Verbal Description Tour: East Building
This tour offers vivid descriptions of specific works on view in the East Building. Though designed for people with vision loss, this tour is a useful tool for guided looking for all visitors.
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Alexander Calder, Untitled, constructed with aluminum and steel in 1976. This description is a minute and a half long.
Calder’s monumental mobile hangs from the roof trusses at the center of the East Building’s atrium. The atrium is a wide, open area, four stories high, with a rooftop made up of pyramid-shaped skylights. Calder’s mobile is made of narrow, tubular, steel armatures, each segment connected to the next by looped hooks at the center and ends of each armature. From these beams hang flat, irregular shapes reminiscent of paddles.
A long, central armature is connected by a loop to a straight length of steel, which is attached to the top of one of the skylights. Both of these elements are fire engine red. At either end of the central beam swing two branch-like sprays of interconnected arms, with organic paddle-like shapes on the end. There are thirteen branches with thirteen paddles, seven on one side of the central pivot point, six on the other, and they float in the open space, and balance each other. One set of branches is entirely red and the other side is black, with one royal blue paddle. The mobile measures almost seventy-six feet across at its longest and thirty feet at its widest. The connecting loops create pivots, so the individual components of the mobile can rotate and move slowly in response to the atrium’s natural air currents.
The mobile may be viewed from a variety of vantage points within the atrium. It can be seen from below on the ground, concourse level, or from the mezzanine. From the atrium’s upper-level public spaces, the mobile can be viewed straight on, almost at its height of suspension.
- Woman in a Striped Dress
Édouard Vuillard, Woman in a Striped Dress, oil on canvas, painted in 1895. This description is three and a half minutes long.
This painting measures about two feet square, and shows two women from the waist up behind a counter in an interior space. We seem to look upon the scene from the other side of the counter. Bunches of flowers fill the space to the right, and patterns of color fill in the space around the figures to the left. The color palette is dominated by claret reds, forest greens, and tans, and smaller areas of white and pale yellow. The brushwork is loose, especially in the women’s clothes and the flowers.
We will start with the women in the foreground, and will then examine the flowers and the rest of the room.
The woman standing closer to the viewer takes up the left half of the composition. The second woman stands behind her and to the viewer’s right. The woman in the front wears her auburn hair pulled up and she faces our right in profile. She has a cream-colored complexion with a delicate nose and chin, and her eyes are downcast. She holds a scarlet red object, perhaps a vase, above the counter. Her garment has a high collar and long sleeves, with large, puffed shoulders. The garment is vertically striped with narrow bands of ivory and crimson. There is the suggestion of a lace cuff around the wrist that holds the vase.
The face and body of the woman behind this figure are partially hidden by the other woman’s form. This second woman is shown in a three-quarter view, and has dark blonde hair and a pale complexion. She gazes at the flowers in front of her and her lips are closed. She also wears a garment with a high neck, but hers is a solid ruby color.
A grouping of four burgundy colored vases sit on the counter in front of the women. At the center of this grouping, one lighter colored vase could be painted or could be clear glass, through which we see some white and indigo-colored flowers. The looseness of Vuillard’s brushwork makes the objects indistinct.
The vases themselves hold bouquets of forest green and beige flowers or plants. Bunches of pumpkin orange and soft pink flowers lay on the counter in front of the containers. The only specific variety that the viewer might discern is a cluster of six flowers in the vase the woman holds. Three wine-red flowers, two ecru-colored flowers, and one dark purple flower are suggestive of chrysanthemums. A few dots of sunshine yellow surround those flowers, and a small but vivid, fire-engine red flower peeks out from the left side of that arrangement.
Two more ecru and one more plum-colored mum appears in the lower-left corner of the canvas, to the left of the central woman. Behind those flowers, a rectangular box, about the size of a tissue box, rests on the countertop, and has caramel-colored sides and a navy top.
A third figure stands to the left and above the women, though the details are vague. We can make out the suggestion of a face turned leftward. The figure has blonde hair and wears a long, loose marigold-yellow garment. Her right arm, to our left, could be raised to shoulder height, and she stands before a crimson background, maybe a curtain. The curtain ends just beyond her left shoulder, so this vignette takes up about one-quarter of canvas’s width.
The rest of the background is ambiguous, and is filled with dots and touches of apple red, maroon, orange, sage green, dark brown, and butter yellow.
The painter signed the canvas near the lower-right corner with burgundy letters, “E. Vuillard.”
- Nude in an Interior
Pierre Bonnard, Nude in an Interior, oil on canvas, painted around 1935. This description is three and a half minutes long.
Nude in an Interior measures about five and a half feet tall by just over two feet across. The viewer stands in a domestic interior, facing a wall and looking into a full-length mirror. We see an adjoining room reflected in the mirror, which is positioned roughly in the center of the composition. The left edge of a nude female figure is reflected along the right edge of the mirror. Bonnard’s brushwork is loose and the color palette is comprised of warm and bright yellows, pink, and peach, juxtaposed against icy blues and deep fuchsia. The composition is essentially a series of nested rectangles and geometric shapes that interlock like pieces of a puzzle.
To explore this work in more detail, we will begin with the foreground, and then describe the reflection in the mirror, and finish with the surrounding room.
The rectangular mirror occupies the left two-thirds of the canvas. A cool electric-blue trapezoidal shape extends from the bottom edge of the canvas into the room, on the left half of the painting. This form represents the top of a dressing table with some perfume bottles at the far end. A small sunshine-yellow table just beyond it holds two small glass vessels with square bases and round spouts, each about the size of a perfume bottle as well.
Along the right edge of the reflection in the mirror, we see the contour of the side of a woman standing and facing the viewer. She holds her right hand, on our left, up to her chestnut-colored hair, which is piled atop her head. The side of her body is highlighted with a lemon-yellow color, and her face is lost in a blue shadow cast by her upraised arm. We see part of her right breast and the curve of her torso as it tapers to her waist. Her lower leg and foot are shaded in a dark pink color with subtle streaks of blue. Another form barely visible in the mirror could be a garment hanging before her.
The top half of the wall behind the figure in the reflection is streaked with burnt orange, warm yellow, and pale pink, and dotted all over with touches of a blood-orange color. A horizontal band of electric blue suggests a chair rail. This separates the orange color of the wall above from an area of deep magenta along the bottom third of the wall. The carpeted floor is decorated with a pattern of crimson flowers and blue-green vines, against a light fuchsia background.
We also see a table to the left in the reflection, which would have sat towards the back of the inner room. The table itself is painted with a vibrant scarlet, and it seems to hold embroidery or another material swirled with sky-blue, lavender, and golden yellow. Sea-green forms below suggest that the table holds something on a lower shelf.
We now return to the room in which the viewer stands, beyond the reflection in the mirror. In the bottom right corner of the canvas, a square of carpet has a pattern of scalloped, denim-blue lines against a vivid yellow background. A band of black reads as a wide baseboard where the floor meets the wall. The wall above is covered with wallpaper, showing a series of petal-pink flowers with green stems against a honey-yellow background. A larger rectangle to the left of the open doorway is painted with cerulean blue and turquoise. This could be a reflection of the door in the inner room.
The painting is signed in the upper right corner with blood-red paint: “Bonnard.”
- Still Life: Le Jour
Georges Braque, Still Life: Le Jour, oil on canvas, painted in 1929. This description is about six minutes long.
This still-life painting measures almost four feet tall by six feet across. Braque shows us a collection of objects gathered on a table, which we view from straight on. A newspaper, fruit and a knife, a pipe, glass, ewer, and guitar are gathered on a table, which is placed against a wall paneled in wood on the lower half and wallpapered above. The colors are muted with shades of brown, pale yellow, denim blue, ecru, celery green, black, and white. The painting is created in a cubist style, so many of the objects are stylized and flattened into an array of two-dimensional shapes. Many of the items are outlined in black or white, and seem to hover over the table.
This description will begin with the table and then move to examine the objects, starting with the newspaper at the center, and moving around it. We’ll conclude with the wall behind the still life.
The table is painted a faun-brown color with a wood grain texture in the front. The table has one drawer with a flat, round knob indicated by concentric circles at the front center. The legs have irregular bulbous forms near the top, suggesting ornamental turning, and the legs extend beyond the bottom edge of the canvas. The rear leg of the table on the right side of the canvas is painted a light gray wood-grain texture. The top of the table seems to be tipped up towards the viewer, so it is viewed almost from above. This top surface of the table is a patchwork of the faun-brown wood grain and flat fields of black, green, and blue, with a curved swath of lemon yellow down the center, which could represent the sun cast onto the surface.
At the front center of the tabletop arrangement is a long white rectangular shape with the words “LE JOUR” in dark gray letters. This translates to “The Day,” and is part of the title of a French-language newspaper. Dark gray squiggles beneath the title suggest text.
Rotating around the newspaper clockwise: at twelve o’clock, an abstracted steel-gray pipe rests with its conical shaped bowl pointing to our left. A spiral of black and dark gray dashes rise out of the bowl to suggest smoke. At two o’clock sits a tall ewer outlined in black, and painted with blocks of daffodil yellow and cobalt blue. The body of the ewer and the handle are painted as if viewed from the front, but the opening at the top is tipped dramatically towards the viewer, as if we look down into the vessel. Another area of blue below the pitcher behind the fruit perhaps suggests a shadow.
At four o’clock and slightly in front of the newspaper sit two yellow pieces of fruit, probably apples, on a white, gray, and blue cloth. The back right corner of the table, with its wood-grain pattern, is visible behind the fruit and newspaper.
At about 7 o’clock to the newspaper, a knife rests near the front edge of the painting, right in front of the guitar. The blade is straight along one edge and curved on the other. It faces the viewer’s right and the handle is a walnut brown. The front drawer of the table is slightly open, and it appears that the blade of the knife hovers over, or possibly within that opening.
To the left of the pipe, at eleven o’clock to the newspaper, the guitar rests near the back left corner of the table. It is the largest object in the still life. The guitar is outlined with black and rests on its side so the front of the soundboard faces the viewer, and the neck extends to our left. The instrument is bisected lengthwise into two halves that appear to be spliced together, and the edges and features of the halves are not symmetrical or aligned with each other. The bottom half of the guitar is painted an ecru color, and is curved like a typical guitar body. The top half is painted black, and the contour of the instrument’s body rises into two pointed peaks instead of mirroring the rounded forms seen below. The sound hole is markedly smaller on the bottom half, and the two halves of the hole do not exactly line up. Bands of honey brown and white create a kind of halo around the top half of the instrument, while a walnut-colored band along the bottom half could be a view of the side of the guitar. The neck is also fragmented and the headstock seems oversized compared to the rest of the instrument. The swath of lemon yellow on the tabletop extends from behind the pipe to the area beneath the guitar.
The still life is set against solid, flat geometric shapes that appear to occupy a space between the still life and the back wall. Extending a few inches above the still life and edges of the table, this backdrop is painted celery green on the left two-thirds, and black with a brown semi-circle on the right. The forms echo those of the table and still life objects, to suggest an abstract shadow cast onto the wall.
The top half of the wallpapered back wall is decorated with a repeating pattern of lines that form diamonds; within the diamonds are flourishes that loosely resemble fleur-de-lis. The nut-brown pattern is shown against a light beige background. The wood paneling below is painted with a chestnut color with black outlines, to indicate molding and inset panels. In two areas, just to the right of the table and just below it, the wood paneling is rendered in black and white rather than brown, again to suggest shadow.
The painted areas do not extend to the edge of the canvas along the top and sides. There is about a two-inch border where the white canvas is visible.
The artist signed the canvas near the lower right corner in black ink: “G Braque / 29”.
- Head of a Woman
Amadeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, limestone, carved in 1910 to 1911. This recording is two minutes long.
Modigliani’s Head of a Woman measures just over two feet tall, and is seven and a half inches wide and almost ten inches deep at its widest. It is carved from off-white limestone. It shows the stylized head of a woman from the neck up.
The oval face of this sculpture is tall, narrow, and smoothly polished. The figure’s nose is elongated and runs almost the full length of the face. The bottom of the nose is sculpted as a narrow, v-shaped protrusion that flares gradually toward the nostrils. Eyebrows, eyes, and mouth are sculpted in a similarly economical fashion. The eyebrows are marked with lightly incised, slightly curving lines. The close-set eyes are indicated with bulbous almond shapes. They slant down slightly toward the bridge of the nose. The underside of the nose is flat and the nostrils are indicated with lightly incised arcs that curve upwards and back towards the cheek. Just below the nose is a half-moon-shaped projection that we read as a small, stylized mouth. The cheeks, chin, and forehead are rendered in gently curving planes.
A row of bangs just above the eyebrows is suggested with a shallow projection of stone carved with vertical lines. The hair curves around the back and sides of the head, to the area just below the figure’s ears. The ears are indicated with elongated, cup-like forms, and the hair itself is roughly carved so we see chisel marks in that area.
The neck is long and smooth below the face, and the sculpture terminates in a block of limestone that acts as a pedestal or base.
Aside from the roughly carved hair, the overall surface of the sculpture is smooth, but the nature of the limestone material makes the surface look pitted.
- New York
George Bellows, New York, oil on canvas, painted in 1911. This description is seven minutes long.
This canvas, titled New York, is about three and a half feet high and five feet wide. Bellows shows us a crowded city scene filled with people, horses, carriages, wagons, streetcars, and buildings, all from a slightly elevated viewpoint. The overall tonality is dark, with burgundy, grays, and blacks. Bright spots of harvest yellow, shamrock green, candy-apple red, and white punctuate the view and guide the eye around the composition. In the foreground, throngs of people walk along the street or sidewalk, mostly toward the left side of the canvas. Horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, and a motorcar carry people along in the middle ground. A band of towering buildings in the background occupies the top half of the space of the painting. The paint quality is brushy and loose, and energetically applied. Many of the figures and objects are rendered with only a few swipes of a brush, which makes many of the details indistinct.
We will work our way from the bottom of the composition, in the foreground, upwards and back into the middle ground, and then to the background in the distance.
Dozens of figures in the foreground, in the lower quarter of the composition, walk along a street or sidewalk that runs parallel to the picture plane. A few white areas show through breaks in the crowd to indicate the ground is covered with snow, and it is winter. The women wear full-length dresses with long sleeves and hats, and the men wear knee-length overcoats and rounded, derby-style hats. Most figures are dressed in black and are laid in with a few strokes of the brush. Several figures stand out because of the colors of their clothing. A man wearing a tan suit and two women, one wearing a maroon dress and hat, the other, pine green, are dispersed among the crowd toward the left. Two women in smoke-blue dresses, two in grass green, and another in bright red are scattered through the crowd to the right. To the left, a street cleaner in a white uniform holds a broom or shovel, with which he clears snow. Near the center, a policeman in navy blue stands with his back to the viewer, with his feet widely planted and one arm pointed to the left as he directs traffic.
In the middle ground, a cart piled high with six layers of baled, flaxen-yellow hay draws the viewer’s eye to the center of the composition. The hay cart is being pulled to the right by one or two chestnut-colored horses, and a man sits atop the pile of hay at the back, facing toward the rear of the cart. To the left of the hay cart, a second pewter-gray, boxy, rectangular wagon, with several figures within, is pulled by two white horses. Along the left edge of the painting, a crowd of people line up to board two streetcars. To the right of the central hay cart, a smaller black, two-person, horse-drawn carriage is pulled away from the viewer. That carriage navigates around another horse-drawn enclosed wagon with a green and yellow sign written on the back.
Though the details are indistinct, additional figures and conveyances recede into the distance. The green-lettered wagon leads the viewer’s eye to a two-tone, lime-green and harvest-yellow streetcar positioned diagonally and to the left in the distance. People and vehicles fill in every bit of space. A thin band of vivid white in the middle distance to the left of the hay truck, suggests a small park or open area covered in snow. About a dozen tall trees with barren branches reach upward within that area.
A band of densely spaced buildings encloses the scene. The line of buildings is broken only by a small, gray patch of sky visible in a gap between the buildings. Lower structures, each between six and twelve stories tall, are clustered along the edge of the park on the left half of the canvas. Smoke rises out of a pair of chimneys on shorter, brick-red structures near the left edge of the canvas. Buildings next to it are painted in burgundy, flint gray, and asparagus green, and one building is parchment-colored with a red lettered sign. Next to that pair, the buildings are a dusty dark pink, mauve, and shades of white and tan. A pair of graphite-gray buildings rises behind this lower row. Large white letters on the side of the gray building to the left reads “Zevo Clean.” Another sign is painted near the top of the second gray building in indistinct blue letters against a white ground. Behind these, a second row of taller buildings extend beyond the space of the painting. Many of the buildings have signs and advertising painted on the sides with strokes of paint that suggest letters and slogans, but these are not fully legible.
The buildings described so far occupy the left half of the composition. To the right, a street running perpendicular to the viewer extends into the distance, breaking the row of building facades into two city blocks. An elevated track with a train traveling across it spans this space. A row of buildings to the right are rendered in forest green, deep burgundy, and slate gray. Rows of windows are picked out with daubs of the grass green and ivory.
A few billboard-sized signs are on the face of one building to the right. The top sign is painted with red letters against a pale green ground. The words at the top of the sign are indistinct but we can make out the word “Theater” along the bottom. The middle sign below it has scarlet letters against a grass-green ground, and includes the word “clean.” The third sign, at the bottom, has a cream-colored background with a crimson border. To the right, green letters read “blood” above another indistinct word. A row of signs identify stores and businesses that wrap around the bottom story of those buildings.
The painting is signed with pine-green paint near the lower left corner of the canvas: “G-e-o Bellows.”
- Ground Swell
Edward Hopper, Ground Swell, oil on canvas, painted in 1939. This description is about six minutes long.
Ground Swell is about three feet tall and just over five feet across. Hopper shows us a seascape with a group of several people in a catboat, which is a small type of sailboat with a single mast near the forward end, or bow. It is situated to the right of center in the foreground of the painting, rocking atop the closest of five ocean swells. The vessel and sail are white and most of the figures also wear white. Everyone on the boat faces a rusty bell buoy bobbing just to the left of the vessel. The boat floats in a sea of topaz-blue water that fills the lower third of the canvas, with an azure sky above. We view the boating party from a point just over the water, perhaps from another boat. The overall composition seems to be a study in cool white and bright, brilliant blue tones.
We’ll begin at the top of the painting with the sky, and work our way down to the sea, boat, figures, and buoy.
The sky is a saturated periwinkle color that fades to a pale blue near the horizon line. A band of wispy cirrus clouds, which are also called “mare’s tails,” extend from the upper left corner of the canvas towards the lower right, and come to a point near the intersection of the sky and water. More narrow clouds stretch along the horizon line in the deep distance. These clouds are very thinly painted so the texture and the cream color of the canvas are visible in some areas when seen close up.
The swells of the water below create five bands that extend horizontally across the canvas. The colors of the water range from sapphire in the distance, to a pale turquoise in the foreground. The bands taper a little and move slightly upwards to create subtle diagonals from the lower left corner of the canvas towards the right edge. In all of the bands, Hopper layered paint so the darker layers can be seen beneath the lighter colors.
We see the flat back end, or stern, of the catboat and the bow of the boat is angled away from us to the right. The boat also lists to our right, or the starboard side, as it is rolled by the swell. The boat is painted white with a light brown wood trim, probably teak. The right side of the rudder, which is the side we see, and the right side of the boat are painted with the aquamarine color of the water to indicate shadows. Two small, round portholes, about the size of dinner plates, can be seen along the right side of the boat’s low cabin.
The tall sail extends upwards from the front of the boat on a wooden mast. The mast is angled 30 at degrees or so to the right, and it extends beyond the top edge of the canvas. Ten rings attach the sail to the mast. Wooden poles, or spars, extend perpendicularly at the top and bottom of the mast to hold the sail open. The sail is painted with pale blue to suggest a shadow at the upper left and bright white near the lower right. The area in between is again painted thinly, so the textured canvas itself shows through. Therefore, the canvas of the painting effectively becomes the canvas of the sail.
The four or five figures in the boat look at the buoy that floats very close by. The man nearest to the viewer sits at the rear of the boat with his back to us, and his right hand on the tiller. Just the upper half of his body is visible and he is shirtless, his back tan. He wears a bright white hat, with a rounded crown and a narrow brim. Beyond him a second man stands with his arms crossed. He leans against the port side of the cabin, which rises to about knee height above the deck. He stands with his bare, tanned back to the viewer, but turns his head slightly to our left, so we see the profile of his face. He has short auburn hair and is bare-chested. His broad shoulders taper to his athletically thin waist, and he wears white pants or shorts.
Immediately to his right, a woman lays on her stomach along the slightly curved top of the cabin. Her head faces our left and is slightly obscured by the standing man’s right shoulder. She wears a raspberry red kerchief around her head and has a halter top of the same color tied at the center of her back. She wears denim-blue pants that end just above her ankles and her skin and bare feet are pale. A round brown shape behind her could be the head of another figure on the other side of the cabin, or another part of the boat. The final figure seems to stand atop the cabin near the bow and sail. He supports himself on the rocking boat by hanging onto some lines attached to the top of the mast. His body faces the viewer’s left and he is shown in profile. He is also bare-chested and wears long white, wide-legged pants. His skin on his chest and arms is pale but his face is more tan. He has shortly cropped, straw-blond hair.
The buoy floats a few feet away from the boat on the neighboring swell. It is angled to our right, at the same angle as the boat itself. The conical buoy has a wide, solid base with open sides to create a cage around the bell, which hangs within from the top. The buoy is painted with grays and, on its sides and its bottom, coppery browns. Small touches of green on the buoy are echoed in the green color of the bell itself to show oxidation that has occurred.
The painting is signed in all caps in the lower right corner: “EDWARD HOPPER.”
- Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. IV
Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Number Four. Oil on canvas, painted in 1930. This description is about three minutes long.
This painting measures three and a half feet tall by two and a half feet across. An oval form with wavy edges dominates the composition. The form extends beyond the edge of the canvas at the bottom and both sides. It is deep purple that blends into shades of slate gray and white at the center. This shape is surrounded by tree bands of vibrant green against a cerulean blue background. The title suggests that O’Keeffe shows a stylized version of the jack-in-the-pulpit flower.
To explore the work in more detail, we’ll start at the lower center and work our way up and out to describe the flower and the background.
An elongated, knob-like form stretches upwards from the bottom center to about a quarter of the way up the canvas. This stalk-like form is called the spadix. The spadix swells slightly at its rounded top. The center of the spadix is a vivid, deep indigo blue that graduates to black. This dark spadix is silhouetted against an egg-shell white area that flares out and up to a point, almost like a candle flame. A narrow blade of white reaches upwards from the top center of the spadix, and comes to a point that ends about three-quarters of the way up the canvas. Thin bands of indigo blue border the white form where it swells outwards.
The main oval-shaped petal nearly fills the composition. The petal is painted with deep plum purple and black, except where two lighter, gray areas shade the oval near the upper left. The petal edges curve and dip irregularly, and the tip of the petal narrows to a twisted point.
Green bands, perhaps leaves, seem to be layered behind and above the central petal. The innermost band is a vivid spring green where it touches the central petal, and the outer band is a sage color. In both bands, the color fades from its brightest along the inner edge into deep black shadow along the jagged and irregular outer edges. The outer sage band is broken at the center, and the blue background color shows through the gap.
The corners of the canvas beyond fades from saturated indigo blue where it touches the outline of the flower, to pale baby blue and white at the corners of the canvas.
- The Judgment Day
Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day, oil on tempered hardboard, painted in 1939. This description is three and a half minutes long.
The Judgment Day measures four feet tall by three feet wide. The painting shows the forms of five silhouetted, lavender-colored figures against a background of flat, overlapping, geometric shapes in lemon-yellow, celery-green, and teal. Douglas painted the canvas with visible brush strokes, and it’s heavily textured throughout; however, the weave of the canvas is still visible beneath the paint.
From here, let’s first focus on the center of the composition, and work our way around.
A large, winged figure at the center is rendered in the lavender color, and he dominates the scene. He has wide shoulders that taper to a narrow waist and hips to suggest this is a man. He stands with his feet widely set, and each foot rests on one of two intersecting orbs that overlap near the center of the lower edge of the canvas. The sections of the orbs are a flat teal color, but each has a pattern painted in pale yellow-green. Zig-zags on the orb to the left symbolize the earth, and wavy lines on the orb to the right represent the sea. The man’s right leg is bent at the knee, so that the foot is planted higher than the foot to our left. He rests one hand on his bent knee and grips a skeleton key that is clearly silhouetted against the background. His face is shown in profile looking to our left, and a slit suggests a closed eye. His left hand raises a long, trumpet-shaped horn to his lips, which are pursed around the narrow mouthpiece. His wings have notches cut into the outer edges to suggest feathers, and they extend beyond the top edge of the canvas. The key, wings, and horn are rendered in the same lavender as the angel, to form a unified shape.
Four smaller figures are shown behind the angel, across the lower half of the canvas. One kneels on the higher orb to the right, with her arms and face raised upwards. The figure is painted in a lighter purple than the angel, and is enclosed in a soft yellow shaft that angles down from a third, sun-like orb at the upper left of the canvas. Three male figures appear on the lower orb to the left. All three lean to the left and seem to face away from the viewer. The rightmost figure in this trio takes a step forward onto the orb as he bends slightly at the waist, and holds his arms up. The figure at the center of this group leans or crawls up the orb, his left arm braced against the ground. The trio’s leftmost figure has his head tipped upwards, with his hands joined and cupped in front of his waist. A jagged bolt of dandelion-yellow lightning strikes his cupped hands.
The painting’s background is comprised of layered tones of green in geometric shapes. The base background color is sage green, but it lightens to a pale yellow where the rays emanate from the upper-left corner. Bands that curve like those in a rainbow emanate from the orbs to sweep over the legs of the angel, and across the four figures behind him. The transparent bands also lighten the purple tone in the areas where they pass over the figures.
The artist signed the canvas in the lower right corner with brown paint: “A. Douglas ’39.”
Ellsworth Kelly, Tiger, oil on five joined canvas panels, painted and constructed in 1953. This description is a minute long.
This work is made up of five rectangular canvases of different sizes, which Kelly joined to create one large, rectangular shape. The overall size is about seven feet high by six and a half feet across.
The largest panel is at the lower left, and is painted bright white. It spans about two-thirds the width of the overall composition, and three-quarters of the height. The second largest panel is black, and connects along the white panel’s right edge. It is the same height as the white panel, but two-thirds its width.
The top quarter of the overall composition is made of three joined canvases in descending size. A sunshine yellow strip fits exactly above the white panel. Next to it, a raspberry pink panel extends about two-thirds of the width of the black panel beneath it. The smallest rectangle in the row—painted mandarin orange—nestles in the right corner.
The canvas’s painted surface is smooth except for a few areas where the paint has crackled into a fine network of lines. This is especially noticeable on the white panel.
- Family of Saltimbanques
Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, oil on canvas, painted in 1905. This description is about eight minutes long.
The Family of Saltimbanques is almost seven feet high by seven and a half feet across. Picasso shows a group of five figures gathered in the foreground to the left, and a sixth figure, a woman, near the lower right corner of the painting. The figures occupy a bare landscape with a tan ground, and a pale blue sky with white clouds above. The figures are life sized, and we seem to stand in the same landscape and look at them straight on.
To delve into this painting in more detail, let’s explore the group of five figures to the left, then focus on the woman to the right, and end with the landscape background.
The group of five people fills the left two-thirds of the composition. There are two adults, a young man or teenager, and two children. They are dressed in what look like circus or acrobat costumes. Their faces are solemn, with horizontal or slightly downturned lines to indicate their mouths. The eyes and eyebrows we see are indicated with short strokes of black paint.
Starting from the left, a slim man stands with his back to the viewer. He takes up nearly the entire vertical space of the canvas, and his face is turned to our right in profile. He has short black hair and low black eyebrows. He wears a rose-pink scarf around his neck and a tight fitting, long-sleeved costume made up of a pattern of elongated triangles in black, crimson, sky blue, taupe, grays, and light browns. This series of triangles creates a Harlequin pattern. The figure holds his left hand behind his back so we can see his palm facing outwards. Ivory socks or stockings are visible at his ankles and he wears black slippers on his splayed feet.
The man’s right arm hangs straight at his side and he holds the hand of a young girl who stands next to him. She also stands with her back to us, and her face is downturned slightly to our right. She has black hair pulled up on her head and pinned with a small circular crimson adornment. She wears a petal-pink dress with a fitted top and a flared, knee-length skirt. The skirt is decorated with a row of white rings near the lower hem. She also wears a black capelet around her shoulders. Her skin is pale, so it is difficult to tell if she also wears stockings or if her legs are bare above pink slippers. Her feet are also splayed outwards and her right foot is set slightly behind her left. Her right hand rests on the handle of a tall, off-white basket that sits on the ground next to her. The basket flares from a small circular base to a wide opening, and it holds pink flowers and a vine that wraps around the handle.
Across from the girl and facing her is a rotund man wearing scarlet red. The man’s body faces us but he looks off to our left. His eyes are lost in deep shadow and blue lines show his double chin and shadows at his temple. His long-sleeved, closely fitting red costume hugs a large, round belly. The costume has a narrow white ruffled collar at the neck. He wears a matching red jester’s cap that has an upturned brim with a row of points and a short, peaked crown. The man’s dark hair is visible behind his ear, below the cap. He holds a tawny brown sack over his left shoulder, on our right, and his other hand rests on his hip.
A young man stands next to and slightly behind the man in red. The young man is shorter and slight of build. His body also faces the viewer but he looks off to our right. He has closely cropped dark hair, lightly tanned skin, pointed features, and hooded eyes. He wears a pair of chestnut-brown briefs over what may be a pinkish, skin-colored unitard with long sleeves, indicated by lines at the base of his neck and wrist. The young man’s legs are the same pinkish hue that extends to his feet, clad in slipper-like shoes of the same tones. His feet are in the same splayed position as the others. He holds his right hand, on our left, to the front of his shoulder, and with the other hand, he steadies a wooden barrel balanced across his shoulders.
To our right of that figure stands a young boy whose body faces the viewer. The top of his head comes to just below the elbow of the young man holding the barrel. The boy has close-cropped brown hair and pale skin. He also looks off to the viewer’s right and stands with his arms hanging at his sides. He wears a turquoise, long-sleeved shirt with a deep V at the neck. A coral scarf or shawl draped over his shoulders comes to a point at each end. He wears long, loosely fitting, marine-blue pants cinched at his ankles. He has white stockings or socks, and pointed black slippers. His feet are also turned out in the same position as the others.
The sixth and final figure is a woman shown kneeling or sitting near the lower right corner of the composition, physically separate from the group. Her body faces slightly to our left but her face is turned to our right, so we see it in a three-quarters pose. She wears a wide-brimmed hat with a tall, narrow crown. The white hat is encircled with light peach flowers at the base of the crown. She has auburn hair that frames her face along her forehead. A dark area to our right represents more hair, which she seems to stroke with her left hand. She has alabaster-white skin and delicate features. She wears a dress with a robin’s-egg-blue top with a shallow, V-shaped neckline underneath a white shawl, which covers most of her arms and torso. Her bright apricot-colored skirt covers her legs. Her right arm, on our left, rests in her lap with her palm facing upwards.
A pale vase or amphora rests on the ground to our left of the woman. It blends into the landscape but has a pink tint to the light brown color.
The landscape behind the figures shows an expanse of sand-colored land with a suggestion of low hills. Slightly darker areas to the left of the man in the Harlequin costume and to the right of the woman suggest shadows. The horizon line passes just behind the shoulders of the taller three men in the grouping at the left side, and an area of arctic blue sky is visible over them through off-white clouds. Parallel brushstrokes are visible within the clouds.
The canvas is signed in dark paint at the lower right corner: “Picasso.”
- Charing Cross Bridge, London
André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, London, oil on canvas, painted in 1906. This recording is about four and a half minutes long.
Derain’s painting of Charing Cross Bridge in London measures two and a half-feet high by just over three feet across. A river flows under a bridge that bisects the composition about two-thirds of the way up the canvas. A short row of buildings lines the left side of the painting. Another row of buildings that face the viewer is seen in the background, above where the bridge crosses the canvas. The color palette is high-keyed and vibrant, with acid greens, coral, pineapple yellow, and indigo blues. Some areas, like the water, are painted with short, disconnected parallel brushstrokes, while Derain used heavy outlines and blocks of bright color in other areas, such as the buildings. The viewer seems to stand at a point over the river, perhaps on another bridge.
Let’s get into more detail by starting at the left and working our way across the painting.
Along the left edge, a row of three buildings extends from the lower left corner of the canvas into the distance. The buildings are outlined in shades of ink blue and juniper green, and the buildings themselves are painted with coral, tan, mint green, and gray. The tallest building is at the back of this row, farthest from the viewer, and some green letters are discernable near the top edge of the side of that building. We can make out most of the letters that spell “Brewery.” There is a gap between the buildings, where a railing and flight of steps lead down to the water. Five boats are drawn up just beyond the steps. They are tied together with their hulls parallel to the docks as they extend out into the river. They have rounded prows and sterns, and look like a row of empty shoes. These boats are painted with lapis-blue, taupe, and a muted aqua color. From the viewer’s perspective, they float just below the span of the bridge.
Closer to us, near the lower left corner, the front portions of three other boats are visible and extend off the canvas. One boat is pulled next to the building and the others are docked nearby. These boats are painted with deep blues, turquoise, and marigold orange.
The picture plane appears to bend toward the viewer as in a wide-angle lens, so the boats at the bottom of the canvas are seen almost as if from above. The boats toward the center of the painting are seen in a longer perspective.
The bridge runs from behind the tallest building to the left all the way across the canvas. It is comprised of a straight span and two wide pilings that disappear into the water. The bridge is painted with the same deep lapis blue used in the boats, and has crimson red X shapes crisscrossing the span to suggest trestles. The front faces of the pilings are also highlighted with the red.
The river fills most of the bottom half of the composition. The water to the left is painted mostly pink with short, horizontal baby-blue strokes near the row of five boats to indicate movement and reflections on the water. Touches of blue paint underneath the bridge span indicate the reflection of the bridge in the water. To the right of the coral area, the water reads as sunshine yellow, but is painted with short, disconnected strokes of yellow, pink, and pale burnt orange against the white of the canvas below. The yellow and coral areas of the water are separated by a passage of kiwi green and pale blue, which extends beneath the bridge to the left. The water along the right edge of the composition is painted with short brush strokes of indigo, pale blue, turquoise, and aqua.
Behind the bridge, a skyline is painted with the dark, mint-green silhouettes of buildings on the left half of the canvas and periwinkle-blue silhouettes to the right. In the green area at the center of the painting, one tall building reaches almost to the top edge of the canvas and the other goes off the top. These are recognizable as the profile of London’s Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben tower. They are flanked to the left and right by shorter buildings. The blue portion of the skyline is less defined.
Four clouds of pale yellow billow off the bridge, in front of that skyline. It is difficult to tell whether some of the green and blue strokes in that area are meant to read as part of the skyline, or if they may indicate the presence of a train or other conveyance moving across the bridge.
The sky above is painted with short and long vertical strokes of yellow, light pink, pale orange, and a few areas of watermelon pink.
The painting is signed in script with dark paint near the lower left corner: “a derain.”
- Open Window, Collioure
Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure, oil on canvas, painted in 1905. This description is three minutes long.
Open Window, Collioure measures almost two feet tall by one and a half feet wide. The viewer looks through an open window of an interior room onto a bay in the south of France. The window casing and shutters take up most of the picture plane. Boats anchored near the shore are seen through the open window. Matisse’s color palette is energetic, with parakeet green, scarlet red, soft peach, fuchsia, and creamy white, and the artist used wide, thick brush strokes in most areas and flat blocks of color in others.
We’ll start by taking a close look at the doors themselves and the room in which we stand as the viewer. We’ll then explore the view through the window.
A pair of French windows opens inwards, towards the viewer. Each door has four panels outlined with a pale salmon color or vibrant red. The upper three-quarters of each panel is separated into three sections to suggest panes, and the lower quarter of each is painted entirely in the salmon color. The panes on the right shutter are painted with sky blue and grass green. The panes on the left shutter are painted a pale lilac purple, forest green, cream, and rose pink. The wall behind the left shutter is painted shamrock green, while the wall to the right is fuchsia. Two smaller squares above the French windows suggest additional transom windows, and the area around them is painted a deep pine green, blending into navy blue.
At the bottom of the windows, three stylized potted plants sit on a low sill. The pot to the left is painted red, the pot in the center is ochre, and the one to the right is navy and aqua, to suggest a blue pot sitting on a green dish. Dots of red and green indicate that flowering plants grow from each. A climbing vine grows outside the opening and is painted with short, wavy brushstrokes in sage, fern, and lime green.
Through the opening, several boats are gathered at the center of what may be a harbor or marina view. The boats have tangerine and deep pumpkin-orange masts, though the mast at the center is green. The boats themselves are indicated with wide swipes of blue, coral, and turquoise paint. The area below the boats is filled with touches of pale yellow and pink, while the area above is painted with long strokes of frosty green, wisteria purple, and denim blue. Horizontal strokes in pink, lavender, and cloud blue suggest a high horizon line. Above that, wavy lines in pink, blue, and aqua suggest clouds and the sky.
Unpainted canvas shows through many areas of the painting, especially amid the plants on the sill.
The artist signed the canvas with scarlet paint in the lower right corner: “Henri Matisse.”
- Two Girls under an Umbrella
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Two Girls under an Umbrella, oil on canvas, painted in 1910. This recording is three minutes long.
Two Girls under an Umbrella measures just over three feet high by two and a half feet across, and shows two nude female figures in the center, sharing a red umbrella. The figures, which are painted in a stylized and angular fashion, take up the majority of the picture, and are rendered in saturated pink and peach colors. The landscape setting they occupy is comprised of bands of acid green, yellow, and cerulean blue. Kirchner’s brush strokes are thick and clearly visible throughout.
From here, we will focus first on the two figures and then the landscape background.
The girl to the left stands with her body facing the viewer’s right, and we see her face in profile. She has black, shoulder-length hair. Her nude body is painted using a saturated peach color with a magenta outline, with only slashes of the dark pink color to indicate her breasts and genitals. Her head juts slightly forward, and her crimson lips are parted. The eye and eyebrow we see are indicated with two short, black, diagonal lines that slope down and to the left. She stands on her right leg and her left leg is fully extended in front of her, as if she is taking a long stride. It appears that she is joining the second girl under the umbrella. Her right arm hangs by her body, while her left arm is crooked at the elbow to hook around the second girl’s arm.
The second nude girl stands immediately to our right and slightly behind the first girl. She faces the viewer with knees slightly bent, and her feet pointed outward. Her body is painted with bubblegum pinks and, like the first girl, her sexual characteristics are loosely defined with magenta colored streaks. Her face is painted with a hot pink that is darker than the rest of her body, so it looks almost like a mask, and her eyes are parallel strokes of black and blue paint. Her left arm, on our right, hangs by her side, and her right arm is extended forward to hold the umbrella. Like the first girl, her hair and face are painted with flat areas of color. She wears a hat with alternating bands of black and red, along with chestnut-colored decorations and a red flower or bow.
The umbrella is painted a flat, candy red, with black lines to suggest a rib on the underside and the handle. Black lines also outline the umbrella, especially along the right edge.
The girls seem to stand under the branches of a tree, which are indicated by a few dark lines and leaf forms above the umbrella. A landscape extends into the distance behind them. There is a small amount of turquoise sky visible beyond the umbrella and tree branches. Beneath and around them, vertical striations of green and blue paint suggest a meadow or grass. The green-blue color is interspersed with dots of yellow and red that indicate clusters of flowers. Beyond that, zigzagging bands of yellow, pink, red, and midnight blue are layered to evoke the impression of rolling hills. A line of indigo blue trees separates the area where the girls stand from higher hills in the deep distance.
- Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle). Oil on canvas, painted in 1913. This description is three and a half minutes long.
Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle) measures four and a half feet tall by four feet across. Kandinsky covered the canvas with areas of vibrant, animated colors, with some black shapes and black lines. This is all set against a background of different gradations of light grey and white. Many colors look as if they were thinly applied to the canvas, and seem to bleed at the edges. The overall look resembles a vigorously brushed watercolor, though it was actually painted with thinned oil paints.
Let’s start at the corners and work our way in towards the center.
The four corners of the canvas are occupied by abstract, blurred shapes and flat areas of color. Starting at the bottom, the lower left corner is painted with a crimson that fades to white. An irregular grass-green linear shape extends across the center of the canvas near the lower edge, and curves upwards at each end, to span about half the width of the composition. A velvety black area near the lower right corner is roughly triangular in shape, and has five slightly curved parallel lines radiating below its bottom edge. The composition is framed in the top corners with a triangular area of scarlet at the upper right, and a larger area of corn yellow in the upper left. Also near the upper left corner, a rectangular patch of golden yellow floats in the field of lighter yellow behind it.
At the center of the canvas is an island-like form that anchors a maelstrom of abstracted shapes, colors, and lines that form the focal point of the canvas. This island is blood-orange and ripples upward, starting just above the linear green form. The painting’s title, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), implies that some of the shapes are related to ships. Black L-shaped lines read as ships’ masts and beams, while delicate black lines describe rectangular areas that could represent sails. Below these forms are shapes that could be the hulls of two boats. Yet many of the other forms around these are ambiguous, and do not delineate specific recognizable objects. There are a number of jagged hand-like shapes that look almost drawn on, that could suggest violent splashes of water. In general, color and line do not necessarily coincide, so colored areas float freely in and around the areas described by the black lines.
The space of the canvas within the four corners is animated by a number of oval-shaped, flat areas of color distributed at intervals around the canvas; these colors float over a central background of light grey. These shapes are sunshine yellow, lapis blue, orange, and candy red.
The distribution of color and form, and the different sizes and shapes of those forms, keep the viewer’s eye moving from shape to shape, and color to color. Yellows and oranges, placed next to blues and greens, make the colors seem to constantly shift and almost pulsate.
- No More Play
Alberto Giacometti, No More Play, marble, wood, and bronze, created in 1931 and 1932. This description is three minutes long.
This sculpture is carved from a slab of white marble, and is about two feet long, a foot and a half wide, and one and five-eight inches high, so it looks like a game board. It has a series of cuplike and rectangular depressions across most of the surface. A few tiny, carved, wooden objects, like game pieces, are placed on the board.
We’ll begin with the top surface of the board and then explore the cavities and game pieces in more detail.
The top surface is incised with a slender border just inside the stepped, beveled edges of the slab. The overall surface is divided into three sections, which are defined by incised lines. A rectangular strip at the center bisects the board, creating wider areas of equal size to each side. In the sections to the left and right, the surface is carved to create shallow cups, but the edges of the cups do not touch. The section on the left has fifteen cups and the area to the right has thirteen. The cups in both zones range from about one inch across to a few inches in diameter.
Whereas the cups take up the entire section to the left, the section on the right has a flat, rectangular area delineated by incised lines near the front edge. The area is inscribed with upside down and reversed script letters that read, “on ne joue plus,” which translates to the title of this piece, No More Play.
In the section at the center, three smaller but deep rectangular areas were carved into the block and each one has a lid. Two of the lids sit on the top surface of the board near their respective openings. The third lid is placed within the corresponding opening near the back of the board. Each lid is carved with a shallow circle at its center, about the diameter of a pencil. A fourth circle is incised near the front, open cavity.
Four small, wood objects are placed on the board like game pieces. Two, which are flat and compact, like arrowheads, are nestled in the open cavities, and two, which look like pins, stand in the shallow cups. One rests in a larger cup near the front of the board to the left. The pin has a flat symmetrical design at the top like a totem pole. A disk is flanked by triangular protrusions with a clover shape at top. The bottom of the pin tapers to a point and is fitted into a corresponding hole in the well of the circular indentation that holds it up. The second piece stands in one of the large cups near the back right of the board. This piece also is carved with a flat, symmetrical design that incorporates four stacked, small circles, and a U-shaped form to suggest the outline of a person with raised arms. This piece also tapers to a fine point at its base and is similarly fitted into a small hole at the bottom of a circular well.
- Fresh Widow
Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow. Painted wood, glass, black leather, paper, and transparent tape; the original was created in 1920 and this object was fabricated in 1964. This description is about a minute and a half long.
This sculpture, Fresh Widow, is just over two and a half feet tall by a foot and a half wide, and four inches deep. It is a small window that could open inwards like French windows or shutters, but the window stands independently, with no flanking walls. Each half of the window is one pane wide and four panes high.
The window frame, and a flat wooden base to which it is attached, are painted mint green. Each glass pane is lined on the back with black leather. From the front, reflections can be seen in the sheen of the shiny glass, to create a kind of dark mirror. There are two small hinges on each half of the window—one near the top and one near the bottom of the frame—so they could actually open in towards the viewer. Each door has a small, clear plastic push pin as a knob or pull. The pulls are placed about two-thirds of the way up the inner edge of the windows.
Duchamp titled and signed the work with an alias on the top front surface of the base with blocky, black, capital letters. The words “Fresh Widow” appear to the left. Starting at the center and extending to the right side are the words, “Copyright Rose Selavy 1920.”
- Bird in Space
Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space; brass, cast stone, and wood, created in 1927. This description is about two minutes long.
There are three parts to the Brancusi sculpture: a wood base beneath a small stone pedestal, which in turn supports a tall, elongated brass form. Together the three stacked pieces measure about nine and a half feet high, so it towers over even a standing viewer.
The viewer’s eye is drawn first to the long and slender brass sculpture, which itself is six feet tall, about the height of an average man. This form is about six inches in diameter at its widest. The brass is highly polished and smooth, and is a glossy metallic gold in color. The body of the sculpture swells slightly near its center and tapers at each end. At the top, the brass form contracts to a narrow, curved edge. Just below the tip, the form’s curve has a narrow sliver removed that creates a flattened, oval-shaped area that looks like a fingernail. Near the bottom, the brass form again tapers to a narrow point and then flares out slightly to make a tall, conical foot.
The brass sculpture rests on a cylindrical cast stone pedestal about the size of a coffee mug. The off-white pedestal is just over seven inches tall and is about as wide as the widest part of the brass sculpture above.
The cast stone pedestal in turn rests on a warm, dark brown wood base, which is almost three feet tall—about hip height. The base was carved from a rectangular block of wood that has a square-shaped cross section. The profile of the base is carved into a circular, drum-like shape at the center. Half-moon shapes above and below curve away from the drum to create the flat surfaces that rest on the ground, and support the cylindrical base and sculpture atop it.
- Tableau No. IV; Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black
Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. IV; Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black. Oil on canvas, painted circa 1924 to 1925. This description is three and a half minutes long.
Tableau No. IV measures about four and a half feet square. The canvas’s orientation is rotated 45 degrees, so the painting forms a diamond rather than a square shape on the wall; in other words, the corners point up, down, and to the left and right. We see an irregular grid of black lines that create a block of squares and rectangles, most of which are cut off by edges of the canvas. Each shape is filled with a different color. The central portion of the painting is white, and there are single areas of red, yellow, and blue around the edges. Mondrian painted the lines precisely, but some of the brushstrokes are visible, and they create gradations within the flat areas of color.
It might help to think about the overall organization of the painting as a pattern of offset ladders of varying widths. There are two ladder-like columns in the central area of the canvas. Near the left corner, a vertical black line cuts off the left tip of the diamond form, which is painted white. Next to it is a column with three horizontal registers. This column, which is situated to the left of center, is topped with a crimson-red triangle bounded by black lines. Below it is a white rectangle with its two left corners cut by the edges of the canvas, and at bottom, a small lemon-yellow triangle.
Next is a wider column that covers almost half of the canvas from the center to the right. It spans the top and bottom poles of the diamond and has four horizontal registers. The top shape is an ecru-colored square cut off by the edges of the canvas. Beneath it is the only uncut square in the composition, and it is painted bright white. Below that is another square shape that has its bottom right corner cut off by the edge of the canvas. At bottom, a black triangle encompasses the lower point.
Finally, the far right side of the diamond is divided into two registers. The upper, which encompasses the right-hand tip of the diamond, is another cut-square shape. Below it is a vivid royal-blue triangle.
To summarize, the diamond-shaped composition is divided into a number of white squares and rectangles by vertical and horizontal black lines. The small red triangle is placed to the left of the top center point, the yellow triangle appears to the left of the lower center point, the black triangle is next to it at the bottom center, and the blue triangle is situated just below the right point.
A thin, white strip frame extends a few millimeters beyond the edge of the canvas, which creates a subtle step down from the surface of the painting.
The painting is signed with the artist’s initials at the lower center: “PM.”
- Façades d'immeubles (Building Façades)
Jean Dubuffet, Façades d’immeubles (Building Facades), oil on canvas, painted in 1946. This recording is four and a half minutes long.
Dubuffet’s painting measures five feet high by six and a half feet across. The composition is filled from side to side and top to bottom with a solid wall of black and white building façades. We seem to look at the row of buildings from straight on. Two figures stand in doorways at street level in front of the buildings, while several other faces and figures appear at windows higher up. The buildings are rendered with a coffee-colored paint. Dubuffet incised the top layer of dark paint to reveal a white and sometimes multicolored layer below. He used these incised lines to create the outlines of windows, doors, fire escape ladders, and columns of bricks between the buildings. The lines are wavering and irregular, so the buildings and windows tilt at different angles. A pale gray and white sky peeks over the top of the buildings along the upper edge of the canvas. The surface of the painting is rough and thickly textured.
Now let’s take a closer look at how the buildings were painted before describing the paintings from the top down, and finishing with the figures who occupy the space.
The structures are tall and narrow, each about six stories high. The complete facades of three buildings and the edges of the buildings to each side are visible. The deep brown-black paint looks like it was applied in large, sweeping horizontal strokes across the surface of the canvas. The windows, doors, and ladders are defined by the incised, bone-white lines, which are sometimes streaked with the brown paint of the buildings. There are also a few streaks of teal, indigo blue, and brick red scattered sparsely throughout.
At the top of the canvas, the rooflines of the buildings are mostly flat, but short vertical protrusions, like crenellations, extend beyond the top edge of the canvas. The building at the center and the one to the right each has a narrow, low dome above the top floor. The dome is about the same width as the doors on the buildings. The bone-white background is visible as sky above the roofs.
Each facade below is divided into a grid of tall, narrow windows. The windows are mostly rectangular, but the widths of the line delineating the windows varies from a single, thin line to thicker, painted outlines, as near the upper left corner. The windows on the center building are arched. On the upper levels, balconies feature decorative curved railings. Doors and storefronts are indicated on the lowest level, with large squares that recall store windows. Above the ground floor display windows shop sighs are written in capital letters. From left to right they read “Optician,” “Parfums” for perfumes, “Modes” for clothing, “Coiffure” for a hairdresser, “Journaux” for newspapers, “Primeurs” for fruits and vegetables, and a “Bar.” There are street numbers above the doorways, numbering from 78 at the left of the canvas, with the numerals 80, 82, and 84 appearing at intervals. The numerals are white, and are painted on small, dark blue squares.
The figures in front of the buildings and seen through the windows are rendered loosely, with large, round, peach-colored heads and basic, roughly painted features. Some wear black caps and their bodies are black, representing black clothing. Their arms and legs are painted with straight strokes. The most prominent figure stands at the street level, just to the left of center, in a doorway numbered 80. His arms and legs stick out in a rudimentary fashion, and he has a wide grin on his face. The other figure at street level is situated to the right of center, and is framed by the doorway numbered 84; he appears to stride to the viewer’s left. That second figure is partially outlined in a blush-red color. Several faces and partial figures appear at windows on the upper floors. They face outward toward the viewer and toward each other, as if communicating from window to window.
- One Year the Milkweed
Arshile Gorky, One Year the Milkweed, oil on canvas, painted in 1944. This description is two minutes long.
This painting is about three feet tall by four feet wide. Abstracted forms are painted in grass green, black, pepper red, butter yellow, tawny beige, rose pink, and a few touches of ocean blue. The artist applied the paint thinly, almost like watercolor wash. Translucent layers of paint drip down the canvas and knit together the colors and shapes that form the composition.
We’ll explore this painting starting at the center and move outwards.
An area of loosely painted and disparate shapes is arranged in a roughly pyramidal shape at the center of the canvas. Some forms are vaguely square-shaped while others are oval, circular, or triangular. Many of the forms are outlined in black, and some have spots of color at their centers. For instance, a cluster of shapes near the lower right corner includes two canted parallelograms outlined with black. One has an emerald green oval at its center, and the other a black oval. Other shapes in that area include a rust-red triangle, a solid black anvil-shaped form, and a butternut-orange circle surrounded by vibrant yellow. The shapes resemble sheets of paper, small sets of wings, a sailboat, signs, animals, and even a skull. They appear to reach upward to suggest growth or even flames. The effect is active and shifting, and the eye is especially drawn to the small areas of pepper red throughout the composition. Diagonal lines also draw the viewer’s eye toward the center of the canvas. The array of forms is surrounded and interwoven with areas of grass green, especially on the top half of the canvas. An area that is painted primarily caramel brown and shades of tan occupies the bottom half of the canvas. The use of these colors suggests a landscape, though there are no specifically identifiable features.
The canvas is signed near the lower left with “A. Gorky / 44.”
- Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)
Jackson Pollock’s painting is titled Number 1, 1950, but is more commonly called Lavender Mist. It was painted with oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas, in 1950. This recording is two and a half minutes long.
Lavender Mist measures just over seven feet high by almost ten feet across. Most of the surface is evenly crisscrossed with a dense web of intersecting lines, drips, and splatters. Pollock did this by dribbling and flinging the paint from a brush or stick across a canvas laid flat on the floor.
From here, we’ll take a closer look at the surface texture of the painting, the colors and lines, and the handprints Pollock pressed onto the canvas.
Some areas of the canvas are thickly built up where paint has pooled and dried. In other areas, the strands and skeins of paint are distinct and separate. The main colors are black, a variety of neutrals including eggshell, parchment, ivory, and bright white, a muted apricot, some gunmetal gray and silver, and a few areas of aquamarine. A tiny spot of pumpkin orange dots the composition near the right edge, about halfway up the canvas. The enamel paint Pollock used gives some of the colors a glossy sheen, which is especially noticeable in the black lines.
The colors are intermingled and layered, which indicates that Pollock did not lay down the colors one at a time. Rather, the overall visual impact is that of an intricately woven composition, in which the colors are evenly distributed. The lines move in every direction. Many of the lines are straight or only slightly curved. The density of the lines eases a bit near the edges, where some of the raw canvas can be seen through the paint.
Two pairs of ghostly handprints are visible near the upper corners, where Pollock must have bent over the canvas and laid his hands on its surface. The pale gray hands near the upper left are arranged with one hand over the other, fingers pointing up. Slightly darker gray hands appear at the upper right as well; the right hand is placed to our left, with the thumb oriented up towards the top edge of the canvas. The fingers of left hand face downwards, perpendicular to the other hand. Partial handprints are pressed into the canvas at intervals along the top edge, beneath the spatters of paint.
The painting is signed with black near the lower left corner: “Pollock 50.”
- Piano mécanique
Joan Mitchell, Piano mécanique, oil on canvas, painted in 1958. This recording is one and a half minutes long.
Mitchell’s painting measures about six and a half feet high by just over ten feet wide. Short, energetically painted lines dart across the canvas in every direction. The palette is comprised mostly of black, army green, crimson and burgundy reds, deep ochre yellow, and royal blue.
The background behind the lines is a cream color. More horizontal lines are clustered near the top edge of the canvas, but the lines move the viewer’s eyes in all directions. The lines are densely spaced in some areas, and more sparsely spaced near the edges, but the white background peeks through across the entire composition.
Some lines are painted thickly while others skip over the textured surface of the canvas, particularly near the edges of the composition. Colors mix where lines intersect on the canvas, as where navy strokes cross and pick up globs of scarlet, and harvest gold becomes streaked with black. A few dashes of aquamarine, indigo, and candy red interspersed throughout the composition draw the viewer’s eye. White is used both as a background color and in the foreground, where it is painted in short, energetic brush strokes. Some of the colored paint dripped while the artist was working on the canvas. These drips form a fine network of thin vertical lines that bleed into the white painted areas.
The artist signed the work near the lower right corner with black paint. We can read “Mitchell” clearly, and the name might be preceded by a lowercase “j,” but that is difficult to make out.
- Beta Kappa
Morris Louis, Beta Kappa, acrylic on canvas, painted in 1961. This description is two minutes long.
This painting, titled Beta Kappa, measures eight and a half feet tall by fourteen feet across. The painting is completely abstract and features two triangular areas composed of thin, wavy bands of color. The two sets of lines mirror each other as they cascade down and inward from the edges along the top corners of the canvas to the bottom edge. The two sets of multicolored lines create a large, funnel-shaped area of raw canvas in the center of the painting. Each line is a single saturated and vibrant color. The lines touch slightly in places where the paint drips a little, but they are mostly separated by strips of the white canvas, which creates a striped effect.
From here, we will examine the set of lines to the left, and then the lines to the right in more detail.
The cascade of fourteen lines on the left is painted in warm fall-colored tones, including mustard and butter yellow, crimson, deep mauve, wheat gold, army and teal green, and blood orange. The longest line on the left side of the canvas is carrot orange. Each swathe of color beneath the topmost is progressively shorter as the distance between the side and bottom edges shrinks as the lines progress towards the corner. The lines closest to the corner curve slightly downward instead of extending straight, as with the outer lines. The last line is partially rendered, with just a hint of an orange tone that peeks out from the edge of the canvas. This reinforces the suggestion that the lines continue beyond edges.
On the right portion of the canvas, a similar set of diagonally swooping, roughly parallel lines flows down from the top right, toward the center of the canvas. The color tonality of this grouping is cool, ranging from a deep pine green on the topmost line, to forest and sage green, navy and indigo blue, and beige. One vibrant lemon yellow line and two scarlet lines are also interspersed at intervals. The lines on this part of the painting curve a bit more, bowing slightly downward and then gently curving back up before they intersect the lower edge.
- Look Mickey
Roy Lichtenstein, Look Mickey, oil on canvas, painted in 1961. This description is four minutes long.
Look Mickey measures four feet high by almost six feet wide. Lichtenstein depicts the Disney cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck standing together on the end of a pier, surrounded on three sides by water. We seem to look at the scene from straight on, but from a point over the water, next to the pier. The work is painted entirely with flat areas of sunshine yellow, cobalt blue, fire engine red, and white. A speech bubble that occupies the upper left corner of the canvas shows Donald Duck saying, “Look Mickey, I’ve hooked a big one!!”
Let’s begin with the figures in the foreground and work our way to the pier and surrounding water.
Donald and Mickey take up most of the picture plane. Donald, on our left, bends over the edge of the pier and looks into the water. He grips a fishing rod above his head as one might hold a baseball bat. The fishing rod is fluted, as if made of cane or bamboo. The vertical rod curves up beyond the top edge of the canvas and back into view, and it overlaps the speech bubble. A red float or bobber hangs from the line and connects to the fishhook at the end. The hook catches the back hem of Donald’s cobalt-blue sailor shirt, and tugs it up as he pulls on the rod.
Donald’s eyes are wide open below raised eyebrows, and are painted with a fine grid of tiny blue dots. His mouth, which is a yellow duckbill, is open in a broad grin. He wears a floppy blue sailor’s hat and a crimson red bow tie. Two yellow circles indicate buttons down the front of the shirt, and the wide sailor’s collar is white with a band of yellow and then blue along the edge. Donald’s body is painted in white and his bill and feet are yellow.
Mickey stands to the right with his feet widely planted and his body leaning toward Donald. In his right hand, he also holds a fluted fishing rod as one might hold a walking stick. The fishing line hangs down loosely in front of it. Mickey’s left hand covers his mouth, and behind it, a corner of a smile curves upward as he suppresses a laugh or grin. His head is turned in a three-quarter view as he looks at Donald, and his face is filled in with a fine grid of small red dots. Mickey’s iconic flat, circular ears along with his arms and pants are painted with the cobalt blue. The features of his face, as well as the outlines of his red shoes, shirt, and white gloves are also painted blue. He wears a short-sleeved collared shirt, and pants that billow from the waist and taper to points above his feet.
The dock is also painted mostly yellow, with a small white area to the right. We see three posts supporting the dock: one at the end of the dock on the far side of Donald, one in front of Mickey, and one behind him. The posts are white with blue outlines, and the planks of the dock are also outlined in blue.
Wavy blue lines against a white field in the lower left suggest moving water. A band of blue with a row of pointed peaks along the back of the scene indicates stylized waves. The background above the water and behind the figures is the same flat yellow.
When viewed closely, Lichtenstein’s lightly sketched pencil lines are visible throughout the composition, but most do not line up with the objects they delineate. For instance, the post of the pier behind Mickey is sketched in several inches below and to the right of where the post was actually painted.
The speech bubble at the upper left and Lichtenstein’s lowercase initials, “rfl”, inscribed in the lower left corner, are painted in blue.
Donald Judd, Untitled, oil on wood with Plexiglas, created in 1963. This description is a minute long.
Judd’s sculpture sits squarely on the floor and is composed of two parts. The bottom portion is a red wood box, about four feet square by nine inches high, which creates a platform. Sitting on top of that platform is a red wooden triangle of the same height that covers half of the lower box, leaving the other half exposed. The result is a diagonal stair, and the front face of the riser of that stair is covered with a sheet of plum-colored Plexiglas.
The glossy surface of the deep purple Plexiglas contrasts with the matte cadmium red paint that covers the rest of the piece. The surface of the Plexiglas seems to lighten and darken as the light hits it from different angles.
- Test Piece for "Contingent"
Eva Hesse, Test Piece for “Contingent,” latex over cheesecloth, created in 1969. This description is a minute long.
Hesse’s sculpture measures twelve feet tall by three and a half feet across. It consists of a long, rectangular piece of cheesecloth draped over a wooden rod. The rod is suspended from the ceiling by almost invisible monofilament, so the work appears to float in space several inches in front of the wall.
The piece of fabric is hung unevenly over the dowel, so one side drapes farther down than the other. The two ends of the cloth hang down fairly straight, and do not touch. The cheesecloth is coated with latex, which stiffens the drape of the fabric, and creates some shiny areas, and a rubbery appearance. The cloth is an overall golden yellow color but the hues deepen and lighten throughout to create a mottled effect.
The longer side of the draping cloth nearly touches the floor. The bottom foot or so on each side of the cheesecloth are not infused with latex. They are so light and sheer that they move slightly on the air current in the gallery.
- Untitled (Red Hand)
Nam June Paik, Untitled (Red Hand). 19th-century paper scroll by Komatsu Akira, red ink, light bulb, and wood frame; created by Paik in 1967. This description is three minutes long.
This work consists of a light box behind a Japanese scroll, which is covered with a sheet of Plexiglas. The whole piece measures five and a half feet tall by two and a half feet across, and almost six inches deep. The long, rectangular scroll shows six vertical columns of Japanese characters in the top half of the composition, and a male figure, seen from the chest up, in the lower half. A red handprint floats below the Japanese characters on the far left.
From here, we’ll take a closer look at the scroll itself by focusing on the writing, the red hand, the figure below, and the other markings.
The scroll’s paper has yellowed to a dark bone color, and small tears and wrinkles are visible throughout. An olive green border that surrounds the artwork has been embossed with a fine, faint pattern of leaves. The columns of characters create a subtle upward diagonal, as each column from left to right becomes shorter.
The handprint below the first column of writing shows a left hand with the fingers angling toward the scroll’s upper right corner. A light flashes intermittently behind the hand, and when it turns off, the hand appears black and whorls become visible. When the light goes back on, the area turns red. A faint red rosette is stamped onto the scroll below the hand.
The man’s figure below is painted with an ink wash in tones ranging from rich black to dark gray. The man’s features are heavily outlined in black. He has a round face with a bald pate, and his eyes are also round, with only dots in the center to represent pupils. The eyelashes are jagged lines under bushy eyebrows. The man’s mouth is one black line curving down at each end. Intersecting hoop earrings hang from the lobes of his large ears. A gray wash covers the space between his eyebrows, eyes, and temples, and another gray wash indicates a beard and mustache. Broad, black strokes suggest a garment wrapping around his shoulders and chest, up to his neck. A black hood-like form sweeps upwards over his left shoulder and behind his head. A semicircular area of unpainted paper rises from the bottom of the scroll.
Two columns of small Japanese characters appear in the lower right corner. The left column includes three stacked characters, and the right column has 5 characters. The artist signed the work on the surface of the Plexiglas with “Paik,” in crimson capital letters, so his name hovers these two columns of Japanese characters. A faint, red square seal is stamped near the upper-right corner of the Plexiglas covering. In the lower left corner, a Masonic insignia has been added, showing a pumpkin-colored, uppercase “G,” enclosed by a geometric figure of two interlocking triangles that roughly form an elongated star shape.
- First Station
Barnett Newman, First Station, Magna on canvas, painted in 1958. This description is two minutes long.
This canvas measures six and a half feet tall by five feet across. First Station is one of a series of fourteen canvases of roughly equal size that form a group entitled The Stations of the Cross. The series of paintings is visually unified and painted in variations of white, black, and gray with expanses of raw, unpainted canvas. Eleven of the works are dominated by the raw canvas with vertical black or white lines and stripes, which Newman called “zips,” spaced at varying intervals across the compositions. The twelfth work is predominantly graphite gray. The thirteenth canvas is mostly black with lighter colored vertical lines and zips. The fourteenth in the series is pale dove gray with a vertical band of raw canvas on the left.
To focus on the First Station: The background is a rich parchment color. An opaque black stripe a few inches wide lines the left edge of the canvas, and a pair of closely spaced thin parallel forms span the height of the canvas about a quarter of the way in from the right edge. The inner edges of the two thin lines are straight and crisply defined. The outer edges look like they are enveloped in twisting smoke, as if the artist picked up the black paint with his brush and lightly swirled it to either side of the lines. This configuration is one version of what Newman called a zip: he made it by placing a piece of masking tape on the canvas, then painting over it with vigorous strokes. Afterward he removed the tape, revealing a “zip” of exposed canvas between gestural linear forms. This canvas was painted with Magna, a type of glossy acrylic resin.
The artist signed the canvas prominently with black paint against the cream colored background in the lower right corner: “Barnett Newman 1958.”
- Double America
Glenn Ligon, Double America, neon and paint, created in 2012. This description is two minutes long.
Ligon’s sculpture is made using neon tubing and paint. The electrified neon tubing is illuminated, and gives off a bright white light. With it, the artist has spelled out the word “America” twice. The word is repeated in two registers, with one stacked directly above the other. Each letter in the sculpture is about eighteen inches high. The entire sculpture measures three feet high by about ten feet across. The neon words are hung on the wall at eye level. Power cords extend from the words and are plugged into four black transformers and a black power strip on the floor.
We’ll examine the top word first and then focus on the lower word.
Although the word America is rendered legibly in both registers, the artist has changed the orientation of some of the letters. In the top register, the letters are in the correct order, but appear backwards. Because A and M are vertically symmetrical letters, and since they start the word America, viewers don’t necessarily notice that the letters are reversed until they arrive at the E and R that follow. The vivid white neon light emphasizes the presence of black electrodes affixed to the side of each letter. This tells us that the sign is actually facing the wall, and we are looking at its back. Power cords drop to the floor from the initial and final As, and from the E and the R. Black tubes connect the A-M-E in one unit, and the R-I-C-A in another.
The bottom register of the sculpture also spells “America,” but now the entire word is upside down and reversed. The neon tubing is painted black on the viewer’s side, while a bright white light projecting from the rear powerfully illuminates the wall behind the sculpture. The corresponding electrodes on this sign are positioned on the backside of the letters, facing the wall, but four power cords fall from the same places as in the sign above.
The eight cords are connected to four black transformers that rest on the floor. Each transformer is about the size of a brick.
- PALM, FINGERS & FINGERTIPS (RIGHT HAND) 000394
Jenny Holzer, PALM, FINGERS & FINGERTIPS (RIGHT HAND) 000394; oil on linen, painted in 2007. This description is three and a half minutes long.
Holzer’s painting measures almost five feet high by four feet across. This silk-screened painting shows a blown-up view of a black-and-white paper document. Near the top edge of the canvas, form fields record a name and other personal information. Near the bottom edge are official stamps and numbers. An adult handprint fills the center, and the whorls and lines of fingerprints are rendered in detail. Superimposed over the handprint, heavy black lines obscure most of the palm and fingers, creating a rake-like pattern.
We will begin by examining the handprint in more detail, and then we’ll focus on the additional information at the top and bottom of the canvas.
The central handprint takes up most of the canvas’s surface. The thumb extends to our left and the upright fingers splay out. A small, oval-shaped form at the top of each digit represents the prints for the pads of the fingers and thumb.
A horizontal black line crosses the palm print near its base. Four thick lines, as if drawn with a permanent marker, extend from the horizontal line, up through each of the fingers and through the separate fingerprints above.
A table with two wide columns and three narrow rows spans most of the width of the canvas near the top edge. Text in the rows to the left read, “Name, last, first, MI” at the top, “SSN” for Social Security number at center, and “Signature” below. The information following these fields in all three boxes has been crossed out with the heavy black lines, but what had been a handwritten note in pen in the bottom box on the left reads, “b(7)(c)-2”. The “7” and “c” are each enclosed by parentheses.
The column to the right reads, “Case #” at top, “Taken by: SA” at center, and “Date: 19 Nov 04” below that. The field to the right of the letters “SA” is also blacked out, but a handwritten note appears to the right, reading “b(7)(c)-1”. Below the chart, originally typed in all caps, the form is titled, “PALM, FINGERS & FINGERTIPS (RIGHT HAND),” from which the title of the painting was taken.
Centered near the bottom of the composition are two rows of words that emulate the appearance of inked stamps, reading “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY,” and “LAW ENFORCEMENT SENSITIVE,” both in all caps. The lower edges of the letters on the bottom row are clipped, as if the stamp was not applied with even pressure. To the right, near the lower corner of the canvas, the word “EXHIBIT” in all caps, is followed by a line, and both are enclosed in parentheses. The number “022962” looks like it had been typed in the field above the line, in numbers slightly too large for the field provided. Below that is the number “000394.” In the lower right corner, text reads, “DOD-044687,” and appears to be printed, rather than stamped.
Finally, a thin horizontal black line crosses the bottom of the form from near the left edge to the right of center.
Jasper Johns, Target, oil and collage on canvas, created in 1958. This description is a minute long.
This painting measures three feet square. It shows a target with a circle at the center and four nested, concentric bands of equal width. The center circle and two of the bands are royal blue, and they are separated by bands of sun yellow. The background around the target, which fills the rest of the canvas to its edges, is scarlet. The paint was applied thickly in short overlapping strokes that are clearly visible, and the surface is quite textured, due to collaged elements.
The lines defining the blue and yellow bands of the target are crisp and exact. The outermost band of the target nearly touches the four edges of the canvas. The red background is applied thickly throughout, except along the lower edge where a half-inch strip of raw canvas is visible.
- Mountains and Sea
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, oil and charcoal on canvas, painted in 1952. This description is two minutes long.
Mountains and Sea measures seven feet high by almost ten feet across. It is an abstract painting with organic forms that suggest the mountains and sea of the title. A cluster of rounded, geometric shapes occupies the center of the canvas in shades of denim and sky blue, pale coral and pink, seafoam green, and flint gray. Most of the forms are delineated in black charcoal. The color is applied with visible brushstrokes in some areas and appears stained or soaked into the canvas in others.
We’ll start at the center and work our way around the canvas from there.
Though painted with oils, Frankenthaler thinned the medium for a watercolor effect. A pale blue triangular form rises from the composition’s top center to the upper edge of the canvas. Moving clockwise, there is a blocky, sage-colored form at about one o’clock and a half-moon shape in harvest gold floats at three o’clock. A loose coral form fills in the space from roughly four to nine o’clock beneath the blue triangle. A few areas of coral create a loose ring around splotches of green and blue at approximately ten o’clock. A horizontal strip of indigo blue to the right suggests the sea from the painting’s title. Another diagonally oriented swathe of indigo blue appears to the left of the central triangle and coral areas. Below, varying shades of celery green, peach, pink, and deep blue occupy the bottom third of the canvas in soft, watery splotches.
Gray and blue paint pours are visible throughout, as seen near the left edge of the canvas.
Frankenthaler inscribed the date in charcoal in the lower-right corner: “10/26/52.”
- Hope is: Wanting to Pull Clouds
Sigmar Polke, Hope is: Wanting to Pull Clouds, polyester resin and acrylic on canvas, painted in 1992. This description is three minutes long.
Hope is: Wanting to Pull Clouds measures almost ten feet high by sixteen and a half feet across. The painting has a variegated, parchment-colored ground with a flame-like form running horizontally from the left edge toward the center. Superimposed upon this ground is a historical-looking figure rendered in thin black lines that emulates the appearance of a printed image. This figure stands at the right side of the canvas and holds onto thick ropes pulled taut, one in each hand. Each rope almost crosses the width of the canvas and is tethered to a cloud. A small sailboat floats near the center of the composition on a horizon line that bisects the canvas. A patchwork of squares covers the canvas and range from one to two inches to about a foot across. The colors are mostly beige, tan, and shades of off-white, though some pale blue, sage-green, violet, and brick-red rectangles are scattered throughout.
From here, we’ll start with the figure, follow the ropes to the clouds, and end with the boat and background.
The figure stands with his back to the viewer and his profile facing the left edge of the canvas. His feet are widely planted and his knees bent. His arms extend straight out in front of his body, and a thick, twisted rope wraps around each wrist and forearm. His mouth is wide open, but his curly, shoulder-length hair hides his eyes. He wears a floppy cap on the back of his head. His costume has long sleeves underneath a jerkin-style jacket. Loose pants are cinched at the knee above stockings. He has a belt with a dagger hanging off his right hip, and a pouch the size of a change purse over his left hip. His shoes cover his whole foot, and are shaped like slippers that slide on without laces. Traces of pine-green splatters look like they had been rubbed out, but they left a trace underneath the figure.
Other clouds fill in the spaces between those lassoed by the ropes.
The small sailboat floating near the center of the composition is about the same size as the figure’s head. It is also rendered with simple black outlines that show a curved body filled with a taupe color and a single mast and white sail. There is a tiny figure seated in the center of the boat, which sails toward the flame-like expanse of color to the left. The scale of the boat suggests it appears in the distance.
Various sizes of squares and rectangles fit together to create the background. A few darker rectangles in plum and scarlet appear near the lower edge of the canvas, especially around the figure.
The streaks of color to the left swirl from the edge of the composition toward the center, funneling from a wide base along the left to a narrow band. The artist applied paint to the back of the canvas, and it shines through the overall pattern of squares and rectangles. The colors in this swirl are darker, with sky and navy blues in the center, and streaks of crimson and sunflower yellow around the outside edges. The band terminates with an eddy of blue paint, like a fist clenched at the end of an arm, to the left of the figure’s head. The streaks of color resolve into the impression of a landscape at left, which has a high mountain above a horizon line and reflections in still water.
A pattern of ghostly, slate-gray triangular forms were also painted on the back of the canvas, and it lines the top edge.
- Great America
Kerry James Marshall, Great America, acrylic and collage on canvas, created in 1994. This description is seven minutes long.
This work, titled Great America, measures eight and a half feet tall by nine and a half feet across. The painting has a nautical theme, and depicts a group of four people in a boat on a bright turquoise-colored ocean that nearly fills the canvas. Only a narrow strip of azure blue sky with two fluffy white clouds is visible over the high horizon line, near the canvas’s top edge. We seem to look down onto the surface of the water. Additional elements, including a red cross, ghosts, and a banner, float in the space to create an almost surreal collection of objects and images. The style of the painting is both painterly and graphic, with streamlined forms and figures.
We’ll start with the figures in the boat and then move onto the surrounding objects and background.
The four figures are seated one behind the other in a narrow boat that resembles those found in amusement parks. The figures have uniformly brown-black skin, and the contours of their bodies and faces are delicately outlined in white. The boat moves diagonally away from the center of the canvas, toward the top right corner, where it is about to enter a tunnel flanked by ghosts. These elements further suggest an amusement park ride. The boat has low sides and is painted with stripes of lime green, cream, and citrus orange along the back. The stern is yellow. Decorative scrollwork and patterns are painted in white over the colors.
The boat’s occupants are crowded into the boat, with their knees drawn up and elbows and arms draped over the boat’s sides. Two women occupy the boat’s rear, with their backs to the viewer and their heads in three-quarter profile. The rearmost woman wears a pale-yellow, strapless bikini top. Her tightly fitting, apricot-colored bathing cap is decorated with ecru-colored bands and rows of asterisk shapes. The woman seated nearest her has closely cropped hair. We see the back of her bare shoulders and a bikini top of butter yellow, with delicate, carrot-orange vertical stripes.
Above their heads stretches a flat, red, jagged-edged banner in the top center of the canvas, with the word “wow” in ivory-colored letters. The banner’s sharp edges radiate outward like a firework and trail off with asterisks.
The third person on the boat is a man who sits ahead of the women. His back is to the viewer, but he looks over his right shoulder to meet the viewer’s gaze with heavily lidded black eyes. The fourth person aboard is a woman in the front of the boat who perches on its side, with her hands gripping the edge. Her back faces the viewer but her head is turned left in profile. Only her lips and the bottom of her nose are visible, as the canvas crops out the top of her head. She wears an olive-green bikini bottom and a strapless, olive-colored top with black polka dots.
The suggestion of a fifth person appears in the water near the front right of the boat. An oval form reads as a head with two ear-shaped protrusions on either side, and it bobs in the water.
The boat splashes through the water, and stylized white waves curl from the stern as it moves forward toward the semicircular tunnel, which has a dark blue interior. Just ahead are the forms of two white ghosts, with the suggestion of a third ghost behind them. They are schematic cartoon renderings—large, white, organic shapes with black holes for eyes and downturned crescents for mouths. The boat’s occupants do not appear to see or react to these presences. The face of the tunnel is painted with a pumpkin-orange ground and golden-yellow decorations. A line of four white circles along the front face of the archway suggests light bulbs, and each is haloed with a pair of white lines to suggest light.
Across the composition’s central and lower right, a creamy yellow banner billows in the wind, scrolling down to create two horizontal sections. It carries the words “Great America.” The uppercase letters are spaced widely and appear stenciled on in crimson-red. Beneath each letter is a smudgy pinkish area, as if something else had been rubbed out and the letter applied over it. The word “Great” appears in a topmost section of the banner, which folds under itself like a ribbon. The front side unfurls again just below, and carries the word “America.” The left edge of the banner trails off in pointed tails, while the wider right side curls in, suggesting the banner is long and narrow.
Superimposed over the left half of the composition is another ghost, this one much larger and translucent, rather than opaque. It covers the left side of the canvas from top to bottom, draping over part of the woman closest to the viewer and the top part of the banner, and forming a transparent white veil through which the turquoise sea and other elements are clearly seen. The ghost’s edges and shape are picked out with striations of white.
To the left of the boat and banner, aligning with the left edge of the canvas, are two yellow circles of sixteen stars each that look like emblems on a flag. One circle is at the center left of the canvas, and the other is positioned directly below, at the lower-left corner. They appear to float on the surface of the canvas. Above the circles of stars is an area of white paint in brushy, broad strokes that creates a boxy shape with a long band extending out toward the women at the rear of the boat. Directly above, moving toward the top left corner of the canvas, is a precisely painted white box with a red cross.
To the right of that, a yellow squiggle suggests the reflection of a setting or rising sun across the water. At the lower-right corner, a white vine-like form extends about halfway up the canvas, where it branches into at least three curling arms. At the top left of the vine, below the boat, hovers another white square that floats on the surface of the canvas. The paint is semi-opaque and the word “fun” is barely visible underneath.
The water is painted with shades of turquoise, cobalt blue, and aquamarine. The paint used for the water, especially on the right half of the canvas, has dripped down the surface.
This work is painted on unstretched canvas. Several grommets are spaced along each edge, and the canvas is hung on screws drilled directly into the wall, so the canvas sags very slightly between each grommet. Raw canvas can be seen along all four edges.