Game of Interpretation: Denver Art Museum’s Audacious Interpretive Beads

[Art: Number 8, 1949 by Jackson Pollock]

Perhaps you’re familiar with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, the ones that art critic Craig Brown (a contemporary of Pollock) called “decorative ‘wallpaper.’” My own reaction to one of Pollock’s abstract works, on a first viewing, was disgust – couldn’t a five-year-old do an accurate impression? What made a splattered canvas so noteworthy that a curator hung it on a stark museum wall for millions of people to view on class field trips or high-brow vacations? Why was one of these paintings valued and sold at auction ten years ago for $140 million, setting records at the time for the most expensive painting in the world? (Not to mention the fact that even a fake Pollock painting can sell for 3.1 million dollars.)

The challenge of viewing and enjoying Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings exemplifies the issue that many outside the art world take toward museum art: viewers want to know, what does it mean? And if the meaning can’t be determined at a glance, is it really “art” at all?

Pollock himself responded to the issue of interpretation in a radio interview with William Wright in 1950 by saying, “I think they [the public] should not look for, but look passively — and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for… I think the unconsciousness drives do mean a lot in looking at paintings… I think it should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed — after a while you may like it or you may not —

…at least give it a chance.”

The Denver Art Museum’s recent effort at addressing this question of interpretation is noteworthy. In an email, Danielle St. Peter, the Interpretive Specialist for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum, described to me that she had wanted to implement a similar method for the current (and still ongoing) Audacious: Contemporary Artists Speak Out exhibition, as curators hope the exhibit will cultivate conversation amongst viewers.

St. Peter elaborates: “We were hopeful that visitors would recognize…multiple perspectives… and experience the exhibition as a safe space to explore and discuss difficult, emotionally charged issues that relate to our contemporary world.”

The question St. Peter and the curators of DAM asked themselves was, how do we encourage viewers to give the art the time of day required to engage it thoughtfully?

St. Peter continues: “To me, [viewing contemporary art] is about spending time with an object. At the museum, we often see people stop for three seconds and move on, but art really demands more of your time. I think the trap [of] contemporary art…is that it doesn’t always have a recognizable subject matter that you can relate to or doesn’t look like it took a lot of artistic skill to make (some of the age-old criteria for appreciating art). Maybe it looks too simple, maybe it doesn’t look like art at all. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself not wanting to spend time with a work of art, that is exactly the work that you should be spending time with. As artist John Cage so aptly put [it],

‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not that boring at all.’”

She and the DAM’s graphic designer (Matt Rue of McGinty Co.) came up with their own version (based on something St. Peter had seen at the Columbus Museum of Art): dropping colored acrylic cubes into test tubes beside the artwork.

audacious_gallery_hero2

[Photo from Denver Art Museum blog]

They introduced it to visitors with a display that explained, “The artworks in Audacious deal with emotionally charged issues. We invite you to share how the work makes you feel. Here’s how: 1) Each of the colored blocks represents an emotion. Select a few to take with you through the exhibition. 2) When you see an artwork with a test tube, drop in the color block that best represents how the work makes you feel. 3) Look at how others have responded. Does seeing this alter your perspective?”

audacious_blocks_0

[Photo from Denver Art Museum blog]

The cubes were either blue or pink, ranging in shade from light to dark, and each signified a different emotion: either empathetic (royal blue), optimistic (teal), empowered (light blue), hopeless (magenta), angry (pink), or confused (light pink).

And just like that, viewers were handed a framework for interpretation: start with your own emotion. Then examine other’s emotions, as displayed in the test tube. Ask yourself, why might someone else see this differently?


I myself participated, a handful of plastic beads clutched in my palm as I walked from piece to piece, drawn to spend more time at the artworks where clear test tubes had been fastened to the wall beside the work. (Initially, only 9 works of art had accompanying test tubes; but within three weeks of the exhibit’s opening, the museum staff added more). It felt like a game. I had permission to decide what each piece meant; the power of meaning-making had flipped from artist to viewer.

St. Peter agrees: “By choosing both positive and negative reactions for the cubes, we are giving visitors permission to feel confused or angry about what they are seeing. I sometimes worry that visitors think they need to like everything that we install in the galleries, that they have to ‘get it.’ That certainly is not the case. Some of my [own] most powerful art experiences have been with objects or installations that I didn’t understand at first, or ones that made me angry.”

unnamed-3

[Photo from Instagram, provided by Danielle St. Peter of the Denver Art Museum]

Their hunch has paid off: the public has loved this game of interpretation. While DAM has not performed a formal study, visitors enthusiastically shared photos of the activity on social media. Visitors also requested that more test tubes be placed by art works in the show (even pointing out particular pieces that elicited strong responses in them). And in the interim, before more test tubes were placed, museum goers stacked cubes on the floor, below the installations without test tubes, so eager were they to share their responses to the artworks.

unnamed-2

[Photo from Instagram, provided by Danielle St. Peter of the Denver Art Museum]

The gallery hosts also had stories to share, like the story relayed to St. Peter about the group of middle schoolers on a class field trip who viewed Marc Quinn’s Jamie Gillespie, 1999, a marble Greek-style sculpture of an amputee. The sculpture made the students “angry” (pink cube), but their gallery host asked them to look closely: how had others responded to this piece?

marc-quinns-jamie-gillespie-1999

[Art: Jamie Gillespie, 1999 by Marc Quinn, from the artist’s website]

But the test tube rattled with teal and light blue cubes (“optimistic” and “empowered”). The students felt perplexed –  hadn’t a terrible thing happened to this man with one leg? Their gallery host facilitated a discussion with the students then and there, reminding them to read the placard nearby, which discribed how the man had participated in the paralympic games. This figure represented an athlete at the height of his physical abilities, even missing one limb.

Perhaps this story alone makes the DAM’s interpretive experiment a success: an entire class of students middle school students, hormone-ridden and self-conscious, suddenly stopped in their tracks and passionately discussing a work of art, a piece that the same viewers might ordinarily have spent a glance on before continuing through the museum. Those walking the halls beside us usually remain anonymous, and their differening perspectives stay private; but here, a different read became obvious, unignorable. Perhaps a test tube full of acrylic beads provides an anathema to the casual or even dismissive art viewing culture that Pollock responded to over 60 years ago, a culture that still persists today –

maybe it can teach us to give the art a chance.

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