A critic offers encouraging words for viewers baffled by contemporary art.

An artist, teacher, and art critic for the Wall Street Journal, Esplund (Thornton Willis, 2011, etc.) is sympathetic to the challenges faced by visitors to museums and galleries who may encounter a man’s hairy leg protruding from a white wall at floor level or an inflated white balloon attached at the juncture of a gallery’s wall and bluestone floor. “Many people,” he writes, “tell me that they don’t know how to look at art, that they are afraid they are not sophisticated enough and will see or focus on the wrong things, that they will miss what’s important, and that they feel intimidated by art.” In a friendly and conversational tone, Esplund shares his insights honed during a long career. He aims to provide a basic grounding so that viewers begin to trust their own responses and also “begin to think like an artist.” Five chapters provide an overview about the effects of color, form, line, space, weight, rhythm, and structure; an artwork he asserts, “is a living organism” that exudes energy. He cites works by artists as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Klee, Barnett Newman, Matisse, Pollock, Giacometti, and Brancusi to make the case that “all artists are poets and that they employ metaphors.” Looking at art is like dancing, where the artist leads the viewer’s eye to “hop and glide from form to form” and to pick up the work’s rhythms and melodies. Esplund urges viewers to draw upon their feelings when approaching an artwork; artists, he writes, “expect that their work will ignite your imagination and emotions as much as your rationality.” In separate chapters, the author focuses on 11 artists whose works may seem impenetrable to the novice viewer—e.g., Balthus’ nude adolescent girls, James Turrell’s disorienting light sculptures, Klee’s metaphor-rich abstractions, Maria Abramovic’s interactive performance pieces, and Robert Gober’s Untitled (Man Coming Out of a Woman), which is a “Frankensteinian sculpture, made of beeswax, human hair, a sock, and a leather shoe.”

An inviting and informative primer.