The art of contemplation: mindfulness in galleries

Published 14 September 2016

Mindfulness techniques can aid an authentic encounter with an artwork, especially those of the Abstract Expressionists, suggests Gill Crabbe.

  • From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    About a year ago, at an exhibition at Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London, I was taken by surprise by a small work on paper. It jumped out from the other larger works in the room, and its colours and forms seemed so spontaneously and joyfully generated – the contrast of two thick bars of black and sky-blue oil that anchored the space,with forceful splats of loose paint dancing in the void above. The contrast was visceral, the bars underlining both the ecstatic verve of the splats and the slow seepage of the oil into the paper. These were authentic marks that shot through my body. They were real. They blew ‘me’ apart, into a sense of openness, continual movement and energy.

    This was my first encounter with a work from the series Beside the Sea (pictured) by Robert Motherwell – a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism who features in the RA’s exhibition, and who is the subject of another show this autumn at Bernard Jacobson. Motherwell was a master of the gestural mark, and in that instance I was looking with a beginner’s mind. No previous encounter, no preconceptions, perhaps.

    This state of mind is not always easy to achieve, however, even when encountering a work for the first time. This is not only because preconceptions can be formed in relation to a specific artist’s work; they are also a major aspect of our responses to the world of colour and shape. The associations we have with any visual form can define or confine our experience. Reflecting on a work of art can open up conceptual meaning, but if we can suspend our preconceptions in the actual encounter, we can enter a state of contemplation, rather than reflection, in which we experience the nature of what is actually there – its ineffability, its inability to be pinned down, or somehow defined or even known.

  • Robert Motherwell, Beside the Sea, No.3

    Robert Motherwell, Beside the Sea, No.3, 1962.

    Oil on paper. 73.7 x 57.8cm. Courtesy Bernard Jacobson Gallery.

  • The experience of art then becomes a journey, a process, a series of new experiences, rather than an idea that can be neatly wrapped in its “seen that, already know it, nothing further to look at” conceptualised box. As the leading British abstract painter John Hoyland RA pointed out, “Good pictures should change one’s perceptions, good pictures go on being elusive.”

    In looking at abstract painting in particular, there is the possibility of being liberated from the conceptualisation that often dominates our experience, say, of figurative art – that is, if we can suspend our compulsion to form associative thoughts, as when likening the juxtaposition of forms, say, to a landscape. If we resist imputing some figurative meaning and simply encounter the work as direct experience in the ‘here and now’ we can enter into a dialogue with the work that points to a more authentic encounter. This is when we see only what we see, sense only what we sense, in the moment.

    How do we do this, though? Well, we can become aware through engaging with simple mindfulness techniques. We become aware not only of what catches the eye but also of our whole bodily experience – our breath, our skin, our stillness or restlessness. We notice what we are noticing, not what we think we ought to be noticing. This bodily experience was an important consideration in much Abstract Expressionist art, hence the interest in making often large-scale works. In an essay in his book Black and Black Again, Ian McKeever RA notes that “Barnett Newman emphasised the need to stand close to big paintings rather than standing back… he wanted his paintings to be experienced physically, by the whole body, rather than just being seen by the eye and absorbed in the mind… giving us that sensation of our body being as much engaged as our mind.”

    Going further, the encounter is not only about becoming aware of all the senses, but also the feelings – pleasant or unpleasant – within the body, as well as emotions. We can note how these change as we enter into dialogue with the work, as areas within a work open up to us, as we notice things not revealed to us at first glance. In a way, the process is like being an artist, encountering the artist’s encounter. Talking about his own work, Hoyland said: “I think painting is very much an extension of one’s interior self. If you can get the painting to be a true extension of the way you feel – physically and mentally, all the emotions – if you can make that concrete, then you’ve got this authentic thing.”

    Robert Motherwell features in Abstract Expressionism in the RA’s Main Galleries from 24 September until 2 January 2017.

    Robert Motherwell: Abstract Expressionism is at Bernard Jacobson Gallery from 15 September until 26 November.

    Gill Crabbe is an artist, writer and editor. She is the sub-editor of RA Magazine.

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