This essay was originally published at the Curator Magazine on December 12, 2016.
Perhaps you’re familiar with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, the ones that art critic Craig Brown (a contemporary of Pollock) called “decorative ‘wallpaper.‘” I understand the sentiment: after all, what makes a splattered canvas so noteworthy that one of Pollock’s paintings 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 recent scandals where even a fake Pollock painting can sell for 3.1 million dollars.)
The problem of interpretation has always been one of the primary discussions in contemporary and modern art, exemplified by Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings. Those outside the art world wonder, what does it mean? And if 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. Inspiration came from the Columbus Museum of Art’s exhibit Radical Camera, where one hundred fifty photographs captured events and people from underrepresented populations in New York City from the Great Depression through the Cold War. As the Columbus Alive article put it, “Images range from tenement dwellers and crime scenes to kids making games of sidewalk chalk drawings and pretend lynchings… [these photographs] possess the power to burn their way onto your irises.”
Due to such controversial subject matter, curators created a unique way for visitors to respond to the photographs, providing tags visitors could hang on a hook next to the photos. Tags were labeled with different words, such as injustice, anguish, fear, joy, and friendship. A visitor could also browse the tags that others had hung at each piece of art.
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.