Futurists left practically no stone unturned in their valiant effort to make their voices heard, not only expressing their plans through paintings, but also through manifestos, speeches, rallies, sculptures and Noise Orchestra concerts. The Futurists urged Italy to join the first World War, a movement that would both support the Futurists claim that war was the future, but also could possibly lead to the destruction of “old” art and the institutions that placed such art on a pedestal.

The Futurists wanted their art to change every viewer’s perspective of the world. They wanted the viewer to feel as though they were part of the painting, engulfed by the swarm of people, taxis, bikes, etc. that raced down the road every day. They used harsh, short lines to show “flux,” blurred scenes with a cubist influence (a little hypocritical, don’t you think?) to show the speed of a racing car, and contrasting colors that caused your eye to rapidly move from color to color. The Futurists made their art forceful, pieces of art you couldn’t walk by without it catching your eye. But, that was the point? Futurists wanted to ensure that everyone recognized their talent, yes, but more so their message. The future was coming quickly, you could say - and the Futurists probably would have - almost as a train racing to carry weapons to war. The Futurists weren’t about to let people remain unaware of this speed, and in order to do so, they removed the viewers’ decisions to remain in the past and miss their art in the gallery, or their rallies in the street, or their manifestos that appeared in newspapers and were read aloud.  

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A Fork in The Road: Narcissus

A Fork in The Road
Decisions Made in Art
Curated by Sydney Reed

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Narcissus, ca. 1597

Sometimes, the story behind the painting doesn’t completely match how you view the painting. There are times when the history of the painting’s subject doesn’t seem to match the feeling emanated from the work hanging on the wall. I first experienced this when viewing Caravaggio’s Narcissus. When I look at this painting, I see sadness. Not the sadness that comes with dropping your iPhone to find the screen has shattered, but sincere, deep, earth-shattering pain. This sadness first comes from the darkness of the painting. Although Narcissus is lit almost by a spotlight, the contrast between that light and the darkness surrounding him is drastic. He seems utterly alone, with only his reflection to keep him company. His face seems forlorn, as if he is realizing something, and his left hand appears to be preparing to wipe across the water, blurring the reflection.

I decided to do further research on the painting and understand why Narcissus looks so incredibly sad, only to find a quite unexpected story. Narcissus’ story appears in Metamorphoses as told by Ovid. It is written that Narcissus fell in love with the reflection he saw of himself in a pond and could not stop staring. He eventually died while staring at his reflection, as he couldn’t leave the image he saw in the rippling water.

To me, this tells the story of a vain boy whose self absorption led to his demise, but the painting almost reflects a boy who realizes the faults of his ways as he stares at his reflection. He stares past the surface of the reflection and realizes what his vanity has led to, and he understands that he is trapped in his cycle of love for himself.

After reading the story behind the painting, I questioned my view of the painting. I began to wonder why I felt what I felt when looking at the painting, but then I stopped myself. My translation of the painting was just that – mine. If this year’s art history class has taught me anything, its to be confident in my decisions regarding art and to not worry when my opinions of art clash with others’, so long as I can express my decision with observations that support how the painting makes me feel. The biggest decision a viewer of a painting can make is deciding how to interpret the work as a whole and why such interpretation is warranted. So if you view Caravaggio’s Narcissus in a completely different manner than I do, that is perfect and honestly, expected. 

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A Fork in The Road: The Rehearsal of The Ballet Onstage

A Fork in The Road
Decisions Made in Art
Curated by Sydney Reed

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of The Ballet Onstage, 1874

Degas is talented. That’s a given. His brushstrokes simultaneously show the harshness and finesse of ballet dancers, his equestrian scenes display both the peaceful moments before the race and the chaos of galloping hooves once the race begins, and his hands mold exquisite sculptures.  Some can argue that elements of his works have flaws, but very few look at his art and dismiss him as an untalented wannabe. But what if you knew the details of Degas’ process? 

What if you learned that behind each brush stroke was a man who made his models uncomfortable, not just physically, as he positioned them in challenging positions for hours, but also mentally? Degas would use the “keyhole effect,” the process of painting women in positions in which they would not normally be depicted in, as if someone was peeking through a crack in the door, a rather disturbing way to think about art. Degas wasn’t just admiring the dance moves he depicted in his paintings of the ballet, he was also analyzing the movements of the women, possibly sexualizing them in his head, but, supposedly, never acting on those images. 

Degas is assumed to never have had relations with a woman. Some credit this to a fear felt by Degas that interaction with women would tarnish his ability to so accurately depict them in his art. He would observe women’s every move, make them endure painful positions (the best examples shown in the bathtub paintings), and all the while turn out amazing paintings that never showed this distanced yet oddly physical relationship. He observed and painted the ballerina’s in their most vulnerable state – rehearsal. Degas focused on the times when the moves had yet to be perfected, when the dancers could fall, fail, and exhibit the pain that became beauty. Degas watched over his subjects,
Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal (La salle de danse), ca. 1891
removed from the scene physically and, as some say, emotionally, but still managed to create beautiful, graceful scenes of tutus and pointe shoes. The only way to describe the relationship between Degas, his subjects and the art he created is creepy, yet eerily beautiful.


All this begs to differ, at what point does the viewer decide that enough is enough? When does the viewer dismiss the painting not because of a lack of talent, but because of the actions of the artist? After learning about Degas’ rather abusive relationship with women, does the viewer simply walk past the scene of ballerinas when touring the gallery, without granting the painting even a sideways glance? Compare this with the celebrities of today. If an all-star athlete with an outstanding record and celebrity image commits a heinous crime, do you stop wearing that person’s jersey? Or does that depend on the crime, the conviction, or even how famous the person really was, or stays? At what point can you separate the artist from the image? This decision is left to each individual viewer. So what do you think? Does Degas’ process overshadow his talent, or does the final product stand alone, untarnished from Degas’ tactics?  

Authors' Note – Many thanks to Natalie Dockhorn who introduced me to the other side of Degas in both class discussions and in her senior research paper, Degas and His Women: An Analysis of Degas’s Use of Women Throughout His Career. I credit my argument to her. 

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A Fork in The Road: The Death of Marat

A Fork in The Road
Decisions Made in Art
Curated by Sydney Reed

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793

When I look at this painting, all I see and hear is silence. There is no harsh movement, no overly dramatic light, nothing but the small cut, drops of blood and knife that allude to the act that has just been committed in the room. Marat rests alone in the tub in front of a peaceful, vacant space. Nothing about this painting reveals a painful and gruesome murder scene. Rather, the painting almost alludes to a heavenly ascent, as the light illuminates Marat, and his face appears relaxed, as if he is resting. So, why would David paint such an illustration of death-by-knife?

David had an agenda when painting this masterpiece: make Marat appear to be a saint, someone to look up to and worship. Why else would David paint Marat’s skin as pure and unscathed, except for the knife wound, when, in reality, Marat was sitting in the tub due to a skin disease? And why else would David allude to an almost heavenly ascent? But, why go to such lengths when painting an after-death-portrait of Marat? To answer all these questions, one must investigate why Marat was murdered. Marat was an influential figure of the Montagnards during the French Revolution, and was a chief informant on people whose loyalties were questioned. Marat published a paper in which he would ridicule those he did not trust or those who he believed did not have the same hopes for France’s future as he and his party. These people would then, most commonly, be taken and killed. As you can imagine, with Marat’s actions during the Revolution came enemies. Charlotte Corday, a Girondin, blamed Marat for causing the deaths of many and acted upon that anger one afternoon with knife in hand.


So, why would David paint such a portrait of a man who had enemies and could be blamed for the deaths of hundreds? But, on the other side of the coin, why did people despise Marat when he was helping the Revolution? Was Marat a hero or villain? Was he right in writing those letters, condemning people to death, or did he deserve the punishment he received? Is the space blank behind his deathbed to display a peacefulness that cannot be disturbed, or has no one arrived to mourn his death? David certainly had an opinion, and boy did he try to display that opinion to the viewers of the painting. However, no matter how hard any painter tries to sway the public's opinion, once the facts come into play, the viewer can either accept the artists' rendition, or choose to ridicule it. Thus, as much as the style of this painting influences the viewer, once the true story of Marat is revealed, it is up to the viewer to decide whether Marat was a hero or a man whose pen killed hundreds.

Editor's Note: Over the summer, the site will host student-curated exhibits. They will run for seven posts, and then move onto the next exhibit. This was the course's final project. 

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