“How to open your mind — and your heart — to contemporary art”

By Alexander C. Kafka
Nov 29, 2018

In October, a stenciled, spray-painted “Girl with Red Balloon,” by the anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy, was sold at Sotheby’s London auction house for $1.4 million. A moment later, it self-destructed, the bottom of the pretentiously ornate frame acting as a shredder presumably activated by remote control. The remains increased in value to $2 million.

Fortunately, at the time, I was reading Lance Esplund’s wise, wonderful new book, “The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art,” and that helped me evaluate Banksy’s feat. I have no idea what Esplund, an art critic for the Wall Street Journal as well as a painter and teacher, thinks of the shredding performance. But that’s the beauty of his book — I don’t need to. Esplund gives readers the confidence to make up our own minds and encourages us to find intellectual and emotional joy in doing so.

The art historian Preminda Jacob considered the Banksy episode “the latest example of artists deploying guerrilla tactics to expose their disdain for the critics, dealers, gallery owners, and museum curators whom they depend on for their livelihood.”

Maybe. But I think it was more playful than that. Banksy’s daring and timing made me chuckle. The minimalist, somewhat cloying image shows a girl either losing her heart-shaped balloon, or offering it, to the sky. It’s a fleeting moment.

Mwa-ha-hah! chortles the invisible Banksy as the image descends into the blades — more fleeting than you knew!

Then there’s the audience’s shocked reaction and the buyer’s subsequent announcement that she values it even more now that it’s “a piece of art history.” Like mobile and performance art, “Girl with Red Balloon” combines visual, temporal and interactive elements. Maybe it is, as Jacob writes, disdainful, but it’s also a witty reminder to seize the day.

My reaction was influenced, I think, by Esplund’s approach to the performance artist Marina Abramovic’s “Generator,” in which participants don a blindfold and sound-suppressing headphones and venture into a performance space where they walk or crawl, “bumping into walls, support columns and other people.” He went into the experience a skeptic: “It struck me more as a sociological and psychological experiment than art.” But he emerged a believer: “I was deeply affected. I felt fully present.”

Esplund divides his book into two parts. The first, “Fundamentals,” discusses the elements of art, its use of metaphor, how to bring one’s subjectivity and objectivity into strategic play. The second, “Close Encounters,” comprises Esplund’s readings of select paintings, sculptures, videos, installations and performance art. Those readings go deep but are surprisingly concise, some only a few pages long.

Esplund reminds us that all art was contemporary when it was created and that to separate our era’s works from the past “cuts us off from our histories, distances us from ourselves.” He impressively intersperses discussions of modern art with relevant predecessors, sometimes ancient ones. He compares, for instance, Mondrian’s “Composition with Blue” to the Great Pyramid at Giza — the way both push, pull and disorient a viewer in a daunting but exciting way.

In a pairing of more recent work, the minimalist sculptor Richard Tuttle brings to Esplund’s mind Alexander Calder’s shadow play.

Art is regarded as part of a wide aesthetic world, not sealed in a vacuum, so Robert Gober’s “Untitled Leg” spurs associations not just to Duchamp’s 1917 readymade urinal “Fountain,” Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 “Object” and Duane Hanson’s 1970s Madame Tussaud-like sculptures but also to an Alfred Hitchcock movie and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.

In other words, Esplund models the way art viewers are really art interactors, and the more references we bring to an interpretation the more we’re likely to get out of it.

He is bold but never obnoxious in his opinions, offering insights in the context of his experience and urging us to do the same. I particularly liked his discussion of Balthus, countering the dirty-old-man caricature some of the artist’s critics have recently promoted. In Balthus’s “The Cat With a Mirror I” (1977-80) Esplund sees a girl caught between childhood and adulthood, rising “like a colossus, as if she were outgrowing her bedroom, a giant or monument straddling a river.” He finds references in the work to “Greco-Roman statuary and Byzantine Madonnas, weathered dolls and ancient relics.”

Esplund is equally adept in analyzing video pieces like Jeremy Blake’s “The Winchester Trilogy,” inspired by a mysterious San Jose mansion built by the widow of the Winchester firearms magnate. At the behest of her husband’s ghost, she expanded the mansion from eight to 160 rooms to placate the spirits of Winchester gun victims. The video trilogy becomes a reflection of America, with “Raquel Welch, rock ‘n’ roll, gunslingers, and spiritualism” among its “metaphoric layers. . . as if it’s exploring not merely a house, or the chambers of Sarah Winchester’s psyche, but a deep-sea wreck, a lost city, the depths of our collective unconscious.”

Life is busy and art is demanding, but reading Esplund prods us to take the aesthetic plunge, to commit to a James Turrell light sculpture or a forbiddingly monumental Richard Serra art space the same way we do to a Rembrandt, a Berthe Morisot, a Picasso. Lay down your defenses and your antagonisms, Esplund urges, and “be as demanding of yourself as you are of the art you encounter.” A profound connection to an artwork, “like lovesickness, is unmistakable and will inspire your search for new and deeper relationships.”