There are a few simple movable parts shared by every piece of art, whether it hangs on your refrigerator door or on a museum wall. They are:
In search of examples, we spent the day poking around a museum. (It’s actually two museums under one roof: the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.
While we were there, we found a handful of things that we think will help you understand these five qualities — and how they work — a little bit better.
Each work of art asks and answers a different question. How big is something? What’s it made of? What color is it? What shape is it? And how is it drawn?
To make things interesting, we added a sixth quality. It’s one that you can’t see with the naked eye. That’s because it’s the idea behind the artwork. It raises the most interesting question of all: What does it mean?
— Michael O’Sullivan
Sometimes the art is in the museum, and sometimes the museum itself is the art.
The roof of this museum’s courtyard is a kind of giant drawing. Designed by architect Norman Foster, it’s supposed to look like a puffy cloud floating over the building. Made from a steel grid that frames 864 glass windows — no two of which are alike — its wavy outline is not all that different from the wavy outline that you use when you draw clouds in art class. The only difference? This drawing weighs around 900 tons.
Put your nose close to the portrait, right, of Bill Clinton from the “America’s Presidents” exhibition and you will see that artist Chuck Close turned the former president’s portrait into a bunch of individual pixels. But unlike the pixels on a computer screen, each small square in Close’s painting is made up of several colors at once: for example, red, on top of green, on top of yellow.
Now look at the image at arm’s length, and you will see that all the colors blend together. There’s a lesson here: There’s no such thing as flesh tone.
You’ll need to borrow a pair of 3-D glasses from the museum to view Kota Ezawa’s video “LYAM 3D.” (They’re not the kind you use at today’s movies, but the old-fashioned kind, with one blue lens and one red lens. )
Here’s how it works: Ezawa started with a realistic movie with human actors. He then redrew the actors as two-dimensional cartoon characters so that they look like Flat Stanley. In a way, he’s showing you how far from real life art can take you. Then, by asking you to put on your glasses and see the movie in 3-D, he seems to be moving you back toward the real world.
What’s the point? Well, Ezawa wants us to think about how artists use pictures — movies, cartoons, paintings — to create a three-dimensional world on a flat surface.