Slow art day

Take the time to enjoy some art

One reporter spends extra time looking at art across the Berkshires

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I have a confession to make: When I'm not working on art stories for The Eagle, I often find myself speeding through gallery and museum exhibitions. I'm not exactly sure why I'm in such a rush, but I know that it's not just a "me" problem. Studies suggest that viewers spend, on average, less than 30 seconds looking at works on display.

About a decade ago, Slow Art Day was launched at museums around the world to help combat this problem. Held on Saturday, April 6, this year, Slow Art Day encourages gallery goers to visit one of the event's 137 participating institutions; examine five pre-selected works for five to 10 minutes each; and discuss with their fellow attendees what they've observed.

"Slow Art Day is a global event with a simple mission: help more people discover for themselves the joy of looking at and loving art," the event's website says.

In the Berkshires, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams will offer Slow Art Day programming. The Rockwell's event takes the conventional form, starting at 2 p.m. with ticket holders looking at five Rockwell paintings for 10 minutes apiece before chatting about them over tea and cookies with a museum specialist. (Reservations are required, though there is no additional admission cost.) At Mass MoCA, the program (free with museum admission) will start at 11 a.m. with a Sara Auster-led sound bath in James Turrell's "Dissolve." A "guided contemplative looking tour" will follow at 11:30. A second sound bath and looking tour will be offered at noon and 12:30 p.m. And at 1, there will be coffee and conversation in the museum's Kidspace.

But really, Slow Art Day isn't about one-off events; it's about developing a mindset toward art-viewing that doesn't need to be confined to a particular day, location or program. So, on Tuesday and Wednesday, I visited the Rockwell, Clark Art Institute and Mass MoCA to take a closer look at some collection and long-running exhibition pieces that I may have zoomed by in the past. In the process, I was reminded that the longer you look at a work of art, the harder it is to peel yourself away from it.

Norman Rockwell, "Norman Rockwell's 78th Spring (Springtime in Stockbridge)," illustration for Look, June 1, 1971, oil on canvas, Norman Rockwell Museum Collection

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On my Tuesday morning drive to the Rockwell, I kept thinking about all the bare limbs on trees lining Berkshire roads. Isn't it spring already? Perhaps that's why I was drawn to this framed painting in one corner of the Stockbridge museum. Near the center of the composition, a thick brown branch descends, luring the eye toward a row of trees filled with leaves — spring! Yellows throughout the work — in the grass, in the leaves, in a sign, in a house — advance a sunny disposition. It's also heavy on green. Some leafy trees are next to the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge along West Main Street, which, an information card notes, hasn't changed much since the artist's day. Rockwell himself is in the piece, riding a bicycle with his neighbors and wife, Molly Punderson Rockwell. The four of them are approaching the work's bottom-left corner. Down the road, the back of a car can be glimpsed. Yet, there is a sense of idleness throughout the work. On one side of the street, a man leans against a tree, arms at his sides, holding his dog's leash. On the other, someone is sitting on a bench near the cyclists while a group stands outside the church. And in the road, there is a whole lot of nothing between Rockwell's group and the vehicle that has passed. I wanted something else in this portion of the canvas — more activity — and kept coming back to it over the course of my 15 minutes in front of the piece. (Lost track of time.) Maybe Rockwell did, too.

Vincent van Gogh, "Terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens," 1886, oil on canvas, Clark Art Institute, acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1939

On a prior trip to the Clark, I passed a group in front of this van Gogh and silently wished I could spend some time alone with it. A visit this Wednesday morning afforded me just that. Nestled in a corner of the Williamstown museum's permanent collection, this painting also features a lot of trees, but its atmosphere is entirely different than the Rockwell work; it's distinctly urban. While I've never been to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the symmetrical rows of trunks reminded me of other city landscapes I've often visited: the Christian Science Plaza in Boston and Central Park in New York City. Van Gogh's piece also evoked the anonymity of living in such places; only an adult holding a red umbrella and a child are facing the viewer. The rest are either in movement or turned, unavailable to us. An information card relays that van Gogh had just moved to Paris when he painted this scene. He was experimenting with Impressionist techniques, "using small touches of pure color to capture the sunlight and shadows." This contrast between dark and light can also be seen in people's attire. While the taller figures are wearing black or other dark colors, the child is donning something white and gold-ish. What to make of it?

Louise Bourgeois, "Untitled," 1991, white marble, two elements, collection Louise Bourgeois Trust

Upon arriving at Mass MoCA on Wednesday afternoon, I headed for Building 6, specifically the area where Bourgeois' sculptures will live through at least 2020. Near the center of the exhibit, an untitled two-mass work is situated near a wall. Orbs are centered atop each of its pieces; they looked like eyes to me, though an information card I didn't see until later on says that they could be heads or breasts, too. Engraved spirals in one piece conjure snails, hurricanes and waves' curls. Humps on its top surface look like dunes. The other piece doesn't have the spirals or ridges on its front side. Instead, its orb sits atop stadium-style seating, an amphitheater of sorts. Behind the orb, the sculpture narrows triangularly, resembling the convergence of the north and south branches of the Hoosic River outside Building 6. Between the work's two pieces, there is a small gap, like a crack in the earth. Two engraved circles on each face each other. You have to bend and squint to see them, but they clearly weren't afterthoughts to Bourgeois; they should be worth your time, too.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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