How to Look at Contemporary Art: A 4-Step Process
There are many different ways to look at art, but we’ve developed this 4-step process to be helpful especially with contemporary art. And the best part? No background in art is required! Whether you have a Ph.D. in art history or have never stepped foot into an art museum, it will work for you! So let's get started:
Step One: Active Looking
Most people spend less than 30 seconds looking at a work of art, but interesting things can happen when you give a work more time. In this first step, we suggest that you take an inventory of what you see before reading the wall label, if one accompanies the piece. Your first reaction to a work of art might be “What does it mean?” This is natural, but we suggest putting this question aside for now and simply looking. We use the term active looking because looking and thinking about art isn’t a passive activity, it’s a workout for your eyes and mind. Take your time and make note of everything: color, line, shape, size, use of light and shadow, materials and subject matter. Step a bit closer to examine the details, step back to take in the composition as a whole, and if you can, walk around the work of art.
Step Two: Choices
Once you’ve spent time actively looking, now consider the choices that the artist made when creating this work of art. Often, a work of art is the result of countless studies and strategic planning by the artist so that it looks just how he or she wants it to look when finished. Thinking about the choices an artist makes often gives us insight into what the work might be about. Try to answer the following question:
What could the artist have done differently?
Your answers to the question could involve use of color, scale, composition, materials, and any and every detail you notice. Remember, even the smallest detail that you see can be intentional and can contribute to the work’s overall meaning.
Step Three: Connections
This is where we get personal . . . just kidding (but not really!)! In this third step, we invite you to draw from your own knowledge base, experience, and emotions to personally connect with the work of art. Do you know anything about this time period, artist, or subject matter? Does the work remind you of anything? Do you have a personal memory or experience that can relate to this work in any way? How does this work influence your mood?
Step Four: Possibilities
Finally, gather your ideas and evidence from the previous steps and think about some possible interpretations for the work of art. Keep in mind that a work of art may have more than one meaning. A wall label often offers one interpretation from the point-of-view of a curator, art historian, or an artist. It’s okay to disagree with them!
Extra Credit: Visual Conversations
Want to take it a step further? Another fun thing to do is to look for the ways that works of art interact with each other in a gallery. Let’s say you’ve just had a great experience with a work of art. Now look at other works close by. How do they talk to each other in terms of color, line, shape, scale, subject matter, or mood? What do they have in common? What about works of art across the gallery?
Curators and exhibition designers carefully plan gallery installations and hope that you’ll notice these visual conversations. So next time you're at a museum or art space, take a look, and see what you think!