The experience of looking at works of art for long periods of time without a desired end in mind is a special kind of viewing experience. It’s possible that this kind of viewing experience is only known by gallery guards. What the meanings or actions were behind the works of art I was looking at during those long hours of standing in the galleries was not a real concern to me at the time. It may be enough to look at works of art and enjoy the colors, forms and composition as an aesthetic experience. But when you have to come back the next day to look at the same work again it becomes something else. This “something else” is odd—equally aesthetic and non-aesthetic. There is, in fact, a numbing of the aesthetic.
When I began to work at the Met I felt that I could educate myself in art and art history just by looking. Of course, I was looking without a context. These works of art were done at particular times in history, and whatever is special about the work is given within a historical context. I “knew this” at the time, but did not want to pay any attention to it because I enjoyed “just looking.” It was part of the job, or at least, I made it part of the job. It was like looking at an art history book and being so seduced by the images that the titles, dates, and where the work came from wasn’t important.
After the two or three month training period guards can choose a section of the museum to work in on a permanent basis. I chose European painting. But let me go back to my first day of training. I remember standing in the Egyptian wing of the Met for the longest period. It was the most exhausting day of my career as a guard at the Met. I was accompanied by my trainer and, for some reason, we stood in front of a large sarcophagus made of basalt or black granite all day long. It was milled or carved, and was coffin-shaped with hieroglyphics cut into its lid. We were guarding it. My trainer made sure no one touched the stone. I remember looking at the sarcophagus with interest for I don’t know how long. Then my interest turned into staring, which lasted an unbelievable length of time.
I stood for six or seven hours that day in front of this sarcophagus. During my training period I had to stand watch, at least for a day, in every gallery that makes up the public exhibition spaces. In the Egyptian wing, one of my very first assignments, I looked for long periods of time at Egyptian art, item after item, from pre-dynastic Egypt going back beyond 3000 B.C. all the way up to the Christian era represented by the Fayum mummy portraits of about 120 A.D. I watched the patrons and the art. After several days of looking at the art, the interested gaze turned into the inarticulate stare.
What is the difference between looking and staring? When we look, we dance over the object consciously. We pause, or stop the flow of looking, when something in the general visual field arrests our interest for whatever personal reason. This is looking. Staring at the object is difficult to describe because it is like an absent-mindedness. There is no direct focus on the object. Instead, the gaze moves in a general visual field that is occupied, in the example above, with objects from pre-dynastic Egypt. The experience of looking, I eventually found out, could easily slide into staring without my noticing it. This was the pattern of my experience of looking at art for the rest of my working days as a gallery guard at the Met. It followed the formula, looking gives way to staring.
I cannot describe a particular passage from a particular work of art. What I do remember is the unforgettable march of art works, one after the other, gallery after gallery. Staring sets in. Visual impressions somehow become harder, as if frozen in time somewhere below the level of consciousness. I could call it over-stimulation or saturation. There begins a deterioration of your aesthetic sense—too much of a good thing.
I have looked for long periods of time at one piece of art while standing in one of the galleries. But to really look, one must first look in wonder, and then try to answer the questions that come up while looking. This method, I think, is a way to prolong looking without killing the aesthetic sense.
The visual experience extends to other cognitive faculties. What does looking at an image for a long time mean? What is the look of an image after you have looked at it for a very long time? For me, looking at a work of art for long periods of time became like asking a question and forgetting soon after what was the content of the question asked. Looking at works of art is an active stop and go sensation, in a manner of speaking, more akin to intentional thinking. It is not the continuous run of mental imagery as in daydreaming, for example.
Staring is only on the threshold of looking. It is like that place we find ourselves in while driving our cars when we realize we were not consciously looking. Yet, we continue to drive safely in the lane that stretches ahead. The experience of looking is a sense of active absorption in the work which is missing altogether in staring. There’s something here about consciousness and unconsciousness.
I remember looking for hours at porcelain, tapestry, furniture, fire-arms (from the crossbow to the Colt forty-five), gilded rooms, stones and wooden statues from the Medieval period: I also looked and stared for hours at African and Oceanic art, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian art, Islamic, Greek, Roman and Etruscan art. These arts and artifacts were within my visual field every day. More often than not, I was standing in the galleries tired and bored stiff. I took no notes of the thoughts that accompanied my looking, and when I went on a lunch break or was at home telling my wife about what I’d seen, it never occurred to me to put down my experiences on paper.
My favorite galleries were those devoted European and American painting. Here is where I did the most looking and the least staring. I was able to note the progression of styles through time, even though I was not concerned about the historical context of the work. The paintings were there and my eyes wandered in amazement in these picture galleries.
In the first gallery, in the Northern Renaissance and Flemish art section, the Roger van der Weyden portrait of Francisco d’Este held my attention for days. The little hammer and ring he holds in his hands with their long delicate fingers raise towards his extraordinarily long nose. The diptych by Jan van Eyck: Crucifixion and Last Judgment” and Petrus Christus Annunciation are paintings that my eyes ran over and over again in an attempt to uncover knowledge about them through the visual. I had similar experiences with Italian, French, and Spanish paintings of the Baroque period. My experience of pure looking climaxed with the French Realist, Impressionist, and Post Impressionist painters. I thought I had reached some kind of method of experiencing looking at works of art that would be useful to others. I was shocked when I found out from a friend, who happened to be an art historian, that it was impossible to understand a work of art from just looking at it. I was a gallery guard at the Met, and that is how I passed my time there.
In the summer of 1985 my wife became pregnant with our son. My friends had told me that being a guard at the Met brought with it good health benefits. This was what led me to seek out the job. Since I had an interest in the arts, and because I had grown up in New York City, I had visited the Met many times. But nothing could have prepared me for working there. The unforgettable experience of looking at works of art for approximately 1400 hours.
Juan Rodriquez is a freelance writer living in Oakland, California.
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