THE BLOG

Squint

08/20/2010 03:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

2010-08-19-CMonet0810c.jpg
Claude Monet, "Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight, Harmony in Blue and Gold" (detail), 1893, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 28 3/4".

Painters commonly employ a very simple technique to see the general appearance of a composition: They squint. After hours, weeks, or months of building an image, sometimes from an innumerable quantity of details, they stand back and check what they have been doing from the perspective of how all of the details congregate into a more simplified whole. Boy, can that be a can of worms.

When an artist talks about fearlessness it can mean a lot of different things that are not readily visible when you pay a visit to their latest show. Consider. If a painting is invested with a lot of minutiae that don't quite come together, or do so the wrong way, however beautifully executed the particulars may be, however much time has been invested ... the squint often reveals it. Out it goes. Five minutes of overpainting and poof, gone, but hopefully for the better. Think about what may finally be unseen when you visit the next show. Imagine doing something like that in your own line of work; hey, maybe you've done that. It can be wrenching.

The squint serves an aesthetic purpose of course. It is one of the simplest among an arsenal of small weapons that artists draw on to further their visual intent, refine the final result, and align an image with the ideas they are concerned to address. But that simplicity also conveys a profound lesson in seeing whose application is universal:  Never fully trust what you know.

Probably one of the main reasons I've spent my adult life in the art business is that nothing is taken at face value. I regard that idea with the utmost reverence. Anything familiar is subjected to the squint test. What does it look like when I try to NOT be familiar with it? People embrace certainties all the time, often trumpeting a pride in holding beliefs they have unshakeable faith in. I run the other way. Absolute certainty is a sure sign of vacuity. Beneath the outer crust of an echoing sameness of profession it can get ugly. One of the things I'd love all of us to do, all the more so with respect to the truths we regard as most self-evident, is to follow the example that so many artists routinely exercise. Squint.

2010-08-19-CMonet0810HPa.jpg
Claude Monet, "Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight, Harmony in Blue and Gold," 1893, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 28 3/4".