Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees

March 19th, 2006 § Comments off

Tobias Meyer, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, has an uncommon knack for inciting art appreciation in others. John Colapinto describes Meyer’s method in last week’s New Yorker:

In the Antonello [da Messina] gallery, Meyer walked over to an Annunciation on the far wall and explained that the painting was rare in that it depicted only the Virgin Mary, and not the announcing angel. “You, as a viewer, are put in the position of Gabriel, who comes to tell her of the miraculous birth,” Meyer said. He stopped in front of the painting, which was made in about 1475 and is not much larger than a page of this magazine [about 8 inches by 11 inches]. Mary gazes out, past the viewer, her left hand holding her blue robe closed in what Meyer pointed out was a “protective” gesture. “Because you are a stranger,” he said. Then he fell silent. Something about his focussed presence facilitated a deeper absorption in the work, a greater attention to its delicacy, its quiet grace, and its reserves of understated emotion. I could not recall being so moved by a painting. Only when I turned from the canvas did he smile at me and say, with an arched eyebrow, “Amazing, no?”

Lawrence Weschler, one of my favorite authors, has a similar gift but very different methods. His new book, Everything That Rises, is a collection of what he calls “convergences”—visual rhymes that he has noticed between two photographs or paintings—which he uses as a jumping-off point for a vertiginous chain of free association. It sounds a bit like late-night dorm-room bullshitting; at his reading tonight at Cody’s Books in San Francisco, Weschler said one reviewer had described the book as “bong literature.” But Weschler’s erudition and relentless curiosity save the book from that trap. Instead, each page offers a new way to see the world.

Every museum should employ someone like Meyer or Weschler. That someone should neither be featured in a $10 audio tour nor responsible for leading people around hourly. Ideally, visitors would not even know of that someone’s existence until a mysterious stranger sidles up to one of them in a gallery and murmurs a few words that fill the lucky visitor with a sense of wonder.

(Incidentally, Weschler is not at all the timorous intellectual one would expect based on his old book jacket photo. He’s as bold and confident when he speaks as he is when he writes. A more recent photo comes closer to capturing who he is; image and personality would match even more closely, though, if he got a pair of contacts and a clean shave.)

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