Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Step Away From the Artwork Open Thread

Believe me, I get it. I totally, totally understand the urge to touch certain artworks. There are pieces that in an alternate universe I would maul, devour, and lick from end to end (too much information?). So sensuous, so perfect, so damned edible are certain works that it's very hard not to react physically to them, which is why on one level, I feel for Sam Rindy [from Artinfo.com]:
A Cambodian-born French woman faces prosecution for criminal damage after planting a kiss on a painting by the American artist Cy Twombly, leaving the imprint of her lipstick on the otherwise immaculate white canvas.

The untitled work, roughly nine- by six-feet, valued at $2.7 million, is part of an exhibition dedicated to the painter in the southern French city of Avignon.

Thirty-year-old Sam Rindy, who visited the show with a friend on July 19, told the AFP that she was so overcome by the white canvas that she kissed it.

"I stepped back. I found the painting even more beautiful," said Rindy. "The artist left this white for me."

Staff of the Lambert Foundation, which owns the painting, took a different view. They called the police and the woman, herself a painter, was arrested as she left the premises. She will appear in court on August 16 to face charges of criminal damage.
And that result, facing charges of criminal damage, neatly sums up why one should, despite any urges, control oneself when tempted to interact with a work of art. I think incidents like the Twombly one are bound to increase, though, as more art becomes (as I predict it will) interactive. There was a piece in a booth of an art fair we did recently that drove other gallerists around the bend. Viewers were encouraged to open a series of doors that revealed inner paintings and such. More than one huffy gallerist was overhead complaining about the lesson that was teaching the attendees, especially younger ones.

As a gallerist, I would normally wax more poetic about why people shouldn't touch the art (it belongs to posterity, you'll alter the artist's intentions, etc.), but there are far more practical dissauders that take care of all that. Some of them are actually safety related.

I recall an incident at the first exhibition we had of Andy Yoder's work. His giant licorice wingtip shoes in that show were a huge hit.

Upon entering the gallery, the smell of the licorice filled your head, transporting you immediately in the way only scents can do, and so perfectly rendered (wonderfully scruffy and worn) were the shoes that they instantly won hearts time and again. At the opening though, where we usually offer libations, a woman eventually gave in to her urges and licked the back of one of the shoes. It was bad enough that she likely left a streak of saliva on the piece, but had she asked we could have spared her that awful aftertaste (the piece had been shellacked). We never heard back that she took ill, but still...

In the end, the ultimate ethical dissuader is that viewers don't have the right to touch the work. It doesn't belong to them, their touch will affect the piece, and it's unfair to the artist to change what they created.
Feel free to share any stories you have (as viewer or artist) regarding the urge to interact with the art.

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33 Comments:

Anonymous Ethan said...

At the Baltimore Museum of Art I once was staring at a bust that was very slightly out-of-line with its pedestal's angle. Without meaning to, I reached out and straightened it (and got yelled at by the guard). Oops!

Another time, when visiting the museum at Stanford (http://museum.stanford.edu/) I was told that a sculptor once was visiting his kinetic sculpture there and gave it a big spin (it needed manual power to move). The guards tackled him and carefully reset the artwork. (I'm a little suspicious of this story, though... it may be an artist urban legend).

7/24/2007 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger the expat/pissedpoet said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7/24/2007 09:15:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I also can't stand the sensors that beep when someone gets too close to a work. Maybe our experience will become, virtual. Some sort of pleasure tube to sit in, with a video screen for visuals, smells (licorice) can be pumped in and electronic sensors for vibrations or movement. Also the faint sound of gallery assistants typing, what ever they type.

7/24/2007 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger the expat/pissedpoet said...

Many years ago when the world was young like in 1985 I made a poster from one of my paintings that was a self portrait nude sans fig leaf which I used to promote the exhibition. It caused a spat with a local hairdresser who shared the building with the gallery. Which I shamelessly played for all it was worth to the extent of getting on the nightly TV news.
An unknown wag provided the fig leaf via Mr Sanders finger licking good message. It now has pride of place in my memorability file and when viewed the "Bugger I wish I had thought of that" invariable kicks in

7/24/2007 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

I paint in encaustic. Once I received work back from a show with a few odd, half-moon-shaped indentations in the corner. I was stymied. Shortly after, at the show of another artist who also works in encaustic, I saw a man approach a work saying, "Ooh, is this wax? He was just about to plunge his thumbnail into the surface when I stopped him. As with Ed's anecdotes, I believe this was a case of enthusiasm unrestrained by self control.

7/24/2007 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Oly said...

OMG!
This is the funniest post ever, Ed.

I had an ex-boyfriend years ago who worked for the National Gallery of Art, who happened to get the job of actually moving "Whistler's Mother."

He claims that he licked it... for real.

Cue the brilliant "Mr. Bean" scene!

I also had a friend move an installation piece (horrific) of papier mache sushi at The Revolving Museum in Massachusetts.

She literally picked up several pieces to examine closer.

I practically had a heart attack!

Needless to say she shortly became "former friend" status afterwards.

7/24/2007 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

How lucky can Twombly get? At the Menil Gallery a few years back, a French woman (maybe the same one?!) stripped completely nude in front of one of his enormous paintings.

Anish Kapoor uses raw pigments in some of his sculptures, and there are invariably fingerprints of the same pigment, left in other parts of the museums.

7/24/2007 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

I understand conservation issues 100% -- truly I do -- but I hate being unable to interact with art at all.

If you're going to display a licorice shoe, can't you put some pieces of licorice in a box (with a little coin collector maybe), and tell people it's the "same" licorice that was used in the construction of the piece? They can "pretend" they're licking the shoe?

Or pull a Gonzales-Torres maneuver and spread licorice candy around the piece for people to take. I love when I see a G-T work in a museum. I always try to be as conspicuous as possible when I participate -- in full view of as many guards and museum-goers as possible. I want so much for that fourth wall to be broken wherever possible.

The Menil is currently displaying a number of electric-powered pieces by Jean Tinguely. They're just sitting there, dead. Can't someone at least put a little video of what they look like in action? Museums pull this crap all the time. Imagine putting a dead TV in an exhibition and telling people "it used to show colors and pictures and stuff".

Museums are cemeteries. And people wonder why art fairs are such parties. Of course they are. Art lovers walk around morgues all day. They'd die and get hung on a white wall with a "WORK OF ART / DO NOT TOUCH" sign if they didn't get some life every so often.

I once visited the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and tried to walk around (behind) an enormous sculpture by Anselm Kiefer called Book With Wings. It's displayed in its own private circular alcove, made of brick, almost like a private little cathedral -- not at all like the white box shown in the photo. I figured it would be nice to walk around the circular space and see the entire piece from all angles.

I didn't see the subtle dark stripe of tape stuck on the floor that said I couldn't walk behind it. Some snot-nosed 20-something "security guard" yelled at me quite loudly from something like 40 or 60 feet away. I've never been so humiliated or upset in a museum in my life. Luckily the museum was relatively empty that day. My memory of that incident is so troubling that I'm not eager to return any time soon.

(That and the fact that besides inherently being a morgue, the MAMFW's supposedly wonderful architecture reminded me of a horrible fascist prison.)

7/24/2007 11:02:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I actually encourage people to touch my work. It is linoleum, after all. People usually walk on the stuff.

But here's something much more interesting. From an interview w/ Brian Eno in which he recounts an incident (I first read about it in his diary) of using Duchamp's urinal for its original purpose:

I was asked to give a talk at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York and the urinal was part of this show about "low" and "high" art. It cost $30,000 just to insure the thing, which seemed ridiculous. The whole point of the urinal was that it was an almost random piece of hardware which could be easily replaced. I found this to be such a sublime example of commodification that I decided to do something I called re-commode-ification. I sneaked some thin plumbing tubing through a crack in the display glass and had a piss in it.

7/24/2007 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I once saw some crystals charging on the rim of chaco canyon in New Mexico. I really wanted to take them and replace them with a candy bar or something. I am nothing if not a spiritual warrior.

2.7 million? Fuck you.

7/24/2007 01:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anish Kapoor uses raw pigments in some of his sculptures, and there are invariably fingerprints of the same pigment, left in other parts of the museums.

Then when tackled by the guards after, they won't be able to say i didn't do it because they would have been caught blue handed.

7/24/2007 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Tyler said...

I think that there's a company that makes a strait jacket for her too.

7/24/2007 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Well, I must confess that whenever I go to the Noguchi museum in Queens, I wait until nobody is around and hug the sculptures (the very Late Works, in the front gallery). My dream is to buy one, put it in a walled garden, and plaster my naked body against it every morning just after waking.

That said, what IS it with Twombly? Every time I go to see a Twombly exhibit, I think that some very clever marketing agent convinced the public that a retarded three-year-old is a Great Artist.

And Henry, you mustn't blame the Fort Worth MoMA too much. The guards there suffer from the defensiveness of perceived provincialism. They're quite nice once you get to know them.

7/24/2007 01:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have a confession to make. I took a bite of nayland blake's gingerbread house at marks. i think i was provoked by the sign that said, please do not eat the sculpture. i'm an artist myself and would hate that to happen to my work, but something about that sign and the pomposity of the place... also i find nayland to be kind of pretentious and full of himself. anyway, it was sealed with something horrible (shellac?) so then I had to find a way to spit it out and carry it so i wouldn't be found out. i am bit ashamed, but there it is, true confessions.

7/24/2007 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Oh, BTW Edward, would you mind altering your website to let people know that you are not, in fact, open on Saturdays during the summer? I stopped by this weekend, on my way to a Champagne Social at Feigen, and had a most interesting interaction with some gentlemen who were setting off cherry jello bombs in the street in front of your gallery. It was quite amusing, but I was disappointed to have braved the cherry jello for naught.

7/24/2007 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dream is to be a Noguchi sculpture in a walled garden.

7/24/2007 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

The kissing woman's motivations might be more complex and less innocent than Ed's excerpt leads everyone to believe. An artist herself, she didn't just kiss the painting, she left a big red lipstick print. In effect, she may have seen it as a collaboration with Cy. I'm reminded of Rauschenberg 's infamous erasure of de Kooning's drawing...although unlike this woman, he asked deK if it would be OK before he pulled out the eraser.

7/24/2007 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

my apologies pretty lady. I'm so sorry you trudged all the way over to west, west Chelsea just to find us closed.

We were actually open the previous Saturday (the only gallery on the block to do that) and had all of three people show up all day, so we opted to follow suit ourselves.

But you're absolutely right that we should have changed the website to indicate as much. Please accept my sincerest apologies.

For the record, Friday is the last day of the Sarah Peters exhibition and we're open by appointment only after that until September.

e_

7/24/2007 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Apology accepted! I know, myself, how dispiriting it is to sit in an empty gallery when all the rest of the world is at the beach...

Oh, did they get all the jello off the street? The smell was quite potent, if not precisely unpleasant.

7/24/2007 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

Am I experiencing early onset of Alzheimer's... or did you change the post to include more details about the kissing incident?

7/24/2007 02:45:00 PM  
Blogger waynestead said...

When I was in St. Louis a friend of mine had a show that included small wooden sculptures covered in black pigment. They looked amazing but despite several signs warning people of the hazard of touching them, I saw at least one man walk out with black smudges all over his hands.

7/24/2007 02:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had an artist-curator-art handler-friend that destroyed two very valuable artworks. He got fired, of course. Very clumsy boy. Recently, he was in an ad in Artforum for an art moving company...... Lord, have mercy...!

7/24/2007 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised by all the justifications here, "I'm an artist myself, but I just HAD to touch it!" Pshaw.

As a fiber artist, I can tell you what a bad time it is to be constantly reminding viewers, in a million different ways, to leave my work alone. Even "clean" hands have oils and acids that break fibers (fabric, paper, leather, etc.) down over time. Didn't they teach you that at your $30,000 art school?

My husband is a sculptor who often makes kinetic work. Looking after gallery patrons at his openings makes me feel like a nursery school teacher. The last group show he participated in, his piece was broken and reassembled THREE TIMES in the first 72 hours, meaning that while we could have been having fun or working on art, we were down in the gallery, fixing and reinstalling because some jackass just HAD TO touch it.

7/24/2007 04:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Skip Van Cel said...

My current exhibit is titled "...now lie in it." And that is exactly what I want the viewer to do.
www.skipvancel.com

7/24/2007 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger Henry said...

Prettylady -- The guards at MAMFW might be great. But one idiot can ruin everything. Texas has plenty of other good museums with nice guards. Contrast his behavior to the guard at the National Gallery (in the Pei building a few months ago) who said I was too close to the wall when I was trying to point something out to my friends. (I think the problem was that you're not even allowed to get too close to the wall plaques. I can't remember the situation any more.) The guard was so subtle and polite that my friends and I spent 10 or 15 minutes talking about how impressed we were, and we left the museum on a high note. Either the NGA's training program is second to none, or this guard was a genius. Either way the NGA gets big bonus points from me.

7/24/2007 05:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Skip Van Cel said...

Quite frankly, when I first read the story I totally sympathized with the woman. I had my own bout with a similar feeling the first time I went to the Rothko Chapel. I was completely overcome. However, the presence of guards kept me at bay. Regardless, I could not hold back my tears and one of the guards assured me that I was not the first to cry there. I wonder how Twombly feels about it.

7/24/2007 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

Doesn't anyone see the kiss as an unknown artist's blatant attempt at self promotion?

7/24/2007 06:20:00 PM  
Blogger Deanna said...

A few years ago after reminding my son (for the millionth time) about the number one rule of art viewing (don't touch!), he sighed and said, "Mommy, when I'm an artist, I'm going to make art that people can touch."

7/24/2007 09:40:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Sharon you are such a cynic. All art is self promotion. Duh! Tell me the lipstick stuff wasn't actually a nod to Greil Marcus. Genius! Then tell me that a cy Twombly is RUINED by a lipstick mark. Fuck that, I bet it looks fucking great.

Have you ever been to the cy twombly chapel in Fort Wayne Indiana? I'm told kids (and some adults!!!! go crazy there, so the guards carry crayons and "private language" coloring books. Its wild man, wild.

And finally:

PROPERTY IS THEFT!!!

NYA NYA NYA!!!!

7/25/2007 12:51:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Personally I've never seen a Twombly that wouldn't be improved by, well, just about anything.

7/25/2007 08:52:00 AM  
Anonymous wk said...

I vaguely remember touching El Greco's "View of Toledo" when I was a small child and having the guards freak out. But I think I was just so moved by it... Having worked for a sculptor who doesn't mind touching, I mean I handle his work like crazy, walk on it etc, then I think if your work is that fragile then surround it in glass, plexi-glas whatever, amke it so people are unable to touch it. If your work is really powerful then of course people are going to want to touch it.

7/25/2007 07:02:00 PM  
Anonymous KennyT said...

One Time in Barcelona, I almost got into a fist-fight when a woman was STROKING a painting that can't be touched at all due to it's delicate surface. When I started yelling at her she said "I'm an artist! I know the artist wants me to touch it!!!" I said "Would you lick it?" and she replied "No! That's preposterous". That's when I told her to get the hell out of my booth and had her followed until she left the fair.

The artist doesn't want ANYONE to touch the work, not even herself. Nobody should touch ANYTHING that doesn't belong to them, ever, unless they are 100% certain that they are allowed. Where do people get these manners? (and with that, I won't talk about how my mom touched a Jeff Wall at the Guggenheim once...)

7/26/2007 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen Baraban said...

I very much hope that is not one and the same French woman who planted the kiss upon a Twombly this July and stripped off her clothes before another some years ago. For it's delightful to think that Twombly's convases indeed have such "lucky" seductive power.

Speaking of commiting infractions in museums, what about the weird dynamics of the Frick Collection in NYC? The one time I visited the place, I was shocked that the museum's servants--not so much guards as lackeys--chided some visitor or other about every five or ten minutes, almost as if they had a quota. Perhaps that's to be expected in an institution that's not really public.

Did I escape censure? No. Bizarrely, the Frick puts pieces of furniture in front of some of their paintings, and I got called out by one of the lackeys for leaning against some of the museum's valuable wood while intently gazing at a painting. I mean, I did realize that the items of furniture had economic, if not aesthetic, value, but I had forgotten about the furniture's existence while captivated by the painting.

7/28/2007 11:22:00 PM  

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