My very amazing friend got tickets to see Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum, and she let me have one of them (because of aforementioned amazingness). She brought her two children (five and seven years old), which didn’t seem weird to me at all since my folks took my brother and me to art museums and concerts as soon as I could go for five minutes at a time without screaming. (It took awhile. I was probably three.) It was my first time in an art museum accompanying children, and I didn’t realize how wonderful the opportunity would be until I was in the middle of experiencing it.
When I was seven or eight, my dad took me took me to the Chicago Art Institute, I think to see a Rothko exhibit. (I could be horribly wrong; we were regulars at that museum and all I remember is it was some painting exhibit that delayed our routine perusal of the Thorne Rooms and medieval armor collection.) The first painting we saw was a giant bright-white canvas with a large orange circle on it, done by an artist as a kind of tribute to Rothko (again, I could be making all this up. I was seven. The point is that the first painting wasn’t by the dude we were there to see).
I looked at it and said, “That is an orange circle. What is so special about an orange circle on a white canvas? I drew that yesterday and no one cared.”
And my dad sat me down on one of those hideously awkward wooden benches they have strewn about, mostly to mock your inability to stand upright for any length of time, and told me that I was missing part of what made that piece so special. He told me to look at the space next to the orange circle, to look at the brush strokes within the circle, to look at the shade and texture of the orange hue, to see it up close, far away, and off to either side, and notice how different the painting was from each perspective. He said, “Sometimes simple is about what we take from it, not what it has to offer. If we don’t practice looking at things, if we don’t study different ways, we’ll miss what someone is trying to do.”
Then he kind of snarked about how maybe I had a point, though.
To this day, when I am faced with anything outside my realm of familiarity, I feel that mantra about simplicity in the center of my chest like inevitability and impending growth. That four-minute conversation changed my entire life, because from that moment forward, I wanted more out of everything. I automatically take a shovel to my perception and try to make it do better. And when I am done grasping at the sublime and profound, I slap down a snarky remark just to make sure I remember to dig for more next time, too.
There were massive lines at Kusama’s exhibit, which meant that in between each of the (breathtaking, presence-altering) rooms, we were able to gaze thoroughly at her paintings and sculptures. As I was staring at the paintings with my friend’s seven year old, I saw her admiring the shapes and patterns. So I told her about how Kusama used the repetition in her work as a kind of meditation, and I showed her how she tricked us into thinking one color was the top color until we looked closely enough to see the brush strokes. I asked her if she felt like the paintings went on forever, when she stared at them. I could see her looking for different things, now, when she gazed at those paintings. She wasn’t admiring the shapes; she was getting lost in the repetition. She was trying to see infinity.
Perception is such a precious tool; we spend so much of our lives instinctively using it, often without ever realizing what influences it. I didn’t see an opportunity to share the light until the glow had nearly left my hands, but talking kids through art changed my life that day. And that ripple, that started with a giant orange circle and my dad’s expertise, that I thought had long since stilled, caught up with me and my friend’s child in that endless room, infinitely.
Here’s a link to the exhibit. It’s there till some time in May. I highly recommend it.