When my daughter Nora was about six and we were living in New York, I decided to take her through MoMA’s permanent collection; I was curious about her response. I followed her as we moved through the galleries at break-neck speed. When she came upon something that interested her, she would abruptly halt and stare. Willem de Kooning’s Woman I (1950–1952), one of the masterpieces of US Abstract Expressionism, stopped her in her tracks. She looked at the almost violently gestural, highly abstracted image and said, “That woman is really ugly.” “Maybe the artist is painting what the woman was like on the inside rather than the outside,” I suggested. She looked worried, “I hope I don’t look like that on the inside,” she said. “You don’t,” I assured her, “you’re beautiful on the inside.” She challenged me, “How do you know?” “Because I know you,” I said, “and I know you’re beautiful on the inside.” She closed her eyes, looked kind of dreamy, and said, “I can see that you’re beautiful on the inside, too. You have bangs.”
I never knew whether she was serious or if that was a six-year-old’s idea of a joke (if so, it was pretty funny), but I do think of the incident as the beginning of her experience with the visual language of abstract art. Abstract works may skew conventional notions of representation, like the de Kooning or Carnegie Museum of Art’s famous sculpture Walking Man I (1960) by Alberto Giacometti, the tenuous fragility of which suggests man’s insignificance in the universe. Some abstraction is wholly non-representational, like much geometric abstraction. Some abstract art is concerned with perception. Our painting Yellow and Blue (Yellow, Blue on Orange) (1955) by Mark Rothko, for instance, depends on the interaction of one area of color, which may seem to recede, with another that may appear to come forward. That interaction also carries an emotional charge. Rothko’s painting, like much modernist abstraction, reflects a 20th-century concern with psychology. It, like the de Kooning and the Giacometti, is emotive in nature, looking to express a deeper sense of the human condition through symbols and the feelings that color, line, and the handling of paint or sculptural materials can evoke. Many abstract works—perhaps most—address formal and psychological issues simultaneously.
All these forms of abstraction provide a path away from daily life, and toward concerns about the self and the world. Museums are ideal places to engage such issues because they provide opportunities for contemplation that are increasingly rare in our society. I firmly believe that, as our environment becomes faster moving and more interactive, museums must follow suit. We need to be more welcoming, engaging, and nimble without losing sight of our mission to inspire, challenge, and inform through art. We want people to enjoy themselves and feel at home in our spaces. At the same time, we must offer an engagement with deeper meaning.
That day at MoMA I saw in my six-year-old a wonderful mix of analysis (her blunt assessment of the woman’s looks, curiosity about the nature of the work, and ability to make associations to it) and creativity (her imagination and humor). To me, it’s an unbeatable combination. It’s where the search for meaning resides.
De Kooning painted six in his most famous series of Women, and Woman VI (1953), the most abstract of all, belongs to Carnegie Museum of Art. Please take a look at it when you’re next here, and bring others with you—young and old—to see what associations it inspires. Clearly, there is no special knowledge required to address this work (although knowledge never hurts), just openness and interest. Also, please visit our beautiful display of holiday trees, shop in the store, and thoroughly enjoy yourself.
Happy holidays and best wishes for 2013.
Until next year,