The Spectator Is Present

The author's reflection in George Sugarman's "Untitled" (1953)
The author’s reflection in George Sugarman’s “Untitled” (1953; click to enlarge)

I’m ashamed to admit that I am a reflection hog. On the subway or walking past big storefront windows, I constantly check my reflection. Even at a gallery or museum, I find myself looking at my reflection before I look at the art. I never really gave this a second thought; it wasn’t until I visited the Whitney Museum’s current retrospective of Yayoi Kusama that I was disturbed by my inability to focus on the art behind the glass. I was particularly fascinated by her works on paper from the 1950s, which are very dark gouache or watercolor images with the obsessive patterning that is an identifying characteristic of Kusama’s work. However, my reflection, all the more visible against the dark paint, was preventing me from immersing myself in the visual experience Kusama had created.

When standing in front of a canvas that is bare to the gallery or a film projection onto a wall, not covered by glass or plastic, I can stand and admire artwork for ages. But once the curator or conservator places a seemingly innocuous pane of glass between myself and the art object, the reflection shatters my connection and prevents a full interaction. Why? It’s elementary optics: the reflection of myself, other visitors and the opposite end of the gallery fractures the illusion of the art.

While frustration may be inevitable, this reflection can serve as a metaphor for the art world. The fractured and detached experience quite literally mirrors the passive nature of viewing art in the “white cube.” It also presents a parallel to the social differentiation of art, the inaccessibility many feel when confronted with visual art, as well as Roland Barthes’s idea of the death of the author and, antithetically, the presence of the spectator.

The pane of glass that exists suspended between the spectator and the object clearly marks that object’s significant value. One cannot touch. One cannot get close enough to the actual art to leave a mark with the nose, fingers or breath. Only a select few have the power and status to see the work “up close and personal,” devoid of the barrier to which the rest of the world is subjected. In the case of some of the most famous paintings, this barrier has been impenetrable for years, unless you are the work’s owner, curator or conservator. Only a small percentage of people have the means to own art, and therefore see it without the glass. Art is a status symbol, a tool for social differentiation.

This is something that artists have been grappling with and challenging for decades. Take, for example, Jesus Soto’s Penetrables (1967–1997), each of which consists of a cascade of plastic, colored tubes suspended from the gallery ceiling that the spectator can walk through. Or more recently, Carsten Höller’s “Untitled (Slide)” (2011), where participants slid down through three stories of gallery space in a Plexiglas and steel tube. These works directly involve the viewer and challenge the wall that the pane of glass so literally represents. These artists, by asking the spectator to engage with the art so physically and directly, challenge its apparent inaccessibility to the layperson. The myth states that art exists only on the other side of a barrier — that it is for the monied classes, the educated, not meant for the everyday person who has not had the opportunity to study or buy it. This is a myth that many artists, curators, educators and some dealers have tried to debunk.

Caspar David Friedrich, “Woman before the Rising Sun (Woman before the Setting Sun)” (1818–20) (via Wikipedia)

Layered as it is over what the artist presents to us, the reflection of the viewer also seems to actualize Roland Barthes’s theory of the death of the author, or by extension, the death of the artist. Barthes argues that the modern condition has removed the author from literature and that the literary work exists in the perception and understanding of the reader — that the personal prejudices and experiences of the author have been replaced by those of the reader. The pane of glass does something similar to the artist, further removing him from his brushstrokes and lines; the presence of the spectator supplants his own. It’s antithetical to the romantic image of the artist as lone genius, standing, as Caspar David Friedrich would have him, alone in contemplation of the sublime beauty of the universe. Instead the art is reduced to its formal qualities. It is only a drawing, photograph, painting or print, behind glass, with our reflection hovering above it. Our visually perceptible presence destabilizes the illusion of the art. Now, it is just a thing.

We can extrapolate this facet of the metaphor further. Standing in front of art, we perceive it, we bring to it our own prejudices and preconceived ideas. Its existence, at least for a time, is altered by our interpretation, our emotions and our responses. We become part of the work, and the work becomes part of us. The inclusion of our physical reflection makes this reality of the art experience all the more perceptible by presenting an amalgamation of our own image with the art object. However, in this realization of our role, we also lose part of the artist’s voice. Distracted by our own movements and the gallery lights, we miss the subtleties of the work hanging before us. The irony is that by our very visual presence, we lose our connection with the art. Seeing a work behind glass will never compare to standing directly in front of it and the immediate conversation that experience creates between the viewer and the artist.

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