Don’t Be Afraid of Modern Art

I admit it, I’m afraid of modern art. I avoid modern art exhibits, can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ventured into MoMA, and that was probably with one of my kids for a school project. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m willing to do my best to overcome it. That’s why Robyn Jamison’s recent release The Magic of Modern Art caught my eye.  

An Exhibit at The Dia

Jamison was the perfect person to write an art book for those intimidated, put off, or feeling that they’ll never “get it” when viewing a piece of modern art. A recent art school graduate, Jamison’s first job was as a guard at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth. There she was able to observe and overhear visitors as they browsed, standing in the galleries, with most making what Jamison considered, “disdainful, disbelieving and dispirited” remarks, some adding that their five-year-old could do better than what they saw hanging on the wall. While disheartened by what she heard, the guard wondered about those who never even enter the doors of a modern art museum, fearing that they “wouldn’t get it either.” Vowing to do something about it, she began touring her friends through the museum, with thought-provoking questions, letting them “be with the art” and let it speak to them. Encouraged by their new sense of modern art understanding, Jamison was ready to put her theories into book form. 

With Jamison’s book in hand, having read through her chapters on how viewing modern art can open up areas in our creativity, can create interesting conversations, connects us with the trends of what’s going on in contemporary society, or in my case, face modern art avoidance, I headed out to Dia: Beacon, a sister museum to Manhattan’s Dia Chelsea. Located in the former Nabisco box printing factory in Dutchess County, the building’s 160,000 square feet makes it the largest exhibition space in the country. 

Among the tips Jamison provides when one is beginning the museum tour is to remind oneself of being open to what lies ahead. One may not be able to understand a piece at first, but like life, things get revealed over time. I was supposed to choose one exhibit and do a slow walk-through, pay attention to how I feel viewing the various items. If one seems to hit me, and I think “ugh,” then that piece is the one to focus on. There had to be at least fifteen or so exhibits at the museums, one immediately caught my interest and the second one completely perplexed me. Now it was time to get to work

John Chamberlain’s objects – what looked like a hodgepodge of crushed metal car parts stuck together — took up an immense area of space in the back of the building. From one item to another, I picked out colorful fenders, crushed doors with windows missing, metals bent and curled either from a horrific crash, or the work of a car crusher. 

I viewed many of the items – some taller than I — for as long as my interest held, wondering how the artist came up with this idea, how did he know the work was done and that the piece didn’t need just one more layer of metal. I stood close to the object, I stood far away; I asked myself if the piece resembled anything else. From a distance, the piece exploded in color, the sparkling metal’s colors changed with the lighting. What I took from this exhibit was that items that may be on their way to the garbage dump can be turned into something art worthy.

Onto the second exhibit. Hanging before me were steel strings of barbed wire, clipped to the ceiling, and from a distance, resembled holiday tinsel. I didn’t count the number of hanging wires, I won’t even guess, but they were twisty and sharp knots, and I kept my distance. Having seen plenty of barbed wire in prison and war movies, I associated this art piece by Melvin Edwards with pain and confinement. 

It was fascinating to see it in a new light, as something other than obstacle to a prison escapee. The simplicity of the exhibit was of interest, and I lost sense of time as I walked about to view the wires from different spots in the room.  

I avoided reading any online reviews about the exhibits prior to my visit, wanting to view it cold, and without bias. It all helped me turn a corner on this exercise in modern art appreciation. As Jamison notes in her ending pages, “As you spend more time and come to feel more relaxed with Modern Art, your sense of connection and awe are likely to deepen.”  I’d like that. 

The Magic of Modern Art is a beautiful coffee table book, a definite conversation starter. With stunning color photos of modern art, additional tips on viewing exhibits, Jamison also offers advice on how to acquire and display it around your home and office. 

Top photo: Robyn Jamison at book signing. Photo Credit: Duncan Fox
Other photos by MJ Hanley-Goff.

Learn more about the author at The Magic of Modern Art.

Visit Dia Beacon.

About MJ Hanley-Goff (179 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to Woman Around Town since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday in the early 90’s and has continued writing professionally for other New York publications like the Times Herald-Record, Orange Magazine, and Hudson Valley magazine. Former editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, she also contributed stories to AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. to offer writing workshops and book coaching to first time authors, and also college essay writing help to students. MJ has recently made St. Augustine, Florida her home base, and is thrilled and honored to continue to write for WAT and the amazing adventures it offers. Despite the new zip code, MJ will continue to keep a pulse on New York events, but will continue to focus on the creative thinkers, doers, and artists wherever they are.