Author Archives: Jordan Levy

When Digitization is Not Enough: The De-Contextualizing Nature of Re-Mediation in Installation Art on the Google Arts & Culture Platform

By: Jordan Levy


In this day and age, art is no longer an analog commodity. Gone are the days of exclusively viewing art in a private collection or institution, presently replaced by the technological capabilities that allow patrons to easily view digital art from all around the world.  The act of creating a cohesive platform that digitizes art collections was recently undertaken by Google. As a result of their efforts, the Google Arts and Culture platform was born, featuring many notable artworks on a brand new digital interface. But despite the various benefits of digital, democratized art, the Google Arts and Culture platform is not without substantial flaws. Several constraints of digitization, including a lack of equal genre representation, misrepresented ephemerality, a loss of physicality, de-contextualized culture, a lack of dialogic context, and a missing museum-as-interface, serve to diminish the Google Arts and Culture platform as an all-encompassing academic tool. Notably absent from the platform is the inclusion of installation art, as demonstrated by the lack of wildly popular exhibits such as Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, the Renwick Museum’s Wonder exhibition, and the appearance of several Janet Echelman installations throughout the world.

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When Digitization is Not Enough: The De-Contextualizing Nature & Constraints of Re-Mediation in Installation Art

By: Jordan Levy

I have always enjoyed installation art as I believe it has an immersive quality that sucks viewers into the artist’s world, truly allowing viewers of the art to contemplate the artist’s original meaning behind the piece. After this semester, I now have the skills to understand digitization and re-mediation, and how to academically analyze installation pieces in these contexts. Although I can see the benefit in an online digital platform such as Google Arts & Culture, too often are the works viewed on this platform taken as ‘substitutions’ rather than ‘supplements-to’ the originals. But what happens when the institution walls become part of the art? Better yet, what if there are no walls and the art is meant to be viewed within the vastness of nature? Is digitization still beneficial? Given this conundrum, I will be focusing on the constraints of digitization in regards to installation art.


“As If It Were Already Here” By: Janet Echelman, Boston (May-Oct. 2015)

Current issues surrounding installation art include its ephemerality, the challenges of the institution in hosting the installation (due to the vast amount of money and space required by galleries presenting the work), and how curators are tasked with curatorially protecting the works. In my mind, the most important challenge is how to represent these works on the GoogleArts and Culture platform in a way that retains the
piece’s contextually and original
meanings. If pieces such as Robert Smithton’s Spiral Jetty, Janet Echelman’s As If It Were Already 


“Spiral Jetty” By: Robert Smithson

Here, and Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s site-specific wrappings were explicitly designed for a specific location, then wouldn’t removing them from that location in an online interface strip away their intended impressions? I believe so. Although re-mediating artworks on a universal digital platform such as Google Arts & Culture does have valuable affordances, I see the related constraints in representing installation pieces as a major challenge for the platform, possibly skewing the platform’s worth as an academic tool. As such, my paper will focus mainly on the following losses of digitization:

  • Physicality (sense of space)
  • Humans in the experience (ie-Kusama exhibit)
  • Natural effects (ie-natural lighting, weather for outdoor art, etc.)
  • Museum as interface: juxtapositions (ie-Jeff Koons in Versailles)
  • Dialogic context (between works in the space)
  • decreased “aura” of the art (Benjamin, 256)

A few installation pieces that I see as prototypes to these issues are:

(Note: For the final, I will only choose 1-3 of these)

  • Kusama exhibit
  • Renwick installation pieces (bird nests, stacked paper, janet echelman)
  • Janet Echelman outdoor Boston piece


    “Wrapped Trees” By: Christo & Jeanne-Claude

  • Christo & Jeanne-Calude wrappings
  • Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty
  • Banksy site-specific street art
  • Jeff Koons in Versailles

I will utilize the middle of my paper as a brief review of the current capabilities of the Google platform, with sections on the de-contextualizing nature of self-curated exhibits, the drawbacks of the extreme zoom feature for works that were never meant to be viewed that closely, and the lack of a well-rounded virtual library (the severe lack of any installation art).


A piece by Jeff Koons at the Palace of Versailles

I will conclude my paper with an analysis on why a platform like Google Arts exists with a critique on how people in society today have been socialized into believing that if they don’t remediate something, they’re missing out. Art has become somewhat of a status symbol, whether in the eliteness of being able to afford a piece, or the eliteness of seeing a hot, new exhibit (Hello, Hirschhorn). I will discuss how current social media platforms become the ‘imaginary museums’ for popular exhibits (Malraux), using the #infinitekusama hashtag of Instagram’s curated version of the Hirschhorn exhibit to exemplify the idea that the more art is re-mediated, the more art will be produced for this reason. The constant need to post about art only briefly experienced or not truly experienced at all is damaging to the ArtWorld because not all human senses can be re-mediated online. Therefore, many people feel as if they are experiencing or understanding a piece when they are only perceiving what can be re-mediated at all; they are missing out on the real experience and they don’t even know it. In a way, the constraints of the Google Arts platform is a prototype for the constraints of current technological advancement as an industry.

Current References:

Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art book by Kate Mondloch (chapter 1: Interface Matters: screen-reliant installation art)

Christo & Jeanne-Claude wrappings (no specific works chosen yet)

Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty

Janet Echelon’s As If It Were Already Here

Hirschhorn’s Yayoi Kusama exhibit

Hal Foster

Botler & Grusin


Malraux’s museum without walls

Google Arts & Culture Platform

“ReconstructionEra: The Anachronic Time(s) of Installation Art” By: Claire Bishop

Experiencing Infinity

By: Jordan Levy, Wanyu Zhang, & Yinying Chen

“Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”

– Yayoi Kusama


Professor Irvine Experiencing Infinity by Wanyu Zhang

The Self-Obliteration of Kusama

When Yayoi Kusama was a child, she was physically abused by her mother. Around that time, a new world opened up for Kusama: a world of visions and hallucinations. In 1939, at the age of 10, Yayoi Kusama created the drawing UntitledThis piece depicts an image of her mother’s


Untitled, by Yayoi Kusama (1939, age 10)

face covered in different colored polka dots. The polka dots are not only representations of what Kusama saw, but they also symbolize the sun, the moon, the earth, the universe as a whole, and the infinity of this universe. At such a young age, it was the start of Kusama’s representation of what she saw in her ‘alternate reality’ (a state of being brought to fruition due to her battle with mental illness) and was the beginning of what would compose the rest of her life. With a life-long exploration of herself affected by her disease, Kusama’s work signifies her ongoing obsession with polka dots and various visual representations of how she represents her own self-obliteration.

Interface for Multilogue

Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms are very avant-garde and impressive in the way that they transform “[Kusama’s] interior world into a shared and public one,” as (Applin, 2012). In other words, the installations not only serve as a form of self-therapy for Kusama as she visually represents and copes with the mental illness and hallucinatory visions plaguing her, but they also offer an open interface for dynamic multilogue. The rooms are colorful, playful, and fascinating for museum guests. As such, the museum and each infinity room have extensive lines. However, when entering the tiny rooms with friends or complete strangers, there is no script regarding how to engage with the dazzling and immersive space (Applin, 2012). Therefore, the immersive experience that is each infinity room releases semiotic agents from the imposed meanings of the works, enabling each room to engage in a dialogic form of meaning-making for both Kusama and museum guests. Every viewer’s experience with the spaces is unique. Hence, as Irvine illustrates, for every viewer, the experiences in the rooms “become new nodal positions for interpretive routes in the encyclopedic network” (2014).

Diverse Interfaces

One of the most interesting aspects of the Infinity Mirrors exhibition is that it is an exhibition composed of Kusama’s works presented on a variety of mediums, including paper, soft fabric sculptures, mirrors, canvas, rowboats, photos, etc. Psychedelic colors, polka dots, and repetitive patterns remain central to Kusama’s signature style, serving to interrogate and celebrate life and its aftermath (Hirshhorn, 2017). However, as those central themes transcend from one experience to the next, the relationship between the artworks and the viewers is reshaped, and a whole new angle for interpreting her signature style is revealed.


14th Street Happening by Yayoi Kusama (1966)

For instance, the photographs of her public performance 14th Street Happening in 1966 encapsulate and bring alive the powerful scenes of her lying in the “phallic field” on the sidewalk of New York City for her passive viewers. In this sense, the photograph acts as a historian that re-tells the story for us and generations to come. On the other hand, the infinity mirrors rooms are situated in ‘this very moment’ for the viewers to participate, experience, interpret and question. The immersive rooms transform their audiences into active participants of the dialogue embodied by Kusama’s works, or as it is illustrated in description of Infinity Mirrored Room- Love Forever on Hirshhorn Museum’s website, “the installation blurs the lines between artistic disciplines and is activated by audience participation”  (Hirshhorn, 2017).

Group Project


Sweep it Under the Carpet by Banksy

What was once an environment for only artists of classical training, the ‘Art World’ is always reinventing the definition of ‘fine art,’ morphing to account for recent cultural tastes and desires.  Once regarded as mere ‘illegal graffiti,’ the work of street artists such as the elusive Banksy has officially entered the world of fine art, blurring the distinction between the two as separate entities. As such, the works of Banksy and his peers, including Shepard Fairey, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, are now fetching top dollar at auctions once reserved for ‘serious,’ fine art. The meshing of “high and low art” is granting street artists multiple channels of reception, including by the masses, considering the outdoor spray-painted locations of many pieces, in addition to in more serious occasions, such as Sotheby’s Auction House and several notable museums. All in all, the blurring line between street art and fine art is paving the way for artists of similar ‘street beginings’ to have their works accepted by society and viewed seriously, despite their often illegal mediums and illicit outdoor locations (Pantovich, 2013).



Applin, J., ebrary, I., & ProQuest (Firm). (2012). Yayoi kusama: Infinity mirror room– phalli’s field. London: Afterall Books.

Infinity Mirror Rooms. (2017). Retrieved April 6, 2017, from

Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever. (2017). Retrieved April 6, 2017, from

Irvine, M. (2014). Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality. In In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies (pp. 15-24). New York: Rutledge.

Pantovich, M. (2013, January 9). The Most Expensive Street Art | From Basquiat to Banksy. Retrieved April 6, 2017, from

Patel, N. (2011, October 24). The Self-Obliteration Of Yayoi Kusama. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from

Photography in Context

By: Jordan Levy

 “I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.”


“From the moment of its birth, photography had a dual character—as a medium of artistic expression and as a powerful scientific tool” (“Daguerre”). In my mind, this holds true today. Photos are used both for self-expression (professional or amateur), as well as serving as a more utilitarian tool: that of a symbolic icon. When I say symbolic icon, I am referring to the notion of that photo physically depicting an image of the artist’s choosing, yet possessing an ulterior motive or symbolically representing another phenomenon.

A personal example of this is the image below: an untitled IPhone digital image by Jordan Levy.


Untitled 2017 IPhone Photograph by Jordan Levy


Yes, to the eye of an outsider it may appear as a poorly constructed and executed snapshot of a seemingly insignificant household object. But to me, the photographer, this image is indicative of an aspect of my life. I recently took this photo as a method of remembering to complete the chore of purchasing more dog food. According to author Liz Wells, I was guilty of using my “camera as a method of note-taking” (Wells, 298). As such, this image was solely for personal use as I never intended for anyone else to view the image. Because it was only for my benefit, I took no time in arranging an artistic composition; I did not consider lighting, the rule of thirds, space, delivery, or framing. As a matter of fact, the only principle of this photograph I did care about was the subject matter. Because this image is symbolic of an activity, I took a minute to ensure that all of the writing on the bag of dog food was legible even on my small phone screen.

If I had to assign a genre for this image, I would create a new category, as I barely consider this image to be art. The genre I would create would be iconic of images intended for memory aid, perhaps entitled ‘Small Remembrances.’ Ultimately, as soon as I complete my symbolic task of purchasing more dog food, I intend to delete this image as a method of physically checking the activity off of my ‘to-do’ list. This image can barely be classified as ‘art’ in my mind (if at all) due to the photographer’s lack of care and precision regarding this image; I did not care to design any aspect of its composition, and I do not care for its lasting impression or existence in the world. In this way, “photographs have become information,” serving a purpose outside of aesthetically pleasing viewers (Lister, 8). Finally, due to this image’s short life span, some photographs are “fugitive and transient; they come and they go” (Lister, 8). My photo of dog food is not long for this world, and nobody will miss the image when it is ultimately permanently deleted.


2006 Digital Photograph by Mannie Garcia for the Associated Press

A different genre of photography is photography for propaganda. Such photos often stem from news outlets or artists working in photojournalism. The 2006 notorious Obama “Hope” photo is no exception. In this instance, the digital, color-photograph taken by member of the Associated Press Mannie Garcia is not as famous as the appropriated and edited version of the tri-color “Hope” poster designed by Shepard Fairey in 2008. In my mind, these images can be viewed side-by-side, as they share a number of artistic characteristics, including their dual genres of portraiture and propaganda.


2008 “Hope” Poster by Shepard Fairey

Although these images may seem similar, their biggest difference lies in their medium/production and means of dissemination. Whereas the Garcia image is a photograph shot from a real human, the Fairey image is a screen-printed poster designed from Garcia’s original image. Fairey has essentially re-mediated Garcia’s photograph, drawing attention to both the subject (Obama) and the practice of digital appropriation (on a side note, Garcia later sued for copyright and later settled outside of court). In addition, Garcia’s photograph was intended for the use of the Associated Press to educate readers in an un-biased fashion about Obama’s bid for presidency. Meanwhile, Fairey’s poster was intended for mass reproduction to promote Obama as a candidate. Fairey’s produced over 4,000 digital recreations of Garcia’s photograph to distribute at Obama rallies (Wikipedia), where this re-mediated image quickly became an icon for Obama’s campaign and overall message of ‘Hope’ for America.


1850 daguerrotype: Fathers, daughters, and Nurse by Thomas Easterly

The final image I would like to discuss today is vastly different from the first three. This image, entitled Fathers, Daughters, and Nurse, is a daguerreotype dating back to 1850, created by Thomas Easterly. As the title suggests, the subjects include a Southern gentleman, his two daughters, and their African American nurse/servant (Getty Museum).

Although these subjects do not appear to be hugely significant, it is their insignificance that makes this daguerreotype fascinating.  “Among the many momentous social transformations generated by photography’s invention was the possibility of self-representation by a large variety of groups previously excluded from official portraiture” ( This Southern family epitomizes this phenomenon. Although they have no defining familial connections or accomplishments (Getty Museum), the invention of the daguerreotype allowed them to eternalize their familial likenesses in the history of photography along with other average people. Most likely, this photograph was intended for personal viewing as the family was not widely recognized. Like Garcia’s original ‘Hope’ photograph, the genre of Easterly’s daguerreotype is portraiture, indicative of the family’s desire for pictorial representation. Unlike the Obama photo, this photograph is highly staged; each member of the family is looking directly into the camera, whereas Obama did not pose specifically for Garcia’s benefit. This juxtaposition suggests the family’s desire for this image as they had to pose and remain still during the exposure time (



“Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster.” Wikipedia,

Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography.

Easterly, Thomas. Fathers, Daughter, and Nurse. 1850, Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

Fairly, Shepard. Hope. 2008.

“Fathers, Daughters, and Nurse.” The J. Paul Getty Museum,

Garcia, Minnie. Untitled. 2006, Associated Press, Washington DC.

Levy, Jordan. Untitled. 2017, Washington, DC.

Lister, Martin, ed. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.

The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–1860.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Wells, Liz, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Excerpts.

Mediation in an Artistic, Digital Environment

By: Jordan Levy

Mediation and representation as they apply to art are areas heavily studied, criticized, and revised by ‘Artworld’ scholars. However, despite the existence of numerous pieces of literature surrounding these topics (as evidenced by the readings assigned for this week), there is surprisingly little agreement about how art is and should be presented in a digital environment.

After reviewing the readings from this week, the three themes that stood out in my mind were the ideas of the immediacy associated with more ‘meta’ digital platforms (such as the Google Arts and Culture website or a Google image search results page), the idea of the art’s de-contextualization via photographic reproduction, and the idea that ever-changing human perception and cultural norms have the power to alter cultural values and ultimately govern the perception of any art, reproduced or original. These were topics that I found in almost all of the readings, and as such, I believe these are the essential components needed to understand how to organize, display, and appreciate art as it appears in a digital interface.

The concept of immediacy, heavily referenced in Remediation: Understanding New Media by authors Bolter and Grusin, is paramount in a modern era where just about everybody relies on digital technology. The ability to call up an image of a painting physically located across an ocean on one’s computer screen is incredibly useful for the permeation of the knowledge associated with the Artworld. The ability to transfer knowledge with such speed and ease has aided in the global democratization of artwork (where art was once a commodity for only the elites of society). The notion of immediacy lends itself to the construction of the basis of the principle of mediation in its ability to digitize and mediate any visual representation of any piece of work that are not physically present (Bolter & Grusin). This fits well with Bolter and Grusin’s statement that the “ultimate purpose of media is to transfer sense experiences from one person to another” (p. 3). Understanding the power of immediacy in today’s digital age is paramount in the appreciation of a mediating artistic interface, such as the Google Arts and Culture platform.

The next theme that was carried across multiple readings was the idea of the damaging powers of highly-mediated art. Whereas immediacy is viewed as a major ‘pro’ of art on a digital interface, the de-contextualization of said art is perhaps the major downfall of a mediated artistic interface. For instance, when I admire a painting by Rothko online, the colors are altered by the brightness of my computer screen. In addition, the image is 2-dimensional and only as big as my mediating technology allows. This is a very different experience than viewing Rothko’s works in the curated gallery room in the Philips Collection Museum. In the gallery, the works have their own space and a sense of depth reaching beyond the canvas as the colors and sizes of each work is as the artist intended for it to be viewed. Rothko lived from 1903-1970 and most likely did not intend for his paintings to be appreciated via computers. In this way, the main draw back of modern digital technology and photographic representations of art is their ability to “provide decontextualized, disassociated views of artifacts” (Irvine, p. 3).

The final key towards appreciating digital mediation in art is to understand that “human perceptions [and societal values] change over time” (Benjamin, p. 255). In past physical interfaces, galleries were filled with art from the floor to the ceilings (Zoffany’s Tribuna of the Uffizi, Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre, etc.). This style of ‘packing-it-in’ has changed and today’s organizational style is more minimalistic in layout. The most popular ‘meta’ interfaces today are museums and books which combine, organize, and display various artworks and identifying information in an uncluttered and methodical order of their choosing. Whether this organization is chronological through time or grouped by style, there is no set standard for how to group or collect art. In my experience, this choice is largely based on the preference of whoever is creating the ‘meta’ experience (curator, book author, artist for a gallery show, etc.). While the differing styles of organization work for physical galleries, it becomes confusing when experienced in representative contexts such as books and digital interfaces. Once a book is printed, readers lack the option to change the flow of the art inside; the chosen organization is set in stone (or in this case, paper). With the creation of an all-inclusive digital interface like the Google Arts and Culture platform, users can reorganize the pieces based on their desires: by artist, by medium, by movement, and by historical time period (Google Arts and Culture website).

If individuals familiar with the Artworld can agree to reform industry standards for topics such as curatorial organization, the benefits of immediacy, and the potential for dangerous de-contextualization in reproductions and digital representations, it is my belief that new standardized theories of mediation and representation can be formed to positively alter the current digital landscape for the Artworld. Only then can users of these digital interfaces be fully immersed in a truly customizable world of artistic endeavor.



  1. Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art”.
    Introduction to main concepts with excerpts from Malraux’s text.
  1. Google Arts and Culture website
  1. Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000. Excerpts from the Introduction and Chapter 1.
  1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.



Symbolic Meanings: A Semiotic Analysis of Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue

By: Jordan Levy


Piet Mondrian, renowned for his primary-colored geometric compositions, is credited with co-founding the De Stijl art movement in the Netherlands in 1917; De Stijl is the Dutch translation for “the style,” giving the minimalist style an extremely literal moniker. However, despite the literal translation of the movement as a whole, Mondrian’s works within the style are anything but literal. Composed of primary colored squares and rectangles broken up by varying thicknesses of black lines on white canvas, Mondrian’s paintings, such as Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1935/42) do not literally represent any single meaning. It is up to the interpretation of the viewer and their knowledge of the De Stijl aesthetic to utilize semiotic principles to both uncover and assign meaning to seemingly convoluted works.

Because Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue bears no pictorial likeness to real-world images, its interpretation relies on prescribed viewer knowledge and meaning systems. By considering the painting’s creating within the De Stijl movement (which suggests was created as a reaction to the “decorative excess” of the Art Deco movement), viewers can understand the symbolic nature of this painting’s simplicity to represent “a universal language appropriate to the modern era” ( The “visual language consisting of precisely rendered geometric forms” could possibly symbolize Mondrian’s “search for the universal, as the individual was losing its significance” ( In this way, Mondrian’s painting is symbolic in nature, failing to literally resemble the signified: the concept of a universal language of precise geometry (Chandler).

Continuing to utilize principles of semiotics to assign meaning to a visual work, viewers can take into account the non-descriptive titles to many of Mondrian’s paintings. Each of Mondrian’s geometric paintings share certain characteristics including similar color schemes (primary and neutral colors), aesthetic design (geometric precision), and titles (often some combination of the word ‘composition’ paired with the painting’s primary colors). In my opinion, by naming his works some variation of ‘composition with…’ instead of a more specific title of what his work stands for, Mondrian’s style of painting remains symbolic in nature, where the signifier (the painting itself) does not resemble what is signified (the concept of simple universality or a universal language/human experience) (Chandler).  Although the study of semiotics can be utilized to study sign systems and meaning processes (Irvine), Mondrian’s painting is less about the sign and more about the hidden symbolic meaning.

In The Grammar of Meaning Systems, Irvine suggest that the structures of meaning are socially and culturally encoded. This holds true to the meaning of Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue as its meaning lies in the social relevance of the De Stijl movement and its deeper universal significance. When discussing how Mondrian’s painting serves as a physical interface to its system of meaning, viewers need to consider how the geometric simplicity of the painting reflects on the intended themes of abstraction, simplicity, and universality. Perhaps the visual simplicity is the key to universally uniting people of uncommon backgrounds? Is Mondrian trying to suggest that abstract simplicity is a symbolic metaphor for a visual language that everyone can understand and agree to? In the early 1900’s when this painting was created, perhaps Mondrian and other De Stijl artists eliminated the excess decoration of the Art Deco movement in hopes to come to a consensus for a visually pleasing aesthetic that all people could appreciate.

In addition, perhaps the thick, black vertical and horizontal lines featured in Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue suggest a visual metaphor for the connecting lines bridging the gaps between different groups of people. After all, the original goal of De Stijl artwork was to create a utopian vision of art with its “transformative potential” as a means of “social and spiritual redemption” ( Today, this utopian vision has since been abandoned as evident by the demise of the De Stijl movement in the early 1930’s. Is the end of Mondrian’s movement also symbolic in the sense that the symbolism of his paintings failed to unite people?


Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: the basics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.

Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, Piet Mondrian, 1935-1942

“De Stijl.” The Art Story: Modern Art Insight,

Irvine, Martin. The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. 2017.

Week 3 Response-Group 4


Our Impressions of the National Gallery & Samuel Morse

By: Wanyu Zhang, YinYing Chen, & Jordan Levy

Upon entering the National Gallery of Art, we were immediately awed by its monumentality. The sheer grandeur of the fountain in the rotunda suggested that the art in the gallery spaces would be no less impressive. Entering the room that houses Samuel Morse’s House of Representatives, our eyes were drawn to the large scale of the painting; the large size of the piece being an entitydifficult to gauge from online images. We believe that the physicality of the space is vital when viewing art to complete the viewer’s experience of visiting a gallery. In this case, Morse’s painting hangs on a wall all by itself, signifying its importance within the gallery. Across from Morse’s painting hangs a portrait of George and Martha Washington, two iconic figures in American history. Portraits by artists John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West hang on the adjacent wall. The fact that Morse’s lesser-known painting shares gallery space with famous artists and subjects suggests to us that Morse’s painting should be treated with equal seriousness and viewing time as the work of his more famous peers.

As we moved from room to room we felt as if we were exploring the narratives of different stories; each room seemed to follow its own theme (portraits, landscapes, women in art, etc.) The layout of the paintings, the room’s architectural design, and even the sparse gallery coloring and furnishings are carefully designed to give the artworks context beyond the subject matter. Each painting is a self-contained actor, yet the paintings sharing gallery space are a dependent network that connect to both the theme of each room and to the mission of the museum as a whole: to showcase the national identity of the country ( Latour, 5).

Although we can appreciate the National Gallery of Art in itself as well as the inspiring artworks it houses, the readings from this week detailing the history and many functions of a museum serve to deepen our appreciation of Morse’s painting and its museum home. Perhaps the most important parallel we drew between Morse’s House of Representatives and the readings was a quote from the McClellan reading. McClellan ventured to suggest that one functithe_house_of_representatives_by_samuel_f-_b-_morse_1822-1823_-_corcoran_gallery_of_art_-_dsc01099-2on of museums was to serve as “oases of beauty and calm in a hectic and rapidly changing world” (pg. 10). Coincidently, Morse designed his painting to reflect a fictional scene from a realistic gathering: a House of Representatives meeting. “At a time when the House was often raucous and factional….Morse presented instead a tranquil and relatively uneventful scene” (NGA website).

In addition, Morse’s subject matter mirrors McClellan’s mission of museums as a respite from society. The subject matter depicts a man in the center who is changing the lights in the chandelier while other members of the meeting talk with each other around the edges of the canvas, waiting for their meeting to resume. Whereas the museum is a respite from society, Morse depicts a respite from the meeting. Perhaps Morse was utilizing his medium of oil on canvas to offer viewers his attempt at an ‘oasis.’ In this instance, both McClellan and Morse suggest that art/museums offer some degree of respite from reality.  

Another way in which this week’s readings broadened our appreciation for the National Gallery of Art was the way in which the museum acted as the interface for the artwork it displays. For instance, when we initially entered the museum, the awesome architecture and grandeur of the rotunda suggested an atmosphere is sublime artistic ability. In this way, the architecture and rotunda of the National Gallery foreshadowed the artwork we were about to view. This feeling epitomizes the Gallery’s mission statement, which states the goal of the museum as presenting art “at the highest possible museum and scholarly standards.” (NGA website). In our case, the museum greeted us with the highest architectural standards of grandeur.dsc08154-2

In addition, the neoclassical style of the gallery space paralleled the seriousness of the painted subject matter which hangs within the gallery rooms. This is exemplified in the pediment arches in the dsc08150-2gallery and the heavy, gold gilded frame encasing Morse’s House of Representatives. Both of these neoclassical attributes act as interfaces, offering the viewer a framework for which to enjoy the art.

Similarly, the physical museum acts as an interface to the art itself in the way in which each exhibit was curated and displayed. For instance, the National Gallery offers each piece of art equal viewing opportunity in terms of lighting and spatial layout. Unlike Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre, the National Gallery hangs all its paintings at optimal viewing level (average eye level) and with equal overhead lighting. In his Gallery of the Louvre painting, Morse depicts several masterpieces in a lightless room cluttering the walls, likening them to nothing more than wallpaper (O’Doherty, 16). Author Brian O’Doherty refers to these high and low locations as “unprivileged areas” (16), which juxtaposes the fame of some of the paintings hanging in these areas (pieces by DaVinci, Van Dyck, Rubens, etc.). If these paintings were famous enough for Morse to study and recreate in his own painting, why didn’t he give them more space in which to be appreciated? There agallery-of-the-louvrelso appear to be several painted canvases sitting on the floor of Morse’s gallery piece, garnering even less viewer attention.

Finally, we understand Morse’s House of Representatives to be an interface in and of itself. The genre of history painting offers viewers a glimpse into the rich history of America. Morse’s painting, despite its inaccurate tranquil atmosphere, is indicative of American history similar to the way in which the American artworks in the National Gallery act as multiple interfaces to America’s past.



Alexander, Edward P. & Mary. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).

Latour, Bruno. “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

McClellan, Andrew.  The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese, The House of Representatives. Oil on canvas, 1822-1823. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, U.S.A.

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese, Gallery of the Louvre. Oil on canvas, 1831-1833. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL, U.S.A.

O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: Chapter 1.

Seattle Art Museum. “Samuel F.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre,” 2016. Interactive site.

*All images from class trip credited Wanyu Zhang.