As sometimes happens when on vacation, I wind up at a museum seeing something I would probably have missed had I lived next door. Joe and I had planned during our New York trip this week to go to the new Whitney, never having seen it. Alas, it was closed on Tuesday, our only day left for a visit. We decided to head to the Guggenheim. There in progress was an exhibit of the incredible work of László Moholi-Nagy, about whom I knew absolutely nothing.
Moholi-Nagy, a Hungarian Jew by birth, had an interesting career that blossomed between the two world wars. Before immigrating to the United States where he was to make a huge name for himself in Chicago, he became a faculty member at the famed Bauhaus. Always interested in integrating art with science and technology, he had an array of skills that enabled him to assume a leading role in artistic experimentation in photography, sculpture, painting, printmaking, industrial design, and typography.
There was a day when I would gladly have passed on the opportunity to view a bevy of paintings largely of geometric shapes in various colors. Over the years, however, I have gravitated more and more towards noticing artists’ techniques. How does a single stroke depict a blood vessel in a hand? Or how do little irregular daubs of paint create the illusion of lace? What is the secret of creating the shine on a piece of silver or the realistic representation of a flower stem in a glass of water? So I looked at Moholi-Nagy’s paintings paying attention to what he was doing with squares, triangles, circles, and rectangles. He very skillfully created montages of shapes and color that exactly reproduced the effect that would happen if layers of colored glass were placed over colored objects including other glass. I was intrigued to watch how he demonstrated what happens when various tones collide and mix.
Step away from the painting, look at it less analytically, and it can recede into a rather pleasant but somewhat basic, no-frills illustration in a geometry lesson. And that is where technique sometimes serves the cause of truth. Mastery of color, expertise at applying paint to canvas, intimate knowledge of tones and values enable a genius to express realities so flawlessly that one can do with art what we frequently do with life: miss the depth of it.
More is happening right outside your door than you could ever believe. Some of it is positively great. Some of it is mundane, but strangely worth noticing. It all makes no difference until we pause and look.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016