Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Seeing...and not seeing

May 14, 2007 - 10:24am -- Carol Diehl
I bought four of the most perfect white ceramic coffee mugs at David Mellor’s in London, had friends tote them back to the States when I couldn’t fit them into my luggage, used them for two years, and then a couple of months ago one of them disappeared. I looked everywhere, asked everyone who had been in the house, even searched my next-door neighbor’s kitchen where I might have taken it for tea. How could a mug just disappear? Then, the other day at my desk while talking to Scott on the phone, I swiveled around and saw it sitting in plain sight on top of a tub of gesso on a shelf in my studio.

I’m an artist. Aren’t I supposed to be observant?

Or how about this? I’m sitting at the counter in the brand-new kitchen of the house I’ve lived in for now, oh, at least half a year, on the phone again, when I happen to look at the bank of drawers across from me and notice—for the first time—that the handles are asymmetrical. Instead of placing them in even rows, the carpenter put the handles on the wider middle drawers higher than those on the smaller drawers next to them. Could it really be that he did that? And could it really be that I never saw it before? It makes no sense. But what really makes no sense is that this thing I didn’t even notice for six months is now driving me crazy.

The human propensity to see what we expect to see rather than what’s really there is supposedly a normal phenomenon and even has a name: “inattentional blindness.” Magicians depend on it. But when I find it in myself it’s disorienting, as if the world I think I’m in, and the one I’m really in are alternate universes.

In the art world there’s “inattentional blindness” in that people often don’t experience more than what they think they’re supposed to, based on what they’ve been told the art is about. Whenever I go to a museum I’m struck by how many more people are gathered around the wall text than the art itself. When they finally turn to the art, viewing it has turned into a game (like the inverse of “What’s Wrong With this Picture?”) of finding in it what the writer of the wall text was talking about. Any possibility of another experience is lost.

My favorite example of art world “inattentional blindness”—or maybe just fatheadedness—has to do with an altercation I had once with another visitor in James Turrell’s roofless room at PS1-MoMA. Entitled Meeting, the installation was inspired by Turrell’s lifelong involvement with the Quaker faith, and if you’ve visited it you know that you sit on benches around the perimeter to take in the changing sky exposed above. There’s no placard that says you shouldn’t talk, but for most people, even children, the place itself inspires a blissful silence that’s punctuated only by incongruous city sounds from the street you’ve forgotten is below. That day was no different. The fifteen or so visitors were hushed—except for the guy next to me who could not stop whispering to his companion. Psssz, psssz, psssz. It was making me nuts. What could be so important that he had to talk about it just then? Psssz, psssz, psssz. I was annoyed, first with him and then with myself for being annoyed. Psssz, psssz, psssz. Unable to take it anymore I tapped him on the knee and whispered as gently as I could, “This piece is about silence.” He shut up for the next twenty minutes or so but must have been seething the whole time because as he got up to leave he leaned over me and hissed, “This piece isn’t about silence, it’s about light.”


I have been painting at the Art Students League with Mary Beth McKenzie. One of her observations about looking at the model and trying to make corrections to your drawing is that you can only see what needs to be fixed for about 20 minutes, and after that your vision adjusts to the difference between the two and the faults in drawing disappear. You will no longer be able to see to make the corrections, and must either change your orientation to the drawing (look at the paintng in a mirror), or put it down and come back later to see where you have gone wrong. It certainly is true that even when you are working specifically to see something, you may not. Maybe something about the way we are wired.

Submitted by ali herrmann (not verified) on
Interesting comment by Graham White...I know that I've certainly experienced this from time to time. I once had a teacher who told me that our drawings were three years ahead of our paintings. It took me about three years after college to realize this when, one day I found myself creating a painting based on a drawing from college that had been thrown away and merely existed in a poorly taken slide.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Hi Carol\

Keep up the blog! It is a fresh and nervy perspective on the climate of the times.

I would like to augment your thoughts on a few points.

Your discussion of 'white box' theory, Einstein and exhibition practices is both interesting and yet somewhat out of touch with the development and historical continuum of the issues.

That is, your stream of writing concentrates on the evidential experiences you have had or shared with others, however it is absent the underlying philosophical premise to which it gave rise.

One must go to the origin of the dramatic shift in art consciousness and production which inspiredthe 1960s revolution in art, George Kubler's 'The shape of Time, Remarks on the History of Things'.

Without understanding that this seminal treatise shaped the art of Smithson, Judd, Lewitt, Morris, Flavin, De Maria, Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Primary Sturctures, and directly and indirectly the'Light and Space'art movement of Southern California which included Irwin and Turrell, Wheeler, Nauman, etc. one must feel quite adrift in the sequence of events of the last forty or fifty years.

The 'white box' is essentially the same as the 'fictional space' concept used in scientific theory and practice. That is, certain artists used the gallery space as a Platonic void, within which certain things happen or can happen, things outside the odinary laws of physics that govern the reality of the space.

For example, if one is working with the dynamic of a vacuum in science theory, the terms and conditions of the particular 'fictional space', are defined at the outset: "This space is a Vaccum; it's narual laws are defined by those inherent in a vacuum". The document attending the reseach and iteration as well as the space itself, therefore, does not respond to evidential experience, but the fundamental laws--weightlessness, etc. Many famousexamples such as Maxwell's Demon proliforate in the history of science over the last century, a history which, by the way, parallels that of the theroetical Sciences quite literally.

The gallery space, and previously the loft studio space, was liberated from trivial viewer hospitality concerns, and used for esthetic or anti-esthetic concerns under these principles. Recall, Peggy Gugenheim had the walls of her gallery painted gray, and other galleries of the time simulated the domestic environbments in which art was to be hung like showrooms.

Certainly those never in touch with the issues of that era completely misundertstand the white box and see it only as a style trend. the psychology of selling standpoints came to profess that in order to close the deal, things to be sold have to be displayed in neitral environments also played a role in the agressive marketeering practices that have come to dominate the commercial gallery psyche.

Even gallerists, relying as they do on purposeful amnesia and disregard for emminence, do not understand that their white rooms and display situations are devoid of the original intent and in most cases, but not always of course,
(and I do not imply any cynicism here), can never be used for such liberated artistic intentions.

In 1910, Wilhelm Worringer published his thesis on eshtetic philosophy, 'Empathy and Abstraction', ushering in the age of visual abstraction. In 1960 another art historian George Kubler did the same with his little thesis and his name and text are mentioned in many interviews and documents of the 60s artists, most making note of the Cedar Bar and the 10th Street Gallery scene where many experiments with new art activity were launched. Essentially, the art of that time gave visual iteration to philosophical concepts.

The text also crossed over to other disciplins, archeology language, profoundly influence and perhaps giving rise to French philosophy and to 'Deconstructivism.'

Is it worth noting that Derrida was to come to tenure and house his archives are at UC Irvine where so much of the Light and Space art movement and the so-called 'starting from zero' concept art-without-tradition was born?

Just an fyi, not to diminish your writings and presentations, merely to more fully flush out the issues and origins of an art paradigm shift as relevant as any in history. Ther is more to the 'white box' than escapes the eye.

Keep it up.

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