Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

June 14, 2011
Alfred Jensen, The Integer Rules the Universe (1960) oil on canvas 75 x 49 in.(May be subject to copyright).

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within…. Ralph Waldo Emerson, vision therapy I wrote about in an earlier post—from which, BTW, I have just graduated, improved visually, cognitively and energetically.
January 23, 2010
Jasper Johns, The Critic Sees, 1961

My very first blog post was about seeing and, as I mentioned awhile ago, I started vision therapy in the fall. Ever since reading about the Bates Method, and then the book, Take Off Your Glasses and See by Jacob Liberman, I’ve been interested in the behavioral approach to maintaining vision. I have 20/30 vision and an astigmatism, and while I have always been urged to wear glasses like the rest of my family, at some point I just stopped, and am convinced that the exercises I’ve done for many years on my own (learned through yoga class and the Liberman book), are the reason I’ve been able to see so well all these years.

The medical profession, however still remains skeptical. I find it very un-scientific that “scientists” often have opinions about modalities they know nothing about, based on whether or not they think they “should” work, or dismiss them when they know they work but don’t know how. Like the anesthetists who visited China in the 70s and observed people waving and smiling during abdominal surgery but made no changes in their practices, optometrists know about this stuff but doing things differently, I guess, would be just too much trouble. Example: the mainstream optometrist who once said to me during an examination, “If everyone did what you’re doing, they wouldn’t need glasses.” Duh. Okay, while I’m not naïve but get that anesthesiology has a lot to do with the pharmaceutical corporations (I’d not be surprised to learn that they’re now prevailing even in China), I doubt the makers of frames and lenses are that powerful or organized.

Anyway, I researched behavioral optometrists and scheduled an appointment in September with Dr. Theresa Ruggiero in Northampton (MA) for a regular checkup, with the concern that while I could always see (no trouble with distance or reading a telephone book) I found focusing in general was becoming something of a struggle. Dr. Ruggiero told me that it was an issue with “convergence,” a condition that glasses not only would not help, but could make worse. Since then I’ve had 45 minutes of therapy weekly, along with about 15 minutes a day of exercises at home.

What I’ve noticed is not so much a change in vision, but that I’m more relaxed, more mentally alert, and with less energy going into simply trying to see straight, have much more stamina. Some of the exercises consist of eye movements done with a metronome, which has been very difficult for me, as my eyes want to rush ahead. These are still challenging but I’m getting better, and find that I’m not rushing ahead in life so much either. In addition, retesting last week showed improvement in significant specific areas (they didn’t give tell me the percentiles when I started, because they’ve found people are often discouraged by them):

Reading comprehension went from 80% to 100%. (I remember scoring 100% in high school, so there was some loss over the years).

Eye tracking (the timed test consists of reading out loud numbers in columns vertically or spaced unevenly in horizontal rows) went from the 10th percentile to the 99th percentile.

Visual discrimination (discerning which images have slight differences, like those games in magazines) went from the 45th percentile to the 79th percentile.

Visual Memory—The test consists of looking at an image on a flash card briefly and then picking it out of a lineup, and I’m glad they didn’t tell me my original score on this one, because I started in the 7th percentile—shocking for an artist!—and am now in the 42nd, still shocking but better.

I mentioned to Dr. Ruggiero that while reading is easier but not entirely where I’d like it to be (letters a little fuzzy if too small), I’ve never had any problem doing the very precise and detailed work my art presently requires. She said that’s because reading happens in the brain with the translation of symbols into meaning, while with painting and drawing the whole body is involved.

I have six more months of therapy to go. Although most of it is covered by insurance, it’s a huge time commitment because of the commute—one hour each way—but the office tells me they’ve had patients come from as far away as Burlington (VT), a three-hour drive.

Everything changes with age and habit, and to have a physical trainer to help maintain strength, balance and posture, is considered fairly normal. It seems to me that this other aspect of our well-being, which has so much to do with brain function, also deserves regular attention. What if all children were tested in school, given corrective exercises to do daily, and it was something we maintained throughout life, like going to the dentist? Think about how many learning issues could be uncovered and corrected and, I believe from my experience, psychological ones—and how much more we could be getting out of life, simply by being more present to it.

To find a behavioral optometrist go to, and look for doctors with the initials FCOVD after their names. Cursory investigation in the New York area uncovered two institutions—the SUNY College of Optometry in Manhattan and the Ezra Medical Center in Brooklyn—that specialize in vision therapy. I welcome more information, as I know several people who are looking for such a specialist.

If you have access to The New Yorker digital archive, you can read more about Dr. Ruggiero’s work in an article entitled “Stereo Sue” by Oliver Sachs in the June 19, 2006 issue.
September 26, 2009
Jasper Johns, The Critic Sees, 1961

As I’ve boasted elsewhere on this blog, that despite being a certain age, I have nearly perfect vision, distant and near, and don’t require glasses even to read a telephone book (not that anyone uses them anymore). But I noticed changes in my focusing ability in the last couple of years, so took myself to a behavioral optometrist in Northampton who pronounced my eyes healthy and my vision good except for a “convergence problem.” When I told her I didn’t believe in glasses she said was not against them entirely and there were situations where they could be helpful, but mine was not one of them and in fact glasses would make the condition worse.

The upshot was that I had an hour-long test on Thursday and, in addition to doing 15-20 minutes of daily exercises on my own, for the next six months will be driving to Northampton once a week for vision therapy. What’s interesting about the test was that it didn’t seem to have as much to do with the eyes as the brain. It was all about perception (“look at this image and tell me which of the images below matches it”) and visual memory (“look at this image for 5 seconds and after I take it away tell me which one it matches”) and reading comprehension.

The last reading comprehension test I took was in high school, where I excelled at being an “under-achiever” in the parlance of the day. In an effort to get at the root of the problem (nobody figured out that I just wasn’t interested) I was given a reading comprehension test on which I scored 100%, but because they didn’t know what else to do with me I was put in remedial reading class anyway—after which (surprise!) I again scored 100%.

This time my score was 80% and when I was taking this and the other tests (which I would have assumed, being an artist, I’d be better at than most—and might be for all I know; Michelle, the therapist was supremely noncommittal) I could almost feel parts of my brain being grouchily awakened, as if from deep sleep. It was actually uncomfortable, not fun at all, and in order to prepare for the hour-plus drive back I took a therapeutic walk—to the candy store for a dark chocolate pecan turtle.

My chiropractor is enthusiastic, saying that the therapy will forge new brain pathways and even cause me to use my body better—“It’s all related,” he says. Even so, I’m not sure I’d make this commitment were I not an artist, and if I hadn’t recently been reading about the brain and the importance of exposing it to non-habitual activity.

To that end I’ve also resolved to use the hour each way in the car to study French. I originally learned it as an adult (for three years at The New School with Huguette Martel, an inspired teacher of subtle humor who has also done cartoons for The New Yorker) and was appalled to find, on my last trip to Paris, that only the nouns were left.

However for me to stay interested there has to be an aesthetic component—I can’t imagine anything more tedious than driving back and forth to Northampton repeating phrases like "Où se trouvent les toilettes s'il vous plaît ?" –so I’ve decided to memorize French poems from podcasts by a woman named Camille Chevalier, who makes even the depressing and pedantic 19th century poem El Desdichado by Gérard de Nerval sound musical and uplifting. After a few trips I may not be able to locate the bathroom but I’ll be smarter and able to explain to anyone who asks that “Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie” (My only star is dead, and my starry lute bears the black sun of melancholy).
December 22, 2007
In the latest issue of The New Yorker (December 24 & 31) there’s a cartoon by Michael Maslin of two toddlers in a playroom, and as their mothers approach, one says to the other, “Here they come—act infantile.” It reminded me of a conversation I had with Judy Fox, where we were talking about drawing being all about observation (but then, isn’t everything?), and I said I thought we underestimate children’s abilities, that if they were shown more sophisticated ways of seeing their world they’d be able to represent it. I was thinking about how my father, an engineer, taught me to draw in perspective when I was five. My early talents lay with music, and artistically speaking, I don’t think I was particularly precocious—yet as soon as my father pointed the concept out to me, I could draw it. Judy told me that when she was little, she drew stick figures because she thought that’s what she was supposed to do. Then one day in school when her friends were wondering what adults looked like naked, she volunteered that she’d seen a naked adult and proceeded to draw them a picture—with such graphically detailed breasts, nipples, belly button, and pubic hair that it was immediately confiscated by the teacher. Ultimately Judy grew up to be a sculptor of naked people, but at the time she took the wiser course and went back to stick figures.

Judy's sculptural installation, Snow White and the Seven Sins, was seen in New York this fall at P.P.O.W. and will be exhibited at Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills in the upcoming months, dates to be determined.

September 14, 2007
Okay, so I don’t wear glasses. Although my whole family has worn them, I never have, except intermittently, when doctors tried to pressure me into it because of an astigmatism, or told me I was at that age. I can already hear my friends groaning, because they’ve heard this from me so many times before, but I believe that glasses are much more widely prescribed than necessary—yet another stupid industry that uses too much plastic—and if you’d just look up from your computer or book and focus afar every few minutes and do yoga eye exercises every day, you won't need reading glasses (I do the exercises before getting out of bed in the morning or, as readers know, when I inadvertently find myself in the same room with performance art). I’ve discovered, however, that this is waaay too much trouble for most people, the ones who are groaning right this minute, but I’m going to plunge ahead regardless. Sometimes, when tired or under a lot of stress, I might not see so well, maybe even for a week or two, but then it normalizes. Sometimes, early in the morning or late at night, things are fuzzy, so I just don’t bother to read, or I use a magnifying glass. But most of the time—with plenty of light—I can read the names in a phonebook or the ingredients on a vitamin bottle. And I’m doing very exacting work with painting right now (unless of course, I put on a pair of glasses and discover that I’ve been an expressionist all along). So because my friends won’t take it from me, I’ve asked Paul McCartney to do a little yoga eye exercise demo and put it on YouTube. Here it is:

To read: Jacob Lieberman, Take Off Your Glasses and See
September 12, 2007
This is part of an email yesterday from Graham White, who did such a great job of revamping my Web site,

Hi Carol!

...I made a second visit to the Serra show and this time is was not as crowded, which was nice. I couldn't believe the Plexiglas fence they put around his work on the top gallery. My experience of Minimalist sculpture has always been that it works in large part by interacting with and empathizing the planes and volume of the containing space, so what could demonstrate a less sensitive appreciation to the art than to cage it in like an animal at the zoo? I guess the inverse is more likely accurate, the animals behind the cage are the viewers.

I've also noticed that for a striking number of museum goers, photographing the art has entirely replaced looking at the art. I have been spending some time in the museums this summer, and constantly see people walk up to a painting, camera in hand, snap the image and then the wall text, and move right along, all not more than 5 seconds duration, if that. Or first check the label to see if it is an artist worth capturing. One painting I gave up on seeing one day had two rows of photographers, about 12 or 15 people, with cameras going, and the second row with one hand raised above the heads of the first for the grab. I can't imagine most will ever be bothered to look at the photos if they wouldn't look at the painting. Like
counting coup.

Well, that's my art vent for today,


I've noticed the same phenom at rock concerts: people talking, texting, holding their cell phones up for others to listen, walking in and out to get drinks or whatever, as if the music were incidental, just an excuse to get together--surprisingly better in Philadelphia, Northampton, and Boston, where people actually dance, worst in New York. When I saw the last Sigur Ros tour in Philadelphia there was, as part of the piece, a 10-second moment of silence, which was duly observed and experienced by the audience--a powerful moment. When I saw them in New York it was "Whoo-hoo!"

Is there a way to configure the context for art so that it's more conducive to contemplation? Or are we just fogeys complaining that the world is going to hell?
June 7, 2007
My friend Erica told me this story, which she swears is true, about her father, who shaved off the moustache he'd had for 20 years and then went to visit his parents:

Father: Notice anything different?

Grandparents: You got a new haircut? New glasses?

Father: No, I shaved off my moustache.

Grandparents: You had a moustache?
May 14, 2007
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.”