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November 27, 2017

San Francisco: San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art

“Furrow” by Carl Andre

I must admit having an affinity for modern art museums like San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. Sure, I only really like about 10% or so of the pieces of art on display. In most modern art museums I don’t “get” many of the pieces. But for me that is part of the appeal. When I look at many pieces on display the nagging question that often comes to mind: “Is that art?” It’s a question that leads me down the deep rabbit hole of the eternal debate about what defines art.

When minimalist artists put up a blank canvas on the wall or piles bricks on the floor, is there a message or an aesthetic that they are trying to convey? Or more correctly, is there a message other than to get viewers to ask themselves, “Is this art?” Intentionally or not, the minimalists raise the eternal question of what defines the essential essence art.

“James” by Chuck Close

Gerhard Richter, “256 Farben” (256 Colors)

I can’t help but smiling when I screw myself into the ground trying to figure out whether something I’m looking at qualifies as art or not. Is it art just because it is an art museum? At times it seems that way.

In the end, I come to a simple conclusion: It’s art if the work caused me or someone else to pause and think, no matter how briefly. That’s not saying that I’d want a work that fits this broad definition in my house, because, frankly, mostly I would not. But if something on display forces me to take notice and pause to think, it qualifies as being somewhere on the wide spectrum of what I personally would call “art.”

The artist that to me personifies confusing art is American minimalist Carl Andre. Andre is famous for his installations that often feature arrangements of building materials. At first I looked at his works and went “What the fuck?” Now I seek out the inevitable Carl Andre work in a modern art museum merely because it makes me smile. You always recognize an Andre when you see one. His style is confusingly distinctive. I always wonder what the hell he was thinking the viewer would think when he puts his pieces together. Was he chuckling under his breath?

Yes officer:  Duane Hanson, “Policeman”

Roy Lichtenstein, “Figures with Sunset”

A complaint against art like Andre’s is that it is too easy to execute. And it is. Pretty much anyone has the technical expertise required to stack bricks on a floor has the ability to reproduce many of Andre’s works. If you wanted, you too could, for twenty-odd dollars, have a portion of Andre’s Equivalent VIII, just like London’s Tate Modern has. Indeed, after the Tate Modern’s portion of Equivalent VIII was defaced, it was reproduced with newly purchased bricks. It was cheap and easy. That said, you and I didn’t stack the firebricks first; we didn’t think or perhaps want to make art this way. Maybe we didn’t think assembling building materials qualifies as art in the first place. But Andre did. In the end, he did it first; anything similar will look like a copy of the style.

There is one problem with the genre of construction material art. Sometimes there is confusion as to whether the ladder in the corner of an art museum next some wood framing material is a piece art or just something left behind by workers on break. But maybe this is part of the point in this genre of art. Just as Marcel Duchamp showed by anointing a common bottle drying rack as a piece of art, there is an appeal to be found in the ordinary everyday objects. What is art is all in the eyes of the beholder.

“Ladder and framing material”, Museum Ludwig Cologne Germany: It’s in a museum, but is it art?


  1. As the Dadaist Tristan Tzara said, “Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and irritate people.” The Modern wing of any museum is always a favorite, because there’s sure to be something in there that’s jarring to the senses. Great post!

    Comment by twobytour — November 28, 2017 @ 6:54 am

    • Definitely confusing!

      Comment by anotherheader — November 28, 2017 @ 8:12 am

  2. “Furrow” is just a Jenga game

    Comment by Peter Donohue — November 29, 2017 @ 6:01 am

  3. Oh, and don’t forget this one…

    Comment by Peter Donohue — November 29, 2017 @ 6:05 am

    • That is a classic.

      Comment by anotherheader — November 29, 2017 @ 8:42 am

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