Author Archives: Adey Zegeye

Interpreting Abstract Art Through Dialogism

Adey Zegeye


In this essay, I will refer to Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogic principle as a framework to interpret the color field paintings of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. I will demonstrate that Rothko’s classic paintings act as an interface to the system of abstract expressionism and ideologies surrounding the movement. I argue that we can understand Rothko’s work through exploring his dialogic network and in result identify patterns and connections useful in discovering meaning.


“The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees” – Mark Rothko

Meaning is created as a dialogue and is an activity to engage with and contribute to (it is continuous and not fixed). “All meanings, values, and ideological functions of a work are not properties or perceptible feature of or in the physical thing, but only emerge when communities of interpretive agents are enacting the learned patterns of symbolic correlation that form the meaning system in which the work, and they as interpreters, participate” (Irvine, 2018).

When asked about the meaning of his color field paintings, artist Mark Rothko replied, “silence is so accurate” (The Art Assignment, 2015). This statement reveals Rothko is inviting the viewer to reflect with the work rather than identify it. Rothko’s challenge was to create intimate and emotion-based art that would be presented within a rigid system (the museum) and through a limiting medium (the two-dimensional surface). He went through multiple styles before reaching one that freed the viewer from the question of a single meaning. As a student of art, Rothko knew that no artwork can stand in isolation from the system in which it belongs. He also knew that the two-dimensional surface proved inadequate in creating visual depth. Analyzing these two issues as a part of the larger dialogue within Rothko’s network, allows us to uncovers the thought behind his expression.

Artist Networks and Influences (A Dialogic Approach)

Mark Rothko moved to New York in 1923 and began studying at the Art Students League under Max Weber, where he adopted Weber’s figurative painting style (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). He also learned about cubism, Matisse, and the German expressionists (The Art Assignment, 2015). The next significant influence to the development of his craft was modernist painter Milton Avery (who also attended the Art Students League). Avery was best known for his use of color (which proved to be a large influence for Rothko), but he was also known for using non-conventional forms of representation which likely influenced Rothko’s views and principles surrounding expression. Avery’s home was a meeting place for artists such as Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. These expressionist artists later formed a group called The Ten and exhibited together between the years of 1935 and 1939 (“The Ten Whitney Dissenters,” n.d.). All of these artists shared similar views and philosophies, which is reflected in the elements of their work as well as the presentation of their work in museums. They were all “unified by their belief that abstract art could express universal timeless themes” (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012).

Milton Avery, Rothko with Pipe, 19361936 Milton Avery, Rothko with Pipe, 1936

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The 1940s marked a shift in both thinking and outward expressions by Rothko and the community of artists to which he belonged. It was during this period that Rothko began to use abstract painting to “explore the relationship between the painting and its viewer” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). This role of the relationship between artist and observer is a central concept to understanding Rothko’s thoughts and ideas behind his art.  

Influenced by the works of Nietzsche and Carl Jung, Rothko began searching for ways to depict universal emotion and the subconscious mind (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012). At first, he used classical myths as a “source of eternal symbols,” then he transitioned to a Surrealist-inspired biomorphic style (Arnason & Mansfield, 2012). Gradually, his work became more and more abstract and by 1949 he transitioned into his classic style known as color field paintings.

Mark Rothko, The Omen of the Eagle, 1942, oil and graphite on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.107

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/19451944/1945

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/1945, ink on paper hinged to cardboard, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.181

Image source:

In uncovering Rothko’s thoughts behind the evolution to abstraction, it is useful to apply Bakhtin’s dialogic principle for context. One common form of the dialogic process is looking at an expression (in this case Rothko’s paintings) as a response-interpretation relationship (Irvine, 2018). To do this, we ask “what conversation is this work participating in and assuming is already in progress before another expression is made?” (Irvine, 2018). Bakhtin’s view states that “an expression in a living context of exchange is the main unit of meaning, and is formed through a speaker’s relation to Otherness (other people, others’ words and expressions, and the lived cultural world in time and place)” (as cited in Irvine, 2018). Therefore, meaning is not found in the physical properties of a work but “emerge when communities of interpretive agents are enacting the learned patterns of symbolic correlation that form the meaning system in which the work, and they as interpreters, participate” (Irvine, 2018).

During the 1940’s Rothko felt strongly that the social climate surrounding World War II should be reflected in painting. The realities of war changed the thought process behind creating and in response the desire to be truthful and create meaningful work. Rothko felt it was irrelevant and irresponsible to continue artistic traditions (The Art Assignment, 2015). In response to the events surrounding the war, Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman wrote a manifesto to the New York Times expressing their ideologies, which can be interpreted as context for understanding their work. They wrote, “we favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). From this dialogue, we can infer that the choice to abandon form was in rejection of past techniques because ideas of representation changed. At this time in history, these artists were in dialogue about the meaning of art in comparison to what it meant in the past, and were shaping their meanings based on their own historical context. Showing the process of change in paintings became the central focus, primarily shown through the layers  of paint in each artwork, and in calling attention to the creation process. Modern artists’ use of technique to change perception supports the claim that meaning is created in the community that perceives the art rather than in the art itself.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1945/19461945/1946

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1945/1946, watercolor and black ink on paper, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.175.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 19481948

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1948, oil on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.120.

The manifesto also directly addressed the common idea among painters (up until this point) that the work’s content was not important, but rather the level of expertise shown (physical attributes). Rothko and fellow expressionist painters believed that “there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing” (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). They also asserted that “the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.  (“Mark Rothko: Early Years,” 1998). This example shows that meaning is an active, continuous discourse that changes over time depending on context (Irvine, 2018).

Abstract art abandons forms and is a rejection of traditional academia and other forms of conformity. In order to free the mind of the viewer, there has to be as little reference to something outside of the work as possible. This allows the viewer to experience the work (without distraction) and focus on the emotions and layers it took to create it. When Rothko started focusing primarily on color (1947), he ultimately found his classic style. His color field paintings feature color as the main subject with floating rectangles positioned vertically against a colored ground on large canvas.  Once adopted in 1949, Rothko used only this style for the remainder of his life. He believed that this style successfully “eliminated all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer” (The Art Assignment, 2015). Prior to this point, color was usually tied to narrative content but Rothko used it as a source for accessing emotion (The Art Assignment 2015). In the dialogic process of response, we know that expressions can be unpacked or approached by identifying what they are responding to, rejecting, or cancelling out. In this case, Rothko’s use of elimination was found in a search for clarity (as a way to reach the observer), and in in this way, his thoughts were reflected in his work. All that is left to observe is layers, depth and color (which is used to activate emotion). Rothko had to create clarity in his mind, before clarity could be revealed to the viewer. 

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 19491949

Mark Rothko, No. 8, 1949, oil and mixed media on canvas, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.147

The Museum as Mediator of Rothko’s Color Field Paintings: The National Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection

Rothko understood that the way his work was mediated would contribute to overall viewer reception. For this reason, he “strictly controlled the environment of his paintings, demanding they be shown in low-light, in groups, encountered in close quarters and never mixed with work by other artists” (The Art Assignment, 2015).  Controlling these elements resulted in creating an environment that encourages viewers to reflect with the work rather than see the work as a separate object meant for viewing. Keeping the outside world out – is a well-known concept in the Art System. Galleries and museums often strive to detach the viewer from the concept of time entirely. O’Doherty explains that the white cube represents “a transitional device that attempted to bleach out the past and at the same time control the future by appealing to transcendental modes of presence and power” (1986). Similarly, creating a room just for the Rothko works creates the idea that the space is sacred, unattached, and transcendent.

At the Phillips Collection, all of Rothko’s requests are realized. His color fields are exhibited in a secluded room called “The Rothko Room.” By designating an enclosed space within the rest of the museum, it is physically separated from categorization. Outside of the entrance, there is a description revealing the history and concept behind the curation of the room. Visitors are also informed through a sign that it is intended by the artist to be a meditative space. Therefore, visitors are asked to disconnect from their phones and refrain from taking any pictures inside the room. One bench is placed in the center of the room (as per Rothko’s request), and invites the visitor to sit in stillness. There are four paintings (one on each wall) inside the room, and a maximum of eight visitors allowed inside at a time. This keeps the space from becoming a crowded area. There is very limited lighting inside the room, which also helps limit distractions (as light can be taxing especially when exposed for long periods of time). Notably, The Rothko Room at the Phillips was the first permanent space dedicated to Rothko’s work. The last sentence of the description reads, “the room is the result of a rare understanding between the artist and patron.” Perhaps Rothko managed to preserve the intentions behind his art (a daunting task for any artist) by viewing his work as an experience instead of an object.

A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”- Mark Rothko

As quoted in ‘Mark Rothko’, Dorothy Seiberling in LIFE magazine (16 November 1959), p. 82 

Image Source:

At the National Gallery of Art East Building, an entirely different space from the Phillips, the goal of full immersion and tranquility is also realized in a different way. The NGA has placed Rothko’s work in the Tower (the highest part of the museum). Walking up the the last level of stairs to reveal the room full of color fields evokes the same initial response as the Rothko Room: a gasp for air. The two main difference between the museums is size and lighting. The NGA has lots of natural lighting (and leads to an outside terrace). Although the National Gallery has ten paintings (more than double the Rothko room) the works still hold a strong presence.  In this museum, the weight of history is felt more than at The Phillips because of the physical journey taken through time and space. To get to the Tower, you have to climb stairs (a masterpiece in its own right) and walk through history leading up to abstraction. The effect is grand because as you travel through modernism, the works become more and more abstract, the final result is freedom— room to breathe. 

@tatimrqs - Tower stairs at National Gallery of Art East Building - Free museum on the National Mall

Stairs to the Tower in the NGA East Building, photo source: @tatimrqs

Image source: National Gallery of Art, East Building. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Value in Networks, Shaping & Influencing Perception Today

Looking at one node within the system (key influencers, styles, or philosophies) reveals connections and patterns through which one can discover meaning. One of the important influences in creating value within the art world are the critics associated with specific movements. New York was the center of the art world during the 1950s and 60s, meaning that Rothko’s location was an important factor in circulating dominant ideas contributing to abstract expressionism. Along with location, art critics and curators played a large role in choosing artists to develop relationships with and promote by exhibiting their work in the top gallery spaces. The art we know wouldn’t be art if it were not for it’s audience. For Rothko, collector Dominique De Menil’s interest in his work lead to further credit and recognition of his name. In unity with his vision, she remarked that his paintings “evoke the tragic mystery of our perishable condition,” and ended up commissioning  him for one of his largest projects, the Rothko Chapel (The Art Assignment, 2015). Additionally art critic Clement Greenberg was a strong influence in Rothko’s career as well as for the movement of abstract expressionism. These final examples show how networks and relationships are key to cultural reception and meaning making within the art world. 


Through unpacking Rothko’s process (rather than the elements within the picture) it is clear that his color field paintings act as an interface to the meaning behind his work (and the abstract expressionist movement at large). As such, his paintings become meaningful when placed in a dialogic context. The conversations he participated in within his community (questioning form, depicting reality, the problem of the two-dimensional surface, and translating the deepest emotions of the human condition) lead to his final response: color field paintings. The example of Rothko’s  letter to the New York Times uncovers his thoughts and purpose behind the work  — he was driven by questions. The key question was how to eliminate the obstacles between the idea and the painter, and between the idea and observer. He eliminated the first obstacle through “stripping away cultural and artistic clutter to get to the essential philosophical and pictorial elements” (Rothko, 2015). At the same time, he eliminated the obstacle of painter/observer by achieving “direct, sensual communication of human emotion”(Rothko, 2015). If we view these works as a conversation, rather than a one-way process, we are no longer separate from the work. This unity makes the idea behind the art visible.

“The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees” – Mark Rothko

Works Cited

Arnason, H. H., & Mansfield, E. C. (2012). History of Modern Art(7th ed.). Boston: Pearson. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018, March). Semiotic Foundations – Visual Semiotics. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018). Bakhtin: Main Theories. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018). Irvine-Bakhtin-Dialogism-Intertextuality-rev.pdf. Retrieved from

Irvine, M. (2018, March). Art and Museum Interface. Retrieved from

Mark Rothko: Classic Paintings. (1998). Retrieved from

Mark Rothko: Early Years. (1998). Retrieved May 3, 2018, from

Mark Rothko: The Artist’s Reality. (n.d.). Retrieved from

O’Doherty, B. (1986). ODoherty-Inside_the_White_Cube-1-2.pdf. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press. Retrieved from

Rothko, C. (2015). Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out (1st edition edition). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

The Ten Whitney Dissenters. Retrieved from

The Art Assignment. (2015). The Case For Mark Rothko | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios. Retrieved from

The Rothko Room. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Works Consulted

Biography of Mark Rothko. Retrieved from

Edwards, S., & Woods, P. (2013). Art & Visual Culture, 1850-2010: Modernity to Globalization. London: Tate Publishing and The Open University.

Martin, T. D. (2010). Psychosis and the Sublime in American Art: Rothko and Smithson. Tate Papers, 13. Retrieved from

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986

Wolf, J. The Art Story: Theory – Flatness history. Retrieved from


Better Than The Real Thing: Perception vs. Reality

I have learned that in understanding a work of art, providing context is what leads to discovery. Interfaces that set the works in a dialogic context highlighting the artist’s relationships, influences, historical context (art movements), and social context enable interpreters to discover meaning. Both the museum and the artwork “function as interfaces to the larger systems of meanings, values, and social relations that make them possible and interpretable” (Irvine). Communities and cultures that visit an art exhibit without prior knowledge of the style or period can be left without information that will lead to connecting the dots of interpretation. The Vermeer exhibit grouped the work in a way that enabled viewers to physically see the connections between certain artists, forms, and ideas, by utilizing descriptions and organizing by period and other common relations or categories. Without these descriptions, the work has the potential of only being viewed at face value, restricting access.

Understanding that “meaning” is constructed by what we have been exposed to, socialized into, and learned from our surroundings helps de-blackbox the interpretation of art. This is to say that if we can ask questions about who is being addressed in the work or what conversations it is participating in, we unlock the ideas behind the work, which is more valuable to understanding what it represents than the physical attributes of the object.

Google Arts And Culture

(Photo from BGR)

With the Google Art Project, the challenge of creating a “real” experience of the museum as an interface demonstrates one of the limitations of technological reproductions of art. Beil argues that comparing originals and reproductions is not useful and instead both forms should be used together to allow us to see and experience art in new ways (23). Beil also discussed that the “twenty-first-century period eye” is trained to view images that are reproductions made for screens because we experience and view hundreds of them every day (25). Due to this, some reviewers found Google Art’s high resolution images even better than studying the art itself because of the low lighting in galleries and interference brought on by crowds (Beil, 25). Beil quotes James Gardner’s reaction: “reality itself, the real thing, may just be an imperfect medium for looking at art” (25). Despite the detail, reviewers stated the online experience does not compare with the real feelings of being in the presence of the art. In contrast, reviewers pointed to “realistic” features demonstrated in the project as things such as depth and lighting that we don’t actually experience when viewing the original in person. I found this as a prime example of  how technology and reproductions are re-defining the way we interact with and perceive art and reality.The reason these features are seen as realistic to our eye is because we are used to seeing digital images formatted for a phone or computer screen and therefore those high-contrast images have changed the way we see.

This example contributes to the understanding that reproductions should be used as further context for the piece of work, rather than as an actual representation of the work. Similarly, Malraux understood that the technologies themselves are not the main focus, but rather the “institutions and ideologies mediated through our technologies” (Irvine, 10). Being that reproduced images are inextricably part of our cultural encyclopedia, the Google Art Project should be seen as an interface which helps us discover how reproductions are perceived differently depending on the viewer (critic, art conservator, curatorial staff, etc), the time, and social context. Additionally, the Google Arts Project can help us see how our thinking “continues to be influenced by technologies of reproduction” (Beil, 25). This awareness can contribute to a better understanding of how important context is in making meaning of art. 

Kim Beil, “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye.” Afterimage 40, no. 4 (February 1, 2013): 22–27.

Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art”.

Irvine, M. (2018). From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces. Retrieved from

Photography as a Human Extension

Photo 1: Glass Tears  – Man Ray (1932), Paris Style: Dada

Gelatin silver print

I chose this photo because of the cinematic style and use of the woman’s gaze to draw in the viewer. The tears coming down from the her face are large and made of glass giving off the sense of added drama or exaggeration. To me, these stylistic choices result in an interface inviting the viewer to experience more than just what is literally in the image, but also space to fill in the blanks (similar to a painting). Capturing eyes in an image is also symbolic, and adds another layer to the photograph (looking up can represent innocence or reference religious imagery). This image is an example of storytelling rather than imitation. The departure from capturing a “realistic” image is a part of the genre or style demonstrated here: dadaism. Continuing to examine the photo from its social context, Man Ray was a significant contributing artist of the dada and surrealist movement. This photo was published in the surrealist art magazine Minotaur in 1935, as well as a 1934 book collection of Ray’s photographs. The Art Story website says, “Ray is exploring his interest in the real and unreal by challenging the meaning of still-life photography.” Using our tools for interpretation from class, it is clear to see that we identify and categorize images using social and historical context from other images that presuppose it. Another concept from class we discussed is the remix and reinvention of processes over time. In researching Man Ray, he participated in the “re-invention” of solarization and photograms which he called Rayographs (Balwin & Jurgens, 39). It is interesting to compare early methods of “photoshopping” or “editing” with the methods we use today, and  the way in which capturing “truth” has evolved over time and meant different things within different contexts.

Photo 2: Jonathan Bachman (2016) 

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTSH3XR

Photo taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm; the exposure was 1/1600sec at f/5, ISO 2000

This photo went viral appearing all over social media and news websites, and quickly became one of the most circulated photos of The Black Lives Matter movement. In times of protest and civil uproar, photos are one way that these bigger than life moments become human and real. A powerful image has the power to reach people outside of the circumstance pictures, as well as create truth value. “The photograph allows for the existence of a multiplicity of narrations and storylines without privileging a single one by referring to some predefined notion of ‘truth’ ” (Lister, 24). The photo was compared to other famous photos that were considered iconic representations of historical movements including “Tank Man,” from the 1989 Beijing protests and “Flower Power” from the anti-Vietnam War protests in 1967. These photos symbolize nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience, and the oppressor vs. the oppressed (Gottschalk, 2016). Gottschalk (an Artsy contributer) states, “her position, that of Tank Man, and that of Jan Rose Kasmir—an individual standing up to a more powerful group that seeks to oppress or suppress her—is one that is infinitely relatable in a way that images capturing the actual violence that inspires such civil disobedience are often not. (This is particularly true for those in positions of privilege or power.) She becomes a blank canvas in which you can place yourself. You become a part of the struggle and the movement” (2016). The power in an image therefore, as we have discussed in class,transcends time because it is dialogic. “An image does not receive its meaning from its indexicality nor from its iconicity, but from the network of relations around it” (Lister, 36).

Photo 3: Miami Sunset 


I chose this photo (taken on Snapchat) because it exemplifies how the camera phone is a socio-technical object. According to Lister, Photography has “extended outwards from its traditional centre, to interface or become part of other technologies” (4). Snapchat is an extension of my memories, and is carried around with me on my phone, which makes my phone an (almost) physical extension of my body. Additionally, Snapchat features makes a photo taking and sharing more interactive and dialogic, allowing you to have a point of view but also to add or accentuate the part of the photo you find to be meaningful, add writing, or other forms of media on top of the image. Snapchat is a social platform, designed for sharing moments as they happen. This is achieved by the time constraint on each image (it only lasts 24 hours), which creates urgency to capture a moment and share it, before it’s gone. This is perfectly designed for the generation of users that use the interface, anxiety, immediacy and a fear of missing out. It’s no surprise that the application is such a popular form of communication.

One of the issues with social media is that photos start to lose their appeal as they become recycled and clichéd. Lister says, “technologies of representation have the potential either to stultify life by reducing it to endless repetition of essentially identical moments and actions or that the same technologies and energies can be harnessed towards a view of life that embraces change, uncertainty, spontaneous becoming and difference” (24). This quote articulates a valid point that I’ve experienced over the years of using social media. For me, it’s the way I use the technology that determines my view of life. For instance, I found what works best for me is to document only in the moments I find inspiring, and often to just keep it for myself. The act of analyzing it and sharing it is what reduces the moments for me at times, so I choose to skip that step.  

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

Gordon Baldwin and Martin Jurgens. Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms, Revised Edition. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.

Transforming Perception: De-Blackboxing Technological Reproduction

Developing a theory for media and mediation is essential in understanding how art and all cultural forms can be presented in an interpretive interface because we derive meaning from how art and culture are presented, as much as from the artefacts themselves. Debray notes that transmission of the content or information of the art is more important than the preservation of the material of the object itself (4). Working from this idea, without understanding the ways in which media transmits culture, it would be difficult to use technology as a medium for transmission and preservation of information. Similarly, Malraux understood that the technologies themselves are not the main focus, but rather the “institutions and ideologies mediated through our technologies “ (Irvine, 10).

The creator of a piece of artwork may have had certain ideas and beliefs that were inextricably linked to the work, but that does not determine how the work will be perceived forever. The museum as a mediator’s job is to create a context where the art can be perceived (creating dialogue) but also to partake in the transformation and constant reframing of the concept of art. In this sense, the museum as a construct does not confine the art to simply historical reference. Malraux (qtd. In Irvine) says, “we have learned that, if death cannot still the voice of genius, the reason is that genius triumphs over death not by reiterating its original language, but by constraining us to listen to a language constantly modified, sometimes forgotten–as it were an echo answering each passing century with its own voice–and what the masterpiece keeps up is not a monologue, however authoritative, but a dialogue indefeasible by time” (Irvine, 13).

To illustrate further, Walter Benjamin says, “the uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition” (256). He further talks about how the idea of authenticity has changed due to reproductions such as photographs. Authenticity is at the core of art value, therefore, “as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized” (257). Both Benjamin and Malraux use theory to understand how transmission and reception are reframed over time. Benjamin also discusses how the way art is recepted is linked to social context. Media and mediation are systems with multiple networks and actors that depend on one another to function and create meaning. Therefore, art is best understood when all parts of the perception are consider (historical context, material, medium, individual). Media theory presents us with a framework that is: reproduction is just one part of the process of remediation of art, and we learn more about the art by looking at the system in which it operates rather than the physical art itself.  


Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art”.

Régis Debray, Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939).

Modernism: A New Way of Depicting the World

By Jordan Moeny, Dina El-Saharty, and Adey Zegeye

Transitioning from the realist to modernist movement, artists began moving from attempting to depict their external surroundings, and portraying real life exactly as it is–or “national life” (Edwards and Wood, 31)–to leaning toward the more abstract and turning inwards, depicting self-consciousness. In the early 20th century, art started becoming a method for reflection, as well as a means to illuminate the current circumstances surrounding social changes. Arnason and Mansfield write, “what is referred to as globalization is the most recent phase of uneven and combined development” (32). Due to rapid urbanization, the juxtaposition of the developed and under-developed and the uneven distribution prevalent in society became key elements that were incorporated into modernist artworks. “Both perspectives–Primitivism and Futurism–entailed a profound hostility to the world as it had actually developed, and both orientations were rooted in the conditions of an uneven and combined world system” (Edwards and Wood, 31). That is to say, modernism aimed to eliminate the notion of space and time, by creating a symbolic language that isn’t attached to real life events, such as those of World War II, but rather to a process. The artists searched for art forms and methods that were ultimately removed from the external world, and its harsh realities.

As artists departed from the idea of space and time, they sought to highlight the “transitory” elements of life and experienced changes in and within their art. The need to express such elements as transition, change, and time mirrored the social climate at the time. This shock of change sparked discussion and exchange of new methods of art that went beyond imitation, including but not limited to duality, clash of space and time, as well as the interplay between signifier and signified. In other words, artists sought for “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer” (Arnason and Mansfield, 394). This movement marked a shift from traditional academia, and represented a desire for freedom from politics, tradition, etc. The meaning of art was brought into question as new forms of art started to emerge, and some artists began abandoning structure for abstraction in order to express art as an experience invoking thought, emotion, and transcendence. As such, modernism became synonymous with rejecting the conservative values and traditions of realism, and embracing reprise, recapitulation, and revision by using geometric shapes and symbols. To modernist artists, such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Klee, “a painting continually grew and changed in time as in space” (Arnason and Mansfield, 282). The process of change became the central focus, primarily shown through the layers and layers of paint in each artwork, and even in the presentation and exhibition of the artworks of that movement.

Modernism at the Phillips: Dialogism in Action

The curating of the Phillips Collection includes explicit dialogism: at the entrance, the welcoming text states, “At the Phillips Collection, we invite you to connect with art, spaces, and each other. The artwork on view is constantly changing, and the conversations between them are, too. Please explore, build connections, and join the experiment.” In other words, from the moment one walks into this museum, viewers of the artworks get to engage in the ongoing and changing dialogue between and among artists. The exhibit on Paul Klee focuses further on drawing clear connections among the artists; in many cases the museum labels and descriptions make direct references to where other artists would have seen his work and techniques and quote the artists discussing Klee as an influence. The descriptions also establish the relationships and overlap between Klee and his successors in terms of technique and method, indicating that Klee played an influential and prominent role in the art world, and specifically in modernism.

While the Phillips could have easily, as it has before, presented an exhibition consisting only of the works of one specific Modernist artist as a distinct unit, curators instead chose to show Klee’s works alongside–and often undifferentiated from–those of other artists; thus, the exhibition forces a recognition that no artist exists in a vacuum. It also doesn’t force uniformity on its artists. One particularly interesting inclusion in the collection was the Gene Davis piece Red Devil, which is drastically different from most of the other selected works. Excluding the piece would have made perhaps for a more visually cohesive show, but its inclusion reminds the viewer that, while Klee was a source of inspiration for Davis and the other artists, he was far from the only force contributing to their artistic development, and many ended up in places that are far from the ground they once shared with Klee.

Another notable inclusion in the exhibition is the recognition of the role of the Phillips Collection itself, an example of what Bourdieu calls “the performative magic of the power of instituting, the power to show forth and secure belief or, in a word, to impose recognition” (The Forms of Capital, 21). Reinforcing the role of the institution in the art world, the museum was mentioned multiple times as the place where later artists saw Klee’s work on display. Tucked away in the corner of one room was a glass case that was even more explicit in acknowledging the role of non-artists in the system. It included letters between Duncan Phillips and Karl Nierendorf, Klee’s dealer in the United States. While one function of this display is to reinforce the cultural capital and authority of Phillips and the Phillips Collection (the display highlights Nierendorf’s fervent praise of the museum), it also draws attention to the economic system that exists around even the most avant-garde art.

Arnason, H.H, and Elizabeth Mansfield. History Of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. Print.

Edwards, Steve, and Paul Wood. Art & Visual Culture 1850-2010. United Kingdon: Tate Gallery Pub, 2013. Print.

“The Forms of Capital.” Originally published, 1983; English, “The Forms of Capital,” in John G. Richardson, editor, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 242-258.

Photo taken at The Phillips Museum

Paul Klee’s “Efflorescence” & Otherness: Opening A Conversation

Paul Klee, Efflorescence (1937)

When I look at this piece of art, I immediately relate it to others (artist: Basquiat, author: Scott McCloud) – outside of myself, without any conscious effort to do so. Although I am creating meaning from my personal experiences and knowledge, all of that is in reference to other works, ideas, and images I have had exposure to (see Irvine quote below). After reading the works of Saussure, Pierce, Bakhtin, Irvine, and Crow I learned that:

Meaning is created as a dialogue and is an activity to engage with and contribute to (it is continuous and not fixed). In art, like language, signs and symbols are meant to represent something or to express something. “The transfer of meaning from author to reader is not a one-way process, but a process of creative exchange” (Crow, 7). Efflorescence has childlike visual elements that remind me of the way I used to approach art in my youth. In professor Macovski’s New Media and Texts Across Culture class, we discuss how important identity and representation are integral to visual media. The extent to which we relate to someone or something, plays a large role in our relationship to that object and the meaning we derive from it. Author Scott McCloud states that as children we are able to relate to cartoon characters because they are empty shells (abstract faces) that allow us to become the character and travel into another realm. Because of the simplicity in Efflorescence, my imagination was a big part of how I experienced the work. I became involved in the work (a contributor), which allowed me to create meaning that is my own, or rather experience meaning myself. This would prompt me to further ask: was Klee a part of a conversation that was more open-minded than previous art? Was this a step in the direction of interactive art, and a step towards how people at the time constructed meaning? What is the artist/observer relationship, does the artist see himself as one with the observer? What was going on that may have influenced a return to childlike imagination and freedom from realistic work (modern art)? Did Klee understand that meaning is a conversation therefore intending to create space for infinite interpretation?

Supporting Quotes:

“An individual person’s meanings, cognition, and expression require and presuppose a community of others: others’ expressions are necessary as structured “inputs” that initiate and perpetuate participation as an intersubject with other members of a cultural community.” (Irvine, 22)

“Everything expressed in social situations and in larger cultural contexts is fundamentally grounded in otherness—others’ words and others as receivers of, and responders to, anything expressed. Anyone’s expression in speech and written genres is always inhabited by the words of others, other voices and other contexts in time or place, and others different in identity from one’s own” – ( Irvine, 21)

“When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way realistic art can’t” – (McCloud, 30)

“In emphasizing concepts of objects over their physical appearance, much has to be omitted.” – (McCloud, 41)

Applying these concepts to Efflorescence, these are further questions I would like to pose in order to discover new meanings:

Does one need to engage with ‘others’ to understand art? What are the most prevalent others that is the process of choosing certain ones over others?

Klee’s choice of abstraction is trying to convey what concepts?

What conversation is happening here? What was the cultural context during 1937? What other artists was he inspired by and conversing with?

What is omitted in this work? Space is used to separate all lines, absence of connected lines is a choice. What is this meant to represent?

According to Saussure value comes from the signs around it, so where is he assigning value in this piece? What is he choosing to display in his use of and non-use of coloring?

How is the title Efflorescence meant to anchor the reader? The words Essence & Efflorescence refer to ideas/concepts/feelings/emotions to further draw you in and create a framework to build on that is broad and inviting conversation

Why and how does the use of shapes, colors, lines work together to create a mood?

Who is this work addressing? To what audience was this work meant to be seen by and how may that have influenced the choice of signs and symbols?

How do I identify with this work? What ‘others’ do I include in my immediate interpretation of this piece?

Key terms: Perspective, Identity, Otherness, Addressivity/Answerability, Intersubject, Artist/Observer Relationship


Crow, David. Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts. Lausanne; London: AVA Academia; Thames & Hudson, 2010.

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics

Irvine, “Student’s Guide to Mikhail Bakhtin: Dialogue, Dialogism, and Intertextuality.

McCloud, Scott, and Mark Martin. Understanding Comics. New York, NY: William Morrow, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017. Print.


Museums as Mediators & Mirrors

         Throughout history museums have played a large role in mediating communication on multiple levels. The process of in-depth critique and analysis museums constantly face as a part of on-going dialogue around content, programming, design, etc – continue to promote unity and change. Is it possible that Museums serve as a good mediator because of the criticism that they are subject to? McClellan points out despite critics who claim museums are rigid in their structure, the high amount of criticism from activists and academics beginning in the late 1960s lead to important dialogue and concerns being addressed and attitudes have evolved (11).
         In today’s constantly evolving high-tech world, the need for unity and peace is stronger than ever. As noted by McClellan, art museums “extend hope for mutual understanding grounded in the common traits of world art traditions” (10). Due to this, it is no surprise museum attendance rates are growing as people are desperate to seek an escape from current reality, as well as gain understanding from history. The museum is serving a function as mediator between observer and noise of the outside world.
           Keeping the outside world out – is a concept in the Art System. Galleries (as well as other art spaces throughout history) strive to detach the viewer from the concept of time entirely. O’Doherty explains that the white cube represents “a transitional device that attempted to bleach out the past and at the same time control the future by appealing to transcendental modes of presence and power” (12). Removal of the concept of time creates an idea of the art space as sacred, unattached, or transcendent. What is interesting about the idea of the white cube as a transcendent space, is the opposing idea of the black mirror (technology). When we look at art today in museums (as we discussed last class) we are not looking at it alone. We are accompanied by our phones which attach us to another space. The technology space also drastically effects how we perceive time in that we subconsciously spend more time in the online world than the real world. Can the idea of the white cube really exist as long as we have the black mirror attached to us?

The Museum as Interface: The NGA Vermeer Exhibition

How the NGA promotes arts education using inclusive space

Museums are often considered a non-inclusive space (only for a certain audience). Part of this comes from a gap in dialogue about art in education. The education system sometimes views the arts as a luxury and therefore does not invest in arts programming (particularly where funding is low). Exclusivity (especially of classical art) is also reinforced in media and popular culture.

That being said, my first impression of the National Gallery of Art is that it had free entrance. This immediately opens up access and establishes this museum as an inclusive space.

To further the idea of inclusiveness— I found the design of the exhibit to be in line with this concept. The design was simple and accompanied with clear descriptions. The rooms were set up in a way that you could start on either side of a room, keeping the space open to exploration and movement was encouraged. All staff on site was very friendly. I thought the descriptions were a vital part of understanding the exhibit as a whole, which was about comparison and influence the artists had on one another (rather than just featuring Vermeer). This choice to use a comparison lens promotes deeper learning (especially for those not familiar with Dutch Genre painting).

Personally, the descriptions provided me with useful social and historical context that resulted in my ability to relate to and be moved by the work (that I otherwise would have missed out on). For example, there was a contemporary biblical reference done by Steen, where he showed the importance of choosing virtue over vice (which I think transcends time and will always be relevant). This was my favorite piece of the exhibit, not because of the work itself, but rather the meaning behind it.

As a whole the museum and exhibit show consistency in inclusivity: free attendance, cohesive design, easy to digest written description, helpful staff, and an online interactive map (online access that is engaging + access for non-locals). This contributes to a larger conversation about what role museums are playing in the community as a means of education and inclusivity.

Linking back to the readings/ other postings: Everything in the museum (interacting with each other) creates a multi-faceted exchange of meaning. I understood the art from the historical context provided, from un-stated social constructs, and from my own personal connections that I drew from (accessibility to art, artist influence and originality, the current social climate, etc).

Some questions for thought: How did they achieve the diversity of audience at this exhibit? What modes of media were most effective in attracting people tho this exhibit? Is the marketing done also in line with the other inclusive features found at this exhibit?