There's something about face to face

Paintings and photographs in online galleries don't give a reviewer the whole picture

Art Column

December 27, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,sun art critic

Reader Richard M. Caplan recently wrote to ask why I don't review online exhibitions.

"By limiting your reviews to `brick-and-mortar' buildings, you may also be limiting your audience," Caplan suggested. "Many more people have access and are willing to use computers than visit galleries," he added. "If you were to review virtual fine art galleries, I believe you would open up the art world to many more people while they are sitting at home."

Caplan, who told me he is an accountant by vocation, exhibits his own black-and-white photographs on his Web site, I looked up his site and discovered he has posted many lovely images there, including one accompanying this article (see Page 6C).

But as a rule I don't review online exhibitions, for the simple reason that it's very difficult to tell much about artworks from even the best reproductions. And a computer image is usually just that - a copy of an original artwork, not the real thing.

Of course, museum curators, gallery owners and contest judges have to look at reproductions all the time - usually in the form of slides or digital images - and make judgments based on what they see.

Today, artists who can't immediately e-mail an image of their work to a curator or critic are often at a distinct disadvantage in trying to get their work displayed.

For while most museum and gallery curators still make final decisions about what to put in a show only after visiting the artist's studio, they do rely heavily on slides and digital images to screen potential contributors and to develop a curatorial rationale for exhibitions.

So if slides and digital images are good enough for curators and gallery owners, why not for critics as well?

The answer is that, in the absence of more direct experience of an artwork, reproductions just don't tell you enough about what you're looking at.

Years ago, for instance, when I first began looking at photography, almost everything I knew about artists such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange came from reading about them and seeing their works reprinted in books.

But then I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and actually saw some of these iconic images in the flesh, so to speak.

It was a revelation. The photographs on display made the reproductions I'd been looking at seem pallid by comparison. There was a richness and depth to the originals that no copy could capture.

One factor has to do with scale. In a book, most pictures are no larger than 8-by-10 inches, and usually they're much smaller.

But a fine-art print displayed in a gallery or museum can be any size, and the scale of an image often plays a crucial role in determining how the viewer responds to it.

You can get an idea, for example, of how German photographer Andreas Gursky's pictures of office buildings and industrial plants look from the images in his catalogs and books, as well as online.

But that will not prepare you for the humongous, awe-inspiring dimensions of the actual photographs, which can range up to 8-by-10 feet in size. Standing in front of one of these mythically big pictures can be a truly humbling experience.

Similarly, many images created by pioneering modernist Andre Kertesz have been reproduced so often we assume an expansiveness to their dimensions that they do not, in fact, possess.

I was somewhat taken aback, for instance, when I visited the big Kertesz retrospective last year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and discovered that many of the artist's most famous pictures were taken with a tiny hand camera and printed on paper no more than 2 or 3 inches on a side.

Unlike the enlarged reproductions I had seen in books, Kertesz's diminutive originals had a charming intimacy and an innocence that were quite absent from their printed reproductions.

Similar considerations govern our perception of the color, material, surface texture and even the weight of artworks. All these factors affect our response to works of art, and ultimately there's simply no substitute for the real thing.

I was lucky enough, for example, to actually see Guernica, Picasso's famous painting about the Spanish Civil War, when it was still in the United States during the 1960s (it was housed at MOMA at the time; it's now in Spain).

Today, when I see that monumentally scaled work reproduced in books - or online - I just have to shake my head. How could anyone possibly understand what Picasso was about from looking at that? I think.

In the future, I'm sure, the development of high-definition computer monitors and software undoubtedly will allow reproductions to become far more accurate than they are today, just as photographic reproductions represented a quantum leap over the etchings and other copying techniques of centuries past.

At some point, we might even see the development of digitally generated, three-dimensional holographic images that are in all respects virtually indistinguishable from the artworks they describe.

But until that happens (and with the possible exception of artworks specifically created to exist within the digital domain), I suspect we critics will be wise to steer clear of the virtual world and keep our eyes - and those of our readers - trained on the real McCoy.

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