This post comes to us from Eliza Heussler, Curatorial Intern.
Only a few inches away from every one of the encaustic paintings and sculptures in the exhibition Martin Kline: Romantic Nature is a small, albeit prominent cautionary note: “Please do not touch the artwork.” Why the extra precaution? After all, it is one of those “golden rules” of museum-going that we refrain from any physical contact with works of art for fear of damage. Walking through the McKernan Gallery, now a temporary home for Martin Kline’s first mid-career retrospective (on view through June 17), the impulse to touch is ever present. The haptics —that is the science that deals with the sense of touch—of Kline’s art is one of the qualities that makes his work not only dynamic and innovative but lustful and sensual. The haptic quality connects artwork and viewer, mind and body, thought and sensation, idea and emotion.
In fact, the inability to physically touch Kline’s artwork enhances the visual perception from being simply optical to “using the eye like an organ to touch.” It is a way of looking that “grabs” what it is that the eye sees, creating a nonverbal dialogue that deepens an internal connection. A viewer’s imaginative realm and usual understanding of perception are challenged, as one begins to feel with one’s eye—the texture, the color, the shape, and the suggested moment of each of Kline’s paintings and sculptures.
In Kline’s Randazzo (2000), he applies his signature encaustic (wax and pigment) technique to a wooden panel, as he creates a work that is at once painting and sculpture. The eye is immediately drawn to the built-up center, then follows a spiral path through the form that suggests a cyclical motion, despite being physically static. The stimulation is enhanced by Kline’s use of color, a neon orange that emphasizes visual sculptural relief from the two-dimensional, flat wooden surface.
Two well-known artists whose work also embodies haptics are Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Van Gogh’s paintings induce the same desire for physical contact with the surface. A build-up of oil paint on the canvas, Van Gogh’s brushwork prompts viewers to think beyond the end result and contemplate the artistic process. In Van Gogh (2001), Kline pays homage to the Dutchman by applying encaustic to a 19th-century chair.
Duchamp wrote extensively on the idea of haptics in art, often referred to it as haptic poetry and employed the concepts in his works. Duchamp explains that the eye behaves in varying ways depending upon the dimensionality of the object, whether it is two-dimensional or three-dimensional—a painting or a sculpture. In viewing a two-dimensional work, the eye uses optical vision to understand distance and transcendence. In viewing a three-dimensional work, the eye uses haptic, or “tactile”, vision to understand closeness, proximity, contiguity, and contact. The eye is forced to replace the physical sense of touch so that the viewer can enlarge his or her understanding of himself/herself in relation to the surrounding world. Participants of the Dada movement, Duchamp and his peers were “united by a collective drive to produce a work that could embody this haptic experience.”
Although they are artists of different times, origins, and means, Van Gogh, Duchamp, and Kline all imbue their art with a tactile quality that pushes viewers beyond their imaginative and sensory limits. Looking at the three artists along the timeline of art history, it appears that each has advanced the haptic quality one step further than the previous. With the increasing role of digital technology in art and the central place of relational aesthetics in art historical discourse, it appears that “contemporary” art of the future will embrace haptics. Do you find yourself drawn to works of art that require your participation or do you prefer to remain a contemplative observer? Will haptic art replace the traditional act of observing? If so, will the cautionary notes like the NBMAA uses eventually become obsolete because artworks will welcome direct contact? While touring the exhibition, do you find yourself tempted to reach out and touch the artwork?
Martin Kline will be at the Museum on Thursday, May 10th at 6 pm to talk about his work during Art Happy Hour. Don’t miss it!