Author: Chloe Hsu

Interested in art, classical music, cooking, quant finance, math, computer science and more.

MoMA/Tate Dataset

Found this MoMA dataset on Kaggle:

https://www.kaggle.com/momanyc/museum-collection

The artworks dataset contains 130,262 records, representing all of the works that have been accessioned into MoMA’s collection and cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each work, including title, artist, date, medium, dimensions, and date acquired by the Museum.

Yet to try out more interesting analysis, but here’s a list of top 20 countries with the most number of artists featured in MoMA. A simple gender count shows that about 18% of all featured artists are female. 

To be updated! There’s also a dataset by the Tate Collection in UK. Should be interesting to compare the two. https://github.com/tategallery/collection

MoMA_nationality

Top 20 Countries with most artists featured in MoMA

 

 

 

Takashi Murakami: Flatness in 3D

I never knew how flat a painting could possibly be, until I saw the collection of Takashi Murakami at Broad. So flat. As flat as an iPhone screen. As flat as a blade straight out of a knife sharpener. Super flat.

murakami_my_arms

My arms and legs rot off and though my blood rushes forth, the tranquility of my heart shall be prized above all. (Red blood, black blood, blood that is not blood), 2007, acrylic and platinum leaf on canvas mounted on board, signage in platinum and gold leaf

^ Yes, that is the full title of the painting.

I wanted to touch it so bad. Of course I didn’t. Instead, I looked it from the left, from the right, from all kinds of side angles. After looking at it for 10 minutes, I still couldn’t convince myself to believe that it was painted, instead of digitally printed.

My friend told me that Takashi Murakami hires a group of young artists to execute his paintings and make them super flat. Poor young artists. I feel bad for them.

There’s something theatrical about seeing a giant flat 2D object in a 3D space. In comparison, when you see the picture of the painting above, the picture is flat, but you can’t tell if that implies the original painting is flat. There’s a difference between the 2D projection of a 3D object, and an actual 2D object in a 3D space. You need to be in a three-dimensional space to recognize if something is inherently two-dimensional or just a projection. We see 2D objects all the time, film, photography, manga, etc, but it is still such a novel experience to view Takashi Murakami’s superflatness in a 3D context.

In one of his interviews, Murakami mentioned that the ‘superflat’ movement ties back to flatness of post-war Japanese culture, but for me I see it more as a reminder that paintings are three-dimensional art. By taking away the bumps and the brush strokes, he draws attention to the lack of texture, and therefore reminds us the importance of texture as an artistic expression.

Randomness vs Structure: John Cage vs Prospect Theory

“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.” – John Cage

Why is randomness beautiful? Many modern artists introduce randomness to their creative process. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are probably the most famous example. John Cage is another interesting one – he is best known for his experimental music composition, but his use of randomness in art is also very intriguing.

When I first watched his performance of the silent music piece 4’33” on YouTube, I thought it was experimental in the sense that it separated the visual and audio components of music performance. But maybe I missed his point. The quote above made me realize that the focus of 4’33” is on the sounds in the ambience environment. Listening to everyday noises in the surroundings is a way to “wake up to the very life we’re living”. The same spirit is in Aoki Emiko (青木 恵美子)’s mirror displays, where the reflection of the surroundings is part of her artwork. John Cage embraces chaos and randomness because that is the truth in the life that we are living.

If the idea of silent music in 4’33” seems too experimental, you might like John Cage’s Music of Changes better. Music of Changes is an indeterminate piano solo composed by randomized decision rules on sounds, durations, and tempo according to I-Ching, a classical Chinese text. I-Ching means “Book of Changes” in Chinese, hence the name Music of Changes. I’m not sure how much of the music pattern is actually from I-Ching, and I speculate he was more using the eight trigrams in I-Ching as a system of exotic symbols to help him think outside the box. The picture below, Fontana Mix, is an example of John Cage’s “graphical score”.

(Side note: Somewhat curiously, Herman Hesse was also obsessed with I-Ching in The Glass Bead Game, but my impression is that he associated I-Ching more with structure rather than randomness, since he compared I-Ching to Bach’s music.)

graphic scores john cage

John Cage, Fontana Mix, 1958

john cage

John Cage, Strings 1-20, 1980

 

To answer the question “why is randomness beautiful?“, we need to ask ourselves “what is beauty?” first. To me, beauty is perhaps best described as a feeling of pleasure. One psychological explanation of beauty is that beauty originates in our childhood desire for security. Here’s one example from Rothko’s essay: the child’s notion of security is connected to the form of his mother, and therefore the curves and tactile planes in the human body are considered beautiful. Thinking along this line, it’s strange that randomness would be pleasing to the eye, since it’s the opposite of security.

Our instinctive desire for security is confirmed experimentally by Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory in behavioral economics. Prospect Theory is different from expected utility theory in that the utilities of outcomes are not only weighted by their probabilities. The Certainty Effect in Prospect Theory states that people overweight outcomes that are considered certain in decision making, relative to outcomes which are merely probable.

If we favor certainty, why do we consider randomness beautiful? This seems contradictory, but in fact, our cognitive bias towards certainty helps with our artistic appreciation of randomness: our cognitive system tends to over-interpret randomly composed pictures and add imaginary structures. That’s why when we see, for example, the above painting Strings 1-20, the first thing that crosses our mind is not “this is a random sample drawn from a probability distribution”. Instead, we relate the curves and forms to familiar images in our memory. (This top-down visual perception mechanism is explained much better in detail in Kandel’s book.)

The dynamic sense of movement may be another reason why randomness is beautiful. I can’t speak for other people, but at least personally when I look at a structured classical painting, I tend to look from left to right and from top to bottom. However, when I look at John Cage or Jackson Pollock, something very quickly catches the focus of my eyes, and my sight drifts around according to the random lines and curves. The unstable trajectory of eye movement might explain why randomness looks more dynamic.

To end this post, I want to show once again John Cage’s quote. Isn’t it nice to think that the purpose of life is to affirm this very life?

“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.” – John Cage

 

Sources:

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk

Mark Rothko, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art

Eric Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science

Matilde Marcolli, “Structures of Randomness

Favorite Non-fiction of the Year: “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science”

This book is by Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but it’s already my favorite non-fiction of the year. To be more precise, it was published in 2016, so I should say favorite non-fiction that I read this year.

Things that I learned from the book:

  1. There are two parallel visual pathways in the brain, one that deals with what an image is about and one that deals with where it is located in the world. The what pathway is the only one that leads to hippocampus, which deals with the explicit memory of people, places, and objects. The where pathway is concerned with motion, depth, and spatial information. The pathways can exchange information, but they are distinct and separated. Art exploits the fact that seemingly inseparable information is actually processed in separate pathways.
  2. Occipital cortex responds to both sight and the sense of touch. The texture of an object activates cells in the medial occipital cortex regardless of whether the object is perceived by the eye or by the hand.  (This explains how I ‘feel’ the textures of Raku tea bowls or Franz Kline’s paintings.)
  3. Aplysia (large sea snail) has about 20,000 neurons. Its neural circuit is wired in a fixed way, but learning changes the strength of the connections among neurons.
  4. Each nerve cell in the primary visual cortex responds to simple lines and edges with a specific orientation, and that’w how we assemble contours and geometric shapes.
  5. Mating and fighting are mediated by the same population of neurons, and the difference is only on the intensity of the stimulus.
  6. The prefrontal cortex responds to categorized figurative images, whereas the superior parietal cortex is activated by any visual image, meaningful or not.

Some random art facts:

  1. Kandinsky discovered his abstract painting style from listening to Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet and Three Piano Pieces Op 11.
  2. Legend has it that upon viewing a sunset painted by Turner, a young women remarked, “I never saw a sunset like that, Mr. Turner,” to which Turner replied, “Don’t you wish you could, madam?”
  3. Klimt shows women’s teeth in his paintings, such as in Judith and Woman I.

 

 

Kerry James Marshall: Music Scores and Color Worksheets

 

There are two different reasons that I like a painting: the overall visual effect appeals to me emotionally, or the painting has interesting ideas and plastic elements. For example, I like Picasso and Kandinsky for both reasons, the Barbizon school for the first reason, and Dali and Magritte for the second reason. Usually it’s a mix.

However, Kerry James Marshall is a weird case. I strongly dislike how his paintings look – there’s an instinctive desire to close my eyes or walk away – yet I still find them interesting enough that I stare at them for hours.

When walking around the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at MOCA for a first round of coarse look, I was not particularly attracted to any painting. As I was about to leave in disappointment, a staff member was leading a group discussion on Past Times. Two of the little girls in the group were incredibly observant, and pointed out many elements that slipped my attention. I realized that I could still enjoy the individual building blocks of his paintings without finding it pleasant as a whole.

In Past Times, the golf player and the croquet player freeze in motion, but the music notes continue flowing out of the radio. The motion is stopped at one fixed instance of time, whereas the music notes show the passage of the time.

moca

Past Times, by Kerry James Marshall, 1997

So I went around the gallery again carefully to search for other interesting ideas, and this time Kerry James Marshall did not disappoint. This untitled portrait contains a rich set of ideas, and it is from a series of portraits of black artists with palettes and color worksheets. (At first I thought it was a series of self-portraits but later found out Kerry James Marshall is a male artist.)

  1. The artist is probably facing a mirror, based on the sitting posture. It’s unclear whether she is coloring the numbered worksheet at the back, or whether she is painting this painting itself.
  2. The painting is recursive, and if you look at the color worksheet carefully, the gray part left of her red hair also has the shape of her hair, so it’s a third layer of recursion.
  3. The artist is almost entirely in black, but her blouse is very colorful, and so is the image of her in the color worksheet. Metaphorically, black artists are unnoticed by the society and deserve more attention.
  4. The palette is unproportionally huge. Perhaps this goes along the same line that black artists are underrepresented and hidden behind their work.
  5. It’s possible to complete the color worksheet based on the numbers and the existing colors. Even though no one would actually complete it, it’s entertaining to leave a room for such imagination.
  6. It suggests a different way to perceive colors. Usually, we look at the overall color scheme as a whole when the colors are all visually present. In this color worksheet, we look at individual parts and ask what color the number corresponds to.
KJM_YUGA_Marshall_2009_Untitled.jpg

Untitled, by Kerry James Marshal, 2009

Another interesting one is Black Painting (2003), which depicts the murder scene of African American activist Fred Hampton in different shades of black. For more information about Black Painting:

http://witnessvoices.blantonmuseum.org/tumblr-post-from-blantonmuseum-4/

Shoji Ueda on the Sand Dunes

 

It never crossed my mind that photography could be such a good medium for surrealism, but here’s Shoji Ueda (植田正治).

ueda_shoji-hat

Hat, 1980

At first, I walked pass “My Wife on the Dunes” painted on the exterior wall of a building in low resolution, and thought the human figures were photoshopped onto the landscape. The composition was interesting so I took a picture of the wall. A few days later when I visited the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, there was a series of prints by Shoji Ueda on display, and I realized “oh, that’s what it was”.

That being said, it’s a fair question to ask: If it’s the same image, does it really matter whether the human figures were real or photoshopped? I think it does. When we see an image, the sense of vision elicits emotions and thoughts. But it’s not just the sense of vision, we also take into account the story behind the image. The viewer’s response is different depending on the story, so I’d say the story is part of the artistic expression in this sense.

ueda_shoji-my_wife_on_the_dunes_1950

My Wife on the Dunes, 1950

The sand dunes near his home are his stage to pose family members and friends. For me, the most fascinating aspect of Shoji Ueda’s works is the creative use of space. I can’t put it into words so I’ll quote Mark Rothko from his essay “Space”:

If one understands, or if one has the sensibility to live in, the particular kind of space to which a painting is committed, then he has obtained the most comprehensive statement of the artist’s attitude toward reality. Space, therefore, is the chief plastic manifestation of the artist’s conception of reality.

This explains why different art lovers go to different artists to satisfy themselves. Some prefer Raphael, some castigate them. The same is true of Giotto and Titian and the thousands of other masters who were so plentifully produced in those great times. In the case of none of these masters are the opponents unaware of their great qualities. These castigations are simply the result of differences of spatial faith.

Peace of Mind in Horizontal Lines

Maybe visiting art museums is like some sort of religious devotion. This thought occurred to me yesterday when I was alone in a roomful of Yamazaki Hiroshi (山崎 博) photographs.

Yamazaki Hiroshi

Yamazaki Hiroshi’s “Horizon” series

Yamazaki Hiroshi (1946 – ) specializes in shooting sunlight on the sea. His individual photographs didn’t mean much to me on their own, but looking at hundreds of them together in a row was a different immersive experience. For a moment I forgot about time and forgot about lunch plans with my friend, as if nothing else existed other than the sea and the sun.

I had a strong déjà vu feeling when I stepped into the gallery, and it took me a while to realize that the déjà vu must have come from Mark Rothko.

rothko room in moca

Mark Rothko room in MOCA

Mark Rothko’s paintings are meant to be seen up close, so close that the painting dominates the entire field of vision. When I stand in front of a Rothko painting, a voice inside the painting is calling me, and I have a strong impulse to walk into one of the color blocks. Strangely, it’s always very clear to me which of the two or three color blocks I want to walk into, without any ambiguity.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living between a mundane world and a “spiritual” world, even though I’m agnostic and not religious. Art is one of the keys to the “spiritual” world, and so are music and literature and other things. In that sense, visiting art museum is a way to constantly remind myself of the “spiritual” world, so it’s like going to church.

For this reason, I’m always fascinated by the ideas behind the Rothko Chapel and Tadao Ando’s Church of Light, despite not having been to either place in person. The Rothko chapel in Houston is “the world’s first broadly ecumenical center, a holy place open to all religions and belonging to none”, with fourteen Rothko paintings inside. The Church of Light near Osaka is a Protestant church, but I love it as art.

church of light

Church of Light by Tadao Ando

Last week a professor recommended Rothko’s essay collection “The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art” to me. Maybe I’ll update this post after reading the book.