I have been looking at a certain cup for many days

What is Practice Based Criticism, by Max Winter begins:

I have been looking at a certain cup for many days
The cup has revealed little of itself, in fact nothing
The cup cannot be blamed, I have asked nothing of it
If asked myself, then, I could say little about the cup
It is white, it is large, yesterday it contained, today nothing
It is not animate, it moves when I move it
It is mine, no one owned it before me,
and I will not relinquish it until it is broken
All I can say of the cup is what I have inscribed upon it
in my self-serving yet also cup-serving manner…

I recently attended a dinner Storm Tharp and Sarah Miller Meigs hosted at the Lumber Room in conjunction with Reader on a Black Background, an exhibition curated by Tharp from the collection of Miller Meigs. The conversation at dinner, spurred by an essay, “Equivalence,” by Tharp was meant to get at the question of when you strip everything else away—what you know, what you think you’re supposed to think when you look at art, what’s left? So Winter’s musing on looking and reacting that I stumbled upon was very timely.


Storm Tharp. The Decorator, 2010 ink, gouache, colored pencil, charcoal and gold leaf on paper 57.5" x 85". image via pdxcontemporaryart.com


“When you look at the art object — what do you recognize? What does it say? Or rather, what do you say to yourself? Can you explain what you say to yourself? Are there words?”

Storm Tharp, “Equivalence”

I think I may use this metaphor too often. But maybe only in my own head. I imagine one of those faceted spheres, the crystal prism that hangs from the rearview mirror. It does two things. One, it fractures light that enters it into the thousand tiny rainbows it brightly projects like a disco ball. And, if you look closely into it, you can see little aspects of what it sees, the kaleidoscope of the real.

This fracturing mirrors the individual nature of the experience of art. But I want you to think of the light source. Simply, very simply, the light that enters the crystal mind is the retinal information about the work the viewer sees. But you know and I know it’s not that simple. Rather the light is the seen, the light is the web of things we have felt and known and think about those things. All of it enters the prism and is fractured into a million rainbows. My job then as well as my way of seeing and experiencing art is to capture some of those rainbows and put them in words. For me, writing is a way of thinking through. It is a way of looking, understanding, making meaning. I will write the retinal then cross my mind’s eye and see again allowing in all of the associations and questions that arise, the little aspects of the real.

One thing I will note about the cup
is that it acts upon you – MW

Storm asked what we recognize when we look at art. It’s only by checking what we see against what we’ve seen or know that we can recognize. And he asked, “What does it say?” And I suspect that what he wanted to get at is what does it say when one quiets one’s mind and allows oneself to see in an unmediated fashion.  But that’s just the beginning.

 It is almost as if you had a “thing” for the cup,
as if you didn’t feel quite yourself in its presence
Which is acceptable, in the main
because what we learn through talking about the cup, through writing about it,
through living with the cup in its exquisite plainness,
is that all things said about it are all right,
fine for now, fine perhaps for eternity
provided the right readers are awake – MW



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