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January 18, 2019

How to Look at Art: The Great Walk of Art

Galaxy, USA, dot, 2016, Ed Ruscha
Galaxy, USA, dot, 2016, Ed Ruscha

On Saturday, I took the Great WALK of Art,  a group of people walking in galleries ‘discovering’ art, to some of the world’s top commercial galleries in London’s Mayfair. Among them were Gagosian and Almine Rech galleries.

Gagosian Gallery, a major force in the art world, exhibited elegant, laconic and ‘restrained’ paintings of American artist Ed Ruscha (b. 1937 ). ‘Rucha speaks of micro- and macrocosm’, the Gagosian Gallery director explained. For Ruscha, a man is a smaller representation of the universe and the universe has an anthropomorphic existence. To tell his stories, the artist uses the interplay between language and the concepts it signifies. The paintings ‘speak’. Very carefully selected words, diminishing in scale or stacked on top of one another like an optical test card, draw you on its meaning. Texts are stencilled on in a font Ruscha designed himself. The colour of the matt and powdery backgrounds vary from muted black to what Ruscha describes as ‘a colour that forgot it was a colour’. Even the pictorial images he uses sometimes, such as his signature ‘mountain motif’, are the ‘words’, the pictorial words that speak volumes and weight.  

Almine Rech Gallery showed a ‘Gazing Ball’ series by Jeff Koons (b. 1955 ). The American Wall Street broker turned pop-artist produced copies of the famous masterpieces by Giotto, Titian, Boucher, Poussin and other great masters and stuck large blue ‘gazing balls’ on them.

The gazing balls, also known as yard balls, garden globes, mirror balls or orbs, are mirrored blue glass spheres originally displayed as garden decoration. Originated in Venice in the 13th century, they were popular across Europe particularly in Victorian-era England. In the 1930s, they resurged, for the Art Deco liked its geometric clean lines, but in the 1950s and afterwards, they became viewed as tacky examples of prosaic suburban taste, rather like the garden gnomes.

So, why does Koons put the gazing balls on the world-famous art masterpieces? One explanation might be that Koons goes after or even further than the originator of conceptualism art, Duchamp. Duchamp famously said that the viewer is ‘the essential completer of the artwork’. As we look at the Koon’s ‘Gazing Ball’ works, we cannot but be aware of our reflections in the balls and so become ‘embedded’ in the works. Is this Koons’s intention?  

Or, might it be that Koons challenges us here, in the best of the dada tradition? Born out of a protest against the backward bourgeois materialistic interests and conformity in the 1950s, intellectuals of the dada movement saw art as an opportunity for the criticism of the times they lived in. Artists employed ready-made objects as their main ‘technique’. In the Koons’s case, the ‘ready-mades’ are the ‘gazing balls’. “Dada is not art, it is anti-art,” the dadaists proclaimed. “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything has to be demolished. We would begin again.” 


The Great Walk of Art raises funds to support creativity competition for young Kenyans, the MASK Prize, a non-profit programme of MASK School for Creativity and Innovation. Donate on

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