What a great pleasure, yesterday, to spend time with a group of bright young people, talking about art. My friend, the artist Tony de los Reyes (the link is to a past gallery affiliation, but it will give you some idea of his work) had invited to me to meet at the museum with his class of students from Windward School--a private school with a fine reputation on the west side of town. With only half an hour to work with--it turned out to be closer to forty-five minutes--I adapted my "One Hour/One Painting" session to the occasion.
I have written about "One Hour/One Painting" in these pages before, but a reminder might be useful. I started offering it years ago, when I caught myself walking through museums and galleries and spending more time with the label than with the painting on the wall. I had also taken note of the easy habit of looking at works of art--and making judgments about them--without having really paid attention to what was there in front of me. Instead of looking at the art work, I was looking into a mirror and seeing everything I brought in with me--my likes and dislikes, my prejudices, my expectations about what a work of art should look like. Rather than allowing the work to tell me what it was, I was telling it what it ought to be, and judging it accordingly.
At the same time, I was beginning to experience the enormous benefits of meditation, learning to pay attention to an object--the breath, ambient sounds, the body--and working hard to set aside the distractions of the always busy, always occupied brain. I thought it would be a good idea to put these things together, and started inviting small groups of people to sit with me in front of a single painting for a full, uninterrupted hour. I avoided talk "about" the artist, art history, critical analysis, interpretation. It was, is, just about looking at what's there. Part silent, closed-eye meditation, part open-eyed, intense contemplation of the object, the experience asked participants to drop all prejudices and expectations, and to join me in a leisurely visual walk through the painting. Most had never experienced an art work in this way before, and I learned a lot, along with everyone else, at each event of this kind.
It has been a while since I last offered a "One Hour/One Painting" session. For this one, I went to the museum to seek out a suitable painting for the class, with good sight lines, an interesting art work, and a location spared the heavier traffic patterns. I discovered Pablo Picasso's "Man & Woman."
Having chosen the piece, I had some initial worries about its very explicit sexual content. I need not have been concerned. These teenagers took it all in stride. At their age, I would have been hideously embarrassed. Times have changed. I was a bit worried, too, about asking them to close their eyes, and about the brief introduction to meditation--necessary to get things started. But this too they handled without question, or the kind of embarrassment I have noted often in adults when you ask them to do something a little out of the ordinary. I did a very abbreviated "One Hour"--about fifteen minutes in all, and chose then to spend a while talking with them about the experience, and about what they had found in the painting. I was astonished by the precision and clarity of their observation, and by their ability to articulate complex responses. The only question they were reluctant to respond to was my final one: what had they discovered about themselves in looking at the picture? Even then, when asked if they had, indeed, discovered something, but would not want to talk about it, most hands went up. This was something they preferred to keep private.
As I say, it was a delightful experience for me. It was also a little sobering. There is, of course, the knowledge that these are truly privileged young people, whose parents can, for the most part, afford to send them to an expensive school. But in other ways they are surely not different from others of their age: I could not help but think, as I left the museum, of those many teenagers, just as bright, whose education does not prepare them for, nor afford them such opportunities. I wish it were otherwise, but I am glad to have had the opportunity to encounter these wonderful young minds.